The Fifth Dalai Lama

The institution of the Dalai Lama as we currently know it – mixing Dharma with politics as a method of government – begins with the Dalai Lama popularly known as the ‘Great Fifth’. As a consequence of a complicated series of political-historical developments, as well as open warfare, ‘the Fifth Dalai Lama made the institution of the Dalai Lama the core symbol of the state of Tibet.’44

Due to the rapid development and growing popularity of the Gelugpas, the kings of the Tsang region of Tibet, who were followers of the Karma Kagyu Tradition, felt increasing animosity towards the Gelugpas and subjected them to periods of persecution.45

In the years immediately before and following the death of the Fourth Dalai Lama, hostilities between the Gelugpas and the supporters of the king of Tsang intensified. It was into this environment of political and religious conflict that the Fifth Dalai Lama, Losang Gyatso (1617-1682) was born.

There were three candidates for the throne of the Fifth Dalai Lama. One was Dragpa Gyaltsen, whose later fame and stature as a great spiritual master were perceived as a threat by the Fifth Dalai Lama. The Fifth Dalai Lama’s autobiography (Du ku la’i go zang in Tibetan) says that the Panchen Lama Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen (Losang Chogyen) performed a divination and chose him – Losang Gyatso – as the reincarnate Dalai Lama, although no date is given for the event and it is not even mentioned in the Panchen Lama’s autobiography.46

Many doubts have been expressed about the confirmatory examinations made to test the authenticity of the Fifth Dalai Lama, which were carried out by a disciple of the Dalai Lama’s Regent, Sonam Rabten. The nature of the relationship between the Dalai Lama and his Regent, as well as certain statements made by the latter which are recorded in the Fifth Dalai Lama’s own autobiography, have fuelled speculation concerning the authenticity of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s recognition.47

In any event, the times into which the Fifth Dalai Lama was born were so unstable politically that his discovery and whereabouts were kept secret for some time. In 1635, when the Fifth Dalai Lama was eighteen years old, the leader of the Chogthu Mongols, supporters of the ruler of Tsang, sent ten thousand troops ‘to wipe out the Gelug-pa sect’.48 This eventually led to war between the Chogthu Mongol armies and the Qoshot Mongol armies of Gushri Khan, supporters of the Fifth Dalai Lama, each intent on supporting their respective Buddhist tradition. Gushri Khan emerged victorious and in 1638 at a ceremony held in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa he was placed on a throne and given the title ‘Religious-King and Holder of the Buddhist Faith’.49 Soon afterwards a letter sent by the pro-Bön chief of Beri to the ruler of Tsang accidentally fell into Gelugpa hands. Part of this letter read:

‘It is a great disappointment that our allies, the Chogthu tribe, have been wiped out. However, next year, I shall raise an army in Kham and accompany it to Ü [the central region of Tibet, around Lhasa]. At the same time, you must bring in your army from Tsang. Together we will completely eliminate the Ge-lug-pa sect, so no trace of it will ever be found.’50

When this message was intercepted and passed to Gushri Khan he immediately went to the Dalai Lama, intent upon leading his army into battle, first against the chief of Beri and then against the ruler of Tsang. In the religious war that ensued the chief of Beri was captured and executed and then:

‘Gushri [Khan]… attacked the Tsangpa King himself at his home base in Shigatse. The Geluk sect sent its own force of supporters and monks to assist him and in 1642 they captured Shigatse. The King of Tibet (the Tsangpa King) was executed.

‘Gushri Khan gave supreme authority over all of Tibet to the Fifth Dalai Lama.’51

Having vanquished his enemies in Tsang, there were still other tasks to be accomplished if Losang Gyatso was to gain full power and control over Tibet. In his paper, The Sovereign Power of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Zuiho Yamaguchi writes:

‘The first step along the path whereby the fifth Dalai Lama, no more than an incarnate lama of ’Bras-spungs [Drepung] monastery, came to view himself as king of Tibet and assumed the reins of government was the construction of the Potala.’52

On the advice of a Nyingma oracle, the Dalai Lama undertook the building of a massive fortress that would tower above the city of Lhasa and would secure his position in the event that the Mongols were to withdraw their military support. John Powers further explains the significance of the Potala Palace:

