Afp  /  THE WHITE HOUSE via AFP - Getty
President Bush welcomes the Dalai Lama to the White House in May, 2001.
msnbc.com

Whether going before the United Nations to publicize the plight of Tibetans under Chinese rule or appearing in events with Hollywood celebrities, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism has become a familiar face to many Westerners. Here are answers to some essential questions about the first Lama to visit the West:

Who is the Dalai Lama?
The Dalai Lama is considered the head monk of Tibetan Buddhism and, by tradition, is responsible for governing the Himalayan country. The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was born Lhamo Dhondub to a farming family in a northeastern Tibetan village in 1935. Buddhist officials recognized him as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama when he was two years old. Buddhists believe the successive Dalai Lamas form a lineage back to the 14th century.

How does China view the Dalai Lama?
China, which has ruled Tibet with a heavy hand since its forces invaded in 1951, considers the Dalai Lama a separatist and traitor for advocating Tibetan self-rule. The Dalai Lama remains immensely popular in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has led an effective government-in-exile based in India since fleeing his homeland in 1959 amid a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.

What does the Dalai Lama advocate?
The Dalai Lama states on his Web site that he does not seek to separate Tibet from China, but rather advocates a “middle-way approach whereby Tibet remains within the People’s Republic of China enjoying a high degree of self-rule or autonomy.”

What is the Dalai Lama’s spiritual significance?
According to Buddhist belief, the Dalai Lamas are earthly incarnations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion and patron saint of Tibet. In Buddhist tradition, bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who chose rebirth, rather than moving on to the afterlife, in order to serve humanity. As such, the Dalai Lama is considered the spiritual leader of Tibet and one of Buddhism’s most important leaders anywhere.

What is the Dalai Lama’s political significance?
The Dalai Lama traditionally claims to be head of Tibet’s government. He has sought to publicize the plight of Tibetans on the global stage. The Dalai Lama has taken his message to the United Nations and persuaded the world body to adopt resolutions calling for the protection of the Tibetan people on four occasions. He has met widely with political and religious leaders, including the late Pope John Paul II. More broadly, he has worked to boost awareness of the situation in Tibet and promote the preservation of Tibetan culture.

In awarding the Dalai Lama the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Norwegian Nobel Committee praised "his consistent resistance to the use of violence in his people's struggle to regain their liberty."

Are most Tibetans Buddhist?
Yes, but Tibetan Buddhism is effectively a religion that, like its leader, was forced into exile after the Chinese occupation. Buddhism came to Tibet from India and became the state religion in the 8th century.

How is the Dalai Lama chosen?
Senior Buddhist monks and Tibetan government officials begin a search for the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama after the death of the previous Lama. These searchers look for a boy who was born around the same time as the death of the previous Lama. According to the British Broadcasting Corp., the officials can decide where to look for the reincarnation in several ways: by way of a dream; by watching the direction the smoke drifts after the cremation of the previous Lama and then searching accordingly; or from some sign or vision from a holy lake in central Tibet.

Once found, the officials present the boy with possessions of the previous Dalai Lama to determine whether the boy is familiar with them. If the child chooses the artifacts that belonged to he previous Lama, than that, along with the other signs, is believed to prove he is a reincarnation.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: The Dalai Lama

