I wish mainstream American media (Newsweek, in this case) would stop calling Buddhist teachers gods and living deities. They’re not. Get out of your Judeo-Christian box, take off your theistic goggles, and learn the basics about one of the world’s major religions before reporting on it, hey?
Buddhism. Has. No. Concept. Of. God. It. Is. Non-theistic. In fact, that’s the whole point—no one, and nothing externally will ‘save you.’
For a god, he is a nice young man. lean and assured, dressed in red and gold, the Karmapa Lama is a scholar-prince greeted with bows wherever he treads. He switches between Chinese and Tibetan fluently, studies Korean at night and occasionally interrupts a translator to voice polite outrage in English. In his temporary quarters, at a new monastery outside Bodh Gaya in eastern India, he can be glimpsed at dusk, between courtly duties, pacing slowly on a lofty terrace that overlooks women gathering wheat from the parched fields below.
The Karmapa, now a handsome 24-year-old with a shaved head, was born to a family of nomads in 1985. But then a party of monks, told to search “east of snow” for their new leader, found him in eastern Tibet. At the age of 7, he was enthroned as a living deity, the 17th reincarnation in a succession of Buddhist leaders of the Kagyu sect. At 14, he fled his native land in a dramatic escape over snowy passes to Nepal, and then India, where he attached himself to the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. Tibetans in the diaspora immediately saw something special in the Karmapa Lama—the deep personal charisma of his mentor, infused with the vigor of youth. Some saw, even then, a potential leader in his own right.
The Dalai Lama is without peer among living Tibetan deities. As head of Tibet’s biggest sect, the Gelug, he is the revered and recognized leader of his people. He has won the Nobel Prize and built a global following on little more than moral strength, somehow keeping a movement of rival sects and international pressure groups united behind the notion of justice for Tibet. Yet the Dalai Lama has failed in one key respect: China has rejected even his mildest calls for autonomy and cultural freedom. March will mark 50 years since the Dalai Lama slipped into exile. Some Tibetans now believe that the Karmapa Lama may be able to succeed where the Dalai Lama has failed—if, against all tradition and precedent, he is given an opportunity to lead.
Oh, and btw, check out the first comment on the post, in case you think I’m oy-veying in my intro, above:
This article is riddled with so many inaccuracies and commentary that it’s hard to believe it passed the fact-checkers on the editorial staff of Newsweek–a magazine I rely on for accurate information. The writer (clearly not a journalist) has taken great liberty with the facts.
A Tibetan tulku, or reincarnation of highly accomplished practitioner, is not considered by anyone as a “god.” Nothing could be further from the truth, in fact: Tibetan Buddhism recognizes the existence of gods, but classes them as one of the six kinds of beings trapped in the cycle of existence, just as humans and animals are trapped.
In nine years studying and practicing Tibetan Buddhism, and serving Karmapa, I’ve never heard him referred to as “Karmapa Lama.” This seems to be a construct of the author, chosen for the convenience of comparison to the Dalai Lama.
To refer to schools such as the Gelug and Kagyu as “rivals” denotes a profound lack of understanding of the spiritual and temporal relationship between all schools. A high lama of any of these schools, if asked, would have told the writer that each schools is highly valued and respected by the other. “Rivalry,” where one seeks superiority over another? You’re really pushing the boundaries here.
Just to be clear: the Dalai Lama is the temporal head of the Gelugs, but he appoints another lama, he Ganden Lama, to be spiritual head.
And none of them are gods, thank goodness. If they were, we wouldn’t be following them, because Buddha taught that one should not “take refuge,” or put one’s faith in, worldly gods.