Dalai Lama, an epithet used for the first time in 1578 by the Mongol ruler Altan Khan for Sonam Gyatso, the Third Dalai Lama, or the third in the bodhisattva reincarnation line later identified as the Dalai Lama lineage, is a combination of two terms, ‘Lama’ meaning a Buddhist monk, and ‘Dalai’, ocean-like profound, wide and deep, that is, the monk having ocean-like breadth and depth of knowledge. ‘Dalai’ was actually the Mongolian equivalent of ‘Gyatso’, a Tibetan term that emerged in use as an epithet during the lifetime of the second Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso, as the distinction of the Lamas in reincarnation lineage of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. ‘Gyatso’ had the same meaning as ‘Dalai’.
King Altan Khan, a descendant of the known Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, a follower of Tibetan Buddhism in early thirteenth century, was tired of bloodshed and warfare and wished to have peace on his soil. He invited Sonam Gyatso, the best known Buddhist monk of his time, to his court and wished that by his teachings he led his blood-thirsty subjects to the path of peace, love and humanity. Influenced by Sonam Gyatso’s profound knowledge and spiritual energy king Altan Khan honoured him with ‘Dalai Lama’ as his epithet. Then onwards, though the term ‘Gyatso’ was retained as before to comprise the later half of the name in the Dalai Lama lineage but it was the epithet ‘Dalai Lama’ that gave the lineage its unique distinction ever since. The epithet was used not only for Sonam Gyatso and his eleven subsequent reincarnations but also for the two preceding ones – Gendun Drubpa and Gendun Gyatso, posthumously.
CONTINUATION OF LIFE, BODHISATTVA, DALAI LAMA AND TIBETAN PREFERENCES
Not merely that the Dalai Lama is the highest office of the present day Buddhism, it is also one of its three most significant institutions, the other two being the Buddha and the Bodhisattva, that emerged in Buddhism over centuries. Enlightenment is the attribute of them all, even of the Dalai Lama who, possessed of oceanic breadth and depth of knowledge, attains the same state of enlightenment as a bodhisattva. However, while the Buddha defined the state of utter spiritual perfection leading to ‘nirvana’ – final extinction, a bodhisattva, in his role as a teacher seeking accomplishment of his two-fold objective, the worldly and the transcendental, keeps on postponing attainment of this state of utter spiritual perfection and his own liberation in preference to a controlled or chosen birth or rebirth. In Tibetan Buddhism, or rather in entire Tibetan tradition, irrespective of this or that branch or school, rebirth and continuation of one’s deeds or perfection level that one attains in one birth into the next is a universally accepted principle. Obviously with humanitarian, social and political compulsions conditioning its life, Tibet developed a natural preference for bodhisattva cult. Its reason was obvious. A bodhisattva by a will to reincarnate as many times as required and by his ability to postpone his own liberation at his will could better help Tibet in resolving its spiritual as well as social and political problems – political instability, infighting, enmity among others.
This Tibetan preference for the bodhisattva cult had early, perhaps pre-historic, roots. Apart that Tibet was till sixteenth century a land divided into innumerable ruling segments and as many tribes and stood in dire need of some power that brought them under one umbrella, its mythical past too has identical connotations. As popular Tibetan myths have it, Tibet was initially the habitation of unruly beasts. Then Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara emanated in a thousand animal-reincarnations and mixed with various extant animal groups. Through these emanated forms he taught them peace and harmony and when external conditions were suitable, took birth as a monkey. He encountered a horrible looking female ascetic, an emanation of the Goddess Tara. They mated and gave birth to the ever first human beings, all different from each other in body-colours, nature and everything. They were the progenitors of original six tribes of Tibet. Soon their number multiplied and now there were eighteen tribes, which number further expanded and Tibet finally had hundreds of tribes inhabiting it. Soon, out of the will to govern there evolved as numerous ruling seats fragmenting this terrace of the earth into small political entities, each engaged in designs to expand, conquer and defeat.