loading photos...
  1. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, as a young child. He was born into a prosperous farming family in Tibet in 1935. He was enthroned as the leader of Tibet in 1950 at the age of 15 and also assumed the role of Tibetan Buddhism's spiritual leader. After the collapse of the Tibetan resistance movement in 1959, he fled to India. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Dalai Lama and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi in 1961, where they discussed the plight of Tibetans who crossed the border into India during the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. When the Tibetan resistance collapsed in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled into exile in India. China has ruled Tibet since then. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Pope John Paul II meets with the Dalai Lama at Vatican City in November 2003. He has met with many religious leaders over the years to promote religious dialogue. In 1989, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The Dalai Lama poses with his wax image at Madame Tussaud's in 1993 in London. He brought a pair of his own glasses for the statue. (Gerry Penny / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Dalai Lama jokes with New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani before an audience of 3,000 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 1997. (Adam Nadel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Dalai Lama speaks to an audience 40,000-strong at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington in July 2000. (Khue Bui / AFP-Getty Images ) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. President George W. Bush welcomes the Dalai Lama to the White House in 2001. (The White House via AFP - Getty) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The Dalai Lama pats a koala held by Bindi Irwin at the Australia Zoo during a tour titled "Open Arms -- Embracing Kindness" in Beerwah in June 2007. (Greg White / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monk stands in front of Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in 2004. Before his exile, the palace was the winter home of the Dalai Lama. (Peter Parks / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The Dalai Lama presents actor Richard Gere with a traditional Tibetan ceremonial scarf during the International Campaign for Tibet 2009 Light of Truth Award in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 7, 2009. (Susan Walsh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Framed by the Tibetan flag, the Dalai Lama speaks to members of the Tibetan community on Oct. 11, 2007, in New York City. (Mary Altaffer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The Dalai Lama speaks with spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar during the launch ceremony of Global Foundation for Civilizational Harmony in New Delhi on Jan. 22, 2008. The organization aims to build a global civilization of peace, harmony and mutual enrichment. (Vijay Mathur / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. The Dalai Lama addresses a press conference in New Delhi, on March 29, 2008. He discussed the Chinese government policy of "demographic aggression." (Manish Swarup / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Pro-Tibetan protesters hold candles as they stand next to a poster of the Dalai Lama during a rally in San Francisco on April 8, 2008. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The exiled spiritual leader playfully touches fists with musician Dave Matthews after a panel discussion at Seattle's Key Arena on April 11, 2008. (Marcus Donner / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Devotees watch the Tibetan spiritual leader give religious teachings at the Tsuglakhang temple in Dharmsala, India, on Sept. 30, 2008. (Ashwini Bhatia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama gives a speech at the EU Parliament in Brussels on December 4, 2008. China warned that day that multi-billion-dollar trade ties with France could be affected by President Nicolas Sarkozy's planned meeting with the Dalai Lama. (Eric Vidal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Polish President Lech Walesa, right, and fellow laureates the Dalai Lama, left, and Adolfo Perez Esquivel, center, are seen in Gdansk, Poland, on Dec. 5, 2008. Walesa was marking the 25th anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize win. (Czarek Sokolowski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. The Dalai Lama receives an honorary doctorate at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, on December 8, 2008. He expressed admiration for the nation's 1980s non-violent struggle against its now defunct communist regime. (Pawel Ulatowski / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. The Dalai Lama prays before inaugurating the installation of a hand-carved 2.5 meter-high stone statue of Lord Buddha in the compound of the Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in the northern Indian city of Sarnath on Jan. 9, 2009. (Abhishek Madhukar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The Dalai Lama smiles as he is flanked by Rome's Mayor Gianni Alemanno, left, and his wife Isabella, right, after being made an honorary citizen of the Italian city on Feb. 9, 2009. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The Dalai Lama greets reporters as he arrives for a press conference at the main temple in Dharamsala, India, on March 10, 2009. In a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, the Dalai Lama said he would continue to pursue the "middle path" approach despite China's crackdown on Tibetans. (Harish Tyagi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The Dalai Lama speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington on Feb. 18, 2010, following a meeting with President Barack Obama. Every U.S. president for the last two decades has met with the Dailai Lama, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The Dalai Lama announced that he will pass the reins of political power to the elected prime minister of the self-proclaimed on Thursday, March 10, 2011. Tibetan government in exile hoping to prevent a political vacuum after his death and ensure an effective response to Chinese crackdowns and Beijing's increasingly effective use of diplomatic pressure. Dalai Lama made a point of saying he wasn't retiring, and his global status and reputation ensure that he will continue to play a major role in Tibetan affairs. (David Stephenson / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The Dalai Lama holds a forty-nine days memorial service for victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami at the Gokokuji temple in Tokyo on Friday, April 29, 2011. The 75-year-old monk, on his way to the US, offered prayers and messages to a nation in deep sorrow after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that has plunged Japan into its worst post-War crisis. (Kim Kyung-hoon / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments