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The Sixth Dalai Lama

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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.

Lovers who met while traveling
Were fixed up by the wine-shop woman
If trouble or debts are born from this
Please take care of her for me

Dr. Thurman suggested with a twinkle that this Dionysian way of life was simply a case of Raging Hormones, but also said that HH The Fourteenth Dalai Lama believes that the Sixth considered the time was ripe for a return from monastic to dynastic rule. Because of certain notable lines of his poetry, still others hold out that the Great Fifth had adopted the teachings of the Tantric Nyingmapa towards the end of his life, and that the Sixth was merely bringing forward that interest in a new incarnation. In any event, when the time came to take his full monastic vows from his tutor, the then Pachen Lama, who was abbot of Drepung Monastery, he not only refused, but returned his novice vows, threatening suicide if his wishes were not respected.

Desi Sanjé Gyatso, himself a bon vivant, is said to have developed a paternal fondness for the Dalai Lama, despite his frequent exasperation with the young man’s behavior. Over the years, he had maintained the alliance of the Great Fifth established with the Dzungars who were hostile to the Manchu, whereas the Manchu emperor, Kang Hsi, had forged an alliance with the Mongolian Qosot leader, Lozang Qan. The Desi had tried to kill Lozang Qan twice, but instead, in an ensuing battle, the Qan defeated the Desi and beheaded him, leaving the Dalai Lama unprotected.

On June 11, 1706, the Qan removed Tshanyang Gyatso from Potala to the nearby Lhaku Gardens, declaring him a dissolute, now deposed, but when troops tried to remove him to take him to Beijing, they met with huge resistance from both laity and monks, who spirited him away to Drepung. On June 29, when the Qan’s artillery opened fire on the monastery, the Sixth, then twenty-four years old, gave himself up to avoid a massacre, and left this poem to be conveyed to his love of the moment:

That bird—white crane
Lend me your skill of wing
I will not go far
I’ll return from Litang

Some reports say he lived on, but the Manchu court issued a statement that he had fallen ill on the way to Beijing and died at Kunganor on November 15. Nevertheless, many say he was murdered. Either way, the emperor Kang Hsi approved and signed a proposal to abandon his body. Then, it turned out the Seventh Dalai Lama was indeed born in Litang.

The Sixth had earlier planted three sandalwood trees at his birthplace, Tawang, now in Arunachal Pradesh, and predicted that they would grow into identical shapes before his return. To the amazement and dismay of the people of Tawang, the trees first grew into the same size and shape, and then burned down in 1959, just before the present Dalai Lama, then twenty-four years old, passed through Tawang in flight from Tibet to exile in India.

Dr. Thurman spoke about the concerns that led him to discourage a film production about British and Russian interests in Tibet at the turn of the last century. The production threatened to depict nothing but strife among Europeans played out in khaki tents in a bleak and dreary landscape, leaving aside the presence of Tibetan people altogether. I dare say this would have been much in the manner of The Jewel in the Crown (or the short story called Servants of the Map, written without the much-rewarded author ever setting foot in the place she writes about so mistakenly). He said that His Holiness had voiced his own objections. “Where would all the Tibetan girls be, and all the Tibetan weddings?” he said.

At this time, the whereabouts of the young Panchen Lama appointed by the Dalai Lama are unknown. The Chinese government has recently appointed a rival successor to the position who speaks out in favor of Chinese policy. Nevertheless, negotiations are underway for The Dalai Lama’s visit to China, despite deep suspicions on both sides, and may result in a historic journey as early as May.

More articles about the Dalai Lama’s proposed visit to China are available in English online at St. Petersberg Times, Peoples Daily Online, and UNPO.

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  • http://jeliel3.blogspot.com JELIEL3

    Fantastic article. I didn’t know about this Dalai Lama’s rock’n’roll life.

    I wuold have loved to meet with Dr. Thurman. Hearing hmi speak is always interesting and “enlightening”.

  • http://jeliel3.blogspot.com JELIEL3

    Sweet Buddha did I make a lot of typos.