The tradition of the Dalai Lama cannot be understood without first understanding the historical and theological/philosophical developments of Buddhism and more specifically, the historical developments within Tibetan Buddhism and the political movements in Tibet and Mongolia which gave rise to the cementing of the office of the Dalai Lama. The office of the Dalai Lama is founded upon traditions and beliefs that would have looked completely alien to Gautama Buddha – that is, if the Pali Canon can be trusted to accurately relay his teachings and opinions, given that the Pali Canon was penned centuries after his time. The historical problems associated with the Pali Canon, the earliest collection of Buddhist texts, as seemingly insurmountable as they appear to be, pale in comparison to those of the later Mahayana texts, and it is within these texts, the earliest of which was written around half a millennium after the Buddha was alleged to have lived, that the tradition of the Dalai Lama is loosely rooted.
This essay will briefly trace the origins of the tradition of the Dalai Lama as far back as it can reasonably said to go, and in the process, critically examine some of the historical and theological/philosophical difficulties associated with this Tibetan tradition.
The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people. He is a monk of the Gelug (yellow hat) school of Tibetan Buddhism, the newest school in Tibetan Buddhism, and he is believed to be the human incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, and the reincarnation of one of the previous Dalai Lamas, of which there is believed to have been fourteen including the present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. In its present form, the tradition of the Dalai Lama dates back to the seventeenth century, but the constituent pieces of this Tibetan tradition date back a few centuries prior, and the theological/philosophical justifications for this tradition reside in the birth of Mahayana Buddhism, sometime around the beginning of the first century of the Common Era, close to five centuries after the alleged life and death of Gautama Buddha.
Avalokiteśvara, Bodhisattvas & Mahayana Buddhism
To begin unpacking the tradition of the Dalai Lama, it’s necessary to investigate just who, or exactly what, he is believed to be. As mentioned above, the Dalai Lama is believed to be the incarnation of the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara. But what are the Bodhisattvas and whence do they come? The word Bodhisattva is a cognate of two words, Bodhi (‘awakened’/’awakening’) and sattva (person/being), thus, in Mahayana Buddhism a Bodhisattva is a person/being who has manifested ‘bodhicitta’ (enlightened mind), and has expressed the desire to achieve instant Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings, a desire that distinguishes Mahayana Buddhism from its predecessor and rival sect, ‘Hinayana’ Buddhism, with Hinayana Buddhism following the original teachings of Buddha, who allegedly taught his disciples to seek enlightenment for themselves. Hinayana (lesser/inferior vehicle) is a pejorative term applied to the adherents of Early Buddhism, with Mahayana being a self-prescribed nomenclature meaning ‘greater/superior vehicle’, and Mahayana Buddhism is primarily concerned with helping all sentient beings achieve enlightenment upon Buddhist terms, or following the path of the Bodhisattva, as it is known in Mahayana Buddhism. Commenting on the polemical nature of early Mahayana Buddhism, Keown says: ‘The Mahayana sutras often poke fun at the earlier schools – which it dubbed derogatively the Hinayana or “inferior vehicle”. Some, like the highly popular ‘Teachings of Vimalakirti’ (c. 300 CE), portray the learned monks of the earlier tradition being baffled by a mere layman, Vimalarkirti, as he playfully reveals the higher teachings of the Mahayana’.
Another point of divergence between these two main sects of Buddhism is in the definition of the term Bodhisattva, for in the Pali Canon ‘Bodhisatta’ (Pali) refers to the past lives of the Buddha, as relayed in the ‘Jataka Tales’, whilst in the Mahayana texts the term was co-opted and reinterpreted to connote anyone who seeks to achieve enlightenment by first enlightening the world. The primary goal of Mahayana Buddhism (path of the Bodhisattva) made it a much more proselytizing version of Buddhism and this zeal, although not marred with the same level of violence exhibited by the Abrahamic religions, helped to spread Mahayana Buddhism across Asia, arriving in Tibet possibly between the seventh and eighth centuries CE. By the time Mahayana Buddhism arrived in Tibet, it was a fully formed school that viewed itself as not only distinct from other schools of Buddhism, but superior as well.
