29 April 2008
Paul Williams is Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy, in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. When I suggested I interview him about his work on Madhyamaka philosophy, he replied that it was so appallingly tedious that no-one would want to read about it, so why didn’t I talk to him instead about his latest book – a translation from Tibetan of the erotic poetry of the Sixth Dalai Lama. It was an invitation I couldn’t resist.
Sonam Gyatso became, in the same moment, both the First and the Third Dalai Lama. The title was bestowed on him by the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan in 1578 when Sonam Gyatso, the most revered and scholarly monk of the Drepung monastery in Tibet, converted Altan Khan to the Geluk tradition of Buddhism. “You are so learned,” said Altan Khan to Sonam Gyatso, “to me you are like an ocean.”
By the 13th century, the leading hierarchs of the different Buddhist traditions in Tibet had already instituted the idea of succession by reincarnation. The tradition probably evolved as a way of securing succession among monastic groups where, of course, they are supposed to be celibate and not have children. An advanced Buddhist practitioner would know how to control his own rebirth, which would provide clues as to how the reincarnation could be discovered. He would take on rebirth out of a compassion for others, thereby carrying on the Buddhist ethos of helping people. So when the title of Dalai Lama was bestowed on Sonam Gyatso he actually became the Third Dali Lama – even though it was the first time anyone had held the title – because he was already recognised as being the third descendant in a series of reincarnations. This meant, of course, that the First and Second never knew they had been Dalai Lamas.
The Fourth Dalai Lama was a Mongol, and the Fifth, a Tibetan, was the first to be put in control, by the Mongols, of the whole of Tibet. By the standards of autocratic rulers, he was relatively tolerant and benign – he employed members of other Buddhist schools in his government, was a strong personality who brought stability to Tibet, and was much admired by the Chinese emperor because he controlled the Mongols for them. The period of his rule is often thought of as being a golden age for Tibet. As a consequence, Ngawang Lozang Gyatso became known as the Great Fifth Dalai Lama.
By the time of the Great Fifth, a Dalai Lama was effectively thought to be a direct manifestation of a Buddhist divinity on Earth. To establish himself in this role, Ngawang Lozang Gyatso commenced building the Potala Palace in Lhasa, named after the sacred site said to be in India where the divine being lived. Unfortunately, he died before it was complete. His Regent, fearing that if he let it be known the Dalai Lama had died the palace wouldn’t be finished, the Dalai Lama would not be properly established as a divinity on Earth, and instability would occur, gave out that Ngawang Lozang Gyatso had gone into retreat – and kept his death a secret for 15 years.
Tsangyang Gyatso, the child eventually recognised as the reincarnation of the Great Fifth, was born in 1683 in the far south of Tibet. When he was two years and eight months old, he and his parents were taken away from their village and kept in squalid conditions while he was subjected to tests and examinations that, it was hoped, would confirm he was indeed the reincarnation. This situation lasted till he was 13, thus his childhood was effectively one of imprisonment, hunger, abuse and, initially, a very real fear that he would be killed. Not one conducive to producing a wise and just ruler.
Eventually the secret of the Great Fifth’s death got out and Tsangyang Gyatso, now in his early teens, was ordained as a novice monk and in 1697 enthroned in Lhasa as the Sixth Dalai Lama. But four years later, when he was expected to take his full monk’s vows, it became clear that things were not going to plan. Not only did he refuse to take full monastic vows, but he returned the novice vows he had already taken. From now on, he decided, the Dalai Lama would be a layman. And have fun.
Tsangyang Gyatso dressed flamboyantly, roamed the streets and brothels, drank alcohol publicly, engaged in archery competitions and enjoyed pranks with his friends. He even wrote erotic poetry. Could the Sixth Dalai Lama really be a reincarnation of the Great Fifth? It seems many felt he wasn’t, and Tsangyang Gyatso was soon deposed. As the Mongols led him away under arrest, monks from the Drepung monastery came to his rescue, believing he was the genuine reincarnation, but when the monastery was attacked Tsangyang Gyatso gave himself up to prevent bloodshed. As he was being taken to China, the Sixth Dalai Lama fell ill and – according to Chinese and Mongol sources – died in a remote part of Tibet in 1706. He was only 23 and to this day there is a suspicion that he was murdered. His is the only body of a Dalai Lama not to be buried in Lhasa.
Tsangyang Gyatso had little interest in his role as the Dalai Lama and no interest whatsoever in the murky world of Tibetan politics. But he left behind verses in which he shows he was really torn between the life of religion and his love affairs. Sadly, he fails to offer a critique of the system that wished to incarcerate him in its religion and politics – and that is what makes his case so poignant. To him, it was all just so unfair.
Paul Williams’ book, Songs of love, poems of sadness: the erotic verse of the sixth Dalai Lama, is published by IB Tauris.
6th Dalai Lama
The Drepung Monastery
Dead - the mirror of deeds, Held by the King of Hell. Here it's just not been right; Once there, please make it so.
Mighty serpent-demon - He's behind. But who cares! The sweet apple's in front. Yes, I think I shall pluck
Folk gossip about me. Sorry - yes, I'm to blame! A lad's three tiptoe steps - Oh - I've reached the brothel!
First, better not to see - Falling in love's senseless. Second, better not to know - Misery's senseless too.