The Fourteen Dalai Lamas of Tibet

by Celeste Heiter, Dec 8, 2003 | Destinations: China / Tibet
The Potala Palace above Lhasa, Tibet

The Potala Palace above Lhasa, Tibet

The Potala Palace above Lhasa, Tibet

The tradition of the Dalai Lama actually began in the 16th century with Sonam Gyatso, the Third Dalai Lama of Tibet. It has long been believed by practitioners of the Buddhist faith that all sentient beings may achieve the enlightened state of nirvana and become buddhas. However, some compassionate beings called bodhisattvas postpone this ultimate passage, and instead choose to reincarnate so that they might continue to serve the suffering souls on earth.

All the Dalai Lamas are believed to be the reincarnation of Chenrezig, also known as Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion. The tradition began when Mongol chieftain Altan Khan once referred to the Buddhist lama Sonam Gyatso, the Third Dalai Lama as the All-Knowing Vajra-Holder, the Dalai Lama, Ocean of Wisdom. Sonam Gyatso retained this honorary title, and posthumously declared his two predecessors, Gendun Drub (1391-1474), and Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542), the First and Second Dalai Lamas.

The First Dalai Lama

Gendun Drub (1391-1474) was born in a manger to a nomadic shepherd family. At the age of seven, he was sent to Nartang monastery, where he became a disciple of Je Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gaden monastery near Lhasa and the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) order of Buddhism. Known as the Virtuous Ones, the Gelugpa adhered to austere discipline, strict celibacy, and abstinence from alcohol and gluttony. The Gelugpas trace their spiritual lineage and modeled their asceticism after Atisha, the great teacher of Indian Buddhism who made a pilgrimage to Tibet from 1042 to 1054. Gendun Drub was one of the three great disciples, and perhaps even the nephew of Tsong Khapa. Gendun Drub later became the abbot of Gaden, and founded the Tashi Lhumpo monastery near Shigatse, west of Lhasa, which grew to become the largest monastery in the world. He also fostered the tradition of reincarnated lamas to ensure a smooth transition of spiritual leaders from one Dalai Lama to the next.

By the time he reached middle age, Gendun Drub had become one of the most renowned scholars in Tibet. Among his many writings are Sunlight on the Path to Freedom, a commentary on the ancient Buddhist texts known as Abhidharma-kosha, Crushing the Forces of Evil, an epic poem on the life of Buddha, and Song of the Eastern Snow Mountain, a poem dedicated to his mentor Je Tsongkhapa.

The Second Dalai Lama

Even before Sonam Gyatso's posthumous declaration, Gendun Gyatso, the Second Dalai Lama (1475-1542), was recognized as the reincarnation of Gedun Drub as a young boy. Born in Dorjiden, northwest of Shigatse, the high lamas of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery identified him when he was four years old. According to legend, upon learning to speak as an infant, he declared his name to be Pema Dorje, the given name of the first Dalai Lama. At age four, he announced to his parents that he wanted to live in the Tashi Lhumpo monastery.

Gendun Gyatso grew to be a great scholar and poet, who spread the tradition of Gelugpa asceticism throughout Tibet, making pilgrimages to various sacred places in Tibet, including Yarlung, the cradle of Tibetan civilization. In 1509, Gendun Gyatso founded the Chhokhorgyal Monastery above Lake Chhokhorgyal, 90 miles southeast of Lhasa. With its crystal-clear waters, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the site is believed to have the power to reveal the future in its reflection. Each Dalai Lama visits Chhokorgyal at least once in his lifetime.

Gendun Gyatso also became the abbot of three other great monasteries: Tashi Lhunpo in 1512, Drepung in 1517, and Sera in 1526. Drepung is the largest Gelugpa monastery, and has always been closely associated with the Dalai Lamas. Gendun Gyatso died in 1542 at the Ganden Phodang, the Palace of Joy, which had once been the residence of his predecessor Gendun Drub. The written works he left behind include a history of Buddhism, a treatise on the various sects of Buddhism in India, and his own autobiography.

The Third Dalai Lama

Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588), the Third Dalai Lama and first to bear the title, was born in Khangsar in the Tolung Valley west of Lhasa. He was identified by the high lamas of the Drepung Monastery for his ability to recognize people and the places familiar to his predecessor, the Second Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso. Once identified, Sonam Gyatso was placed in the care of many great scholars, and thus grew to become a scholar himself. He divided his time between Depung Monastery and the mystical setting of Lake Chhokhorgyal. However, he also spent much of his life traveling.

