The hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism

I’ve been reading Arjia Rinpoche‘s book, Surviving the Dragon, recently. I highly recommend it, both the overall sweep of history that he witnessed and for various minor observations he makes about Tibetan Buddhism, life in Amdo in the early 1950s, etc. Early on, he makes an interesting comment about hierarchy:

Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy is not defined as strictly as it is in many Western religions, such as Catholicism. For example, the Dalai Lama is supreme in his secular role of political leader, but when it comes to religious authority, he and the Panchen Lama are equals. Then come the leaders of each of the four Tibetan spiritual traditions: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug. After this, the hierarchy gets hazy. Certainly the abbots of the major monasteries are high ranking. Others are highly regarded because of the contributions and achievements of their predecessors. Still others have achieved prominence in this lifetime.(page 6)

Thus, despite qualifications that Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy is not strictly defined and that it becomes hazy after a certain point, Arjia Rinpoche seems very confident that the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama are equals in religious terms and that they are above all other lamas of all schools. Needless to say, both of these are controversial points. Arjia Rinpoche and his mentor, Gyayak Rinpoche, were intimates of the 10th Panchen Lama, which naturally inclines them to give the Panchen Lamas a higher status than others might. As for the “leaders of the four traditions”, for one thing, the idea that Nyingma and Kagyü per se have individual paramount leaders is quite recent, a development of the exile period. Furthermore, the idea that meaningful comparisons of rank can be made between the sects strikes me as very dubious. Among my pet peeves are the frequent Western media reference to the Karmapa as the “third-highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism” (after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama), but I don’t think there’s any way to compare the Karmapa and the Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama’s prestige is unsurpassed, but beyond that, there’s not much definite that we can say.

Some people have even claimed that the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama were traditionally political equals, each sovereign in his respective territory (this is rather implausible: the Panchen Lama was a major feudatory, but his lands did not even include Shigatse).

I don’t mean to berate Arjia Rinpoche for expressing his opinions. The fact is that people tend to feel strongly about this subject and they tend to state their opinions as facts, which could give the false impression of a general agreement. For example, in his book The Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred Legacy of Reincarnation, Glenn Mullin writes that the highest Tibetan lama is the Dalai Lama, followed by the Panchen Lama, and then by the Samding Dorje Phagmo as third highest, and the Sakya Tridzin as fourth highest. Now, this high estimation of the Samding Dorje Phagmo seems to be quite idiosyncratic, but at least it is not motivated by political correctness: the current Dorje Phagmo is one of the most prominent pro-China/anti-Dalai Lama figures in Tibetan Buddhism. But, in the end, all of these rankings are indeed hazy to say the least, not to mention somewhat beside the point.


2 thoughts on “The hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism

  1. Kok Soon

    TRUE Buddha teaching never have ranking differentiation. Each person attainment is based on their own effort and a person attained certain stage will share with others so other can also attain as what Buddha have done. Enlighten beings only focus on service people with love and compassion to help human to be free of all suffering.

    Buddha mentioned that his teaching will be lost after certain time due to evil people misuse his teaching to deceive people. The good news is 2500 years after Buddha, the next “Truly Enlightened” (not one person but a group of individual all across the world) will be able to enlighten the whole world and create PEACE on Earth, of course with the help of technologies advancement today that was not available during Buddha or Jesus time. Many those we perceived Enlighten or claimed to be Enlighten are not really anywhere near Enlighten at all. This can be proven by scientific research done by Dr. David Hawkins. (Dr. David Hawkins introduced “Level of Consciousness” or “Map of Consciousness”)

    Buddha teach was simple. He realized that all human suffering comes from the impurities in the mind. (Today words would be, negative energies in our consciousness that blocked us from accessing universe wisdom, love and compassion of omnipotent and omnipresent).

    All the rites and rituals of chanting, prayers, bowing, sacrifice, fasting, etc are completely unnecessary and it is used to control and manipulate people to submit to the cult leaders.

    Prayers of gratitude is highly recommended and very useful but is not mandatory. All truly Enlighten beings teaching are the same, it is all about create peace in the world with wisdom, love and compassion.

    You don’t need to be Buddhist to attain Enlightenment, in fact anyone in the world with any religion or without any religion at all. If you can find a way to release the negative energies from your deep consciousness (area of subconscious and unconscious mind).

    Today technological advancement, we have more than 30 techniques available to achieve positive vibration. Examples are: Past Life Regression, The Journey by Brandon Bay, Breathwork, Vipassana Mediation, Inner Child Therapy, Childhood regression combined with Emotion Freedom Technique or the famous Abramovic method practiced by Lady Gaga, etc…

    Today religions are not possible for anyone to attain Enlightenment as the true teaching has been distorted for mass control and manipulation. You never need to submit yourself to be slave to God (or any human who claim to be God) to stay in the Eternity world. All you need to have is Love, Joy and Peace! Be your own master of your own destiny! Create and live a fulfilled life full of Peace, Joy, Love and Compassion! (You will experience God personally that you can never get from books)

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