Thus, while Tibet inherited from history a divided populace and fractured polity, it also perceived in the same source such spiritual energy which would lead it to unity, peace and redemption. Hence a divided and weak Tibet was not really weak but was rather one that ever and instinctively had inherent in it the ability to recoup. Consequently, Tibet always looked for a motivating power that reinvigorated it by shifting the focus from conquests, infightings and enmity to the inner workings of the mind and heart bringing peace and unity to the land. Obviously, instead of placing its preference on one seeking his own liberation, Tibet had a preference for him who chose its postponement in order to lead the land to peace, unity and harmony.
The Tibetan mind was thus naturally inclined to the bodhisattva-cult. However, the Indian vision of an abstract bodhisattva representing one of the Buddhist cardinals could not long inspire Tibetan masses. In its strange political and social circumstances and encroaching religious beliefs from outside Tibet required a bodhisattva who like a national role model had lively interaction with its people and united in peace warring kingdoms and divided tribes, besides leading to the path of personal liberation. Obviously, such wider objectives could be accomplished only by someone who synthesised in him with spiritualism some kind of political authority or vision. It seems that it was such quest of Tibetan mind that concretised first as tulkus – officially recognised reincarnate lamas, and finally in the fifteenth century, when the very existence of the Buddhism was in peril, as the institution of Dalai Lama who as Avalokiteshvara reincarnate inherited all his spiritual energy and being in mortal frame inspired confidence of masses.
AVALOKITESHVARA’S REINCARNATION DISCOVERED IN DALAI LAMA
Not a pre-meditated quest, an Avalokiteshvara-reincarnation, who became the fountain head of the Dalai Lama lineage, was intuitively discovered. In the course of his interaction with his disciple Gendun Drubpa, the First Dalai Lama, his teacher Jey Tsongkhapa, an enlightened monk and a great Buddhist scholar, realised that Gendun Drubpa was close to his liberation but instead of he remained in human birth and worked for uplifting all beings. Hence, Tsongkhapa impulsively acclaimed that Gendun Drubpa was a reincarnation of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara who out of compassion for suffering mankind preferred staying in the human domain for redeeming it from its miseries and kept on postponing his own ‘nirvana’.
Some subsequent scholars believed that Gendun Drubpa was Lama Drom’s reincarnation, though Lama Drom was a reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara. Thus, too, Gendun Drubpa was in the line of Avalokiteshvara. Gendun Gyatso, the Second Dalai Lama, too, was acclaimed almost identically as another reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara.
The Third Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso was identified as Gendun Gyatso’s reincarnation, the Fourth, of the Third, and so on and so forth. Thus, the term Dalai Lama defined the reincarnation-lineage of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara; however, while the term bodhisattva, even Avalokiteshvara, stood broadly for any of the abstract qualities or attributes leading to enlightenment enshrining any form, human or otherwise, a Dalai Lama was essentially a reincarnation in human birth. Thus, despite that a Dalai Lama is a bodhisattva reincarnate, he represents an institution different from the bodhisattva.
TRANSFORMATION OF THE DALAI LAMA INSTITUTION
However, for about two hundred years after its emergence, that is, during the life-tenure of the first four Dalai Lamas, this reincarnate lama institution, widely known as the Dalai Lama ‘labrang’, did not have the same status as it has now. It enjoyed great popularity and wielded immense influence but was just one among such ten entities of Tibetan Buddhism. Thus, the first four Dalai Lamas represented only the preparatory stage in the growth of the institution which manifested fully in the Fifth Dalai Lama Gyalwa Lobzang Gyatso popularly called Ngawang Labzang Gyatso or just the ‘Great Fifth’.
In 1642, when the ‘Great Fifth’ was twenty-five years of age, a warring and disquiet Tibet nominated him to the position of the supreme spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan nation and with this the Dalai Lama institution underwent complete transformation. Now Dalai Lama was not one among some influential lamas or the spiritual patron of a state but was above them all, great monks and mighty chieftains occupying seats in the assembly much lower than him.
