The 5th Dalai Lama

By Christian Schmidt

1617_____Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama, is born. Tensions are mounting once again between the Gelugpa and Nyingmapa factions. The Gelugpa are on the defensive: the Nyingmapa, along with their ally, the Tibetan ruler Karma Phuntsok Namgyal, are besieging their monasteries. The abbot of Drepung Monastery, meanwhile, is counting on a return to stability and stalling the search for a reincarnation with which he has been entrusted, mainly because one of the candidates comes from a family whose provenance would only further fan the flames of rivalry. It is not until several years later that the abbot travels to the village of Chong-gye to inspect the child, now five years old. The boy receives the dignitary with the following words: “What has taken you so long?” Then he climbs onto the abbot’s lap and the two converse about “the most profound, the most delicate matters of their religion”, as a contemporary source puts it.

1625_____Following his initiation the new Dalai Lama soon becomes renowned as another master go-between, a sovereign whose life’s work it is to spread the Buddhist word. He is at pains to avoid any sign of parochialism: he attends to the teachings of Nyingmapa masters while attempting to keep out of the perennial disputes of the Mongol tribes.

1641_____The last of the Tibetan kings abdicates as hordes of Mongols once more storm Lhasa. However, Gusri Khan, the leader of the Mongols, does not instate himself as ruler; rather, he hands power over to the Dalai Lama. Thus Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso becomes the first Dalai Lama to have both religious and secular authority. He begins the work of unifying the country, and the Tibetan government receives the form it will keep for the next 300 years, until 1959. Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso also moves the seat of the Dalai Lama from Drepung Monastery to Lhasa and creates the institution of the Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second holiest religious office.

1651_____Following a series of victories for his foreign policy (including halting the Dsungars’ war-like expansion), the 5th Dalai Lama travels to Beijing. The mission is difficult: the Dalai Lama knows that the Chinese Emperor, Kang-shi, is interested in strengthening his hold on Tibet. The two men are, in the end, able to arrive at a mutually profitable formulation: while the Emperor in China has the divine right to hold sway over the earth, the Dalai Lama is the source of the (Buddhist) Emperor’s ability to continue developing.

1680_____Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso falls seriously ill. He names the Tibetan regent, Sangye Gyatso, as his deputy; Sangye keeps the Dalai Lama’s impending death a secret so as not to jeopardise the project of stabilisation that has been his life’s work. The people are told that the Dalai Lama has withdrawn for a 12-year session of meditation. When Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso dies two years later at the age of 65, he is henceforth replaced at public events by an old lama who resembles him. Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso’s death is kept secret until 1697.