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.