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The Dalai Lama - His Reincarnations

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by Sangharakshita

... indeed, and we know the exact date of his birth. He was born in the year 1357. And he was born in a place known as Tsonka. Tsonka means literally 'the onion valley'. Presumably a valley were they grew onions. And this was situated in the province of Amdo, which is in eastern, or rather north-eastern, Tibet. And for this reason Tsonkapa is so called Pa as a masculine suffix, meaning man or person. So, he is the man from the onion valley. The Tibetans have this practice or this custom that they never refer to you by your personal name. This is considered highly disrespectful. For any respectable person, especially religious person, they at once coin a sort of title.

I remember this happened to me when I arrived in Kalimpong. Most Tibetans they never knew that my name was Sangharakshita, because nobody ever used it. During the first few years they called me Injigelung, which meant, this was a title meaning the English Monk. And when I had been there a few years they called me Injigelung Geshe Rimpoche, which is much more respectful. But they always keep these titles going. They never descend to use your personal name. This would be regarded as very familiar and disrespectful.

His monastic name, Tsonkapa's monastic name, the name which he was given upon his monastic ordination, was Sumatikirti. And this is of course a Sanskrit name and it means 'one who is praised' or ' one who is praiseworthy on account of his superior intelligence'. So, of course, it was a name, a very appropriate to a person such as Tsonkapa. The Tibetans usually refer to him as Jetsun Tsonkapa. Jetsun means 'the venerable one', and Tsonkapa means of course, as I have said, 'the man from the onion valley'. They also call him Je Rimpoche. This is the most common way of referring to Tsonkapa, Je Rimpoche, which means 'the greatly precious ruler', the spiritual sovereign, as it were. At present, I say at present, but that may not be strictly literally true because we don't quite know what is happening in Tibet at the moment, but at present, we hope that is still true, the famous Kumbum monastery, the monastery of the 100,000 Buddha images, stands on the birth-place of Tsonkapa. And Tsonkapa like many other famous, like many other illustrious men, came from a very poor, a very humble family, and he was the fourth son of his parents. He seems to have been rather precautious, not to say rather a protege because his religious education began when he was three, when he received various initiations and started practising. And he became a sramanera, that is to say a novice monk, at the age of seven. One can't become a novice monk before that.

According to the Vinaja, the Book of the Discipline, if you are old enough to learn earn your living by scaring crows, from the crops, that is to say, a very important occupation in an agricultural country, or manly agricultural country, then you can be ordained. And it's usually understood in the East that you are old enough to earn your living in this way, by scaring the crows away from the crops, when you are seven to eight. So, his was ordained at the earliest possible opportunity as a novice monk when he was seven. And I should incidentally remark that this is not very unusual even today. In many Buddhist countries, like Ceylon and Burma and Thailand, youngsters are ordained at this tender age. And our record in the Buddhist scriptures little boys of seven or eight even attaining arahantship or Enlightenment. So it only goes to show what one can do and how far one can get if only one starts early enough before one has been soiled and mudded and corrupted by what Trahan calls 'the dirty devices of this world'.

Now, by the age of sixteen Tsonkapa was sent to study at a number of famous monasteries in central Tibet. He apparently moved from one monastery to another and one great teacher to another for a number of years, and in this way he covered systematically the whole field, the whole course of Buddhist studies. He studied the scriptures, very voluminous scriptures, 100 volumes or so in Tibetan translation with their commentaries, and he also studied the translations of the works written by the great Indian thinkers, the great Indian Buddhist sages and philosophers, which are even more voluminous and extended. He studied in particular logic, on which in later life he was rather strong, not to say hot - he was very, very fond of logic; mathematics, not that the Tibetans go very far in mathematics. I remember I had a student once in Kalimpong, and I asked him whether he studied arithmetic. And he said: 'Oh, quite a bit. I spent a couple of years at it'. So I said: 'Oh well, how far have you got?' He said: 'Well, I have done addition and subtraction, but I haven't got on yet to division.' So, arithmetic in Tibet is a bit primitive. And he also studied, and this is a science which is not so primitive by any means, though different from our own traditions, Tsonkapa also studied medicine, medical science according to the Indo- Tibetan aryuvedic tradition. And in addition to this, of course, he studied and he practised the teachings of all tree Yanas: the Hinayana, the ethical-psychological form of Buddhism, the Mahayana, the devotional-metaphysical, and the Vajrayana, the esoteric, the magical, or the archetypal, what ever one may like to call it. And it's therefore clear that in his own life, in his own work, in his own teaching, he had a very rich source of material upon which he was able to draw. By the time of Tsonkapa's advent Buddhism had been firmly established in Tibet for several hundred years. Practically everything of importance had been translated, was known, was being studied. So Tsonkapa's approach was quite encyclopaedic. He took the best of all the existing traditions, he immersed himself in all the existing traditions, and he codified and systematised them in a manner which is still of importance for the study of Tibetan Buddhism. His approach, in other words, was a very, very broad one indeed.

