Dalai Lama

Background

The ancient kingdom of Tibet is made a protectorate of China's powerful Qing Dynasty late in the 18th Century. Tibet declares its independence following the Chinese republican revolution of 1911-1912. Autonomy is formally granted by the new Chinese Government in 1913, although by now Tibet has come under British influence. Autonomous Tibet excludes areas in surrounding provinces like Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan that contain large Tibetan populations and were part of the ancient kingdom. Tibet remains independent until 1950, when the Chinese return.

Traditional Tibetan society is ruled by a Buddhist theocracy headed by the Dalai Lama, or All-embracing Lama, who is considered to be the reincarnation of his deceased predecessor and an emanation of Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara), the embodiment of the compassion of all the Buddhas.

Mini biography

Born Lhamo Thondup on 6 July 1935 in Taktser, a village in Qinghai Province. He is the ninth child of peasant farmers.

1937 - He is identified as the successor to the 13th Dalai Lama and taken to Kumbum monastery in Qinghai Province.

1939 - He is moved to the holy city of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, where he is formally recognised as the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama. As Dalai Lama he is both the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists and the monarch of Tibet, although the latter role will not be formally bestowed until he turns 18.

1940 - In February the young Dalai Lama, along with his brother Lobsang, moves to the secluded monastery of Potala, 200 metres above the valley of Lhasa. Also known as the Potala Palace, the 1,300 year-old monastery is the traditional residence of the Dalai Lamas. It is here that the Dalai Lama's formal education and training begins. While at Potala he is known as Kundun.

1947 - When his brother leaves Potala and returns to their parents, Kundun is separated from his family for the first time. He concentrates on his theological studies, but also shows an interest in the outside world.

1949 - The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Tse-Tung takes control of China, including the provinces on the Tibetan Plateau outside the jurisdiction of the Dalai Lama's government.

In August the CCP declares that all of Tibet is part of the newly formed People's Republic of China and that Chinese forces will enter the autonomous region to liberate it from British and American imperialists.

1950 - On 7 October China makes good its threat and invades.

Though it is the usual practice for the Dalai Lama to be formally inaugurated as monarch at 18 years of age, Kundun is forced by circumstance to take the throne at the age of 15. On 17 November he becomes the head of state, head of government and spiritual leader for all Tibetans.

Later he says, "We had reached a state in which most people were anxious to avoid responsibility rather than to accept it. We were more in need of unity than ever before, and I, as Dalai Lama, was the only person whom everybody in the country would unanimously follow."

At the urging of the Tibetan Government, he travels to southern Tibet so he can easily escape across the border to India if the situation deteriorates. He reaches the Chumbi Valley on the southern slopes of the Himalayas on 4 January 1951.

1951 - The Dalai Lama sends a delegation to Beijing to open a dialogue with the Chinese. Negotiations begin in April. In May the delegation is forced to sign a 17-point agreement incorporating Tibet into the People's Republic of China. The Dalai Lama returns to Lhasa on 17 August.

"We were helpless," he says later. "Without friends there was nothing else we could do but acquiesce, submit to the Chinese dictates in spite of our strong opposition, we had to swallow our resentment. We could only hope that the Chinese would keep their side of this forced, one-sided bargain."

The Chinese invasion and occupation has mixed outcomes for Tibet. According to the Dalai Lama more than one sixth of Tibet's population die as a direct result. But while resistance is brutally suppressed, various reforms are made to Tibet's antiquated social and economic systems. Feudal serfdom and bonded indenture are abolished. Land and livestock are distributed among farmers and nomads. The standard of living of the average Tibetan improves.

1954 - The Dalai Lama travels to Beijing for discussions with Mao Tse-Tung and other Chinese leaders, including Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese push for the creation of a committee to oversee the establishment of Tibet as an autonomous region within the Republic (the Tibet Autonomous Region).

The committee consists of 46 Tibetans and five Chinese. However, it soon becomes apparent that its main purpose is to undermine the Dalai Lama and entrench Chinese control over Tibet.

