Self-Power and Other-Power: A Beautiful Paradox

One of the delicious paradoxes of the Buddhist path is found in the phrases “self power” and “other power.”  What do they mean, and why do they present a paradox?

Some schools of Buddhism emphasize that realization of enlightenment comes through one’s own efforts; no one can give it to you. This is reinforced by verse 165 from the Dhammapada:

“By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.” (Acharya Buddharakkhita translation)

Yet, at the same time, the teachings say the “self” is an illusion. So what “self” does the powering? This makes no sense!

Read More: Self, No Self, What’s a Self?

Other schools, notably Pure Land, developed an “other power” path. The Chinese monk Tanluan (476-542 CE), a patriarch of Pure Land, thought that the emphasis on self power reinforced self-centeredness, which is an obvious barrier to realization.

Instead, Pure Land emphasizes faith in the power of Amitabha Buddha to bring beings to the Pure Land, a place in which realizing enlightenment is as natural as breathing.

Read More: Pure Lands: Buddha-Fields of Enlightenment

However, the “self power” advocates can be very critical of the “other power” approach, saying that “other power” tends to reinforce the idea of a separate, permanent self that needs to be helped.

Jiriki and Tariki

In Japanese Buddhism, “self power” is called jiriki and “other power” is tariki. Of these, D.T. Suzuki wrote,

Shin Buddhism is tariki (Other Power), Zen is jiriki (self-power), or so it is generally assumed, but that is rather a superficial observation. At bottom, when you really get down to it, there is no jiriki and no tariki. Or you might say that both are jiriki and both are tariki.” [from “Anjin: Zen to Shin,” originally published in the June 1965 issue of Kokoro]

Okay, what’s going on here? In so many words, Suzuki explained that Amitabha Buddha cannot help anyone whose karma has not brought him to a place where he can be helped. And we are responsible for our own karma; we create it by our thoughts, words and deeds.

What about Zen? I’m thinking of these words of Eihei Dogen, from the Genjokoan —

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.

When we forget the self, we are enlightened by the ten thousand things (which is a fancy way of saying “everything”). When we forget the self, what is left? All beings throughout space and time, manifesting their original Buddha Nature. In Mahayana Buddhism especially, enlightenment is realized together with all beings.

And there’s the delicious paradox — practice/enlightenment is something you do with everyone else, because no one is separate. Not one, not many.

This is why bodhicitta is so important in Mahayana Buddhism. Bodhicitta is the sincere desire to realize enlightenment for the sake of others. Your “self-effort” is not about you.

Sometimes the spiritual path can be very selfish. It can be all about building a new, improved, minty-fresh self.  No matter what your practice is, if it’s all about you, it’s going to fail. True self-power requires opening up and letting everyone else in.

This is another reason why it’s ideal to practice within a community. I realize that’s not always possible. But it does reinforce the truth that our self-effort is also other-effort. And vice versa.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

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The Mustard Seed Parable

The story of Kisagotami and the mustard seed is one of the most famous in Buddhist literature. The story was found in the paracanonical Pali texts, which is a story in itself. But first, let’s learn about Kisagotami.

The Story of Kisagotami

Kisagotami was born into a poor family of Savatthi, also called Shravasti, which in ancient times was a prominent city in northern India.  She married into a much wealthier family. But her in-laws called her “skinny” and “girl of a poor family.”

Then she gave birth to a son, and the baby brightened her life. As the mother of a son  she also gained respect in her husband’s family. But the child somehow was accidentally killed while playing; the Pali text doesn’t say how, exactly. And Kisagotami’s reason for living died with him

She was crazed with sorrow; she snatched up her child’s precious body before her husband’s family could take it away and leave it to decompose in a charnel ground. She wandered with the little corpse on her hip, asking for medicine to cure him.

People ridiculed her and asked what good medicine would do, but she did not understand what they were saying.

Then a wise man saw her and recognized that she was out of her mind with grief. The Buddha would know what to do for her, he thought.  The man told Kisagotami where to find the Tathagata and ask about medicine for her son.

Kisagotami went to the place where the Buddha was teaching and asked about medicine for her son. The Buddha said he could help her, but first she must bring him a mustard seed — a very common spice that was sometimes used as medicine in the ancient world. But there was a catch — the mustard seed must come from a house that had never experienced death.

Frantically, Kisagotami went from one house to another, asking for a mustard seed. All were willing to give her what she wanted. But when she asked if anyone had ever died in the house, she was told “of course people have died here.” Finally it sank into Kisagotami that death came to everyone; all beings are impermanent.  Her mind cleared, and she took her son’s body to the charnel ground herself.

She returned to the Buddha, and he inquired about the mustard seed. I have resolved the matter of the mustard seed, she sighed. I understand now.  Then Kisagotami asked to be ordained into the order of nuns, and the Buddha ordained her.  She practiced diligently, and in time she realized enlightenment and became an arhat.

Comments

That is the story, as told in a text called the Therigatha Atthakatha, or “commentaries to the Therigatha.” The Therigatha, “Verses of the Elder Nuns,” is in the Pali Sutta-pitaka, in the Khuddaka Nikaya.

The Therigatha Atthakatha is not part of the formal Pali Canon, however, but is in what’s called the “paracanonical Pali texts.” This is a collection of commentaries, notes, sermons and stories that were preserved in oral tradition but were not attributed to the historical Buddha or his disciples, and so were not included in the Pali Canon. For centuries these commentaries and stories were only remembered in a few monasteries. Eventually the scattered texts were translated into Pali and collected, notably by the 5th century scholar Buddhaghosa.

A poem attributed to Kisagotami does appear in the Therigatha, but the story it tells is identical to the story of Patacara. One wonders if some long-ago, sleepy scribe got the two mothers confused.