Gongma Phadupa Dakpa Jungne invited Lama Sonam Gyatso to Nedong, his capital, in the Yarlung Valley in 1559. Lama Sonam Gyatso also visited Tashi Lhunpo in 1569. He even received an invitation from Emperor Wan-Li to visit China, however, he declined, due to his already extensive travel itinerary. Sonam Gyatso founded the Champaling Monastery at Lithang in Kham, southeast of Chhamdo, as well as the Sandal Khang, the Sandalwood Temple, and the monastery Kumbum Champaling, one of the largest and most famous monasteries in Northern Tibet.

Perhaps the most significant event in the life of Sonam Gyatso was his visit to Lake Kokonor in eastern Mongolia to meet with the great Mongol chieftain Altan Khan in 1578. The two men exchanged titles: Altan Khan declared Sonam Gyatso Dalai bla ma Rdo rje chhang,Ocean of Wisdom, who in turn called Altan Khan Chhoskyi Gyalpo Dharma Raja, the Righteous King. This event marked the beginning of the spread of Buddhism among the Mongols, who built their first Buddhist monastery, Erdene Zuu, on the ruins of Karakorum in 1586. Sonam Gyatso is also known for discouraging such Mongolian customs as shamanistic animal slaughter and the sacrificing of wives with their deceased husbands. After his many travels, Sonam Gyatso died in Mongolia on his way back to Tibet on April 20, 1588. He was cremated at Kumbum, after which his ashes were returned Drepung Monastery.

The Fourth Dalai Lama

Yonten Gyatso, the Fourth Dalai Lama (1589-1617), was the great grandson of Altan Khan, the Mongolian tribal chieftain who first bestowed the title of Dalai Lama on Sonam Gyatsu, the Third Dalai Lama. Yonten Gyatso was also the only non-Tibetan Dalai Lama, first recognized as the reincarnation of Sonam Gyatso by Mongol leaders. However, because they had no authority to do so, it was only after much debate among the three great monasteries of Tibet, that Yonten Gyatso was declared the Fourth Dalai Lama.

For his early education, the Gelukpa leaders sent religious teachers from Drepung to Kokonor in Mongolia. Yonten Gyatso was later escorted to Tibet by an entourage of Mongol supporters, where he ascended the throne as the Fourth Dalai Lama at Drepung in 1601. He made his pilgrimage to Chhokhorgyal in 1606. In 1615, Chinese Emperor Wan-Li, who had invited the Third Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso, also invited Dalai Lama Yonten Gyatso to visit China. And like his predecessor, he declined the invitation as well. He did however, send a Tibetan delegation to the Manchurian court at the invitation of Emperor Tai-tsung.

Because of the controversy surrounding his legitimacy as a true Dalai Lama, during the reign of Sonam Gyatso, Tibetan Buddhism was divided into conflicting factions that resulted in the persecution of Gelugpa followers by the Kagyupa (Red Hat) Order, and may even have resulted in the assassination of the Fourth Dalai Lama. Sonam Gyatso died mysteriously at the young age of 28 at the Ganden Phodang, the Palace of Joy, in 1617.

The Fifth Dalai Lama

The Fifth Dalai Lama, Lobzang Gyatso (1617-1682) is one of only two Dalai Lamas who are referred to as The Great. The Gelukpa dignitaries discovered the child Yonten Gyatso at age two in Chhonggye, in the U region of Tibet in 1619. The discovery was kept secret until 1620 however, and he was enthroned as the Fifth Dalai Lama at the Depung Monastery in 1625.

The stirrings of Tibetan political and military controversy began with the reign of Lobzang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama. While Tibet was in the hands of the power-hungry regent Desi Tsangpa, several Mongol tribes, including the Khoshot, the Bonpo, and the Khalkha, converged on the city of Lhasa. Chieftain Gushi Khan of the Khoshot defeated the other tribes, executed Desi Tsangpa and declared himself Po Gyalpo, King of Tibet. He recognized the Dalai Lama as both the secular and the spiritual leader of Tibet, and the head of all Buddhist sects in Asia.

With his renewed authority, Lobzang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama, defined the lineage of both the Dalai Lama and the kings of ancient Tibet, beginning with Srongsten Gampo (605-49), as the incarnation of the founder of the Tibetan race, which according to legend, sprang from the union of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion in the form of a monkey, and Dolma, a feminine deity of wisdom in the form of an ogress.

Lobzang Gyatso also declared the city of Lhasa, founded by King Srongsten Gampo, to be the political capital of Tibet. He based the new Tibetan government on the concept of Chhosi Shungdel, the integration of religion and politics, with clergy and laymen sharing power over the country, for which he established two training schools, the Tsedung and Shodung.

The Fifth Dalai Lama ordered the construction of the great Potala Palace on the crown of Red Hill overlooking the city of Lhasa, built on the ruins of the ancient temple where Buddhism was first introduced to Tibet. The Fifth Dalai Lama relocated his residence from the Ganden Phodang, the Palace of Joy in the Depung Monastery to the Potala Palace in 1649, however, the Potala was not completed until 1695.

Using his alliance with Gushi Khan, the Fifth Dalai Lama also reclaimed the regions of Nyanam on the Nepal border, which had been seized by Raja Pratap Malla of Nepal in the early 17th century, as well as the kingdoms of Ngari and Ladakh. He formed an alliance with the Nepalese region Sikkim, and visited the Manchurian court of child Emperor Shun Chin in Peking in 1652.

Lobzang Gyatso was also a prolific scholar, who composed volumes of history, poetry, and religious mysticism, including the biographies of the Third and Fourth Dalai Lamas, a history of Tibet, his autobiography, and a code of studies, rituals, and behavior for monastic orders that remain in effect today. Having successfully unified the nation of Tibet, toward the end of his reign, Lobzang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama, withdrew from public life. He relinquished the affairs of Tibet to his regent Desi Sangay Gyatso, who later concealed the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1682 for 15 years, ostensibly to maintain the stability of the country and to preserve the Fifth Dalai Lama's many enhancements to Tibetan culture.

The Sixth Dalai Lama

Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706), was the Sixth Dalai Lama, and the most controversial of all the Dalai Lamas. He was born on March 1, 1683 in the remote Tibetan region of Mon (Tawang), the son of Rigdzin Tashi and mother Tsewang Lhamo, under mystical circumstances, as his parents were members of a Tantric sect of Buddhism. His identity remained hidden until 1698, when Desi Sangay finally decided it was time to announce the death of Lobzang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama, and reveal the identity of the new Dalai Lama.

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. When Tsangyang Gyatso reached the age of 20, instead of completing his vows and entering into full monkhood, he renounced his original novice vows and became a layman once again. Nowhere was it written that the Dalai Lama had to be a monk. Therefore, he continued to live at the palace, maintaining his role as Dalai Lama by day, and living 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. Dressing in blue silk brocade, wearing his hair long, and practicing archery with his friends, he continued 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.

Meanwhile, political unrest was brewing between Tibet and the Mongol empire. After much political and military subterfuge, the Mongol Qosot tribe, led by Lhazang Kahn, lay siege to the city of Lhasa and Desi Sangay was forced to submit to unconditional surrender. On September 6, 1707, Desi Sangay was captured and executed at Tolung Nangtse, near Kyomulung monastery. Lhazang also declared Tsangyang Gyatso unfit for the title of Dalai Lama and ordered him 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, where they overthrew the guard and transported Tsangyang Gyatso to the Drepung monastery. The monastery was soon surrounded by Lhazang's Qosot Mongol troops, and in the face of a brutal massacre, Tsangyang Gyatso appeared before the crowd and surrendered to the Qosot. He 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, India and Nepal for many years thereafter.

The Seventh Dalai Lama

Kelzang Gyatso, the Seventh Dalai Lama, (1708-1757), was prophesied in a poem by his predecessor, Tsangyang Gyatso.

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

Soon after Tsangyang Gyatso's disappearance, Kelsang Gyatso, the child believed to be the true reincarnation of the Sixth Dalai Lama was discovered in Lithang, as foreshadowed in Tsangyang Gyatso's poem. The Mongol chieftain Lhazang Khan sent scouts to find and capture the child, however, Dzungar Mongol sympathizers sheltered him from harm and took him to the kingdom of Derge, where he was given asylum by the royal family. While a bloody battle raged on in Lhasa, the Kelsang Gyatso was later given safe haven at Kubum monastery, under the protection of Emperor K'ang Hsi's Manchu empire. When Emperor K'ang Hsi invaded Tibet, he gave his blessings for Kelsang Gyatso, the Seventh Dalai Lama, to ascended the throne at the Potala Palace.

In 1729 however, due to a series of rebellious uprisings in Tibet, Yung Cheng, the third Manchu emperor accused the Dalai Lama of bowing to the influence of his father and several advisors. The Dalai Lama and his father were exiled to their hometown of Garthar and power over Lhasa was seized by Sonam Tobgye Pholha, with the support of the Manchu army. A series of subsequent uprisings toppled the Manchu government in Tibet. When Ch'ien Lung, the fourth Manchu emperor sent a military force from Szechwan to Lhasa to restore Manchu authority, the Dalai Lama was restored to the throne, where he ruled until his death in 1757, at age 49.

