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The Dalai Lama - His Reincarnations

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by Sangharakshita


The Dalai Lama: His Reincarnations Mr Chairman and Friends, Time is passing, and this is the third lecture in our series on an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. In the first lecture, as you just heard in fact, we saw in some detail how Buddhism came to Tibet, how it gradually penetrated into the Land of Snows and how, despite setbacks and rebuffs and difficulties of various kind, it eventually took firm root there. And it took firm root there, we saw, mainly through the efforts of four religious kings, as they are called, as well as through the activities of a number of great scholar-saints of India and of Tibet such as Santarakshita, Padmasambhava, Atisha, Marpa, and so on.

In our last lecture last week we started to the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. And we saw that there are, broadly speaking, altogether four main schools. These are the schools of the Nyingmapas - the ancient ones, the traditionalists; of the Kagyupas ­ the oral traditionalists, those who attach more importance not to scriptural instruction but to the ear-whispered teachings of the Guru; then the Sakyapas, celebrated for their scholarship; and finally the Gelugpas, the virtuous ones. We saw moreover that the first three of these schools are collectively termed The Old Schools, whereas the fourth, the Gelugpa school, the school of the virtuous ones, is usually referred to as The New School.

Now, last week we were able to study the first three of these four schools, that is to say the Nyingmapas, the Kagyupas and the Sakyapas, in some detail. But the last school, that of the Gelugpas, we decided to leave until today. Partly on account of the fact that we had already gone very much over our time last week and also because the Gelugpa school ties up very nicely with the topic with which we are dealing tonight, The Dalai Lama: His Reincarnations.

Now, one must emphasise at the very outset that one can not possibly understand the Dalai Lama, what he is or who he is, his nature and his functions, apart from the general background of Tibetan Buddhism, and especially of the background of the Gelugpa school to which in particular he belongs, or to which in particular he is affiliated. I remember some years ago, when the Chinese invasionary army invaded Tibet and again at the beginning of the Lasa uprising in 1959, the newspapers, at least in India, I don't know about this country, but the newspapers in India contained of all sorts of rather grotesque references to the Dalai Lama, which showed quite clearly they had no idea of his status, or his nature, or his function. Some newspapers, some reporters for instance, would refer to the Dalai Lama as 'the living Buddha', which of course he isn't. Others would refer to him as 'the priest king'. I remember headings in the newspapers of India, 'Priest King Flees to India' or something of that sort. And some newspapers, some reporters, even went so far as to refer to the Dalai Lama as the Buddhist pope, and to the Potala as the Buddhist Vatican, and to some of the incarnate lamas as to the Buddhist princes of the church, and things of that sort, showing that they hadn't got really the faintest idea of who or what the Dalai Lama really was or really is.

Now, I suggested one can not understand the Dalai Lama apart from a background, not only of Tibetan Buddhism in general, but of the Gelugpa school or Gelugpa order in particular. And this Gelugpa school itself, the fourth, the last, the latest, the newest of the four great schools of Tibetan Buddhism, this school one can not possibly understand apart from the character and the career of its great founder, that is to say, Tsonkapa. Tsonkapa is undoubtedly one of the greatest figures in Tibetan Buddhism.

Possibly he is the most characteristic. We might feel that Milarepa is perhaps even more highly spiritual than Tsonkapa, and Milarepa is certainly very representative of one strand in the total Tibetan spiritual tradition. But, I think, if we want a really representative figure, a figure that embodies the characteristic spiritual or religious genius of the Tibetan people, I think we have to recognise that that figure is Tsonkapa. One might even go so far as to say that not only is Tsonkapa one of the greatest figures in Tibetan Buddhism but even one of the greatest figures in the entire range, the entire history of Buddhism itself.

Tsonkapa is known primarily as a great reformer of Tibetan Buddhism, one who swept away many abuses. He is known also as a great organiser, one who unified the sangha to a great extent, who imposed a unified discipline, and so on. He is also known as a scholar-saint of the very highest distinction. Often you get saints who are not scholars, and, of course, only too often you get scholars who are by no means saints. But Tsonkapa was that rather rare combination of scholar who is a saint, a man of saintly life, and a saint who also, at the same time, is a scholar. And both of these Tsonkapa combined, we may say, almost to the highest possible pitch of perfection.

