The Fifth Dalai Lama

Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama

His Holiness Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama, was the first Dalai Lama to become spiritual and political leader of Tibet. The story of his life is pivotal to Tibet’s history. It is also a story of political intrigue that began before he was born and continued for many years after he died. He is remembered by Tibetans as the “Great Fifth.”

The Dalai Lama is a high lama of the Gelug school (also called Gelugpa) of Tibetan Buddhism.

Before the birth of the 5th Dalai Lama, the Gelug school had suffered a blow. Some years earlier central Tibet had split into two small, warring kingdoms, U and Tsang. The rulers of U were patrons of Gelugpa, but the rulers of Tsang supported another school, Kagyu. The strife escalated into fighting between monks of the two schools.

During the time of the short-lived 4th Dalai Lama, the king of Tsang defeated the king of U and proclaimed himself king of central Tibet. The Gelug school had lost its patron and found itself in a precarious position. The king of Tsang even banned Gelugpa from ordaining a 5th Dalai Lama.

A Lama Reborn

In 1617 a boy was born into a family of wealthy aristocrats and named Künga Nyingpo. This remarkable boy caught the attention of Karma Kagyu and other schools, but secretly an attendant of the 4th Dalai Lama had identified Künga Nyingpo as his master’s rebirth.

To complicate matters, when Künga Nyingpo was only three his father was been imprisoned for conspiring against the king of Tsang. The father would die in prison without seeing his son again. Künga Nyingpo’s mother raised the boy in seclusion in her family home, away from the king of Tsang’s court. A few years passed.

Some accounts say that Gelugpa kept its finding of the boy secret until the king of Tsang reversed the ban. Other accounts say that squabbling among the schools caused the king to relent and let Gelugpa have him.

When his identity as the 5th Dalai Lama finally was revealed, however, he had to go into hiding once again.

The Mongolian Connection

Years earlier, the 3rd Dalai Lama and a Mongol tribal leader named Altan Khan had forged an alliance. In fact, it was Altan Khan who coined the title “Dalai Lama,” meaning “ocean of wisdom.” The Third gave Altan Khan teachings and initiations in return for Altan Khan’s patronage. The Mongol-Gelugpa alliance was reinforced when a Mongol boy was identified as the 4th Dalai Lama.

When the identify of the 5th Dalai Lama was made public, Mongols in Lhasa loyal to the old alliance wanted to take the boy to a Mongol stronghold. The Gelug elders were anxious for the boy to begin his life as a monk, however. To keep him from being spirited away by Mongol admirers he had to hide for another year.

At long last, the ten-year-old tulku was taken to Drepung Monastery, where the 3rd Panchen Lama ordained him as Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama.

A Dalai Lama’s Education

Lobsang Gyatso had a precocious intellect and a love of study. By all accounts he mastered Buddhist philosophy easily. He also studied astrology, medicine and poetry.

At the age of 19 the 5th Dalai Lama became the student of Paljor Lhundrup, abbot of Pahongka monastery. Paljor Lhundrup was an unconventional teacher who combined Gelugpa with Nyingmapa, an older school of Tibetan Buddhism. Through Paljor Lhundrup, the 5th Dalai Lama secretly took up Dzogchen, or “great perfection,” a central practice of Nyingmapa that at the time was hotly criticized by the elders of Gelugpa.

A New Mongol Patron

Since the time of Altan Khan, Gelug Buddhism had spread throughout Mongolia. And as the 5th Dalai Lama grew to adulthood, a newly converted tribal leader of western Mongolia fought his way toward Tibet.

Gushi (sometimes spelled Gushri) Khan (1582-1655) and his army reached the edge of Tibet in 1637. Then Gushi Khan made his way to Lhasa to pay his respects to the Dalai Lama. The 5th Dalai Lama, now 20 years old, was impressed by the battle-hardened warrior, and the meeting went well.

The Dalai Lama accepted the patronage of Gushi Khan and gave him the title “Dharma King, Upholder of the Teachings.” He also gave Gushi Khan a gold statue of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug school. A bond was formed between the lama and the warrior.

The Conquest of Tibet

At that time Gelugpa monasteries in eastern Tibet were suffering under a ruler who favored Bon, a religion indigenous to Tibet. With the Dalai Lama’s permission, Gushi Khan moved into eastern Tibet and secured the territory for Gelugpa. But Gushi Khan did not stop there. He and his army continued eastward into central Tibet, attacking and eventually deposing the king of Tsang.

Historians believe that the young Dalai Lama himself did not order the attack on central Tibet. Instead, permission to attack came from older Gelugpa lamas and from the Desi, an official appointed by the Dalai Lama to manage his political affairs.

However it happened, when the king of Tsang surrendered in April 1642, the Dalai Lama and Gushi Khan met once more, this time on a battlefield, to exchange titles and gifts. Here it was that His Holiness the 5th Dalai Lama was proclaimed political and spiritual leader of Tibet.

But Tibet was not yet conquered. The 10th Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu school and his monks occupied a stronghold called the Encampment. The Dalai Lama sent a message to the Karmapa asking him to agree to not challenge Gelugpa authority, and in exchange the Encampment would be left alone. When the Karmapa refused, the Encampment was surrounded by Tibetan and Mongol soldiers. Soon the Encampment was destroyed, many monks were slaughtered, and the Karmapa was a refugee in the mountains of Bhutan.

