First Dalai Lama Becomes Buddhist Spiritual Leader

Buddhism continued to metamorphose ideologically and gain political power in Tibet until 1578, when the Mongol leader Altan created the designation of Dalai Lama, ushering in a single Buddhist spiritual and political leadership that remained in place until Chinese domination in the mid-twentieth century.

Summary of Event

Buddhism was founded in the late sixth century b.c.e. by the prince Siddhartha, who later adopted the name Buddha. Buddhism is a religion of thinking and living, whose followers seek nirvana, or enlightenment, in various forms. Buddhism rejects ascetic religion that emphasizes suffering as well as an Epicurean pleasure-seeking way of life. In contrast, it favors a balanced mental and emotional life, a middle way that is devoid of extremes of thought, emotion, and action. Buddhism;Tibet
Sonam Gyatso
Lozang Gyatso
Dalai Lama

Buddhism divided into two forms—Māhāyana and Theravāda—around the first century. Māhāyana is found in East Asia and Tibet, whereas Theravāda is based in India and Sri Lanka. Māhāyana, using texts known as sutras, believes in multiple possible manifestations of the Buddha and argues that there is no distinction between self and other. It emphasizes also the importance of bodhisattvas, followers who have reached Enlightenment and use their enlightened power to help others find Enlightenment. All schools of Tibetan Buddhism are subsets of the Māhāyana tradition. Theravāda Buddhism focuses on the Pali (perfected saint) canon of ancient Indian Buddhism, believing that only through perfecting oneself, as would a Buddhist monk but not a layperson, can one attain enlightenment.

Between the seventh and thirteenth centuries, Buddhism was both persecuted and revered in Tibetan political circles. Śākya Buddhism gained temporal power in 1247, when the Mongolians conquered Tibet and gave secular authority to the Śākya master. In 1254, Chogyal Phagpa converted Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, who made Buddhism a state religion in Mongolia and made Chogyal Phagpa the first religious and secular leader of Tibet.

Scholar Lama Tsong Khapa founded the Ganden monastery near Lhasa in 1409, a place that would become a center of the Gelug (virtuous ones) form of Buddhism. Monasticism;Buddhist The central teachings of the Gelug school are those of the Lamrim (stages of the path), whereby one gains profound insight into the doctrine of emptiness, universal compassion, and liberation (key components of the Gelug school) by following a step-by-step path of understanding. Gelug Buddhists would govern Tibet until the mid-twentieth century. The Mongols had remained in control of Tibet, and became convinced that Gelug Buddhism was more than adequate as a replacement for Śākya as a state school of Buddhism.

In 1577, the Mongol ruler Altan invited the Gelug abbot of the Drepung monastery, the master Sonam Gyatso, to his court. Sonam Gyatso, an erudite scholar, established the Namgyal monastery and became well known as the leader of Gelug Buddhism. Altan invited Sonam Gyatso to Koko Nor (Qinghai) in 1569, but it appears that Sonam Gyatso was too busy to actually travel there. He again was invited in 1577, and accepted, both because his schedule permitted and because Altan had risen to power. They met in the summer of 1578. Sonam Gyatso’s clearly advanced scholarship, his compelling speech, and his quiet wisdom convinced Altan of the merits of Gelug Buddhism. Altan attempted to spread the word to the remainder of the Mongols, asking many of his attendants to witness the greatness of Sonam Gyatso; many embraced Buddhism after contact with the Gelug master.

Sonam Gyatso had complimented Altan after his conversion by calling him King of the Turning Wheel and Wisdom, a reference to the eight “spokes” of Buddhism, often depicted in illustrations of a wheel. Altan in turn addressed Sonam Gyatso as All Knowing Vajra-Holder, the Dalai Lama, thus awarding Sonam Gyatso in 1578 the title ta-le, the Mongolian term close in meaning to the Tibetan rgya-mtsho (ocean of wisdom), anglicized as “dalai.” The Gelug monks then awarded the title posthumously to Sonam Gyatso’s two predecessors, Gedun Truppa and Gedun Gyatso, making Sonam Gyatso the third Dalai Lama.

