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Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Theocracy

In the 13th cent. Kublai Khan, after his conversion, bestowed temporal rule upon the abbots of the Sakya monastery (and leaders of the Sakyapa sect), who subsequently ruled W Tibet from c.1270 to 1340. The lama Tsong-kha-pa (d. 1419), a great reformer, subsequently reorganized the orders, strengthened monastic discipline, introduced a rigid rule of celibacy, and prescribed rigorous routines for meetings, confessions, and retreats. This reform movement called itself the Gelukpa [virtuous] sect and is generally known as the Yellow Hat sect.

Soon Yellow Hat influence spread to Mongolia, and in 1641 a ruling Mongol prince bestowed temporal and spiritual control of all Tibet upon the fifth grand lama of the order, whose title was Dalai or Ta-lai [ocean-wide] Lama. The Dalai Lama was proclaimed a divine reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, ancestor of the Tibetan people, and was installed in the Potala (palace) in Lhasa. He soon became the temporal leader of Tibet, while spiritual supremacy resided with the chief abbot of the powerful Tashi Lumpo monastery near Xigazê, who is known as the Tashi or Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is regarded as a reincarnation of Amitabha, the Buddha of Light.

The succession to grand lama, either Dalai or Panchen, depends on direct reincarnation. Upon the death of either, his spirit is believed to pass into the body of some infant just born. An exacting series of tests and divinations determine the proper boy, who is then carefully trained for his great responsibility.

The 14th Dalai Lama was installed in 1940 and the 10th Panchen Lama in 1944. In 1959, following the Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule (see Tibet), the Dalai Lama went into exile in India, and the Chinese installed the Panchen Lama (d. 1989) in his place as ruler. Until the Chinese repression of Buddhism in Tibet in the 1960s, nearly a fifth of the population resided in lamaseries.

Since the 1980s there has been greater tolerance of religious practice in Tibet, although the Chinese government has attempted to exercise control over the religion. In 1995 China rejected the boy who was confirmed by the Dalai Lama as the new Panchen Lama and forced the selection of a different boy, and in Jan., 2000, the head lama of the Karmapa order fled Tibet for India. China subsequently announced (2007) that it would approve any future reincarnation of a Buddha and that only monasteries within China could apply for approval, a move clearly intended to assert China's control over the Dalai Lama's successor.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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