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The 5th Dalai Lama unified Tibet in mid-16th century

November 11, 2009

Times of India
November 9, 2009

What are the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism?

Though there are several distinct schools,
Tibetan Buddhism can be primarily divided into
four main traditions: Nyingma, Kagyu, Gelug, and Sakya.

Nyingma is the oldest order formed by Indian sage
Padmasambhava, who is often credited with
spreading Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan. In the
Kagyu sect, the most famous subsect is Karma
Kagyu headed by the Karmapa, whose principal
seat, in exile, is the Dharma Chakra Centre at
Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim. The third important
school is Sakya, whose leaders are descendants of the royal Khon family.

The fourth major school is Gelug, whose spiritual
head is the Ganden Tripa -- an appointed office
with the Dalai Lama as temporal head -- who is
selected on the basis of a reincarnation lineage.
Successive Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet since the
mid-16th century after the fifth Dalai Lama
unified the country by defeating the rival sects.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the head
of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India.

Who is a tulku?

Traditionally, a tulku, also known as rinpoche,
is considered to be a reincarnation of a Buddhist
master who has vowed to take rebirth to help all
living beings attain enlightenment. However, some
scholars oppose the use of the word rebirth as it
is believed that there is a mindstream
(moment-to-moment continuity of consciousness)
emanation of the first master, which is based on
the idea that exemplary figures might remain
within the human world as institutional teachers,
manifesting from one lifetime to the next. The
most famous example is the lineage of Dalai
Lamas, while the oldest lineage of tulkus is that of the karmapas.

Tibet experts estimate that at present there are
around 500 tulku lineages found across Tibet,
Bhutan, northern India, Nepal, Mongolia, and the southwest provinces of China.

In December 1988, the Dalai Lama, the Council for
Religious and Cultural Affairs in Dharamsala and
the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies
in Sarnath, organized a conference attended by
more than 300 tulkus. While most tulkus were
ethnic Tibetans with a few having Mongol
ethnicity, in modern times, westerners are also
identified as tulkus. The most famous of them are
Tenzin Osel, who was born to Spanish parents, and
Hollywood actor Steven Seagal, who has been
recognized by Tibetan lama Penor Rinpoche as a
reincarnation of 17th century tulku Chungdrag Dorje.

How are the tulkus identified?

In the case of the Dalai Lama, the tulku lineage
is interlinked with the panchen lama (panchen
lama traditionally recognizes the new incarnation
of a Dalai Lama and vice versa). However in other
cases, the potential candidates are evaluated by
other respected lamas. The evaluation process
often involves tests like checking whether the
child can recognize acquaintances or possessions
of his previous reincarnation or answer questions
only known to his former-life experience.
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