Lhamo Döndrub (or Thondup) was born on 6 July 1935 to a farming and horse trading family in the small hamlet of Taktser, in the eastern border of the former Tibetan region of Amdo, then already assimilated into the Chinese province of Qinghai. He was one of seven siblings to survive childhood. The eldest was his sister Tsering Dolma, eighteen years older. His eldest brother, Thupten Jigme Norbu, had been recognised at the age of eight as the reincarnation of the high Lama Taktser Rinpoche. His sister, Jetsun Pema, spent most of her adult life on the Tibetan Children's Villages project. The Dalai Lama's first language was, in his own words, "a broken Xining language which was (a dialect of) the Chinese language" as his family did not speak the Tibetan language.
A search party was sent to locate the new incarnation when the boy who was to become the 14th was about two years old. It is said that, amongst other omens, the head of the embalmed body of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, at first facing south-east, had mysteriously turned to face the northeast—indicating the direction in which his successor would be found. The Regent, Reting Rinpoche, shortly afterwards had a vision at the sacred lake of Lhamo La-tso indicating Amdo as the region to search—specifically a one-story house with distinctive guttering and tiling. After extensive searching, the Thondup house, with its features resembling those in Reting's vision, was finally found.
Thondup was presented with various relics, including toys, some of which had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and some of which had not. It was reported that he had correctly identified all the items owned by the previous Dalai Lama, exclaiming, "That's mine! That's mine!"
The Chinese Muslim General Ma Bufang did not want the 14th Dalai Lama to succeed his predecessor. Ma Bufang stationed his men to place the Dalai Lama under effective house arrest, saying it was needed for "protection", refusing to permit his leaving to Tibet. He did all he could to delay the transport of the Dalai Lama from Qinghai to Tibet, by demanding massive sums of money in silver. The demanded payment by Ma Bufang was 100,000 Chinese silver dollars.
Lhamo Thondup was recognised formally as the reincarnated Dalai Lama and renamed Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom) although he was not formally enthroned as the Dalai Lama until the age of 15; instead, the regent acted as the head of the Kashag until that time. Tibetan Buddhists normally refer to him as Yishin Norbu (Wish-Fulfilling Gem), Kyabgon (Saviour), or just Kundun (Presence). His devotees, as well as much of the Western world, often call him His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the style employed on the Dalai Lama's website.
Monastic education commenced at the age of six years, his principal teachers being Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche (senior tutor) and Yongdzin Trijang Rinpoche (junior tutor). At the age of 11 he met the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who became his videographer and tutor about the world outside Lhasa. The two remained friends until Harrer's death in 2006.
In 1959, at the age of 23, he took his final examination at Lhasa's Jokhang Temple during the annual Monlam or prayer Festival. He passed with honours and was awarded the Lharampa degree, the highest-level geshe degree, roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy.