The Don Juan of Dalai Lamas

by Celeste Heiter, Nov 29, 2003 | Destinations: China / Tibet
Potala Palace contains many original statues, scrolls, and other Buddhist/Tibetan artifacts. It is an important site for Tibetan pilgrims and is open to the public as a museum.

Potala Palace contains many original statues, scrolls, and other Buddhist/Tibetan artifacts. It is an important site for Tibetan pilgrims and is open to the public as a museum.

Potala Palace contains many original statues, scrolls, and other Buddhist/Tibetan artifacts. It is an important site for Tibetan pilgrims and is open to the public as a museum.

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I sought my lover at twilight
Snow fell at daybreak.
Residing at the Potala
I am Rigdzin Tsangyang Gaytso
But in the back alleys of Shol-town
I am rake and stud.
Secret or not
No matter.
Footprints have been left in the snow.

Mention the name Dalai Lama, and the words will no doubt conjure up images of piety and selflessness, of a gentle man in saffron robes striving relentlessly for world peace and harmony among all mankind. But the tradition of the Dalai Lama, which dates back to the 15th century, is a turbulent one, based on the concept of reincarnation, shrouded in mystery and deeply steeped in international conflict and political upheaval.

Ironically, the title Dalai Lama is a combination of the Mongolian word Dalai, which means 'ocean', and the Tibetan word Lama, which means 'spiritual teacher'. Dalai Lama is commonly translated as 'Ocean of Wisdom', and the 14 men who have held the title to date are regarded as incarnations of Chenrezig, the patron deity of Tibet, also known as Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, and the Seeing Eye Lord. The annals of Dalai Lama history contain accounts of political and military greatness, as well as acts of treachery and deceit. But among this procession of enlightened spiritual leaders, one Dalai Lama stands out from all the rest: Tsangyang Gyatso, the Sixth Dalai Lama, imbiber of wine, lover of women, and unarguably one of the finest poets in the history of world literature.

The Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama

According to tradition, Tsangyang Gyatso was recognized as the Sixth Dalai Lama early in life. But because of political subterfuge on the part of his regent guardian, he was fifteen years old before the death of his predecessor Lozang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama, was revealed and the ascension of Tsangyang Gyatso to the position of Sixth Dalai Lama was publicly announced. In the eight years of his short life thereafter, Tsangyang Gyatso maintained his role as Dalai Lama by day, and lived the life of a dandy, a gadabout, and a sexual roué by night, all the while, composing some of the most subtle romantic poetry the world has ever known.

The legacy into which Tsangyang Gyatso was born was one of austerity, celibacy and abstinence from the temptations of alcohol and gluttony, as exemplified by the life of the first Dalai Lama, Gedun Drub (1391- 1474), abbot of Gaden monastery who fostered the tradition of reincarnated lamas to ensure a smooth transition of spiritual leaders from one Dalai Lama to the next. Tsangyang Gyatso was also born into a unified Tibet, brought about by the regent of his predecessor, Ngawang Losang Gyatso, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, and the first Dalai Lama to gain control over all of Tibet. In 1682, when the Fifth Dalai Lama passed away at age 68, the fate of Tibet was left in the hands of his regent, Desi Sangay Gyatso, a learned scholar and theologian, a competent administrator, and himself a lover of wine, women and song.

During this fragile time in Tibet's history, while the opulent Potala Palace was being constructed on a mountaintop overlooking the city of Lhasa, Desi Sangay Gyatso thought it best to conceal the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama from the people. He created an elaborate ruse, maintaining that the Fifth Dalai Lama had retreated into deep meditation and was not to be disturbed. Daily meals were left outside his personal chambers, his official seal was used on all government documents, and on those unavoidable occasions when his physical presence was required, an elderly monk named Tasrab served as a plausible stand-in. He would wear the ceremonial robes, along with an eye shade and hat, because he was not quite as bald, nor were his eyes quite as piercing as those of the true Dalai Lama. It is also said that a palace oracle and his sister (or in some accounts, his mother) were put to death for getting a little too close to guessing the truth.

Some historians have implied that Desi Sangay concealed the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama to serve his own purposes, while others maintain that he held the best interests of Tibet at heart. Either way, immediately after the death of Ngawang Losang Gyatso, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, Desi Sangay issued an order for a surreptitious search for his reincarnated successor.

