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The 6th Dalai Lama

Poet and Playboy?

By

Tsangyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama

Tsangyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama

Public Domain

The 6th Dalai Lama's life story is a curiosity to us today. He received ordination as the most powerful lama in Tibet only to turn his back on monastic life. As a young adult he spent evenings in taverns with his friends and enjoyed sexual relations with women. He is sometimes called the "playboy" Dalai Lama.

However, a closer look at His Holiness Tsangyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama, shows us a young man who was sensitive and intelligent, even if undisciplined. After a childhood locked away in a country monastery with hand-picked tutors, his assertion of independence is understandable. The violent end of his life makes his story a tragedy, not a joke.

Prologue

The story of the 6th Dalai Lama starts with his predecessor, His Holiness Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama. The "Great Fifth" lived in a time of volatile political upheaval. He persevered through adversity and unified Tibet under his rule as the first of the Dalai Lamas to be political and spiritual leaders of Tibet.

Near the end of his life, the 5th Dalai Lama appointed a young man named Sangye Gyatso as his new Desi, an official who managed most of the Dalai Lama's political and governing duties. With this appointment the Dalai Lama also announced that he was withdrawing from public life to focus on meditation and writing. Three years later, he died.

Sangye Gyatso and a few co-conspirators kept the 5th Dalai Lama's death a secret for 15 years. Accounts differ as to whether this deception was at the 5th Dalai Lama's request or was Sangye Gyatso's idea. In any event, the deception averted possible power struggles and allowed for a peaceful transition to the rule of the 6th Dalai Lama.

The Choice

The boy identified as the Great Fifth's rebirth was Sanje Tenzin, born in 1683 to noble family that lived in the border lands near Bhutan. The search for him had been carried out in secret. When his identity was confirmed, the boy and his parents were taken to Nankartse, a scenic area about 100 kilometers from Lhasa. The family spent the next 12 years in seclusion while the boy was tutored by lamas appointed by Sangye Gyatso.

In 1697 the death of the Great Fifth finally was announced, and 14-year-old Sanje Tenzin was brought in great fanfare to Lhasa to be enthroned as His Holiness the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, meaning "Ocean of Divine Song." He moved into the just-completed Potala Palace to begin his new life.

The teenager's studies continued, but as time passed he showed less and less interest in them. As the day approached for his full monk's ordination he balked, then renounced his novice ordination. He began to visit taverns at night and was seen staggering drunkenly through the streets of Lhasa with his friends. He dressed in the silk clothes of a nobleman. He kept a tent outside Potala Palace where he would bring young women.

Enemies Near and Far

At this time China was ruled by the Kangxi Emperor, one of the most formidable rulers of China's long history. Tibet, through its alliance with fierce Mongol warriors, posed a potential military threat to China. To soften this alliance, the Emperor sent word to Tibet's Mongol allies that Sangye Gyatso's concealment of the Great Fifth's death was an act of betrayal. The Desi was trying to rule Tibet himself, the Emperor said.

Indeed, Sangye Gyatso had become accustomed to managing Tibet's affairs on his own, and he was having a hard time letting go, especially when the Dalai Lama was mostly interested in wine, women and song.

The Great Fifth's chief military ally had been a Mongol tribal chief named Gushi Khan. Now a grandson of Gushi Khan decided it was time to take affairs in Lhasa in hand and claim his grandfather's title, king of Tibet. The grandson, Lhasang Khan, eventually gathered an army and took Lhasa by force. Sangye Gyatso went into exile, but Lhasang Khan arranged his assassination, in 1701. Monks sent to warn the former Desi found his decapitated body.

The End

Now Lhasang Khan turned his attention to the dissolute Dalai Lama. In spite of his outrageous behavior he was a charming young man, popular with Tibetans. The would-be king of Tibet began to see the Dalai Lama as a threat to his authority.

Lhasang Khan sent a letter to the Kangxi Emperor asking if the Emperor would support deposing the Dalai Lama. The Emperor instructed the Mongol to bring the young lama to Beijing; then a decision would be made what to do about him.

Then the warlord found Gelugpa lamas willing to sign an agreement that the Dalai Lama was not fulfilling his spiritual responsibilities. Having covered his legal bases, Lhasang Khan had the Dalai Lama seized and taken to an encampment outside Lhasa. Remarkably, monks were able to overwhelm the guards and take the Dalai Lama back to Lhasa, to Drepung Monastery.

Then Lhasang fired cannon at the monastery, and Mongol horsemen broke through defenses and rode into the monastery grounds. The Dalai Lama decided to surrender to Lhasang to avoid further violence. He left the monastery with some devoted friends who insisted on coming with him. Lhasang Khan accepted the Dalai Lama's surrender and then had his friends slaughtered.

There is no record of exactly what caused the 6th Dalai Lama's death, only that he died in November 1706 as the traveling party approached China's central plain. He was 24 years old.

The Poet

The 6th Dalai Lama's chief legacy are his poems, said to be among the loveliest in Tibetan literature. Many are about love, longing, and heartbreak. Some are erotic. And some reveal a bit of his feelings about his position and his life, such as this one:
Yama, mirror of my karma,
Ruler of the underworld:
Nothing went right in this life;
Please let it go right in the next.

For more on the life of the 6th Dalai Lama and the history of Tibet, see Tibet: A History by Sam van Schaik (Oxford University Press, 2011).

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