Leaders of Tibetan Buddhism

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File:Dalailama1 20121014 4639.jpg
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 Buddhist schools. 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 mulitple 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 Nyingma school did not have an official leader prior to the formation of the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan government in exile) in 1960. At that time, the Nyingmas selected a leader to represent the school within the Tibetan administration.

Non-hierarchal structure

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The role of the current Dalai Lama

The 14th Dalai Lama currently lives in exile in India. He has retired from 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 Gelegpa 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.

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[1]

Kyabje Jetsun Lobsang Tenzin Palsangpo

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Head of the Karmapa school

The head of the Karmapa school is Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje, the seventeenth Karmapa, chosen through reincarnation like the Dalai Lama:

Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje on the right, with the Dalai Lama

Image from: The Official Website of the 17th Karmapa

Head of the Sakya school

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

He is first to be enthroned under the new succesion system with a tenure that lasts for three years, renewable, with anyone suitably qualified by both birth and education eligible. The qualificaitons include:

“the complete fulfillment of studies of all the basic courses of Rites and Rituals of the Sakya; studies in all the major philosophies; having received empowerments, reading transmissions, and pith instructions; having studies the teachings of the ancestral Dharma teachings of Lamdre Ts’ogshey and Lamdre Lobshey, along with other important teachings and empowerments; and having accomplished the basic recitation retreat on Hevajra and other important tutelary deities.”

They also have to be Khön family descendants. For details see Enthronement of the 42nd Sakya Trizin, His Holiness Ratna Vajra Rinpoche

Head of the Nyingmapa school

Jigme Losel Wangpo (Dzogchen Rinpoche)

The Nyingmapa school didn’t have a head in Tibet and the position of the “Supreme Head” of the Nyingmapas was established in exile for administrative purposes. Nyingma.

The Nyingmapa head is appointed for a three year term now rotating between the six heads of the six Nyingmapa lineages.

The new head is Jigme Losel Wangpo

He wasn’t present to accept the appointment at the time of that story.

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

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Lopön Tenzin Namdak, abbot of a Bon monastery in Nepal

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

Traditionally the Dalai Lama is linked with the Panchen Lama [2]. The Panchen Lamas help train the young Dalai Lamas and the Dalai Lamas help train the young Panchen Lamas, although sometimes they may both take rebirth at around the same time as happened with the current Dalai Lama and the previous Panchenl Lama .

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:

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima
The 11th Panchen Lama in 1995

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, citing a famous example from a century ago, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, with five reincarnations of the body, speech, mind, quality and activity of the previous incarnation as separate children


  • Description: “"Now it is quite controversial, one official Panchen lama, then another Panchen lama [which] I recognized according [to] our tradition. So I hope the official Panchen Lama, also you see I think study quite well under the guidance of one good teacher.

Then the Panchen lama which I recognised, some time back, no news, disappeared, but then according [to] reliable information he is still alive and carrying a normal education.

There are traditionally sometimes now for example I think at least one century ago, one very famous Khyentse Wangpo his reincarnation [had] five reincarnations, body, speech, mind, quality and activity. So of course, holding of seat is just one, but then something like, manifestation of previous reincarnation there could be more, like that."”

Normally the Dalai Lama leaves instructions to help find his successor

When the Dalai Lama dies, we don’t know what happens next. Normally the Dalai Lama would leave instructions to help find his successor.

But our current Dalai Lama has said that he doesn’t know yet if he will do this. If he does, he says he will not take rebirth in China. I think that is understandable considering what happened to the Panchen Lama.

A Dalai Lama of course gives his instructions to help find his successor before he dies, and so, before his successor is born and indeed before he is conceived. Also his successor will typically have no connection at all with the previous Dalai Lama - the current Dalai Lama was a son of a small subsistence farmer in a remote hamlet in Tibet. This system only makes sense really if you believe in reincarnation and the ability of the Dalai Lama to direct his next rebirth.

The successor is chosen as a young child at a very young age. The current Dalai Lama was selected at age 2. They have to be about the right age - so conceived not long after the previous Dalai Lama died. They normally have no connection with the previous Dalai lama by family, or geographical location. They are sometimes poor, sometimes born to wealthy families, in one case even a future king of Mongolia. Sometimes they are born in families of devout Buddhist practitioners who are engaged in meditation or scholarship, sometimes parents who are themselves teachers or famous practitioners. Sometimes born to people who have no obvious connections like that.

