Who Are the Tibetan Lamas?

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Jan. 14 2000 5:09 PM

Who Are the Tibetan Lamas?

Last week the Karmapa Lama, a 14-year-old Tibetan Buddhist Leader, fled to India from Chinese-controlled Tibet. Five years ago, the Chinese government sparked controversy by nominating a different boy for the position of Panchen Lama than the one the Dalai Lama had chosen. Who are all these lamas?

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Lama, which translates as "superior one," is a title officially extended only to the few dozen Tibetan Buddhist monks who have achieved the highest level of spiritual development. (In informal conversation, lama is used to refer to any Tibetan Buddhist monk.) Most lamas are believed to be reincarnations of previous lamas or holy men, and their places in the hierarchy are determined by these reincarnated identities. Tibetan Buddhism is divided into multiple branches. The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama lead the largest sect, and the Karmapa Lama heads the second largest.

The Dalai Lama is considered Tibet's spiritual leader, since he holds the highest position within the dominant Gelugpa ("Yellow Hat") sect. The title was first adopted by the Gelugpa leader in the 16th century, and 100 years later the Mongols deemed the position one of spiritual and temporal power. The 14th and present Dalai Lama assumed the post as a 5-year-old in 1940. (When a Dalai Lama dies, his soul enters the body of a young boy. The child is identified through physical and mental tests, including familiarity with the previous leader's belongings.) The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after the Tibetans' failed uprising against the Chinese Communists, who had taken over in 1951. He has continued to serve as a religious leader in exile and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his peaceful efforts to end Chinese rule in Tibet. (Click here to visit the Dalai Lama's official Web site.) 

The Panchen Lama is the second-highest Gelugpa leader, but does not have civil authority. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, the Chinese government tried to elevate the Panchen Lama to take his place. Although he partly cooperated with the Chinese, the Panchen Lama continued to protest Chinese rule and demand religious freedom. He was imprisoned in 1964, released in 1981, and died in 1989. Six years later, the Dalai Lama, who traditionally determines the Panchen Lama's successor, announced his choice for the position. The Chinese government asserted that it had the authority to make the selection, and last summer enthroned a 9-year-old as the Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama does not recognize the choice, and most Tibetan Buddhists continue to worship the original candidate, who has been missing since 1995 and is assumed to be in Chinese custody. (Click here to learn more about the Chinese-designated Panchen Lama, and here for information on the Dalai Lama's choice.)

The Karmapa Lama is the leader of the Karmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The current Karmapa, a 14-year-old, is the 17th incarnation and is the only high lama accepted by both China and the Dalai Lama. Beijing has pointed to its acceptance of the Karmapa Lama as an example of its religious tolerance. But the Karmapa Lama is said to have fled because of recent Chinese restrictions on his movement and teachings. India has not yet decided whether to grant him asylum. (Click here to visit the Karmapa Lama's home page.)

Explainer thanks Slate reader Keith Gerritsen for suggesting the topic.

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