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The Thirteen Previous Dalai Lamas
Part of MPR's special report, Ocean of Wisdom: The Dalai Lama's Visit
By Art Hughes
Minnesota Public Radio
May 7, 2001

The Dalai Lama is regarded by Tibetans as one of a succession of (so far) 14 incarnations of the Buddha of compassion, Chenrezig ("the Seeing-Eye" Lord), who long has been considered to be the patron deity of Tibet. Here is a brief biography of the thirteen Dalai Lamas who have come before Tenzin Gyatso.

Sources: The Biographies of the Dalai Lamas by Ya Hanzhang,1991; The Dalai Lamas of Tibet by Thubten Samphel and Tendar; and Dr. Roger Jackson, Carlton College.

Dalai is Mongolian for "ocean," Lama is Tibetan for "spiritual teacher." Hence the translation, "Ocean of Wisdom."

Gedun Drub (1391- 1474)

He was one of the three great disciples (and perhaps the nephew) of Tsongkapa, the founder of the Gaden monastery near Lhasa. Tsongkapa developed the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) order of Buddhism that stressed discipline and austerity, imposed celibacy, and prohibited alcohol consumption. The Gelugpas trace their spiritual lineage to the great teacher of Indian Buddhism, Atisha, who visited Tibet from 1042 to 1054. Gedun Drub was abbot of Gaden, and founded the Tashilhumpo monastery near Shigatse, west of Lhasa, a move that further solidified the Gelugpa. He also promoted the system of reincarnated lamas, which assured the smooth transition of spiritual leaders from one generation to the next.

Gedun Gyatso (1475-1542)

He was proclaimed the reincarnation of Gedun Drub as a young boy. Legend has it that soon after he learned to speak, he told his parents his name was Pema Dorje, the birth name of the first Dalai Lama. When he was four, he reportedly told his parents he wished to live in the Tashilhumpo monastery to be with his monks. He was a renowned scholar and composer of mystical poetry, who traveled widely to extend Gelugpa influence, and became abbot of the largest Gelugpa monastery, Drepung, which from this time on was closely associated with the Dalai Lamas.

Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588)

He was the first to take the title Dalai Lama. The name comes from a meeting between Sonam Gyatso and the Mongol chieftain Altan Khan, whom Sonam Gyatso visited on his extensive travels. As the two exchanged complimentary titles Sonam Gyatso called Altan Khan "King of the Turning Wheel and Wisdom." Altan Khan referred to Sonam Gyatso as "All-Knowing Vajra-Holder, the Dalai Lama" (Dalai is Mongolian for "ocean." Lama is Tibetan for "guru" or "teacher. " The title is often translated "Ocean of Wisdom"). Sonam Gyatso's predecessors were named the first and second Dalai Lama posthumously. Sonam Gyatso is credited with converting many Mongols to Buddhism, and ending shamanistic customs in Mongolia, such as ritualistic animal slaughter and the sacrificing of wives to their deceased husbands. He also helped spread Gelugpa influence into eastern Tibet.

Yonten Gyatso (1589-1616)

He was the great grandson of Altan Khan of Mongolia (who coined the title "Dalai Lama"). The only non-Tibetan Dalai Lama, he was first recognized as the reincarnation of Sonam Gyatso by Mongol leaders, who had no true jurisdiction to do so. He was deemed the Fourth Dalai Lama only after a long, contentious debate among a delegation from the three great monasteries of central Tibet. This period was marked by constant strife among the rival orders in Tibet. Accounts vary, but it is possible that Yonten Gyatso was assassinated. His death marked the start of a period of persecution of the Gelugpa by the Kagyupa (Red Hat) order, which was powerful in western and eastern Tibet.

Lozang Gyatso (1617-1682)

He is one of only two Dalai Lamas to have the word "Great" added to his title. He forged an alliance with the powerful Mongol military leader Gushri Khan to unify Tibet under the Gelugpa order. Lozang Gyatso enjoyed a passionate following among the Mongols. He instituted rules for monastic organization, studies, rituals, and monks' behavior that remain in effect today, and began construction of the great Potala palace in Lhasa, which is one of the wonders of the world. He also wrote histories, poetry, and work based on visionary experiences. Lozang Gyatso visited the emperor of the Chinese Qing Dynasty, after which the relationship between emperors and Dalai Lamas was generally regarded as one between patron and priest. Lozang Gyatso's death in 1682 was not announced until 1697, as the regent of Tibet attempted to monopolize power.

Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706)

Because of the delay in announcing the Fifth Dalai Lama's death, Tsangyang Gyatso was well into his teens before he was recognized as the Sixth Dalai Lama. He is considered to be the most unconventional Dalai Lama. He dressed as a layperson, drank wine, enjoyed the company of women and composed love songs that are still popular in Tibet. His eccentric style alienated him from Mongol leader Lhabzang Khan, who invaded Tibet during this time and deposed Tsangyang Gyatso. He died while leaving the country; many historians believe he was murdered. Lhabsang Khan appointed another monk, Yeshe Gyatso, as the Seventh Dalai Lama, but his legitimacy has never been recognized by the Tibetan people.

Kelzang Gyatso (1708-1757)

Tibetans turned to a western Mongol tribe, the Dzungars, to oust Lhabsang Khan. The Dzungar Mongols attacked Lhasa and killed Lhabsang Khan in 1717. The Dzungars, in turn, were ousted by a Chinese army, which in 1720 installed as the Seventh Dalai Lama Kelzang Gyatso. A scholar and poet, he preferred to let ministers attend to the affairs of Tibet. It was during his reign that an ordinance formulated by the Chinese government gave the Dalai Lama rule over Tibet, but attempted to strip him of any real political power. All decisions were supposed to be dictated by a resident Chinese official known as the "amban." The authority and function of the amban is still disputed today.

Jamphel Gyatso (1758-1804)

Jamphel Gyatso was uninterested in politics, and for a 150-year period starting with his reign, day-to-day power was exercised in Tibet neither by Dalai lamas nor the Chinese ambans, but by a series of regents. During Jamphel Gyatso's reign, Tibet fought wars with the Gurkhas of Nepal, and received a delgation from England, which was interested in Tibet because of its strategic location in relation to British India, China, and Czarist Russia. The Tibetans at this time began to severely restrict outside visitors.

Lungtok Gyatso (1806-1815)

During Lungtok Gyatso's brief reign, significant shifts of power began to occur in the region. The Qing Dynasty was beginning to weaken, and could barely maintain influence in Tibet. The British continued to show an interest, but could make no inroads. Lungtok Gyatso died at age 11 in the Potala palace. Some historians believe that, given the tumultuous state of Tibetan politics, he was assassinated. The subsequent three Dalai Lamas also died young. Some theories suggest they, too, were murdered.

Tsultrim Gyatso (1816-1837)

Like his predecessor, Tsultrim Gyatso died suddenly in Potala before assuming temporal power. During his brief life, Tibet continued to isolate itself, while keeping a suspicious eye on its borders.

Khendrup Gyatso (1838-1856)

He was the third in a series of Dalai Lamas who died at an early age. During Khendrup Gyatso's life, China's influence in Tibet weakened further because of the Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion. Tibet's struggles continued with Nepal and Ladakh to the west.

Trinley Gyatso (1856-1875)

His reign was a time of severe unrest among Tibet's neighbors. The weaker Qing dynasty was unable to provide military support because of its own battles. At the same time, the British intensified pressure on the Tibetan borders, from their colonial bastion in India.

Thupten Gyatso (1876-1933)

He is the he second of the "Great" Dalai Lamas (after the Fifth), so designated because he held Tibet intact through tumultuous times. In 1904, British troops from India invaded Tibet, intent on preventing any further strategic advances from Czarist Russia. When Thupten Gyatso fled to Mongolia, the Chinese government unsuccessfully tried to depose him. He returned to Tibet, only to flee to India in the face of advancing Chinese troops, intent on deposing him. The Dalai Lama appealed to the British to help prevent China from turning Tibet into a Chinese state, but Britain remained neutral. In 1911, Imperial China fell to a rebellion, and Chinese military influence in Tibet virtually disappeared.

Thupten Gyatso instituted modernizations in Tibet, such as a postal system, paper currency, roads, and he built the country's first power station. He is credited with revitalizing the institution of the Dalai Lama through his forceful character and political insight, and with trying to end Tibet's centuries of isolation. Still, many of his reforms and initiatives met with crippling resistance from the conservative monastic establishment. In a famous final testament he foresaw the loss of Tibetan sovereignty to China.