How the Dalai Lama became the Dalai Lama

Amidst the outcry from the South African public, and indeed countless people worldwide, over the South African government failing to provide the Dalai Lama with a visa so that he could attend Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday, I decided to find out a little more about who the Dalai Lama is and how he came to be the bane of the Chinese (and South African) government’s existence.

The purpose of the Dalai Lama’s visit to South Africa was personal – he was invited to celebrate the birthday of fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Archbishop Tutu, but it became the third time that the Dalai Lama was barred entry to South Africa. The last time he was stopped from attending a Nobel Peace Prize Laureates gathering.The matter is far bigger (and more worrying) than a simple visa application denial (or lack of processing his visa application in the most recent case), rather it has exposed South Africa’s total subservience to China. It’s shown that South Africa, with its lauded Constitution preaching Ubuntu, would rather deny a world-renowned spiritual and political leader entry to the country than upset China. Basically, South Africa jumps when China tells it to jump, which is sad and humiliating for the citizens of proud and sovereign South Africa.

But I’m not going to dwell on the awkward mess that the South African government has found itself in, instead I’m going to tell you a bit about the Dalai Lama, which I hope you will find interesting. He’s an amazing man with a fascinating story.

The current Dalai Lama is the 14th Dalai Lama, with him and each of his predecessors believed to be reincarnations of the preceding Dalai Lamas, the first of which was born in 1391. When a Dalai Lama passes away, a search party is sent throughout Tibet to find his reincarnation who, once discovered, becomes the new Dalai Lama. Auspicious signs, predictions and visions are said to guide the search party to the new Dalai Lama, much like the Three Wise Men were guided by the star to Jesus’ place of birth. The 13th Dalai Lama, Thupten Gyatso, died in 1933 at the age of 58, leaving Tibet in need of a new Dalai Lama.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was born on 6 July 1935 to a poor family in the small village of Takster in the province of Amdo. He was named Lhamo Thondup, meaning “wish-fulfilling goodness,” the youngest of five brothers and two sisters. Takster was a small and poor village that stood on a hill overlooking a broad valley. Lhamo’s parents were small-scale farmers, growing mostly barley, buckwheat and potatoes.

Lhamo’s eldest sister, who was 18 at the time of his birth, acted as the midwife during his delivery. His birth, by all accounts, was nothing out of the ordinary, although (in hindsight) it was rather auspicious that his father made an unexplained recovery from a critical illness at the same time as Lhamo entered the world.

Lhamo’s early childhood memories are probably shared by most children growing up in rural Tibet. His family kept chickens for their eggs and he recalls how he liked sitting in the hens’ nests making clucking noises. Even from a young age, however, he showed traits that made his parents realise he would go far in life. He insisted on always sitting at the head of the table despite his youth, and would pack things into a bag as though he was about to embark on a long journey. When fighting broke out amongst children, he would run and join the weaker side without hesitation. Clearly siding with the underdog is in his blood.

Lhamo was barely 3 years old when the Tibetan government decided to send out a search party to find the new reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. A number of auspicious signs guided the search party to where they believed they would find the new Dalai Lama. Firstly, while the 13th Dalai Lama’s body lay in state, his head was discovered to have turned from facing south to facing northeast. Secondly, a senior lama had a vision whilst looking into the waters of Lhamo Lhatso, the sacred lake in southern Tibet. He 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.

So the search party set off in the direction where the 13th Dalai Lama appeared to be looking, heading to Amdo (the Ah reference), the northeastern province of Tibet. The search party reached Kumbum (which they believed the Ka referred to), and found a monastery resembling that the senior lama had seen in his vision. Then they started searching for the house with the peculiar guttering, which they found on the hill, overlooking the valley. The search party approached the house and asked to stay for the night, not disclosing who they were or what the purpose of their travels was.

The youngest child in the house, Lhamo, immediately recognised the leader of the party, Kewtsang Rinpoche, and called out “Sera lama, Sera lama”. Lhamo had never seen Rinpoche before, yet seemed to know that he was a lama from Sera, which was indeed Rinpoche’s monastery. Rinpoche spent much of the evening observing and playing with Lhamo. The search party left the next day, only to return a few days later with a number of things that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama, together with a number of things that had not. In every case, Lhamo correctly identified the things belonging to the 13th Dalai Lama saying “It’s mine, it’s mine”. The search party was then convinced that they had found the new incarnation.

Shortly afterwards, while still 3 years old, Lhamo became the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, and his name was changed to Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso. During his early years, whilst still undergoing his spiritual training as a lama, Chinese aggression towards Tibet increased significantly. Eventually China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Tibet and, at the age of 15, the 14th Dalai Lama became the political leader of the Tibetan people.

For the next 9 years, the Dalai Lama tried to prevent a full-scale military take-over of Tibet by China, to no avail. Eventually he was forced to flee to Dharamsala in India, where he has lived in exile ever since. Dharamsala is the seat of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, from where the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government officials work for the liberation of their people from Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama recently stepped down as the political head of the Tibetan people, but remains their spiritual leader.

(Most of the information above was taken from the Dalai Lama’s official website at http://www.dalailama.com)

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6 responses to “How the Dalai Lama became the Dalai Lama

  • Elle

    I know you’re not dwelling on the general awkardness SA’s going through but I’m going to play devil’s advocate. Yes South Africa is probably China’s bitch BUT China agreed to invest $2.5 billion into SA’s economy, invited SA to join BRICS (which, if you look at the size of the other countries in the group, SA is tiny and China did them a favour) and are one of SA’s biggest trade partners. At this stage, SA needs China.

    His story is indeed interesting though, it’s amazing that he led the Tibetan people at just the age of 14. Some of us were busy writing song lyrics in counter books at that age.

  • Slightly Off-White

    @Elle, I totally agree that SA needs China and that China are doing a lot for South African trade and the economy. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the Dalai Lama and morality doesn’t pay the bills. The Chinese do. That’s the fact. Had South Africa granted the Dalai Lama a visa and China responded by withdrawing trade, we would no doubt be mad at the government for granting him a visa. But I won’t lie, it really upsets me that SA is China’s bitch. It makes a mockery of sovereign governments when they are dictated to by foreign powers.

    The South African government may have made the right decision, but it made it in the wrong way. They should have just come out and dealt with the matter and said “We’re not granting his visa for the following reasons… blah blah blah” and that would be that. But waiting until he has to cancel his trip coz they’ve taken so long and failed to address the matter isn’t on.

  • Elle

    @Sarah – as much as we would have liked the government to be upfront with the visa story, I don’t think they could have. Imagine SA, beacon of hope for Africa, rainbow nation, champion for human rights etc saying “we are not giving one of the world’s most well know and well loved human rights activist and spiritual leaders a visa because it’ll hurt relationships with China”. There’d be mayhem!

    They couldn’t be seen to grant him a visa and couldn’t be seen to decline a visa. As cowardly as it is, I think the delay tactic was their only option, at least the option that had the least damage.

  • Slightly Off-White

    @elle, ya, i know what you mean and perhaps you’re right. i still just think it was a little cowardly but maybe there was no real alternative.

  • dave

    Some half-baked thoughts: Whatever happened to just doing the right thing, no matter the cost, and telling the truth? If South Africa is a champion for human rights, then it should act like one. Otherwise come clean and say, sorry peeps, that human rights stuff doesn’t matter to us anymore — show us the money. Maybe SA shouldn’t be doing business with China. Their involvement throughout Africa is concerning. While it may be lucrative and convenient to do business with China in the short-term, I can’t help wonder what’s in it for them.

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