The Sixth and Seventh Dalai Lamas

The sequence of events following the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama (in 1682) was most unusual. The Dalai Lama had appointed a young man named Sangye Gyatso as his Regent. Sangye Gyatso had previously been an attendant of the Dalai Lama, and had received a thorough grounding in religious and political matters. But he may have had an even closer relationship to the Dalai Lama: as the Tibetan historian Shakabpa remarks, ‘Some scholars have made the statement that Sangye Gyatso was believed to have been the natural son of the fifth Dalai Lama.’73

The young Regent concealed the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama for fifteen years, by announcing that he had gone into meditation retreat for an unspecified period of time and could not be disturbed. A monk from Namgyal Dratsang Monastery was ordered to take the Dalai Lama’s place by residing in the Potala palace and engaging in the regular routines that the Dalai Lama would have followed. Shakabpa says of this bizarre situation:

‘… the Namgyal Dratsang monk soon tired of his forced imprisonment and made an effort to escape from the duties of impersonation. He had to be beaten sometimes, and at others bribed. Indeed, it could not have been pleasant for him to remain within the walls of the Potala under those conditions for fifteen years.’74

Even so, the Namgyal Dratsang monk was relatively fortunate:

‘In his frenzied determination to maintain the secret, Desi [Regent] Sangyay is said to have murdered both the medium of the Nechung oracle Tsewang Palbar and the latter’s mother for getting wind of the secret during Desi’s frequent consultation with the oracle in the nerve-wracking suspense of running the Tibetan administrative show without the presence of the Dalai Lama.’75

The building of the Potala palace, the supreme symbol of the Dalai Lama’s power and of his association with Avalokiteshvara, was finally completed in 1695. Soon afterwards the Regent announced that the Fifth Dalai Lama had in fact died in 1682 and that his reincarnation was already thirteen years old! Regent Sangye Gyatso was later executed by the Mongol leader Lhazang Khan.76

Those fifteen years of deception, however, were not as shocking as the behaviour and lifestyle of the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, which nearly destroyed the institution itself:

‘Because of this one reincarnation [the Sixth Dalai Lama] in the whole chain, there has been some vague scepticism about even the authenticity of this Institution …
‘Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706) lived for only 24 years but even during this short span of life he had created a sensation by the kind of life he led which almost shook the very foundation of this unique system.’77

One of the main reforms made by Je Tsongkhapa was strict adherence to the monastic rules set down by Buddha, but the Sixth Dalai Lama rebelled against this very religious tradition he was supposed to uphold. Tsangyang Gyatso favoured a frivolous life of sports, drinking, women and late nights of carousing. As Grunfeld comments:

‘Tsangyang Gyatso … has come to be known among Tibetans as the “Merry One”, and not without just cause, for he devoted himself more to debauchery than to religious pursuits … He is fondly remembered for his poetry, which constitutes almost the entire non-religious literature of Tibet.’78

The appeals of his Spiritual Guide, Panchen Lama Losang Yeshe, to focus on religious study and practice were to no avail. The young Dalai Lama, swayed by the pleasures of ordinary life, instead told his Spiritual Guide that he wished to renounce his vows.79 As had been necessary with the Fifth Dalai Lama, the religious leaders of his time implored him to follow the religious path set forth by Buddha:

‘The Dalai Lama was … approached by the abbots of the big three monasteries [Drepung, Sera and Ganden], by Desi [Regent] Taktse and by Lhazang Khan, … the grandson of Gushri Khan, all of whom pleaded with the Dalai Lama not to renounce his Getsul [novice monk] vows; but their pleas were of no avail.’80

Such behaviour by a senior religious figure was unacceptable, and was far from what his Mongolian patrons expected. When all attempts at persuasion had failed, Lhazang Khan marched into Lhasa and took full political control. He summoned the Dalai Lama to his court and castigated him for his numerous failings. Together with the Manchu Chinese Emperor he decided to depose and exile this disgraceful Dalai Lama, and his military might forced the Dalai Lama to acquiesce. Enroute to his place of exile, the young Tsangyang Gyatso ‘mysteriously’ died, probably being assassinated.

