Overview of life
The Dalai Lama is a high lama in the Gelug or "Yellow Hat" school of Tibetan Buddhism, founded by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419). The name is a combination of the Mongolian word dalai meaning "Ocean" and the Tibetan word bla-ma (with a silent "b") meaning "guru, teacher".
According to Tibetan Buddhist doctrine, the Dalai Lama is the rebirth in a line of tulkus who are metaphorically considered to be manifestations of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. The Dalai Lama is often thought to be the leader of the Gelug School, but this position belongs officially to the Ganden Tripa, which is a temporary position appointed by the Dalai Lama who, in practice, exerts much influence. The line of Dalai Lamas began as a lineage of spiritual teachers; the 5th Dalai Lama assumed political authority over Tibet.
For certain periods between the 17th century and 1959, the Dalai Lamas sometimes directed the Tibetan government, which administered portions of Tibet from Lhasa. The 14th Dalai Lama remained the head of state for the Central Tibetan Administration ("Tibetan government in exile") until his retirement on March 14, 2011. He has indicated that the institution of the Dalai Lama may be abolished in the future, and also that the next Dalai Lama may be found outside Tibet and may be female. The Chinese government rejected this and asserted that only it has the authority to select the next Dalai Lama.
The original use of the name Dalai Lama
In 1578 the Mongol ruler Altan Khan bestowed the title Dalai Lama on Sonam Gyatso. The title was later applied retroactively to the two predecessors in his reincarnation line, Gendun Drup and Gendun Gyatso. Gendun Gyatso was also Sonam Gyatso's predecessor as abbot of Drepung monastery. However, the 14th Dalai Lama asserts that Altan Khan did not intend to bestow a title as such and that he intended only to translate the name "Sonam Gyatso" into Mongolian.
... many writers have mistranslated Dalai Lama as "Ocean of Wisdom". The full Mongolian title, "the wonderful Vajradhara, good splendid meritorious ocean", given by Altan Khan, is primarily a translation of the Tibetan words Sonam Gyatso (sonam is "merit").
The 14th Dalai Lama commented:
The very name of each Dalai Lama from the Second Dalai Lama onwards had the word Gyatso , which means "ocean" in Tibetan. Even now I am Tenzin Gyatso, so the first name is changing but the second part became like part of each Dalai Lama's name. All of the Dalai Lamas, since the Second, have this name. So I don't really agree that the Mongols actually conferred a title. It was just a translation.
Whatever the intention may have been originally, the Mongolian "Dalai", which does not have any meaning as a Tibetan term, came to be understood commonly as a title.
The name or title Dalai Lama in Mongolian may also have derived originally from the title taken by Tem�jin or Genghis Khan when he was proclaimed emperor of a united Mongolia during 1206. Tem�jin took the name Cingis Qaghan or "oceanic sovereign", the anglicized version of which is Genghis Khan.
Tibetans address the Dalai Lama as Gyalwa Rinpoche ("Precious Victor"), Kundun ("Presence"), Yishin Norbu ("Wish fulfilling Gem") and so on.
Sonam Gyatso was an abbot at the Drepung Monastery who was considered widely as one of the most eminent lamas of his time. Although Sonam Gyatso became the first lama to have the title "Dalai Lama" as described above, since he was the third member of his lineage, he became known as the "Third Dalai Lama". The previous two titles were conferred posthumously upon his supposed earlier incarnations.
Yonten Gyatso (1589�1616), the 4th Dalai Lama, and a non-Tibetan, was the grandson of Altan Khan.
The tulku tradition of the Dalai Lama has evolved into, and been inaugurated as, an institution:
The institution of the Dalai Lama has become, over the centuries, a central focus of Tibetan cultural identity; "a symbolic embodiment of the Tibetan national character." Today, the Dalai Lama and the office of the Dalai Lama have become focal points in their struggle towards independence and, more urgently, cultural survival. The Dalai Lama is regarded as the principal incarnation of Chenrezig (referred to as Avalokiteshvara in India), the bodhisattva of compassion and patron deity of Tibet. In that role, the Dalai Lama has chosen to use peace and compassion in his treatment of his own people and his oppressors. In this sense the Dalai Lama is the embodiment of an ideal of Tibetan values and a cornerstone of Tibetan identity and culture.
Verhaegen mentions the trans-polity influence that the Institution of the Dalai Lama has had historically in areas such as western China, Mongolia, Ladakh in addition to the other Himalayan Kingdoms:
The Dalai Lamas have also functioned as the principal spiritual guide to many Himalayan kingdoms bordering Tibet, as well as western China, Mongolia and Ladakh. The literary works of the Dalai Lamas have, over the centuries, inspired more than fifty million people in these regions. Those writings, reflecting the fusion of Buddhist philosophy embodied in Tibetan Buddhism, have become one of the world's great repositories of spiritual thought.
The current Dalai Lama is often called "His Holiness" (HH) by Westerners (by analogy with the Pope), although this does not translate to a Tibetan title.
Before the 20th century, European sources often referred to the Dalai Lama as the "Grand Lama". For example, in 1785 Benjamin Franklin Bache mocked George Washington by terming him the "Grand Lama of this Country". Some in the West believed the Dalai Lama to be worshipped by the Tibetans as the godhead.