Dalai Lama

The role of the Dalai Lama

Understanding the Dalai Lama and his teachings

The spiritual leader of the Tibetan form of Buddhism, known as Gelug, the term Dalai Lama is an honorific title. In Tibetan, Dalai means oceanic or expansive, and Lama means master or guru. The Tibetan way of writing Dalai Lama is ཏཱ་ལའི་བླ་མ་. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Dalai Lamas who were spiritual leaders also headed the Tibetan government as regents. Various degrees of Chinese control, notably under the Qing dynasty, have been established over Tibet since then. The Dalai Lama continues to advocate for Tibetan people and Buddhists more generally since the People's Republic of China took over Tibet in 1951. However, he wields no direct political power. In terms of his spirituality, the Dalai Lama teaches Lamrim, the stages towards Enlightenment, and Sunyata, a word that relates to meditation, meaning openness or emptiness.

 How is the Dalai Lama chosen?

 Famously, the Dalai Lama is not chosen or appointed. Rather his spirit is reincarnated in another body after death. This means that he must be found according to the spiritual beliefs in Gelug. The current Dalai Lama, who is the fourteenth person to have that title, was only found after a four-year search. His name is Tensin Gyatso. A series of tests were given to him as a boy that he successfully passed, which then verified his status.

Where does the Dalai Lama live?

The spiritual home of the various Dalai Lamas of the past is in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. However, it is impossible for him to live there due to the sensitive nature of his status within a communist state. As such, Tensin Gyatso operates from just over the border of Tibet in the foothills of the Indian Himalayan mountains. A suburb of Dharamshala, known as 'Little Lhasa' is where he now holds court.

What are the Dalai Lama's beliefs?

The Dalai Lama espouses the spiritual teaching of Je Tsongkhapa (1357 – 1419), a philosopher who founded the Gelug version of Buddhism. Je Tsongkhapa established his first monastery in Lhasa in 1409. Soon after, the first Dalai Lamas took over the running of his monastery and others that had built up. In fact, this branch of Buddhism is a revivalist movement, bringing back the ideas of Atiśa, a Bengali Buddhist who taught in the eleventh century. Much focus is placed on ethics and monastic discipline within the Gelug school. The Guhyasamāja tantra is another central aspect of the Dalai Lama's teaching, which focusses on 'oneness' whether that is in study or in meditation.

Is the Dalai Lama vegan?

The current Dalai Lama is not vegan. In fact, unlike many of his predecessors, he is not a vegetarian. Although he does not consume meat when he is at home, Tensin Gyatso eats meat dishes if he is offered them by hosts when he is on his travels around the world.

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