The Thirteenth Dalai Lama

The ‘Great Thirteenth’ Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso (1876-1933) assumed power in 1895 at the age of nineteen, and was to preside over a period of great political upheaval in Tibet. Sir Charles Bell, a British diplomat and friend and confidant of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, comments that in the early years of the Dalai Lama’s leader- ship the devotion of his people carried him through internal matters of state:

‘But in foreign politics he had to stand on his own feet. His ignorance led him astray; and the impetuosity and unyielding will, which were always strong ingredients in his character, pushed him still further on the road that led to disaster.

‘… Pathetic indeed was his ignorance as [to] how things were done outside his hermit land.’90

Concerned about the Dalai Lama’s growing connection with Russia apparent at that time, and interested in expanding their own colonial influence, the British invaded Tibet in 1904. The young Dalai Lama fled the invaders, escaping north into China where he remained in exile for four years.

In Beijing, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was granted an audience with the Empress Dowager. He was compelled to kneel before her, and he received the humiliating title ‘Our Loyal and Submissive Vice-Regent’. As Goldstein comments:

‘The Chinese had demonstrated clearly to the 13th Dalai Lama that he was subordinate to the emperor and that his position in Tibet was dependent on their goodwill. To the extremely proud Dalai Lama this must have been a very humiliating experience.’91

Not trusting him to be either loyal or submissive, China covertly dispatched an army of seven thousand men to march into Tibet, to ensure the Dalai Lama’s compliance. After presiding over the Chinese Emperor’s funeral, the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet, but this sojourn in his country was brief, for two months after his return the Chinese army entered Lhasa. The Dalai Lama this time fled south to India; and he was deposed by official decree from Beijing a few weeks later.92

In India, his former enemies the British treated him kindly but refused him any help to regain independence.93 So from exile in Kalimpong the Dalai Lama organised a clandestine War Department in Tibet to fight the Chinese. This department reported directly to him in Kalimpong and was responsible for buying arms and recruiting Tibetan soldiers. Even the Tibetan Kashag was left in the dark as to their activities.94

Eventually civil war broke out in China and the Chinese army was driven out of Tibet in 1912. The Tibetan historian, K. Dhondup, describes the scene in the ‘holy city’ of Lhasa at the time:

‘The monks of the three major monasteries and the local populace, including the fierce Banagshol Khampas joined the Tibetan army and their only weapons were stones, swords and spears … The Lhasa street was strewn with dead bodies of men, dogs, donkeys and horses … Each side displayed the severed head and hands of the other side to discourage each other.’95

Those Tibetans who were suspected of having collaborated with the Chinese were given rough treatment, including some members of the Kashag who were shot. The Kashag ceased to exist and the War Department became all-powerful, communicating directly to the Dalai Lama in Darjeeling.96 Through Sir Charles Bell, the British enjoined the Dalai Lama not to kill the Chinese remaining in Tibet.

‘At this the Dalai Lama was astounded and angry … he strongly stated that if the Chinese soldiers could kill to capture Tibet, Tibetans can and must take arms to defend Tibet.’97

Writing in 1931 of his return to Lhasa, the Dalai Lama said: ‘Religious services were held on behalf of the Faith and secular side of State Affairs. These ensured the full ripening of the evil deeds of the enemies and in consequence, …’ referring to the Chinese Revolution, ‘internal commotion broke out in their country and the time was changed.’98 His first tasks upon arriving home were to reward the heroes of the struggle and punish the collaborators. Guilty monks were banished into exile and Tengyeling Monastery, which had been pro-Chinese, was closed forever.99

Bell reports that the Dalai Lama received criticism from some Tibetans for this military activity, and he quotes the young prince of Sikkim: ‘It is a sin for a Buddhist to take a share in destroying life, a great sin for a lama, and a terribly great sin for the highest of all lamas.’100 Once again, this shows the nature of the ruling Lama’s Policy: the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was an ordained Buddhist monk who had the commitment not to harm others, including not to kill and not to cause people suffering. He therefore acted directly against the spiritual rules of Buddhism. Like the so-called Great Fifth, this is a shameful example in the world of a Buddhist monk who holds the position of high lama, a supposedly holy being.

In the years following this expulsion of the Chinese, the Dalai Lama became increasingly hungry for full Tibetan independence. He modernised certain aspects of Tibetan society, increased army recruitment and imported military equipment from abroad. He made efforts to demonstrate that Tibet was independent from China, and tried to foster relationships with the outside world. However his military aspirations met with considerable resistance, first from the Tibetan aristocracy and later from the monastic establishment. This issue increased the rift – as described in chapter one – between the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, partly because the new Tibetan army was to be funded by estate taxes, and a large portion of this burden fell upon Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama. As a result of this rift, in 1923 the Panchen Lama abruptly left Tibet for China.101

Throughout his life, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama followed mistaken advice and predictions from the State Oracle Nechung, (see Appendix 1), including those concerning Dorje Shugden practice. In the period between the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama until the time of the Thirteenth, the practice of Dorje Shugden flourished throughout Tibet; it was popular in monasteries and among lay communities alike. Motivated by jealousy and without giving any valid reasons the spirit medium, Nechung oracle, told the Thirteenth Dalai Lama that Dorje Shugden practice was harmful for the activities of the Tibetan government. Once more, out of mere grasping for the political power of government and without any valid evidence, the spiritual practice of Dorje Shugden was rejected by a Dalai Lama.