Lhazang Khan then publicly put forth another monk, Ngawang Yeshe Gyatso, as the true Sixth Dalai Lama and enthroned him at the Potala palace. However, the majority of Tibetans did not support Lhazang Khan’s choice. When news arrived that a reincarnation of the late Sixth Dalai Lama had been found in a young child named Kelsang Gyatso, the Manchu Chinese recognised the potential political advantage in controlling this young boy and took him under their protection at Kumbum Monastery. Throughout all this turmoil, the majority of Tibetans still maintained their faith in Tsangyang Gyatso as a most unusual upholder of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition.

As a result of the actions of Regent Sangye Gyatso and the Sixth Dalai Lama, the political power that the Fifth Dalai Lama had so ruthlessly gained was lost, first to the Mongolians and then to the Chinese, through the Manchus. Lhazang Khan soon found himself in conflict with another Mongolian tribe, the Dzungars, who successfully conquered Lhasa and then killed Lhazang Khan himself. Once in control of Lhasa they deposed and imprisoned Lhazang Khan’s chosen Dalai Lama, Yeshe Gyatso, and executed many lamas and political officials who had supported Lhazang.

The Tibetans petitioned the Dzungars to bring the true Dalai Lama to Lhasa, but the Manchu Chinese would not release the young Kelsang Gyatso (1708-1757) to the Mongol Dzungars. The Regent at that time, Taktse Shabdrung, and a number of Tibetan officials then sent the Manchu Chinese a letter saying that they recognised Kelsang Gyatso as the Dalai Lama. The Manchu Chinese Emperor took this political bait and confirmed that Kelsang Gyatso was the ‘Seventh’ Dalai Lama. He presented Kelsang Gyatso with a golden seal that read ‘Seal of the Sixth Dalai Lama’, and thus avoided the question of whether the two previous Sixth Dalai Lamas had been true incarnations or not.81

Because of the increasing unpopularity of the Dzungar regime, and frustration with the Dzungars’ inability to bring them their Dalai Lama, the Tibetans sided with the Manchu Chinese and forcibly drove out the Dzungars. Thus in 1720 the Manchu Chinese escorted Kelsang Gyatso to Lhasa where at the age of only twelve he was enthroned as the Seventh Dalai Lama, but without temporal power. The Manchu Chinese set up a new form of government in Tibet, with a council of ministers replacing the previously all-powerful Regent.82

However, in 1728 one of the newly elected ministers, Pholhanas, violently overpowered his fellow ministers and took full control of Tibet. Three ministers and fourteen of their colleagues were executed just outside the Potala, where their bodies were sliced into small pieces. The father of the Seventh Dalai Lama had been a supporter of the executed ministers, and so he and the Dalai Lama were sent into exile for seven years.83 Pholhanas ruled Tibet until 1747, while the Dalai Lama remained in the background:

‘During the nineteen years he had ruled Tibet, there had been uninterrupted peace and prosperity throughout the countryside. He had allied himself firmly with the Manchu Emperors and was able to exert his influence on the Dalai Lama himself.’84

Pholhanas was succeeded by his youngest son, Gyemey Namgyal, who sought to re-establish the Dzungar Mongols as allies in order to drive the Manchu Chinese out of Tibet. Learning of his plan, the Manchu Chinese in Lhasa killed him. In 1751 the Dalai Lama him- self was given full spiritual and temporal powers over Tibet, but he passed away only shortly thereafter in 1757.85

As Shakabpa remarks of the Seventh Dalai Lama’s life:

‘He was a scholarly man. His political life had been marked by difficulties. Only towards the end of his life, did he actually exercise temporal power. Although overshadowed by the political figures of those violent times, the seventh Dalai Lama has been acknowledged superior to the other Dalai Lamas on religious grounds, because of his piety and scholarly achievements.’86