The First Dalai Lama

The First Dalai Lama December 16, 2022

Even if you know little else about Buddhism, you’ve heard of the Dalai Lama. The current Dalai Lama is His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. But who was the first Dalai Lama? How did the line of Dalai Lamas get started? Note also that, in a sense, there was more than one first Dalai Lama. But before telling the story of the first Dalai Lama, here is some background to help you understand what’s going on.

The Role of the Dalai Lamas

You may have heard that the Dalai Lama was something like a “god-king” in old Tibet, but that was never true. Very simply, the Dalai Lama is the highest ranking lama, or “teacher,” in Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism has many sects and divisions, and (obviously) “Tibetan Buddhism” refers to the sects of Buddhism that originated and developed in Tibet. Dalai Lamas have no formal connection to or authority in the schools of Buddhism that originated elsewhere in Asia.

In spite of his high status the Dalai Lama is not the head of all Tibetan Buddhism. He is the de facto head of one school, called the Gelug school or Gelugpa, although the official head of Gelugpa is another lama, the Ganden Tripa. Outside of Gelugpa the Dalai Lama’s organizational authority is limited. The heads of the other Tibetan schools do not take orders from the Dalai Lama and often disagree with him. The first Dalai Lama to achieve political control of Tibet was the Fifth. But only the Fifth and Thirteenth Dalai Lamas were real heads of government, and even then their political power was far from absolute. The remainder, for the most part, were only figureheads, and the Fourteenth was still a minor when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950.

This may make you wonder why the Dalai Lama is such a big deal. He is a big deal to Tibetans as something like the living embodiment of Tibet — its history, its culture, and its deep religious roots. He is also the most prominent, and most revered, spiritual and ethical teacher of the Tibetan people. The current Dalai Lama has been an exemplary model of Buddhist teachings and is enormously respected, within and without Buddhism. This is in spite of the many false accusations about him that turn up on the Internet (no, he was never a CIA agent). And he seems to have become something like the world’s favorite great-uncle. But he is not and never was a “god-king.”

How Reborn Lamas Are Reborn

The practice of recognizing rebirths of prominent Buddhist teachers is found only in Tibetan Buddhism. It began in a Tibetan Buddhist school called Kagyu, in the subsect Karma Kagyu. The first recognized reborn lama was Karma Pakshi (1206-1263), the second Karmapa of Karma Kagyu and the tulku of Düsum Khyenpa (1110-1193), the revered first Karmapa. (The current Karmapa, His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, is the 17th.) And the practice quickly spread. I understand there are are currently about three thousand such recognized reborn lamas in the world. Note that not all Tibetan lamas are thought to be the rebirths of other lamas. That’s true only of tulkus.

The word tulku is hard to explain without going into several thousand words of Buddhist doctrine that would bore the socks off most folks. Buddhism actually doesn’t teach the reincarnation (or rebirth, the preferred word among many Buddhists) of individual immortal souls, which is how reincarnation is commonly understood. There is rebirth, but it is understood differently in Buddhism than in other Asian traditions. And there are many types and grades of tulkus that don’t all seem to reappear in the same way. (I confess that since I’ve never practiced in a Tibetan school this is all a tad fuzzy to me, too.) As I understand it, it’s believed an enlightened lama is able to direct his rebirth, to choose which newly born person is fit to become the next tulku in that lineage of lamas. In some sense the reborn person both is and is not the same person as the one who died.

It’s also understood in some Buddhist schools that an enlightened being, a Buddha, exists in three bodies. The physical earth-body that lives and dies is an emanation of a formless and timeless body that is beyond birth and death. The Dalai Lamas are recognized as emanations of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva (“enlightenment being”) of compassion. (It’s often written that the Dalai Lamas are “reincarnations” of Avalokiteshvara, but the word reincarnation isn’t quite right.) The Karmapas and some other tulkus also are emanations of Avalokiteshvara, who is not exactly a god but something like the spirit or archetype of compassion itself. Where there is selfless compassion, the bodhisattva has manifested. Avalokiteshvara might even work through you now and then.