‘During his reign, the connection between the Dalai Lamas and Avalokiteśvara was stressed, and this was reflected in the construction of the Potala, … The name that was chosen for the palace was taken from a mountain in southern India that is associated with Śiva in his incarnation as Lokeśvara, or “Lord of the World”, who is considered by Tibetans to be an emanation of Avalokiteśvara. This association helped to establish the Dalai Lamas as incarnations of a buddha, and they are regarded as such by Tibetan Buddhists, who have traditionally looked upon the Potala as the residence of Avalokiteśvara in human form.’53

By destroying the opposing forces in Tsang and building the Potala Palace, the Fifth Dalai Lama secured some measure of political power. But, to secure supreme religious authority for himself as well, there were other obstacles to be removed. In the feudalistic society of those days, a sovereign’s power could only survive if it was unchallenged and without rivals. Like the custom of medieval monarchies worldwide, rivals were murdered and all opposition to the ruler was crushed brutally.

This is clearly illustrated in the case of Tulku or Ngatrul Dragpa Gyaltsen. Yamaguchi continues:

‘The Fifth Dalai Lama was an incarnate lama (sprul sku [tulku]) of ’Bras-spungs [Drepung] monastery, but there was another incarnate lama at ’Bras-spungs monastery, namely, sprul sku gZims-khang-gong-ma [the Tulku of the Upper Residence, Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen], regarded as a reincarnation of Panchen bSod-nams-grags-pa [Panchen Sonam Dragpa] (1478-1544). For the Dalai Lama to become the supreme religious authority in all Tibet, it was imperative that only a single incarnate lama in the person of the Dalai Lama preside over ’Bras-spungs [Drepung] monastery from his headquarters at dGa’-ldan [Ganden] Palace.’54

Dragpa Gyaltsen was born in 1619, in the 10th month of the Earth Sheep year according to the Tibetan calendar. He was born in Tolung, into the prominent Gaykhasa family. At first he was considered a possible reincarnation of the Fourth Dalai Lama, but at the age of six he was instead recognised by Panchen Losang Chogyen as the reincarnation of Ngawang Sonam Geleg Pelsang (1594-1615). Accordingly he was enthroned formally as the reincarnate Lama of the so-called ‘Upper Residence’ of Drepung Monastery (the ‘Lower Residence’ being that of the Dalai Lamas). Being the reincarnate Lama of the Upper Residence meant that his reincarnation lineage went back to Panchen Sonam Dragpa (Tutor of the Third Dalai Lama) and because of his accomplishments of knowledge and spiritual proficiency, Dragpa Gyaltsen was considered equal in spiritual status to the Fifth Dalai Lama.

A graphic illustration of their equal spiritual status can be seen in a 17th century thangkha painting of the Buddhist Deity Palden Lhamo (Shri Devi), reproduced in Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet. The description of this painting reads:

‘In the upper left corner are three Gelukpa lamas, each with an identifying inscription. … the central figure is Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen (later made the first Panchen Lama by the Fifth Dalai Lama), the lama to his right is the Fifth Dalai Lama, and the lama to his left is Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen, another reincarnate lama of Drepung monastic university.’

In this painting it is clear that the Fifth Dalai Lama and Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen have equal status as disciples of the Panchen Lama. The explanation of this painting also reveals how political considerations would soon take precedence even in a religious painting:

‘[The painting can be dated]… with certainty to before 1642. Because the Panchen Lama is in the center and Drakpa Gyaltsen is present, it is clearly before the death of the latter, and before the rise to eminence of the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1642, after which time he would have been given the central position.’55

Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen was two years younger than the Dalai Lama. His spiritual prominence, however, seemed to exceed that of the Dalai Lama. Pilgrims coming from Mongolia and the eastern Tibetan borders of Kham would first pay their respects to Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen and then proceed to the Dalai Lama, sometimes making more offerings to Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen than to the Dalai Lama; and when speaking of the Upper and Lower Residences, people often viewed both in equal terms.56

This was unacceptable to Sonam Rabten (who acted as the Fifth Dalai Lama’s principal executive) and to the officials of the Dalai Lama’s recently-established government (the Tibetan government is still called the Ganden Phodrang, after the Dalai Lama’s residence in Drepung Monastery). Because of his strong resentment and hatred, Sonam Rabten and his associates began a campaign of persecution against the unsuspecting Tulku and his family.

