The Dalai Lama and Tibet

The 14th Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan people.

In the past, Dalai Lamas have also served as the political leaders of Tibet. The current Dalai Lama was exiled from Tibet in 1959 after a failed Tibetan uprising against the Chinese occupation. He led the Tibetan government-in-exile for many years but has since passed his political authority to democratic institutions.

In occupied Tibet, any sign of loyalty to the Dalai Lama can be met with arrests, lengthy sentences, torture, violent crackdowns and ‘re-education’ programmes. Despite 70 years of China’s oppressive occupation, Tibetans remain fiercely loyal to their spiritual leader.

Tibetans in Tibet decorate their home and monastery altars with HHDL photo and made offerings in celebration of his 80th birthday

Tibetans in Tibet decorate their home and monastery altars with HHDL photo and made offerings in celebration of his 80th birthday

Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lamas are the manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion and are enlightened beings, who have chosen to take rebirth (reincarnation) in order to serve humanity. The first Dalai Lama was identified in the 15th century.

The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was born on 6 July 1935 in Amdo, Tibet. He was recognised as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama when he was two years old. When China invaded Tibet in 1950, he was forced to assume political power even though he was still a teenager.

After fleeing to India in 1959, the Dalai Lama became the highest-profile global advocate for Tibet and a highly respected religious and moral leader. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and continues to travel the world giving teachings on spiritual and ethical issues.

Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama

Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama’s institution (Gaden Phodrang Labrang) and senior Tibetan Buddhist lamas identify the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama according to Tibetan Buddhist practices and tradition. The process also includes testing candidates to see if they can identify some of the belongings of the previous Dalai Lama. Traditionally the Panchen Lama (the second highest Lama in Tibet) would be an important part of this process. In 1995, Ghedhun Choekyi Nyima (pictured on the right), who had been identified by the Dalai Lama as the new Panchen Lama, was abducted by China and replaced with its own candidate. The Beijing-approved Panchen Lama is rejected by almost all Tibetans.

The 14th Dalai Lama has said that the next Dalai Lama may be a woman or born outside Tibet. He has also said that he may not be reincarnated at all, and the line of Dalai Lamas could end with him. Despite being an officially atheist regime, China’s Communist government has strongly rejected his position, claiming that the appointment of Dalai Lamas is a matter for the government in Beijing. China’s appointment of its own Panchen Lama is seen by many as an attempt to take control of the selection process for the next Dalai Lama when the time comes.

The Dalai Lama is revered by Tibetans and the 14th Dalai Lama’s exile is a source of grief and anger inside Tibet. China’s bid to choose his replacement is an attempt to prevent an independent Dalai Lama beyond its control generating support for Tibet outside China, and serving as a focus for resistance inside Tibet

Tibetans show photo of the Panchen lama

Tibetans show a photo of the Panchen lama

China strongly criticises the Dalai Lama both inside and outside Tibet. It accuses him of seeking to rule Tibet and being a “splittist” who seeks Tibetan independence. His image is banned inside Tibet and Tibetans may be jailed for calling for his long life or publicly praising him. In jail, as well as in religious institutions, Tibetans are frequently ordered to denounce the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama has passed all political power in the exile Tibetan community to a democratically elected parliament and prime minister. While he continues to advocate for the preservation of Tibet’s religion, culture, language and environment, he does not support Tibetan independence and has proposed a Middle Way Approach, in which Tibet remains a part of the People’s Republic of China but has greater control of its own affairs.

Because of his profile and popularity, China objects strongly to political leaders from other nations meeting him. In recent years, senior figures in the governments of the UK, France, Germany, Norway and South Africa among others have avoided meeting the Dalai Lama, although US presidents have continued to receive him.

Tibetan man holding photo of the Dalai Lama

Tibetan man holding a photo of the Dalai Lama. (Photo: Alain Laville)


Say NO to a Dalai Lama Chosen by China

In defiance of the deeply help wishes and religious freedom of the Tibetan people, the Chinese government has routinely insisted that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is a matter for Beijing to decide.

The process of identifying the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation has historically been a matter for Tibetan Buddhist religious figures, including the Panchen Lama. To this end, the current 14th Dalai Lama has announced that no Chinese-appointed Dalai Lama will be the legitimate leader of Tibetan Buddhism.

By appointing their own Dalai Lama, the Chinese Communist Party hopes to take control of Tibetan Buddhism. To undermine Tibetan Buddhism’s independence. To cement Chinese rule in Tibet. And to erode worldwide support for the Tibetan cause.

Interfering in the selection of the Dalai Lama is a political act, and a profound insult to the Tibetan people’s culture, desires, and beliefs. It is vital that the world sends a clear message to the Chinese government: this plan will fail.

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Further reading

Further reading


The Chinese government justifies its occupation by claiming that Tibet has been part of China for around 800 years. Its claim is not supported by the facts.

Further reading


Tibet is located to the southwest of China, also bordering India, Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan. The historical territory of Tibet would make it the world’s 10th largest nation by geographical area.

Further reading


Tibet has a rich history as a nation, existing side-by-side with China for centuries. Browse through our timelines to learn more about Tibet's long history.

We are Free Tibet, and we stand with Tibetans around the world. For their homeland, for their future and against China’s brutal occupation.