Ocean of Wisdom - a lineage spanning 600 years

The Dalai Lama is a tulku (sprul sku), a reincarnate lama of the gelug-pa or Yellow Hat school of Tibetan Buddhism. He was more often than not styled the spiritual - and until the 1959 invasion of Tibet by China, temporal - leader of Tibet, although this is not technically the case. Whilst the Dalai Lama is an immensely influential and respected figure with Tibetan religion and culture, he is not technically the head of Tibetan Buddhism, nor of the Gelug (dge lugs) school, this being the Ganden Tripa (dga'ldan khri pa). Though the Dalai Lama was head of the Central Government of Tibet since the 16th Century, it cannot be said, either that the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa had complete control over every region of Tibet.

Like the other great tulku lineages of Tibet, the institution of Dalai Lama originates from the Mongolians. Following the demise of the Tibetan kings, the Kublai Khan imposed the system of Grand Lamas after conquering the country in the 13th Century1, where each was succeeded by a reincarnation, chosen to be his successor. The office of Dalai Lama originates from the Mongol ruler Altan Khan referring to Sonam Gyatso (bsod nams rgya mtsho), the third Dalai Lama as the all-knowing Vajra-holder, the Ocean of Wisdom - although the word lama (bla ma) is a direct cognate of the Sanskrit term guru, the word taa la'i, meaning Ocean, is in fact Mongolian, and not Tibetan. Sonam Gyatso posthumously named his two predecessors the first and second Dalai Lamas and thus what one could say is the most powerful lineage in Tibetan Buddhism was born.

In Tibetan Buddhism, ontologically the Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, known in Tibetan as Chenrezig (spyan ras gzigs). Subsequently, the Dalai Lama is known in Tibetan by the honorifics Gyawa Rinpoche (rgya ba rin po che) "Precious Victor", and Yeshe Norbu (ye shes nor bu) "Wisdom Jewel", as well as the affectionate term Kundun2, "The Presence".

The 14 Dalai Lamas

  1. Gedun Drub, 1391-1474
  2. Gedun Gyatso, 1475-1541
  3. Sonam Gyatso, 1543-1588
  4. Yonten Gyatso, 1589-1616
  5. Lobsang Gyatso, 1617-1682
  6. Tsangyang Gyatso, 1683-1706
  7. Kelsang Gyatso, 1708-1757
  8. Jamphel Gyatso, 1758-1804
  9. Lungtok Gyatso, 1806-1815
  10. Tsultrim Gyatso, 1816-1837
  11. Khendrup Gyatso, 1838-1856
  12. Trinley Gyatso, 1856-1875
  13. Thubten Gyatso, 1876-1933
  14. Tenzin Gyatso, 1935 - present

1. Gedun Drub


Gedun Drub (dge 'dun 'grub) was born to a family of nomad shepherds, and at the age of seven was sent to Nartang monastery. The youngest of the three great disciples of Tsongkhapa (btsong kha pa) - the great Tibetan monk credited with revitalising Tibetan Buddhism and founding the new Yellow Hat school, the Gelug sect - and possibly his nephew, Gedun Drub was abbot of Gaden, and founded the Tashilhunpo (bkra shis lhung po) monastery near Shigatse (gzhis ka rtse), west of Lhasa, a move that further solidified the Gelug school. He also promoted the system of reincarnate lamas, which assured the smooth transition of spiritual leaders from one generation to the next.

One of the most renowned scholars in Tibet, Gedun Drub's writing include Sunlight on the Path to Freedom, a commentary on the ancient Buddhist texts known as Abhidharma-kosha, Crushing the Forces of Evil, an epic poem on the life of Buddha, and Song of the Eastern Snow Mountain, a poem dedicated to his mentor Je Tsongkhapa.

2. Gedun Gyatso


Gedun Gyatso (dge 'dun rgya mtsho) was born in Dorjiden, northwest of Shigatse. Soon after he learned to speak, he told his parents his name was Pema Dorje, the birth name of Gedun Drub. When he was four he told his parent he wanted to live in Tashilhunpo monastery, to be with the monks. He was soon proclaimed Gedun Drub's reincarnation by the high lamas of Tashilhunpo monastery. A renowned scholar and composer of mystical poetry, Gedun Drub travelled widely, and became the abbot of Drepung ('bras spung) monastery, the largest Gelug monastery, which from that time on has been closely associated with the Dalai Lamas.