While in exile, Kelsang Gyatso founded the Teling Monastery near his native village of Gethar. He also visited Chhokhorgyal several times, as well as the Yarlung Valley, the cradle of Tibetan civilization. The Seventh Dalai Lama was both a scholar and a poet, who left the affairs of Tibet to his ministers. He was in close contact with the common folk, and it is said that he would even leave the Potala at times to travel incognito as a wandering monk.

The Eighth Dalai Lama

Jamphel Gyatso, the Eighth Dalai Lama of Tibet (1758-1804) was born in Tobgyal, Upper Tsang, on July 29, 1758 and ascended the throne as the Eighth Dalai Lama on August 29, 1762, although he did not assume full power until 1781. Much like his predecessor, he allowed the affairs of Tibet to be handled exclusively by his regent, Ngawang Tsulthim, who spent much of his time retained in Peking, while the Chinese 'amban' rulers acted in his place. During the reign of Jamphel Gyatso, Tibet fought in the Bhutan-Koch Bihar war of 1772 between Bhutan and the English East Company of Calcutta, the Nepal-Sikkim war of 1775, and the Nepal-Tibet wars of 1789 and 1792, based largely upon conflict over inequities in the exchange of gold and silver currency. Tibet also became the focus of much attention from Great Britain, due to its strategic location on the Asian continent. As a result, the Tibetan government began to restrict the passage of foreign visitors. Jamphel Gyatso died in 1804 at the age of 46.

The Ninth Dalai Lama

Lungtok Gyatso, the Ninth Dalai Lama (1806-1815), born in the village Den Chhokhor, Kham, on January 20, 1806 was the shortest lived of them all. Although he ascended the throne as the Ninth Dalai Lama on November 10, 1808, his life ended at age nine, before he even had a chance to mature and come into his own reign. He reportedly died of pneumonia on March 26, 1815. However, given the fragile nature of Tibetan sovereignty, with the Qing Dynasty crumbling before their very eyes, and Britain licking its chops at the prospect of colonizing this keystone Asian nation, it has also been conjectured that he may have been assassinated by his regent and court ministers, so that they might continue on with the status quo. To further support this theory, it is noted that the three subsequent Dalai Lamas also died very young, and under mysterious circumstances. One notable event in the life of the Ninth Dalai Lama was the arrival of the first Englishman to visit Lhasa, writer Thomas Manning, who was granted audience with the young Dalai Lama in 1811.

The Tenth Dalai Lama

Not much is known of the Tenth Dalai Lama, Tsultrim Gyatso (1816-1837). He was born in Lithang, coincidentally in the same village where the Seventh Dalai Lama was discovered. Tsultrim Gyatso was enthroned at the Potala Palace as in 1822. And although he officially assumed his full power as the Tenth Dalai Lama, he suffered from continual illness and died suddenly in 1837, at age 21 without performing any deeds of historical significance. During his brief life, Tibet continued to isolate itself from the rest of Asia and Europe, while keeping a watchful eye on its borders.

The Eleventh Dalai Lama

Khendrup Gyatso (1838-1856), the Eleventh Dalai Lama, was the third in a series of Dalai Lamas who died at an early age. He was born on December 19, 1838 at Teling, near Gerthar, Kham, coincidentally the same location where the Kelsang Gyatso, the Seventh Dalai Lama was discovered and later founded a monastery. Khendrup Gyatso ascended the throne as the Eleventh Dalai Lama on May 25, 1842. In a break with tradition, he assumed his full power at the young age of 17 on March 1, 1855 at the request of his government. He died mysteriously eleven months later. During his short reign, Tibet fought a war with Jammu, China's influence in Tibet was weakened by the Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion, and Tibet continued its conflict with the kingdoms of Nepal and Ladakh.

The Twelfth Dalai Lama

Thinle Gyatso (1857-1875) was born in Olga in South Tibet on January 26, 1857. His short reign was a time of great unrest in the surrounding territories. He ascended the throned as the Twelfth Dalai Lama on August 18, 1860, and when he assumed full power three years later on March 11, 1873 at the young age of 16, the crumbling Qing dynasty was no longer able to offer political or military support, and England persisted in its attempts to colonize Tibet. Another important development during his short reign was the treaty of1860 between China, England, France, Russia and the United which granted free passage of Christian missionaries in the Manchu empire. At this time however, Tibet still prohibited the entry of all foreigners. However, since the treaty did not distinguish Tibet from China as a sovereign nation, Christian missionaries set up a camp at Bongo near the Mekong and Salween rivers in 1865. Tibetan authorities converged upon the mission and renounced the treaty as well as the authority of the Manchu government.

