The Gelugpa Sect turned to have the most Living Buddha reincarnation systems amongst various denominations since it adopted regulations for Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in the 15th century. Dalai Lama and Panchen Erdeni were the two earliest and most well-known Living Buddha systems established by the denomination.
Established by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) in 1409 (Illustration 86), the Gelugpa Sect used master-apprentice succession and mantle succession in its earlier stage. Ganden Tripa succeeded the title from Tsongkhapa at first, which is the master-apprentice succession, then two leaders of the denomination, Byangrtse and Shartse succeeded the title successively.
1) The Establishment of the Dalai Lama Reincarnation System
The Dalai Lama Reincarnation System was the first Living Buddha reincarnation system established by the Gelug Sect. It began to use Living Buddha reincarnation system in 1474 after the passing away of Gedun Druppa (1391-1474), founder of Tashilhunpo Monastery. Upon the passing away of Gedun Druppa, although there was no arrangement of reincarnation about successors, the Tashilhunpo Monastery dispatched people to Darna area and obtained a supernatural boy and greeted him into the Monastery after examining under the influence of the Kagyu reincarnation system. The abbot, Lungrig Gyatso (1418-?), tonsured and ordained for the boy and gave him the name Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542), which using the first half of the boy's name and the second half of the name of his own. Then the word "Gyatso" has become a part of the Dalai Lama's name. In 1518, the Tibetan local government leader, Propagation Prince of Persuasion, presented a villa and its nearby land and subject people to Gendun Gyatso. The villa became his mansion house and was renamed "Gendun Potrang". The local government of Tibet that was established in 1642 followed the name as well.
The Gelugpa Sect began to search for Gendun Gyatso's reincarnation after his passing away in 1542. In 1545, abbot of Drepung Monastery, Panchen Sonam Draka (1478-1554), obtained a supernatural young boy born in present-day Doilungdeqen County of Tibet with inspection passed, and greeted him into Gendun Potrang of Drepung Monastery for enthronement in 1547 after reporting to the Tibet local government for approval. The abbot ordained for the reincarnated soul boy and gave him the name Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588). It was the first time the religious processes of Searching, Recognition, and Enthronement came into being.
In 1578, at the invitation of Altan Qaγan (1507-1582), a Mongol leader of Turmot, Sonam Gyatso set out for Yanghua Monastery nearby the Qinghai Lake. Altan Qaγan granted him the title of "Saint Knowing Everything Vajra-dhara Dalai Lama". In the title, "saint" refers to overcoming all worldly thoughts and entering sainthood; "knowing everything" refers to a honorific title for Buddhists with extraordinary achievements in Exoteric Buddhism; "vajra-dhara" was the transliteration of Vajradhra in Sanskrit, meaning Vajradhara and referring to a honorific title for Buddhists with extraordinary achievements in Exoteric Buddhism; "Dalai" refers to the sea in Mongolian, corresponding to "Rgyamtsho" in Tibetan; and "Lama" means guru in Tibetan. The whole title presented his highest achievements in both Exoteric Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism, being as a master with attainment as comprehensive as the sea. Then, Sonam Gyatso Living Buddha system was called Dalai Lama. Sonam Gyatso was third Dalai Lama, and Gendun Gyatso was regarded the posthumous title of the second Dalai Lama and Gedun Druppa was regarded the first.
In 1587, the Ming Dynasty granted Sonam Gyatso the title of "Holder of the Vijra" (the transliteration of Dorje Chang or another word Vajradhara in Tibetan, same thing as previous mentioned vajra-dhara, which was the transliteration of Vajradhra in Sanskrit) and conferred him seals (Fig. 6). He was permitted to pay tribute to the Ming Dynasty. It was the first time that Dalai Lama was conferred and rewarded by the central government.