He was a great scholar and poet, leaving behind a history of Buddhism, a treatise on various Buddhists sects of India, and his own autobiography; he spread the tradition of Gelug ascetism throughout Tibet, and founded Chhokhorgyal monastery in 1509. He was also the abbot of three other great monasteries, Tashilhunpo, Drepung and Sera. He died in 1542 at Ganden Phodang, once residence of his predecessor.

3. Sonam Gyatso


Sonam Gyatso was born in Khangsar, in the Tolung Valley, west of Lhasa. He was recognised as Gedun Gyatso's reincarnation because of his ability to recognise people and places associated with his predecessor. A great scholar, Sonam Gyatso spent much time at Drepung monastery and the mystical lake of visions, Chhokhorgyal3; he also spent much of his time travelling. With an extensive itinerary he was forced to declined the Machurian emperor's invitation to visit China. He visited the Gongma Phadupa Dkapa Jungne at his capital Nedon in the Yarlung Valley in 1559, and Tashilhunpo monastery in 1569. He also founded the Champaling monastery near Lithang in Kham, the Sandal Khan (Sandalwood Temple), and Kumbum Champaling, a famous monastery in Northern Tibet.

During this period, the other sects of Tibetan Buddhism began to squeeze out the new Gelug school, little over a century old. Sonam Gyatso therefore journeyed to Mongolia where he achieved great success. At Lake Kokonor in eastern Mongolia in 1578, he converted the Mongol ruler Altan Khan, who, so affected he was, called him dorje chang (rdo rje chhang), the all-knowing Vajra-holder, dalai lama (taa la'i bla ma), the Ocean of Wisdom. Sonam Gyatso is credited with converting many Mongols to Buddhism - who built Erdene Zuu, the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, on the ruins of Karakorum in 1586 - and ending shamanistic customs in Mongolia, such as ritualistic animal slaughter and the sacrificing of wives to their deceased husbands. He also helped spread the Gelug influence into eastern Tibet.

After posthumously naming his predecessors the first and second Dalai Lamas, he passed away in Mongolia on his way back to Tibet on 20 April 1588, designating a Mongol prince as his re-incarnation, the 4th Dalai Lama. He was cremated at Kumbum, after which his ashes were interred at Drepung monastery.

4. Yonten Gyatso


Born in Monoglia, Yonten Gyatso (yon tan rgya mtsho) was raised in the Mongolian court. The grandson of the great Altan Khan, once fully grown, the Mongols sent troops with him back to Tibet. As the only non-Tibetan Dalai Lama he was first illegally recognised as Sonam Gyatso's reincarnation by the Mongols, although they had no true jurisdiction to do so. He was confirmed as the 4th Dalai Lama only after a contentious debate between delegations from the three great monasteries of central Tibet. He thereafter ascended the throne at Drepung monastery in 1601. Yonten Gyatso also restored the Gelug school to control of the three main temples in Lhasa, where these troops stayed on as the guard of the Yellow Hat school. Like his predecessor, Yonten Gyatso, refused the inviation of the Manchurian emperor, Tai-tsung; however, he did sent a delegation in his place.

It may be that Yonten Gyatso was assassinated following constant strife between the Kagyus (ka gydu pa), powerful in western and eastern Tibet, and Gelugs over his legitimacy. He died mysteriously in 1617, at Ganden Phodang, only 28 years of age. His death marked the start of the persecution of the Gelug school by the Kagyus.

5. Lobsang Gyatso

The "Great Fifth", 1617-1682

The "Great Fifth" Dalai Lama is credited with the consolidation of the power of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet, and the unification of the nation. A powerful and formidable figure, he was discovered at age two in Chhonggye, in the U region of Tibet in 1619. His discovered was kept secret until 1620, and he was enthroned as 5th Dalai Lama at Drepung monastery in 1625.

Following the close connections between the Mongols and his predecessors, Lobsang Gyatso (blo bzang rgya mtsho) enjoyed a passionate following among the Mongols, and formed a military alliance with the powerful Mongol leader Gushri Khan. After conquering Qinghai, the Mongol area to the east of Tibet, Gushri Khan (Kusi Khan) answered Lobsang Gyatso's call when both the Mongol fief Chong-thu Khan (Juetu Khan), and Tsanba Khan together with Beri-Tusi, ruler of Kang, invaded Tibet. Juetu Khan sent an army of 10,000 strong to oust the Gelugs from power, and Beri-Tusi attempted to conquer Tibet for Bön. Gushri Khan smote their armies, routing them from Tibet in 1642. Gushri Khan also defeated the power-hungry regent Desi Tsangpa, and declared himself Po Gyalpo, King of Tibet. Despite this, he recognised the Dalai Lama as both spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet and head of all Buddhist sects in Asia.

Lobsang Gyatso centralised the government of Tibet, declaring Lhasa the capital, instituting the codes of monastic life, study, ritual and ethics (vinaya), and began the construction of the great Potala palace in Lhasa on the site of the ruins of the ancient first temple of Buddhism in Tibet. He based the new Tibetan government on the concept of Chhosi Shungdel, the integration of religion and politics, with clergy and laymen sharing power over the country, for which he established two training schools, the Tsedung and Shodung. Lobsang Gyatso was also a great writer, authoring histories including the biographies of the 3rd and 4th Dalai Lamas, a history of Tibet, his own autobiography, poetry and accounts of visionary experiences. He defined the lineage of both the Dalai Lama, and of the kings of ancient Tibet.

Following his success with the Mongols, the 5th Dalai Lama reclaimed the region of Nyanam from Nepal as well as the kingdoms of Ngari and Ladhakh. He forged an alliance with Sikkim and the Chinese, visiting the child emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Shunzi, in Beijing in 1652, after which the relationship between emperors and Dalai Lamas was generally regarded as one between patron and priest, a relationship lasting until growing Chinese influence in the early 18th Century.

Having successfully unified Tibet, Lobsang Gyatso retired from public life towards the end of his reign. He relinquished affairs of state to his regent, Desi Sangay Gyatso (sangs gyas rgya mtsho). Lobsang Gyatso's death in 1682 was not announced until 1697, as the Diba, regent of Tibet attempted to monopolize power.

6. Tsangyang Gyatso


After the death of the 5th Dalai Lama, the Diba, or regent, hid the news of his passing for some 15 years, ostensibly to maintain the stability inherited from his reign, and acted as though he were still alive. This was soon discovered by the Chinese Emperor Kangxi the Great, however he said nothing for a while. Eventually Kangxi enquired of the 5th Dalai Lama, and Diba Sanjie revealed the death and discovery of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

Tsangyang Gyatso (tshang dbyangs rgya mtsho) was a figure who confused people. Born in the remote Tibetan region of Mon under mysterious circumstances. His parents were tantric practitioners. Well into his teens before he was recognised as Dalai Lama, he is the most unconventional person to have held the office. Dressing as a layman in blue silk brocade, wearing his hair long, this poet lama drank wine, enjoyed women and composed love songs still popular in Tibet. He practiced archery with his friends, and in the evening would visit the brothels and change bars of the Shol town at the foot of Red Hill. He was reputed to have taken a different woman each night.

When the Dalai Lama reached 20, the time to complete one's vows and become a full monk, he renounced his original novice vows and became a layman once again. He continued to live in the Potala palace, though, living as Dalai Lama by day, and dandy and roué by night. Displeasing many people, his eccentric style also alienated him from the Mongol Qosot leader Ha-zang Khan (Lhasang Khan), who invaded Tibet to depose him. Lhasang did not believe the 6th Dalai Lama to be the real one. Lhasa was besieged, and on 6 September 1807 the Desi Sangay, the regent, unconditionally surrendered. The regent was then captured and executed at Tolung Nangtse, near Kyomulung monastery.

