Many people are familiar with the name Dalai Lama today regardless of whether they are Buddhists or people out of the realm of Tibetan Buddhism. His Holiness, the 14th Dalia Lama, is undoubtedly one of the faces that people relate to the name Dalai Lama; while it is not wrong to remember His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama when talking about Dalai Lama, it is also not wholeheartedly correct. Contrary to what general people believe, Dalai Lama is not a name but rather is a title given to spiritual leaders of Tibetan Buddhism, specifically the Gelug or 'Yellow Hat' school of Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed the reason the Dalai Lama we are more familiar with is recognized as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and not simply Dalai Lama. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th person to hold the title of Dalai Lama.
The Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism might be one of the more recent ones, but it has successfully integrated into the other schools of Buddhism with a far long lineage. Additionally, the Gelug school has emerged to be one of the most dominant of the four schools in Tibetan Buddhism; therefore, the title of Dalai Lama has seemingly become increasingly crucial for Buddhists worldwide. But our knowledge of the Dalai Lama is often limited to the current Dalai Lama, but a long lineage of Dalai Lamas precedes him. Therefore, in this article, we will briefly glimpse all 14 Dalai Lamas that have blessed their existence to date and helped millions of devotees to find the path of Dharma.
Who is Dalai Lama?
Before embarking on the journey to get to know all of the 14 Dalai Lamas, let us clarify the existence of the Dalai Lama. As mentioned above, Dalai Lama is a title given to a Spiritual Leader belonging to the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, meaning that the Dalai Lama does not indicate an identity of an individual but rather a spiritual leader who is born with different identities and later claims their title of the Dalai Lama.
However, not every spiritual leader is bestowed with the title of Dalai Lama. Believed to be the incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara, Dalai Lama is the successor in a line of tulkus, or a reincarnate custodian. The search for the next Dalai Lama starts from the life of the preceding Dalai Lama, who, during their life, chooses the time and place of birth for his next reincarnation. As per their information, the search for the next Dalai Lama begins, and the shortlisted candidate undergoes a series of tests and evaluations before they are determined to be the rightful successor or reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.
The name Dalai Lama is made up of the Mongolic word 'Dalai,' which means the ocean or great, and the Tibetan name for master or guru, 'lama' when combined roughly meaning 'the great guru.' The Tibetans, however, have a different name for Dalai Lama, Rgyal-ba Rin-po-che or "Precious Conqueror" when translated.
The 1st Dalai Lama: Gendun Drupa (1391–1474)
Born Pema Dorjee in 1391 in Gyurmey Rupa, somewhere near Sakya in the Tsang region of central Tibet, to parents Gonpo Dorjee and Jomo Namkha Kyi, Gedun Drupa is the very First Dalai Lama. From a young age, he showed great promise in his studies and embarked on a spiritual journey under the guidance of Tsongkhapa, the renowned master of the Gelugpa School.
Inspired by his mentor's teachings, Gedun Drupa dedicated his life to spreading the wisdom of Buddhism throughout Tibet. In 1447, he established the Tashi Lhunpo monastery, a testament to his enduring legacy. He died at the age of eighty-four while in meditation at Tashi Lhunpo monastery. His scholarly contributions, including eight extensive books, inspire generations of seekers even today.
The 2nd Dalai Lama: Gendun Gyatso (1475–1542)
Gedun Gyatso, the Second Dalai Lama, was born in 1475 in Tanag Sekme, near Shigatse, Tibet. Despite his father's dream instructing him to name his son Gendun Drupa, he was named Sangye Phel. Gedun Gyatso surprised his parents by revealing his birth name, Pema Dorjee, and his desire to live in Tashi Lhunpo monastery. At age eleven, he was recognized as the reincarnation of Gendun Drupa and enthroned at Tashi Lhunpo.
He received ordination from Panchen Lungrig Gyatso and became Gedun Gyatso. He studied at Tashi Lhunpo and Drepung monasteries. Gedun Gyatso served as abbot at Drepung and Sera monasteries, revitalizing the Monlam Chenmo. He passed away at sixty-seven in 1542.
The 3rd Dalai Lama: Sonam Gyatso (1543–1588)
Sonam Gyatso born in 1543 in Tolung, near Lhasa, into a wealthy family was the Third Dalai Lama, . Recognized as the reincarnation of Gedun Gyatso at the age of three, he was enthroned at Drepung monastery. At seven, he took novice vows and adopted the name Sonam Gyatso. He later received full ordination at twenty-two. Sonam Gyatso became abbot of Drepung and Sera monasteries, establishing Namgyal monastery in 1574.