Not a battle’s decision, or political consensus, a hundred years old prophesy was perhaps more convincing a reason for this unanimous acceptance of the authority of the ‘Great Fifth’ as the Tibetans’ supreme leader. As was widely believed, Gendun Gyatso, the Second Dalai Lama, was unwilling to reincarnate. One day Padma Sambhava, the great eighth century teacher who came to Tibet from India, appeared in his vision. Besides that Padma Sambhava asked him to continue reincarnating for world’s weal he also revealed that after a period of hundred years he would emerge as Tibet’s spiritual and temporal head and in that position he shall bring to the land such benefits that shall sustain for hundreds of years. Exactly after one hundred years Ngawang Labzang Gyatso was awarded the position of Tibet’s supreme spiritual and temporal leader. People recalled the prophesy of Guru Padma Sambhava and linked to it the sudden and strange elevation of Ngawang Labzang Gyatso.
Tibet had not seen such unification of its territories after seventh century when it had emerged as a strong land under the religious king Songtsen Gonpa. The Great Fifth Ngawang Labzang Gyatso led Tibet to unprecedented heights both spiritually and politically. He initiated a unique religious and secular form of the national government on federal model known as the Ganden Pondrang Government, which proved to be a major unifying factor in the life of Tibet. Under the doctrine of reincarnation and continuation of one lifetime’s perfection-level into the next, the responsibility to lead the nation, spiritually and temporally, became the continuous responsibility of Dalai Lamas reincarnating ever after and this they ably accomplished by their reincarnate spiritual strength irrespective of their age. The Ninth Dalai Lama Gyalwa Lungtok Gyatso and his three reincarnate Dalai Lamas died very early, the Ninth dying at the age of just nine, and all four within seventy-five years’ time; however, their deeds, as reveal their biographical writings, were as vast as ocean.
The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, a leader greater than the great, faced the ever gravest challenges posed mainly by Russia, China and Britain designing to grab Tibet.
So far there existed in between Tibet and China a relationship described as the priest-patron relation under which the priest, that is, Tibet represented by Dalai Lama, was state’s nominal head while China controlled its administration part. This diplomatic position had recognition from both major powers, Russia and Britain, present in the region. However, China, under an agreement not to object to British invasion of Burma, won British no objection to having an upper hand in Tibet. Thus, when the Thirteenth Dalai Lama Tubten Gyatso was born, the institution of Dalai Lama was reduced to a subordinate status, and the priest, to the status of an employee of China. However, in about two decades’ time the Thirteenth Dalai Lama organised the nation militarily and in 1913 proclaimed independence expelling the Chinese representatives and troops from his land. This position was not accepted by China, nor diplomatically approved by England and Russia. With this began an era of Tibetan conflict with China. This necessitated a shift in priorities of the Dalai Lama and Tibet. Now, not so much the spiritualism, military and diplomatic infrastructure was a greater need of Dalai Lama and Tibetan nation.
DALAI LAMA : A SPIRITUAL CONTINUUM
Summarily, Dalai Lama, though an individual born with a date and time, manifests the spiritual continuum of the bodhisattvahood, or more so the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, across innumerable births, identified subsequently as Dalai Lama. Not so much for one’s own enlightenment and ‘nirvana’ as for the world’s weal, spiritual as well as temporal, a Dalai Lama is a universal teacher leading lay-followers to worldly well-being on one hand and to Enlightenment and ‘nirvana’ on the other. His own ‘nirvana’ is not the essence of, or consequential to, being a Dalai Lama. Subjecting himself to the cycle of reincarnations he rather perpetuates his being into a chain of births seeking in a mortal frame accomplishment of his efforts to benefit the world – his goal as a Bodhisattva reincarnate. A will or determination, a Dalai Lama seeks his rebirth for the world’s good and for uplifting the mankind and all beings.
