Choosing a Dalai Lama

According to Buddhist belief, the Dalai Lama is reincarnated repeatedly instead of moving on. When a Dalai Lama dies, the High Lamas and the Tibetan government work together to find his reincarnation.
SpiritualRay Staff
The Dalai Lama is the head monk of Tibetan Buddhism, and traditionally he was responsible for governing Tibet. When the Chinese government took control of Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama's official residence was Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. There have been only 14 Dalai Lamas in the history of Buddhism, and the first two were given the title posthumously.

Buddhists believe that the current Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of a past lama who decided to be reborn again to continue his important work. A person such as this, who decides to continually be reborn is known as tulku. Buddhists believe that the first tulku in the current reincarnation of the Dalai Lama was Gedun Drub, who lived from 1391 to 1474, and the second was Gendun Gyatso. However, the name Dalai Lama―which means 'Ocean of Wisdom'―was not conferred upon these two individuals until the third reincarnation, Sonam Gyatso, in 1958. The current Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyatso.

Choosing a Dalai Lama

When a Dalai Lama dies, the High Lamas of the Gelugpa Tradition and the Tibetan government work to locate his reincarnation by searching for a boy who was born around the same time as the death of the Dalai Lama. It can take several years to identify the boy, and there are several ways in which the High Lamas might find him. One of them may have a dream about a mark or location that will identify the boy, or if the previous Dalai Lama was cremated, the High Lamas will watch the direction of the smoke and search in that area. High Lamas may also go to a holy lake called Lhamo Lhatso located in central Tibet, and watch for a sign from the lake. The sign may be either a vision or some type of indication pointing them to the direction they should search in. Once the High Lamas have located the boy, they present a number of artifacts to the child. Among these artifacts are several items that belonged to the deceased Dalai Lama. If the boy chooses the items that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, this is seen as a positive sign, in concert with the other indications, that the boy is indeed a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

The Current Dalai Lama

For Tenzin Gyatso, the current, 14th Dalai Lama, the home and village where he lived was identified by a vision from the lake. The High Lamas of the Gelugpa tradition had been searching for several years before identifying a child named Lhamo Dhondrub, who was living with his family in the village of Takster in northeastern Tibet. According to reports, there were several incidents that pointed to Lhamo being the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. One of the High Lamas had seen a vision in the lake Lhamo Lhatso that indicated Amdo was the village they should search in. The vision clearly indicated a small house with odd guttering and a three-story monastery with a gold and turquoise roof. Upon visiting Amdo, the High Lamas saw both buildings in the village. The house was the home of Lhamo Dhondrub.

The search party went to Lhamo's home and observed him for some time without revealing the purpose of their mission. They came back a few days later to perform the final test to confirm whether or not the child was the reincarnated Dalai Lama. They presented an assortment of objects to the child, including a rosary and a bell that belonged to the deceased 13th Dalai Lama. Lhamo instantly identified the items, shouting, 'It's mine, it's mine!'

Tenzin Gyatso has himself said that the procedure of identifying the Dalai Lama is not set in stone. Moreover, he said that if two-thirds of the people in Tibet wish to change the method of identifying the next reincarnation, the procedure they use will still be just as valid. However, because Tibet has been taken over by the Chinese government, and the Dalai Lama has been exiled in India since 1959, Tenzin Gyatso says that if he decides to be reborn, he will not choose a country run by the People's Republic of China or any other country that is not free. He has, in fact, expressed doubts about whether or not he will be reborn at all. As a result, some believe that the function of the Dalai Lama may be over upon the death of Tenzin Gyatso. However, until Tibet is reunited with its spiritual leader, it seems likely that there will continue to be a Dalai Lama.