Lhasang also declared Tsangyang Gyatso unfit for the title of Dalai Lama and ordered him to leave the Potala Palace and relocate to a Mongol camp at Lhalu Garden near Lhasa. A short revolt by the Tibetans, learning of Tsangyang's exile, resulted in him being transported to Drepung monastery. There, faced with a brutal massacre, the 6th Dalai Lama surrendered to the Qosot. The Qing court ordered him to be brough to Beijing. History differs on what happened next: some say Tsangyang Gyatso died in the Emperor's summer palance at Chengde in Beijing, presumably murdered; others say he vanished on 14 November 1706 at Gunga-nor, a small lake to the south of Kokonor; others still say he was taken ill and died, while yet others, still, believe that he escaped, and continued to wander about Tibet, India and Nepal for many years thereafter. Following this, the 7th Dalai Lama was named as the real one, though his legitimacy was never recognised by the Tibetan people.

7. Kelsang Gyatso


Not long after the disappearance of the 6th Dalai Lama, his successor was discovered in Lithang as a poem by his predecessor, the 6th Dalai Lama, alludes to:

White crane!
Lend me your wings
I will not fly far
I will return near Lithang

The Tibetans gad employed the help of a a western Mongol tribe, the Dzungars, to oust Lhasang Khan. It was they who discovered the child, and whilst they attacked Lhasa and killed Lhasang Khan in 1717, the 7th Dalai Lama was given asylum by the royal family of the Kingdom of Derge and later at Kubum monastery, under the protection of the Emperor K'ang Hsi. His army later ousted the Dzungars in 1717 and installed the 7th Dalai Lama, Kelsang Gyatso (bskal bzang rgya mtsho), on the Potala throne.

Like his predecessor, the 7th Dalai Lama was also a poet and a scholar, and preferred to let ministers attend to matters of state. Despite this, he was in close contact with common folk, and it was said he would leave the Potala at times to travel incognito as a wandering monk. During his reign an ordnance of the Chinese government gave the Dalai Lama rule of all of Tibet but attempted to strip him of effective political power: under it, all decisions were to ratified by a resident Chinese official, the amban. The authority and function of the amban is still disputed today. In 1729, during a period of rebellious uprising in Tibet, the third Manchu Emperor, Yung Cheng, accused the Dalai Lama of kow-towing to the influence of his father and senior advisors. Both he and his father were exiled to their hometown of Gethar while power in Lhasa was seized by Sonam Tobgye Pholha, with the support of the Manchu army. In Gethar, Kelsang Gyatso founded the monastery of Teling, and during this period visited the mystic lake of Chhokhorgyal several times, as well as the Yarlung Valley, reputedly the cradle of Tibetan civilisation. Subsequent revolts toppled the Manchu government in Tibet, with the Dalai Lama restored to the throne, and the fourth Manchu Emperor, Ch'ien Lung unsuccessful in restoring Manchu authority in Lhasa.

8. Jamphel Gyatso


The 8th Dalai Lama was born in Tobgyal, Upper Tsang, on 29 July 1758 and was enthroned on 29 August 1762. He was, however, uninterested in politics and did not assume full power until 1781, yet he left affairs in the hands of his regent Ngawang Tsultrim. Here began a period of some 150 years where day-to-day power was exercised by a series of regents and not by the Dalai Lama nor by the Chinese amban. During his reign, Tibet fought wars with the Gurkhas of Nepal, and received a delegation from Britain, interested in Tibet because of its strategic location in relation to India, China, and Tsarist Russia. Around this time, the Tibetans began to severely restrict outside visitors. Jamphel Gyatso (byams spel rgya mtsho) died in 1804 at the age of 46.

9. Lungtok Gyatso


The 9th Dalai Lama was born in the village of Den Chhokhor, Kham, on 20 January 1806, and was enthroned as Dalai Lama on 10 November 1808. His brief reign marked significant changes in the spheres of influence in the region. The aging Qing Dynasty began to weaken in Beijing, losing influence in Tibet, and the British maintained interest, though they were, as yet, unable to make inroads into Tibet. One notable event in Lungtok Gyatso's life was the arrival of the first Englishman in Lhasa, a writer, Thomas Manning, who was granted audience with the young Dalai Lama in 1811. Lungtok Gyatso died at age 11, purportedly of penumonia, on 26 March 1815 in the Potala palace. Given the tumultuous state of Tibetan politics at the time, some believe he was assassinated by his own court in order that they could continue with the status quo. The subsequent three Dalai Lamas also died young. Some theories suggest they, too, were murdered.