Discussing the zeal of Mahayana Buddhism, specifically with regards to the polemical and zealous nature of the Lotus Sutra, Hubbard remarks: ‘…there is a clear and forceful denial that the potential for Buddhahood can be realized outside the teachings of the Lotus Sutra; hence ultimately we are presented with a negation of the usefulness or efficacy of any but its teachings and a clear rejection of the earlier teachings. The denial is also accompanied by polemical language of the strongest sort, argued with a missionary zeal for conversion, even to the point of anticipating persecution as though it were proof of one’s own salvation’. This zeal may also account for the Tibetan Buddhist persecution of the original religion of Tibet, known as the Bon religion. Commenting on these early Tibetan Buddhist persecutions, Buswell notes: ‘Later sources from both traditions tell of Buddhist persecutions of Bon, which the Buddhist king Khri srong lde btsan (pronounced Trisong Detsen; r. 755–797 C.E.) is said to have formally proscribed around 785.’ This persecution continued under fifth Dalai Lama and into the following centuries. On this, Buswell comments: ‘Bon was reputedly persecuted again under the rule of the fifth DALAI LAMA (1617–1682) and during the succeeding two centuries, during which time Bon monasteries were closed, destroyed, or converted…’
Aside from the inherent zeal of Mahayana Buddhism, another dissimilarity between Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism is the perceived nature of the Buddha himself. In Hinayana Buddhism, Buddha is a simple human being, a bare-footed guru who attained enlightenment, achieved a final nirvana, and then died. In Mahayana Buddhism, however, Buddha becomes a cosmic, all-pervasive being, endowed with omniscience, an attribute he not only denied possessing in the Pali Canon, but denied was even a possibility for anyone or being to possess. Mahayanists believe that Sakyamuni (Gautama Buddha) only pretended to die to teach his disciples a tough lesson about impermanence. According to this later school of Buddhism, the Buddha lives on in the ‘Pure Land’ where seasoned practitioners can visit him and gain direct instruction. The advanced supernaturalism of the Mahayanists led to the creation of fantastic tales about the Buddha’s superhuman abilities and those of the Bodhisattvas, who the Mahayanists place over and above the ‘arhats’ and disciples of the Buddha, and who, are portrayed as mythical heroes, doing justice to their Tibetan translation, ‘byang chub sems dpa’, or ‘awakening hero’. Such supernaturalism was also employed to explain why Mahayanist stories about the Buddha and his teachings didn’t appear until much later in history.
According to the traditions relayed in the Mahayana Sutras, these ‘greater’ teachings and epics were recorded at the time of the Buddha, but due to the inferior spiritual and cognitive capacity of the people in that era, Buddha hid the Mahayana scriptures in a magical realm inhabited by serpent-beings called Nagas, where they were instructed to remain until those with sufficient cognitive and spiritual ability arose on the earth. Needless to say, not too many rational historians accept this explanation and the majority opinion on the initial production of Mahayana texts dates them to around the beginning of the first century, which accords with the opinion of the Theravadins, the last remaining Hinayana sect, who assert that the Mahayana scriptures are later forgeries which have defiled the “pure” and “original” teachings of the Buddha. Some notable contradictions exist within the texts of Early Buddhism and those of the Mahayanists. One such contradiction brings the authenticity of Mahayana texts into question – namely, Buddha’s warnings against secret doctrines, which appears to indict the Mahayanist tradition of him hiding his secret doctrines in the realm of the Nagas. Quoting the alleged words of the Buddha from the most reliable sources we have (the Pali Canon): ‘There are no dark corners of ignorance, no cobwebs of mystery, no smoky chambers of secrecy; there are no “secret doctrines,” no hidden dogmas in the teaching of the Buddha, which is open as daylight and as clear as crystal. “The doctrine and discipline proclaimed by the Buddha shine when open and not when covered, even as the sun and moon shine when open and not when covered.”’ And: “Secrecy is the hallmark of false doctrines.” And: “I have taught the Dhamma, Ânanda, without making any distinction between exoteric and esoteric doctrine; for in respect of the truths, Ânanda, the Tathâgata has no such thing as the closed fist of a teacher who hides some essential knowledge from the pupil.”
