The Dalai Lama has long stood as the spiritual head of Tibet and the Guru of millions of Tibetans. However, although he has inspired hope and compassion in the hearts of many, the actual spiritual authority held by the position of the Dalai Lama is a little more complicated than what we have long believed.
While the Dalai Lama is now widely recognized as the highest-ranking representative of Tibetan Buddhism and often speaks for it as a whole, he is not actually accorded the highest authority within each of the four individual schools – Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. The way his exiled government, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) have positioned him quite possibly abuses the celebrity status with which he has been accorded in recent decades. It is becoming more apparent that the position assumed by the Dalai Lama today far oversteps the boundaries of what has traditionally been upheld and maintained across the Tibetan religious hierarchy for centuries.
Each of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism has its own head, which oversees every aspect of spiritual affairs within the school. This includes determining the validity and teachings of practices, rituals, spiritual education within monasteries and among the Sangha, and the process of recognizing incarnated lamas (Tulkus) within the school. The Sakya school is headed by the Sakya Trinzins, the role of which is by succession within a family line. The Gelugpas are headed by the Gaden Tripa, a democratically-elected position which is achieved through a vigorous course of study and mastery over all teachings and rituals within the school. The Kagyu school is divided into further sub-schools, each of which has its own head; the most prominent and well-known being the Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu sect. Like the other sects, each Kagyu sub-school also has its own spiritual authorities. The Nyingma school traditionally did not have a head while they were still in Tibet; it was only when they were in exile that the position of the head was created, mostly for administrative reasons.
The Dalai Lama himself is from the Gelugpa school of Buddhism, having long held a connection across his lifetimes with one of the most prominent Gelug institutions, Drepung Monastery. His root Gurus, Trijang Rinpoche and Ling Rinpoche were also among the most prominent Gelug teachers of their time. This however, does not mean that the Dalai Lama is the head of the Gelug sect. This position continues to be maintained by the Gaden Tripas. Although the Dalai Lama can of course give many teachings and initiations of practices in the Gelug lineage, he is not actually authorized to issue instructions or make changes to practices within the lineage.
However much each sect tries to maintain its own sovereignty, there have been several incidences in recent times where the Dalai Lama has exerted his authority over those of the individual sects. This has not only caused confusion but has also had saddened many Buddhists, who feel betrayed by the Dalai Lama, a figure who is supposed to protect the interests of his spiritual community, not dictate them.
1. The Karmapa Controversy
In the first instance, some Karma Kagyu practitioners have claimed that the Dalai Lama interfered unnecessarily in the recognition of the 17th Karmapa, the supreme head of the Karma Kagyu sect. This is a process which, for hundreds of years, been determined only by the four regents of the sect – Shamar Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Gyaltsap Rinpoche and Jamgon Kontrul Rinpoche. However, when there were two candidates recognized as the incarnation of the 16th Karmapa – one recognized by Tai Situ Rinpoche and the other by Shamar Rinpoche – the ‘deciding vote’ was eventually cast and ‘officiated’ by the Dalai Lama. Tai Situ Rinpoche had presented his candidate, Urgyen Trinley Dorje, to the Dalai Lama for his ‘approval’ which the Dalai Lama consequently granted. This is not the usual procedure and the Dalai Lama does not actually have any right to decide internal affairs of a sect in this way.
In response to this ‘approval’ by the Dalai Lama, Shamar Rinpoche – who identified the other Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje – spoke very openly against the Dalai Lama’s intrusion in their Karma Kagyu’s internal matters, especially pertaining to the recognition of the Karmapa. He wrote directly to the Dalai Lama about this. He also wrote a letter to Robert Thurman, renowned Buddhist author and one of the Dalai Lama’s most ardent supporters in the West expressing his firm disapproval of the situation. (This letter was written in response to a letter that Thurman had written wherein he stated the validity of the Dalai Lama’s recognition of Urgyen Trinley and hinted at the wrongful actions of Shamar Rinpoche in ‘[persisting]… to promote a rival candidate’). Shamar Rinpoche wrote:
“The TGIE never asked me for proof of my own recognition of the 17th Karmapa. I also never requested their approval, as they are not in a position to ask for such proof. […] No Shamarpa has had to ask for approval or provide proof to the Dalai Lamas or to the Tibetan government.”
To this day, the Dalai Lama continues to acknowledge only Karmapa Urgyen Trinley, as recognized by Tai Situ Rinpoche. It has been made very clear whose ‘side’ the Dalai Lama supports within the two factions that the Karma Kagyu has been split into. However, as the overall spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, should the Dalai Lama really be taking sides in any such internal affairs? Isn’t this what we would call interference?
