CREDOS: The Dalai Lama — I

Lama Surya Das

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 recognised 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 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 that of 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 escape in January from Tibet of the 17th Karmapa Lama underscores the interrelationship of the various sects and their high lamas: the Karmapa (literally, a “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.