The Tibetan schools placed a great deal of emphasis on teachings about reincarnation, and the identification of certain individuals as the reincarnation of previous lamas. Known as tulkus, these reincarnated individuals are important in maintaining the lines of succession in the four major orders as well as a number of other, unrelated lineages. The best known tulku is the Dalai Lama. Mongolia was converted from shamanism to Buddhism in the late 16th century by Sonam Gyatso (1543-88), who was given the title Dalai Lama (“Oceanic Wisdom Master”) by the Mongol Altan Khan. The title was then applied retroactively to his two previous incarnations, back to Gendun Drub (1391-1475), now called the first Dalai Lama. (The fourth Dalai Lama was Mongolian, as is the word “Dalai.”) Each Dalai Lama is considered the reincarnation of the previous one, right up to the 14th and current lama, Tenzin Gyatso (b. 1935). Since the fifth Dalai Lama, each has also been considered the direct emanation in human form of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Losang also bestowed the honorific title of Panchen Lama (Skt.-Tib. “Great Scholarly Master”) on his master. Until the 20th century, the Panchen Lama played a solely spiritual role in Tibetan Buddhism, and the identity of the current Panchen Lama is a subject of contention between the Buddhist government in exile, led by the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese government.
The reincarnational relationship holds true for the tulkus of the Karma Kagyu, the oldest such lineage, who are known as karmapas. The first karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, died in 1193, and the 16th, Rigpe Dorje, in 1982. His successor, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, was born in 1986 and, after escaping dramatically from his Chinese captors around the turn of the year 2000, he has been living in India as part of the Tibetan government in exile.
Mongolian Buddhism follows a similar scheme to Tibet’s. Their spiritual leader or God-king is called the Bogd Gedeen. As with the Tibetans, the Mongolian monks were scattered or killed during the Communist Chinese invasion. The ninth and current Bogd Gedeen is a Tibetan living in India.