The biography of the 7th Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso (1708–1757), is an excellent example of the intersection of the grand historical narrative and the individual story that is one of the hallmarks of biographies. The 7th Dalai Lama lived during a period of intense geopolitical struggle, as the Manchu Qing Dynasty in China increasingly formalized its rule of Tibet. Raised and educated largely in exile, he emerged as a tantric master and a prolific author, as well as a capable and thoughtful leader who took control of the government for the last decade of his life.
Kelzang Gyatso was born in Litang, in Kham, a fact that most Tibetans know from the popular poem attributed (apocryphally) to the 6th Dalai Lama (1683–1706) that is said to predict his birth: “White crane lend me your wings. I will not fly far; from Litang I shall return.” Indications that he was the rebirth of the 6th Dalai Lama soon reached Lhasa and created trouble for then ruler of Tibet Lhazang Khan (1677–1717), who had earlier deposed the 6th Dalai Lama in response to the young man’s refusal to fulfill the duties of his office. He then installed his own son as the official reincarnation of the 5th Dalai Lama (1617–1682), to the widespread disapproval of Tibetans. The growing support behind Kelzang Gyatso’s claim to be the 7th Dalai Lama thus severely complicated his rule.
When Lhazang Khan sent representatives to Litang to investigate, the boy’s family went into hiding. They fled first to Derge, then to Amdo, where Geluk hierarchs in the region officially—if only secretly—confirmed his identity as the 7th Dalai Lama. Exploiting the growing relationships between Geluk monasteries in Amdo and the new Manchu Qing Dynasty in Beijing, the Kangxi Emperor sent representatives to escort Kelzang Gyatso to Kumbum Monastery and issued a proclamation affirming his identity. It was a move that effectively put the Qing court on both sides of a growing leadership struggle in Lhasa: Beijing would patronize the Dalai Lama even as the Emperor continued to recognize Lhazang Khan’s rule in Lhasa.
Forced to remain in Kumbum, Kelzang Gyatso received his initial monastic training there. But in 1717, Dzungar Mongols invaded Tibet and deposed Lhazang Khan. A combined force of Manchu and Tibetan armies drove out the rampaging Dzungars, and in 1720, Kelzang Gyatso was finally able to go to Lhasa, accompanied by the Qing Emperor’s fourteenth son—a clear demonstration that the Dalai Lama was entering Lhasa as a dependent of the Qing court. The Fifth Panchen Lama, Lobzang Yeshe (1663–1737) received the 7th Dalai Lama.
Still, all was not solved. Mongol factions continued to chaff against increasing Manchu influence in Tibet and border regions. In 1723, a rebellion in Amdo resulted in a scorched earth campaign by the Qing armies that destroyed dozens of monasteries. The 7th Dalai Lama successfully petitioned the Emperor to end the reprisals, and the monasteries were rebuilt with Imperial funds.
With Mongol uprisings temporarily behind him, the young Dalai Lama next faced a political scandal that forced him and his family into exile. His father, ennobled in accordance with custom for families of the Dalai Lama, meddled in administrative affairs and was implicated in a coup attempt in which officials opposing Manchu involvement Tibetan governance murdered officials supporting the Manchus. The coup failed, and the Qing consolidated rule under a single Tibetan, Polhane Sonam Tobgyel (1689–1747), who had survived the coup attempt. One of Polhane’s first acts was to exile the 7th Dalai Lama and his family. The Qing were loath to turn their back on the Dalai Lama, and so built a monastery for him at Gartar, on the Sino-Tibetan borderland. For the next eight years the Dalai Lama studied and practiced, emerging as a master of the Guhyasamaja, one of the main Geluk tantric traditions.
In addition to his practice he also authored numerous commentaries and works in other genres, which were collected in seven volumes. Most admired are the religious poems, offering homely advice and instructions for practice. He is said to have given novice ordination to some 9,774 men and full ordination to another 16,993, as well as lay vows to thousands of men and women. Among the prominent Geluk lamas that he taught were Longdol Lama Ngawang Lobzang (1719–1794); the 57th Ganden Tripa, Samten Puntsok (1703–1770); the 61st Ganden Tripa, Ngawang Tsultrim (1721–1791); and the 2nd Jamyang Zhepa, Konchok Jigme Wangpo (1728–1791).
In 1735 Kelzang Gyatso was permitted to return to Lhasa under the condition that he stay out of politics. However, the death of Polhane in 1747 ushered in yet another era of instability. Polhane’s son and heir shunned the Dalai Lama, sought out support from the Dzungars, and was murdered by Qing representatives, an act that brought a wave of anti-Manchu violence in Lhasa. Following the suppression of the violence, the Qing yet again redesigned the Tibetan government, with power now shared between two Manchu representatives and the Dalai Lama, who would be assisted by Tibetan advisors.
With the backing of both the clergy and the people, the 7th Dalai Lama proved to be a capable leader. He instituted the structure of the Tibetan government that continues in exile, and established a number of civil service institutions such as a school to train officials and an archive. He ruled for only ten years, passing away in 1757.
Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. Tibetans have kept such meticulous records of their teachers that thousands of names are known and discussed in a wide range of biographical material. All these names, all these lives—it can be a little overwhelming. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives are currently mining the primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized for easy searching and browsing.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.