After three long years, in 1685, his agents reported a child in the remote region of Mon (Tawang), the son of Rigdzin Tashi and mother Tsewang Lhamo, born on March 1, 1683, under mystical circumstances, as his parents were members of a Tantric sect of Buddhism. The boy, who demonstrated all the esoteric criteria for a true reincarnation of a Dalai Lama, was also a descendant of Jingme Lingpa, the finder of a set of rare, lost Buddhist texts in Bhutan. After consulting the oracle to verify the authenticity of the new Dalai Lama, Desi Sangay ordered the child and his mother to be brought in secret to a house in the village of Tsona. Their identities remained hidden, and therefore, believing the child and his mother to be political exiles, town officials treated them as prisoners for more than ten years. Finally, in April 1697, mother and child were relocated to Nakartse, to the home of Yardok Khripon, former Desi and uncle of the Fifth Dalai Lama. It was now time for Desi Sangay to reveal the truth.

A Tibetan court minister traveled to the Imperial Palace of Peking to announce the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama and to report the discovery of his successor. And although the news was favorably received by the people of Tibet, its revelation set off a chain of events that would eventually bring the downfall of Desi Sangay and pave the way for Manchurian invasion.

In September 1697, under the administration of Losang Yeshi, the Second Panchen Lama, the new Dalai Lama made his getsul dompa vows as a novice monk, and took the name Losang Rigdzin Tsangyang Gyatso, the Ocean of Melodious Song. Afterwards, Desi Sangay Gyatso led a grand, week-long procession to the city of Lhasa, accompanied by a newly appointed secretary, a chamberlain and various other officials and attendants to the Tibetan court. The following month, in October 1697, Tsangyang Gyatso ascended a golden throne at the newly completed Potala Palace, and assumed the title of the Sixth Dalai Lama. This grand spectacle was attended by government officials, Mongol princes, representatives of the Chinese emperor K'ang Hsi, monks from Tibet's three major monasteries, and the commonfolk of Tibet.

For days on end, prayers and incantations were recited at the Potala, and throughout Tibet, for the longevity and well being of the Sixth Dalai Lama, as well as for the peace and prosperity of his reign. Soon thereafter, Tsangyang Gyatso would begin his ascetic studies under the tutelage of Panchen Rinpoche.

Now fifteen years old, Tsangyang had grown to be a handsome, intelligent young man who loved archery and roaming about the countryside. He showed little interest in scholarly or spiritual pursuits, preferring the carefree life to the rigors of his office. Nevertheless, he diligently studied political administration with Desi Sangay, Buddhist philosophy with Panchen Rinpoche, and showed an affinity for architecture, music and dance. Yet, despite his ambivalence toward his studies and the opulence of his surroundings, Tsangyang did not wallow in decadent indulgences. He kept no personal servants at the Potala, he brewed his own tea and served his guests himself, he traveled about on foot, and he shunned pompous public ceremonies.

When Tsangyang Gyatso reached the age of 20, Desi Sangay began entreating him to complete his gelong vows and enter into full monkhood. But the young Dalai Lama would have none of it. Finally, in in May 1702, Desi Sangay Gyatso sent a message to Panchen Rinpoche in Tashi Lhunpo, asking for his help in persuading Tsangyang to complete his vows. Tsangyang somehow learned of the letter, and in an end-run around Desi Sangay, he suddenly announced that he would travel to Tashi Lhunpo and allow Panchen Rinpoche to administer his final vows, while intending all the while to renounce his novice vows instead.

En route to Tashi Lhunpo, Tsangyang stopped over at Zimkhang Gyaltsen Thonpo at Shigatse, where he briefly took up residence. After much futile pleading on the part of both Panchen Rinpoche and Desi Sangay, in 1697, in a hall filled with monastic dignitaries, Tsangyang Gyatso prostrated himself before Panchen Rinpoche, begging his forgiveness for failing to fulfill his office as Dalai Lama and renouncing his original getsul vows.

Tsangyang Gyatso returned to the Potala as a layman. And although his decision was cause for much shock and disappointment, oddly the renunciation of his vows did not render him bereft of the title of Dalai Lama. Nowhere was it written that the Dalai Lama had to be a monk. Therefore, he continued to live at the palace, dressing as a layman in blue silk brocade, wearing his hair long, practicing archery and living the carefree life he so enjoyed. In the evenings, he would visit the brothels and chang taverns of Shol-town at the foot of Red Hill, where he gambled, drank barley beer, caroused with the common folk and indulged in the carnal pleasures of a different woman every night. Sometimes he would venture a little farther afield into Lhasa, where he drank wine and mingled with the daughters of the aristocracy. An amorous visit upon one's daughter by Tsangyang Gyatso was considered an honor, and homes where he had spent the night were often painted yellow thereafter to commemorate the romantic interlude.

