Today is the birthday (1935) of the 14th Dalai Lama of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. His name at birth was Lhamo Thondup, but the more usual name used now is Tenzin Gyatso, a shortened from Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso. He was born into a farming and horse trading family in the small hamlet of Taktser, or Chija Tagtser, (Hongya (红崖村) in Chinese) at the edges of the traditional Tibetan region of Amdo. His family was of Monguor extraction. The Monguor are a small ethnic minority related to Mongols. He was one of seven siblings to survive childhood. His eldest brother, Thupten Jigme Norbu, had been recognized at the age of eight as the reincarnation of the high Lama Taktser Rinpoche. His sister, Jetsun Pema, spent most of her adult life on the Tibetan Children’s Villages project. The Dalai Lama has said that his first language was “a broken Xining language which was a dialect of the Chinese language,” a form of Central Plains Mandarin, and his family did not speak the Tibetan language.
Following reported signs and visions, three search teams were sent out to the north-east, the east, and the south-east to locate the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama when Lhamo Thondup was about two years old. Amongst other omens, the head of the embalmed body of the 13th Dalai Lama, at first facing south-east, had turned to face the north-east, indicating, it was interpreted, the direction in which his successor would be found. The Regent, Reting Rinpoche, shortly afterwards had a vision at the sacred lake of Lhamo La-tso which he thought indicated that Amdo was the region to search. This vision was also interpreted to refer to a large monastery with a gilded roof and turquoise tiles, and a twisting path from it to a hill to the east, opposite which stood a small house with distinctive eaves. The team, led by Kewtsang Rinpoche, went first to meet the Panchen Lama (second highest leader), who had been stuck in Jyekundo, in northern Kham. The Panchen Lama had been investigating births of unusual children in the area ever since the death of the 13th Dalai Lama. He gave Kewtsang the names of three boys whom he had discovered and identified as candidates. Within a year the Panchen Lama had died. Two of his three candidates were crossed off the list but the third, a “fearless” child, the most promising, was from Taktser village, which, as in the vision, was on a hill, at the end of a trail leading to Taktser from the great Kumbum Monastery with its gilded, turquoise roof. There they found a house, as interpreted from the vision—the house where Lhamo Thondup lived.
At the time, the village of Taktser, according to villagers themselves, stood right on the “real border” between the region of Amdo and China. When the team visited, posing as pilgrims, its leader, a Sera Lama, pretended to be the servant and sat separately in the kitchen. He held an old string of prayer beads that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and Lhamo Thondup, aged two, approached and asked for it. The monk said “if you know who I am, you can have it.” The child said “Sera Lama, Sera Lama” and spoke with him in a Lhasa accent, in a dialect the boy’s mother could not understand. The next time the party returned to the house, they revealed their real purpose and asked permission to subject the boy to certain tests. One test consisted of showing him various pairs of objects, one of which had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and one which had not. In every case, he chose the Dalai Lama’s own objects and rejected the others.
From 1936 the Hui ‘Ma Clique’ Muslim warlord Ma Bufang ruled Qinghai as its governor under the nominal authority of the Republic of China central government. According to an interview with the 14th Dalai Lama, in the 1930s, Ma Bufang had seized this north-east corner of Amdo in the name of Chiang Kai-shek’s weak government and incorporated it into the Chinese province of Qinghai. Before going to Taktser, Kewtsang had gone to Ma Bufang to pay his respects. When Ma Bufang heard that a candidate had been found in Taktser, he had the family brought to him in Xining. He first demanded proof that the boy was the Dalai Lama but the Lhasa government, though informed by Kewtsang that this was the one, told Kewtsang to say he had to go to Lhasa for further tests with other candidates. They knew that if he was declared to be the Dalai Lama, the Chinese government would insist on sending a large army escort with him, which would then stay in Lhasa and refuse to leave. Ma Bufang then refused to allow him to depart unless he was declared to be the Dalai Lama, but withdrew this demand in return for 100,000 Chinese silver dollars ransom. Kewtsang managed to raise this huge sum, but the family was only allowed to move from Xining to Kumbum when a further demand was made for another 330,000 dollars ransom: one hundred thousand each for government officials, the commander-in-chief, and the Kumbum Monastery; twenty thousand for the escort; and only ten thousand for Ma Bufang himself, he said.
