Serial Bus

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The Passion of Dalai Lama

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I have great respect for Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, also a Nobel Laureate. This post is not about him. It’s about one of his predecessors, the 6th Dalai Lama whose earthly name was Tsangyang Gyatso. He was unlike any other Dalai Lama before or after him; he was a poet and a romantic. He led a playboy lifestyle and lived for only 9 years after ascending to the throne.

Tsangyang was born in 1683 in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh in the north-eastern part of present-day India. It is a beautiful place where Mera Lama established a famous monastery of the Gelugpa sect 2 years before Tsanyang’s birth. Dalai Lama is the official head of the Gelugpa sect and the Tawang monastery (one of the largest in the world) is held very sacred by Tibetan Buddhists. All this provenance could not alter the fate of Tsangyang; though brought up to be a celibate, he greatly enjoyed the company of women. In the long line of numerous tulku lamas, that hold the privilege of reincarnation, Tsangyang is the only notable square peg in a round hole. Why did he become a womanizer and an epicure? In my view, the blame should go to the famous palace of the Dalai Lama, the Potala, in Lhasa. Here is the fascinating story. 

The search party of lamas from Lhasa came to Tawang in 1688, although Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama had died in 1682. Usually, search parties are sent out to find the reincarnation immediately after the death of a tulku (especially, the highest-ranking one) so it is interesting to note that in this case, there was a delay of 5 years. Upon discovery in 1688, Tsangyang was quarantined and concealed at Nankartse, near Lhasa, for 9 years. Why was this done?

At the time of Lobsang’s death, the Potala was half-complete (the White Palace was done but the Red wasn’t). The Regent, Sangye Gyatso, feared that if the death was disclosed, the completion of Potala would become questionable as Tibet’s neighbors would try to take advantage of the vacuum. So, Sangye hid the fact of Lobsang’s death from the public for about 14 years, until 1696.

By the time Tsangyang was announced to the world in 1697, he was over 14 years of age. One can imagine the impact of a life behind cloisters on a child who would not fully comprehend why he went from being a carefree 5-years old into forced reclusion, hundreds of miles from his family. Typically, the kids that are discovered as reincarnations are ordained at an early age and are trained to appreciate the life of a monk. Tsangyang was a teenager who perhaps saw himself become the invisible centrepiece of the Tibetan-Chinese-Mongol political games. It is hardly surprising then that he regarded monkhood as a sham when the office of the Dalai Lama was playing out as anything but spiritual. And, the rest of it was hormones. If an unsubdued teenager assumes importance at a time in life when the promise of opposite sex is much more powerful than scripture, it is not difficult to appreciate the course of Tsangyang’s shenanigans. What is remarkable though is that he channeled his literary talent into unforgettable poems and songs about love, pain and pleasure, many of which are still popular in Tibet. He wrote:

“Longing for the landlord’s daughter; Blossoming in youthful beauty
Is like pining for peaches; Ripening on the high peach trees”

Although, he was sworn as the temporal and spiritual head of Tibet in 1697, he gave up his spiritual command in 1701 itself at the age of 18. He visited the 5th Panchen Lama, Lobsang Yeshe at Shigatse and gave up his Getsul (novice monk) vows. He wrote once:

“Even if meditated upon, The face of my lama comes not to me,
But again and again comes to me, The smiling face of my beloved’ 

He had been greatly upset by the execution of Sangye, the Regent, at the orders of the Mongol king, Lhasang Khan. Tsangyang rejected life as a monk, he wore the clothes of a normal layman and preferred to walk than to ride a horse or use the state palanquin. He also visited the parks and spent nights in the streets of Lhasa, drinking wine, singing songs and visiting brothels. He wrote:

“Never have I slept without a sweetheart; Nor have I spent a single drop of sperm.”

“Sweetheart awaiting me in my bed; Yielding tenderly her sweet soft body,
Has she come to cheat me. And disrobe me of my virtues?”

Tsangyang was acutely aware of how his lifestyle was unbecoming of his office. He wrote:

“People gossip about me. I am sorry for what I have done;
I have taken three thin steps, And landed myself in the tavern of my mistress!”

In 1706, Lhazang Khan deposed Tsangyang. While being taken out of the country, Tsangyang composed a poem which helped foretell his next birth. An excerpt:

“White crane lend me your wings. I will not fly far. From Lithang I shall return.”

Tsangyang died mysteriously at the age of 23 near Kokonor in 1706. Some say he was murdered. Soon thereafter, the 7th Dalai Lama was discovered – he was Kelsang Gyatso, born in Lithang.

I think Tsangyang was somewhat melancholic about his legacy and as reflected upon his life, he was perhaps torn between his righteous sense of rebellion and his legacy, when he wrote:

“Yama, the mirror of my karma; Residing in the realm of death,
You must judge and grant justice; Here, while alive, I had no justice”.


(All translations from ‘The Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama’ authored by K Dhondup.)


Written by serialbus

November 9, 2008 at 5:44 pm

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