Predictably, Tsangyang's behavior raised many an eyebrow among the both the Mongol and Tibetan clergy. And none were more disappointed than Desi Sangay, who even hatched a plot to assassinate Tsangyang's closest companion, Drungkhor Thargyasnas, whom Desi Sangay believed to be a bad influence on the young Dalai Lama. The plot backfired, however, as Drungkhor Thargyasnas had playfully exchanged garments with his servant that evening. The servant, disguised as his master, was mistakenly killed instead. Tsangyang Gyatso consulted an oracle to discover Desi Sangay's hand in the incident, along with the perpetrators, who were later executed for their treachery.

Meanwhile, political unrest was brewing between Tibet and the Mongol empire, led by Galden Khan of the Dzungar tribe. Desi Sangay had shattered their trust by concealing the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama, and now, his alliance with several groups of Mongol rebels aroused the suspicions of Chinese Emperor K'ang Hsi. After much political and military subterfuge, the rival Mongol Qosot tribe, led by Lhazang Kahn, lay siege to the city of Lhasa and Desi Sangay was forced to submit to unconditional surrender. Lhazang Khan seized power over Lhasa and Desi Sangay was exiled to Gongkar Dzong. Unfortunately, en route to Gongkar, on September 6, 1707, Desi Sangyo was captured at Tolung Nangtse, near Kyomulung monastery, where he was beheaded. It is believed that the once maligned Drungkhor Thargyasnas had a secret hand in the assassination of Desi Sangay.

The people of Tibet mourned his death, however, even under the rule of Lhazang Khan, Tsangyang Gyatso was still regarded as the Sixth Dalai Lama. Therefore, Lhazang Khan needed a systematic and skillfully executed plan to depose him without inciting a political uprising among the Tibetan people. He set about to garner the favors of the three major monasteries, as well as that of Panchen Rinpoche. He also allied himself with Chinese Emperor K'ang Hsi, and trumped up reports of Tsangyang's illicit behavior in Shol and Lhasa. Next, he called a meeting of the monastic clergy, officiated by Tri Rinpoche Dhondrup Gyatso, wherein Lhazang insisted Tsangyang Gyatso should be deposed on the accusation that his scandalous behavior made him unfit for his title. And although Lhazang's proposal was not unanimously received, he ordered Tsangyang Gyatso to leave the Potala Palace and relocate to a Mongol camp at Lhalu Garden near Lhasa.

When the people of Tibet learned of Tsangyang's exile, they gathered in anger outside the Lhalu camp. The crowd was led by monks from all three monasteries, and when Lhazang declared the Sixth Dalai Lama deposed on June 27, 1706, banishing him to the Imperial Court of China, the rebellious crowd overthrew the guard and rescued Tsangyang Gyatso. They transported him to the summer palace at the Drepung monastery, where he was declared by the Nechung oracle to be the true reincarnation of the Fifth Dalai Lama.

The monastery was soon surrounded by Lhazang's Qosot Mongol troops. In the face of a brutal massacre, Tsangyang Gyatso, accompanied by several close companions, appeared before the crowd and surrendered to the Qosot. His companions went down fighting, the monastery was destroyed, and Tsangyang Gyatso was carried off toward China. However, at Gunga-nor, a small lake to the south of Kokonor, on November 14, 1706, at the age of 23, the Sixth Dalai Lama vanished. Some say he was murdered. Others say he was taken ill and died, while still others believe that he escaped, and continued to wander about Tibet for many years thereafter.

A poem composed in haste while under siege at Lhalu offered a clue as to where his reincarnation as the Seventh Dalai Lama might be found. It was sent to an unidentified woman in Shol-town.

White crane!
Lend me your wings
I will not fly far
I will return near Litang.

Meanwhile, back at Lhasa, Lhazang had replaced Tsangyang Gyatso with a new 'Sixth Dalai Lama', Yeshe Gyatso, a young monk believed to be his own son. However, soon thereafter, Kelsang Gyatso, the true reincarnation of the Sixth Dalai Lama was discovered in Lithang, as foreshadowed in Tsangyang Gyatso's poem. Lhazang sent scouts to find and capture the child, however, Dzungar Mongol sympathizers sheltered him from harm and gave him refuge in the town of Derge.