Finally, I would like to add my own comment to Kisagotami’s story.

The first time I  heard this story — and I can’t recall from whom — it was said that as Kissagotami went from house to house looking for her mustard seed, people told her about their loved ones who had died, and shared their own grief. When her heart opened in compassion for them, her own pain became bearable.

The detail about compassion isn’t in the original story, but I think it ought to be.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

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The Story of Bhadda Kundalakesa

Bhadda Kundalakesa was one of the historical Buddha‘s female disciples. Although she lived 25 centuries ago, many modern women can relate to her story, beginning with her terrible judgment in men.

Bhadda was the protected and pampered daughter of a wealthy family of Magadha, in what is now northern India. She was a lovely girl, but because of her headstrong nature her parents were having a hard time finding her a suitable husband.

One day, the teenage Bhadda looked out her window and saw a deliciously handsome man in the custody of soldiers. He was named Satthuka, and he was a thief being taken away to be executed. Somehow — one suspects an epic tantrum — she persuaded her father to redeem the fellow and have him freed and pardoned, if he agreed to marry Bhadda that very day.

Satthuka may have been handsome, but he was still a thief. Shortly after the wedding, Satthuka apparently decided a wife cramped his style, and he desired Bhadda’s jewelry more than Bhadda.

He told his bride he intended to make an offering to a certain mountain deity, and he asked her to accompany him. But when they reached the top of a high cliff, he told her the truth — he was done with her; he was going to push her off the cliff to her death and make off with her possessions.

But now the thief was out of luck. Bhadda pushed Satthuka off the cliff instead.

The Jain Ascetic

The stunned Bhadda, suddenly older and wiser, chose not to go back to her family. Instead, she wandered until she found a group of Jain nuns, and she joined them. The nuns practiced a form of extreme asceticism in the belief that causing themselves to suffer would burn off the effects of bad karma.

(Note that the Buddha directly refuted this Jain belief in the Devadaha Sutta of the Pali Sutta-pitaka, Majjhima Nikaya 101.)

The nuns strove to possess nothing, to desire nothing, and to burn away all passions through self-denial. Baddha gave herself to hardship. When she was ordained, her hair was pulled out by the roots. Her hair grew back thick and curly, however, which earned her the name Kundalakesa — “curly hair.”

The Debate

As time went on, Bhadda Kundalakesa found Jain teachings unsatisfying, and she sought out teachers from other traditions. She also studied Vedic scriptures. No longer the pampered daughter of wealthy parents, she discovered she had a keen intellect, and she learned how to use it.

After many years — and not unlike her distant dharma sister, Liu Tiemo — Bhadda Kundalakesa gained a reputation as a formidable debater. As she traveled from town to town, she invited debate challenges by sticking a rose-apple branch into a pile of sand. Anyone who dared could challenge her by trampling on the sand, but none could get the better of her.

One day she was near Anathapindika‘s monastery in Jeta Grove, where the disciple Sariputra was staying. Sariputra sent children to pick apart Bhadda Kundalakesa’s sand pile, and soon she found her way to Sariputra. The debate was on!

She asked question after question, and Sariputra answered her easily. Then it was his turn. What is the one? he asked. And she couldn’t answer. She lost.

Humbly, Bhadda Kundalakesa asked Sariputra to become her teacher. But he told her to find the Buddha instead. So it was that some time later, she approached the Buddha to be ordained. “Better than many volumes of knowledge is a single verse that brings peace,” he said.

Then Bhadda Kundalakesa was ordained a Buddhist nun, and she soon realized enlightenment. Her poetry is recorded in the in a section of the Pali Sutta-pitaka called the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, in the Khuddaka Nikaya.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

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The Story of Khema

Khema was a beautiful woman and one of the principal wives of King Bimbisara of Magadha, a large kingdom in what is now northern India. It is said that Queen Khema loved beauty above all things, especially her own.

King Bimbisara admired the Buddha, and he cared enough about Khema to want her to appreciate him, also. He enticed her to visit Anathapindika‘s monastery in Jeta Grove, where the Buddha was staying, by praising the beauty of its gardens. She didn’t know she was going to hear the Buddha speak.

When Khema realized she’d been maneuvered into hearing a sermon, she was annoyed. But as the Buddha spoke, Khema noticed a woman standing next to him who was even more beautiful than she was. Khema was astonished and envious.

But as Khema watched, the woman aged before her eyes. Her skin wrinkled, her hair grayed, her body sagged. Khema realized this vision was a message to her, that her beauty and privilege were just temporary conditions that would soon crumble away.

Khema became absorbed in the Buddha’s words, and she passed through all the stages of enlightenment and became an arhat that very day.  The Buddha told King Bimbisara that Khema must either die and pass to final Nirvana (parinirvana), or she could live and be ordained a nun. The King gave permission for Khema to be ordained.

If you’ve noticed that people in these old stories from early Buddhist scripture realize enlightenment awfully easily, this is usually explained by the merit this individual accumulated in past lives. Khema’s prior lives appear in some of the Jataka Tales, usually as a virtuous woman and benefactor of the sangha.

Khema the Nun

The ordained Khema appears in the Pali Sutta-pitaka, in the Khema Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 44). In this sutta, a king named Pasenadi Kosala heard that an enlightened nun and disciple of the Buddha was nearby, and went to see her. The King questioned Khema about whether the Buddha did or did not exist after death, and Khema told him the Buddha had not declared whether he would exist or not exist.

The King clearly was frustrated by this answer. So Khema said, Let me ask you a question, great King. Can your accountants count grains of sand in the Ganges?

No, lady, they cannot, the King said.

Khema continued, Can your accountants determine the number of buckets of water in the ocean?

No, lady, the King said. The ocean is deep and boundless. It is hard to fathom.