10. Tsultrim Gyatso


Tsultrim Gyatso (tshul khrim rgya mtsho) was born in Lithang, the birthplace of the 7th Dalai Lama in 1816, and was enthroned in 1822. Like his predecessor, the 10th Dalai Lama died at a young age in the Potala before fully assuming temporal power. During his brief life, Tibet continued to isolate itself, whilst keeping a suspicious eye on its borders.

11. Khendrup Gyatso


Khendrup Gyatso was the third in a series of Dalai Lamas who died at an early age. He was born at Teling, near Gerthar in Kham - where the 7th Dalai Lama was discovered and later founded a monastery - on 19 December 1838. He ascended the throne on 25 May 1842, and in a break with tradition assumed full power at the behest of the government in his minority at the age of 17 on March 1 1855. He msyeriously died eleven months later.

During his short life China's influence in Tibet weakened further because of the Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion, however, Tibet's struggles continued with Nepal along with Jammu and Ladakh to the west.

12. Trinley Gyatso


Trinley Gyatso (sprin las rgya mtsho) was born on 26 January 26, 1857 in Olga, Southern Tibet, and was enthroned on 18 August 1860, assuming full power on 11 March 1873. His short reign was a time of severe unrest among Tibet's neighbors. The weak Qing dynasty was unable to provide military support because of its own battles, something it did again for the 13th Dalai Lama. At the same time, the British intensified pressure on the Tibetan borders, from their colonial bastion in India. Despite Manchu China opening her border to Christian missionaries via a treaty with Britain, France, Russia and America in 1860, Tibet still barred foreigners from entering Tibet. In 1865, Chinese missionaries began to set up a camp at Bongo on the Mekong and Salween rivers, causing Tibetan authorities to descend on the mission and renounce both the treaty and the authority of the Manchu government in Tibet. In the 1860s, with wars being fought between Britain and Sikkim and Bhutan, Tibet banned all Europeans from entering Tibet.

In 1874, the 18-year old Dalai Lama visited the monastery at the mystical lake of Chhokhorgyal. He died shortly thereafter in the spring of 1875, only 19 years old.

13. Thubten Gyatso


During the reign of the 13th Dalai Lama, the second to bear the name "the Great", the British extended their power in India and Asia through the East India Company, and fought a war against Russia via Afghanistan, bringing instability close to the Tibetan court. The British needed to improve their border situation, either by pushing the border further, or by neutralising bugger states, therefore the British had their eyes on Tibet. The British sent troops to Tibet many times, and once in 1904 they massacred a thousand defenceless Tibetan soldiers and marched on Lhasa. The 19 year old Dalai Lama assumed full power from the regent Chökyi Gyaltsen Kundeling, but was forced to flee to Mongolia. Instead of the traditional protection of the imperial court, he had received rejection; instead the imperial court chose to negotiate with the British. On the Dalai Lama returning from a visit to the Emperor in Beijing, he returned to Lhasa to find a Chinese garrison waiting to depose him. Both these acts increased growing sentiments of distrust towards the Chinese on the part of the Tibetans. Nevertheless, following the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911, Thubten Gyatso would send Tibetan representatives to the Chinese central government as congressman. This was largely in name only, mimicking the priest-patron relationship of the past, as Thubten Gyatso declared independence from China.

In 1907, Britain and Russia had signed the Treaty of St Petersburg, defining the relationship between China and Tibet as 'suzerainty' without the knowledge of the Qing court. This definition was used again and again by Britain, and also on occasion by Tibet after 1911, however it was never acknowledged by any central government of China. In 1913-14, the British arranged a conference with China and Tibet at Simla to define Tibet, yet the conference broke up without reaching a consensus. Still, with China on the brink of Civil War, the Chinese government in Beijing was unable to send troops to any neighbouring province, let alone to Tibet. Peace reigned in Lhasa.

