The 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetans in exile, is well-known, but the 600-year tradition to which he is heir is less familiar. From the birth of the first Dalai Lama in a cowshed in 1391, each subsequent Dalai Lama has been the reincarnation of his predecessor, choosing to take up the burdens of a human life for the benefit of the Tibetan people. For almost six centuries, the Dalai Lamas have served as the Tibetans’ spiritual leader and have held secular power for almost half that time. All the Dalai Lamas are revered as incarnations of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist deity of compassion, but each has been a unique individual with different abilities and temperaments.
Over the ages, various Dalai Lamas have been poets, statesmen, builders, philosophers; most have been disciplined monastics, but one was a lover of women. The potential of some was tragically lost when their lives were cut short, possibly the victims of political intrigue, while others lived long enough to shape entire eras of Tibetan history.