Dalai Lama is a cult of Tibetan Buddhism, though not confining to Tibet or Himalayan region alone Dalai Lama is recognised and venerated now as the highest office of the Buddhist Order in the entire Buddhist world, and individually, Dalai Lama, as the supreme teacher of the Buddhism. Whatever in regard to his status as the political head of the Tibetan people, his status as the supreme spiritual and temporal leader is universally upheld; and, this status he attains not by any worldly means or even by penance and other religious practices but by reincarnation, reincarnating in immediate past a predeceased Dalai Lama, and ultimately the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the first master in the line. Thus emanating Avalokiteshvara a Dalai Lama is essentially the compassion manifest, the same as is Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
Thus, irrespective of when the term ‘Dalai Lama’ emerged in use for denoting and formally acknowledging this institution of Buddhism, Dalai Lama represents the continuous flow of the being that the Buddhist tradition identifies as Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Conceding to scholastic opposition to the word ‘rebirth’ the tradition defines such incidence as a mind-stream – a moment-to-moment flow or continuity of consciousness emanating from Avalokiteshvara. Tibetan people’s popular belief in reincarnation and life’s continuity across thousands of births apart, this mind-stream concept is based on the belief that exemplary figures, such as a bodhisattva, might remain at will within the human world as institutional teachers postponing their ‘nirvana’ for others’ good till whatever period they found necessary and across any number of lifetimes as they chose to pass through. A determination to redeem suffering mankind and a world rent by violence require these wisdom holders to postpone their own ‘nirvana’ and perhaps attainment of enlightenment.
DOCTRINAL BASIS OF SUCH SPIRITUAL CONTINUUM
Cult of reincarnation or continuous flow of life birth after birth is the nucleus of the Buddhism, whatever its branch or school, Hinayana – Compact Vehicle, Mahayana – Great Vehicle, or Vajrayana – Diamond Vehicle. Hinayana or Theravada, a relatively linear and conventional branch of the Buddhism, sees reincarnation in context to cause and effect, laying emphasis on self responsibility and on gaining control over all actions of body, speech and mind in order to attain personal liberation. Mahayana, a semi-linear and semi-esoteric branch, shifts the emphasis from self liberation to universal responsibility aiming at all beings’ benefit. Mahayana imparts to personal liberation due importance but only as something that helps universal goodness which is the essence of a bodhisattva. Vajrayana, the exclusively esoteric branch of Buddhism, came out with the idea of controlled rebirth, that is, at the time of death one could direct one’s spirit to a rebirth that would be of the maximum benefit to the world.
Obviously it is out of the Vajrayana’s idea of controlled rebirth that Tibet developed its cult of reincarnation lineage leading finally to the evolution of Dalai Lama doctrine. Mahayana, which mandated universal responsibility in preference to personal liberation, provided to the reincarnation cult its broad aim. Mahayana’s doctrine of the Buddha’s three ‘kayas’ – celestial bodies : ‘dharma-kaya’ – the truth body, ‘sambhogakaya’ – the beatific body, and ‘nirvanakaya’ – the emanated body, the last one in special, further strengthened the Tibetan doctrine of reincarnation or continuation of life. In India ‘nirvanakaya’, the third celestial body of the Buddha, was merely an abstract theological concept defining an enlightened being. The Tibetan Buddhism, in which ‘nirvanakaya’ stood for one who is in the process of enlightenment, not the enlightened one, saw ‘nirvanakaya’ as Buddha’s multiplication into innumerable emanated forms heading towards enlightenment. It was out of this shift that the Tibetan tradition of ‘yangsi’ or officially recognised reincarnate lamas, also known as tulkus, evolved. This cult of reincarnate lamas helped Tibet to concentrate its energy on spiritual lines and pride more on the increasing number of its saints rather than on expanding military forces or market resources.
As a matter of fact, the Dalai Lama concept seems to have grown gradually and in the basic body of the Buddhism. In Hinayana a Bodhisattva who subsequently attains Buddhahood is born once in an auspicious eon. He is one among a thousand universal teachers. Others are mere ‘arhats’ attaining ‘nirvana’. In Mahayana, all beings attempt at acquiring by spiritual practice six perfections, generosity, self-discipline, patience, joyous effort, meditation and wisdom, that lead to enlightenment, and thus they one day become bodhisattvas and attain Buddhahood. Thus, there are in simultaneity numerous Bodhisattvas striving to attain Buddhahood. The Vajrayana moves farther. It acclaims that all can achieve bodhisattvahood in one short lifetime and then use the death as a means of taking this bodhisattvahood on a quantum leap forward.