Two years of diplomatic wrangling followed before it was accepted by Lhasa that the ransom had to be paid to avoid the Chinese getting involved and escorting him to Lhasa with a large army. Meanwhile, the boy was kept at Kumbum where two of his brothers were already studying as monks and recognized as incarnate lamas. The payment of 300,000 silver dollars was then advanced by Muslim traders en route to Mecca in a large caravan via Lhasa. They paid Ma Bufang on behalf of the Tibetan government against promissory notes to be redeemed, with interest, in Lhasa. The 20,000-dollar fee for an escort was dropped, since the Muslim merchants invited them to join their caravan for protection; Ma Bufang sent 20 of his soldiers with them and was paid from both sides since the Chinese government granted him another 50,000 dollars for the expenses of the journey. Furthermore, the Indian government helped the Tibetans raise the ransom funds by affording them import concessions.
On 21st July 1939 the party traveled across Tibet in an epic journey to Lhasa in the large Muslim caravan with Lhamo Thondup, now 4 years old, riding with his brother Lobsang in a special palanquin carried by two mules. As soon as they were out of Ma Bufang’s area, he was officially declared to be the 14th Dalai Lama by the Central Government of Tibet and after ten weeks of travel he arrived in Lhasa on 8th October 1939. The ordination (pabbajja) and giving of the monastic name of Tenzin Gyatso were handled by Reting Rinpoche.
Tibetan Buddhists normally refer to the Dalai Lama as Yishin Norbu (Wish-Fulfilling Gem), Kyabgon (Saviour), or just Kundun (Presence). His devotees, as well as much of the Western world, often call him His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the style employed on the Dalai Lama’s website. According to the Dalai Lama, he had a succession of tutors in Tibet including Reting Rinpoche, Tathag Rinpoche, Ling Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche. At the age of 11 he met the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who became his videographer and tutor about the world outside Lhasa. The two remained friends until Harrer’s death in 2006. In 1959, at the age of 23, he took his final examination at Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple during the annual Monlam or Prayer Festival. He passed with honors and was awarded the Lharampa degree, the highest-level geshe degree.
Historically the Dalai Lamas or their regents held political and religious leadership over Tibet from Lhasa with varying degrees of influence depending on the regions of Tibet and periods of history. This began with the 5th Dalai Lama’s rule in 1642 and lasted until the 1950s (except for 1705–1750), during which period the Dalai Lamas headed the Tibetan government or Ganden Phodrang. Until 1912 however, when the 13th Dalai Lama declared the complete independence of Tibet, their rule was generally subject to patronage and protection of, first, the Mongol kings (1642–1720) and then the Manchu-led Qing dynasty (1720–1912).
China claims that the Kuomintang government ratified the 14th Dalai Lama and that a Kuomintang representative, General Wu Zhongxin, presided over the ceremony. The British Representative Sir Basil Gould was also at the ceremony and bore witness to the falsity of the Chinese claim to have presided over it. He criticized the Chinese account as follows:
The report was issued in the Chinese Press that Mr Wu had escorted the Dalai Lama to his throne and announced his installation, that the Dalai Lama had returned thanks, and prostrated himself in token of his gratitude. Every one of these Chinese claims was false. Mr Wu was merely a passive spectator. He did no more than present a ceremonial scarf, as was done by the others, including the British Representative. But the Chinese have the ear of the world, and can later refer to their press records and present an account of historical events that is wholly untrue. Tibet has no newspapers, either in English or Tibetan, and has therefore no means of exposing these falsehoods.
