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The Dalai Lama: Tibetan Buddhism

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  • 0:01 Tibet & China
  • 0:52 Dalai Lama Defined
  • 1:28 Tulka Defined
  • 2:22 Choosing the Dalai Lama
  • 4:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to give a brief history of Tibetan Buddhism and the importance of the Dalai Lama. In doing so, it will also highlight the Buddhist terms Bodhisattva, Tulku, and High Lama.

Tibet & China

Just like primal religions had their priest kings and today's Catholic Church has the Pope, Tibetan Buddhism has the Dalai Lama. As the head monk of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama holds a place of reverence amongst the faithful of Buddhism. Not just as a spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama actually governed over the nation of Tibet until the Chinese overtook it in the late 1950s.

With the coming of the conquering Chinese to Tibet, almost all hints of Buddhism were extinguished within the country, and hundreds of thousands of Tibetan Buddhists became refugees in foreign lands. However, many of these exiles were rather successful in re-rooting their Tibetan Buddhist practice in countries like India and the West. Because of this, the influence of the Dalai Lama can be felt around the world.

Dalai Lama Defined

Unlike the position of the Pope, the tradition of the Dalai Lama is a comparatively new one, with the term not actually being used until sometime in the late 16th or early 17th century. In fact, there have only been 14 Dalai Lamas.

With the name actually translated as 'Ocean of Wisdom,' the Dalai Lama is believed by Buddhists to be the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, a famous early bodhisattva, or one who can attain true enlightenment and end of suffering but delays it in order to help others.

Tulka Defined

According to Buddhist tradition, Avalokiteshvara took his bodhisattva vow and duties so seriously he actually proclaimed he'd rather break into a thousand pieces than ever stop having compassion for those who needed the enlightenment he felt was necessary to end suffering.

Building on this position of the bodhisattva, each Dalai Lama is believed to be a reincarnation of the last. In Buddhist terms, each is believed to be a tulku, or in Western terms, one who has decided to be continually reborn. Like a bodhisattva, their goal is to point others toward Buddhist enlightenment. Although not conferred with the title until many years after his death, Gendun Drup, of the 15th century, is believed by Buddhists to be the first tulku and the first Dalai Lama.

Choosing the Dalai Lama

This belief in each Dalai Lama being a reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara leads us to discuss how they are chosen. Although it is not completely set in stone, it has often looked like this.

After the death of a sitting Dalai Lama, respected Buddhist teachers from the Gelug tradition of Buddhism, historically Tibet's predominant Buddhist sect, have been tasked with finding his replacement. In the past, they've begun this pursuit by looking for a boy who was born sometime around the death of the Dalai Lama.

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