His Holiness the Dalai Lama is often referred to as a "God-King" by western media. Westerners are told that the several Dalai Lamas who ruled Tibet for centuries were reincarnations not only of each other but also of the Tibetan God of Compassion, Chenrezig.
Westerners with some knowledge of Buddhism find these Tibetan beliefs baffling. First, Buddhism elsewhere in Asia is "nontheistic," meaning it is not dependent upon belief in gods. Second, Buddhism teaches that nothing has an inherent self. So how can anyone, god or human, be "reincarnated"?
Buddhism and Reincarnation
Reincarnation usually is defined as "rebirth of the soul or some part of oneself in another body." But Buddhism is based on the doctrine of anatman, also called anatta, which denies the existence of a soul or permanent, individual self. See "What Is the Self?" for a more detailed explanation.
If there is no soul or permanent, individual self, how can anyone be reincarnated? And the answer is that no one can be reincarnated as the word is normally understood by Westerners. Buddhism teaches there is rebirth, but it is not the distinct individual who is reborn. See "Karma and rebirth" for more discussion.
"Powers and Forces"
Centuries ago, as Buddhism spread through Asia, pre-Buddhist beliefs in local gods often found a way into local Buddhist institutions. This is particularly true of Tibet. Vast populations of mythical characters from the pre-Buddhist Bon religion live on in Tibetan Buddhist iconography.
Have Tibetans abandoned the teaching of Anatman? Not exactly. As Mike Wilson explains in this very insightful essay, " Schisms, murder, and hungry ghosts in Shangra-La - internal conflicts in Tibetan Buddhist sect," the Tibetans consider all phenomena to be creations of mind. This is a teaching based on a philosophy called Yogacara, and it is found in many schools of Mahayana Buddhism, not just Tibetan Buddhism.
The Tibetans reason that if people and other phenomena are creations of mind, and gods and demons are also creations of mind, then the gods and demons are no more or less real than fish, birds and people. Mike Wilson explains, "Tibetan Buddhists to the present day pray to gods and utilize oracles, just like the Bon, and believe the unseen world is populated with all sorts of powers and forces that must be reckoned with, even though they are phenomena of mind without an inherent self."
Bon and Buddhism
As Mike Wilson documents in his article, throughout the history of Tibetan Buddhism there has been a conflict between what one might call "standard" Buddhism and Bon-influenced Buddhism. There is evidence of sectarian murders in Tibetan Buddhist history - three as recently as 1997 -- as a result of the Bon-versus-Buddhism tension.
This takes us to the practical question of how much power the ruling Dalai Lamas actually had before the Chinese invaded in 1950. Although in theory the Dalai Lama had godlike authority, in practice he had to finesse sectarian rivalries and conflicts with the wealthy and influential like any other politician. There is evidence a few Dalai Lamas - the 4th and 9th in particular - were assassinated by sectarian enemies.
Everyone's a God. No One's a God.
If the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation or rebirth or manifestation of a god, would that not make him more than human in the eyes of Tibetans? That depends on how the word "god" is understood and applied. That understanding may vary, but I can speak only to a Buddhist perspective.
Tibetan Buddhism makes much use of tantra yoga, which includes a broad range of rituals and practices. On its most basic level, tantra yoga in Buddhism is about deity identification. Through meditation, chanting and other practices the tantricka internalizes the divine and becomes the deity, or, at least, manifests what the deity represents.
For example, tantra practice with a god of compassion would awaken compassion in the tantricka. In this case, it might be more accurate to think of the various deities as something like Jungian archetypes rather than actual beings.
Further, in Mahayana Buddhism all beings are reflections or aspects of all other beings and all beings are fundamentally Buddha-nature. Put another way, we're all each other -- gods, buddhas, beings.
How the Dalai Lama Became Ruler of Tibet
There are four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism - Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. The Dalai Lama is head of only one of these, the Gelug school. These schools have further sub-divided into many sects within Tibetan Buddhism.
The Gelug school did not always dominate the others. It was the 5th Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682), who first became ruler of all Tibet. The "Great Fifth" formed a military alliance with the Mongol leader Gushri Khan. When two other Mongol chiefs and the ruler of Kang, an ancient kingdom of central Asia, invaded Tibet, Gushri Khan routed them and declared himself king of Tibet. Then Gushri Khan recognized the fifth Dalai Lama as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet.
See "How Buddhism Came to Tibet" for more background on the history of Tibetan Buddhism. See "Behind the Turmoil in Tibet" for more on events leading up to the exile of the current Dalai Lama, the 14th.