Q. How did the Dalai Lama become the most famous Buddhist in the world?
A: Spiritually speaking, many people assume that the Dalai Lama is like the pope of Buddhism. This is not true. For one thing, the Dalai Lama is the highest-ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism, but he is not officially recognized as a leader among the other schools of Buddhism.
For example, although Tibetan Buddhism is the state religion of Bhutan, the last independent Buddhist kingdom in the world, Bhutan has its own head lama. Other schools of Buddhism have their own chief monks or sangha leaders. The Sangha Raja (Sovereign Monk) is the supreme patriarch of Buddhists in Thailand. There are also other heads of large Buddhist sects, such as Fuji-san, head of Japan’s Nichirin, or Pure Land, sect of so-called “chanting” Buddhists, who are known for building “peace pagodas” around the world.
The Dalai Lama’s role differs from the pope’s in other ways, too. Buddhism is not arranged in so hierarchical a fashion as is the Catholic Church, and there is no single head or ascendant ruling school. In fact, in Tibetan Buddhism, there are four sects or schools, and the Dalai Lama is head of only one of them, the Gelugpa school.
The dramatic escape in January from Tibet of the 17th Karmapa Lama underscores the interrelationship of the various sects and their high lamas: the Karmapa (which literally means “man of Buddha activity”), is the third-highest ranking lama in Tibet and the head of another large sect, the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism, founded 900 years ago.
The Panchen Lama, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, meanwhile, is the second-highest ranking Gelugpa Tibetan lama after the Dalai Lama. Human rights groups call the young Panchen Lama, who would now be 10 or 11, the world’s youngest political prisoner. After the Dalai Lama officially proclaimed him Panchen Lama in 1995, the boy was almost immediately abducted and imprisoned by the Chinese government and has not been seen in public since. It is feared that he is dead. All three of these lamas–the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, and the Panchen Lama–are revered spiritual leaders and vital symbols of Tibetan independence both within and outside their homeland.
The Dalai Lama is also Tibet’s political leader. He remains the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, which he established in the Indian hill station of Dharamsala 40 years ago, through the grace of Pandit Nehru and the Indian government, after escaping into exile himself in 1959. From there, he leads the fight for Tibetan cultural preservation and autonomy, if not complete political freedom and independence from Chinese rule. In each of the last 10 years, he has visited 50 or more countries on his mission of peace, nonviolence, and human rights. For his humanitarian work and peaceful resistance to Chinese Communist rule in formerly independent Tibet, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
Historically, the Dalai Lamas, like most Tibetans, remained isolated from the rest of the globe. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is only the second ever to have traveled as far from his country as India and China, and he is the first to venture further into the outside world. Indeed, his own charisma and accomplishments–largely in response to Tibet’s occupation by China–have had more to do with his stance among spiritual leaders today than does his position as Dalai Lama in Tibet.
The rise of the Dalai Lamas as an institution within Tibetan Buddhism has taken an tortuous course across six centuries. And only in the last 300 years have the Dalai Lamas held the position of spiritual and temporal sovereign of Tibet. Beyond fulfilling their political duties, the Dalai Lamas have included great poets, scholars, and adepts who have brought ever higher honor to the title.
Since the 17th century, when the term came into use, each Dalai Lama has been regarded as the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig, in Tibetan) and is considered the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. Tibetans believe that the timeless Buddha’s emanation in this world alleviates the suffering and confusion of all beings and takes the form of the incarnations of the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa Lama, and other tulkus (incarnated lamas). This practice of recognizing reincarnated saints and sages is unique to Tibetan Buddhism, although there are variations of it elsewhere in world religions.
The first lama to earn the title Dalai Lama was a learned and renowned monk named Gendun Drub (1391-1474). A disciple of the founder of the Gelugpa sect, the saintly religious reformer Master Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), Gendun Drub established the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery and University. which grew to become the largest monastery in the world, a spiritual training ground for as many as 8,000 resident monks. This master later came to be known as the First Dalai Lama, in honor of his extraordinary attainments.
As soon as he was old enough to speak, the second Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542), revealed that he was the reincarnation of Gendun Drub, and expressed his wish to be reunited with his disciples at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.
The third Dalai Lama was Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588) and it was only during his lifetime that the term Dalai Lama came into use. After being converted by him to the nonviolent way of Buddhism, a war-like Mongol king named Altan Khan proclaimed Sonam Gyamtso the “Dalai Lama.” Dalai is Mongolian for ocean or, by extension, oceanic or infinitely vast. The title Dalai Lama means teacher whose wisdom is as vast as the ocean. From the 16th century onward, the title Dalai Lama became the honorific for these grand lamas.
In 1642, the “Great Fifth” Dalai Lama (1617-1682), through a complicated series of sectarian shifts, consolidated leadership over all Tibet. Ever since, the Dalai Lamas have been the spiritual and temporal leaders of Tibet, and their Gelug sect ascendant among the four great, and eight lesser, schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Many people today believe the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, may come to be known as one of the very greatest Dalai Lamas. It remains to be seen if he will be successful in effecting his own and his people’s return to their former freedom of religion and independence in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated that if and when Tibetans regain their country’s autonomy, he would return to Tibet, call for a democratic system to be installed rather than reinstituting a theocracy, hold a general democratic election for the political leadership of his country, and retire to pursue his spiritual practice.