His Holiness the Dalai Lama was born on 6 July 1935 to a Tibetan farming family in the small village of Taktser, located in the province of Amdo…
He was named Lhamo Thondup, which literally means ‘Wish-Fulfilling Goddess’. Taktser (Roaring Tiger) was a small village that stood on a hill overlooking a broad valley. Its pastures had not been settled or farmed for long, only grazed by nomads. The reason for this was the unpredictability of the weather in that area. His Holiness writes in his autobiography, “During my early childhood, my family was one of twenty or so making a precarious living from the land there”.
His Holiness’s parents were small farmers who mostly grew barley, buckwheat and potatoes. His father was a man of medium height with a very quick temper. “I remember pulling at his moustache once and being hit hard for my trouble”, recalls His Holiness. “Yet he was a kind man too and he never bore grudges”. His Holiness recalls his mother as undoubtedly one of the kindest people he has ever known. She gave birth to sixteen children, of whom seven survived.
His Holiness had two sisters and four brothers. Tsering Dolma, the eldest child, was eighteen years older than His Holiness. At the time of His Holiness’s birth she helped his mother run the house and acted as the midwife. “When she delivered me, she noticed that one of my eyes was not properly open. Without hesitation she put her thumb on the reluctant lid and forced it wide fortunately without any ill effect”, narrates His Holiness. He had three elder brothers: Thubten Jigme Norbu – the eldest, who was recognized as the reincarnation of a high lama, Taktser Rinpoche – Gyalo Thondup and Lobsang Samden. The youngest brother, Tenzin Choegyal was also recognized as the reincarnation of another high lama, Ngari Rinpoche.
“Of course, no one had any idea that I might be anything other than an ordinary baby. It was almost unthinkable that more than one tulku (reincarnate lama) could be born into the same family and certainly my parents had no idea that I would be proclaimed Dalai Lama”, His Holiness writes. Although His Holiness’s father’s remarkable recovery from critical illness at the time of His Holiness’s birth was auspicious, it was not taken to be of great significance. “I myself likewise had no particular intimation of what lay ahead. My earliest memories were very ordinary.” His Holiness recollects, among his earliest memories, observing a group of children fighting and running to join the weaker side.
“One thing that I remember enjoying particularly as a very young boy was going into the chicken coop to collect the eggs with my mother and then staying behind. I liked to sit in the hens’ nest and make clucking noises. Another favourite occupation of mine as an infant was to pack things in a bag as if I was about to go on a long journey. I’m going to Lhasa, I’m going to Lhasa, I would say. This, coupled with my insistence that I be allowed always to sit at the head of the table, was later said to be an indication that I must have known that I was destined for greater things”.
His Holiness is considered to be the present incarnation of the previous thirteen Dalai Lamas of Tibet (the first having been born in 1391 CE), who are in turn considered to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, holder of the White Lotus. Thus, His Holiness is also believed to be a manifestation of Chenrezig, in fact the seventy-fourth in a lineage that is traced back to a Brahmin boy who lived in the time of Buddha Shakyamuni. “I am often asked whether I truly believe this. The answer is not simple to give. But as a fifty-six year old, when I consider my experience during this present life, and given my Buddhist beliefs, I have no difficulty accepting that I am spiritually connected both to the thirteen previous Dalai Lamas, to Chenrezig and to the Buddha himself”.
Discovery as Dalai Lama
When Lhamo Thondup was two years old, a search party that had been sent out by the Tibetan government to find the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama arrived at Kumbum monastery. It had been led there by a number of signs. One of these concerned the embalmed body of his predecessor, Thupten Gyatso, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who had died aged fifty-seven in 1933. During the mummification process, the head was discovered to have turned from facing south to the northeast. Shortly after that the Regent, himself a senior lama, had a vision. Looking into the waters of the sacred lake, Lhamoi Lhatso, in southern Tibet, he clearly saw the Tibetan letters Ah, Ka and Ma float into view. These were followed by the image of a three-storied monastery with a turquoise and gold roof and a path running from it to a hill. Finally, he saw a small house with strangely shaped guttering. He was sure that the letter Ah referred to Amdo, the northeastern province, so it was there that the search party was sent.
By the time they reached Kumbum, the members of the search party felt that they were on the right track. It seemed likely that if the letter Ah referred to Amdo, then Ka must indicate the monastery at Kumbum, which was indeed three-storied and turquoise-roofed. They now only needed to locate a hill and a house with peculiar guttering. So they began to search the neighbouring villages. When they saw the gnarled branches of juniper wood on the roof of the His Holiness’s parent’s house, they were certain that the new Dalai Lama would not be far away. Nevertheless, rather than reveal the purpose of their visit, the group asked only to stay the night. The leader of the party, Kewtsang Rinpoche, then disguised himself as a servant and spent much of the evening observing and playing with the youngest child in the house.
The child recognized him and called out “Sera lama, Sera lama”. Sera was Kewtsang Rinpoche’s monastery. The next day they left, only to return a few days later as a formal deputation. This time they brought with them a number of possessions that had belonged to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, together with several similar items that did not belong to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. In every case, the infant correctly identified those belonging to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama saying, “It’s mine. It’s mine”. This more or less convinced the search party that they had found the new incarnation. It was not long before the boy from Taktser was recognized to be the new Dalai Lama.
The boy, Lhamo Thondup, was first taken to Kumbum monastery. “There now began a somewhat unhappy period of my life”, His Holiness was to write later, reflecting on his separation from his parents and the unfamiliar surroundings. However, there were two consolations to life at the monastery. First, His Holiness’s immediate elder brother Lobsang Samden was already there. The second consolation was the fact that his teacher was a very kind old monk, who often seated his young disciple inside his gown.
Lhamo Thondup was eventually to be reunited with his parents and together they were to journey to Lhasa. This did not come about for some eighteen months, however, because Ma Bufeng, the local Chinese Muslim warlord, refused to let the boy-incarnate be taken to Lhasa without payment of a large ransom. It was not until the summer of 1939 that he left for the capital, Lhasa, in a large party consisting of his parents, his brother Lobsang Samden, members of the search party, and other pilgrims.
The journey to Lhasa took three months. “I remember very little detail apart from a great sense of wonder at everything I saw: the vast herds of drong (wild yaks) grazing across the plains, the smaller groups of kyang (wild asses) and occasionally a herd of gowa and nawa, small deer which were so light and fast they might have been ghosts. I also loved the huge flocks of hooting geese we saw from time to time”.
Lhamo Thondup’s party was received by a group of senior government officials and escorted to Doeguthang plain, two miles outside the gates of the capital. The next day, a ceremony was held in which Lhamo Thondup was conferred the spiritual leadership of his people. Following this, he was taken with Lobsang Samden to the Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas, which lay just to the west of Lhasa.
During the winter of 1940, Lhamo Thondup was taken to the Potala Palace, where he was officially installed as the spiritual leader of Tibet. Soon after, the newly recognized Dalai Lama was taken to the Jokhang temple where he was inducted as a novice monk in a ceremony known as taphue, meaning cutting of the hair. “From now on, I was to be shaven-headed and attired in maroon monk’s robes”. In accordance with ancient custom, His Holiness forfeited his name Lhamo Thondup and assumed a new name, Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso.
His Holiness then began to receive his primary education. The curriculum, derived from the Nalanda tradition, consisted of five major and five minor subjects. The major subjects included logic, fine arts, Sanskrit grammar, and medicine, but the greatest emphasis was given to Buddhist philosophy which was further divided into a further five categories: Prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom; Madhyamika, the philosophy of the middle Way; Vinaya, the canon of monastic discipline; Abidharma, metaphysics; and Pramana, logic and epistemology. The five minor subjects included poetry, drama, astrology, composition and synonyms.
Dalai Lama in His Youth
On the day before the opera festival in the summer of 1950, His Holiness was just coming out of the bathroom at the Norbulingka when he felt the earth beneath his feet begin to move. As the scale of this natural phenomenon began to sink in, people naturally began to say that it was more than a simple earthquake: it was an omen.
Two days later, Regent Tatra received a telegram from the Governor of Kham, based in Chamdo, reporting a raid on a Tibetan post by Chinese soldiers. Already the previous autumn there had been cross-border incursions by Chinese Communists, who stated their intention of liberating Tibet from the hands of imperialist aggressors. “It now looked as if the Chinese were making good their threat. If that were so, I was well aware that Tibet was in grave danger for our army comprised no more than 8,500 officers and men. It would be no match for the recently victorious People’s Liberation Army (PLA)”.
Two months later, in October, news reached Lhasa that an army of 80,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army had crossed the Drichu river east of Chamdo. Soon, Lhasa would fall to the invaders. As the winter drew on and the news got worse, people began to advise that His Holiness be given full temporal (political) authority. The Government consulted the Nechung Oracle, who, at a tense point in the ceremony approached where His Holiness was seated and laid a kata, a white offering scarf, on his lap with the words thu-la bap, the time has come. Thus, on 17 November 1950 at the age of fifteen, His Holiness was officially enthroned as the temporal leader of Tibet in a ceremony held at the Norbulingka Palace.
At the beginning of November, about a fortnight before the day of His Holiness’s investiture, his eldest brother had arrived in Lhasa. “As soon as I set eyes on him, I knew that he had suffered greatly. Because Amdo, the province where we were both born, and in which Kumbum is situated, lies so close to China, it had quickly fallen under control of the Communists. He himself was kept virtual prisoner in his monastery. At the same time, the Chinese endeavoured to indoctrinate him in the new Communist way of thinking and tried to recruit him to their cause. According to their plan they would set him free to go to Lhasa if he would undertake to persuade me to accept Chinese rule. If I resisted, he was to kill me. They would then reward him”.
To mark the occasion of his ascension to power, His Holiness granted a general amnesty whereby all the prisoners were set free.
Shortly after the 15-year-old Dalai Lama found himself the undisputed leader of six million people facing the threat of a full-scale war, His Holiness appointed two new Prime Ministers. Lobsang Tashi became the monk Prime Minister and an experienced lay administrator, Lukhangwa, the lay Prime Minister.
Then, in consultation with the two Prime Ministers and the Kashag, His Holiness decided to send delegations abroad to America, Great Britain and Nepal in hope of persuading these countries to intervene on Tibet’s behalf. Another was to go to China in the hope of negotiating a withdrawal. These missions left towards the end of the year. “Shortly afterwards, with the Chinese consolidating their forces in the east, we decided that I should move to southern Tibet with the most senior members of the Government. That way, if the situation deteriorated, I could easily seek exile across the border with India. Meanwhile, Lobsang Tashi and Lukhangwa were to remain in an acting capacity”.
While His Holiness was in Dromo, which lay just inside the border with Sikkim, he received the news that while the delegation to China had reached its destination, each of the others had been turned back. It was almost impossible to believe that the British Government was now agreeing that China had some claim to authority over Tibet. His Holiness was equally saddened by America’s reluctance to help. “I remember feeling great sorrow when I realized what this really meant: Tibet must expect to face the entire might of Communist China alone”.
Frustrated by the indifference shown to Tibet’s case by Great Britain and America, in a last bid to avoid a full-scale Chinese invasion, His Holiness sent Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, Governor of Kham, to Beijing to open a dialogue with the Chinese. The delegation had not been empowered to reach a settlement, apart from its entrusted task of convincing the Chinese leadership not to invade Tibet. However, one evening, as His Holiness sat alone, a harsh, crackling voice on the radio announced that a Seventeen-Point ‘Agreement’ for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet had that day (23 May 1951) been signed by representatives of the Government of the People’s Republic of China and what they called the Local Government of Tibet. As it turned out, the Chinese who even forged the Tibetan seal had forced the delegation headed by Ngabo into signing the agreement. The Chinese had in effect secured a major coup by winning Tibetan compliance, albeit at gunpoint, to their terms of returning Tibet to the fold of the motherland. His Holiness returned to Lhasa in the middle of August 1951.
Countdown to Escape
The next nine years saw His Holiness trying to evade a full-scale military takeover of Tibet by China on the one hand and placating the growing resentment among Tibetan resistance fighters against the Chinese aggressors on the other. His Holiness made a historic visit to China from July 1954 to June 1955 and met with Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders, including Chou Enlai, Zhu Teh and Deng Xiaoping. From November 1956 to March 1957 His Holiness visited India to participate in the 2500th Buddha Jayanti celebrations. When the young Dalai Lama was taking his final monastic examinations in Lhasa in the winter of 1958/59 disheartening reports of increasing brutality against his people continued to pour in.
Escape into Exile
On 10th March 1959, General Zhang Chenwu of Communist China extended a seemingly innocent invitation to the Tibetan leader to attend a theatrical show by a Chinese dance troupe. When the invitation was repeated with new conditions that no Tibetan soldiers were to accompany the Dalai Lama and that his bodyguards be unarmed, an acute anxiety befell the Lhasa population. Soon a crowd of tens of thousands of Tibetans gathered around the Norbulingka Palace, determined to thwart any threat to their young leader’s life and prevented His Holiness from going.
On 17 March 1959 during a consultation with the Nechung Oracle, His Holiness was given an explicit instruction to leave the country. The Oracle’s decision was confirmed when a divination performed by His Holiness produced the same answer, even though the odds against making a successful escape seemed terrifyingly high.
A few minutes before ten o’clock in the evening His Holiness, disguised as a common soldier, slipped past the massive throng of people along with a small escort and proceeded towards the Kyichu river, where he was joined by the rest of his entourage, including some members of his immediate family.
Three weeks after escaping Lhasa, on 31 March 1959, His Holiness and his entourage reached the Indian border from where they were escorted by Indian guards to the town of Bomdila in the present day Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian government had already agreed to provide asylum to His Holiness and his followers in India. Soon after his arrival in Mussoorie on 20 April 1959, His Holiness met with the Indian Prime Minister and the two talked about rehabilitating the Tibetan refugees.
Realizing the importance of modern education for the children of Tibetan refugees, His Holiness impressed upon Nehru the need to create a Special Section for Tibetan Education within the Indian Ministry of Education. The Indian Government agreed to bear all the expenses for setting up the schools for the Tibetan children.
Thinking the time was ripe for him to break his elected silence, His Holiness called a press conference on 20 June 1959 during which he formally repudiated the Seventeen-Point Agreement. In the field of administration, too, His Holiness was able to make radical changes. He oversaw the creation of various new Tibetan administrative departments. These included the Departments of Information, Education, Home, Security, Religious Affairs and Economic Affairs. Most of the Tibetan refugees, whose number had grown to almost 30,000, were moved to road-building camps in the hills of northern India.
On 10 March 1960 just before leaving for Dharamsala with the eighty or so officials who comprised the Central Tibetan Administration, His Holiness made a statement on the first anniversary of the Tibetan People’s Uprising. “On this first occasion, I stressed the need for my people to take a long-term view of the situation in Tibet. For those of us in exile, I said that our priority must be resettlement and the continuity of our cultural traditions. As to the future, I stated my belief that, with truth, justice and courage as our weapons, we Tibetans would eventually prevail in regaining freedom for Tibet”.