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Teacher: Dalai Lama VIII, Jampal Gyatso

Dalai Lama Iconography

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With the death of the Seventh Dalai, Lama Kelsang Gyatso (tA la'i bla ma 07 bskal bzang rgya mtsho, 1708-1757), many of the ecclesiastical and political luminaries of that time gathered together to discuss the future of the institution of the Dalai Lamas. The assembly initially debated whether even to search for the new incarnation, apparently under the influence of some prophecies that indicated there would only be seven incarnations in the lineage. Once they decided in favor of conducting a search, they decided for the first time that an incarnate lama should be appointed to serve as regent until the new Dalai Lama attained his majority and could assume his official duties. The Seventh Demo, Ngawang Jampel Delek Gyatso (de mo 07 ngag dbang 'jam dpal bde legs rgya mtsho, d. 1777) was their unanimous choice for the office.

The Sixth Paṇchen Lama, Lobzang Pelden Yeshe (paN chen 06 blo bzang dpal ldan ye she, 1737-1780) traveled from Tashihlunpo Monastery (bkra shis lhun po) in Shigatse to Lhasa in 1760 in order to consult with the Regent on the process of selecting the new incarnation. According to traditional practices, all of the major oracles were consulted, and reports of special children began to reach Lhasa. Consensus opinion settled on a boy born on the twenty-fifth day of the sixth month of 1758 in Tobgyel Lhari Gang (stob rgyal lha ri sgang) in Tsang, a determination that was confirmed according to customary tests. Objects that had been owned by the Seventh Dalai Lama were mixed in with similar objects, and the child is recorded as having unerringly selected the correct items.

In early 1761, the young incarnation was taken from his parents’ home to meet the Paṇchen Lama, and the latter ceremonially cut a lock of the child’s hair and bestowed upon him the name Lobzang Tenpai Wangchuk Jampel Gyatso (blo bzang bstan pa'i dbang 'phyug 'jam dpal rgya mtsho). At the tender age of three, he began his education under eminent scholars. In 1762, a large procession conveyed the youth to the Potala Palace (po ta la pho brang) in Lhasa where the Paṇchen Lama presided over his enthronement on the Dalai Lamas’ Snow Lion throne.

Marvelous occurrences are said to have punctuated his youth. When he received his novice vows, for example, in 1765, from the Paṇchen Lama, the occasion was marked by the appearance of rainbows around the sun, divine forms in the clouds, songs of praise resounding in the sky, an earthquake, a distant sound like that of a dharma drum, and the pervasive smell of sweet aromas.

The young Dalai Lama studied under many of the great luminaries of the eighteenth century. His most influential teacher was his primary tutor, the First Tsechokling Yongdzin Tulku, Yeshe Gyeltsen (tshe mchog gling yongs 'dzin ye shes rgyal mtshan, 1713-1793). A key disciple of the Fifth Paṇchen Lama, Lobzang Yeshe (paN chen 05 blo bzang ye shes, 1663-1737), Yeshe Gyeltsen was recommended for the position as the Eighth Dalai Lama’s tutor by the Sixth Paṇchen Lama. He was one of the rare figures who was both an exceptional scholar and an accomplished adept. At the time he was appointed as the Dalai Lama’s tutor, Yeshe Gyeltsen was an obscure monk who had received his training at Tashilhunpo Monastery. Subsequently, he had withdrawn to remote regions in the Himalayas in order to undertake extensive retreats over a period of twelve years, during which he attained profound realizations. He exercised significant influence over the young Dalai Lama. The latter’s contemplative nature and his emphasis on practice-oriented literature echo Yeshe Gyeltsen’s own predispositions. Moreover, the tutor’s disinclination to mix Nyingma practices with the strict Geluk regime persuaded the Eighth Dalai Lama not to follow the eclectic nature of earlier Dalai Lamas.

From the beginning of 1771, the teenage Dalai Lama’s education entered into a more advanced phase. He received transmissions and explanations on many of the primary root texts and commentaries of the Geluk tradition, including the Collected Works of the Seventh Dalai Lama, Kelsang Gyatso, the Collected Works of the Second Dalai Lama Gendun Gyatso (tA la'i bla ma 02 dge 'dun rgya mtsho, 1476-1542), the Collected Works of the First Dalai Lama, Gendun Drub (tA la'i bla ma 01 dge 'dun grub, 1391- 1474), and the Collected Works of Khedrubje Gelek Pelzang (mkhas grub rje dge legs dpal bzang, 1385-1438), as well as a large number of tantric subjects.

