My Land and My People

The Original Autobiography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet


By Dalai Lama

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Schooled behind ancient palace walls to become the leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama has become a spiritual leader to the world and a leading civil rights advocate. My Land and My People tells the story of his life.

In the Himalayan City of Lhasa, the four-year-old son of a humble farmer sat on a huge, gilded throne. His childhood would be unimaginable in both its isolation and a people’s adoration. His destiny would be one of immense tragedy and the awesome transformation of a man.

Written by the Dalai Lama as a young man in exile, this dignified testament re-creates the miraculous search that identified him as the reincarnated leader of his country. It paints a rare intimate portrait of Tibetan Buddhism-a way of life that would end with a terrifying foreign invasion surpassing sanity and reason. And it reveals the evolution of a man from a gentle monk to a world leader-one struggling to this day to free his country… one able to touch our hearts with the goodness that makes him on of the most beloved men of our time.

He was once a small boy was chosen to rule the most mysterious land on Earth. Now the Dalai Lama tells his, and his country’s, poignant story.


Copyright © 1962 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet Copyright © renewed 1990 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet Introduction copyright © 1997 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet Foreword copyright © 1997 by Melissa Mathison Ford

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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ISBN: 978-0-446-55347-6

Selected Works by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective

The Good Heart: A Buddhist Persective on the Teachings of Jesus

The Path to Enlightenment

The Global Community and the Need for Universal Responsibility

Compassion and the Individual

Path to Bliss

The Meaning of Life

Policy of Kindness

Freedom in Exile

The Union of Bliss and Emptiness

Transcendent Wisdom

The Buddhism of Tibet

Deity Yoga in Action and Performance Tantras

Tantra in Tibet

A Human Approach to World Peace

Opening the Eye of New Awareness

Kindness, Clarity, and Insight

The Dalai Lama at Harvard, Lectures on the Buddhist Path to Peace

Universal Responsibility and the Good Heart

The Opening of the Wisdom Eye

The World of Tibetan Buddhism: An Overview of its Philosophy and Practice



I was born in a small village called Taktser, in the northeast of Tibet, on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Wood Hog Year of the Tibetan calendar—that is, in 1935. Taktser is in the district called Dokham, and that name is descriptive, for Do means the lower part of a valley that merges into the plains, and Kham is the eastern part of Tibet where the distinctive race of Tibetans called Khampa lives. Thus Dokham is the part of Tibet where our mountains begin to descend to the plains of the east, towards China. Taktser itself is about 9,000 feet above the sea.

It was beautiful country. Our village, which lay on a little plateau, was almost encircled by fertile fields of wheat and barley; and the plateau, in turn, was surrounded by ranges of hills which were covered by grass—thick and vividly green.

To the south of the village there was a mountain which was higher than the rest. Its name was Ami-chiri, but the local people also called it The Mountain which Pierces the Sky, and it was regarded as the abode of the guardian deity of the place. Its lower slopes were covered by forests; above them a rich growth of grass could be seen; higher still, the rock was bare; and on the summit was a patch of snow which never melted. On the northern face of the mountain there were junipers and poplars, peaches, plums and walnuts, and many kinds of berries and scented flowers. Clear springs of water fell in cascades, and the birds and the wild animals—deer, wild asses, monkeys, and a few leopards, bears and foxes—all wandered unafraid of man; for our people were Buddhists who would never willingly harm a living creature.

Amid the splendor of this natural beauty stood the monastery called Karma Shar Tsong Ridro, which is a famous place in the religious history of Tibet. It was founded by Karma Rolpai Dorje, the fourth reincarnation of Karmapa, who himself was the first incarnation recognized in Tibet; and it was at this monastery that our great reformer Tsongkhapa was initiated as a monk in the fourteenth century of the Christian era. Lower down was a second monastery, called Amdo Ihakyung, magnificent against the background of the mountain. The gilded roofs and the emblem called dharma chakra (Wheel of Religion), supported by deer of copper and gold on either side, not only added to the color of the scene, but gave an air of sanctity to the whole of the neighborhood. And this air was enhanced by the prayer flags on the roofs of all the houses in the village.