The First Dalai Lama

Now that we’ve got the explanations out of the way, let’s go on to the First Dalai Lama. The first First Dalai Lama, Gendun Drupa (1391-1474; sometimes spelled Drub), was born to a nomadic family of central Tibet. (Note that to keep this as simple as possible I will be using only ordination names of the lamas, not their birth names.) Gendun Drupa became a novice monk at the age of 15 and was fully ordained at the age of 20. He became the chief disciple of Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of Gelugpa and one of the greatest scholars of Tibetan Buddhist history. Gendun Drupa founded a major monastery and wrote a number of important treatises on Buddhist teachings.

However, during his lifetime the First Dalai Lama did not hold the title Dalai Lama, because it didn’t exist yet. This was also true of Gendun Drupa’s tulku, Gendun Gyatso (1475–1542). Gendun Gyatso was still a young boy when he was recognized as the rebirth of Gendun Drupa, according to tradition. Gendun Gyatso is remembered as a significant scholar and poet who also served as abbot of a couple of major monasteries.

An Invitation from Mongolia

Now we get to the story of where the title Dalai Lama came from. The first Dalai Lama to hold the title Dalai Lama was the third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588). Sonam Gyatso was born near Lhasa and was recognized as Gendun Gyatso’s tulku as a small child. Like his predecessor he went on to serve as abbot of a couple of major monasteries.

Altan Khan (1507-1583) was a Mongol leader and descendant of the famous Kublai Khan (1215-1294). Altan Khan sent greetings to Sonam Gyatso and urged him to come to Mongolia. Altan Khan’s motives were not entirely religious. He hoped to forge a patron-priest relationship with the Gelugpa lama, offering protection to the Gelug school while receiving spiritual benefits. His ancestor Kublai had a similar relationship with a high lama of another Tibetan school, the Sakya, while Kublai was emperor of China. Such a relationship would add to Altan’s prestige and his claims to greater leadership of the Mongolian people.

At first Sonam Gyatso sent other lamas to the Mongols to teach them about Buddhism. But in 1577 Sonam Gyatso finally agreed to meet Altan Khan on his turf, and he traveled across the Tibetan Plateau to what is now Inner Mongolia to find Altan Khan’s tented city. The two men forged a warm relationship.

The Other First Dalai Lama

So it was that Sonam Gyatso gave tantric initiation or empowerment to Altan Khan. In return, Altan Khan gave Sonam Gyatso a promise of patronage and a Mongolian title: Ghaikhamisigh vcir-a dar-a say-in cogh-tu buyan-tu dalai, which means “The Wondrous Vajra-Holder, Excellent, Splendid Meritorious Ocean.” This was quickly shortened to just “Dalai” by the Tibetans. The title Dalai Lama was bestowed posthumously on Gendun Drupa and Gendun Gyatso. Sonam Gyatso, the first living person to be called Dalai Lama, was the Third Dalai Lama.

Sonam Gyatso never returned to his previous home in central Tibet. Instead, at the invitation of another king, he went to eastern Tibet to teach. When Altan Khan died in 1583, the Dalai Lama returned to Inner Mongolia to establish a patron-priest relationship with Altan Khan’s son. Then he traveled through Mongolia teaching Buddhism, and the Mongolian people have been Buddhists ever since.

Sonam Gyatso died in Mongolia, and eventually one of Altan Khan’s grandsons was identified as the Fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso (1589-1617).


As mentioned above, it was the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682), who became the political head of Tibet. And it was the Fifth Dalai Lama who elevated the lineage of Dalai Lamas to become the foremost spiritual leaders of the Tibetan people. See How the Fifth Dalai Lama Became Ruler of Tibet.

If you want to learn more about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhist history I highly recommend the book Tibet: A History (Yale University Press,  2011) by Sam van Schaik.

Tashi Lhunpo monastery was founded by the First Dalai Lama. Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0 license.
About Barbara O'Brien
Barbara is the author of The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern World (Shambhala, 2019). You can read more about the author here.

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