OTHER INFLUENCES : TEACHERS’ SPIRITUAL LINEAGE, ARHATS AND TULKUS
Tibet had inherited from India the idea of teachers’ spiritual lineage. In India the idea faded away but in Tibet it developed exceptionally well. This spiritual lineage was in the form of continuous transmission of the teachings from one generation to the next. As is popularly believed, the eighth century teacher Padma Sambhava had hid a part of what he had written for the teachers of next generations. The concept of such material legacy left by a teacher of one generation for the next underwent complete change after the reincarnation cult grew stronger. Now it was the transference of the essence of their teachers – their knowledge and all that they acquired in any lifetime, from one birth to the other. This doctrine of the transference of teachers’ essence might have effectively influenced the cult of Dalai Lama lineage that not only defined emanation of a previous birth into a new but also the spiritual continuity from the past to the present.
In early Buddhism ‘arhats’ – Buddha’s disciples, more often and more correctly identified as Theravadins, had a long and strong tradition of the past. “Arhats’, the living beings, were bardic couriers of Buddha’s message to lands far and wide. In India, the concept of ‘arhats’ had faded away long back. However, the charismatic institution of Tibetan Lamas, of which Dalai Lama emerged as the head, seems to have reflections of this ancient Buddhist cult of the legendary ‘arhats’. It might have had some role in expansion and magnification of this subsequent Tibetan cult.
Tulku, a term borrowed from Mahayana Buddhism, or rinpoche, as tulku is sometimes known, the earliest Tibetan institution of officially recognised reincarnate lamas, is broadly the basis of the Dalai Lama cult. It is believed that a tulku is a rebirth of a specific historical figure or a Buddhist master who has vowed to take rebirth to help all living beings attain enlightenment. Among lamas a tulku, being a reincarnate lama, had a somewhat special position, though at any given there were hundreds of tulkus or tulku lineages. Around the twelfth century legal implications in regard to the legacy of the deceased – his belongings etc. began erupting. It pressed elders to determine each tulku’s lineage. In due course, around the beginning of the fifteenth century, the lineage of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was discovered in Gendun Drubpa and with this the institution of Dalai Lama came into being.
MODUS OF IDENTIFYING A DALAI LAMA REINCARNATION AND HIS ENTHRONEMENT
Though not from beginning, the process of searching the reincarnation of a Dalai Lama is now well settled. It begins soon after a Dalai Lama passes away. Simultaneous to the last rites of the dead a divination is conducted to determine whether or not it would be useful to search for and formally recognise a reincarnation. If yes, a committee of elders was formed to find the child. The committee closely examines the body of the deceased Dalai Lama before it is disposed of for any likely signs that would indicate or help in determining the direction that the committee should take when searching the reincarnation of the deceased. Such signs apart, the committee closely observes weather patterns, natural phenomena and omens for finding their identical re-occurrences around the person who might be his likely reincarnation. Celestial powers, especially the State Oracle, were prayed to guide to the right course of action. Sometimes the committee or the Regent appointed after the death of a Dalai Lama, as was appointed after the death of the Thirteenth, would make a trip to Lhamo Latso, the acknowledged Oracle Lake, and search the waters for indications as to where his reincarnation might be found. The committee would consult high lamas and take stock of dreams of prominent members of the mystical community and analyse them for their hidden meanings. Firmly believing that the dead would reincarnate the committee shall pay visits to all born around the time of the death of the former Dalai Lama and an on-the-spot assessment shall be made as to who among them was a reincarnation of the deceased Dalai Lama.
