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Project Tibet: Tibetan Children's Villages

Mongols play role in Dalai Lama's origin

By Dr. Carolyn Hale

Students have asked me, "Where did the Dalai Lama come from?" This brief essay will address this question. To understand the origins of the Dalai Lama we need to travel back to the history of Tibet before the emergence of the Dalai Lama lineage. From the seventh to the 10th centuries Tibet was ruled by a line of emperors who united the Tibetan-speaking people and turned the country into an expansionist military state. Three of the most dynamic emperors of Tibet's Yarlung dynasty became patrons of Buddhism. They sent Tibetan students to India to study Buddhism and invited Indian Buddhism scholars to Tibet.

The last great emperor of Tibet, Tri Ralpachen, was murdered in 841 by his older brother Lang Dharma, who himself was murdered in 846. After his death the empire disintegrated, and the whole of the Tibetan plateau became overlaid by petty principalities. Each tried to gain national dominance. Tibet was divided for more than 300 years.

In 1207, the Tibetans learned the military might of Genghis Khan had destroyed the Tangut empire based along the borders of northeast Tibet. The Tibetans constituted a council of elders and sent a delegation to the Mongul headquarters to pay obeisance. Because of this timely obeisance, Tibet was spared the slaughter by the Mongols. Tibet was integrated into the expanding Mongol empire, but was never directly administered by the Mongol Khans.

The grandson of Genghis Khan, Godan Khan, appointed Sakya Pandita, a great Buddhist scholar and abbot of Sakya monastery, as his spiritual advisor and gave him authority in Tibet. With the backing of the Mongol military regime, the Sakya Lamas became the first in the line of priest-kings of Tibet and ruled Tibet for 96 years. The Sakya Lamas were also the first to establish the concept of priest-patron relations called cho-yon.

The cho-yon became a determining factor in Central Asian politics. The Mongols provided protection of the Tibetan state from external enemies in exchange for spiritual guidance and the blessing of Tibet's lamas.

Godan Khan was succeeded by one of the great Mongol monarchs, Kublai Khan. He would become the supreme ruler of all of the tribes of Mongolia. In 1279, he subjugated China and established the Yuan dynasty — the first non-Chinese rulers of China. Meanwhile in Tibet, his nephew, Phagpa, who strengthened political relations with the powerful Kublai Khan, succeeded Sakya Pandita. Sakya Pandita would become the imperial spiritual leader and the ruler in Tibet. When Phagpa was asked to become the Emperor's teacher or guru, the Tibetan lama agreed, but one condition had to be met: he would sit on a higher seat when teaching the Mongol Khan. Kublai Khan at first refused, but agreed when the Tibetan lama said Khan could sit on a higher seat in secular ceremonies. Phagpa invented a new script for the Mongols. Kublai Khan used the official new script as a means of communication throughout his domain.

In 1350, Gyrates of Pham Drupe, one of the governors of the Kaka lamas revolted and terminated Skye hegemony and Tibetan subservience to Mongol domination. He established a secular rule in an attempt to give Tibet its former imperial glory. Next, the reign of the Ringpung kings began and they ruled Tibet from 1498 to 1565; three Tsangpa kings held the throne from 1566 to 1641. In 1642 the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, with the backing of his Mongol patrons took over Tibet and established the government of Gaden Phodrang.

By this time, Buddhism had become entrenched in Tibet. There was no real stable secular authority. Interestingly, the political vacuum became filled with religious sects who aligned themselves to the political authority of the day. Of the religious orders, four were influential and dominant. First, there were the Nyingmapas, translated as the "ancient ones," who traced their lineage to the Indian tantric Padmasambhava who came to Tibet to strengthen the faith of Buddhism in 742-798. The Nyingmapas would build Tibet's first monastery at Samye.

The second religious order were the Kagyupas. They had numerous sub-sects and traced their lineage to Marpa (1012-1096), the celebrated translator and teacher of Milarepa.

Marpa is considered Tibet's greatest poet-saint. Marpa traced his spiritual ancestry to the Indian siddhas Naropa and Tilopa. A sub-sect of the Kagyu religious school, the Karma Kagyu introduced the practice of reincarnating lamas.

This practice was later adopted by many schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

The third religious order was the Sakya order founded by Khonchog Gyalpo and his son Kunga Nyingpo. Unlike the other religious orders, the Sakyapas based their power on hereditary succession and the Sakya lamas took consorts to produced sons to biologically carry on the religious lineage.

The Gelugpas were the fourth religious order. The Gelugpas and their predecessors, the Kadampas, traced their spiritual lineage to Atisha, the abbot of Vikramashila monastic university and one of the greatest teachers of Indian Buddhism, who visited Tibet in 1042 at the invitations of Yes he 0, the king of western Tibet, to restored Buddhism in his kingdom.

However, these four major religious schools of Tibetan Buddhism were undermined by a profusion of sub-sects. This profusion was indicated in the Tibetan saying, "Every lama his own doctrine, every valley its own dialect."

All of these sects would establish monasteries that became spiritual as well as cultural centers. These monasteries would also eventually maintain tremendous clout. They were drawn into a struggle for political supremacy, primarily between the central Tibetan region of Ü with its base in Lhasa and Tsang with its base in Shigatse.