In 1774, while the sixteen year old Dalai Lama remained in Lhasa, the Paṇchen Lama was occupied back in Shigatse with the visit of the British envoy George Bogle (1746-1781). Ostensibly, Bogel had been sent by the Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings to thank the Paṇchen Lama for his efforts to facilitate peace in Bhutan, where unrest had impaired British commercial interests. Clearly, however, the British also saw this visit as an opportunity to advance relations with Tibet on a broad range of issues.

Bogle and the Paṇchen Lama developed a close personal relationship. Yet, conservative authorities in Lhasa ordered the British delegation to leave Tibet after only five months, and so, in the short-term, it was not possible to build upon their friendship. By 1781, both men were dead, and an opportunity that might have promoted mutually beneficial relations between their countries was lost.

The Regent, Demo Tulku, died in 1777 after serving for two decades. As the Dalai Lama had reached the age of twenty by this point, the Cabinet, his personal attendants, the abbots of the great monasteries, and the monk and lay government officials urged him to assume full political responsibility. However, he declined so that he could complete his studies unhindered. Ngawang Tsultrim (ngag dbang tshul khrims, 1721-1791), who served as the Sixty-first Ganden Tripa from 1777 to 1786, and was posthumously known as the First Tsemonling (tshe smon gling), was appointed as the new Regent.

For some time, the Qianlong Emperor (乾隆, r. 1735-1796) had several times requested the Paṇchen Lama to visit China, but he had declined the invitations, in part because of his fear about the smallpox epidemic then rampant. He had already been forced to retreat to a remote monastery for a while in 1774 in order to avoid an outbreak in Tsang. By 1779, however, he was unable to continue resisting the Qing Emperor’s requests. At the urging of the authorities in Lhasa, he consented to visit China, wintering at Kumbum Monastery (sku 'bum dgon) before arriving in Shayho in 1780.

As he had feared, when he arrived, smallpox was afoot. Rituals were performed in order to abate the epidemic, and the Paṇchen Lama offered prayers to take upon himself the entirety of the illness. He went on to meet with the Emperor, who was so enthused about the esteemed lama’s visit that he learned some colloquial Tibetan. Together, they proceeded on to Beijing accompanied by a large party, whereupon the Paṇchen Lama presided over the Emperor’s seventieth birthday. The two spent many hours discussing Buddhism. Despite his best efforts, however, the Paṇchen Lama came down with smallpox and died.

As relations between the Qing Court and Tibet became closer throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it became rather routine for Tibetan incarnate lamas to spend time in China. The Second Changkya, Rolpai Dorje (lcang skya 03 rol pa'i rdo rje, 1717-1786), for example, was raised in the household of the Emperor, serving as a royal envoy on various occasions. These close connections between the Qing Court and the Tibetan lamas, which expanded greatly during the life of the Eighth Dalai Lama, reflect the mutual benefit each side received through their exchange. As had been the case since the very origins of the so-called Preceptor-Patron relationship in the thirteenth century, the lamas in the equation received significant support of various sorts for their religious projects, patronage for the construction of temples, monasteries, stūpas, and the like, protection from indigenous and foreign enemies, and a certain species of legitimacy that only derives from a close relationship with a great power.

At the same time, the patrons in the equation willingly participated because it allowed them to construe themselves as Buddhist kings, following the paradigm laid down by Buddha’s own royal patrons. By taking on the role of patronizing a great religious figure, they thereby assimilated to themselves the authority and legitimacy inherent in that mythology. Tibetan lamas served to uphold and authenticate Qing emperors by representing them within legitimizing religious narratives. Not only could these royal figures justifiably take pride in their contributions to Buddhist causes, but Tibetan lamas also found reason to portray them as Bodhisattvas. This mutual authentication between Tibetan Buddhist lamas and either emperors in China or khans in Mongolia had been going on since the thirteenth century, and many Tibetans have remained anxious to see that mutually beneficial exchange as representing the essence of the Preceptor-Patron relationship. By the time of the Eighth Dalai Lama, however, the Ambans, the official Imperial representatives in Lhasa, had also begun to insinuate themselves into the actual administration of Tibetan affairs.