At the age of 25 he received his full ordination as a Buddhist monk. You can receive this higher ordination, as it is also called, at the age of 20. But as he was busy with his studies he deferred it until he was 25. And after that event, from the age of 25 onwards, he was fully occupied with both study, because he never gave up his studies, and also with teaching. And the remaining roughly 30 years of his life were past in this way: studying, writing and teaching. And in the course of these years he gathered of course many disciples, who on account of their devotion and dedication to the course of Buddhism, on account of the purity and the holiness of their lives, gradually became known to the people at large as the Gelugpas. Gelugpas means 'the virtuous ones', or, if you like, 'the strict ones'. And they were so called because they, following Tsonkapa's precept and example, insisted on a stricter observance of the Vinaja than which was usually customary at that time. And this involved for them a total prohibition of marriage as well as of alcohol. In the West to western scholars the Gelugpas are usually known as the Yellow Hats, in contradistinction to members of the older schools who are known as the Red Hats. And you may wonder what the basis of this distinction is. Some of the Kagyupa offshoots are called the White Hats and others are called the Black Hats. And I remember when I was sometimes speaking to Tibetan Buddhists in Kalimpong at the lecture we used to have periodically at the Kalimpong town-hall I used to tease them a little and say that I get confused with this Tibetan Buddhism, all the Yellow Caps and Red Hats and White Hats and Black Hats, I'm not quite sure what it is all about. But at least we can be clear as regards the Yellow Hats and the Red Hats. In certain tantric ceremonies at the time of tantric initiation, at the time of transmission of power, about which we shall be learning something in a few weeks time, the officiating lama or the guru, he puts on a cap. In the case of the Gelugpas this is of course yellow and in the case of the Nyingmapas it's red. But there is a meaning, there is a symbolism in this. He puts it on at those moments in the ceremony or in the initiation when mentally through meditation he is identifying himself with the Buddha or Bodhisattva whose initiation he is giving. So that when this sort of solemn moment comes, and it is a very solemn moment, when you see an acolyte handing the yellow cap or the red cap, as the case may be, to the guru, it's usually handed very ceremoniously on a little piece of silk, or even on a cushion or something like that. And when you see him putting it on then you know that a very important moment has been reached in the ceremony and that he is at that moment meditating. Therefore he has his eyes closed, and he is identifying himself in his meditation with the Buddha or Bodhisattva, it may be Avalokiteshvara, or Manjusri, or Amithaba, whose initiation he is then about to give, so that you feel that you are getting that initiation, as it were, from the Buddha or Bodhisattva himself through the guru, or through the teacher. And after that moment has past, when some other part of the ceremony comes along, then that hat is equally solemnly taken off and given back to the acolyte, folded up and put away. And it may be that in the course of one ceremony or one initiation, as I have seen myself, the red or the yellow cap or hat will put on and taken off five or six times, or even more than that. So therefore this isn't something comparatively extrinsic to Tibetan Buddhism, this question of the hat. It is something of quite great practical importance and symbolical significance.

So up to the time of Tsonkapa all the lamas following the Indian tradition used to have red hats or red caps for this particular ceremonial initiatory purpose. But Tsonkapa wanted to make a distinction, a rather obvious ...

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