During the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s time, Kyabje Je Phabongkhapa was the most famous and influential lama who engaged practically in spreading the doctrine of the Wisdom Buddha Je Tsongkhapa throughout Tibet. It is said that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama told Je Phabongkhapa to stop promoting the practice of Dorje Shugden, but Je Phabongkhapa nevertheless continued to do so. One day, a government minister who was also a disciple of Je Phabongkhapa gave him secret information that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama planned to imprison Je Phabongkhapa if he did not stop spreading the Dorje Shugden practice. To prevent his disciples becoming discouraged, which would happen if he were imprisoned, Je Phabongkhapa went to see the Dalai Lama, verbally apologised in front of him and promised not to spread Dorje Shugden practice any more. From that time until the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s death, all Dorje Shugden practitioners, including Je Phabongkhapa himself, had to keep their practice of Dorje Shugden a secret.

Throughout the time of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, various foreign journalists, officials and explorers visited Tibet and were astounded by the atrocities that met them in place of their expectations of the supposed ‘Shangri-la’. They published accounts of what they saw, and from these works we can gain a more accurate insight into the actual brutality of the theocracy in Tibet and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s role in it.

In 1882, on his way to Lhasa, Sarat Chandra Das, an Indian Scholar, observed to his horror ‘in the market place of Tashi-Lhunpo, a party of prisoners loaded with chains, pinioned by wooden clogs, and in some cases blinded.’102

Sarat Chandra Das’ visit to Tibet had been organised by the Sinchen [or Senchen] Lama, who was the governor of Tsang. When it was revealed that Chandra Das was in fact a spy working for the British, his host was held responsible by the Lhasa government even though he had no prior knowledge of this.

‘Upon the Sinchen Lama they visited their anger in a fearful manner. His servants were taken – all except one – they were beaten, their hands and feet were cut off, their eyes were gouged out, and they were left to die in the streets of Tashi-Lhunpo….

‘A message was received from Lhasa to the effect that the Sinchen Lama must commit suicide. This he quietly refused to do. … This answer produced another peremptory demand that the Lama should lay violent hands upon himself. To this the Lama made no reply at all….

‘Thereafter Lhasa grew desperate. They sent a wicked man, a Kashmiri Mohammedan, … and the Sinchen Lama’s head was hacked from his body.

‘Nor was this all. Having destroyed the body, the hierarchy at Lhasa proceeded to annihilate the soul. No further reincarnation of the Sinchen Lama has been recognized from that day.’103

During the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s rule such brutality spared no person of any rank, and was extended to innocent family members. Goldstein gives the example of the Regent Demo Rinpoche who was thrown into jail and assassinated by order of the Thirteenth when the Nechung oracle supposedly uncovered a plot by the Regent to regain his former power.104 How did the Dalai Lama treat the alleged conspirators? Friend and confidant of the Dalai Lama, Sir Charles Bell tells of their fate:

‘Sharpened bamboos were driven under the finger-nails, a punishment introduced into Tibet by the Manchus. Numerous floggings were inflicted with rods of willow on the bared back and buttocks, each of a hundred lashes or more….

‘Various relatives were also punished; among others the wife of Jewel Long Life [Norbu Tsering]. She was a daughter of the noble family of Long Stone … But in spite of her high birth she was flogged and made to sit every day for a week in one of the main streets of Lhasa with her wrists manacled and a heavy board round her neck. She was afterwards sent into exile.’105

No suggestion was ever made that Jewel Long Life’s wife had had any part in the alleged conspiracy. But as Bell explains, even a witness would be tortured under the medieval justice system over which the Dalai Lama reigned:

‘The Tibetan criminal code is drastic. In addition to fines and imprisonment, floggings are frequent, not only of people after they have been convicted of an offence, but also of accused persons, and indeed witnesses, during the course of the trial. For serious offences, use is made of the pillory as well as of the cangue, which latter is a heavy square wooden board round the neck. Iron fetters are fastened on the legs of murderers and inveterate burglars. For very serious or repeated offences, such as murder, violent robbery, repeated thefts, or serious forgery, the hand may be cut off at the wrist, the nose sliced off, or even the eyes gouged out, the last more likely for some heinous political crime. In former days those convicted of murder were put into a leather sack, which was sewn up and thrown into a river.’106

As a summary of what he had witnessed, English writer Perceval Landon, who travelled through Tibet in 1903-04, wrote that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s ‘rule was signalised by numerous proscriptions, banishments, imprisonings, and torturings. Neither life nor property was safe for a moment.’107