Even so, Khema said, when the Buddha is freed from physical form, he is deep and boundless and hard to fathom, like the ocean. “The Tathagata exists after death” doesn’t apply. “The Tathagata doesn’t exist after death” doesn’t apply. “The Tathagata both exists and doesn’t exist after death” doesn’t apply. “The Tathagata neither exists nor doesn’t exist after death” doesn’t apply.

The King bowed to Khema and departed. Some time later, he met the Budddha himself and asked the same questions, and he received exactly the same answers.

Khema’s Poem

A poem attributed to Khema appear in the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Pali Sutta-pitaka. The poem is in the form of a conversation with Mara, the demon trickster.

Khema wrote that Mara came to her in the form of a handsome man, and said, “You are young and beautiful, Khema, and so am I. Let us enjoy each other.” Khema responded,

Through this vile body, a host for disease and corruption,
I feel loathing. Lust is uprooted.
Lusts of the body and mind are cut away.
Don’t talk to me about sensuous pleasure!
Such things cannot delight me any more.

Khema became an important assistant to Maha Pajapati, the eldest nun, and along with another nun named Uppalavanna was named by the Buddha as the foremost in wisdom of all nuns.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

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His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa

On a December night in 1999, 14-year-old Ogyen Trinley Dorje quietly slipped out of a window of Tolung Tsurphu Monastery in central Tibet. For the next two days he rode in a car driven by monks, nonstop, until they reached a rugged and isolated area bordering Nepal. From there, going by foot, horseback, helicopter, train and finally taxi, the boy and his attendants traveled unnoticed through Nepal to India. They reached Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, on January 5.

His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa

Every year, as many as 3,000 Tibetans evade guards and checkpoints and escape Tibet. But Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s escape made international headlines, because he is His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, the reborn head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Karmapa is the third highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism.

The teenage Karmapa arrived at Dharamsala exhausted, with blistered feet, and caught His Holiness the Dalai Lama by surprise. The defection also caused great consternation for the governments of China and India.

China had barred the Karmapa from leaving Tibet, and the defection was an embarrassment for Beijing. The government of China had hoped that a loyal and compliant Karmapa would help legitimize China’s rule over Tibet. Instead, once in Dharamsala the teenager spoke out about Tibet’s lack of religious freedom.

The government of India faced a dilemma. China warned India that granting asylum to the “living Buddha” would jeopardize relations between the two nations. But much of the rest of the world supported asylum for the Karmapa. New Dehli wavered for over a year before granting refugee status to the Karmapa in February 2001.

The Karmapas

Kagyu is one of the four main traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. It is based on teachings brought to Tibet from India by Marpa Chokyi Lodoe (1012-1099). The first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193), founded a school of Kagyu called Karma Kagyu. The Karma Kagyu school claims an unbroken lineage of reincarnations of the Karmapa, the oldest such lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, to the present day.

After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, tried to continue his work in Tibet. But the situation in Tibet became increasingly unstable and dangerous. The 16th Karmapa, with a number of Karma Kagyu monks and teachers, left Tibet in 1959, as did His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Karmapa took the most sacred objects and artifacts of the Karma Kagyu lineage out of Tibet, also. The Karmapa established his new seat outside Tibet in Rumtek, a monastery in Sikkim that the 9th Karmapa had founded at the end of the 16th century.

Also, as the various traditions and schools of Tibetan Buddhism relocated outside Tibet, the Tibetan government in exile decided some administrative consolidation was in order. The government in exile appointed the Karmapa to be head of all schools of Kagyu, not just Karma Kagyu. Until his death in 1981, the 16th Karmapa provided leadership and teaching to the Kagyu tradition in exile.

The 17th Karmapa

The Karmapa lineage is said to be self-announced, because each Karmapa leaves a letter predicting his next rebirth. Eleven years passed before the letter left by the 16th Karmapa was located. The letter provided a location, also seen by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a dream, and the names of the next Karmapa’s parents. By means of these predictions, in 1992 a seven-year-old named Apo Gaga was identified as the 17th Karmapa.

The 17th Karmapa was born in eastern Tibet on July 26th, 1985. After his identification he was taken to Tolung Tsurphu Monastery and enthroned there in September 1992. He studied Buddhism at Tsurphu until his escape in 1999. By all accounts His Holiness is an intelligent, serious and sincere young man with particular interest in protecting the earth’s environment.

The Other 17th Karmapa

Although Ogyen Trinley Dorje has been accepted by a majority of Kagyu lamas and monasteries and by the Dalai Lama as the legitimate Karmapa, a substantial minority recognize another young man, Trinley Thaye Dorje, born in 1983 in Lhasa. Trinley Thaye was identified as the Karmapa by another reincarnated Karma Kagyu lama, the 14th Sharmapa, Mipham Chokyi Lodro. Trinlay Thaye Dorje escaped from Tibet in 1994 and currently lives in Kalimpong, India.

A great many devout and sincere people make elaborate arguments about the legitimacy of one Karmapa over the other. There are myriad accusations, claims and counterclaims. Ogyen Trinley, however, has the recognition of both the Dalai Lama and the government of China. Indeed, he is the only living tulku (reincarnated lama) to be so recognized; the Dalai Lama and China don’t agree on anyone else. Although previous incarnations of the Karmapa did not depend on China’s or the Dalai Lama’s recognition, the combined weight of their authority does give Ogyen Trinley an advantage.

Robert A. F. Thurman, professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, was asked about the controversy during Ogyen Trinley’s first visit to the United States. “The other Karmapa is a nice person, and he has followers in Europe and Asia, but almost all of the Tibetans accept the Karmapa who is here now,” he said.

Although one hates to accuse the high officials of a major Buddhist school of being greedy, it appears the real bone of contention is over control of Rumtek Monastery and the many priceless art treasures, artifacts and relics therein.

