The Legend of the Rebel Lama

The leader of the Buddhist faith, The Dalai Lama, is a highly revered monk, believed to be the reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, the God that serves to protect all of Tibet. Perhaps the most famous and the most controversial Lama of all time is the sixth, Tsangyang Gyatso. What made him stand so far apart from the others? It all stems from his rebellious character, sheer talent in poetry and romantic love affairs.

Dance Drama - 'Tsangyang Gyatso'

Dance Drama – ‘Tsangyang Gyatso’

The Political Climate that Set the Stage

So, before launching into the legend of Tsangyang, the years leading to his birth must be explored. What was the Fifth Dalai Lama dealing with? This period may be best characterized as one filled with adversity. He also worked to unite the political and spiritual realms, and ultimately succeeded in bringing them together when he became the first Dalai Lama to also lead the secular world.

The Fifth Dalai Lama

The Fifth Dalai Lama

But not all struggle was mended by the Great Fifth. Toward the end of his life, in 1682, Tibet was involved in a tumultuous relationship with its neighbours, the Mongols & Manchus. The strife was the result of these groups having recently conquered China in 1644, which brought fear into the hearts of the Tibetans—they were suddenly at risk of being next, of becoming prisoners in their own home. The atmosphere that flowed from this was one of despair and distress, and it was in this setting that Tsangyang was brought into this world.

His Early Life

As all Lamas, he is believed to have been pre-destined for this holy work. As such, from the moment of his birth, he was god-like, and typically this meant there would be a great ceremony fêting his ordinance. However, because of the difficult times in which he was born, his birth was kept a secret, as was the death of his predecessor. Government officials believed this was the best strategy to maintain an image of a strong, peaceful nation, with a steady leader. In this way, Tibet would be less likely to fall prey to the control of the Mongols & Manchus.

Tsangyang gyatso

The birth place of Tsangyang gyatso

This meant that Tsangyang’s own existence was also kept under wraps, which was accomplished by keeping him separate from the spiritual, religious world. He was born in the border lands near Bhutan to a noble family, but was quickly moved thereafter to a picturesque land outside of Lhasa called Nankartse, where he could be was raised and pampered in seclusion. It would take over ten years before he would become recognized for the god he was, for only then did the people of Tibet deem it safe enough for him to be ordained without significant political backlash.

The Rebel

What perhaps was not taken into consideration when the manner of his upbringing was decided on, was the fact that this decade that he spent in the secular world—the first of his life—comprises some of the most formative years of our development; this is the time that really shapes who we will become. In these crucial years, he developed tastes and habits that were far from godly, namely drinking alcohol and having sex. So, it should have come as no surprise when he refused to give up either of these earthly pleasures that he had become so accustomed to when he became ordained.

Tsangyang gyatso drama

Opera drama related to Tsangyang gyatso

He was known as the “rebel” Dalai Lama for this very reason. Upon moving into the Potala Palace, he would be told to study, for he was in training to become a monk, a role that was to be taken on in addition to his role as the Dalai Lama. However, he was constantly finding ways to shirk these official duties in favour of more pleasurable, self-indulgent activities. After some time had passed and he could not avoid it any longer, he declared what his actions had long made clear: he was not interested in this lifestyle he was being pushed toward, and he was officially renouncing the ordination that was to make him a novice monk. (It must be noted that this didn’t affect his role of Dalai Lama, because, again, he was born into it.)

The lifestyle he was interested in pursuing is one that resembles that of a college student in the Western world. It is said that he was keen on frequenting bars at night, from which he would stumble home from with a loud group of friends, all of whom were—like him—thoroughly intoxicated.

A Mystifying Death

The Lama’s last day on earth took place in December of 1706, when the Manchus finally succeeded in conquering Tibet. At the young age of 24, he was captured on the banks of Lake Kokonor in the nation’s holiest city, Lhasa. Some say this was justified by pointing to his less than spiritual behaviour, while others spout the reasoning given by the Chinese emperor Lha-bzang Khan, which held that he was not even the “true” Sixth Dalai Lama to begin with, and in fact this role belonged to Ngawang Yeshey Gyatso.

Tsangyang gyatso

Kokonor lake

What happened to the captured Tsangyang? Immediately he was exiled from his land. But the details of what happened next are only speculative, and it is unlikely we will ever know more. Some say he escaped from the guard who was ordered to bring him out of China, and proceeded to live in hiding somewhere between China and Mongolia. While others suggest he was brought to his death at the hand of his guard and that his body was never found because the Manchu Emperor ordered it to be discarded. In any case, it remains a great mystery—one that Tibetans are still fond of discussing at length today.

The Eternal Poems

While his unique reputation as a rebellious Dalai Lama will never be forgotten, his chief, tangible legacy lies in the hundreds of short poems he wrote, which have won him the title of the most romantic Dalai Lama to have ever lived. These works of art are held in high esteem because of their lyrical romanticism—ranging in tone from loving, longing and heartbreaking. But another, perhaps greater, reason these are so beloved by the Chinese culture? The belief that they are riddled with secret prophecies and lessons that are just awaiting the reader’s discovery.

Tsangyang gyatso

Books related to Tsangyang gyatso

An example of one of these encrypted poems is the one that he wrote while he was living in exile. At this point, his people were mourning his loss, and fearful of the uncertain future and what it might bring. It is believed that this work was meant to give them some solace, by suggesting his reincarnation, which would allow him to come back and protect them in his next life. The poem goes as follows:

White crane!
Lend me your wings
I will not fly far
From Lithang, I shall return

It is for these numerous beautiful works that Tsangyang was also referred to as the Ocean of Melodious Songs. He was so much more than a ruler. He was an artist, a saviour, a lover. He was relatable. For this, he continues to hold such a special place in the Tibetans’ hearts.

So, are you visiting Tibet soon? Are you interested in ancient, mystical legends? Be sure to visit the old Barkhor Street in Lhasa city and sit in the bars where Tsangyang used to come. Maybe, you will discover more untold stories of this rebellious and romantic Lama. If you do, be sure to tell us what you hear!

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