Next, the Dzungar Mongols invaded Lhasa, and after a bloody battle, defeated and killed Lhazang Khan in 1717. Little was gained by his demise however, as the Dzungar Mongols plundered and pillaged the town, destroying the monasteries and killing hundreds of monks and lamas. In the interim, the infant Dalai Lama had been given safe haven at Kubum monastery, under the protection of Emperor K'ang Hsi's Manchu empire. In an act of political and military finesse, under the guise of avenging the death of Lhazang Khan and restoring the sovereignty of the Dalai Lama, Emperor K'ang Hsi invaded Tibet, and with the help of Tibetan resistance groups, overthrew the Dzungar Mongols in 1718, thus marking the beginning of Chinese rule over Tibet.

With the blessings of Emperor K'ang Hsi, Kelsang Gyatso, the Seventh Dalai Lama, ascended the throne of the Potala Palace, where he ruled until his death in 1757, at age 49. However, the continuing saga of his predecessor, Tsangyang Gyatso, the Sixth Dalai Lama, turned up in a text called the Secret Biography of the Sixth Dalai Lama, which maintained that he lived on as a fugitive after the incident at Gunga-nor, making his way throughout Central Tibet, India and Nepal. The story of his later years include accounts of him introducing Monlam Chenmo, the Great Prayer Festival of Lhasa to the Mongolian region of Alak-Shya. He is supposed to have visited Peking in 1724 to perform funeral rites for the First Jetsun Dampa Ondur Gegan at Urga. He is also believed to have established the monastery of Jargud Thos-sam Dargyas Ling. During this time, there were also reports of the Sixth Dalai Lama appearing simultaneously in several different places. The Secret Biography of the Sixth Dalai Lama further maintains that Tsangyang Gyatso survived for another forty years, until his death in 1746, at the age of 63.

The Lovesongs of the Sixth Dalai Lama

Many scholarly texts have been written on the poetry of Tsangyang Gyatao, Sixth Dalai Lama, 'rake and stud' of Shol-town. To explain the enigma of the lusty young lover, who had been groomed from an early age to live the life of a religious ascetic, some are quick to point out that he was born into a family of Tantric Buddhists, which embrace sexuality as an integral part of spiritual practice. Others maintain that his guardian, Desi Sangay, with his own carnal appetites, served as a decadent role model. Of Sangay it was often said that no woman, or even a young boy, was safe from his advances.

Tsangyang even wrote a poem about Desi Sangay, which illuminates his policy of 'do as I say, and not as I do.'

Do not tell me,
'Tsangyang! You are depraved,'
Just like you
I, too, desire pleasure and comfort.

Despite their rarefied nature, the poems of the Sixth Dalai Lama embody the pangs and longings typical of any lovestruck youth. They convey his flights of infatuation:

The arrow of fortune is shot
It strikes the target
Or buries its tip in the ground
Since I've met my new lover
My heart flies after her all on its own.

His distraction from meditation:

Face to face with a venerable lama
Having come to ask for spiritual guidance
My mind slips away
It slips away toward my lover

His doubts and insecurities:

Thinking of my long-time lover
Does she lack shame and faithfulness?
Too bad her turquoise headdress
Can't talk

His remorse for straying from his spiritual duties:

First, best not to see
Then mind won't be captivated
Next, best not to become intimate
Then mind won't be trapped

And even his regrets of loves lost:

When I held a jewel in hand
I did not know its worth
When I lost it to another
The wind of loss howled in my chest

Tsangyang's fall from grace as the Sixth Dalai Lama seems not to have tarnished him in the eyes of the Tibetan people. If anything, they hold him in even higher esteem. In the words of Thubten Jigme Norbu, brother of the Fourteenth (present day) Dalai Lama, "If anything, the stories only serve to make him all the more popular and beloved. For it seems to us that to be born great and good makes great and good living and dying all too easy. To be born otherwise, to grow as an ordinary man, with all the desires, the loves and hates, of ordinary man, then to become great and good, that is an achievement deserving of respect."

In the case of the Tsangyang Gyatso, the Sixth Dalai Lama of Tibet, it seems that, ultimately, there is no difference between the sacred and the profane, except from the point of view of the profane.

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Two texts are currently available on the life and love poems of the Sixth Dalai Lama:

The Turquoise Bee: The Lovesongs of the Sixth Dalai Lama by Rick Fields and Brian Cutillo

Stallion on a Frozen Lake: Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama Coleman Barks (Translator)

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