Looking to the Future

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was born in 1935. Although he is healthy as of this writing, his age gives concern to what will happen to Tibetan Buddhism once he is gone.

The lineage of Tibet’s second highest lama, the Panchen Lama, appears to be broken. The 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989. On May 14, 1995, the Dalai Lama identified a six-year-old boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. By May 17 the boy and his parents had been taken into Chinese custody. They have not been seen or heard from since. The Chinese government enthroned another boy, the son of a Communist official, in his place.

Understandably, the government’s Panchen Lama is not considered legitimate by most Tibetans. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is deeply concerned that the Communist government of China will enthrone a false Dalai Lama when he is gone. (See also “China’s Outrageous Reincarnation Policy.”) He has spoken of either choosing a successor before he dies or of being the last Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lamas, heads of the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, have been spiritual and temporal leaders of Tibet since the 17th century. Before that, at different times the heads of either the Kagyu or Sakya traditions held that authority. Back in the day the monasteries’ power was based on strategic alliances with various Mongol warlords.

Today there is speculation that before he dies, the Dalai Lama might name the third highest lama, the Karmapa, as the new spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. This would be extraordinary, as this authority has never changed hands peacefully. But these are extraordinary times.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

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Who Were the Buddhas Before Buddha?

Shakyamuni Buddha sometimes called Gautama Buddha, is said to be the Buddha of the current age. According to early Buddhist scripture, there were Buddhas in earlier ages as well, and there will be other Buddhas in future ages. For example, ancient sources say that Maitreya Buddha will be the Buddha of the next age.

But what about the earlier Buddhas? Is there anything we need to know about them?

Six Previous Buddhas

Probably the earliest source of information on previous Buddhas is the Mahavadana Sutta, or “Discourse on the Great Legend,” which is found in the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Digha Nikaya 14).

In this sutta, we find “our” Buddha, Gautama, in Anathapindika’s park in the Jeta Grove. After the Buddha and his disciples had enjoyed their daily meal, the subject of previous births arose. The Buddha offered to speak of his predecessors, and his disciples eagerly accepted the offer. The Buddha then told of six previous Buddhas. They all lived many eons, or kalpas, ago. A kalpa is a length of time that defies calculation; just know that one kalpa usually is a really, really long time.

Read More: About Time

The most striking thing about the stories of the six previous Buddhas is that their spiritual paths all followed the same course, all very much like the life of the historical Buddha. They were all born to high-caste families and raised in luxurious homes. Each married and had a son. Each encountered the Four Passing Sights — an elderly person, a sick person, a corpse, and a holy man seeking enlightenment. Disturbed by what he saw, each left home and became a wandering mendicant, looking for peace of mind.

Each realized enlightenment while meditating under some sort of tree. After enlightenment, each went forth to teach.

Do the six previous Buddhas have spiritual significance? That’s hard to say. Certainly you can practice for many years without bothering to learn about them. They do come up in many texts and in art and chanting liturgies, however, so it doesn’t hurt to be aware of who these Buddhas were.

Did they really live? Several of them lived so many kalpas ago they would have been genuinely prehistoric if they had. The point they seem to be making is that the dharma is likely to have been found and lost and found again many times in the great cycle of time. It’s also the case that great teachers of other spiritual traditions of India were said to have had similar predecessors.

The six previous Buddhas described in the Mahavadana Sutta are listed below.

Vipasyi or Vipassi. Vipasyi was born 91 kalpas ago to a family of the Khattiya (warrior) caste. His clan name was Kondanna. He was enlightened under a patali, or trumpet flower, tree.

Sikhi. Sikhi was born 31 kalpas ago, also to a family of the Khattiya caste. He also was of the Kondanna clan, and he was enlightened under a pundarika, or artemisia, tree.

Visvabhuj or Vessabhu. Visvabhuj also was born 31 kalpas ago to a family of the Khattiya caste. Also of the Kondanna clan, he was enlightened under a sal tree.

Krakucchanda or Kakusandha. Krakucchanda and the remaining three Buddhas were born during the current kalpa, but still an unimaginably long time ago. Krakucchanda was of the Brahmin, or priest, caste. He and the remaining three Buddhas also were of a clan called Kassapa. He was enlightened under an acacia tree.

Kanakamuni or Konmagamana. Another member of the Brahmin caste, Kanakamuni was enlightened under an udumbara, or cluster fig, tree.

Kasyapa or Kassapa. Another Brahmin, Kasyapa was enlightened under a banyan tree. He should not be confused with a disciple of the Buddha by the same name; the Buddha’s disciple Kasyapa usually is called Mahakasyapa, or Great Kasyapa, to distinguish him.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

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Tibet’s Declaration of Independence

In 1913, His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama issued what many call a “declaration of independence” for Tibet from the Republic of China. The 13th Dalai Lama’s position was that the Gelugpa leadership of Tibet had a relationship with (but were not subjects of) the the Manchu Emperors of China, not the nation-state of China. When the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911, any ties between China and Tibet were severed, His Holiness said.

His Holiness Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama

The proclamation, given to the people of Tibet, begins by affirming the Dalai Lama’s authority to rule Tibet. He evoked Tibet’s ancient kings and Avalokiteshvara, patron deity of Tibet, from whom the Dalai Lamas emanate. This part of the proclamation follows a tradition begun by the 5th Dalai Lama.

His Holiness then described the relationship with the Manchu emperors as a “patron-priest” relationship, which was something significant in the histories of both Tibet and China, going back to the time of Genghis Khan. High lamas of Tibet acted as spiritual advisers to Mongol and Chinese rulers, and in return received protection from their powerful disciples. For example, his patron/disciple Gushi Khan secured the leadership of Tibet for the 5th Dalai Lama.

A Sakya lama named Pagpa gave empowerments and teachings to Kublai Khan (1215-1294), which made the two patron and priest. Since Kublai Khan ruled China, and the Sakyas were the tenuous rulers of Tibet at the time, this patron-priest relationship is sometimes evoked by China today as part of its claim to Tibet. But historians tell us the Great Khan would not have seen Pagpa as his subject, but as his guru.

The 13th Dalai Lama’s proclamation begins:

“I, the Dalai Lama, most omniscient possessor of the Buddhist faith, whose title was conferred by the Lord Buddha’s command from the glorious land of India, speak to you as follows:

“I am speaking to all classes of Tibetan people. Lord Buddha, from the glorious country of India, prophesied that the reincarnations of Avalokitesvara, through successive rulers from the early religious kings to the present day, would look after the welfare of Tibet.

“During the time of Genghis Khan and Altan Khan of the Mongols, the Ming dynasty of the Chinese, and the Ch’ing Dynasty of the Manchus, Tibet and China cooperated on the basis of benefactor and priest relationship. A few years ago, the Chinese authorities in Szechuan and Yunnan endeavored to colonize our territory. They brought large numbers of troops into central Tibet on the pretext of policing the trade markets. I, therefore, left Lhasa with my ministers for the Indo-Tibetan border, hoping to clarify to the Manchu emperor by wire that the existing relationship between Tibet and China had been that of patron and priest and had not been based on the subordination of one to the other. There was no other choice for me but to cross the border, because Chinese troops were following with the intention of taking me alive or dead.

“On my arrival in India, I dispatched several telegrams to the Emperor; but his reply to my demands was delayed by corrupt officials at Peking. Meanwhile, the Manchu empire collapsed. The Tibetans were encouraged to expel the Chinese from central Tibet. I, too, returned safely to my rightful and sacred country, and I am now in the course of driving out the remnants of Chinese troops from DoKham in Eastern Tibet. Now, the Chinese intention of colonizing Tibet under the patron-priest relationship has faded like a rainbow in the sky.”

The remainder of the proclamation, which you may read on this page, lists the 13th Dalai Lama’s intentions for the future direction of Tibet.

Also in 1913, the provisional president of the Republic of China, Yuan Shikai, wrote the Dalai Lama asking for his allegiance to his “mother country.” The letter promised to overlook the Dalai Lama’s “former errors” and bestow on him a long title that began with “Loyal and Submissive Vice Regent.” His Holiness replied that he hadn’t asked for any titles, and that he “intended to exercise both temporal and ecclesiastic rule in Tibet.”

 [This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]
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The Fifth Dalai Lama

Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama

His Holiness Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama, was the first Dalai Lama to become spiritual and political leader of Tibet. The story of his life is pivotal to Tibet’s history. It is also a story of political intrigue that began before he was born and continued for many years after he died. He is remembered by Tibetans as the “Great Fifth.”

The Dalai Lama is a high lama of the Gelug school (also called Gelugpa) of Tibetan Buddhism.

Before the birth of the 5th Dalai Lama, the Gelug school had suffered a blow. Some years earlier central Tibet had split into two small, warring kingdoms, U and Tsang. The rulers of U were patrons of Gelugpa, but the rulers of Tsang supported another school, Kagyu. The strife escalated into fighting between monks of the two schools.

During the time of the short-lived 4th Dalai Lama, the king of Tsang defeated the king of U and proclaimed himself king of central Tibet. The Gelug school had lost its patron and found itself in a precarious position. The king of Tsang even banned Gelugpa from ordaining a 5th Dalai Lama.

A Lama Reborn

In 1617 a boy was born into a family of wealthy aristocrats and named Künga Nyingpo. This remarkable boy caught the attention of Karma Kagyu and other schools, but secretly an attendant of the 4th Dalai Lama had identified Künga Nyingpo as his master’s rebirth.

To complicate matters, when Künga Nyingpo was only three his father was been imprisoned for conspiring against the king of Tsang. The father would die in prison without seeing his son again. Künga Nyingpo’s mother raised the boy in seclusion in her family home, away from the king of Tsang’s court. A few years passed.

Some accounts say that Gelugpa kept its finding of the boy secret until the king of Tsang reversed the ban. Other accounts say that squabbling among the schools caused the king to relent and let Gelugpa have him.

When his identity as the 5th Dalai Lama finally was revealed, however, he had to go into hiding once again.

The Mongolian Connection

Years earlier, the 3rd Dalai Lama and a Mongol tribal leader named Altan Khan had forged an alliance. In fact, it was Altan Khan who coined the title “Dalai Lama,” meaning “ocean of wisdom.” The Third gave Altan Khan teachings and initiations in return for Altan Khan’s patronage. The Mongol-Gelugpa alliance was reinforced when a Mongol boy was identified as the 4th Dalai Lama.

When the identify of the 5th Dalai Lama was made public, Mongols in Lhasa loyal to the old alliance wanted to take the boy to a Mongol stronghold. The Gelug elders were anxious for the boy to begin his life as a monk, however. To keep him from being spirited away by Mongol admirers he had to hide for another year.

At long last, the ten-year-old tulku was taken to Drepung Monastery, where the 3rd Panchen Lama ordained him as Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama.

A Dalai Lama’s Education

Lobsang Gyatso had a precocious intellect and a love of study. By all accounts he mastered Buddhist philosophy easily. He also studied astrology, medicine and poetry.

At the age of 19 the 5th Dalai Lama became the student of Paljor Lhundrup, abbot of Pahongka monastery. Paljor Lhundrup was an unconventional teacher who combined Gelugpa with Nyingmapa, an older school of Tibetan Buddhism. Through Paljor Lhundrup, the 5th Dalai Lama secretly took up Dzogchen, or “great perfection,” a central practice of Nyingmapa that at the time was hotly criticized by the elders of Gelugpa.

