Is the Dalai Lama the leader of Buddhism?

close up shot of the dalai lama

National Geographic Image Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

No. The Dalai Lama is a prominent figure in one important school within Tibetan Buddhism, known as the Gelug order, and is believed by his followers to be the embodiment of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. Tibetan Buddhists see the Dalai Lama as their spiritual head, and he is revered by millions of people around the world who have read his books or heard him speak.

But Buddhism is a family of religions with countless doctrinal variations, and there is no such thing as a single leader, just as there is no one leader of Christianity as a whole. For monastics and lay students in other traditions—Thai or Zen Buddhism, for instance—the Dalai Lama may be a respected figure, but he is not necessarily a leader in the context of their practice.

Still, the Dalai Lama is certainly the world’s most famous Buddhist, in large part because of his status as the leader of the Tibetan community in exile. In the 1950s, the Chinese invaded Tibet and began a systematic destruction of the region’s religion and culture, which included laying waste to monastic cities and universities, murdering and jailing monks and nuns, and punishing ordinary Tibetans for practicing Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet in 1959 and established the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, in northern India. Renowned as a spiritual adept, he is also a charismatic and intelligent international spokesman for the plight of Tibet and for Tibetans and their religion, and in 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

While other Buddhist teachers have gained some celebrity for their accomplishments, spiritual and political, none have received the same level of attention and international sympathy as the Dalai Lama.


Tricycle is more than a magazine

Gain access to the best in sprititual film, our growing collection of e-books, and monthly talks, plus our 25-year archive

Subscribe now