In the Spotlight

News & Features
A Primer on Buddhism
Part of MPR's special report, Ocean of Wisdom: The Dalai Lama's Visit
May 7, 2001

The Dalai Lama's visit to Minnesota has generated great excitement among Tibetans living in the Twin Cities. It's an opportunity for Tibetan Buddists to explain their beliefs to others. Here's a primer on Buddhism and the significance of the Dalai Lama's visit.

The Dalai Lama is someone who - whatever he may or may not be in terms of Tibetan popular beliefs - is an extraordinary, learned, compassionate and charismatic man. I've had the fortune at least to be around him in a variety of contexts over close to 20 to 25 years now. And he is unfailingly gracious and curious and interested and intelligent. And I've seen even cynical journalists sort of melt in his presence. So there's just something about him. I realize that's a little imprecise, but I think that's a considerable part of the effect he's had. Now it doesn't hurt that he was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. But not every Nobel Peace Prize winner goes on to have the kind of popularity he's had.

The Dalai Lama is regarded by Tibetans as one of a succession of (so far) 14 incarnations of the Buddha of compassion, Chenrezig ("the Seeing-Eye" Lord), who long has been considered to be the patron deity of Tibet. The Indian predecessor to Chenrezig was the bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara, "the Lord Who Looks Down" with compassion on the world's sufferings. Avalokiteshvara was believed to reside on Mount Potala, from which the name of the palace of the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa was taken.

Dalai Lamas have been accepted by most Tibetans since the 17th century as the legitimate political leaders of Tibet, and have been respected by all as great spiritual masters. For most practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism the Dalai Lama is a figure at once both divine and human: he assumes the form of an "ordinary Buddhist monk," but is, in fact, an enlightened Buddha who has consciously taken rebirth in order to help suffering beings.

Related Links:
    Historical highlights
    the Dalai Lama's web site
    Dalai Lama in Minnesota
    the Tibetan government in exile
    General information about Buddhism
    An overview of the three major traditions of Buddhism.
    The Dalai Lama is only one - though certainly the most important - of hundreds of tulkus (deliberately reincarnated lamas) who have, since the 13th century, been the focus of a system of transmission of religious (and sometimes temporal) power unique to Tibet. A Western equivalent would be for the Pope and his cardinals and bishops to be followed not by elected or selected successors, but by the very same "soul," born sometime shortly after their deaths.

    A second, very important lineage of reincarnate masters is that of the Panchen Lamas, who have traditionally resided at Tashilhunpo monastery, west of Lhasa. The first Panchen Lama was a teacher of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, and since his era, the Dalai and Panchen lamas have enjoyed a close relationship, involving both master-disciple relationships and, on occasion, political rivalries.

    After the death of the 10th Panchen Lama, in 1989, candidates for his reincarnation were proposed by both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. The Chinese installed their candidate as the 11th Panchen Lama; the whereabouts of the Dalai Lama's candidate are unclear, but he is not being raised as a tulku.

    Prof. Jackson, who is a practicing Buddhist, spoke with MPR Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer about Buddhism and the Dalai Lama's visit. Listen to the interview.

    Robert Thurman is a noted Buddhist scholar at Columbia University, and has written several books on Buddhism and the sacred art of Tibet.
    (Photo courtesy of Robert Thurman)
    Robert Thurman is a noted Tibetan scholar, and is the first American to be ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk. He holds an endowed chair of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. Thurman has published more than a dozen books about Buddhism, including an English version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, as well as essays, journal articles and translations of Buddhist texts.

    Thurman travels the country, lecturing on Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture. He appeared in Minneapolis in April, to speak about his book, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet." Listen to his speech

    Thurman was a guest on MPR's Midmorning on Tuesday. Listen to the program.

    Thurman is co-founder of Tibet House New York, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture. He is the father of actress Uma Thurman.