After the passing away of the third Dalai Lama, the Gelugpa Sect recognized Altan Qaγan's great-grandson, born in present-day Inner Mongolia, as the reincarnated soul boy. The reincarnated soul boy was greeted and enthroned in Drepung Monastery in 1603, as the fourth Dalai Lama. Yonten Gyatso (1589-1616), abbot of Tashilhunpo Monastery, Lozang Choskyi Gyaltsen (1567-1662, the fourth Panchen Erdeni) ordained for him. In 1616, the fourth Dalai Lama was granted the title of "Universal Benevolence Vajra Buddha" and conferred seals by Emperor Wanli of the Ming Dynasty.
Upon passing away of the fourth Dalai Lama in 1616, reincarnation activities were once forbidden by the Ksangpa King government until 1621, in the effort of fourth Panchen Erdeni Lozang Choskyi Gyaltsen, the Gelugpa Sect began to continue searching for reincarnated soul boys and obtained three candidates. Ultimately, presided by the fourth Panchen Erdeni, Ngawang Lozang Gyatso (1617-1682) was recognized to be the fifth Dalai Lama before the figure of the Manjusri Bodhisattva in Reting Monastery in Lhuenzhub county of Tibet, through the Bolus divination, which was a measure of judgement by Providence.
In 1642, the Gelugpa Sect together with Khoshut Mongol Gushri Khan (1582-1654) ruled Tibet. After the establishment of the Qing Dynasty, at the invitation of Emperor Shunzhi (1638-1661), the fifth Dalai Lama went to Beijing to make obeisance in 1652 (Fig. 7). Emperor Shunzhi granted him the title of "Buddha of Great Compassion in the West, Leader of the Buddhist Faith Beneath the Sky, Holder of the Vaja" and conferred the Golden Album and Golden Sea. It was the first time the Dalai Lama reincarnation system was conferred by the central government. Gushri Khan was granted the title of "Upholding Doctrine, with Cleverness and Wisdom Gushri Khan" and conferred the golden album and golden seal at the same time.
2) The establishment of the Panchen Erdeni Reincarnation System
Panchen Erdeni Living Buddha reincarnation system stared from the reincarnation of Khedrup Je (1385-1438), one of Tsongkhapa's disciples. However, the system began to play an important role upon the reincarnation of Lozang Choskyi Gyaltsen, abbot of Tashilhunpo Monastery and guru of the fourth and fifth Dalai Lama and the key presider and decision maker of the Gelugpa Sect of the time. He was given the title of "Panchen Bodda" by Gushri Khan in 1645, in which "Panchen" refers to masters with extraordinary attainments in Tibetan while "Bodda" refers to bravery and wisdom. After Lozang Choskyi Gyaltsen passed away in 1662, the Gelugpa Sect finally recognized Lozang Yeshe (1663-1737) as his reincarnation after search. Lozang Choskyi Gyaltsen then was regarded as the fourth Panchen Erdeni, and Khedrup Je, Sonam Choglang (1439-1504) and Lozang Dondrup (1505-1566) were regarded as the posthumous titles of the first, the second and the third Panchen Erdeni respectively.
Later, the Fifth Dalai Lama ordained for Lozang Yeshe. In 1713, Emperor Kangxi granted the title of "Panchen Erdeni" to the fifth Panchen Erdeni and conferred the golden album and the golden seal (Fig. 8), in which 'erdeni" refers to treasure in the Manchu language. From then on, the system was called Panchen Erdeni, another major Living Buddha reincarnation system of the Gelugpa Sect, which was granted by the central government.
In this period, the number of Living Buddhas rose a lot within the Gelugpa Sect. Apart from the two major Living Buddha systems, Dalai Lama and Panchen Erdeni, the Gelugpa Sect established a number of well-known Living Buddha systems such as Reting, Demo, Kyirong, Tsemon Ling, Phagpalha , Drayab, Changkya, Tnu'u-bkvan, Akya, Sertri, Jamyang etc. in the Tibetan regions such as Tibet, Sichu, Yunnan, Qinghai, Gansu etc. At the same time, in Mongol region, it established the Living Buddha reincarnation systems such as Jetsun Dampa Hutuktu, Pandita, Naiji Tuoyin etc.