‘Dalai Lama’ is an honorific title consisting of the Mongolian word for ‘ocean’ (dalai) and the Tibetan word for ‘teacher’ or ‘superior one’ (). In 1578, the Mongol ruler Altan Khan bestowed the title on his spiritual teacher Sonam Gyatso (1543–1588), the head of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Sonam Gyatso described himself as the third Dalai Lama; he conferred the title on his two predecessors retrospectively. With the support of the Mongols, the Gelug school consolidated its power. In 1642, the Mongol ruler Gushri Khan installed the fifth Dalai Lama as the spiritual and secular leader of Tibet.
The Dalai Lama is considered to be the earthly manifestation of the. It is believed that upon his death, he is reborn and in time succeeds to the office. Upon the death of a Dalai Lama, an exhaustive search is launched in an effort to find the child in whom he is reincarnated. The current Dalai Lama is the fourteenth reincarnation.