The Defenders

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

“The need for simple human-to-human relationships is becoming increasingly urgent . . . Today the world is smaller and more interdependent. One nation’s problems can no longer be solved by itself completely. Thus, without a sense of universal responsibility, our very survival becomes threatened. Basically, universal responsibility is feeling for other people’s suffering just as we feel our own. It is the realization that even our enemy is entirely motivated by the quest for happiness. We must recognize that all beings want the same thing that we want. This is the way to achieve a true understanding, unfettered by artificial consideration.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was born in 1935 in a small village in Tibet, a remote Asian land about twice the size of Texas. At the age of 2, he was recognized as the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the patron saints of Tibet. Bodhisattvas are beings who have vowed to be reborn in the world to help humanity. Dalai Lama means Ocean of Wisdom.

The current Dalai Lama began his education as a monk at the age of 6, which included logic, fine arts, Sanskrit grammar and medicine as well as Buddhist philosophy. At the age of 23, he sat for his final examination, which he passed with honors, and was awarded the equivalent of the highest doctorate in Buddhist philosophy.

In 1950, China invaded Tibet and claimed the land as its own. At this time, the Dalai Lama was called upon to act as Tibet’s political leader. In 1954, he went to Beijing to meet with Chinese leaders to advocate for his homeland and people. These efforts were unsuccessful. In 1959, he was forced into exile in Dharamsala, India following the brutal suppression of a Tibetan national uprising. Tens of thousands of Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama into exile. In 1960, he established his government-in-exile. For the remainder of that decade, he focused his efforts on the welfare of refugees and the preservation of Tibetan culture.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Dalai Lama began traveling internationally to build awareness of the plight of Tibet. He appealed to the United Nations and met with the European Parliament and Chinese leaders to advocate for establishing Tibet as an autonomous region of China. Although he was unsuccessful, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 in recognition of his efforts. During this time, the Dalai Lama also worked to disseminate the central tenets of Buddhism to a wider audience. He gave public lectures and interviews and authored dozens of books on Buddhist themes. In addition, he established educational, cultural and religious institutions to preserve Tibetan identity and cultural heritage.

When he reached his 70s, people began asking whether the Dalai Lama would name a successor. The answer remains unclear. The Dalai Lama suggested that he might appoint a successor, but the Chinese Communist Party says that it should be in charge of naming a successor. In 2011, the Dalai Lama stepped down as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile. In the years since, his international influence has waned as a result of his increasing age, which makes travel more difficult, and China’s increasing clout on the world stage. China is making efforts to co-opt Buddhist principles, including the succession process, and rebrand Buddhism as an ancient Chinese religion.

Previous Dalai Lamas were relatively little known and isolated. In contrast, the 14th Dalai Lama became an international figure. He met with religious leaders around the world to speak about the need for unity among different religions. He is highly respected for his commitment to nonviolence, his efforts to build bridges across faith traditions and his efforts to gain freedom for Tibet.


In 2012, Senator Robert Menendez, Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, stated, “Tibet today is one of the most repressed and closed societies in the world.” Per the 2016 Freedom in the World Report, Tibet is one of the 12 most repressed countries in the world.

More than 1 million Tibetans have died as a result of China’s occupation. To this day, China uses torture and fear to maintain its control of Tibet. Tibetans face intense surveillance in their daily lives, with their movement and activities constantly monitored by security cameras, police checkpoints and party officials. Peaceful protests are suppressed with severe violence. Many Tibetans have been detained, imprisoned and tortured for expressing their desire for freedom.

Even children face abuses of their freedom and human rights. They are banned from studying and using the Tibetan language. Children have been beaten, detained, abducted and killed for supporting the Dalai Lama and protesting Chinese occupation.

China has closed the vast majority of Tibet’s monasteries, jailed thousands of monks and banned Dalai Lama images. Under occupation, Tibet has been divided up, renamed and incorporated into Chinese provinces. There are currently more Chinese people than Tibetans in parts of Tibet.


  • Read more about the Dalai Lama’s life and work here.
  • Read about how Tibetans are protesting Chinese occupation here.
  • Learn about a student group working to free Tibet from Chinese rule here.
  • Read about another organization fighting to free Tibet here.


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Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.