In 1781, the religious and political elite of Tibet once again requested that the Dalai Lama assume full responsibility for the government. Being so devoted to his education and his spiritual practice, he continued to resist, but he reluctantly agreed provided that the Regent Ngawang Tsultrim remain in service at his side. This arrangement was maintained until the Regent retired from his post in 1786. That same year, the Third Changkya died in Beijing, and the Emperor requested that Ngawang Tsultrim replace him. Historians have suggested that the request way to remove a strong figure from Lhasa so that the Amban would have a freer hand.

In 1783, at twenty-five years of age, the Dalai Lama traveled to Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. He performed the flower consecration at the silver stūpa of the previous Paṇchen Lama at the request of many of the senior lamas there. Thereafter, he presided over the identification of the Seventh Paṇchen Lama, ceremonially cutting a lock of the child’s hair, and bestowing upon him the name Lobzang Pelden Tenpai Nyima (paN chen 07 bstan pa'i nyi ma, 1782-1853). Hoping to reactivate the relationship that had been dormant since the deaths of the Third Paṇchen Lama and George Bogle, Warren Hastings (1732-1818) sent a congratulatory mission to mark the identification of the Fourth Paṇchen Lama, delegating his own relative, Samuel Turner (1759-1802), for the purpose. These renewed diplomatic efforts did not ultimately result in much enduring benefit and Hastings was recalled to England.

In 1784, the Eighth Dalai Lama began construction of the Kelzang Palace at Norbulingka (nor bu gling ka), a park a few miles west of the Potala where previous Dalai Lamas had traditionally bathed in the medicinal waters. From that point on, it became the custom of the Dalai Lamas to spend part of the summer at the Palace. Grand processions would accompany the Dalai Lamas’ transit from Norbulingka to the Potala Palace and back.

The Dalai Lama ruled Tibet on his own from 1786 until 1790, an era that was trying and perilous for the country. From his early adulthood, he had evinced a powerful disinclination towards politics, and his attitude did not change when the Gurkhas in Nepal began to foment tensions along the southern border in 1788. With events about to spin out of control, he sought to transfer primary political power to others.

The Gurkha King Prithvinarayan Shah had seized control over the entirety of Nepal in 1769, and he and his successors worked to extend their reach to the further stretches of the chaotic Himalayan region. Tension between the Gurkhas and the Tibetans emerged when they sided with different parties in the 1775 Bhutan-Sikkim conflict. Further stimulus to the tensions was provided by conflicts over trade and exchange rates. And a conflict between family members of the previous Paṇchen Lama over who should inherit patronage he had received in China resulted in an infamous incident of national betrayal: the dispute came to a head when one of them, the Tenth Zhamar, Chodrub Gyatso (zhwa dmar 10 chos grub rgya mtsho, 1741/1742-1792), while on pilgrimage in Nepal, encouraged the Gurkhas to invade and seize the riches at Tashilhunpo Monastery.

In 1787, the first of two Gurkha-Tibet wars erupted when the Nepali forces invaded Tsang. After the Nepalis had taken several border towns, the Tibetan government called up forces and urged the Amban to appeal to the Emperor for reinforcements, which succeeded in forcing the Gurkhas out of Tibet, but not without a financial cost. The Tibetans were ambivalent about Qing assistance since the large army threatened to strain available resources, and the Emperor’s representatives, including the Amban, Bazhong 巴忠, who concealed the terms of the settlement from Beijing, seemed intent on settling even on unfavorable terms. The resulting treaty required the Tibetans to pay an indemnity to Nepal, an unhappy result that involved further hardship for the Tibetans. In light of the many losses experienced by Tibet during this period, it was determined that the management skills of the Regent Ngawang Tsultrim were required once again, and he was recalled from China in 1790 after an absence of four years. Before long, he passed away, and his replacement in China, the Eighth Tatsak Tenpai Gonpo (rta tshag 08 bstan pa'i mgon po, 1760-1810) was appointed as the new Regent just as tensions with the Gurkhas once again threatened to erupt into outright war in 1791.

When further negotiations commenced between Tibet and the Gurkhas, the Tibetan delegation, including the acting head of the government, Doring Tendzin Peljor (rdo ring bstan 'dzin dpal 'byor, b. 1760), was captured and sent to Nepal. Meanwhile, the Gurkha armies once again attacked Tsang, forcing Tibet to recruit troops from throughout the country. Religious services were also performed at many of the large monasteries. Panic ran through Lhasa when reports indicated that Gurkha troops had sacked Tashihlunpo Monastery, and the Qing Amban Baotai 保泰sent an appeal to the Emperor. The Amban and many others urged the Dalai Lama to withdraw to Chamdo (cham mdo) in Kham together with the young Paṇchen Lama. However, he refused to leave, instead holding a large ceremony at Lhasa’s Jokang Temple (jo khang). When the public had gathered, the Dalai Lama used the opportunity to rally public opinion and steel their resolve. According to legend, as he spoke, perspiration broke out on the face of the Pelden Lhamo statue. Meanwhile, monasteries, temples, and the government took measures to conceal their valuable treasures, anticipating an attack on Lhasa.