By this exchange of titles, Altan and Sonam Gyatso reestablished the priest/patron relationship, not unlike the relationship between the Papacy and the states of Europe in the medieval period. A Mongol historian in the following century suggested that Altan believed himself to be a reincarnation of Kublai Khan.

Altan worked to incorporate Buddhism into law because of Gelug Buddhism’s extensive ethical emphasis. In 1586, the Erdene Zuu temple in Karakorum was established as the Mongolian center of Gelug. Sonam Gyatso worked to convert more Mongols to Buddhism, ended shamanistic customs such as a version of wife-sacrifice not unlike sati, and helped to spread Gelug influence into eastern Tibet. When he left Altan’s court, he appointed Yonten Gyatso as his representative at Hohhot to ensure the strength of congresses between Tibet and Mongolia.

Sonam Gyatso continued to evangelize Buddhism. In 1580, he founded the Champaling monastery in Kham, and erected the Sandalwood Temple in Amdo. He taught Buddhism to the son and successor of Altan, and so convinced him that his devotion to Sonam Gyatso and to Buddhism were as strong as his father’. Sonam Gyatso eschewed the lengthy scholarly writing of his predecessors so that he could become a Buddhist missionary in Mongolia. Sonam Gyatso died in 1588 while returning to Tibet from Mongolia.

Altan’s grandson, Yonten Gyatso, succeeded Sonam as the fourth Dalai Lama, the only non-Tibetan Dalai Lama. Mongol leaders who had no authority to do so recognized young Yonten as a reincarnation of Sonam. The fifth Dalai Lama, Lozang Gyatso, allied with Mongol leader Gushri Khan to unify Tibet under the Gelug order, thus returning unity to Tibetan Buddhism. In 1642, Gushri recognized Lozung as temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet. Lozang instituted new rules for the Gelug order pertaining to monastic organization, studies, rituals, and behavior, which remain in effect into the twenty-first century. Lozang was able to establish a relationship with the Qing Dynasty’s emperor, effecting a patron/priest symbiosis between Chinese emperors and Dalai Lamas.


Until the Chinese conquest of Tibet in the twentieth century, the Dalai Lama remained both the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. The Tibetan people have differed in their interpretations of Buddha’s way of life since the introduction of Indian Buddhism to Tibet, but they were largely united as Buddhists, and the government was united under the Gelug school. The Dalai Lama and Tibetan leadership, even in exile, continue to be revered by the Tibetan Buddhists, and Buddhism shows no signs of relinquishing its intellectual and cultural base in Tibet.

Further Reading

  • Ling, T. O. A Dictionary of Buddhism: A Guide to Thought and Tradition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972. This is a superb reference work on Buddhism in general. It offers a dictionary of terms, concepts, historical figures, myths, and countries relevant to the history of Buddhism.
  • Mills, Martin A. Identity, Ritual, and State in Tibetan Buddhism: The Foundations of Authority in Gelukpa Monasticism. Richmond, Surrey, England: Curzon Press, 2003. A thorough study of the aspects of Gelug Buddhism that enabled it to persist as a political tool and a religious ideology. Ideal for readers with some knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Newman, Bruce. A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion, 2004. Directed toward practitioners by a practitioner, this work is more accessible than Powers’s book and full of interesting stories about the author’s journey through Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion, 1995. Quite possibly the clearest and most thorough introductory text in English. Powers explains both the history and tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

1451-1526: Lodī Kings Dominate Northern India

1467: End of King Parākramabāhu VI’s Reign

1469-1481: Reign of the Ava King Thihathura

Early 16th cent.: Devotional Bhakti Traditions Emerge

Apr. 21, 1526: First Battle of Panipat

1556-1605: Reign of Akbar