A New Mongol Patron

Since the time of Altan Khan, Gelug Buddhism had spread throughout Mongolia. And as the 5th Dalai Lama grew to adulthood, a newly converted tribal leader of western Mongolia fought his way toward Tibet.

Gushi (sometimes spelled Gushri) Khan (1582-1655) and his army reached the edge of Tibet in 1637. Then Gushi Khan made his way to Lhasa to pay his respects to the Dalai Lama. The 5th Dalai Lama, now 20 years old, was impressed by the battle-hardened warrior, and the meeting went well.

The Dalai Lama accepted the patronage of Gushi Khan and gave him the title “Dharma King, Upholder of the Teachings.” He also gave Gushi Khan a gold statue of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug school. A bond was formed between the lama and the warrior.

The Conquest of Tibet

At that time Gelugpa monasteries in eastern Tibet were suffering under a ruler who favored Bon, a religion indigenous to Tibet. With the Dalai Lama’s permission, Gushi Khan moved into eastern Tibet and secured the territory for Gelugpa. But Gushi Khan did not stop there. He and his army continued eastward into central Tibet, attacking and eventually deposing the king of Tsang.

Historians believe that the young Dalai Lama himself did not order the attack on central Tibet. Instead, permission to attack came from older Gelugpa lamas and from the Desi, an official appointed by the Dalai Lama to manage his political affairs.

However it happened, when the king of Tsang surrendered in April 1642, the Dalai Lama and Gushi Khan met once more, this time on a battlefield, to exchange titles and gifts. Here it was that His Holiness the 5th Dalai Lama was proclaimed political and spiritual leader of Tibet.

But Tibet was not yet conquered. The 10th Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu school and his monks occupied a stronghold called the Encampment. The Dalai Lama sent a message to the Karmapa asking him to agree to not challenge Gelugpa authority, and in exchange the Encampment would be left alone. When the Karmapa refused, the Encampment was surrounded by Tibetan and Mongol soldiers. Soon the Encampment was destroyed, many monks were slaughtered, and the Karmapa was a refugee in the mountains of Bhutan.

A revolt by followers of Karma Kagyu and the king of Tsang was brutally repulsed by Gushi Khan, accompanied by the Desi. The king of Tsang was captured and killed. Kagyu monasteries were forcibly converted to Gelugpa. Teachings of other schools critical of Tsongkhapa and Gelugpa were banned. Even Nyingmapa lamas thought to have performed spells to repel the Mongols were imprisoned.

Potala Palace

In the spring of 1645 the 5th Dalai Lama climbed a hill overlooking Lhasa to stand in the ruins of an ancient palace. It had been the palace of the Emperor Songtsen Gampo, who lived in the 7th century and who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet.There, in the presence of many monks and laypeople, the Dalai Lama performed a ritual to prepare the ground for the building of a new palace.
At some point in the proceedings a woman came forward to present a statue of Avalokiteshvara that had belonged to Songtsen Gampo. At that moment a soft rain began to fall, and the Dalai Lama told the assembly that Avalokiteshvara had come home.

The new structure that would be built on this sacred ground was Potala Palace. It would be the residence of the Dalai Lamas and the seat of Tibetan government until 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama would be driven into exile by the Chinese. Symbolically, the great palace tied the authority of the Dalai Lama to the ancient emperors and to Avalokiteshvara, patron deity of Tibet.

Although the 5th Dalai Lama moved into a section of the palace five years later, the entire structure took 45 years to complete.

Relations With China

In 1644, as the 5th Dalai Lama planned for the building of Potala Palace, the Ming Dynasty of China was toppled by invaders from Manchuria. The new Manchu dynasty would call itself the Qing Dynasty, and it would survive into the 20th century.

Advisers of the new Shunzhi Emperor — a child at the time — respected the military prowess of the Mongolians. The Qing court had no desire to make enemies of Gushi Khan and the Dalai Lama of Tibet. The Manchus also were Buddhists with ties to Tibetan Buddhism. Good relations with the Dalai Lama and his fearsome Mongol patron must have seemed a good idea on several levels. In the next few years three invitation to visit the Qing court were sent to the Dalai Lama.

His Holiness and a huge entourage finally began the journey to Beijing in 1652. When the Tibetans drew near, the Shunzhi Emperor sent horsemen with gifts to greet them and guide them to Beijing. The 5th Dalai Lama arrived in Beijing in January 1654.

The Qing court welcomed His Holiness with lavish ceremonies, and at one banquet the two rulers sat side by side on thrones. Today, China portrays this visit as one in which the Dalai Lama submitted to the rule of China, but most historians say that is nonsense. By all accounts, His Holiness was treated as a visiting head of state with whom the Qing court wished to have friendly relations.

His Holiness remained in Beijing for two months, and then he began the long journey back home.

The Great Fifth Secures His Legacy

As time when on, the 5th Dalai Lama increasingly delegated political matters to the Desi so he could devote more time to meditation and to writing.

It appears the Dzogchen practice he began in his youth became more important to him as he grew older. He wrote of visions of Padmasambhava, founder of the Nyingma school. He encouraged Nyingmapa lamas to gather together the records and teachings of the school to preserve them.

The Great Fifth was a prolific writer. His 24 volumes of written work include a history of Tibet and his own autobiography, the Dukulai Gosang.

The 4th Panchen Lama, Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen (1570-1662), was the 5th Dalai Lama’s teacher and ally. In fact, the title Panchen Lama, meaning “great scholar,” was given to Lobsang Gyaltsen by the 5th Dalai Lama and conferred to his predecessors posthumously. When the 4th Panchen Lama died in 1662, the 5th Dalai Lama took charge of the search for his rebirth. This began the tradition of successive older Panchen Lamas and Dalai Lamas acting as mentors for the younger and determining the next lama’s rebirth.