Norbu, the governor of Tsang, was a close relative of Sonam Rabten, and participated in these intrigues against the Gaykhasa family with the indirect supervision, or at least approval, of the latter. He secretly invited the Mongols to create anarchy in the Tolung area, and contrived to leave the younger members of the Gaykhasa family with no option but to fight. In the event, a number of the family were killed. Norbu had intended this, and in 1638 he took the opportunity to seize their lands and property.

Another incident occurred in 1639, just a year later. In an unprecedented scheme to isolate Dragpa Gyaltsen further, Sonam Rabten personally tampered with the documentary records concerning the Tulku’s predecessors, and destroyed some of them. Sonam Rabten regarded this as necessary because Dragpa Gyaltsen’s prominence existed partly because of the claims that he was the reincarnation of famous Buddhist masters.

The Panchen Lama Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen (1570-1662), the Spiritual Guide of both Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen and the Fifth Dalai Lama, had written a prayer listing Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen’s previous incarnations as including Venerable Manjushri, Mahasiddha Bhiravapa [Biwawa or Virupa], Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen, Buton Rinchen Drub, Duldzin Dragpa Gyaltsen, Panchen Sonam Dragpa, Sonam Yeshe Wangpo and Sonam Geleg Pelsang. The same line of predecessors has since been confirmed by Kyabje Phabongkhapa Dechen Nyingpo (1878-1941), and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche (1900-1981).

According to the Fifth Dalai Lama’s own account in his autobiography, Sonam Rabten’s tampering with the names of Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen’s predecessors took place in 1639 on the 15th day of the fifth Tibetan month. Sonam Rabten said that the name of one of the recognised predecessors, Buton Rinchen Drub, had been misunderstood by Panchen Sonam Dragpa when Panchen Sonam Dragpa was writing the colophon of one of his texts. This being so, Sonam Rabten said, Buton’s name should be removed from the common supplication prayer to Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen. Because of his tampering with the records in this way, even the name of Panchen Sonam Dragpa could not be included in the prayer.

This was clearly an act of defamation on the part of Sonam Rabten, because the Panchen Lama Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen’s own prayer composed to the Tulku stated the Tulku to be an incarnation of both Buton Rinchen Drub and Panchen Sonam Dragpa. The fact that Sonam Rabten disposed of documents that he wanted to suppress is clearly stated even in the Fifth Dalai Lama’s autobiography.

That Sonam Rabten openly lied to achieve his ends is clear evidence of his efforts to isolate and denigrate Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen. Later, in 1642, the Tulku’s status was officially ‘downgraded’, again by decision of Sonam Rabten. In these and other ways Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen was persecuted for over ten years, and was driven more and more into isolation.

Regardless of these circumstances, Dragpa Gyaltsen continued his spiritual engagements. Besides taking the Fifth Dalai Lama as one of his spiritual mentors, the Tulku honoured and made copious material offerings to him. On a number of occasions, when the Dalai Lama was departing from or returning to Lhasa, Dragpa Gyaltsen would personally see him off, or give welcoming receptions accordingly.

Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen suddenly became ill on the 25th day of the fourth Tibetan month of the ‘Fire Monkey’ year, 1656. Using the illness as a cover, Sonam Rabten and Norbu contrived several attempts on Dragpa Gyaltsen’s life. Finally, on the 13th day of the fifth month, Dragpa Gyaltsen was brutally murdered in his residence. To allay suspicion of murder, silk scarves were stuffed deeply down his throat. In this way a great and pure spiritual being, loved and venerated by the mass of ordinary Tibetans, was made to suffer humiliation and death at the hands of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s ministers.57 Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen was 38 years old when he died.

