Updated: Mar 5, 2021
The Dalai Lama is the head of monks and nuns of Tibetan Buddhism and traditionally has been responsible for the governing of Tibet, until the Chinese government took control in 1959. Before 1959, his official residence was Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
The Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which is the largest and most influential tradition in Tibet.
The institution of the Dalai Lama is a relatively recent one. There have been only 14 Dalai Lamas in the history of Buddhism, and the first and second Dalai Lamas were given the title posthumously (after death).
According to Buddhist belief, the current Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of a past lama who decided to be reborn again to continue his important work, instead of moving on from the wheel of life.
Tibetan Buddhists believe that the first Dalai lama reincarnation was Gedun Drub, who lived from 1391-1474 and the second was Gendun Gyatso.
However, the name Dalai Lama, meaning Ocean of Wisdom, was not conferred until the third reincarnation in the form of Sonam Gyatso in 1578.
After the death of a Dalai Lama it has traditionally been the responsibility of the High Lamas of the Gelugpa Tradition and the Tibetan government to find his reincarnation.
The High Lamas search for a boy who was born around the same time as the death of the Dalai Lama.
There are several ways in which the High Lamas might find out where the next reincarnation will be found.
One of the High Lamas may dream about some mark or location that will identify the boy.
If the previous Dalai Lama was cremated, High Lamas will watch the direction of the smoke and search accordingly.
High Lamas go to a holy lake, called Lhamo Lhatso, in central Tibet and watch for a sign from the lake itself. This may be either a vision or some indication of the direction in which to search.The home and village of Tenzin Gyatso was identified in a vision from this lake.
Interestingly, Tenzin Gyatso (current Dalai Lama) has also expressed doubts over whether he will be reborn at all, suggesting the function of the Dalai Lama may be over. However, until Tibet is reunited with its spiritual leader, it seems likely that there will continue to be a Dalai Lama.