In the fourteenth century, the concept of reincarnation began to become important in Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibet, as in other countries where Buddhism has been a leading religious faith or philosophy, people had divided into different schools of belief on doctrinal or political grounds. The development of reincarnation is associated with the dominance of the Yellow Hat (Dge-lugs-pa) school. The leader of that school subsequently became the first in the series of fourteen Dalai Lamas, the men regarded as the religious head of the Tibetan people. Indeed, until the Chinese takeover in 1959, the Dalai Lama was considered the temporal (i.e. political or monarchical) head of Tibet as well.
The first Dalai Lama was Dge-dun-grub-pa (1391-1475). All subsequent Dalai Lamas are believed to be reincarnations of him. All are recognised as being representations on earth of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. A Bodhisattva is a human being who has achieved enlightenment (Nirvana) but who postpones entry into the next stage of being – in heaven – to remain connected to earth in order to help other people achieve enlightenment. The Bodhisattva is, therefore, closely related to the concept of compassion and empathy for the human condition.
The name ‘Dalai Lama’ comes from the Mongolian language. The third Dalai Lama, Bsod-nams-rgya-mtsho (1543-88), visited the Mongol court and received the title ‘ta le,’ referring to an ocean and suggesting the depth of his wisdom, learning and compassion. There has long been a strong connection between Tibet and Mongolia in terms of religious belief. Today, it is possible to identify many commonalities between the practices and lifestyles of Tibetan and Mongolian monks. Although by the middle of the sixteenth century the Mongol empire was no longer at the zenith of its power, its successor Hordes nevertheless represented important and powerful military and political power.
‘Ta le’ has become ‘Dalai’ among English speakers. Tibetans themselves call their leader the ‘Great Precious Conqueror.’ The Dalai Lamas have ruled from the capital city of Lhasa since the opening of the Drepung Monastery, which took place under the reign of the second Dalai Lama, Dge-dun-gya-mtsho (1475-1542). The original Yellow Hat seat had been in Central Tibet at the Tashilhunpo Monastery, near Zhikatse. After the Dalai Lamas moved to Drepung, Tashilhunpo has become the home of successive Panchen Lamas, who are considered to be second most holy and sacred leaders of the country. Panchen Lamas have also been considered reincarnations, since the first to hold the title, Blo-bzang-ye-shes (1663-1737) was declared by his pupil, the fifth Dalai Lama, to have achieved that sacred rank and would be reincarnated as a young boy after his death.