A one-l lama, he’s a priest.
A two-l llama, he’s a beast.
And I will bet a silk pajama,
There isn’t any three-l lllama.
The only Tibetan lama most Westerners knew of until recently was the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the genial Nobel Prize winner and symbol of the Tibet that was. But now newspaper readers also know about the kidnapping within Tibet in 1995 of the six-year-old eleventh Panchen Lama, the region’s second-highest-ranking religious leader, and the flight into India last January of the fourteen-year-old seventeenth Karmapa Lama, on whom Beijing had pinned its hopes of legitimizing Chinese rule in Tibet.
Even the word “lama” itself is misunderstood. In Tibetan it means guru or teacher; it can also mean incarnation. A person may be both or only one. “Lama Buddhism,” a term which has come to mean Tibetan-style Buddhism, has no meaning in Tibetan.1 Incarnations have existed in Tibet since the thirteenth century. The most famous are the Dalai Lamas; the Karmapas arose several centuries earlier. Many other Tibetans are said to be incarnations of long-dead lamas of lower status.
The first Dalai Lama, a member of the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect, which came into existence in the late fourteenth century, was given the title Dalai, or “Ocean,” by a Mongol prince in the fifteenth century. In 1642 another Mongol prince established the fifth Dalai Lama as the religious leader of all Tibet, with the prince as his patron. Later on, Chinese emperors became the patron. The much-debated concept of the Dalai Lama, the high priest, sharing power with the patron-ruler thus becomes central to the question of whether Tibet has long been a part of China.2 But since the seventeenth century, both the secular and the religious primacy of the Dalai Lamas have been assumed among Tibetans. Few of them lived to be old men. The present Dalai Lama is sixty-four.
The second most important religious figure is the Panchen Lama, the Tibetan “moon” to the Dalai Lama’s “sun.” Also from the Gelugpa sect, the Panchens were designated by the Manchus as political counterweights to the Dalai Lama, and were given political authority in large parts of China. Within Tibet, the Panchens’ secular authority was not recognized except immediately around their monastery in Shigatse, west of Lhasa, although their enormous religious power was unquestioned. The Dalai and Panchen Lamas have sometimes acted as each other’s tutors, depending on which lama is older.
After 1950 Beijing again treated the Panchen Lama as a political figure, especially after the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. But in 1982 the tenth Panchen Lama enraged the Chinese with his outspoken petition to Mao protesting the destruction of Buddhism in Tibet and starvation there.3 He spent almost fourteen years in detention and after his release became a discreet critic of Chinese rule. The tenth Panchen Lama died in 1989. In 1995, the Dalai Lama designated the six-year-old Gendun Choekyi…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.