The first Dalai Lama was Gedun Drub, born in 1391. He became founder of the Tashi Lhunpo monastery, and wrote many books on philosophy. What was the point? To put it bluntly, he and some other Buddhists thought that people were getting lazy and stupid.
The monastery became home for the “Yellow Hat Sect” of Buddhist monks, or Dgelugs-pa. They’re known for restoring discipline to the monastic lifestyle, promoting vigorous and rigorous academic studies, and minimizing the increasingly common reliance on magical rites.
The renewal of the Buddhist monastic lifestyle also imposed a vow of celibacy and abstinence from alcohol and meat for all monks in the sect.
As tough as it might have seemed for the monks, the Dalai Lamas haven’t had it easy personally, either. Up until 1578, the first and second gentlemen were only known as “abbots”—they didn’t even have a fancy title! It was the third successor who received the title of Dalai Lama, meaning “Ocean of Wisdom,” from the Mongolian king Altan Khan.
During these early centuries, four successors to the position died in their youth.
What does it mean to be a Dalai Lama? Buddhists from this sect believe that the Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of a past lama who made the conscious decision to be re-born, in order to continue his very important work. All Dalai Lamas since the first abbot, Gedun Drub, are reincarnations of Gedun Drub, who lived until 1474.
This means it can take some time to find the new Dalai Lama after the previous one dies! How do they know who the reincarnated child is? There are a number of rituals that High Lamas endure to pinpoint the location of the reborn Dalai Lama, after which they will bring a number of artefacts to the child’s home. If the child chooses the correct artefacts—namely, those that belonged to the Dalai Lama—it’s seen as a sign of reincarnation.