Sonam Gyatso (bsod nams rgya mtsho) was born in 1543 in the Kyisho (skyid shod) region of U to a family with strong ties to the Sakya tradition and the Pagmodru rulers of Tsang. His father was Namgyel Drakpa (rnam rgyal grags pa) was an official in the government. His mother, whose family also had ties to the Pakmodru family, was Peldzom Butri (dpal 'dzom bu khrid). Her father, Wangchuk Rinpoche (dbang phyug rin po che) was a reknowned tantric master in the service of the royal household. Because of negative omens that proceeded his birth, his parents gave him the milk of a white nanny goat, earning him the name Ranusi Chopel Zangpo (ra nu sri chos 'phel bzang po) – “happy boy protected by goat’s milk.”
From a young age he demonstrated unusual interest in all things ritual, and spoke to his parents and those around him of visions of buddhas and bodhisattvas that appeared to him on a seemingly regular basis. A local lama received a vision in which the young child was prophesied to be the incarnation of Avalokitesvara, and from this point forward his reputation spread. By the time he was two years old rumors were spread that he was the reincarnation of Gendun Gyatso (dge 'dun rgya mtsho, 1476-1542) a famous abbot of Drepung (’bras spungs) and Tashilhunpo (bkra shis lhun po), and the following year, in 1546, he was enthroned at Drepung by the rulers of the house of Nedong (sne'u gdong). He took his novice vows with Pa?chen Sonam Drakpa (paN chen bsod nams grags pa, 1478-1554), who gave him the name Sonam Gyatso Pelzangpo Tenpai Nyima Chok Tamche Le Nampar Gyelwa (bsod nams rgya mtsho dpal bzang po bstan pa'i nyi ma phyogs thams cad las rnam par rgyal ba). In 1552 he was made abbot of Drepung, and 1558 became abbot of Sera as well.
Like his previous incarnation, Sonam Gyatso cultivated relations with members of ruling houses across Tibet, receiving an invitation from the king of Guge, Jigten Wangchuk Pegarde ('jig rten dbang phyug pad dkar lde) to propigate the Geluk tradition in Ngari (mnga' ris), although he seems to have declined this. He did become a court minister to the Pakmodru family, visiting the seat at Nedon (sne gdong) in 1559.
In 1564, at the age of twenty-two Sonam Gyatso took full ordination and gave his first teachings at Tashilhunpo Monastery.
Sonam Gyatso founded a number of monasteries. Best known of these is Namgyel Monastery, later the personal monastery of the Dalai Lamas. Initially it was a house at Drepung, named Dratsang Pende Lekshel Ling (grwa tshang phan bde legs bshad gling), and was later absorbed into the Potala by the Fifth Dalai Lama. In 1578, on his way to Mongolia, Sonam Gyatso stopped at the site of Tsongkhapa’s birth, where a monk named Rinchen Tsondru Gyeltsen (rin chen brtson 'grus rgyal mtshan) had founded a small temple in 1560. Sonam Gyatso asked him to expand it, and in 1583 consecrated it as Kumbum Jampa Ling (sku 'bum byams pa gling), which would grow to be one of the largest Geluk monasteries in the world.
Sonam Gyatso's greatest missionary triumph was his forging of a relationship with the Mongol leaders. Altan Khan, the leader of the Tumet Mongols, initially sent a delegation to Drepung in the early 1570s, to invite Geluk heirarchs to Mongolia, without success. A second delegation arrived in 1577, and successfully pursuaded Sonam Gyatso to return with them.
Upon meeting the two agreed to enter into a “patron-priest” relationship (yon mchod) modeled on that of Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen ('phags pa blo gros rgyal mtshan, 1235-1280) and Khubilai Khan in the thirteenth century. For Altan, patronage of the growing Geluk tradition was a way to recreate his forebears’ influence in Tibet; for Sonam Gyatso, the opportunity for Mongol support for his missionary work both inside and outside of Tibet (he had earlier spent time on the Amdo borderlands spreading the Geluk teachings) was surely extremely attractive. It was at this time that Altan Khan gave Sonam Gyatso the title, in Mongolian, of ghaikhamsigh vcir-a dar-a say-in cogh-tu buyan-tu dalai, meaning “wonderful Vajradhara, good, brilliant, commendable ocean” and subsequently shortened to Dalai Lama.
In 1579, with the patronage of Altan Khan, Sonam Gyatso founded Jangchen Monastery in the Khalkha lands. While still in Mongolia Sonam Gyatso received an invitation from the Ming Emperor Wanli to visit Beijing, an offer he refused. On his return to Tibet he passed through Kham and founded established Litang Chode, also known as Ganden Tubchen Chokorling (li thang chos sde; dga ldan thub chen chos 'khor gling) in 1580. The following year the twelfth abbot of Chamdo Jampa Ling, Jedrung Lhawang Chokyi Gyeltsen (rje drung lha dbang chos kyi rgyal po, 1537-1604), invited him to assume the duties of abbot of that monastery, and Sonam Gyatso thus spent about six months in Chamdo teaching, giving transmissions, and revising the monastery's codes. He then returned to Lhasa.
Although Altan Khan died in 1582, Sonam Gyatso again returned to Mongolia, this time at the invitation of Altan’s son, Dugureng. He also spent time among the Odros Mongols, converting them to Buddhism, and the Khalkha Mongols, at the invitation of Abadai Khan, who founded the first Buddhist monastery in Khalkha.
Sonam Gyatso passed away in 1588, in Mongolia, after a period of illness. His remains were interred at Kokekhota.
Miranda Adams. Published September 2008