What's a "God-King"?

The Role of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism

14th Dalai Lama
Keith Tsuji / Getty Images

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is often referred to as a "God-King" by western media. Westerners are told that the several Dalai Lamas who ruled Tibet for centuries were reincarnations not only of each other but also of the Tibetan God of Compassion, Chenrezig.

Westerners with some knowledge of Buddhism find these Tibetan beliefs baffling. First, Buddhism elsewhere in Asia is "nontheistic," meaning it is not dependent upon belief in gods.

Second, Buddhism teaches that nothing has an inherent self. So how can anyone be "reincarnated"?

Buddhism and Reincarnation

Reincarnation usually is defined as "rebirth of the soul or some part of oneself in another body." But Buddhism is based on the doctrine of anatman, also called anatta, which denies the existence of a soul or permanent, individual self. See "What Is the Self?" for a more detailed explanation.

If there is no soul or permanent, individual self, how can anyone be reincarnated? And the answer is that no one can be reincarnated as the word is normally understood by Westerners. Buddhism teaches there is rebirth, but it is not the distinct individual who is reborn. See "Karma and rebirth" for more discussion.

"Powers and Forces"

Centuries ago, as Buddhism spread through Asia, pre-Buddhist beliefs in local gods often found a way into local Buddhist institutions. This is particularly true of Tibet.

Vast populations of mythical characters from the pre-Buddhist Bon religion live on in Tibetan Buddhist iconography.

Have Tibetans abandoned the teaching of Anatman? Not exactly. As Mike Wilson explains in this very insightful essay, " Schisms, murder, and hungry ghosts in Shangra-La - internal conflicts in Tibetan Buddhist sect," the Tibetans consider all phenomena to be creations of mind.

This is a teaching based on a philosophy called Yogacara, and it is found in many schools of Mahayana Buddhism, not just Tibetan Buddhism.

The Tibetans reason that if people and other phenomena are creations of mind, and gods and demons are also creations of mind, then the gods and demons are no more or less real than fish, birds and people. Mike Wilson explains, "Tibetan Buddhists to the present day pray to gods and utilize oracles, just like the Bon, and believe the unseen world is populated with all sorts of powers and forces that must be reckoned with, even though they are phenomena of mind without an inherent self."

Less-Than-Godlike Power

This takes us to the practical question of how much power the ruling Dalai Lamas actually had before the Chinese invaded in 1950. Although in theory the Dalai Lama had godlike authority, in practice he had to finesse sectarian rivalries and conflicts with the wealthy and influential like any other politician. There is evidence a few Dalai Lamas were assassinated by sectarian enemies. For a variety of reasons, the only two Dalai Lamas before the current one who actually functioned as heads of state were the 5th Dalai Lama and the 13th Dalai Lama.

There are six main schools of Tibetan Buddhism - Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Gelug, Jonang and Bonpo. The Dalai Lama is an ordained monk of one of these, the Gelug school. Although he is the highest-ranking lama in the Gelug school, officially he is not the head of it. That honor belongs to an appointed official named the Ganden Tripa. Although he is the spiritual head of the Tibetan people, he has no authority to determine doctrines or practices outside of the Gellug school.

Read More: The Succession of Dalai Lamas

Everyone's a God. No One's a God.

If the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation or rebirth or manifestation of a god, would that not make him more than human in the eyes of Tibetans? That depends on how the word "god" is understood and applied. That understanding may vary, but I can speak only to a Buddhist perspective.

Read More: Gods in Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism makes much use of tantra yoga, which includes a broad range of rituals and practices. On its most basic level, tantra yoga in Buddhism is about deity identification. Through meditation, chanting and other practices the tantrica internalizes the divine and becomes the deity, or, at least, manifests what the deity represents.

For example, tantra practice with a god of compassion would awaken compassion in the tantricka. In this case, it might be more accurate to think of the various deities as something like Jungian archetypes rather than actual beings.

Further, in Mahayana Buddhism all beings are reflections or aspects of all other beings and all beings are fundamentally Buddha-nature. Put another way, we're all each other -- gods, buddhas, beings.

How the Dalai Lama Became Ruler of Tibet

It was the 5th Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682), who first became ruler of all Tibet. The "Great Fifth" formed a military alliance with the Mongol leader Gushri Khan. When two other Mongol chiefs and the ruler of Kang, an ancient kingdom of central Asia, invaded Tibet, Gushri Khan routed them and declared himself king of Tibet. Then Gushri Khan recognized the fifth Dalai Lama as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet.

However, for a variety of reasons, after the Great Fifth, the succession of Dalai Lamas were mostly figureheads with no real power until the 13th Dalai Lama assumed power in 1895.

See "Who Is the Dalai Lama?" for a biography of the current Dalai Lama, the 14th. See "How Buddhism Came to Tibet" for more background on the history of Tibetan Buddhism.

In November 2007, the 14th Dalai Lama suggested he might not be reborn, or else he might choose the next Dalai Lama while he is still alive. That really would not be completely unheard of, since in Buddhism linear time is considered a delusion, and since rebirth is not really of one individual. I understand there have been other circumstances in which a new high lama was born before the former one died.

His Holiness is concerned that the Chinese will choose and install the 15th Dalai Lama, as they have done with the  Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is the second-highest spiritual leader of Tibet.

Read More: China's Outrageous Buddhist China Policy

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 named another boy, Gyaltsen Norbu, as the official 11th Panchen Lama and had him enthroned in November 1995. See also “ The Tragedy of the Panchen Lama.

No decisions have been made at this time, I don’t believe. But given the situation in Tibet, it is entirely possible the institution of Dalai Lama will come to an end when the 14th Dalai Lama dies.