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Teacher: 8th Tatsag, Yeshe Lobzang Tenpa'i Gonpo

Yeshe Lobzang Tanpa'i Gyaltsen | Kundeling Incarnation Lineage | Gelug Tradition | Cityscapes, Monasteries & Pilgrimage Sites

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The Eighth Tatsag Jedrung, Yeshe Lobzang Tenpai Gonpo, was born in 1760 Meljo (mal jo) in the Powo (spo bo) region of Kham. His father's name was Gyara Darlu Tsering (rgya ra dar lu tshe ring) and his mother's was Dawa Butri (zla ba bu khrid).

At the age of five he was identified as the reincarnation of the Seventh Tatsag Jedrung, Lobzang Palgyen (rta tshag rje drung 07 blo bzang dpal rgyan, b. 1708). This incarnation line, also known as the Olga Jedrung ('ol dga' rje drung), traces its origin to Baso Chokyi Gyaltsen (ba so chos kyi rgyal mtshan, 1402-1473), who was a disciple of Tsongkapa Lobzang Dragpa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa, 1357-1419) and the younger brother of Kedrubje Geleg Palzang (mkhas grub rje dge legs dpal bzang, 1385-1438). The title Tatsag (rta tshag) began with the Fourth incarnation, Lhawang Chokyi Gyaltsen (rta tshag 04 lha dbang chos kyi rgyal mtshan, 1537-1603), whose reincarnation was the first to be titled Tatsag Jedrung, the Fifth in the line.

Upon recognition as the Eighth Tatsag Jedrung, he was enthroned and entered Pasho Monastery (dpa' shod dgon pa), Genden Samdrub Ling (dpa' shod dge ldan bsam 'grub gling) in Chamdo (chab mdo), Kham, which had been established by Baso Chokyi Gyaltsen in 1473. There he studied under Khenchen Zasag Pelden Dragpa (mkhan chen dza sag dpal ldan grags pa, d.u.) from 1767 to 1771, from whom he received his genyen (dge bsnyen) or lay vows.

One year later, at age of twelve, he went to Kumbum (sku 'bum) Monastery, one of the major Gelug monasteries of Amdo, and then proceeded to Chengde, a summer palace of the Qing emperors on the Chinese-Mongolian border where Tibetan lamas were frequently in residence. At Chengde he developed strong connections to the Third Changkya, Rolpai Dorje (lcang skya 03 rol pa'i rdo rje, 1717-1786), who gave him his novice (dge tshul) vows and the name Yeshe Tenpai Gonpo. In 1772 he travelled to Beijing where he was received in an audience with the Qianlong Emperor (r.1735-1799). The emperor treated him as a "lama of the seal" (tham ga bla ma), the highest official imperial designation enjoyed by Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist lamas, and provided him with gifts, thirteen servants, and an official's allowance. From 1774 onward he studied with the abbot of Tashilhunpo (bkra shis lhun po) Monastery of Chengde, Shartse Khenpo Nominhan Lobzang Jampel (shar rtse mkhan po nom min han blo bzang 'jam dpal). When the Sixth (3rd) Panchen Lama, Palden Yeshe (paN chen 06 dpal ldan ye shes, 1738-1780) made his historic visit to Chengde in 1780, the Qianlong Emperor presented the twenty-year-old Tatsag to him, dressed in a dragon robe.

He travelled to Lhasa in 1781, and studied at Gomang (sgo mang) College of Drepung Monastery ('bras spungs dgon) for eight years. His teachers were the Eighth Dalai Lama, Jampel Gyatso (tA la'i bla ma 08 'jam dpal rgya mtsho, 1758-1804), the Second Jamyang Zhepa Konchog Jigme Wangpo ('jam dbyangs bzhad pa 02 dkon mchog 'jigs med dbang po, 1728-1791), and Longdol Ngagwang Lobzang (klong rdol ngag dbang blo bzang, 1719-1794). In 1782, he was ordained by the Eighth Dalai Lama.

He maintained ties to Beijing during this time, and sent birthday congratulations to the Qianlong emperor in 1786. In 1786 he was appointed as the Dalai Lama's assistant after the previous regent, the First Tsemonling, who had also served as the Sixty-first Ganden Tripa, Ngawang Tsultrim (tshe smon gling 01 ngag dbang tshul khrims, 1721-1791), was called away from the regency by the Emperor and summoned to return to Beijing. Although the Dalai Lama had come of age and assumed full leadership at this time, Qing documents indicate that Beijing viewed him as lacking in skill and better suited for religious matters than for ruling Tibet.

