All forms of Buddhism believe in reincarnation; everyone is bound to a cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth until they gain enlightenment and can "step off the wheel." Certain enlightened ones choose to stay on the wheel of life as an act of charity and kindness, to assist others in finding enlightenment. These "volunteer returnees" are called Bodhisattvas. In Tibet, the regional form of Buddhism has evolved a kind of inheritance, which flows not from parent to child, but from deceased to his reincarnation. Recognized reincarnates proliferate in Tibet and are called tulkus, and the most famous tulku is the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama was first recognized in the 16th century. The first person so designated, a leader of the "yellow sect" of Tibetan Buddhism named Sonan Gyats, was given the title of the Third Dalai Lama, and his two predecessors were recognized as the first and second Dalai Lamas after the fact. It was the fifth who became the state ruler as well as religious leader of Tibet. The name means "Ocean of Wisdom," and all holders of the title are assumed to be the earthly incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.
Tulkus are discovered in very early childhood, as soon after the death of their previous incarnation as is possible. They are found by following clues their predecessor may have left in his speaking or writings, by portents and dreams that other tulkus may have, and finally, by an examination of the child to include the tulku-candidate's being able to correctly identify common household items from his previous life mixed among a collection of similar items.
The current Dalai Lama is the 14th of his line and was born to a farming family in 1935, and given the name Lhamo Dhondrub. He was recognized at the age of two, and brought, with his family, to live in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, at the age of four, where he became His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso. (Dalai Lamas, like Popes, change names upon taking up their office.) He was reared and educated (to the equivalent of a PhD) in the monastery system.
When China annexed Tibet in 1959, he and thousands of his supporters fled into exile. He has lived in Dharamsala, India, since 1960, and heads the Tibetan government-in-exile. China does not recognize Tibet as an independent political entity. The Dalai Lama has been a powerful spokesman for Tibet, and Buddhism in general, and has written a number of books on the topic. His consistent opposition to violence was recognized in 1989 with the Nobel Peace Prize.
He has recently collaborated with MIT to study what role Buddhist meditation plays in human emotion and cognition, and has said: "If science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts." He remains one of the most respected religious leaders in the world.