The Tibetan System of Government

In direct contrast, in Tibetan society not only is there no clear separation between ‘Church’ and ‘State’, but the union of these two is the very basis of government, even today. The Tibetan name for their system of government is ‘bö.zhung chö.si nyi.den’ (bod zhungs chos sri gnyis ldan), which means the ‘Tibetan Government of both Religion and Politics’. As Phuntsog Wangyal, who established the London-based Tibet Foundation, says:

‘The term “Chö-si nyi-den” appears for the first time in the Seventeenth Century when the Fifth Dalai Lama reorganized the Government of Tibet as … the “Ever Victorious Tibetan Government of Ga-dän p’o-dr’ang”.

‘Religion is different from politics. But there was never any attempt in Tibetan history to separate the two. Rather the ruling class, first the aristocracy and later both the aristocracy and the monasteries, encouraged their union.’11

Although the system of ‘Chö-si nyi-den’ had previously existed in practice, it was the Fifth Dalai Lama who consolidated the existing arrangements and standardised them into hard-and-fast rules. As the self-proclaimed and infallible embodiment of the Buddha Avalokiteshvara and as the supreme secular head of state, the Fifth Dalai Lama made the institution of the Dalai Lama the core symbol for the union of ultimate political and religious power. As Phuntsog Wangyal again observes:

‘ … the supremacy of the Dalai Lama does not mean that the Dalai Lama always exercised supreme power, but it does mean that he is the ultimate authority in which supreme power over religion and politics rests.

‘The institution of the Dalai Lama has a dual role, that of politics and religion. He symbolises the force that links two principles into a single institution.’12

Thus, the mixing of religion and politics was institutionalised by the Fifth Dalai Lama, and it is from this point in Tibetan history that the catastrophic decline begins that led to the loss of Tibet.

This intermingling of religion and politics can be seen in a whole series of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s actions, including his construction and naming of the Potala Palace; his relationship with his Spiritual Guide, the Panchen Lama; his reliance upon and institution of Nechung as the State Oracle of Tibet; his twice-attempted invasions of Bhutan; and his military campaigns against the Jonangpas, Kagyupas and Bönpos, and their forced conversion to the Gelug Tradition.

The Fifth Dalai Lama’s most significant creation from mixing Dharma and politics was the institution of the Dalai Lama itself. Through the fusion of supreme religious and political authority in one single person, the Fifth Dalai Lama became the self-appointed ‘God-King’ of Tibet. All of the actions of the Dalai Lama were thus to some extent contaminated by this union of religion and politics. None of his religious actions could be totally free of political implications, and likewise none of his political actions could be totally free of implication for the religious sphere. All of the Dalai Lama’s religious and political actions, no matter how insignificant, carried the full weight of both his supposed religious infallibility and his absolute political authority.

The Potala Palace had the dual function of serving both politi- cal and religious objectives. On the one hand, the construction of the Potala itself was first intended to provide the Dalai Lama with an impenetrable fortress against military attack in the event that his powerful Mongol allies withdrew their support and second to serve as a potent symbol of his absolute political authority. On the other hand, in so naming the Potala, the Dalai Lama was identifying his residence as the earthly abode of the Buddha of Compassion, and himself as its resident, Avalokiteshvara.

Although from a religious point of view, even the human emanations of Buddhas need to accept and rely upon their Spiritual Guides, from a political point of view the Fifth Dalai Lama could not bridge the gap between his absolute authority and the propriety of relinquishing authority to his Spiritual Guide. How could the fountainhead of absolute religious and political power, to whom all others are subordinate, ever subordinate himself to a Spiritual Guide? This intrinsic contradiction within the Fifth Dalai Lama’s position destroyed his spiritual relationship with his Spiritual Guide and created a poisonous precedent for future Dalai Lamas, especially the present Dalai Lama who claims to have a special connection with the Fifth.

One example of how the Fifth Dalai Lama regarded maintenance of his political power as more important than his duty as a Buddhist practitioner was his efforts to destroy the power of two important officials whom he considered to be rivals to his political authority. (These events are described later in this appendix.) When they took refuge in Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the monastic seat of his own Spiritual Guide, the Fifth Dalai Lama raised an army to attack it. He dismissed his Spiritual Guide’s attempts at conciliation; and some years later, in an unprecedented act of public disrespect, the Fifth Dalai Lama did not even attend his Spiritual Guide’s funeral.

Many of the actions of the Fifth Dalai Lama, through which he became known as the ‘Great Fifth’, were in fact from a spiritual point of view extremely negative political actions. Some of them were catastrophic for Tibet both spiritually and politically, and provided the stepping-stones that in the end led to the loss of Tibet as an independent nation.