In 1788, the year of the first Gurkha invasion from Nepal, the Emperor granted Yeshe Lobzang Tenpai Gonpo the title of "lama of the seal" with the geographic designation of Dolug an Nag ur (i.e. Dolonnor in Inner Mongolia) and summoned him to Beijing. However, he did not manage to reach Beijing before being sent back to Lhasa to serve as regent, an order promulgated in an edict on May 26, 1789. The Qianlong Emperor ordered that a "grand lama" was needed to “mutually help” the Dalai Lama, and stated that the Tatsag was a good choice because his character was clear, he profoundly understood the classics, and was respected by the Tibetans. This entry bestowed on him the title of biliketu, a type of hutuktu incarnation, and office of jasagh lama (prince of the church). The office, created by the Qing court, was based on the Mongol title of jasagh, which was used to refer to princes recognized as descendants of Chinggis Khan. The Qing term was conferred upon leaders of imperial monasteries, and connoted a combination of religious and secular power. It bears noting that the Qingshilu only recorded the title as “jasagh”, instead of “jasagh lama,” but Joachim Karsten has found the title listed as “jasagh lama” presumably in other texts. Emperor Qianlong’s exact orders were to return to Tibet, to assist the Dalai Lama in all matters, and to obtain the compliance of the kalon (bka' blon) or prime minister. This appointment has been characterized by historians as a practical Qing assumption of rule in Tibet.

Less than a year and a half later, on September 28, 1790, the regent was removed from office by the Emperor and summoned to Beijing. The edict declaring his removal from power reasoned that he was not “diligent and careful” in handling the affairs of the Dalai Lama, unlike the previous regent, who had in contrast “handled matters extremely well.” The same edict recalled the Dalai Lama's younger brother to Beijing, accusing him of numerous corrupt actions, including “market fraud, seizing farmland, improperly honouring with silk the 'Red Hat' (meaning Karma Kagyu) lama that had disrespected the 'Yellow Hat Religion' (that is, Gelug), commanding from the same seat as the Demo hutuktu and the Tatsag hutuktu, withholding pay from numerous lamas, taking the Dalai Lama's possessions, and cutting in half the pay for the tea carriers who come to Tibet and deserve their full road fare.” It explicitly stated that the Dalai Lama was innocent and did not benefit from any of these indiscretions, and similarly this edict did not directly implicate the regent in any of these crimes. The edict also called for the instalment of the trusted previous regent back into power, stating that the Dalai Lama was not competent at government-related matters and should only focus on his religious studies. However, the First Tsemonling was only back in power for four months in Lhasa when he died in April, 1791.

The Tatsag had not even reached Beijing when he was ordered by the Emperor to return to the regency. The edict sending him back to Lhasa retracted the Emperor's previous criticism, stating that the Tatsag was actually “suitable and cautious in handling matters. There is no hostility from the past. This opinion was a mistake.” It is unclear what caused this change in the emperor’s opinion, but it is possible that the untimely death of the First Tsemonling had not given the Qing enough time to groom another figure for the position, and the Tatsag’s close ties with the court made him the best option for replacement.

From the beginning of his regency to about 1794, the Tatsag resided at the Lhakgo Khangsar (lhag sgo khang gsar) palace. In 1794, the Qing Emperor established the Kundeling (kun bde gling) Temple in lhasa near the Potala Palace and offered it to that Tatsag in celebration of the success of the Gurkha War. A Qing inscription translated by Hugh Richardson at the site of the monastery states that the Chinese military commander Fu Kang'an (d.1796) and the amban Helin, who served in Lhasa in 1793, founded this as a religious offering for the military victory. The inscription also gives possession of the temple to the Tatsag in perpetuity. It henceforth served as the seat of the Tatsag incarnation, and subsequent incarnations of the Tatsag Jedrung were also known as the Kundeling Hutuktu.

After the 1804 death of the Eighth Dalai Lama, the Qing record of the process of selection of his reincarnation shows that the regent was able to supersede the Qianlong Emperor's 1793 stipulation that the Golden Urn was to be used for the identification of all subsequent Dalai Lama incarnations – an attempt on the part of the Qing to control the means of identifying major incarnations. He held a prayer for the rebirth of the Eighth Dalai Lama, which was printed and distributed all over Tibet, and was in charge of the selection of the Ninth Dalai Lama, Lungtok Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 09 lung rtogs mtsho, 1805-1815) in 1808. An edict from this same year by the Jiaqing Emperor (r. 1796-1820) inscribed on a set of stone tablets outside the Jokhang Temple attempted to justify the omission of the use of the Golden Urn while still maintaining the case that the Qing held influence over the process. It stated that the selection was made after the Dalai Lama had chosen a set of correct objects that had belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, arguing that the process in this case was legitimate, but that the Golden Urn must be used in the future.

The regent died on December 30, 1810 at the age of fifty-one, at Kundeling Monastery. Conflicting accounts of his death exist; either he died peacefully, or he committed suicide. The absence of records of his death in the Qing Imperial Records (Qing shi lu) despite being available for his predecessors, raises questions as to whether or not he was held in good regards by the Emperor at the time of his death.

Liz Flora received an MA in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University in 2013.
[Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. January 2016].

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