‘Even an earthly manifestation of Avalokiteswara may carry things too far. Scandals and ill-feeling, however carefully repressed, will at length find a vent … At Lhasa, under the shadow of the walls of the Palace, people spoke little and with bated breath. But at Tashi-Lhunpo and Shigatse, far from the intrigues of Lhasa and the overwhelming influence of the three great monasteries, there was less reticence, and many tales were told of the overbearing ways and cruel acts of the absent Dalai Lama.’108

During his reign the Dalai Lama personally ordered the pun- ishments to be meted out for every serious criminal offence. Sir Charles Bell explains the process by which punishments would be ordered:

‘Perhaps there is a riot or other disturbance. The Ecclesiastical Court selects an ecclesiastical official, and the Cabinet selects one from the laity; these are to make an inquiry into the reason of the riot, and the punishment that should be inflicted. Their names are sent up to the Dalai Lama for his approval. In their findings they must agree; no divergence of opinion is permitted; the stronger will carries the day. Then they report through the cabinet, who propose different alternative orders, sending their report to the Prime Minister. The Dalai Lama puts his red hand-mark opposite the order he approves.’109

It seems fitting that someone with so much blood on his hands should seal others’ fate with a red hand-mark.

It is highly inappropriate that any Buddhist monk, and especially one carrying the reputation of being the embodiment of all the Buddhas’ compassion (Avalokiteshvara), should find torture and execution unavoidable.110 Bell remarked, ‘it must be admitted that the penalties inflicted on the chief offenders were, according to Western ideas, perhaps worse than death’.111

In a perverted interpretation of the law of karma (actions and their effects), the Dalai Lama and his officers considered that through administering floggings they avoided the action of killing so long as their victim was still alive when the beating finished, even if the victim would certainly die later. As the Mayor of Lhasa in the 1950s, Gorkar Mebon, told journalist Alan Winnington:

‘Even when the death sentence was administered … it was in [a] form that made no person responsible for the death: by hurling the person from a precipice or sewing him in yakskin and throwing him in a river. Lighter sentences were of amputation of a hand, both hands, a leg or both legs, the stumps being sterilised with boiling butter. … “It depends on the situation. That heavy whip, for example: if a person had 300 strokes of it properly applied he would almost certainly die afterwards.”

‘Commonest punishments are the whip, the cangue (a portable pillory) and exile.’112

As Grunfeld reports:

‘A British woman who visited Gyantse in 1922 witnessed a public flogging and reported that the victim was then forced to spend the night exposed and tied down on the top of a mountain pass where he froze to death overnight. A British resident of two decades reported seeing countless eye gouging and mutilations, …’113

And as Robert W. Ford, one of the few westerners living in Tibet during the 1940s, wrote:

‘All over Tibet I had seen men who had been deprived of an arm or a leg for theft … Penal amputations were done without antiseptics or sterile dressings.’114

These punishments continued during the 1950s, during the reign of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama: and ‘The most graphic evidence readily available of a public torture can be seen in Life magazine, with photographs of a whipping (200-250 lashes) that occurred right in the middle of Lhasa [where the Dalai Lama was living] in 1950.’115 And ‘During her travels in Tibet in 1959, American journalist Anna Louise Strong heard one account after another of those who had died shortly after their beatings finished.’116

We should remember that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was a fully ordained Buddhist monk with vows against harming any living creature, let alone killing. Did he struggle with his role as chief judge, commanding such severe punishments and even execution to be inflicted on his people? His friend, Sir Charles Bell, gives the following damning verdict:

‘He loved the work, … and he liked the power which the work gave him.’117

Writing about the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Bell says that towards the end of his life he ‘became increasingly autocratic’ with no one daring to object to his orders. ‘The Dalai Lama was indeed an absolute dictator; more so as regards his own country than Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini in theirs.’118

The circumstances around his death are replete with intrigue, superstition and the suspicion of foul play, and also show the malign influence of the Nechung oracle, as described in Appendix 1. The Dalai Lama had become seriously ill and had developed a high fever. The Nechung oracle was summoned in a great hurry one night. While in trance:

‘… the Nechung Oracle medium gave the Dalai Lama a powder medicine. As the medium came out [of trance], Jampa-la, the Dalai Lama’s regular doctor, pointed out to the Nechung medium that the wrong medicine had been administered. Soon afterwards the Nechung medium gave a second medicine according to the regular doctor’s prescription. But both these medicines failed to improve the worsening condition of the Dalai Lama.’119

From that point onwards, the fever grew worse; the Dalai Lama became delirious and passed away the next day. Many reports at this time say that he died in anger.120 Some suspect foul play and the possibility of poisoning, others that the Nechung oracle had made a mistake. All those present, including the medium of the oracle, were interrogated. The oracle was disgraced, and the Dalai Lama’s physician was first imprisoned and then banished into exile.121

These were the squalid circumstances in which the ‘Great Thirteenth’ left this world in 1933. Very soon the search would start for his reincarnate successor.