The Dalai Lama is normally a monk (with one exception) so the successor can’t be a descendant - but also - never been a close relative of the previous Dalai Lama either. And could be reborn historically anywhere in Tibet and also could be outside Tibet, in one case in Mongolia, in the case of that king.

The current Dalai Lama was born to a familiy of smallholders who lived in a tiny settlement of a few families and kept some chickens and livestock. The whole thing makes no sense at all unless you believe in rebirth - it seems a very haphazard way to choose a successor, to choose an essentially random young child aged 2. But Tibetans think this approach actually finds a rebirth that continues the activity and inspiration of the Dalai Lama.

Note the Dalai Lamas are also often very different in character too. For instance the sixth Dalai Lama never took his full monk’s vows and he had many girl friends and wrote achingly beautiful poems, many of them love poems, much like the western poet William Blake, but showed no great interest in Buddhist scholarship. His poems are still much loved by Tibetans today.

You could hardly find anyone more different from our current Dalai Lama - a monk who has also mastered the scholary studies of all four of the Buddhist schools in Buddhism, achieving the highest qualification possible, a Geshe Lharampa degree, sort of like a PhD but with honours, at a young age in his early 20s. He is qualified to teach in all four schools, not only that, also mastered the meditations and the practices of those schools too and widely respected by Tibetans for his deep and thorough understanding of Tibetan Buddhism.

So anyway - normally the Panchen Lama is involved in helping to find the Dalai Lama’s rebirths and the Dalai Lama in finding the Panchen Lama’s rebirths, though sometimes both take rebirth at the same time as with the current Dalai Lama and the previous Panchen Lama. However this process has been rather thrown into disarray when the Chinese took him into custody age 6 and they appointed their own alternative Panchen Lama in his stead who the Dalai Lama does not recognize.

There is no way the Tibetans would accept a child selected by the Chinese Panchen Lama as the next Dalai Lama.

This leaves the Dalai Lama with a tricky situation.

Continuation as an emanation

However there is an interesting new suggestion. The Dalai Lama might choose an emanation rather than a reincarnation as his successor. From The Lawudo Lama p139

"A tulku can be defined as a being who has achieved a certain level of spiritual development and power and has consciously chosen to take rebirth in order to benefit beings. Despite their presumed spiritual achievements, tulkus have to undergo their education all over again. Most of them are able to learn much faster than ordinary children, and they usually show a certain maturity of character and a kindness and concern for others that are absent in most children.

“Generally speaking, tulkus are born after the death of their predecessor, but according to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, "reincarnation does not always depend on the person being dead. Bodhisattvas can manifest everywhere." (A bodhisattva is a being who has developed the wish to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit others). ... According to the Buddhist scriptures, bodhisattvas on the first level have attained the ability to manifest hundreds of versions of their own bodies. It can happen that a bodhisattva emanates another being to continue his or her work even before passing away. … This is a difficult topic that even learned Tibetan lamas find hard to understand. …

This is related to the two ways that beings can take rebirth

“There are two ways in which someone can take rebirth after death: rebirth under the sway of karma and destructive emotions and rebirth through the power of compassion and prayer. Regarding the first, due to ignorance negative and positive karma are created and their imprints remain on the consciousness. .. This is the way ordinary beings circle incessantly through existence like the turning of a wheel. Even under such circumstances ordinary beings can engage diligently with a positive aspiration in virtuous practices in their day-to-day lives. They familiarise themselves with virtue that at the time of death can be reactivated providing the means for them to take rebirth in a higher realm of existence.”

“On the other hand, superior Bodhisattvas, who have attained the path of seeing, are not reborn through the force of their karma and destructive emotions, but due to the power of their compassion for sentient beings and based on their prayers to benefit others. They are able to choose their place and time of birth as well as their future parents. Such a rebirth, which is solely for the benefit of others, is rebirth through the force of compassion and prayer.” the Dalai Lama’s 2011 statement

In the the Dalai Lama’s 2011 statement he goes on to explain that in the case of bodhisattvas, since they can emanate as many beings simultaneously, an emanation can be of the same mind stream as the predecessor, but born before him. For ordinary beings, then their activity can continue through an emanation who is connected to them through prayers and pure karma, or a disciple or someone close to him, and again this can be chosen before they die.

