Though exiled during the Tibetan Uprising of 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has been Tibet’s most devout leader for more than 60 years, and continues to be one of the world’s most ardent humanitarians and counsellors of peace. In celebration of the Dalai Lama’s 77th birthday—July 6, 2012—hundreds of thousands of citizens worldwide reflect on his lifelong, altruistic accomplishments and powerful global impact.
Since the Middle Ages, the Dalai Lama has acted as both the spiritual and civil leader of Tibet. But never has the Dalai Lama’s role as protector of the Tibetan people been of such great importance as with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. From his enthronement in 1940 at age four to his appointment to full political power in 1950 to his effective political retirement in 2011, the life of the 14th Dalai Lama has been one entirely devoted to the welfare of the Tibetan people, and to the preservation of Tibetan culture.
The 14th Dalai Lama
Lhamo Thondup was born on July 6, 1935, to a farmer and his wife in Taktser, China. He was the fifth of 16 children, and one of only seven to survive. At the age of two, he was identified by a traveling regent as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama and was taken to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. His name was changed to Tenzin Gyatso, and he was enthroned as the 14th Dalai Lama on February 22, 1940. Following his enthronement, he was separated from his family and moved to Potala Palace, the traditional residence of the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Tibetan government since the 7th century. There he began his education in such subjects as logic, Tibetan art and culture, medicine and Buddhist philosophy.
Occupation, Resistance, Exile
In 1950, the Dalai Lama, who was only 15, was appointed to full political power by his caretakers following the invasion of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China. He sent a delegation to negotiate peace with the Chinese government, but they were forced to sign an agreement ceding control of Tibet to China. Despite subsequent peace talks between the Dalai Lama and China’s leader, Mao Zedong, the occupation of Tibet and the oppression of its people continued.
In 1956, a rebellion broke out in eastern Tibet, and the Dalai Lama accepted an offer of help from the CIA, who provided both financial and tactical support to the resistance movement. Their efforts, however, would ultimately prove unsuccessful, and years later, the Dalai Lama would criticize the CIA as having been interested in aiding Tibet only to further its own Cold War agenda.
In 1959, violence once more erupted in Tibet when it was learned that the Chinese government planned to kidnap and possibly even assassinate the Dalai Lama. Fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he was granted full political asylum.
Preserving Tibetan Culture
Immediately following his arrival in in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama set out on a course that would define his life. He established a government in exile, and then turned his attention to the welfare of the approximately 80,000 refugees who followed him there, and to the preservation of a displaced Tibetan culture. He founded the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, which focused on Tibetan artistic heritage, and created a Tibetan education system for refugees. In 1963 he issued a draft constitution for Tibet, which resulted in a document known as the Charter of Tibetans in Exile. This charter established freedom of speech, religion and movement, and incorporated the ideas of nonviolence, respect for human rights and the promotion of moral values. It also outlined the rights and responsibilities of Tibetans living in exile.
The Dalai Lama made further efforts at preservation during the late 1960s and into the 1970s, mostly in response to the Chinese government’s destruction of Tibetan institutions during its Cultural Revolution. He established the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, which became the primary university for exiled Tibetans, and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, which houses tens of thousands of manuscripts relating to Tibetan history and culture. These endeavors were further bolstered by the Dalai Lama’s actions to bring the plight of the Tibetan people to the attention of the world.
Political and Humanitarian Efforts
The 14th Dalai Lama’s devotion to the Tibetan people led him to interact with the international community to a degree far surpassing that of his predecessors. Early in his exile, he made several appeals to the United Nations, which led to the passing of resolutions on China in 1959, 1961 and 1965 that called for the respect of fundamental human rights and a cessation of human rights violations in Tibet; however, ittle was done to enforce the resolutions. He visited Europe for the first time in 1973, and the United States in 1979. Soon thereafter, he began to travel the world to lecture on Buddhism, to educate people on the plight of the Tibetan people, and to meet with religious and political leaders to win support for their cause.
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales receives the Dalai Lama at Clarence House in London, England on June 20, 2012, during the Dalai Lama’s recent tour of the United Kingdom. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole – WPA Pool/Getty Images.)
The Nobel Peace Prize
In 1988, before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, the Dalai Lama proposed a compromise in which Tibet would remain an autonomous region of China, rather than an independent, separate state. Though the plan was ultimately rejected, in 1989 the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for these and his other nonviolent efforts to bring about the liberation of Tibet.
Retirement and Succession
In March 10, 2011, on the 52nd anniversary of his exile from Tibet, the Dalai Lama announced that he would give up his role as Tibet’s political leader, making him the first Dalai Lama in history to do so. Further breaking with tradition, he expressed his belief that Tibetans should elect their new leader, or that he could appoint his own successor. The Chinese government rejected this idea, insisting that the tradition of selecting the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama must be upheld.
Though effectively retired from his political duties, the 14th Dalai Lama continues to lobby the international community for the Tibetan cause. He also continues to communicate world issues, offer advice and connect with others through his personal Twitter page, which is currently followed by more than 4 million fans. In a recent post, the Dalai Lama wrote: “Anger destroys our peace of mind and our physical health. We shouldn’t welcome it or think of it as natural or as a friend.”
For his lifelong humanitarian work, the 14th Dalai Lama has received more than 84 awards, honorary doctorates and prizes in recognition of his message of peace and nonviolence, understanding and compassion.