The process was followed in its exactness when in 1933 the Thirteenth Dalai Lama passed away for discovering the present one, the Fourteenth. During his trip to the Oracle Lake the Regent, appointed after the death of the Thirteenth, witnessed signs that clearly indicated that one he was looking for was born many hundred miles away to the east in the vicinity of Kumbum Monastery in Amdo slightly inside the Chinese territory in a humble Tibetan farmers’ house. With a team of elders the Regent visited the house. Not only that the child had a number of signs of the deceased Dalai Lama, the four-year-old took hardly any time in recognizing one of the members of the visiting team who had been his disciple in his Thirteenth reincarnation. He was shown a number of objects assorted together but from amongst them he picked only those that had belonged to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Just four years of age, the child convinced all that he was the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s true reincarnation. With no hesitation in anyone’s mind the child was acclaimed the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. In 1939, when the world was heading towards the second World War to involve unprecedented cruelties and loss of lives a vast majority of Tibet’s spiritual elders had gathered at Reteng Monastery, to the northeast of Lhasa, awaiting the four year old boy expected to reach there in caravan from Amdo to be enthroned as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
FOURTEENTH, NOT EXACTLY THE FOURTEENTH
The proper hierarchical order acclaims to have so far fourteen Dalai Lamas, the present one being the Fourteenth. However, the tradition acclaims a far larger number. As acclaimed, even the First was not really the first. The Tibetan tradition relates a succession of sixty re-births previous to the Fourteenth. The First Dalai Lama Gendun Drubpa had forty-six reincarnations before him, thirty-six as those of Lama Drom Tonpa, who he reincarnated, and ten, his own as various kings, though these reincarnations are not recognised as those of the Dalai Lama but of the being who became the Dalai Lama. Thus, the First Dalai Lama had forty-six prior reincarnations, and the present Dalai Lama being sixtieth.
DALAI LAMA AND SECTARIAN UNITY
The Buddhism reached Tibet in mid-seventh century during the reign of king Songtsen Gonpa who built several Buddhist temples and shrines including the sacred Jokhang temple of Lhasa, and with this Tibet transformed into a Buddhist region. When during the period from mid-seventh to mid-eleventh centuries in India Buddhism had begun shrinking, in Tibet it underwent a complete renaissance. Though Tibet borrowed from India not only the basics of Buddhism, myths, literature and doctrines, but also India’s renowned teachers like Asit and Padma Sambhava among others, over the period of time it developed a body of its own doctrines, myths, teachers and its own vision of Buddhism.
In the course of time there evolved four major branches of Tibetan Buddhism, the ancient one of these founded in eighth century by Padma Sambhava, a great teacher of Tantrika Buddhism from India, being Nyingma or the Ancient Ones, while the new ones founded in eleventh century and after, being ‘Sakya’ or the ‘Grey Earth lineage’, ‘Kagyu’ or ‘Instruction lineage’, and the ‘Kadam’ or ‘Supreme Instruction Lineage’. In late fourteenth century Jey Tsongkhapa, the teacher of first Dalai Lama, founded yet another branch of Tibetan Buddhism named Geluk.
The First Dalai Lama was believed to be the reincarnation of Lama Drom Tonpa, a Kadampa or an early lama of Kadam branch. Consequentially, in the course of time Kadam branch merged with Geluk.
Despite that Jey Tsongkhapa propounded his own doctrine, in his life and literature that he composed he held all sects in equal reverence and studied them with equal devotion. In this regard his own life was the ecumenical model for the First Dalai Lama and all his reincarnations. As he was a direct disciple of Jey Tsongkhapa the First Dalai Lama Gendun Drubpa was a staunch follower of Geluk sect that his teacher had propounded but like his master he held all other sects in equal reverence and made them the theme of his studies. This was actually the model religious code for all subsequent Dalai Lamas who were staunch Geluk followers but held all doctrines in equal reverence; and this effectively worked in the unification of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan nation, and in the course of time Dalai Lama emerged as the institution of Tibetan Buddhism, or rather the Buddhism world-over, not of this or that doctrine or sect. This aptly reflects in the words of the Fifth Dalai Lama when he said ‘to be the overall spiritual head of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, I regard it as my sacred duty to understand, uphold and propagate each of them on an equal footing.’
In the scheme of this essay a brief account of the historic deeds and the life of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, the One who benefits the world today with his divine presence, had to be its part. However, even a brief survey of only a few of the aspects of the Great Dalai Lama Tradition overwhelmed it in its entirety and now the authors, with heads bowed in reverence, are left with no other option than to look for another opportunity to do an independent essay on the life of the Great Divine Master.
This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. February 2010