As Kundeling Rinpoche says:

‘This was the most scandalous event of an unprecedented nature that ever took place in the history of Tibet in general and the Gelugpas in particular. Judging from these events, many conclusions can be drawn about the nature of the Dalai Lama’s own position, the role of his aides, and the monopoly of the newly established Ganden Phodrang Government.’58

Some writers have tried to attribute sole blame for the murder to the Fifth Dalai Lama’s ministers, especially Sonam Rabten, and claim that the Fifth Dalai Lama did not know of their actions, but as Yamaguchi writes: ‘it is patently clear from his undisguised criticism of Panchen Sonam Dragpa in his Chronicle of Tibet, written in 1643, that the Dalai Lama detested the incarnate lama.’59 After Dragpa Gyaltsen’s death, the Fifth Dalai Lama ordered a stop to the lineage of reincarnations of this great lama.

Many Gelugpa lamas believe that Dragpa Gyaltsen, and not Losang Gyatso, was the actual reincarnation of the Fourth Dalai Lama and that when Dragpa Gyaltsen died he became a Protector of Je Tsongkhapa’s Ganden Tradition. Indeed, before his death, Dragpa Gyaltsen himself predicted that he would become the Dharma Protector, Dorje Shugden.60

When giving the blessing empowerment61 of Dorje Shugden to over five thousand disciples in England on 25 July 2009, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explained:

‘First you should know who Dorje Shugden is. Dorje Shugden is an enlightened Deity who is the manifestation of the wisdom Buddha Je Tsongkhapa. It is commonly believed that after the death of the great Lama Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen he appeared as Dorje Shugden. The first Panchen Lama, who was the living Buddha Amitabha, listed some of Dragpa Gyaltsen’s former incarnations, which are, during Buddha’s time Bodhisattva Manjushri, and later Mahasiddha Biwawa, the great Sakya Pandita and Buton Rinchen Drub. These holy beings were also Je Tsongkhapa’s former incarnations.

‘Later, the great Yogi Kelsang Khedrub and many other Lamas including Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche listed Dorje Shugden’s former incarnations, which are the same holy beings I have just listed from Bodhisattva Manjushri through to Buton Rinchen Drub. This proves that Dorje Shugden and Je Tsongkhapa are the same mental continuum, which means one person but different aspect. For these valid reasons I say that Dorje Shugden is a manifestation of the wisdom Buddha Je Tsongkhapa – no doubt.

‘Je Tsongkhapa himself appears as Dorje Shugden to prevent his doctrine of the Ganden Oral Lineage from degenerating. He does this by pacifying obstacles, gathering necessary conditions and bestowing powerful blessings upon practitioners of this doctrine.

‘If we continually rely upon Dorje Shugden with faith, he will care for us as a mother cares for her child. He will guide us to the correct path, the liberating path. He will pacify our obstacles and gather necessary conditions for us, and we will receive his powerful blessings through which our wisdom, compassion and spiritual power will increase. Through this we can easily make progress along the quick path to enlightenment that is shown to us by Je Tsongkhapa.’62

Later in his life, the Fifth Dalai Lama realised that he had misunderstood the real nature of Dorje Shugden and he began to engage in the practice of Dorje Shugden and composed prayers to him (see Chapter 5). In these, the first prayers ever written to Dorje Shugden, he invites Dorje Shugden to come from the Dharmakaya, clearly indicating that he had come to regard Dorje Shugden as an enlightened being.63

Having destroyed the life of Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen and established his religious authority over Tibet, the Fifth Dalai Lama then moved to establish his political authority. One remaining obstacle in his path to complete supremacy that he perceived lay in control over the power to appoint the Regent, which position had been conferred upon Sonam Rabten by Gushri Khan himself. Gushri Khan and Sonam Rabten died at about the same time and the dispute that ensued amongst the Mongolians as to who would inherit Gushri Khan’s authority provided the Dalai Lama with the opportunity he needed to seize the right to appoint the future Regent himself.64

In this matter, the main obstacles to the Dalai Lama’s attainment of absolute power over Tibet were Norbu and Gona Shagpa (sGo- sna-shag-pa). They were ‘matrilineal relations’ of the former Regent Sonam Rabten. Although Norbu expected to become Regent after Sonam Rabten’s death, both as a close relative and in view of his ca- reer and positions held until then, ‘if the fifth Dalai Lama had readily allowed this, it would have been tantamount to endorsing Governor Nor-bu’s succession … in a way over which he had no control, and because the regent’s authority had been conferred by Guši Khan, he would have been publicly acknowledging a historical fact that had been beyond his control.’65 This would have diminished the Dalai Lama’s power. Also, by eliminating Norbu he would be getting rid of the one person who could prove that the Fifth Dalai Lama was behind the murder of Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen.

