On the subject of writers dying young, I turn to the story of Tsangyang Gyatso, the egalitarian poet who, as His Holiness the Sixth Dalai Lama, refused his monastic vows, and instead lived hard to produce a body of songs and poems still loved, revered, and sung by Tibetans today (hear Dadawa’s 1998 recording of "The Sixth Dalai Lama's Love Song" on her album Voices from the Sky on Amazon.com). This year marks the tercentenary of his early and mysterious death.
In the wake of the recent fundraising campaign for New York’s Tibet House, my friend Fortuna Valentino invited me to meet Robert Thurman, who was giving a lecture and presentation about HH the Sixth that evening. It was a great pleasure to hear Dr. Thurman read the poems of Tshangyang Gyatso in sonorous Tibetan, while deconstructing earlier translations and providing his own.
Lobsang Gyatso, The Great Fifth, was the first Dalai Lama to gain control over all of Tibet, which he accomplished with the help of the Khoshut or Dzungar Mongols, eventually withdrawing from public life and dying at 65, before his gigantic winter palace at Lhasa was completed. His standing regent, or Desi (not to be confused with the other word) Sanjé Gyatso — believed by some to be his son — sent out the customary search parties, and in about two years found a remarkable young boy in southern Tibet with a history of extraordinary events surrounding his birth, but kept the little boy in hiding as a virtual prisoner for twelve years longer, first at his birthplace of Mön, and later at Tsona and Nakartse.
Meanwhile, to keep the death of the Great Fifth a secret, Sanjé Gyatso engaged in a variety of eleborate subterfuges, using impersonators on ceremonial occasions and arranging for long retreats. Finally, at fourteen, Tshangyang Gyatso was brought to the court, recognized and ordained. Presumably, Potala was closer to completion by then.
As it turned out, the Sixth had no interest in monasticism. It is said he enjoyed archery and song, and inviting his friends to Potala, where he set aside protocol to serve them food and tea himself. He walked instead of using the state palanquin, gave public discourses and lived at times in a tent on an escarpment outside the palace. As Dr. Thurman described him, he wore blue silk robes and jewels in his long hair, called himself The Turquoise Bee, although his novitiate name meant Ocean of Melodious Song, and spent as much time at the taverns and brothels below the palace as he did seducing aristocratic beauties. Most notably, though, he wrote a body of such fine paeans in praise of all women alike, as well as the wine consumed in quantities in the process, that they are still sung today.