Another turbulent development during the reign of Thinle Gyatso was the series of wars fought between the British and the kingdoms of the Sikkim in 1860, and Bhutan in 1864. As a consequence, the Tibetan government banned all Europeans from entry into Tibet.

In 1874, Thinle Gyatso visited the monastery at the mystical Lake Chhokhorgyal. He died soon thereafter,on April 25, 1875 at the young age of 19.

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama

Thupten Gyatso (1876-1933) was the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, and the second to be given the added title of 'Great'. Born in 1876, it was under his leadership that the nation of Tibet made the transition into the 20th century during a time of great political upheaval. Political ties were strengthening between China and Britain, in which unauthorized permission was granted by China for Britain to make expeditions into Tibet. Tibetan authorities refused to allow entry to the British, however British troops invaded Tibet in 1904, ostensibly to prevent the spread of Russian influence in Asia. At this time, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thupten Gyatso assumed power from the regent Choekyi Gyaltsen Kundeling at age 19.

Soon after the British invasion, Thupten Gyatso fled to Mongolia. While in exile, he received a message from the Emperor in Peking requesting him to visit. The Dalai Lama agreed, in hopes of convincing emperor to withdraw his troops. However, when the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet, he found Chinese troops acting on orders of the Chinese government to depose him.

Thupten Gyatso fled once again, this time to India, where he appealed to the British military forces to help Tibet defend itself against China. The British chose to remain neutral, and in 1911, the Imperial rule of China was toppled by a rebellion. This turn of events led to the downfall of Chinese military forces in Lhasa, who were driven out by the renewed Tibetan army in 1912. Soon thereafter, Thupten Gyatso the Thirteenth Dalai Lama declared Tibetan independence from China. In the remaining twenty years of his reign, Thupten Gyatso set about the task of shepherding Tibet into the modern age. He engaged in international relations, installed postal, telephone and telegraph systems, introduced paper currency, constructed a network of roads for automobiles, and provided electric power.

Despite his restoration of monastic discipline, he was met with controversy and criticism from conservative Buddhists. Near the end of his life, he spoke of a prophetic vision of Tibet once again losing its sovereignty to China. Thupten Gyatso died on December 17, 1933.

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth and present Dalai Lama, was born Lhamo Dhondrub on July 6th, 1935 in the village of Takster in Amdo near the monastery of Kumbum in northeastern Tibet to a peasant family. At the age of three, he was recognized as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Much mysticism surrounded the discovery of the new Dalai Lama. While the body of Thupten Gyatso still lay in state at the Potala, it is said that his face turned to face northeast. Soon thereafter, a vision of the house where the next Dalai Lama would be found appeared to Reting Rinpoche, a Tibetan regent, as he gazed into Lake Lhamo Latso in southern Tibet. He saw the letters Ah, Ka, Ma, along with the image of a monastery with a jade green roof, and a humble house with a turquoise roof and unusual gutters.

For the letter Ah, a search party was sent to Amdo in the northeastern province of Tibet, and then to the Karma Rolpai Dorje monastery in Kumbum, with its turquoise roof, for the letters Ka and Ma. There they found the house with the unusual gutters. A search of the surrounding villages revealed a house with an ancient juniper bush on the roof, where they sought lodging for the night. There they found an infant boy named Lhamo among the members of the household. The leader of the search party, pretending to be an ordinary servant, played with the child, who took to him instantly and called him Sera Lama, for the name of the monastery where the lama had once been a disciple. A few days later, the party returned with a collection of personal artifacts that had belonged to Thupten Gyatso, the former Dalai Lama, including rosaries, drums and walking sticks. When presented to the child along with other items that had not belonged to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, the boy Lhamo claimed all the correct items as his own. Convinced that the child was the true reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, he was taken to Lhasa, but only after paying a substantial ransom to the Chinese provincial governor for his release.

Tenzin Gyatso was enthroned on February 22, 1940 in the Potala Palace at Lhasa at age four. His eighteen-year spiritual training began at the age of six, and was completed when he received his Ph.D. in Buddhist Philosophy at age 25. In October 1950 however, in the midst of his training, The People's Liberation Army of China invaded Tibet, and Tenzin Gyatso assumed full power as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama on November 17, at the age of fifteen. Political unrest continued to escalate, and by 1959, the Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet for India with nearly 80,000 followers. On March 17, 1959, the Dalai Lama escaped from the summer palace at Norbulinka with his family. For nearly five decades, from his headquarters at Dharamsala, India Tenzin Gyatso has worked relentlessly to restore the sovereignty of Tibet through peaceful, non-violent means, and to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of the Tibetan people. On December 10, 1989, Tenzin Gyatso was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

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