He founded Kumbum and Lithang monasteries as well. Notably, he was bestowed the title of Dalai Lama by Mongolian King Altan Khan, further strengthening Tibet-Mongolia relations. Sadly, he passed away in 1588 while teaching in Mongolia, leaving a legacy of wisdom and spiritual guidance.
The 4th Dalai Lama: Yonten Gyatso (1589–1617)
Born in 1589, Mongolia, the Fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso, was raised by his father, Tsultrim Choeje, belonged to the Chokar tribe, and his mother was PhaKhen Nula. Recognized as the true reincarnation of the Third Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso received his primary religious education in Mongolia before embarking on a journey to Tibet in 1601.
At the age of twelve, he was ordained as a novice monk by Sangya Rinchen. Later, in 1614, he received full ordination from the Fourth Panchen Lama. Yonten Gyatso served as abbot at Drepung and Sera monasteries before his untimely passing at twenty-seven in 1617. Despite his short life, his spiritual teachings made a lasting impact on Tibetan Buddhism.
The 5th Dalai Lama: Lobsang Gyatso (1617–1682)
Lobsang Gyatso was the Fifth Dalai Lama. He was born in 1617 in Lhoka Chingwar Taktse. Recognized by Sonam Choephel, he was secretly kept as the Dalai Lama due to political instability. Later, he was taken to Drepung monastery and ordained by the Third Panchen Lama. In 1642, he was crowned as Tibet's spiritual and political leader. He initiated the construction of the Potala Palace, which took forty-three years to complete.
The Dalai Lama visited Peking in 1649 and received a warm welcome from the Manchu emperor. They exchanged titles, and he returned to Tibet in 1653. He appointed Tenzin Dorjee as the new Mongol king and recognized the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. The Fifth Dalai Lama was known for his scholarship, authoring books, and establishing educational institutions in various subjects.
The 6th Dalai Lama: Tsangyang Gyatso (1683–1706)
The Sixth Dalai Lama was born in 1682 in Mon Tawang, India as Tsangyang Gyatso. With the help of an impersonator, the perishing of the Fifth Dalai Lama was kept secret. When a boy with remarkable abilities was found, he was brought to Nankartse and educated by appointed teachers.
In 1697, he received novice vows from the Fifth Panchen Lama and was enthroned as the Sixth Dalai Lama. After a conflict resulting in the death of the Desi, Tsangyang Gyatso abandoned his monastic studies and embraced an outdoor lifestyle. He was known for his talent as a poet and writer. In 1706, the Sixth Dalai Lama passed away during a journey to China.
The 7th Dalai Lama: Tsangyang Gyatso (1708–1757)
The Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, seemingly predicted his rebirth in Lithang, Kham, through a song. True to the prediction, the Seventh Dalai Lama was born in 1708 in Lithang. Recognized by Thupten Jampaling Monastery and the oracles of Lithang, he was taken to Kumbum Monastery for ordination.
In 1720, he was crowned in the Potala Palace and received novice and full ordination from Panchen Lobsang Yeshi. Under the guidance of prominent tutors, he became proficient in Buddhist philosophy. He established the Kashag Council in 1751 and became Tibet's spiritual and political leader. The Seventh Dalai Lama founded the Tse School, built Norling Kalsang Phodrang Palace, and authored books on tantra. Known for his humble and virtuous life, he passed away in 1757.
The 8th Dalai Lama: Jamphel Gyatso (1758–1804)
The Eighth Dalai Lama was born in 1758 Thobgyal, Lhari Gang, Tibet as Jamphel Gyatso. Promising signs accompanied his birth, and his early actions hinted at his holy nature. Recognized by the Sixth Panchen Lama, he declared him the authentic reincarnation. At a young age, he confidently expressed his intention to go to Lhasa.
Accompanied by officials and lamas, he was taken to Tashi Lhunpo Monastery for the recognition ceremony and named Jamphel Gyatso. In 1762, he was crowned in the Potala Palace in Lhasa. He received novice and full ordination from the Panchen Lama. Known for his spiritual contributions, he oversaw the construction of Norbulingka Park and Summer Palace. He passed away in 1804 at forty-seven, leaving a remarkable legacy behind.
The 9th Dalai Lama: Lungtok Gyatso (1805–1815)
The Ninth Dalai Lama, Lungtok Gyatso, was born in 1805 in Dan Chokhor, a small village in Kham, to parents Tenzin Choekyong and Dhondup Dolma. In 1807, Lungtok Gyatso was officially recognized as the reincarnation of the Eighth Dalai Lama. With a grand ceremony, he was escorted to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. In 1810, at the tender age of five, he was enthroned at the majestic Potala Palace. His novice vows were administered by the Panchen Lama, who bestowed upon him the name Lungtok Gyatso.