This is not a new invention but has happened previously with, for instance, Dudjom Jigdral Yeshe Dorje born 10th June 1904, the reincarnation of Dudjom Lingpawho died in 1904. There are many other examples. See The Lawudo Lama p139

Quoting fromthe Dalai Lama’s 2011 statement:

Emanation before the passing away of the predecessor (ma-dhey tulku)


The main purpose of the appearance of a reincarnation is to continue the predecessor’s unfinished work to serve Dharma and beings. In the case of a Lama who is an ordinary being, instead of having a reincarnation belonging to the same mind-stream, someone else with connections to that Lama through pure karma and prayers may be recognized as his or her emanation. Alternatively it is possible for the Lama to appoint a successor who is either his disciple or someone young who is to be recognized as his emanation. Since these options are possible in the case of an ordinary being, an emanation before death that is not of the same mind-stream is feasible. In some cases one high Lama may have several reincarnations simultaneously, such as incarnations of body, speech and mind and so on. In recent times, there have been well-known emanations before death such as Dudjom Jigdral Yeshe Dorje and Chogye Trichen Ngawang Khyenrab.

That is what the prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile favours.

Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay who is in favour of the Dalai Lama’s successor being chosen as an “emanation” while he is still alive. Discussions on Dalai Lama’s succession could begin this year:The Asahi Shimbun

An "emanation" is much like a rebirth after death except they are born before he dies, so he can then take part in the process of finding his own emanation - but by doing it himself there can't be any question about whether the emanation is legitimate.

This is how the NY Times reported it after the Dalai Lama’s 2011 statement:

“ When the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader-in-exile, suggested at the end of September that for the first time in 600 years his successor might be an emanation and not a reincarnation, he may have wrong-footed the Chinese government that runs Tibet — for the second time this year.”

China quickly rejected the proposal, which the 76-year-old Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, said has 14 years to be debated by Tibetans, with a final decision coming around 2025. Yet China’s rejection creates a deep irony: The tradition-proud Dalai Lama, and Tibetan Buddhism, now appear more modern and flexible than the self-styled modernizing Chinese state, which insists on the more old-fashioned and rigid reincarnation system, experts said.”

[ Lobsang Sangay said]

“As far as the next Dalai Lama is concerned it’s already on the table and he can come through reincarnation, selection or emanation. These options are on the table but not yet executed,” he said, while speaking at the ‘Indo-Tibet Summit’ organised by the South and East Asia Foundation here.

“He (the Dalai Lama) says that he will decide at the age of 90, but I think it should happen sooner and I think it is likely to happen,” he said.

In reincarnation, one has to die and reborn. Selection is when the high lamas meet and select the Dalai Lama and emanation is when the Dalai Lama designates his own successor before he passes away. Dalai Lama may pick his successor ‘soon’: Lobsang Sangay

This is also about the idea of the Dalai Lama taking rebirth as an emanation instead of a normal rebirth after he dies.

You might wonder how that could even make sense. How can someone have an "emanation" when they are still alive? However, Buddhist ideas of self, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, are rather fluid because of our ideas of anatta - non self. In Mahayana Buddhism and especially in Tibetan Buddhism then ideas of time also are rather fluid too, maybe time doesn’t have to be as strictly linear as our habitual minds suggest. In Mahayana Buddhism time and space are also part of the confusions that lead to problems because we are constantly trying to make them more concrete and solid than they really are.

One teacher can be reborn as several, for instance the example the Dalai Lama gve of Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé who had five simultaneous rebirths in his next life. These five young babies were all regarded as a continuation of his activity and life, all born at around the same time. And those babies after they grew up to adulthood then continued to have separate reincarnation lines of their own.

This is about the five incarnations of Jamgong Kontrul - who was involved in initiating the "Ri-me" approach in Tibetan Buddhism - to do with encouraging and respecting diversity while recognizing common ground which was responsible for preserviing many distinctive styles of teaching and practice that might otherwise have vanished.

If one teacher can take rebirth as several children after they die - in a similar way, a teacher can also have an emanation - a continuation of his activity who takes rebirth before he dies. Or more than one emanation indeed, if he so wished.

Indeed, the Dalai Lamas themselves are already considered emanations of the bodhisattva of compassion, Chenrezig.

Does the emanation have to be a child?