The Kadampas waged a losing political battle until a man named Tsongkapa came into the picture.

Born in 1357 in Amdo, northeast Tibet (not far from the birthplace of the present Dalai Lama), he would eventually receive his monk's vows from Karmapa Rolpa Dorje, the hierarch of the Karma Kagyu. At age 17, he set out for central Tibet and would be taught by the most famous teachers of Tibetan Buddhism. Tsongkapa enrolled into the monastery of Reting, sanctified by the Indian master Atisha who was considered by the Kadampa school of Tibetan Buddhism as the mainspring of its lineage.

Tsongkapa wrote some of his most important works, including the Lamrim: the graduated path to enlightenment. Further, he would create the Great Prayer Festival at Jokhange. Tsongkapa devised this festival as an annual rededication of the whole of Tibet to the Buddhist faith. In 1409, he founded Gaden Monastery near Lhasa, which in time became the third largest monastery in Tibet with a reputed monk population of 3,300. He introduced strict discipline and placed emphasis on academic performance. His order came to be called the New Kadampas and only later was it referred to as Gelugpa or the Virtuous Ones.

The new order was strengthened by the growth of other monasteries around Lhasa. Later, when the Great Fifth Dalai Lama assumed earthly authority of Tibet, the monastic universities of Garden, Drepung and Sera, collectively referred to as the Three Great Seats, became his religious and political base.

Tsongkapa died in 1419, and his disciple Gedun Drub founded the Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet after Lhasa. The founding of this monastery in Tsang spread the Gelugpa influence beyond Lhasa. Gedun Drub died in 1471. Gedun Gyatso, the Second Dalai Lama, born several years after Gedun Drub's death, was considered to be his reincarnation. Later, Gedun Gyatso's reincarnation was discovered in Sonam Gyatso.

The Gelug order was still untarnished by temporal power. Its monastic simplicity and devotion contrasted sharply with the other orders' involvement in the constant civil and religious strife and turmoil of the day.

Sonam Gyatso would dramatically change the fortunes of his order; he accepted an invitation to visit Altan Khan, the Chief of the Tumet Tribe of the Mongols. The two great people met in 1578 near the shores of Lake Kokonor.

The result of this important meeting was that the Mongols increasingly became identified with the Gelug order in Tibet. Sonam Gyatso is given credit to be the one lama who finally converted the whole of Mongolia to Buddhism.

The Tibetan lama was given the Mongol title of Dalai Lama by a grateful Altan Khan. Dalai is a Mongol word for "ocean" and Lama is the Tibetan word for teacher. Together the title "Dalai Lama" means "the ocean of wisdom."

After their death, Gedun Drub and Gedun Gyatso were regarded as Tibet's First and Second Dalai Lamas. This relationship was further cemented when Yonten Gyatso, the Fourth Dalai Lama, was discovered in the great-grandson of Altan Khan. This piece of divine providence guaranteed the military might of Mongol tribes was conclusively laid at the service of the Dalai Lama and his monastic order.

This time began a troubled period of Tibetan history. The attempt by the nine successive lamas of the Pham Drupa lineage to reunite Tibet and give it stability failed. Uninterrupted warfare began. It would set the province of Ü against Tsange the Gelug order against the Karma Kagyu with their allies changing loyalties according to who won battles. Soon Ü, or central Tibet, was overrun by the forces of the Ringpung kings and the power shifted from Lhasa to lesser towns in the Tsang province.

At this critical moment in Tibetan history appeared one of Tibet's greatest figures, the Fifth Dalai Lama. He was born in 1617 to a family, which had traditional ties with the Sakya and Nymingma orders. He was a politically astute vlama. "He realized the gravity of the situation and the dangers that faced the Gelugpas themselves," wrote Giuseppe Tucci in his book, Tibet: Land of Snows. His decision would have consequences. The Fifth Dalai Lama called in Gushri Khan to put an end to the long conflict and defeat his powerful adversaries, Tsang and the Karmapas. Gushri Khan, the 28-year-old chieftain of the Qoshot Mongols would vanquish all enemies.

In 1642, the Fifth Dalai Lama traveled to Shigatse, where Gushri Khan conferred on him the supreme authority over Greater Tibet. This domain extended from Dartsedo, Tibet's traditional border with China in the east, to the borders of Ladakh in the west and which roughly corresponded with the Tibet of the imperial age.

The Fifth Dalai Lama declared his city as the capital of a united Tibet and the government of Gaden Phodrange — the name of his palace in Drepung monastery, the new government authority of Tibet. He created the office of Desi (Regent) and named Sonam Choephel as the first Desi to handle all political affairs. Gushri Khan and his Mongol troops stayed in Tibet. Although he did not interfere in the administration of Tibet, Gushri Khan and his army created an extraneous force the Dalai Lama relied on to put down rebellions. So, from the mid-17th century onwards, the unique Tibetan theocracy of reincarnating Dalai Lamas ruling Tibet was established. The Dalai Lama became Tibet's uncontested supreme and political and spiritual authority.

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