Thubten Gyatso began the modernisation of Tibet, though some would say it was too little too late. He began to engage in international relations, instituted a postal system, telephones and telegraphs, paper currency, roads, and built the country's first power station. With strong character and understanding of political intrigue, Thubtne Gyatso revitalised the institution of the Dalai Lama and attempted to end Tibet's centuries of isolation. Despite restoring monastic discipline, many of his reforms and initiatives were stubbornly resisted by the conservative elements within the aristocracy and monastic establishment. The isolation was unfortunately ended by the country's invasion in 1959, prophetically foretold by the 13th Dalai Lama's final testament:

Very soon in this land (with a harmonious blend of religion and politics) deceptive acts may occur from without and within. At that time, if we do not dare to protect our territory, our spiritual personalities including the Victorious Father and Son (Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama) may be exterminated without trace, the property and authority of our Lakangs (residences of reincarnated lamas) and monks may be taken away. Moreover, our political system, developed by the Three Great Dharma Kings (Tri Songtsen Gampo, Songdetsen and Tri Ralpachen) will vanish without anything remaining. The property of all people, high and low, will be seized and the people forced to become slaves. All living beings will have to endure endless days of suffering and will be stricken with fear. Such a time will come.

The 14th Dalai Lama was only 15 years old in 1950 when his predecessor’s warning came true.

14. Tenzin Gyatso

1935 - present

The life of His Holiness, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, is better recounted here.

The Future

The current Dalai Lama has resided in Dharamsala, near McLeod Ganj, in Northern India since his exile, where he has established the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, as yet unrecognised by any other sovereign power on Earth. After each Dalai Lama's death, the Panchen Lama - another tulku lineage, head of Tashilhunpo monastery, and second-only to the Dalai Lama himself - plays a pivotal role in selecting and identifying his reincarnation. However, the present Dalai Lama has indicated that his reincarnation will be born outside of China, or Chinese-controlled Tibet, saying it "will definitely not come under Chinese control; it will be outside, in the free world"4 - that is, if he is reincarnated, another option he has indicated. The position of the Panchen Lama in selecting the Dalai Lama's reincarnation, with China only recognising their choice of the current Panchen Lama, and the Dalai Lama's choice having "gone missing"5, coupled with the Qing Dynasty precedent of a vase lottery6 to select tulkus, leaves the the selection of the next Dalai Lama to be an onerous event in the political history of Tibet and her ongoing relationship with China, and most likely open to government manipulation.


  1. Though T.T. Moh indicates this to be an invention of the White Hat or Kagyu (ka gydu pa) school nearer the 10th Century.
  2. Also the title of Martin Scorcese's 1997 epic film of the life and exile of the current Dalai Lama
  3. With its crystal-clear waters, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the site is believed to have the power to reveal the future in its reflection. Each Dalai Lama visits Chhokorgyal at least once in his lifetime.
  4. http://www.tibet.ca/wtnarchive/1997/6/3-2_1.html
  5. Amnesty International report at http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/ENGASA170071996
  6. The Jinbonba (Golden Lottery Urn) was a system invented by the Qing court to select the Dalai Lama from several possible candidates and to halt the possible transmission of family powers. Since then, the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th Dalai Lamas were chosen in this way. Unfortunately, they all passed away suddenly and suspiciously at the ages of 11, 22, 18, and 20, respectively. The 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas were exempted from the lottery system by special decrees of Qing government and Chinese communist government respectively.


  • The Biographies of the Dalai Lamas by Ya Hanzhang, 1991
  • The Dalai Lamas of Tibet by Thubten Samphel and Dr. Roger Jackson, Carlton College
  • Dalai Lama, Wikipedia
  • The Fourteen Dalai Lamas of Tibet by Celeste Heiter, thingsasian.com
  • History of Tibet, LaborLawTalk.com encyclopedia
  • Thubten Gyatso, 13th Dalai Lama, Wikipedia
  • Tibetan History by T.T. Moh, omni.cc.purdue.edu

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