In October 1950 the army of the People’s Republic of China marched to the edge of the Dalai Lama’s territory and sent a delegation after defeating a legion of the Tibetan army in warlord-controlled Kham. On 17th November 1950, at the age of 15, the 14th Dalai Lama was enthroned formally as the temporal ruler of Tibet. Dalai Lama’s formal rule was brief. He sent a delegation to Beijing, which, without his authorization, ratified the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. In September 1954, together with the 10th Panchen Lama he went to Beijing to meet Mao Zedong and attend the first session of the National People’s Congress as a delegate, primarily discussing China’s constitution. On 27th September 1954, the Dalai Lama was selected as a Vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, a post he officially held until 1964.
In 1956, on a trip to India to celebrate the Buddha’s Birthday, the Dalai Lama asked the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, if he would allow him political asylum should he choose to stay. Nehru discouraged this and reminded him of the Indian Government’s non-interventionist stance agreed upon with its 1954 treaty with China.
At the outset of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama and his retinue fled Tibet with the help of the CIA’s Special Activities Division, crossing into India on 30th March 1959, reaching Tezpur in Assam on 18th April. Some time later he set up the Government of Tibet in Exile in Dharamshala in India, which is often referred to as “Little Lhasa.” After the founding of the government in exile he housed the approximately 80,000 Tibetan refugees who followed him into exile in agricultural settlements. He created a Tibetan educational system in order to teach Tibetan children the language, history, religion, and culture of Tibet. The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts was established in 1959 and the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies became the primary university for Tibetans in India in 1967. He supported the re-founding of 200 monasteries and nunneries in an attempt to preserve Tibetan Buddhist teachings and the Tibetan way of life.
The actual role of the Dalai Lama is poorly understood by most Westerners. The title, Dalai Lama, is a combination of the Mongol word dalai meaning “ocean” or “big” (coming from the Mongolian title Dalaiyin qan or Dalaiin khan, translated as ‘Gyatso’ in Tibetan) and the Tibetan word བླ་མ་ (bla-ma) meaning “master” or “teacher.” The Dalai Lama figure is important for many reasons. Since the time of the 5th Dalai Lama, his personage has always been a symbol of unification of the state of Tibet, where he has represented Buddhist values and traditions. The Dalai Lama has always been an important figure in the Geluk tradition of Buddhism, which was politically and numerically dominant in Central Tibet, but his religious authority went beyond sectarian boundaries. While he had no formal or institutional role in any of the religious traditions, which were headed by their own high lamas, he was a unifying symbol of the Tibetan state, representing Buddhist values and traditions above any specific school. The traditional function of the Dalai Lama as an ecumenical figure, holding together disparate religious and regional groups, has been taken up most actively by the 14th Dalai Lama, who has worked to overcome sectarian and other divisions in the exiled community and has become a symbol of Tibetan nationhood for Tibetans both in Tibet and in exile. Just remember that while the current Dalai Lama is an important spiritual and secular leader, he does not, in any sense, lead or represent Buddhism in general. He leads one faction of one sect of Buddhism (Tibetan Buddhism), which is important, but neither the most numerous, nor the most dominant sect of Buddhism in Asia.
Finding a dish for the Dalai Lama’s birthday is a no-brainer. Droma dresil is made throughout Tibet for special occasions, and the Dalai Lama’s executive chef for decades states that he made it on special occasions. It is a sweet rice dish that requires droma and yak butter, so you will not be able to replicate it at home unless a friend has recently returned from the Himalayas and has smuggled these items in.
Droma is a wild root with a unique taste, and yak butter is what it is. Tibetans outside of Tibet make dresil without droma and without yak butter, but it is not the same. It is also common to add extra fruit and nuts to the dresil as the cook desires. Any rice is suitable, but basmati is the most usual.
6 cups freshly cooked rice, warm
6 tbsp yak butter
½ cup cashew nuts
1 cup raisins
¼ cup sugar
extra nuts or dried fruits, as desired
1 cup droma
Scrub the droma well, and boil it in 3-4 cups of water for 35-40 minutes until softened but not mushy. Drain and rinse very well to remove remaining dirt.
Mix all the ingredients together well, and serve in small bowls with sweet tea or po cha (butter tea).