Within the historically and theologically/philosophically dubious scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism rests the foundation for not only the ethos of proactive enlightenment and compassion which underscores the less conservative and more egalitarian path of the Bodhisattva that the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and the office of the Dalai Lama sits, but more fundamentally, the doctrine of the bodhisattva, upon which rests the tradition of the Dalai Lama himself, who, as already mentioned, is believed to be the incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara. The first reference to Avalokiteśvara in the Mahayana texts is found in chapter twenty-five of the Lotus Sutra, in which the Buddha tells the Bodhisattva Akṣayamati all of the magical things that the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara can do. In the words of the anonymous author of this chapter: ‘If innumerable hundreds of thousands of myriads of koṭis of sentient beings who experience suffering hear of Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and wholeheartedly chant his name, Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara will immediately perceive their voices and free them from their suffering. Even if those who hold to the name of Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara were to enter a great fire, because of this bodhisattva’s transcendent power, the fire would not be able to burn them.’
This deity-like Bodhisattva can also help a praying parent-to-be chose the sex of their baby, he can destroy the weapons of those attacking his faithful chanters, he can protect the faithful from demons, he can free the guilty and the innocent from their chains, he is able to change himself into the Buddha, the Brahma, and many other forms, in order to teach the intended audience dharma – but perhaps his greatest power, at least in terms of the Buddhist worldview, is that he can absorb the suffering (‘dukka’) of all sentient beings. Given all this Bodhisattva is alleged to be capable of doing, it’s little wonder why of all the Bodhisattvas, this one was chosen to be the foundational deity for the political and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, and the patron deity of Tibet.
As mentioned above, according to some historical accounts, Buddhism arrived in Tibet between the seventh and eighth centuries CE. It is difficult, however, to sketch an accurate history of Tibet, as the majority of authors of Tibetan history have been devout Buddhists, all of whom adorned their historical canvasses with opulent and tantric-like Buddhist legends, motifs and symbolic myths. On this point, Tucci remarks: ‘true historical facts are reduced to a minimum…we must discover them, almost guess them, here and there, hidden in a wilderness of pious tales.’ What these religious histories do reveal, though, is that from a very early stage in the Buddhist history of Tibet, Avalokiteśvara was viewed and venerated as the chief Bodhisattva/deity of the Tibetan Buddhists.
According to one myth of the origin of the Tibetan people, the first two inhabitants were a pious and compassionate monkey, who was the incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, and a lustful, wild and licentious female, an ogress to be exact. These two are believed by many Tibetans to be the Adam and Eve of the Tibetan people, so to speak. As with the Abrahamic Adam and Eve myth, one may note the misogynistic undertones in this tale, which are quite in line with Mahayana teachings on the impurity of women and the superlative nature of man, although it should also be noted that as Mahayana developed over the centuries, it became less male-orientated and notably less misogynistic, in contrast to Early Buddhism, which remains fixed within the misogyny of Buddha’s era. This move from misogyny to gender equality is particularly noticeable in China, where Avalokiteśvara (Ch. ‘Kuan-yin’) was transformed into a female deity/Bodhisattva. Another noteworthy aspect of the charter myth of the origin of the Tibetans is that it establishes an esoteric, if not exoteric, political and spiritual line of succession, with all ‘future’ kings and leaders legitimized by the successive reincarnations of Avalokiteśvara, who is believed to have taken a special interest in the Tibetan people.
One of the most significant historical developments in Indian Buddhism, at least as far as Tibetan Buddhism is concerned, was the advent of Tantrism. Tibetan Buddhism, according to White (2000, p. 7), ‘is by definition a Tantric tradition’. According to White: ‘This very concrete notion of lineage is so fundamental to Tantra in the Tibetan tradition that two similar terms (both pronounced gyr.) are used for ‘‘teaching lineage,’’ ‘‘genealogical lineage,’’ and ‘‘Tantra’’ in the Tibetan language…This intimate relationship between spiritual lineage and biological lineage is based in no small part in socioreligious reality; very often, one is initiated into a Tantric tradition by one’s biological father. The same rule often applies at the state level; lineages of princes and kings are initiated by parallel lineages of royal Tantric gurus, with the lineage god or goddess of both king and priest…In cases of theocratic government, as in Tibet, the interpenetration of biological, spiritual, and royal lines become more pronounced.’