1955 - At the end of the year, a US-backed armed revolt against the Chinese breaks out in eastern Tibet. The Dalai Lama does not approve of the violence but is uncertain how he should respond.

"I knew the Chinese were trying to undermine my political authority, and in so far as I opposed the people's violent tactics, I was helping the Chinese to destroy the people's trust in me," he says.

"Yet even if the people lost faith in me as their secular leader, they must not lose faith in me as religious leader, which was much more important. Thus I began to think it might be in the best interests of Tibet if I withdrew from all political activities, in order to keep my religious authority unaffected. To withdraw, I would have to leave the country. Bitterly and desperately I hated the idea."

1956 - He is invited to India to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the death of the Buddha. While in the country he holds discussions with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai about the situation in Tibet. In Delhi, the capital of India, he visits the site of Mahatma Gandhi's cremation.

"As I stood there I wondered what wise counsel the Mahatma would have given me if he had been alive," he says. "I felt sure he would have thrown all his strength of will and character into a peaceful campaign for the freedom of the people of Tibet.

"I wished fervently to have had the privilege of meeting him in this world. But, standing there, I felt I had come in close touch with him, and I felt his advice would always be that I should follow the path of peace. I had and still have unshaken faith in the doctrine of nonviolence, which he preached and practiced. Now I made up my mind more firmly to follow his lead whatever difficulties might confront me. I determined more strongly than ever that I could never associate myself with acts of violence."

The Dalai Lama returns to Tibet in April, amid growing unrest.

1959 - The unrest boils over into the so-called Lhasa Uprising on 10 March. Thousands of Tibetans surround the Norbulingka summer palace in Lhasa after rumours spread that the Chinese are plotting to kidnap the Dalai Lama. The confrontation turns violent on 17 March.

With his life and liberty in danger, the Dalai Lama flees. Disguised as a Tibetan soldier, he makes a perilous journey to the frontier with India, crossing the border on 31 March, eight days after the Chinese have occupied the Potala Palace.

"There was nothing dramatic about the crossing of the frontier," he says. "The country was equally wild on the other side and uninhabited. I saw it in a daze of sickness and weariness and unhappiness deeper than I can express. ...

"There was nothing I could do for my people if I stayed and the Chinese would certainly capture me in the end."

He seeks, and is granted, refuge in India, setting up a base at Dharamsala (also known as Little Lhasa) in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India. About 80,000 Tibetan refugees follow him.

From his base at Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama works to publicise the plight of Tibet. Appeals to the United Nations (UN) result in the General Assembly adopting resolutions in 1959, 1961 and 1965 calling on China to respect the human rights of Tibetans.

Over the coming years, the Dalai Lama travels widely around the world to speak to political and religious leaders and their communities about the situation in Tibet and to explain the principles of Tibetan Buddhism.

1963 - The Dalai Lama oversees the establishment of a Tibetan government-in-exile at Dharamsala. The government-in-exile adopts a democratic constitution based on Buddhist principles.

1966 - Mao Tse-Tung launches the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a decade-long period of political upheaval during which China's traditional respect for learning and the experience of age is turned on its head. Cultural artefacts are damaged or destroyed, cultural expression is severely curtailed, and religious practices are suppressed.

Tibet fares particularly badly during the revolution, with many thousands of Tibetans losing their lives and many monasteries being ransacked.

1972 - Détente between the US and China results in the Dalai Lama being blocked from travelling to the US. The US also ceases its earlier support for Tibetan guerillas resisting the Chinese occupation. In 1974 the Dalai Lama appeals to the Tibetan guerillas to lay down their arms.

1979 - The Chinese allow Tibetans to rebuild parts of some monasteries destroyed following the occupation and during the Cultural Revolution. Direct contacts are also established with the Dalai Lama, who is allowed to send representatives on four fact-finding missions.

The embargo preventing the Dalai Lama from visiting the US is lifted.