From the example of Dudjom Lingpa, born on 10th June 1904, the same year his predecessor died, this could be a case of recognizing his emanation as a young child, as for rebirths. However from the example of Thangtong Gyalpo (1361-1464) who appointed Tenzin Chöje Nyima Zangpo as his tulku, he can also select an adult emanation. Another example mentioned in The Lawudo Lama p139 is the seventh Dalai Lama. He died in mysterious circumstances, as his body was never recovered. According to the secret biography of the sixth Dalai Lama,

“From this moment, there are two alternative histories available to us, which are both offered as an explanation of why his body was never recovered and returned to the Potala. According to the first, Tsangyang Gyatso died at Kunganor, most probably from fever, on November 15 1706. According to the second, which is related in his so-called “secret” or “hidden” biography, written by a Mongol monk named Ngawang Lhundrub Dargye (ngag dbang lhun grub dar rgyas) in 1756, Tsangyang Gyatso in fact escaped from Kokonor and only died in 1746.” The Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso

According to that secret biography, the 7th Dalai Lamawas in his late 30s when the sixth Dalai Lama died.

Chinese can’t intervene if it’s an emanation

That way the living Dalai Lama can take part in the discovery and selection of his own emanation - so that the Chinese can never intervene and say that his instructions he left after he died were misinterpreted and produce their own alternative version.

All of this is a little strange if you don't beleive in rebirth - and indeed if you do as well because the ideas are so fluid, and may seem strange to some of us not used to such ideas.

But this is all normal for rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism. This is how Tibetans think about rebirth, they think it does happen like this.

It's not just a "sneaky" way of choosing a successor and calling them an emanation. It is a valid thing a teacher can do.

They really do think that a teacher can have an emanation while they are still alive, who is a continuation of their activity and life stream..

Ordinarily buddhists are discouraged from trying to locate their previous rebirths

Normally Buddhists are discouraged from finding out about their past lives, because it can get you seriously caught up in hangups and pre-occupations with your previous self from a previous life. The Buddha warned against this strongly, on the grounds of the way it gets you pre-occupied with these views that can confuse you.

On the other hand, it was not a complete prohibition as after all he often talked about his own previous lives, at least, according to the folk lore of the "Jataka tales", and there are examples of recognized reincarnations in the sutras, also some of the later Indian mahasiddhas mentioned in the the Dalai Lama’s 2011 statement:

“The practice of recognizing who is who by identifying someone’s previous life occurred even when Shakyamuni Buddha himself was alive. Many accounts are found in the four Agama Sections of the Vinaya Pitaka, the Jataka Stories, the Sutra of the Wise and Foolish, the Sutra of One Hundred Karmas and so on, in which the Tathagata revealed the workings of karma, recounting innumerable stories about how the effects of certain karmas created in a past life are experienced by a person in his or her present life. Also, in the life stories of Indian masters, who lived after the Buddha, many reveal their previous places of birth. There are many such stories, but the system of recognizing and numbering their reincarnations did not occur in India.”

So, what was new in Tibet was the system of recognizing and numbering reincarnations, not the process of occasionally recognizing incarnations, which was already present in India.

Dalai Lama could take rebirth as a woman

He has also said he might be reborn as a woman Dalai Lama leaves door open to next leader being a woman

In 2011 said he would decide whether to continue the Dalai Lama succession aged 90 in consultation with the Tibetan people

In his 2011 statement: he said that he woud decide whether to choose his successor at about 90 (though he can't know for sure, he expects to have a long life). He is now 82, so this is a bit early to decide - but I suppose if the idea is to take rebirth as an emanation while he is still alive, that this is something you'd decide a bit earlier in your life. He always said he'd make the decision in consultation and in accord with the wishes of the Tibetan people

He also raised the suggestion he might bring to an end the Dalai Lama institution by leaving no instructions fo finding a rebirth.

It doesn't mean that there is no continuation of the stream of the Dalai Lama - it would just mean that his next rebirth is not identified and nobody, not even his rebirth, would know that he is connected to the Dalai Lama by rebirth.

But even if he leaves no instructions - the Chinese could try to select a new Dalai Lama anyway.

Whatever he decides, his successor will not have any political power over Tibetans. The current Dalai Lama surrendered all political roles for all time, for all his successors (if any) as well as himself some years back.

He doesn’t have to be tibetan - the 4th Dalai Lama was Mongolian

Incidentally, though he doesn't say anything about this, there is no reason why he has to be reborn as a person of Tibetan ethnicity. Some Tibetan lamas have taken rebirth as Europeans for instance. And after all, the 4th Dalai Lama, was born in Mongolia (and “Dalai Lama” was a Mongolian title bestowed on the 3rd Dalai Lama - Encyclopedia of Buddhism by the Monglian king Altan Khan).


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