Tragically, Lungtok Gyatso's life was cut short, and he passed away in 1815 at the incredibly young age of nine. Despite his brief time as the Dalai Lama, his spiritual presence left an indelible mark on the Tibetan people and their collective memory.
The 10th Dalai Lama: Tsultrim Gyatso (1816–1837)
The Tenth Dalai Lama, Tsultrim Gyatso, was born in 1816 in Lithang, Tibet. Recognized as the Dalai Lama in 1822, he was enthroned at the Potala Palace in Lhasa. At age six, he received novice vows from the Panchen Lama.
Tsultrim Gyatso began his education at Drepung Monastery at age ten, studying Buddhist texts. He also played a role in the reconstruction of the Potala Palace. Unfortunately, his health remained fragile, and he passed away at nineteen in 1837. His legacy includes contributions to the palace's reconstruction and his pursuit of Buddhist knowledge.
The 11th Dalai Lama: Khedrup Gyatso (1838–1856)
The Eleventh Dalai Lama, Khedrup Gyatso, was born in 1838 in the village of Gathar, located in the Kham Minyak region of Tibet. His parents were Tsetan Dhondup and Yungdrung Bhuti.
In 1841, Khedrup Gyatso was recognized as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. The Panchen Lama at that time, named Tenpai Nyipa, performed a ceremonial hair-cutting ritual and bestowed upon him the name Khedrup Gyatso. The following year, in 1842, he was enthroned at the grand Potala Palace in Lhasa. At the tender age of eleven, Khedrup embarked on his spiritual path after taking novice vows of monkhood from the Panchen Lama. Despite his youth, he assumed the weighty responsibilities of being Tibet's spiritual and political leader, fulfilling the Tibetan people's aspirations.
Tragically, Khedrup Gyatso's life was cut short, and he passed away in 1856 within the confines of the Potala Palace. His sudden demise brought an untimely end to his leadership and left a void in Tibet's spiritual and political landscape.
The 12th Dalai Lama: Trinley Gyatso (1857–1875)
The Twelfth Dalai Lama was born in 1856 in Lhoka, a region near Lhasa, Tibet, to parents Phuntsok Tsewang and Tsering Yudon as Trinley Gyatso. He was brought to Lhasa in 1858 after being recognized as the reincarnation of the Dala Lama. He has bestowed Thupten Gyatso by then-regent Reting Ngawang Yeshi Tsultrim Gyaltsen. He eventually assumed the roles of Tibet's spiritual and political leaders. At the age of eighteen, in 1873, he fully embraced these responsibilities and became the guiding figure for the Tibetan people.
Tragically, Thupten Gyatso's life was cut short at a very young age. In 1875, at the age of twenty, he passed away within the sacred walls of the Potala Palace. His premature death marked the end of his reign as Tibet's spiritual and political leader, leaving behind a legacy of brief but significant impact.
The 13th Dalai Lama: Thupten Gyatso (1876–1933)
The Thirteenth Dalai Lama was born in 1876 in central Tibet as Thupten Gyatso. He became Tibet's spiritual and political leader after being recognized as the reincarnation of the Twelfth Dalai Lama. During his rule, he faced challenges from British and Chinese invasions.
1910 he fled to India but returned in 1911 after the Manchu Dynasty was overthrown. He focused on modernizing Tibet by introducing currency and establishing institutions like the Tibetan post office and Men-Tsee-Khang for medicine.
Under his leadership, Tibet's military was strengthened, and initiatives such as the police headquarters and an English school were established. Sadly, he passed away in 1933 at fifty-eight, leaving some of his goals unrealized.
The 14th Dalai Lama: Tenzin Gyatso (Born 1935)
Tenzin Gyatso serves as the 14th and current Dalai Lama. Following the annexation of Tibet by the People's Republic of China, he took the initiative to establish an independent Tibetan government in exile in northern India. In 2011, he gracefully stepped down from his political leadership role, paving the way for a democratic government known as the Central Tibetan Administration.
The Dalai Lama tirelessly advocates for the well-being of Tibetans, consistently promoting the Middle Way approach with China to resolve the Tibet issue peacefully. His teachings on Tibetan Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism attract a global audience, as his Kalachakra teachings and initiations have become renowned international events. Recognizing his extraordinary efforts, he received the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and was honored with the Gold Medal of the U.S. Congress in 2006. Time magazine aptly hailed the Dalai Lama as one of the "Children of Mahatma Gandhi" and acknowledged him as Gandhi's spiritual successor in pursuing nonviolence.
Reference: Dalai Lama