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The 5th Dalai Lama

A Biography of the Great Fifth

By

Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama

Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama

Public Domain

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.

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