Under the Great Fifth’s governance, the territory of Tibet expanded to include most of the Tibetan plateau. He and his advisers organized a functional bureaucracy, including a tax and census system. The nation forged by the 5th Dalai Lama survived into the 20th century.

The Great Deception

In 1679, the Great Fifth appointed a new Desi, Sangye Gyatso, and announced he was retiring from public life. The Great Fifth died three years later, at the age of 65.

What happened next was one of the most remarkable, and controversial, episodes in Tibetan history.

Desi Sangye Gyatso kept the Great Fifth’s death a secret for 15 years, while the 6th Dalai Lama secretly was identified and prepared for his position. According to some accounts, this was done at the request of the Great Fifth. Others think it was entirely the Desi’s idea.

In any event, the deception was carried out masterfully. People were told the Dalai Lama was in retreat and could not be disturbed. Sometimes his presence was suggested by laying his empty robes on his throne. When a face-to-face meeting was unavoidable, an elderly monk who bore a resemblance to the Great Fifth played the role.

The obvious reason for the deception was to prevent a power struggle that would throw Tibet back into political chaos. Some historians think there was concern the increasingly powerful Qing court in Beijing might try to interfere with the identification of the 6th Dalai Lama.

The deception worked. In 1697, the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama was announced and the 6th Dalai Lama was enthroned. The Great Fifth finally passed into history.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

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China’s Outrageous Reincarnation Policy

Since beginning his long exile from Tibet in 1959, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama  has served as the voice for Tibetans, both the 7.5 million governed by China and the roughly estimated 275,000 who have fled Tibet. He also has called for the preservation of Tibetan culture and the restoration of at least some Tibetan political autonomy.

For years, however, the government of China has refused even to speak to His Holiness. Beijing appears to realize that it needs Tibetan Buddhism on its side to make its rule of Tibet legitimate to the Tibetans. But for inexplicable reasons, Beijing cannot bring itself to work with the current Dalai Lama, who has publicly offered many concessions to Beijing.

Beijing has a plan, however, already in place. It has assumed authority to manage the rebirths of all Tibetan lama lineages, and it has declared it will name the 15th Dalai Lama after the 14th has gone.

Photo by Yancho Sabev, via Wikipedia Commons

Government-Managed Reincarnation?

In 2007 China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs released Order No. 5, which covers “the management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.” In short, rebirths require a government permit. As ridiculous as this may sound to us, Beijing is deadly serious about this. Its aim is to be sure all religious authority within Tibetan Buddhism is under its control.

The current Dalai Lama appears to be in robust health. But what will happen when he’s gone, both to Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet?

This much is certain, barring a radical change of leadership in Beijing: Within days, if not hours, of the passing of the 14th Dalai Lama, the government of China will announce that it has begun the process of identifying the 15th Dalai Lama. And I doubt much time will pass before Beijing reveals the identity of the tulku and begins to prepare for his enthronement as Dalai Lama.

You might ask, since when does the government of China choose Dalai Lamas? Well, since never, in fact. But Beijing claims it has that power now, based on three arguments.

Patrons and Priests

First, China’s claim of sovereignty over Tibet rests largely on the historical relationship between the Manchu emperors of China and the Dalai Lamas.

The Manchu emperors of the Qing Dynasty ruled China from 1644 to 1912. Beginning with the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682), a patron-priest relationship developed between the succession of Dalai Lamas and the succession of Qing emperors. This meant that the emperor personally was a lay patron of the Dalai Lama and the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lamas, in turn, provided religious instruction, beneficial rituals and other spiritual services to the emperor. The Dalai Lama was considered the emperor’s guru, not his subject.

After that, the relationship between Tibet and China was complex. China sometimes sent military aid to Tibet; this was in China’s own interest, since Tibet was at its western border. China did not attempt to govern Tibet; nor did China ask for taxes or tribute from Tibet. However, the emperor did appoint “observers,” called ambans, who acted as the emperor’s eyes and ears in the Tibetan capital. And the ambans often did insert themselves into Tibetan affairs, both political and religious. Historians say they did not identify reborn lamas, however.

After the Qing Dynasty ended in 1912, and China was (more or less) a republic, the 13th Dalai Lama issued a “Tibetan declaration of independence” saying that the patron-priest relationship had been with the individual Manchu emperors, not the government of China, and with the abdication of the last Qing emperor that relationship had faded “like a rainbow in the sky.”

However, from the time of Mao Zedong China has declared that not only were the Dalai Lamas the subjects of the emperors, the old patron-priest relationship carried over from the empire to the republic — whether the Dalai Lama agreed or not, apparently.

For more about the history behind China’s claims to Tibet, see “The 7th Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso: A Life in Turbulent Times” and “Tibet and China: History of a Complex Relationship.”

The Golden Urn

Late in the 18th century a messy spat involving high lamas of the Kagyu school and an invading army of Gurkhas caused the Qianlong Emperor to demand reforms in the process of choosing high lamas. A disproportionate number of high lamas were from the same aristocratic family; favoritism in the selection process was an open secret.

One of the reforms agreed upon was that the future rebirths of lamas would be chosen by means of drawing lots from a golden urn, to be kept at Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. The historical record reveals the Tibetans really didn’t use the urn that much, however. When they did use it they were able to rig the result, probably by making sure the lots all bore the name of the candidate already chosen. This token ceremony appears to have been carried out for the 11th and 12th Dalai Lamas. By the time the 13th Dalai Lama was chosen, however, even a token ceremonial use of the urn had been abandoned.

Read More: The 8th Dalai Lama and the Golden Urn

Today the government of China possesses the golden urn — a couple of them, in fact — and insists that the rebirths of lamas may be recognized only by the golden urn lot-drawing method, because that is “traditional,” in spite of its not being traditional at all.