The Dalai Lama began a ruthless and cynical campaign against these two formerly important figures, until eventually, fearing for their lives, they both took refuge under the protection of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama. Hearing of this, the Dalai Lama dispatched troops and threatened to attack the monastery. The Panchen Lama, who was the Dalai Lama’s own Spiritual Guide, together with the principal lamas of Sera, Drepung and Ganden monasteries, requested that Norbu be forgiven, but the Dalai Lama’s response was defiant:

‘These 130,000 households of Tibet were given only to me by the Upholder of the Teachings and Dharma-King (viz. Guši Khan), and they were not given so that I might share them with those two matrilineal relations.’66

In the end, the Dalai Lama’s plan of attack was not carried out, but the banishment of the ‘two matrilineal relations’ secured his sovereign power over all of Tibet. The Panchen Lama, one of the towering spiritual figures in the history of the Gelug Tradition, passed away in 1662, but the Fifth Dalai Lama did not even attend the funeral:

‘The Dalai Lama, now head of state, set out on a trip, claiming that his presence had been requested by the oracle at bSam-yas [Samye] monastery, and he sent only a rather inconspicuous envoy to attend the funeral of the great scholar who had been his teacher. It would appear that the deceased’s intercession on behalf of the “two matrilineal relations” had considerably angered him.’67

In recent years, scholars have begun to investigate the ‘myth of the Great Fifth’. For example, Elliot Sperling has remarked:

‘One may say with confidence that the Fifth Dalai Lama does not fit the standard image that many people today have of a Dalai Lama, particularly not the image of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.’68

An examination of some of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s own statements indicates just how far he was willing to go to eliminate those who opposed him. He is reported as telling one of Gushri Khan’s officers:

‘… “Relying on that particular virtue which encompasses the bodhisattva—i.e., thinking of oneself and others in an equal manner—has not held back strife. Thus, … nothing other than shame before others would come of it.” ’

And also:

‘Though we might take revenge, I … the cleric occupying the seat of the omniscient ones, would not appear as a disobedient monk.’69

By this the Dalai Lama meant that because of his exalted position the Tibetan people would not find fault in his actions even if the actions were not in accordance with Buddha’s teachings.

Shakabpa remarks that ‘he could be ruthless in stamping out a rebellion’ and quotes him as saying ‘… no pity should be wasted on a man who had to be executed for his crimes’.70 During a rebellion of the Karmapas in Tsang, the Dalai Lama issued the following orders:

‘[Of those in] the band of enemies, who have despoiled the duties entrusted to them:

Make the male lines like trees that have had their roots cut; Make the female lines like brooks that have dried up in winter,

Make the children and grandchildren like eggs smashed against cliffs,

Make the servants and followers like heaps of grass consumed by fire,

Make their dominion like a lamp whose oil has been exhausted,

In short, annihilate any traces of them, even their names.’71

With the Fifth Dalai Lama’s sovereignty encompassing all spiritual and temporal authority he became not only an autocrat, but also supreme master over life and death for the masses of ordinary Tibetans. His government would later exploit this position to its maximum. It is significant to note that the present Dalai Lama has often spoken of his close affinity with the Fifth Dalai Lama who as we have seen was so involved in war and political activity. A Tibetan Government official statement issued on 31 May 1996, quotes the Dalai Lama as saying:

‘I am a successor to the Great Fifth Dalai Lama and, likewise, have a unique karmic relationship with the previous Dalai Lama. I have therefore a duty to carry out the legacy of the Great Fifth and the 13th Dalai Lama.’72