Leaders of Tibetan Buddhism

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Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and former political leader of Tibet

Leaders of Tibetan Buddhism are found among the many different schools and lineages. The most prominent leaders are the Dalai Lama and the heads of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as the head of the Tibetan Bon tradition.

Historically, the Dalai Lamas have served as the political leaders of the Tibetan state, and they were also respected as spiritual leaders. But contrary to common misperceptions in the West, religious life in Tibetan Buddhism is not organized heirarchically. For example, unlike the Pope of the Catholic church, who appoints cardinals and bishops to run the affairs of the church, the Dalai Lama does not appoint the heads of monasteries, lineages, or other institutions. In addition, unlike the Pope, the Dalai Lama does not issue decrees or promulgate new teachings that other Buddhists are expected adopt.

The monastic institutions in Tibetan Buddhism are self-organized and depend for their support on their local community. They are usually associated with one of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. While all the major schools in Tibet share a core set of teachings, each school also includes a unique teaching lineage that is traced back to particular teachers. Each of the main schools also have their own "study colleges" (shedras), where they train scholars following a curriculum particular to that school. Some scholars will train at more than one "study college", and hence become proficient in the teachings of multiple schools.

Each of the major schools and lineages have their own unique methods for chosing their leaders. For example, the head of the Kagyu school (the Karmapa) is traditionally selected by finding the rebirth of the previous Karmapa. The head of the Sakya school is traditionally a hereditary position. The head of the Nyingma rotates between the leaders of the six Nyingma lineages, with a new head chosen every three years. The head of the Gelugpa school is appointed by a democratic process for a seven year term.

Non-hierarchal structure

Matheui Ricard writes:

...the Buddhist community is not organized in a hierarchical manner as, for example, in the Catholic Church, where priests must account for their behavior to the bishops, cardinals and eventually, at the top of the pyramid, to the Pope himself. Buddhist schools, as these have emerged in different countries are institutionally completely independent of each other. And even within the fold of Tibetan Buddhism, the patriarchs of the four principal schools—while being respected as spiritual authorities—do not intervene in the administration of the monasteries, which function as autonomous entities.

Among Tibetan masters, H.H. the XIVth Dalai Lama is clearly the object of unanimous respect. The teachings and advice that he gives may well be the source of profound inspiration but they are never regarded as commands. No authoritative body goes to check whether a given monastery actually implements his advice.[1]

Heads of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism

Head of the Gelugpa school

The head of the Gelugpa school is the Ganden Tripa who is appointed by a democratic process for seven years.

The current Ganden Tripa is Kyabje Jetsun Lobsang Tenzin Palsangpo appointed on 24th June 2017[2]

Head of the Karmapa school

The head of the Karmapa school is the Karmapa. The Karmapa serves for life, and a new Karmapa is traditionally selected by finding the rebirth of the previous Karmapa.

Head of the Sakya school

The head of the Sakya school is the Sakya Trizin. The Sakya school is unique, in that its head is chosen from a particular hereditary lineage, the descendants of the Khön family.

The current Sakya Trizin is: 42nd Sakya Trizin, Ratna Vajra Rinpoche.

Head of the Nyingmapa school

The head of the Nyingmapa rotates between the leaders of the six Nyingmapa lineages, with a new head chosen every three years.

The Nyingmapa school did not have an official leader prior to the formation of the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan government in exile) in 1960. The position of the “Supreme Head” of the Nyingmapas was established at this time in order to represent the school within the Tibetan administration.[3]

Head of the Bon tradition

The oldest spiritual tradition in Tibet is the Bon tradition They don't follow the historical Buddha as such, rather, they say that their founder is “Buddha Shenrab. He is said to have been born in the mythical land of Olmo Lung Ring, whose exact location remains something of a mystery. “ They say that their teachings date back to a Buddha who lived before Buddha Shakyamuni. The Dalai Lama has “stressed the importance of preserving the Bön tradition, as representing the indigenous source of Tibetan culture, and acknowledging the major role it has had in shaping Tibet's unique identity.”

There are only a few Bon remaining outside of Tibet, though it had more than three hundred monasteries in Tibet before the Chinese invasion. Their senior teacher is Lopön Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche.

The role of the current Dalai Lama

The 14th Dalai Lama currently lives in exile in India. He has retired from a political role, but he still offers spiritual guidance to the Tibetan Buddhist community.

He is one of the teachers who has mastered the academic teachings of all the major Buddhist lineages in Tibet as well as carrying the transmissions for many practices from different schools that need to be passed on personally from teacher to pupil. He is however not unique in that respect.

The Dalai Lama is a lineage holder in the Gelugpa school, but he is not the head of this lineage. The head of the Gelugpa lineage is the Ganden Tripa.

The Dalai Lama is closely associated with the Gelugpas and with particularly with the founder of the Gelugpa lineage, Tsongkhapa, but has close assocations with other traditions as well.

The Dalai Lama succession

Dalai lamas and their line of reincarnation

The Dalai Lamas follow a line of reincarnation which normally means there’s a gap between the death of the previous Dalai Lama and the coming of age of the next Dalai Lama, as he has to take birth and then grow up to adulthood.

Relationship with the Panchen lama

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, The 11th Panchen Lama in 1995

"Traditionally the Dalai Lamas are involved in the recognition of the Panchen Lamas, and the Panchen Lamas in the recognition of the Dalai Lamas. The Panchen Lamas train the young Dalai Lamas, and when the Dalai Lamas come of age they teach the younger incarnation of the Panchen Lamas."[4]

But the Panchen Lama chosen by our current Dalai Lama and his delegation in Tibet disappeared from public view aged six. This is him as he was soon before he disappeared:

He was taken into custody by the Chinese aged 6, who said they needed to protect him, along with his parents, making him the world’s youngest political prisoner at the time. He should now be 27 (as of spring 2017). The Chinese say that he is in good health and happy, but have not let anyone confirm that he is alive and well, and he has now been missing for over 21 years, in this sense that the Chinese have not permitted any contact with anyone even to confirm that he is still alive.

At the time that he disappeared, the Chinese chose their own version of the Panchen Lama which the Dalai Lama doesn’t recognize.

In an interview from April 2018, the Dalai Lama said that according to reliable information Gedhun Nyima is still alive and continuing a normal education. He also said of the Chinese selection, Gyancain Norbu, that he has studied well under the guidance of one good teacher. He also says that there can be more than one reincarnation of a lama - only one for the seat, but others that are also reincarnations.