Taktser was a farming community and the staple foods of its people were wheat flour and tsampa—which is a kind of barley meal—and meat and butter; and their drinks were buttered tea and a beer called chhang, which is made from barley. There are different opinions among Buddhists about eating meat, but it was a necessity for most Tibetans. In most of Tibet the climate was rigorous, and although food was plentiful it was very limited in variety, so it was impossible to stay healthy without eating meat—and the custom had lingered there since before Buddhism was brought to the country. Tibetans would think it a sin to kill any animal, for any reason, but they did not think it sinful to go to market and buy the meat of an animal which was already dead. The butchers who slaughtered the animals were regarded as sinners and outcasts.

The surplus barley and wheat at Taktser were sold in the nearest towns—Kumbum and Sining—in exchange for tea, sugar, cotton cloth, ornaments, and iron utensils. The people's dress was purely Tibetan: The men wore fur caps and high leather boots, and the kind of cloak which was seen in different varieties all over Tibet—belted rather below the waist and hanging above it in folds which were convenient as pockets. The women wore long sleeveless woolen dresses with bright blouses of cotton or silk, and on every special occasion long ornate headdresses which hung down to their waists at the back. In winter everyone used fur coats and clothes with thick fleecy linings. Like their sisters in any other part of the world, the women of Taktser liked jewels and precious stones; but it was more the pride of the men of the village that the women were excellent cooks.

There were many other monasteries and many temples in the neighborhood, where anybody could pray and make offerings—whether he were a monk or not. Indeed, the whole life of the place was based on its religion. There was hardly anyone in the whole of Tibet who was not a faithful Buddhist. Even children, so young they could hardly talk, enjoyed paying visits to places where emblems of the Three Jewels—Buddha, Dharma, and Sanga—were kept. Children also played at building temples of clay, arranging offerings before them, and making gestures of worship which they seemed to know by instinct without being taught. Everybody, rich or poor (except a few misers) spent all his spare income—after buying the physical necessities of life—in building religious monuments, contributing to temples, making offerings to the Three Jewels, giving alms to the poor, and saving the lives of animals by buying them from the butchers.

Well-to-do householders always had a shrine in their homes where several monks were given food in return for perpetual prayers; and sometimes such a person would invite hundreds of monks to recite from holy texts for days at a time, and pay and feed them well for doing so. Even the poorest people had a little altar and an image of Lord Buddha in their cottages, where butter lamps were always kept lighted.

So although the people of Dokham were mostly tall and strong, and hardy and brave by nature, those qualities were tempered to gentleness by their faith. Humility and charity, temperance, kindness, affection and consideration for all other beings: these were the virtues encouraged by their beliefs.

It was among such amiable people that I was born in a family of pure Tibetan stock. Although my family had settled in Dokham, my forefathers came from central Tibet. How they came to settle in eastern Tibet is a simple story. Hundreds of years ago, in the reign of King Mangsong Mangtsen, a Tibetan army was stationed in the northeastern part of Tibet to protect the frontiers. In our part of Dokham, a garrison from Phempo in central Tibet was stationed, and family tradition said that my forefathers came with that garrison. In our family dialect we still used many words from the Phempo district, rather than from the east: words like cheney for bowl and khenbu for spoon. Except for the last two generations, a member of my family had always been the headman of our village, with the title of Chhija Nangso: Chhija was a name of the place, and Nangso means the "inner watchman." I have always been glad that I come from a humble family of peasants. I left my village when I was very young, as I shall tell, but years later, when I was on my way back from China, I paid a hurried visit to Taktser, and I could not help feeling a sense of pride when I saw my ancestral village and my home. I have always felt that if I had been born in a rich or aristocratic family I would not have been able to appreciate the feelings and sentiments of the humble classes of Tibetans. But owing to my lowly birth, I can understand them and read their minds, and that is why I feel for them so strongly and have tried my best to improve their lot in life.

Our family was large, for I have two sisters and four brothers—and we are widely spread out in age. My mother gave birth to sixteen children, but nine of them died when they were very young. The whole family was linked together by the strongest bonds of love and kindness. My father himself was a very kind-hearted man. He was rather short-tempered too, but his anger never lasted long. He was not very tall or strong, and he was not highly educated, but he had natural cleverness and intelligence. He was especially fond of horses and used to ride a great deal, and he had a talent for choosing good horses and for healing them when they were sick. My mother is a kind and loving person. She feels for everyone; she will gladly give her own meal to a hungry person, and go hungry herself. Yet although she is so gentle, she always ruled the family. She is also adaptable and farsighted, so that after my installation had opened up new possibilities for us, she made it her special duty to see that her other children were properly educated.

Our main livelihood was in agriculture, but we also kept cattle and horses and grew vegetables in our garden. Normally, we had five workers on our farm, and much of the work was done by the family, but during the sowing and harvesting season for a few days we had to hire from fifteen to forty men who were paid in kind. And in our village there existed the custom of helping each other whenever a family stood in need of help or found itself in any difficulty. When my mother went out to work in the fields while I was a baby, she used to carry me on her back, and leave me to sleep in a corner of the field under an umbrella tied to a stake in the ground.

Our house was a square building with a courtyard in the middle. It was single-storied, with the lower part built of stone and the upper part of earth. The edges of the flat roof were lined with turquoise tiles. The main gate faced the south, towards Ami-chiri, and the top of the gate was decorated with spears and flags in the manner which is traditional in Tibet. Prayer flags fluttered from the top of a tall pole in the middle of the courtyard. At the back of the house was a yard where our horses and mules and cattle were kept, and in front of the gate a Tibetan mastiff was tied to a post to guard the house against intruders.

The cattle were eight cows and seven dzomos, which are crosses between yaks and cows. (The word yak means only the male animal, like the word bull. The female of a yak is a dri.) My mother-used to milk the dzomos herself, and as soon as I learned to walk I used to follow her out to the barn, with my bowl in the fold of my gown, and she would give me milk warm from the dzomo. We had chickens too, and I was allowed to go to the henhouse to collect the eggs. This must be one of my earliest recollections. I remember climbing into one of the nesting boxes and sitting there clucking like a hen.

The life of our family was simple, but it was happy and content, and much of its contentment was owed to Thupten Gyatso, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who had been the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet for many years. During his rule, he had clarified and defined the status of Tibet as an independent nation, and he had also achieved a great deal for the betterment of his people. The eastern district where we lived was under the secular rule of China, but he was its spiritual leader, and he had lived there for nearly a year, so that the people were directly under his influence. He said in a testament he addressed to all his people: "After I took up the duties of spiritual and secular administration, there was no leisure for me, no time for pleasure. Day and night I had to ponder anxiously over problems of religion and state, in order to decide how each might prosper best. I had to consider the welfare of the peasantry, how best to remove their sorrows and how to open the three doors of Promptitude, Impartiality, and Justice."

Through his devotion, the people of Tibet had begun to enjoy a long era of peace and prosperity. He himself had said: "From that year, the Year of the Water Bull, to this present Water Monkey Year, this land of Tibet has been happy and prosperous. It is like a land made new. All the people are at ease and happy."

But in the Year of the Water Bird, that is, in 1933, Thupten Gyatso departed from this world, and as the news spread through Tibet, the people were desolate. It was my father who brought the sad news to our village; he had been to market in Kumbum and heard it in the great monastery there. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama had done so much for the peace and welfare of Tibet that the people decided to build a golden mausoleum of special magnificence as a token of their homage and respect. By ancient custom, this splendid tomb was erected inside the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

With the passing of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, the search began at once for his reincarnation, for each Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of his predecessor. The first, who was born in the year 1391 of the Christian era, was an incarnation of Chenresi, the Buddha of Mercy, who made a vow to protect all living beings.

First, a Regent had to be appointed by the National Assembly to govern the country until the new reincarnation could be found and grow to maturity. Then, in accordance with the time-honored customs and traditions, the state oracles and learned lamas were consulted—as a first step towards finding out where the reincarnation had appeared. Curious cloud formations were seen in the northeast from Lhasa. It was recalled that after the Dalai Lama died, his body was placed seated on a throne in the Norbulingka, his summer residence in Lhasa, facing towards the south; but after a few days it was seen that the face had turned towards the east. And on a wooden pillar on the northeastern side of the shrine where the body sat, a great star-shaped fungus suddenly appeared. All this and other evidence indicated the direction where the new Dalai Lama should be sought.

Next, in 1935, the Tibetan Wood Hog Year, the Regent went to the sacred lake of Lhamoi Latso at Chokhorgyal, about ninety miles southeast of Lhasa. The people of Tibet believe that visions of the future can be seen in the waters of this lake. There are many such holy lakes in Tibet, but Lhamoi Latso is the most celebrated of them all. Sometimes the visions are said to appear in the form of letters, and sometimes as pictures of places and future events. Several days were spent in prayers and meditation, and then the Regent saw the vision of three Tibetan letters—Ah, Ka and Ma,—followed by a picture of a monastery with roofs of jade green and gold and a house with turquoise tiles. A detailed description of these visions was written down and kept a strict secret.