2. The Ban on Dorje Shugden
From the beginning of the early 1980s, the Dalai Lama started speaking against the worship of the Protector Deity Dorje Shugden. This escalated to a full ban on the practice in the late 1990s, when the Dalai Lama declared that this enlightened Protector – previously practiced by almost every person in the Gelug school – was a demon, harmful to the Dalai Lama’s life and a threat to the cause of Tibet’s independence. He decreed that if anyone continues their practice of Dorje Shugden they are not to attend his teachings or initiations, nor associate with him and other Tibetans in any way.
Suddenly, monks were forced to give up the practice or risk being expelled from their monasteries. Dorje Shugden practitioners were removed from government jobs, denied medical care, welfare and civil rights, such as travel and voting. The Dalai Lama maintained that it was up to the individual to ‘choose’ whether they wished to continue or not. However, the terrible discrimination that would be faced by each individual who chose to continue their worship of Dorje Shugden pretty much dictated most people’s ‘choice’ to give up the practice.
Normally, it would be the head of the Gelug school to make such important decisions about the validity of a practice, which would affect millions. Never once were the Gaden Tripas throughout the last three decades consulted on this issue nor asked their opinion. Even the Gaden Tripa – the supreme head of the Gelugpa school – was subject to the same ‘conditions’ set forth by the Dalai Lama with regards to his personal Dorje Shugden practice.
However, eventually when the 101st Gaden Tripa Lungrik Namgyal retired from his position (thus taking on the title Gaden Trisur, meaning the Gaden Tripa emeritus), he made it publicly known that he chose to continue his practice of Dorje Shugden. He then left Gaden Monastery to join Shar Gaden Monastery, which had broken away from Gaden Monastery so as to continue their Dorje Shugden practice freely and independently.
So is it interference?
Both the Karmapa and Dorje Shugden issues have been central to the Tibetan Buddhist world in the last three decades, causing great rifts within the monastic and lay spiritual communities. Further, the negative effects of these controversies are not just contained within the exiled Tibetan communities across India and Nepal but have spilled over to all affiliated Buddhist centers and institutions across the world.
As both the Karma Kagyus and Gelug schools have huge followings around the world, making up what may be two of the largest and fastest-growing groups of Buddhism. Naturally, practitioners across both East and West have also become caught within these controversies – which Karmapa one follows or whether someone joins a a Dorje-Shugden Dharma center has become highly politicized issues. These conflicts can all be traced back, ultimately, to the Dalai Lama’s intrusion in the internal affairs and practices of individual sects. So yes, this would be considered interference.
The Shamarpa further commented in his letter to Robert Thurman,
“…you should also consider that from the time of the Great 5th Dalai Lama it has been obligatory that the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas be approved by the Emperors of China. Setting the precedent that you attempt to do here [in the Dalai Lama’s act of recognizing Karmapa Urgyen Trinley over Karmapa Thaye Dorje], how will you prevent in the future, the Chinese government from claiming its historical right to recognize the Dalai Lamas?”
This is a very striking point – why are there double standards being practiced by the Dalai Lama and his government? Why does one procedure apply in one situation (such as for the Karmapas and the Dorje Shugden practice) but not in another – such as the recognition of the Dalai Lamas?
The Shamarpa goes on to say in this same letter,
“The attempt to give full authority over the four schools to H.H. Dalai Lama, however, cannot be supported and indeed does not have the support of any of the other schools […]
The heads of the Karma Kagyu, Drikung Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya lineages have never required the approval of either the leaders of China or the Dalai Lamas. The precedent you are setting here will pave the way for the collapse of every school of Tibetan Buddhism, Gelukpas included.”
The point that the Shamarpa makes about the “collapse of every school of Tibetan Buddhism” is an especially poignant one. For indeed, if the Dalai Lama begins to involve himself in the affairs of individual sects, this would mean that the heads within each school loses any of their authority; it sets a precedent that their decisions and directives can be simply overridden. Then, what happens when the Dalai Lama passes away? Where does the authority lie then? And would the decisions made by the Dalai Lama – while he was still alive – still hold water?
What is even more worrisome is to see that it is not just the Dalai Lama having the last word on such important issues; also, his exiled government, the CTA, continue to uphold these decisions, bringing these spiritual directives into their secular governance of the Tibetan community. Again, what happens when the Dalai Lama passes away? Will the CTA continue to uphold his directives when he’s not around? If so, what basis or right would they have to do this when, as a secular body, they have absolutely no authority within a spiritual sphere?
The situation within the schools will become a chaotic one, where the advice and decisions of the authority can be so easily dismissed and overridden. The sovereignty of each school – and Tibetan Buddhism as a whole – will certainly be up for a lot of questioning. Who is to determine what is right or wrong anymore? And who can be trusted henceforth to make the “right” decisions?
While the Dalai Lama has worked so hard for so many decades to bring Buddhism to the world and spread the teachings, his involvement in individual sects’ internal affairs looks to be the surest and fastest way of undoing all that he has built. What a terrible irony then, that “the oceanic holder of the dharma” Tenzin Gyatso will become the very reason that Tibetan Buddhism begins to fall apart within itself.