1983 - In response to the positive developments in relations with China, the Dalai Lama expresses his desire to visit Tibet. Arrangements are made to send a delegation to Tibet in 1984 to begin preparations for a visit by him in 1985. However, the political atmosphere in China changes. The delegation is stopped and the Dalai Lama's visit never eventuates.

Later requests by the Dalai Lama that he be allowed to travel to Tibet are also rejected by the Chinese.

1987 - The Dalai Lama proposes a five-point peace plan as a first step towards resolving the conflict in Tibet. The plan calls for the designation of Tibet as a Zone of Ahimsa (peace zone); an end to Chinese immigration to Tibet; respect for the fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms of the Tibetan people; the protection of Tibet's unique natural environment; and the beginning of negotiations on the future of Tibet and relations between the Tibetan and Chinese people.

Under the "peace zone", the entire Tibetan Plateau would be demilitarised then transformed into the world's largest natural park. The government would concentrate on the active promotion of peace and environmental protection. Organisations dedicated to the furtherance of peace and to the protection of all forms of life would be welcomed.

"It would be a place where people from all over the world could come to seek the true meaning of peace within themselves, away from the tensions and pressures of much of the rest of the world," the Dalai Lama says. "Tibet could indeed become a creative centre for the promotion and development of peace."

Meanwhile, protests erupt in the streets of Lhasa in September and October and again in March 1988. The protests, which for the most part are led by monks, are spurred by Chinese attempts to rein in the growing influence of Tibetan monasteries. The are also in response to the increasing immigration of Chinese into Tibet. The protests are violently suppressed by the Chinese administrators, with at least six people dying in 1987 and at least nine more (including policemen) in 1988. Many more are badly injured.

China condemns the protests and defends its occupation of the Tibet Autonomous Region, citing the improvements it has brought to standards of living and the recent opening of the region to foreign correspondents.

1988 - In March the protests spread across the northeastern border of the Tibet Autonomous Region to the neighbouring Chinese province of Qinghai, where a sizeable Tibetan minority lives. This time the Chinese bring in the military to reestablish order. Two men who unfurl the banned Tibetan flag in Lhasa are shot dead on the spot.

On 15 June, while travelling in Europe, the Dalai Lama elaborates on the five-point peace plan and proposes the creation of a fully self-governing, democratic Tibet "in association with the People's Republic of China." In return, Tibet would abandon claims for full independence and accept Chinese control of foreign policy and defence.

This represents "the most realistic means by which to reestablish Tibet's separate identity and restore the fundamental rights of the Tibetan people while accommodating China's own interests", he says.

"Whatever the outcome of the negotiations with the Chinese may be, the Tibetan people themselves must be the ultimate deciding authority."

1989 - Violence flares in Lhasa when Tibetans again demonstrate against the Chinese occupation. It is estimated that more than 200 Tibetans are killed. Hundreds of monks and nuns are imprisoned. Thousands of ordinary citizens are detained or arrested and imprisoned, and torture is said to be commonplace. Martial law is declared in Lhasa in March.

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for his consistent resistance to the use of violence in his people's struggle to regain their liberty".

Presenting the award on 10 December, the chairman of the Nobel Committee says, "It would be difficult to cite any historical example of a minority's struggle to secure its rights, in which a more conciliatory attitude to the adversary has been adopted than in the case of the Dalai Lama. It would be natural to compare him with Mahatma Gandhi, one of this century's greatest protagonists of peace, and the Dalai Lama likes to consider himself one of Gandhi's successors."

Full copy of the presentation speech.

The Dalai Lama delivers his Nobel Lecture on 11 December.

"Because we all share this small planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature," he says.

"That is not just a dream, but a necessity. We are dependent on each other in so many ways, that we can no longer live in isolated communities and ignore what is happening outside those communities, and we must share the good fortune that we enjoy. ...