In the following year, high lamas and dignitaries, carrying the secrets of the visions, were sent out to all parts of Tibet to search for the place which the Regent had seen in the waters.

The wise men who went to the east arrived in our region of Dokham during the winter, and they observed the green and golden roofs of the monastery of Kumbum. In the village of Taktser, they noticed at once a house with turquoise tiles. Their leader asked if the family living in the house had any children and was told that they had a boy who was nearly two years old.

On hearing this significant news, two members of the party went to the house in disguise, together with a servant and two local monastic officials who were acting as their guides. A junior monastic official of the main party, whose name was Losang Tsewang, pretended to be the leader, while the real leader, Lama Kewtsang RinpochÉ of Sera Monastery, was dressed in poor clothes and acted as a servant. At the gate of the house, the strangers were met by my parents, who invited Losang into the house, believing him to be the master, while the lama and the others were received in the servants' quarters. There they found the baby of the family, and the moment the little boy saw the lama, he went to him and wanted to sit on his lap. The lama was disguised in a cloak which was lined with lambskin, but round his neck he was wearing a rosary which had belonged to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. The little boy seemed to recognize the rosary, and he asked to be given it. The lama promised to give it to him if he could guess who he was, and the boy replied that he was Sera-aga, which meant, in the local dialect, "a lama of Sera." The lama asked who the "master" was, and the boy gave the name of Losang. He also knew the name of the real servant, which was Amdo Kasang.

The lama spent the whole day in watching the little boy with increasing interest, until it was time for the boy to be put to bed. All the party stayed in the house for the night, and early next morning, when they were making ready to leave, the boy got out of his bed and insisted that he wanted to go with them.

I was that boy.

So far, my mother and father had not suspected the real mission of the travelers they had entertained, but a few days later the whole search party of senior lamas and high dignitaries came to our house in Taktser. At the sight of this large distinguished party of visitors, my mother and father understood that I might be a reincarnation, for there are many incarnate lamas in Tibet, and my elder brother had already proved to be one of them. An incarnate lama had recently died at the monastery of Kumbum, and they thought the visitors might be searching for his reincarnation, but it did not occur to them that I might be the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama himself.

It is common for small children who are reincarnations to remember objects and people from their previous lives. Some can also recite the scriptures although they have not yet been taught them. All I had said to the lama had suggested to him that he might at last have discovered the reincarnation he was seeking. The whole party had come to make further tests. They brought with them two identical black rosaries, one of which had belonged to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. When they offered them both to me, I took the one which was his and—so I am told—put it round my own neck. The same test was made with two yellow rosaries. Next, they offered me two drums, a very small drum which the Dalai Lama had used for calling attendants, and a larger and much more ornate and attractive drum with golden straps. I chose the little drum, and began to beat it in the way that drums are beaten during prayers. Last they presented two walking sticks. I touched the wrong walking stick, then paused and looked at it for some time, and then I took the other, which had belonged to the Dalai Lama, and held it in my hand. And later, when they wondered at my hesitation, they found that the first walking stick had also been used at one time by the Dalai Lama, and that he had given it to a lama who in turn had given it to Kewtsang RinpochÉ.

By these tests, they were further convinced that the reincarnation had been found, and their conviction was strengthened by the vision of three letters which the Regent had seen in the lake. They believed that the first letter, Ah, stood for Amdo, which was the name of our district. Ka could have stood for Kumbum, which was one of the largest monasteries in the neighborhood, and the one which the Regent had seen in the vision; or the two letters Ka and Ma might have signified the monastery of Karma Rolpai Dorje on the mountain above the village.

It also seemed to them to be significant that some years before, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama had stayed at the monastery of Karma Rolpai Dorje, when he was on his way back from China. He had been welcomed there by the incarnate lama of the monastery, and received homage and obeisance from the people of the village, including my father, who was nine years old at the time. It was also recalled that the Dalai Lama had left a pair of his boots or jachhen behind at the monastery. He had also looked for some time at the house where I was born, and remarked that it was a beautiful place.

By all these facts, the search party was fully convinced that the reincarnation was discovered. They reported all the details to Lhasa by telegram. There was only one telegraph line in Tibet, from Lhasa to India, and so the message had to be sent in code from Sining through China and India; and by the same route an order came back to take me at once to the Holy City.