Tantrism permeates the fabric of the expression phenomena of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, from their core beliefs, central tenets to their rites, rituals, ceremonies and institutions, specifically, for the purpose of this essay, the Gelugpa institution of the Dalai Lama, and most significantly, the Tantric-styled lineage of the Dalai Lama. As is the case with Mahayana Buddhism, the very vehicle of Buddhism from which Buddhist Tantra is derived, Tantra is a set of religious practices and traditions that finds no authority in the earliest and most reliable Buddhist texts, but for the obscurantist interpretations of later adherents attempting to rationalize this later deformation of what might be called ‘pure Buddhism’ (Early Buddhism). Despite its absence within the teachings ascribed to Gautama Buddha, the Dalai Lama asserts: “…one must finally engage in Mantra [another name for tantric practice] in order to become a Buddha.”
Gelugpa – New Yellow Hats
According to the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso: ‘In Tibet, due to differences in the time of translation of texts from India and the development of lineages formed by particular teachers, eight distinct schools of Buddhism arose. Nowadays, four are widely known, Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelugpa.’ As mentioned, the Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelug (Yellow Hat) school, the newest school in Tibetan Buddhism. So how did this new school take control of the religious and political affairs of the people of Tibet? They did so by forming a political alliance with the powerful patron of Tibet, the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan, late in the sixteenth century. In so doing, they gave birth to the tradition of the Dalai Lama, which is a title etymologically rooted in two separate words, from two separate languages, Mongolian (‘Ta Le’ – Dalai – Ocean) and Tibetan (‘blama’ – Lama – guru, teacher, etc). This relationship was strengthened and cemented when the Gelugpas “discovered” that the fourth Dalai Lama had been coincidentally reincarnated in the person of the great-grandson of Altan Khan, much to the delight of the ruling Khans, and this young Khan was later conferred with the honorific name, Yonden Gyatso.
Continuing the Polemic Against Hinayana Buddhism
Given that the tradition of the Dalai Lama is firmly rooted in the mythos of Mahayana Buddhism, it is perfectly understandable why the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, would continue to the Mahayanists’ polemical stance against Hinayana Buddhism. On one occasion he was recorded as saying: ‘Mahayana is superior to Hinayana in three ways: (1) motivation, (2) goal, and (3) level of understanding’. He is further quoted as remarking: ‘Even though the Hinayana paths do not lead directly to Buddhahood (unlike the Mahayana paths), it is taught that followers of the Hinayana do in fact eventually enter the Mahayana and obtain Buddhahood’. As well as constituting a soft polemic against Hinayana Buddhism, the Dalai Lama’s remark betrays yet another hallmark of Buddhist Tantra (Vajrayana), and this hallmark places it at odds with Mahayana Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, there exists an emphasis on the postponement of Buddhahood for aeons and aeons, in order to save others first, but in Tantra, this emphasis is undermined by the promise of achieving Buddhahood in one lifetime.
The tradition of the Dalai Lama is, in its entirety, a very new development in Buddhism. However, its philosophical and theological roots, as ambiguous and dubious as they appear to be, lie in the equally dubious origins of the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism. Had Buddhism remained steadfast in its most historically reliable canon, there would have been no all-pervading, deity-like cosmic Buddha, no Tantrism, no magical Bodhisattvas, no Avalokiteśvara, and subsequently, no Dalai Lama. Further, had the Gelugpa not established their politically pragmatic relationship with the powerful Mongolian patrons of Tibet, their school, the newest of the four main schools, may never have ascended the throne of theocracy and there may never have been a Dalai Lama, at least not in the tradition’s present form. Thus, it may be accurate to say that the philosophical and theological roots of the tradition of the Dalai Lama lie in the unreliable reinterpretations and polemical revolutions of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism in the first century of the common era, whilst its social and political origins rest within the pragmatism of regional politics and various anthropological movements surrounding Tibet in modern history, specifically within the sixteenth century, with the pivotal relationship fostered between the Gelugpa and the then most powerful Mongol ruler, Altan Khan.
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