So we all know that the Dalai Lama is a really big deal. But do most of us know exactly why? Probably not. Have no fear; here’s a primer on everything you need to know tomorrow to understand and appreciate the importance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
What’s in a name?
The literal derivation of the phrase “Dalai Lama” comes from a combination of the Mongolian word Далай “Dalai” meaning “ocean” and the Tibetan word བླ་མ “Blama” (the b is silent) meaning “chief” or “high priest.”
The meaning behind the name is more complex. The Dalai Lama is the head Buddhist leader of the religious officials of the “Yellow Hat” branch of Tibetan Buddhism. He is believed to be the rebirth of a long line of tulkus – high-ranking lamas, or spiritual teachers on Dharma (duty) – descending from Avalokitesvara, “the Lord who looks down” and the embodiment of the compassion of all of the Buddhas.
Becoming the highest lama:
The current Dalai Lama was born Lhamo Thondup on July 5, 1935 to a poor farming family in Tibet. He was barely three years old when a search party sent out by the Tibetan government to find the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama arrived and swept the young boy off to Kumbum monastery where his training would begin. He began his monastic education at the age of six, when he began studies in logic, Tibetan art and culture, Sanskrit, medicine, Buddhist philosophy, poetry, music and drama, astrology, motre and phrasing, and synonyms.
At age fourteen in 1950, he assumed full political power after China’s 1949 invasion of Tibet in 1949. He attempted various peace talks with Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders in Beijing starting in 1954. However, after brutal Chinese repression of Tibetan uprisings in 1959, the Dalai Lama was forced to flee into exile in northern India. To this day, he actually lives in Dharamsala, India, where the Tibetan political administration has operated in exile.
The Dalai Lama has since been active in appealing the Tibetan case to the United Nations, as well as in promoting the foundation of a democratic Tibetan government. He was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts to free Tibet. He has traveled to more than 62 countries spanning 6 continents and has authored more than 72 books. (info from dalailama.com, His Holiness’ official website)
The Dalai Lama has three major monastic objectives, which I’ll cite directly from his website:
- “the promotion of human values such as compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline”
- “the promotion of religious harmony and understanding among the world’s major religious traditions”
- the “responsibility to act as the free spokesperson of the Tibetans in their struggle for justice”
In addition to these primary functions, the Dalai Lama has published extensive work on his perspectives regarding the environment and the pursuit of world peace.
The Dalai Lama in popular culture:
American awareness of the Dalai Lama and his efforts skyrocketed after his receipt of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. Several films have been produced about his life and struggles, including Seven Years in Tibet (starring Brad Pitt), Kundun (dir. Martin Scorsese), and Dalai Lama Renaissance (narr. Harrison Ford). Less serious references include Bill Murray’s description of golfing with him as caddy Carl Spackler in Caddyshack as well as a brief mention in Vampire Weekend’s song “Oxford Comma” (see 1:11).