Millionaire Monk: How the Dalai Lama Balances Spirituality and Wealth

There are only a few religious leaders around the world who are acknowledged with having a blend of spiritual power and cultural significance that carries through generations. Their roles are beyond the individual and the ego and span the eternity of time, having different individuals dawn the robes and religious garbs and pick up where the last left off. The Catholics have The Pope, the Mormons have The Prophet, Islam the Imam, and Tibetan Buddhists have His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

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The Dalai Lama has been an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism for 14 generations, with the 14th Dalai Lama, born Tenzin Gyatso, having been announced as the reincarnation on July 6, 1935. The Dalai Lama serves not only as the religious leader of the Gelung school of Tibetan Buddhism but also as the leader and the symbol of unification for the state of Tibet. With the recent Chinese annexation of Tibet, the Dalai Lama lineage is currently in question, with the Chinese government claiming executive authority over naming the next Dalai Lama, while His Holiness has announced that the next Lama, if there is one, may be the first to be born outside of Tibet.

After being exiled from Tibet, the Dalai Lama established a Tibetan government in exile in Dharamshala, India where he currently resides. In addition to his roles in religion and international politics, he is also a surprising millionaire, maintaining a net worth of over $150 million. Where does is money come from? And how has someone who dedicated his life to compassion, thought, teaching, and religion have a net worth higher than actresses Emma Watson, Mila Kunis, and Kristen Stewart combined? The answer lies somewhere between the lineage, the lifestyle, and the economic influence that His Holiness holds.

The Selection after Reincarnation

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The Dalai Lama is a figure similar to a President, a Prophet, or a simple school teacher, in that the name and role can be fulfilled by different people from different times and requires a selection process to gain the title. But unlike these positions, the role is only fulfilled once throughout each generation. Since 1391 and the introduction of the first Dalai Lama, Gendün Drubpa, there have been 14 distinct Dalai Lamas. But, this still means there has only been one Dalai Lama over the course of over 800 years, which is where it might get a little confusing.

According to The Book of Kadam, an ancient Buddhist scripture within the Kadampa school of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is an incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, known for their compassion and relationship with the people of Tibet. A bodhisattva is unique in that in certain sects, Buddhists believe they have achieved Nirvana, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. But the bodhisattvas choose to be reborn in order help others attain enlightenment. The incarnations of bodhisattva Avalokitesvara have gone beyond the title of the Dalai lama and have also included early Tibetan kings and emperors including Dromtonpa from 1004 and Atisa from 980.

The first recognized Dalai Lama has similar roots to the Christian mythological origin of Jesus Christ. Pema Dorje, or the first Dalai Lama was born in a manger or cattle-pen in Shabtod, Tsang. Since then, new generations have entered Tibet with unexplainable memories and the ability to speak in verse that have identified them as the incarnation of Avalokitesvara. But what, then, has kept other individuals from claiming to be an incarnation in the hopes of gaining the power and influence of Tibet and the esteemed title of His Holiness the Dalai Lama? Possible corruption is ruled out through rigorous tests and resourceful research which can at times take years to complete.

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Traditionally, the successor is located by senior monastic disciples based on both signs and visions. The search begins after the death of the previous Dalai Lama and often begins at Lhamoi La-tso, a lake traditionally used to see visions of the location of the Dalai Lama’s rebirth. A child is then found whose age synchronizes perfectly with the death of the previous Dalai Lama. In many cases, when the child is found, they recognize one of the monks involved in the search party, who often disguise themselves in the process to prevent any manipulation. The new incarnation then tends to identify an item worn by a member of the party, in the 14th Dalai Lamas case, he spotted the rosary beads around a monks neck that had belonged to the previous 13th Dalai Lama. Then, a series of tests are performed which includes the identification of objects and previous possessions which must be done with complete and total accuracy.

A Wealth of his Own

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The Dalai Lama retains most of his wealth through being the leader of Tibet, or, in the case of the 14th Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan Government in Exile, the Central Tibetan Administration. He did retire as political head in 2011 though to make way for a democratic government. Part of the worth also comes from cultural significance which includes as the author of a vast collection of over 58 published books and the subject of seven feature film documentaries.

Another part of the worth also comes from cultural significance provided through several awards and honors. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the US Congressional Gold Medal in 2006, the Templeton Prize in 2012, the Ahimsa Award in 2007, the Freedom Metal in 1994, and the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1959.

An Entourage of Entrepreneurs

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The Dalai Lama has also had the pleasure of meeting some of the world’s most powerful, rich, influential, and culturally significant figures in modern history. He has met with several Presidents including George W. Bush and Barack Obama and with celebrities like Goldie Hawn, Russel Brand, and Naomi Watts. He is also open to discussing economics and finance, offering compassionate advice on business for those willing to listen. He often talks about money and the role it plays within society.

“Money is good,” said His Holiness. “It is important. Without money, daily survival – not to mention further development – is impossible. So we are not even questioning its importance. At the same time, it is wrong to consider money a god or a substance endowed with some power of its own. To think that money is everything, and that just by having lots of it all our problems will be solved is a serious mistake.”

The Future Dalai Lama: Does Wealth Transfer Incarnations?

After the annexation of Tibet, the Chinese government has declared themselves the next identifying force when it comes to choosing the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama, a statement that seems to defeat its own purpose. But with political power and a significant net worth, the desire of the Chinese government to control this decision seems all but surprising. To combat this, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has made several statements to challenge any Chinese governments possible selection. He has stated a Dalai Lama may no longer be needed, that he would transfer his spiritual powers prior to his death into the next incarnation, that the next Dalai Lama would be born outside of Tibet and abroad in most likely India, or, that the next incarnation may be reborn as a woman. While all of these remain a possibility, the future of the Dalai Lama is uncertain. But what does remain true, is that whoever Tibet recognizes in the role, will also inherit the current Dalai Lama’s perceived power and influence, as well as his $150 million net worth.

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