Since the two best-known spiritual rulers in the world are the Dalai Lama and the Pope, I’m going to compare the two.
The Dalai Lama seems to get about as much attention as the Catholic Pope in Rome, who rules over the Vatican in Rome. The Pope is also the spiritual leader of about one billion Catholics.
What about the Dalai Lama and Buddhism?
The working class peasants/serfs in old Tibet before 1950
Buddhanet says that it is generally agreed that about 6% (or 350 million) of the world’s population are Buddhists.
Then Adherents.com says, The number of adherents that follow Tibetan Buddhism is estimated to be between ten and twenty million, (which is about the same as the population of New York state in the US).
There are four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama is the temporal head of the Gelug(pa) “Way of Virtue” school, and Dalai Lamas have been the “spiritual” leaders of Tibet from the mid-17th to the mid-20th centuries.
The 2000 population census in China reported that about 2.62 million lived in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
If those facts are correct, today’s Dalai Lama is technically the spiritual leader of about 2 million in Tibet and between 8 to 18 million globally that are citizen of other countries.
The ruling class in old Tibet before 1950
The only explanation for the attention the Dalai Lama gets in the media is that a very vocal following of fanatics has grown around him turning him into a cultish godlike figure. At best, the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of about one third of one percent of the global population.
At the low end, the Dalai Lama only represents about one tenth of one percent, which may represent the number of followers he has in China compared to the total population there.
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