Tibetan troops moved into Tsang, severing the Gurkhas’ supply routes. Meanwhile, the Qianlong Emperor sent twenty thousand troops under the General Fu Kang'an福康安 (1753-1796), and a separate contingent of ten thousand imperial troops arrived during the first day of 1792. By that time, Tibetan sources indicate that the main Gurkha army had been repulsed. Qing and Tibetan troops together drove the remnants of the Gurkha’s invading forces back across the border into Nepal. The Gurkhas initially hoped to continue the war with British assistance, but Lord Cornwallis (1738-1805), the British Viceroy in India, rebuffed their appeals. In the end, the Gurkhas, hoping to salvage their position, blamed the entire adventure on the Tenth Zhamar, who died under mysterious circumstances soon thereafter.

In the aftermath of this unsettled period, all parties strove to avoid further conflicts. Since debased coins issued in pre-Gurkha Nepal had provided one of the initial causes of the war, Tibet began minting its own high quality coins in 1792. The Dalai Lama withdrew entirely from political affairs. The Tibetan government, under the guidance of the Regent, the Eighth Tatsak, punished several government officials for their part in recent events, and efforts were also made to reform the operation of the government.

At the same time, after having to dispatch two separate armies to the distant Himalayan region within a few years, the Emperor resolved to play a more active role in Tibetan affairs. The Twenty-Nine Article Imperial Ordinance, also known as the Water Ox Year Document (shui niu nian wenshu水牛年文書) was issued redefining the character of Sino-Tibetan relations, the result of which was that the Qing Court was able to enact a much tighter control over Tibetan affairs.

The provisions of the order represent the Qing Amban as running the entire government on a detailed basis, with authority to issue orders relating to the organization of the military, ranks of government officials and nobility, appointments to positions of power within monasteries, visits to Tibet by non-Tibetans, and so forth. The authority and functions of the Dalai Lama and the Paṇchen Lama are also strictly defined. The most symbolically potent assertion of Qing imperial power relates to the process of selecting the Dalai Lamas, Paṇchen Lamas, and a handful of other incarnations deemed important by the Qing court. The order declared that the new incarnations were to be selected by placing the names of candidates on pieces of metal or paper and drawing one at random from a Golden Urn supplied by the Emperor. Although it was made to seem like an appealing depoliticization of the selection process, most Tibetans disliked the interference intensely, and it has remained a source of controversy ever since.

Throughout all this upheaval, the Eighth Dalai Lama attempted to live a religious life. While not as prolific an author as some of his more scholastically oriented predecessors in the incarnation lineage, he wrote prayers, ritual texts, and other practice-oriented literature, specializing to a degree in rites relating to the lesser-known cycle of Mahāmāya Tantra. Aside from such texts, he composed two major works. The first of these was a catalog describing the reliquary of one of his principal teachers, the Sixth Paṇchen Lama. His most extensive text is a large biography of Yeshe Gyeltsen, his primary tutor and his Regent for twenty-one years.

Throughout his life, the Dalai Lama had worked in an understated fashion to improve the status of Buddhist institutions in Tibet. However, in 1804, his health began to deteriorate. Services were performed on his behalf, but ultimately, he came down with a case of pneumonia. The Court Physician Tsarong wanted to administer a treatment of cold water therapy, and the Dalai Lama was taken to Norbulingka for the purpose. He seemed to improve over the next few days, but then his suffering increased. The Eighth Tatsak presided over the performance of rituals intended to reverse his illness. As his vitality declined, he asked to meet with members of the monastic community, and many monks visited him before he succumbed to death. He was forty-seven years old.

This essay was adapted from "The Eighth Dalai Lama Jampel Gyatso", in Martin Brauen, editor, The Dalai Lamas, Chicago: Serindia, pp. 117-135.

Derek Maher is Associate Professor, Religious Studies Program, and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies at East Carolina University. Published March 2017.[Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. March 2018]


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