The Panchen Lama

The Panchen Lama is the second-highest lama of Tibetan Buddhism, and one of the traditional duties of the Panchen Lama is to identify the rebirths of Dalai Lama. Likewise, one of the traditional duties of a Dalai Lama is to identify the rebirths of Panchen Lamas.

Read More: The Panchen Lama — A Lineage Hijacked by Politics

The current acting 11th Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu, was chosen by the government of China, however.  Raised and trained by private tutors in Beijing, Norbu’s primary function is to issue statements praising the government of China for its wise leadership of Tibet.

The Dalai Lama’s choice  — a six-year-old boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima — and his family were taken into Chinese custody in 1995, just two days after his identification as the 11th Panchen Lama became public. They have not been seen since.

As far as Beijing is concerned, the ducks are in a row — they have the golden urn and the Panchen Lama, and they have concocted a revisionist version of history that makes the Dalai Lamas vassals of China. In their minds, that gives them all the authority they need to choose the 15th Dalai Lama.

What the 14th Dalai Lama, and Tibet, Might Do

On July 6, 2015, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama observed his 80th birthday. He has lived longer than any other Dalai Lama except, possibly, the first, who is believed to have lived to age 83 or so. But he’s not going to last forever.

His Holiness has said, at various times, that he might choose a successor before he dies; he might come back as a woman; he might not come back at all.

Even if high Gelugpa lamas outside of Tibet identify a new Dalai Lama through traditional esoteric and mystic methods, in these fragile times Tibetan Buddhism can’t place itself on hold for 20 years until he grows up. It is expected that many of the Dalai Lama’s duties as the public face of Tibetan Buddhism will pass to His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The 17th Karmapa, the highest lama of the Kagyu school, is a young man already popular with Tibetans.

As for Tibetans, they have clearly never accepted the faux Panchen Lama, and it seems unlikely they would accept a faux Dalai Lama. China seems to be going to a lot of trouble for nothing. And with no living Dalai Lama to discourage violence, things may get worse for China and Tibet once His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is gone.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

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How to Address a Buddha

It’s unlikely you’ll ever write a letter to a Buddha. But if you did, how would you address her or him? “Dear Buddha” might do. But maybe it should be “Dear Your Holiness” or “Dear Venerated One” or something formal.

What follows is a traditional list of ten epithets, or titles, for a Buddha. These titles can be applied to all Buddhas, although sometimes in the context of a particular scriptural passage they might refer to a specific Buddha. Some of these titles are rarely used and may be unfamiliar to you. Others you are likely to bump into frequently.

For an example of how some of these terms might be used in scriptures, see the Saleyyaka Sutta of the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Majjhima Nikaya 41), which packs most of them into the second paragraph —

“And of that Master Gotama this fine reputation has spread: ‘He is indeed a Blessed One, worthy, & rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, a knower of the cosmos, an unexcelled trainer of those persons ready to be tamed, teacher of human & divine beings, awakened, blessed.”

The terms are alphabetized for easier reference. If you are looking for the name of a particular Buddha, see “A List of Buddhas: The Most Prominent Buddhas in Art and Scripture.”

1.  Anuttara

One who is supreme or unsurpassed; without equal. You might also have heard the phrase anuttara-samyak-sambhodi, which means “supreme perfect enlightenment“; and anuttara-yoga-tantra, the highest level of tantra.

2.  Arhat

Arhat (Sanskrit) or arahant  (Pali) is a word that pre-dates Buddhism. In early Vedic texts it means “one who cannot be killed.” When used in Buddhist texts it is thought to mean “one who is worthy.”

The classic definition of an arhat is one who has attained enlightenment. Some teachers may quibble over the word “attained,” In Theravada Buddhism an arhat is distinguished from a Buddha because there can be only one Buddha per world age. Thus, a being who realizes enlightenment while there already is a Buddha is called arhat. However, a Buddha also is an arhat and may be addressed as such.

3.  Bhagavan

Bhagavan means “lord” or “master.” The Buddha is addressed as “Bhagavan” in many sutras. When paired with the word lokanatha it means “World Honored One,” a common title for the historical Buddha.

 4.  Lokavit

Lokavit (Sanskrit) or Lokavidu (Pali) refers to “one who understands the world” or “knower of the cosmos.”

5.  Purusa-damya-sarathi

This means “tamer of men,”and it refers to the ability of a Buddha to quiet fears and agitation.

6.  Samyak Sambuddha

Some sources translate this title as “perfectly omniscient,” while others say it refers to a correctly (samyak) enlightened Buddha. In usage, it refers to one who has discovered the dharma teachings after they have disappeared from the world, and who has proclaimed those teachings to the world.

7.  Sasta deva-manusyanam

This means “teacher of gods and men.” This term is found mostly in the Sutta-pitaka.

8.  Sugata

Sugata (Sanskrit) or sugato (Pali) means “well departed” or “gone to a good destination.”

9.  Tathagata

Tathagata usually is explained as “the one who has thus come” or “the one who has thus gone.” This is one of the most common titles for a Buddha, and it can be found in both the Tipitaka and the Mahayana sutras. The historical Buddha referred to himself as Tathagata, and in some contexts the word might be referring to him. However, in other contexts it is referring to all Buddhas.

The precise meaning of the word is unclear. Many scholars relate it to tathata, which means “suchness” or “thusness” and refers to reality as it is, without illusions. In this interpretation, a tathagata would be one who has realized the truth about reality.

The word is also sometimes explained as meaning “one who is beyond coming or going.

10.  Vidya-carana-sampanna

Vidya-carana-sampanna (Sanskrit) or vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno (Pali) refers to one who has perfect knowledge and conduct.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

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