However, since the northeastern part of Tibet where we lived was under Chinese control at that time, the Chinese governor had first to be consulted. The search party told him they had come to seek for the new Dalai Lama and asked for his help in taking possible candidates to Lhasa. They did not tell him they believed they had made the final choice, for fear that he might make difficulties. And in fact, he would not give an answer. He twice summoned all the boys he was told had been considered, and although he himself was a Moslem, he decided to make a test of his own. It was a very simple test. He offered a box of sweets to us all. Some of the boys were too frightened to take any, and some were so greedy that they took a handful, but I, I am told, took one and ate it discreetly. This, and some questioning, seemed to satisfy him that I was the likeliest choice, for he sent all the other children home, presenting a roll of cloth to each of their parents, but to my parents he gave orders to take meto the monastery of Kumbum and leave me there in the charge of my brother—who was already a monastic student.

It is said that the Governor then demanded a ransom of a hundred thousand Chinese dollars from the representatives of the Tibetan government before he would let me go. This was a great deal of money, and he had no right to it. They paid him, but then he demanded another three hundred thousand. The government representatives told him it was still uncertain whether I was really the reincarnation, and explained that there were other candidates from other parts of Tibet. They were now afraid that if he believed I was certain to be accepted as the Dalai Lama, he would put his price even higher, and cause even more delay. They also felt there was a danger that the Chinese government might take the opportunity to demand some kind of authority in Tibet.

These difficulties had to be referred to Lhasa. It seemed unwise to discuss them in telegrams through China, so messages had to be sent to the capital by hand. It took several months to get a reply and altogether very nearly two years passed from the beginning of the search to the end of these negotiations with the Governor.

All this time, strict secrecy was observed on the whole matter, not only for fear of what the Chinese governor might do, but also because the discovery had not yet been laid before the National Assembly of Tibet for official acceptance. Not even my parents were told of the firm belief of the search party, and even through the long period of waiting they never suspected that I might be the reincarnation of the highest of all lamas. However, my mother has told me since I grew up that there had been previous signs of some extraordinary fate for me. There is a widespread superstition in Tibet that before a high incarnate lama is reborn, the district where he is born will suffer. For four years before I was born, the crops had failed in Taktser either through hailstorms when the corn was ripe, or through drought when it was young, and the village people had been saying that an incarnation must be going to be born among them. And my own family especially had fallen on hard times. Several of our horses and cattle, which were among our few valuable possessions, had died, and my father could not discover any reason. And in the few months before I was born, my father himself had been badly ill and unable to get out of bed. Yet on the morning of my birth, he got up feeling perfectly well, and offered prayers and filled the butter lamps which always burned on our family altar. My mother remembers being annoyed at this and accusing him of having stayed in bed through laziness, but he declared that he was cured. When I was born, and my mother told him, "It's a boy," he simply said, "Good. I would like to make him a monk."

While the discussions with the Governor were going on, I was left in the monastery. I was about three by then, and of course I was very unhappy at first at being separated from my parents. Beside my eldest brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu, my third brother, Losang Samten, who was five, was also there, but he had begun to take lessons, and while he was with his tutor I had nobody to play with. I still remember waiting impatiently outside his classroom, and sometimes peering round the curtain in the doorway to try to attract his attention without letting his tutor see me. But the tutor was strict, and Samten was helpless.

Our uncle was also there, and I am sorry to say that Samten and I had a childish dislike of him—mainly, I think, because he had a dark spotty face and a bristly black beard (which is rare among Tibetans) and a moustache which he carefully trained by frequent applications of fat. Also, he was often cross with us—probably not without reason. I remember his exceptionally large and ostentatious rosary, in which the beads were quite black from constant use. And I specially remember his set of loose-leaf scriptures, because once I tried to look at it and got the loose leaves all mixed up, thus earning a few sound slaps from that angry uncle. When that sort of thing happened, Samten and I used to run away and hide and leave our uncle to search for us for hours. We did not realize what intense anxiety this must have caused him, in view of the value which the Governor had placed upon me. But such escapades proved effective, for when he found us, negotiations used to take place for better relations in the future, and with luck he would pacify us with sweets—which he never gave us while we behaved ourselves.

Altogether, that was a lonely and rather unhappy phase in my childhood. Sometimes Samten's tutor used to put me on his lap and wrap me in his gown and give me dried fruits, and that is almost the only solace I remember. My sister reminds me that one of my solitary games was playing at starting on journeys: making up parcels, and then setting off with them on a hobbyhorse.


On Sale
Dec 14, 2008
Page Count
256 pages