"The realisation that we are all basically the same human beings, who seek happiness and try to avoid suffering, is very helpful in developing a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood; a warm feeling of love and compassion for others. This, in turn, is essential if we are to survive in this ever shrinking world we live in. For if we each selfishly pursue only what we believe to be in our own interest, without caring about the needs of others, we not only may end up harming others but also ourselves."

Full copy of the lecture.

1993 - The Chinese suspend official dialogue with the Dalai Lama and begin a new crackdown in Tibet.

Restrictions are placed on Tibet's religious and cultural practices. Tibetans are required to denounce the Dalai Lama. Pictures and images of the Dalai Lama are banned. Students and government employees are forbidden from possessing religious possessions or participating in religious ceremonies. The construction of new monasteries is banned. Entry into the Buddhist priesthood is restricted. All images of the Dalai Lama are removed from temples and public sites in Tibet.

2002 - Following a policy review, the Chinese Government appears prepared to soften its stance on Tibet. Six high-profile Tibetan political prisoners are released and the Dalai Lama's elder brother, Gyalo Thundup, is allowed to make a private visit to Tibet in July and to meet with officials there.

Two envoys from the Dalai Lama are also allowed to travel to China and Tibet in September, signalling a reopening of official dialogue between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese Government.

The Dalai Lama's envoys return to China in May 2003 and again in September 2004. The Dalai Lama says he is not expecting "some major breakthrough".

A fourth round of talks between the Dalai Lama's envoys and Chinese authorities takes place in 2005, this time in Switzerland.

The Dalai Lama's envoys return to China for a fifth round of talks in February 2006.

At the end of 2006, the Dalai Lama reiterates that "we are fully committed for dialogue with China in spite of Chinese government's criticism and repression toward us".

It is in Tibet's interest to be a part of the People's Republic of China "provided they give us meaningful autonomy", he says.

However, the modernisation that could come with Chinese economic development needed to be balanced with respect for Tibet's religious traditions and language.

"Intentionally or unintentionally, some kind of cultural genocide is taking place in Tibet," the Dalai Lama says.

2007 - In September the Chinese government announces that all future appointments of senior lamas must get government approval. The Dalai Lama counters that his successor might be chosen during his lifetime, either by him or through a vote among senior lamas. The Dalai Lama also suggests that his successor could be a woman.

On 17 October the US presents the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony held in Washington and attended by US President George W. Bush. The medal is the US's highest civilian honour.

The presentation of the award delights Tibetans but infuriates the Chinese. Celebrations in Tibet to mark the occasion are suppressed by the Chinese security forces.

2008 - Protests against the Chinese occupation break out in the Tibet Autonomous Region in March.

The protests, which are led by Buddhist monks, are the biggest and most sustained to be staged in the Tibet Autonomous Region since 1989. They spread throughout the region and east into the neighbouring Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan.

After four days, the protests, and the ensuing government crackdown, become violent. The Chinese Government initially admits that 18 are killed. The Tibetan government-in-exile claims that at least 209 die. Over 1,300 are arrested. Later information from the Chinese Government suggests that 242 soldiers were killed or wounded during the uprising and 120 homes and 908 businesses were destroyed.

"These protests are a manifestation of the deep-rooted resentment of the Tibetan people under the present governance," the Dalai Lama says. "I therefore appeal to the Chinese leadership to stop using force and address the long-simmering resentment of the Tibetan people through dialogue."

Talks between the Dalai Lama's envoys and representatives of the Chinese Government take place in Shenzhen in southern China on 4 May. Further talks are held on 1 and 2 July. The dialogue appears to break down on 16 July when the Chinese Government announces that the political position of the two sides was "totally contrary".

"The central government will never discuss the future of Tibet with the Dalai Lama," Dong Yunhu, the director-general of the information office of the State Council, says. "Independence, semi-independence or independence in disguise are totally out of the question."

On 25 October the Dalai Lama announces that he has "given up" on trying to reach any agreement with China.

"I have been sincerely pursuing the middle way approach in dealing with China for a long time now but there hasn't been any positive response from the Chinese side," he says. "As far as I'm concerned I have given up."

Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama's envoys return to Beijing for another round of talks with Chinese officials. The talks come to a halt in June 2012 when the Dalai Lama's envoys resign, citing a lack of "substantive dialogue".

2009 - On 10 March, the 50th anniversary of the Lhasa Uprising, the Dalai Lama hardens his criticism of the Chinese intervention in Tibet.

"Having occupied Tibet, the Chinese Communist government carried out a series of repressive and violent campaigns that have included 'democratic reform', class struggle, communes, the Cultural Revolution, the imposition of martial law, and more recently the patriotic reeducation and the strike hard campaigns," the Dalai Lama says.

"These thrust Tibetans into such depths of suffering and hardship that they literally experienced hell on earth. The immediate result of these campaigns was the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans. ...

"Even today, Tibetans in Tibet live in constant fear and the Chinese authorities remain constantly suspicious of them. Today, the religion, culture, language and identity, which successive generations of Tibetans have considered more precious than their lives, are nearing extinction. ...

"I am disappointed that the Chinese authorities have not responded appropriately to our sincere efforts to implement the principle of meaningful national regional autonomy for all Tibetans, as set forth in the constitution of the People's Republic of China."

2010 - On 8 August the Dalai Lama tells the US ambassador to India that the US should engage China on climate change in Tibet.

According to a confidential report of the meeting that is later obtained and released by the Wikileaks website, "The Dalai Lama argued that the political agenda should be sidelined for five to 10 years and the international community should shift its focus to climate change on the Tibetan plateau. Melting glaciers, deforestation, and increasingly polluted water from mining projects were problems that 'cannot wait.'

"The Dalai Lama criticised China's energy policy, alleging that dam construction in Kham and Amdo have displaced thousands of Tibetans and left temples and monasteries underwater. He recommended the PRC (People's Republic of China) compensate Tibetans for disrupting their nomadic lifestyle with vocational training, such as weaving."

2011 - On 10 March the Dalai Lama announces that he is stepping down as leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

"As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect," the Dalai Lama says.

"My desire to devolve authority has nothing to do with a wish to shirk responsibility. It is to benefit Tibetans in the long run."

The Dalai Lama's political retirement formally takes effect in May. He retains his spiritual role. Political authority now rests with the elected prime minister (Kalon Tripa) of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

2012 - At the end of March it is announced that the Dalai Lama has won the 2012 Templeton Prize. The prize "honours a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works". It is one of the world's leading religious awards and comes with a US$1.7 million endowment.

The Dalai Lama donates the bulk of the prize money (US$1.5 million) to the Save the Children in India charity. The remainder is given to the Mind and Life institute and to a fund supporting Tibetan monks taking science degrees.

2015 - China hardens its stance on negotiations with the Dalai Lama. A white paper issued by the State Council Information Office in April states that the "Tibet issue" and "a high degree of autonomy" are "not up for discussion".

"Any negotiations will be limited to seeking solutions for the Dalai Lama to completely abandon separatist claims and activities and gain the forgiveness of the central government and the Chinese people, and to working out what he will do with the rest of his life," the report says.

"Only when he makes a public statement acknowledging that Tibet has been an integral part of China since antiquity, and abandons his stance on independence and his attempts to divide China, can he improve his relationship with the central government in any meaningful sense," it says.

"The central government hopes the Dalai Lama will put aside his illusions in his remaining years and face up to reality."

Comment

Like many other true heroes, the Dalai Lama has attained his standing because of events beyond his control and with which, in an ideal world, he would rather not be involved. The Dalai Lama often describes himself as just a simple monk from Tibet, and one can sense his yearning for a simpler, more contemplative life.

"Mahatma Gandhi I admire," he says. "Before India won her independence he was the leading figure, but afterwards he chose to remain outside the government. In the future my personal wish is to relinquish if possible, my political responsibilities, and in some remote pleasant place, practice yoga and meditation and study the teaching of Lord Buddha."