The Most Famous Buddhist in the World

Q. How did the Dalai Lama become the most famous Buddhist in the world?


Spiritually speaking, many people assume that the Dalai Lama is like the pope of Buddhism. This is not true. For one thing, the Dalai Lama is the highest-ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism, but he is not officially recognized as a leader among the other schools of Buddhism.

For example, although Tibetan Buddhism is the state religion of Bhutan, the last independent Buddhist kingdom in the world, Bhutan has its own head lama. Other schools of Buddhism have their own chief monks or sangha leaders. The Sangha Raja (Sovereign Monk) is the supreme patriarch of Buddhists in Thailand. There are also other heads of large Buddhist sects, such as Fuji-san, head of Japan's Nichirin, or Pure Land, sect of so-called "chanting" Buddhists, who are known for building "peace pagodas" around the world.

The Dalai Lama's role differs from the pope's in other ways, too. Buddhism is not arranged in so hierarchical a fashion as is the Catholic Church, and there is no single head or ascendant ruling school. In fact, in Tibetan Buddhism, there are four sects or schools, and the Dalai Lama is head of only one of them, the Gelugpa school.


The dramatic escape in January from Tibet of the 17th Karmapa Lama underscores the interrelationship of the various sects and their high lamas: the Karmapa (which literally means "man of Buddha activity"), is the third-highest ranking lama in Tibet and the head of another large sect, the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism, founded 900 years ago.

The Panchen Lama, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, meanwhile, is the second-highest ranking Gelugpa Tibetan lama after the Dalai Lama. Human rights groups call the young Panchen Lama, who would now be 10 or 11, the world's youngest political prisoner. After the Dalai Lama officially proclaimed him Panchen Lama in 1995, the boy was almost immediately abducted and imprisoned by the Chinese government and has not been seen in public since. It is feared that he is dead. All three of these lamas--the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, and the Panchen Lama--are revered spiritual leaders and vital symbols of Tibetan independence both within and outside their homeland.

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