In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dalai Lama

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Resources
  • Origin and History of the Institution
  • The Dalai Lamas Up to the Great Fifth
  • The Great Fifth
  • The Sixth Dalai Lama
  • The Seventh Dalai Lama and the Manchu Period
  • The Thirteenth Dalai Lama

Buddhism Dalai Lama
Gareth Sparham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0074


Dalai Lama is the honorific title of Tenzin Gyatso (Bstan ‘dzin rgya mtsho, b. 1935), a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the de facto leader of the Tibetans. The title “Dalai Lama” is made up of a Mongolian word meaning “vast” (possibly the translation of the Tibetan word gyatso (rgya mstho, “ocean”) and the Tibetan word bla ma, meaning “religious teacher.” Tenzin Gyatso is the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. The title originated in the 16th century with Altan Khan, a ruler of the Tümet Mongols, who gave it to the powerful Tibetan abbot of the biggest Geluk (De lugs) monastery, Sonam Gyatso (Bsod nams rgya mtsho, b. 1543–d. 1588), the Third Dalai Lama. Sonam Gyatso’s two previous incarnations (Tib. sprul sku, pronounced tulku) were later posthumously recognized as the first and second holders of the lineage. Those, and his later incarnations, chosen based on a set of arcane criteria, are the Dalai Lamas. According to a legitimating ideology developed by the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, b. 1617–d. 1682), the Dalai Lamas are earthly manifestations of Avalokiteśvara, the Buddha of compassion, who earlier manifested as Songtsen Gampo (Srong btsan sgam po, fl. c. 640), the first historically documented ruler of the Tibetan empire (c. 630–840). The First Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup (Dge’ dun grub, b. 1391–d. 1474), links the line to another legitimating figure, Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Geluk sect. The most important Dalai Lamas are the fifth, thirteenth, and fourteenth. Other titles of the present Dalai Lama include Kundun (Sku ’dun, literally, “Honored Presence”), Gyalwa Rinpoche (Rgyal ba rin po che, “Royal Precious One”), Yishin Norbu (Yid bzhin nor bu, “Wish-Fulfilling Jewel”), Kyamgon Rinpoche (Skyabs mgon rin po che, “Precious One in Whom We Seek Refuge”), and Gongsa Chenpo (Gong sa chen po, “Great Being of High Station”).

General Overviews

Snellgrove and Richardson 1968 and Stein 1972 (originally published in 1962) are two standard scholarly and readable introductions to Tibetan culture and religion, supplemented by Kapstein 2006, which devotes an entire chapter to the Dalai Lamas. Tucci 1980 and the revised edition of Powers 2007, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, are helpful overviews of the institution of Dalai Lama in its wider cultural and historical context. McKay 2003 anthologizes important scholarly articles covering the entire period of Tibetan culture and history.

  • Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetans. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    An updated introduction to Tibetan culture, building on earlier works of the same genre, Stein 1972 and Snellgrove and Richardson 1968. “The Rule of the Dalai Lamas” (pp. 127–142) provides a history of the Geluk sect up to the period of the Seventh Dalai Lama.

  • McKay, Alex. The History of Tibet. 3 vols. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

    The second and third volumes of this very expensive collection of 126 scholarly articles in three volumes, covering the entire period of Tibetan culture and history, bring together in a single publication important scholarly articles relevant to the Dalai Lamas, especially during the period of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dalai Lamas.

  • Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Rev. ed. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2007.

    The revised edition fills in gaps evident in the first edition. It strikes a balance between traditional and modern presentations of Tibetan Buddhism.

  • Snellgrove, David, and Hugh E. Richardson. A Cultural History of Tibet. New York: Praeger, 1968.

    A readable introduction to Tibetan culture by authors sympathetic to the people and culture they describe. Chapters 6–8 give a concise history of the Geluk sect.

  • Stein, Rolf. Tibetan Civilization. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972.

    The English translation of La Civilisation Tibétain (Paris: Dunod, 1962), a highly regarded work on Tibet by a social scientist of high repute, with sections on the history and institution of the Dalai Lama within the framework of Tibetan history and society.

  • Tucci, Giuseppe. The Religions of Tibet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

    A somewhat outdated, but still valuable, overview of the main sects and their history, based mainly on traditional Tibetan sources, by perhaps the most famous Tibetologist of the last century. This is the English translation of Die Religionen Tibets (in G. Tucci and W. Heissig, Die Religionen Tibets und der Mongolei, Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1970).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.