Enthroning a Child

The Search for the Dalai Lama

The story of the Dalai Lama is possibly the most famous example of a child's past life memory. This is the true story of how the present Dalai Lama was located and positively identified based on his ability, as a very young child, to remember details from his past life.

When the Thirteenth Dalai Lama died in 1933, the senior lamas looked for signs as to where his next incarnation might be found. Each of the Dalai Lamas, over many centuries since the birth of the first in 1351 AD, followed the same line—each one was an incarnation of the last, retaining the spiritual wisdom acquired over many lifetimes.

In the spring of 1935, Tibet's Regent, himself a senior lama, journeyed to the sacred lake of Lhamoi Lhatso in southern Tibet to seek a vision. Looking into this oval-shaped lake, which lay in a basin at 17,000 feet surrounded by snow-covered peaks, Reting Rinpoche had a vision. As he stared into the crystalline waters, he saw three letters from the Tibetan alphabet: Ah, Ka and Ma, floating before him. Then he clearly saw the image of a three-storied monastery with a gold and jade roof. A path led down the hill from the monastery to a house roofed with turquoise tiles and a brown and white spotted dog in the courtyard. After Reting Rinpoche saw this vision, he dreamed of the same house with a turquoise roof, but this time he saw oddly shaped gutter pipes along the roof and a small boy standing in the yard. He was sure that the letter Ah he saw in the vision pertained to Amdo, a province in the east, so a search party was dispatched to that area.

One of the search parties, under the direction of Kewtsang Rinpoche, a high lama of Sera Monastery, approached the Kumbum monastery in Amdo. They saw its temples roofed in jade and gold, just like in the vision. The search party combed the area, looking for extraordinary children. They heard of one boy in Takster, a two-day's journey from Amdo.

So, in the winter of 1937 Kewtsang Rinpoche, accompanied by a government official named Lobsang Tsewant and two attendants, set out for Takster. To avoid detection, they disguised themselves as merchants on a business trip. To further conceal their identities Kewtsang Rinpoche, the lama, dressed himself in an old sheepskin and played the role of a servant and Lobsang Tsewang, the government official, acted as the leader of the group. They approached the house of a two-year-old boy, Lhamo Dhondrub. They were greeted by the barking of a brown and white spotted mastiff chained to the entranceway.

They identified themselves as traders and asked if they could use the family's kitchen for tea, which is a common practice in Tibet. Passing through the courtyard of the house, Kewtsang Rinpoche noticed the turquoise tiles on the roof of the house and unusual guttering made from gnarled juniper. Once in the kitchen, he was approached by little Lhamo Dhondrub. The boy climbed into Kewtsang Rinpoche's lap and began playing with rosary beads that hung around the visitor's neck, which had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. Suddenly, the boy became agitated and demanded that he be given the beads immediately, claiming that they belonged to him. Kewtsang Rinpoche told the boy, "I'll give it to you if you can guess who I am." Matter-of-factly, the boy replied, "You are a lama of Sera." The boy then addressed Lobsang Tsewang by his proper name and went on to identify the others in the party as being from the Sera monastery as well (at the time there were thousands of monastaries in Tibet). Not only were his identifications correct, but this two-year-old addressed the men in the proper dialect of Central Tibet, a dialect unknown in his district.

When the visitors were preparing to leave in the morning, Lhamo Dhondrub was in tears, begging them to take him along. They managed to calm him down, promising to return.

They did return shortly, this time to administer tests to see if this boy was indeed the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. The monks offered gifts to the family and asked to be left alone with Lhamo Dhondrub. As night fell, they adjourned to the master bedroom at the center of the house, placed a series of articles on a low table. Some of these articles had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama, the others were carefully crafted duplicates. The objects included the Dalai Lama’s spectacles, silver pencil and eating bowl, as well as four items which the Oracle of Samye had ordered this delegation to bring with it. They were a black rosary, a yellow rosary, two walking sticks, and a small ivory hand drum used in religious devotions.

Entering the bedroom, Lhamo Dhondrub was invited forward by Kewtsang Rinpoche, who sat with three officials on either side of the table. In his hand Kewtsang Rinpoche held the black rosary to which the boy had been drawn on the previous visit; in the other hand he held a perfect duplicate. Asked to choose one, the child took the correct rosary without hesitating and placed it around his neck, a feat he repeated with the yellow rosary a few moments later. Next, they presented him with the walking sticks. At first Lhamo Dhondrub pulled gently at the wrong stick, but then let it go and took the correct one, happily holding it in front of him like a giant stave. This was considered particularly significant since the "wrong" stick had actually been used briefly by the Dalai Lama before he gave it to a friend. The final items, the drums, remained. The false drum was beautifully decorated with floral brocade; the genuine one was less inviting. Once more Lhamo Dhondrub took the correct object, twisting the drum quickly back and forth in his right hand so that it beat in the manner of tantric ritual.

Next, the boy was examined for eight distinctive bodily marks of the Dalai Lama: large ears, long eyes, eyebrows curving up at the ends, streaks on the legs, and a mark in the shape of a conch shell on the palm of one hand. They gently examined the boy, and after finding three of the marks, the examiners were so overcome with joy, that their eyes filled with tears. There was no doubt that the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet was sitting before them in the body of a two and a half-year-old child. And so, the prophecy was fulfilled: the letters in the vision stood for the names of the neighboring monastery, and the distinctive images of the spotted dog, the tiles, and the gutters, were for all to see.

But when the Moslem warlord of northwestern China heard of the selection of the child, he demanded an exorbitant ransom before he would let the child by taken from the district. After he was paid, he demanded even more money and some valuable religious artifacts. Leaving them with no choice, the Tibetans raised the money and the ransom was paid. After months of waiting, the prospective Dalai Lama and his family set out on a three-month journey to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Lhamo Dhondrub rode with his six-year-old brother on a small palanquin suspended on poles between two mules. All along the way he was greeted by offerings and afforded the respect accorded to a great teacher and leader.

When they were within a few miles of Lhasa, they were greeted by a torch-bearing procession which led them to an encampment. At its center was an enormous yellow satin tent, canopied in blue and white. This tent, known as the Great Peacock, had been used over the centuries solely to greet each infant reincarnation of the Dalai Lama upon his return home.

During the next two days, the young Lhamo Dhondrub sat on a tall throne in the Great Peacock and individually blessed 70,000 monks and lay people who had gathered to welcome him.

On the morning of October 8, 1939, a procession of sixteen noblemen clad in green satin and red-tasseled hats carried a gold palanquin, in which sat the little boy. A procession of musicians, the State Astrologer, the Dalai Lama's family, cabinet members, the Regent, and Prime Minister, accompanied the boy to the palace. Thousands lined the route, waving banners on tall poles.

Once Lhamo Dhondrub was ushered into his predecessor's chambers in the palace, he pointed to a small box and declared, "My teeth are in there." Opening the case, the attendants were astonished to find a set of the former Dalai Lama's dentures.

Within weeks, four-year-old Lhamo Dhondrub, or Tenzin Gyatso as he is now called, was installed on the Lion Throne as the supreme temporal and spiritual ruler of Tibet. This is the same Dalai Lama who today is the spiritual leader of Tibetans and all Buddhists, and who travels around the world to spread Buddhist ideas and tell of the exiling of Tibetan Buddhists by the invading Chinese.

This account was adapted from the Dalai Lama's autobiography, and from the book, Exile in the Land of Snows by John F. Avedon.