And in addition to this he was a very voluminous author, a very voluminous writer, who produced manuals and textbooks innumerable, as we shall see in some detail a little later. But above all in the estimation of the Tibetan people, in the estimation of the Gelugpa school in particular, Tsonkapa is not just a great reformer, not just a great organiser and administrator, not even just a great scholar and a great saint and a voluminous author, for them he is above all one of the Bodhisattvas, or at least a manifestation of one of the Bodhisattvas.

Traditionally Tsonkapa is regarded as a manifestation, a very special manifestation, of the Bodhisattva Manjusri. And Manjusri, as many of you know, I'm sure, is the Bodhisattva of wisdom par excellence. He is associated especially with the Perfection of Wisdom teachings. And this is the reason why in Tibetan Buddhist iconography when you encounter tankas, that is to say painted scrolls and images representing Tsonkapa, he is shown with the attributes and with the insignia of Manjusri. You see at first this rather characteristic, this rather typical Tibetan scholar-saint, seated there in his Tibetan monastic robes and his tall yellow cap, about which we shall have a word or two to say later on. And then, as it were, almost growing out of his shoulders, rather like two little wings are two lotus flowers. And on one lotus flower is the flaming sword of Manjusri, the sword which cuts athunder the bonds of ignorance, on the other the book, the scripture, of the Perfection of Wisdom. So, these two insignia, these two attributes of the Bodhisattva Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, Tsonkapa bears in this way. And this indicates that he is regarded as a manifestation on the earthly plane of Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, or as over-shadowed, as it were, by this great archetype of spiritual wisdom, the Bodhisattva Manjusri or Manjugosha.

Tsonkapa, we may say, on account of the force of his personality, on account of his great spiritual genius, his vast organisational ability, left a permanent imprint, a permanent stamp, if you like, on the whole of Tibetan Buddhism. And I personally fear it's a very great pity that the name and the career and the work and the life of Tsonkapa are not better known outside of Tibet. Inside Tibet, of course, they are very, very well known indeed. There is no Tibetan Buddhist who hasn't heard the name of Tsonkapa, who is not familiar with his picture, his appearance, his writings. But outside Tibet, unfortunately, his name is hardly ever mentioned. The Buddhists of Ceylon and Burma and Thailand have, I'm sure, in practically all cases, if not indeed in all cases, not heard the name of Tsonkapa. And the same goes probably for the great majority of the Buddhists of Japan. And I'm equally sure that even in this country, even though people here do study a lot about Buddhist history and literature and so on, on a comparative basis, here also, I'm sure, very few Western Buddhists, very few English Buddhists, are in the position to state very clearly what the significance of the life and work of Tsonkapa was and indeed still is.

If we want to introduce any sort of comparison between Tsonkapa and comparable figures in our western Christian tradition, we could well say that Tsonkapa is a sort of St Benedict and St Thomas Aquinas rolled into one. St Benedict was the great monastic reformer, the great monk, the great founder of monasteries, and St Thomas Aquinas, of course, was the great theologian, the great philosopher, the great thinker, and both were very saintly men. So, Tsonkapa, if we want to give a general idea, a general characterisation of his activities, of his nature or the nature of his work, he, we may say, was a sort of Buddhist St Benedict and St Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.

He was born about 600 years ago. His life is very well documented, because the Tibetans, as I think I have mentioned before, were never indifferent to history. Here they differ from the Indians. The ancient Indians had no regard for history whatever.

Sanskrit literature is very, very rich indeed. All branches of literature are represented: poetry, drama, fiction, and so on. But you will find in the whole range of Sanskrit literature, which is one of the richest literatures in the world, only one historical work, and this is the Raja Tarangini, a history of the kings of Cashmere. But not so in Tibet, the Tibetans, for some reason or other, have always been very historically minded.

They produced lots of histories, histories of India, histories of Tibet, histories of Buddhism. They also produced biographies innumerable, mainly of saints and religious people. And these are very often quite sound critical works, not just hagiography. So, the life and the career of Tsonkapa happens to be very well documented ...

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