The Eighth to Twelfth Dalai Lamas

It is already clear from the foregoing that there was, in fact, no consistent ‘God-King’ in the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. The first three were pure religious teachers, the Third gaining the admiration of the Mongols and for the first time receiving the title ‘Dalai Lama’ from the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan. The Fourth, Altan Khan’s grandson, was in Tibet for only 14 years and died at the relatively young age of 27. These first four Dalai Lamas were not interested in the political affairs of state, but concentrated instead on their main responsibility, which was to uphold and carry on the spiritual legacy of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition.

The Fifth Dalai Lama assumed full control of Tibet by ruthless means, disregarding the advice of his own Spiritual Guide in his ascension to power. In rejecting his monastic vows, the Sixth Dalai Lama also disregarded the advice of his Spiritual Guide, and had very little to do with either spiritual or political matters. The Seventh Dalai Lama, while setting an example of a pure spiritual practitioner, gave little leadership except in the last few years of his life. John Powers writes that after the death of the Seventh Dalai Lama:

‘… Tibet began a period of 130 years during which none of the Dalai Lamas assumed effective control. During this time, the country was ruled by a succession of regents, all of whom were Gélukpa monks. The eighth Dalai Lama, Jambel Gyatso, was uninterested in worldly affairs, and so although he lived to the age of forty-seven, the administration of the country was handled by regents.’87

The dominant myth about Tibet that is promulgated in the West is of a peaceful mountain kingdom that has always been led by the human incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion. On closer scrutiny it can be seen that the institution of the Dalai Lamas, which effectively began with the violent seizure of power by the Fifth Dalai Lama, showed a conspicuous lack of leadership until the twentieth century. In fact:

‘The Ninth-Twelfth Dalai Lamas played no notable part in the life of Tibet. Their lives are conspicuous for their brevity. Several of them died before they came of age to assume power or write anything.’88

There is much speculation about these ‘missing’ Dalai Lamas. Their premature deaths and the sheer ‘greed for power’ evident in Lhasa has led many historians ‘… to suspect foul play in the demise of these Dalai Lamas at such young ages.’89 What is certain is that for a long period of time the Dalai Lamas played no leading role in Tibetan political or even religious life. This was to change with the next two Dalai Lamas.