The First Four Dalai Lamas

Gendun Drub (1391-1474), who posthumously received the title ‘First Dalai Lama’, met Je Tsongkhapa when he was twenty years old and became one of his foremost disciples. Gendun Drub was a very pure spiritual practitioner, and renowned for combining study and practice. He spent more than twenty years in meditation retreat.

Although one of the youngest of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples, Gendun Drub became one of the strongest upholders of the Ganden Tradition. With great energy, organisational skill and leadership ability he established the famous Tashi Lhunpo Monastery – the future seat of the lineage of the Panchen Lamas. In this and in many other ways Gendun Drub worked to secure the future protection and development of the Ganden Tradition. He died at the age of 84, seated in meditation.

Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542), whose recognition as the Second Dalai Lama was also posthumous, spent his whole life dedicated to upholding and spreading Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition. In 1512 he became the abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, in 1517 the abbot of Drepung Monastery, and in 1525 the abbot of Sera Monastery. While at Drepung Monastery he built a residence known as ‘Ganden Phodrang’, also known as the ‘Lower Residence’, which became the principal residence of the Dalai Lamas until the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama. Having spread the teachings of Je Tsongkhapa throughout Central Tibet, he passed away in Drepung after a brief illness.

After Gendun Gyatso passed away, the high Lamas of Drepung set out in search of his reincarnation. They found a young boy, who was named Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588). He became greatly respected not only as a scholar and meditator but also as a negotiator of peace between factions of the Gelug and Kagyu traditions who were fighting at that time. Like his predecessor, he was so highly respected by his fellow monks that he was in turn elected abbot of both Drepung and Sera monasteries.

His fame eventually reached Mongolia and particularly Altan Khan – the leader of the Mongols and grandson of Dayan Khan, a descendant of Kublai Khan. Upon Altan Khan’s invitations, Sonam Gyatso visited Mongolia in 1578. On hearing Sonam Gyatso’s teachings, Altan Khan converted to Buddhism. During his three-year visit Sonam Gyatso taught Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings throughout Mongolia, ordained thousands of Mongolians and brought an end to animal sacrifice and other inhumane practices there. Altan Khan conferred on Sonam Gyatso the title ‘Dalai Lama’, ‘dalai’ being a Mongolian word for ‘ocean’, indicating that Sonam Gyatso’s good qualities were as extensive as the ocean. Thus Sonam Gyatso became known as the Dalai Lama, with his previous reincarnations receiving the title retrospectively.

The Fourth Dalai Lama Yonten Gyatso (1589-1616) is unique in being the only Mongolian Dalai Lama, the grandson of Altan Khan. Attendants of the late Third Dalai Lama as well as representatives of the three great Gelugpa monasteries – Drepung, Sera and Ganden – travelled to Mongolia to confirm the reincarnation. At the age of twelve, Yonten Gyatso moved to Drepung to undergo religious training and at the age of nineteen was installed on the throne of the Ganden Phodrang at Drepung Monastery. Yonten Gyatso later became the abbot of Drepung and then Sera monasteries, but only for a short while. He died in 1616, at the age of only 27.

Until this time, the concept of a Dalai Lama with supreme political or even religious authority over all of Tibet did not exist. The first three Dalai Lamas were held in high regard as pure spiritual teachers.

The fame of the ‘Third’ had spread throughout Mongolia, and he had received a Mongolian term of respect as well as the patronage of a strong military power. But there was no ‘God-King’, no one embodying the union of religious and political power, in these early Dalai Lamas. There was no institution of the Dalai Lama: the Dalai Lamas were more usually known as ‘the reincarnations of the Lower Residence’, and regarded as a lineage of famous reincarnate Gelugpa Lamas from Drepung who had simply been given an additional title by Mongolian patrons.

Through their activities of teaching and spreading the tradition of Je Tsongkhapa, and their exemplary lives of pure moral discipline and spiritual practice, these first four Dalai Lamas fulfilled their main responsibility of upholding the teachings of the Ganden Tradition.

Initially, the Ganden Tradition was not mixed with the politics of Tibet, but later this tradition gave rise to some of the most political lamas in Tibetan history: namely the Fifth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dalai Lamas. As John Powers remarks in Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism:

‘… the fortunes of the Gélukpa order rose quickly, mainly because it continued to produce an impressive number of eminent scholars and tantric adepts. Another factor in its success was its initial reluctance to become involved in Tibetan politics. Instead, for several centuries after the death of Tsong Khapa, the Gélukpa order was mainly renowned for its strict adherence to monastic discipline, its accomplished scholars, and its intensive meditative training.

‘This attitude of aloofness towards politics was not to last, however.’43