A revolt by followers of Karma Kagyu and the king of Tsang was brutally repulsed by Gushi Khan, accompanied by the Desi. The king of Tsang was captured and killed. Kagyu monasteries were forcibly converted to Gelugpa. Teachings of other schools critical of Tsongkhapa and Gelugpa were banned. Even Nyingmapa lamas thought to have performed spells to repel the Mongols were imprisoned.

Potala Palace

In the spring of 1645 the 5th Dalai Lama climbed a hill overlooking Lhasa to stand in the ruins of an ancient palace. It had been the palace of the Emperor Songtsen Gampo, who lived in the 7th century and who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet.There, in the presence of many monks and laypeople, the Dalai Lama performed a ritual to prepare the ground for the building of a new palace.
At some point in the proceedings a woman came forward to present a statue of Avalokiteshvara that had belonged to Songtsen Gampo. At that moment a soft rain began to fall, and the Dalai Lama told the assembly that Avalokiteshvara had come home.

The new structure that would be built on this sacred ground was Potala Palace. It would be the residence of the Dalai Lamas and the seat of Tibetan government until 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama would be driven into exile by the Chinese. Symbolically, the great palace tied the authority of the Dalai Lama to the ancient emperors and to Avalokiteshvara, patron deity of Tibet.

Although the 5th Dalai Lama moved into a section of the palace five years later, the entire structure took 45 years to complete.

Relations With China

In 1644, as the 5th Dalai Lama planned for the building of Potala Palace, the Ming Dynasty of China was toppled by invaders from Manchuria. The new Manchu dynasty would call itself the Qing Dynasty, and it would survive into the 20th century.

Advisers of the new Shunzhi Emperor — a child at the time — respected the military prowess of the Mongolians. The Qing court had no desire to make enemies of Gushi Khan and the Dalai Lama of Tibet. The Manchus also were Buddhists with ties to Tibetan Buddhism. Good relations with the Dalai Lama and his fearsome Mongol patron must have seemed a good idea on several levels. In the next few years three invitation to visit the Qing court were sent to the Dalai Lama.

His Holiness and a huge entourage finally began the journey to Beijing in 1652. When the Tibetans drew near, the Shunzhi Emperor sent horsemen with gifts to greet them and guide them to Beijing. The 5th Dalai Lama arrived in Beijing in January 1654.

The Qing court welcomed His Holiness with lavish ceremonies, and at one banquet the two rulers sat side by side on thrones. Today, China portrays this visit as one in which the Dalai Lama submitted to the rule of China, but most historians say that is nonsense. By all accounts, His Holiness was treated as a visiting head of state with whom the Qing court wished to have friendly relations.

His Holiness remained in Beijing for two months, and then he began the long journey back home.

The Great Fifth Secures His Legacy

As time when on, the 5th Dalai Lama increasingly delegated political matters to the Desi so he could devote more time to meditation and to writing.

It appears the Dzogchen practice he began in his youth became more important to him as he grew older. He wrote of visions of Padmasambhava, founder of the Nyingma school. He encouraged Nyingmapa lamas to gather together the records and teachings of the school to preserve them.

The Great Fifth was a prolific writer. His 24 volumes of written work include a history of Tibet and his own autobiography, the Dukulai Gosang.

The 4th Panchen Lama, Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen (1570-1662), was the 5th Dalai Lama’s teacher and ally. In fact, the title Panchen Lama, meaning “great scholar,” was given to Lobsang Gyaltsen by the 5th Dalai Lama and conferred to his predecessors posthumously. When the 4th Panchen Lama died in 1662, the 5th Dalai Lama took charge of the search for his rebirth. This began the tradition of successive older Panchen Lamas and Dalai Lamas acting as mentors for the younger and determining the next lama’s rebirth.

Under the Great Fifth’s governance, the territory of Tibet expanded to include most of the Tibetan plateau. He and his advisers organized a functional bureaucracy, including a tax and census system. The nation forged by the 5th Dalai Lama survived into the 20th century.

The Great Deception

In 1679, the Great Fifth appointed a new Desi, Sangye Gyatso, and announced he was retiring from public life. The Great Fifth died three years later, at the age of 65.

What happened next was one of the most remarkable, and controversial, episodes in Tibetan history.

Desi Sangye Gyatso kept the Great Fifth’s death a secret for 15 years, while the 6th Dalai Lama secretly was identified and prepared for his position. According to some accounts, this was done at the request of the Great Fifth. Others think it was entirely the Desi’s idea.

In any event, the deception was carried out masterfully. People were told the Dalai Lama was in retreat and could not be disturbed. Sometimes his presence was suggested by laying his empty robes on his throne. When a face-to-face meeting was unavoidable, an elderly monk who bore a resemblance to the Great Fifth played the role.

The obvious reason for the deception was to prevent a power struggle that would throw Tibet back into political chaos. Some historians think there was concern the increasingly powerful Qing court in Beijing might try to interfere with the identification of the 6th Dalai Lama.

The deception worked. In 1697, the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama was announced and the 6th Dalai Lama was enthroned. The Great Fifth finally passed into history.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

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