poem1 copy

The sixth Dalai Lama, T’sangyang Tshomo Gyatso—the Ocean of Melodious Song—was a man suspended between worlds. He was at once the spiritual and secular head of Tibet, and also—in the words of Tibetologist L. C. Petech—”one of the finest poets of Tibet, nay, the only erotic poet of that country.” He was the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, and he was a young man with a well-developed taste for women, wine, and song. He was uninterested in the elaborate political intrigues of eighteenth-century Tibet, and yet his role as a pawn in those same intrigues ultimately cost him his life. And finally, he was either a “false” Dalai Lama who lived a corrupt and dissolute life, or an advanced Tantric yogi who had mastered the secret path by which one could reach the bliss of spirit by way of the joys of the flesh.

To the Tibetans, he was both Dalai Lama and lover, both spiritual teacher and poet. In his poems, he refers to himself as “The Turquoise Bee,” a conventional poetic conceit. Wandering minstrels sang his songs on the streets of Lhasa; young men sang them in the taverns; yak herders murmured them in the high mountain pastures. Everyone could sympathize with the bittersweet stories his songs recounted and with the unpretentious, vulnerable, and independent spirit they revealed. Here was a human being like all other human beings, who fearlessly embraced both desire and truth; and who demonstrated how to live with compassion and awareness in the midst of a world driven by power, jealousy, and ignorance.

The notion that bodhisattvas could take rebirth in human form was prevalent in India even before the time of the Buddha. But in Tibet an intricate system of incarnated spiritual teachers and leaders developed. The First Dalai Lama was Gechen Gyaldo, a leader of the New Translation reformed school—known as the Geluk-pa, or Virtuous Ones—founded by Tsong-Khapa in the fourteenth century. Like all Tibetan Buddhists, the Gelukpas were followers of the Tantric or Vajrayana, the “Diamond Vehicle” that had originated in India. According to this teaching, it was possible for a dedicated practitioner to attain liberation in one lifetime by making use of special upaya, or skillful means. Most of these skillful means were purely meditative in character and involved the use of mantra, yogic exercises, and visualization.

Some of the oldest Tantric schools, however, also included certain secret disciplines involving a consort or yogic partner of the opposite sex. These enabled the practitioner to harness and transform sexuality, as well as other passions, as an aid on the path to enlightenment. The yogis and lamas of the oldest of these schools—the Nyingmapa, or Ancient Ones—were often married laymen. Some of them were highly accomplished practitioners of Dzogchen, or Great Perfection, meditation; others, however, seem to have functioned as traveling magicians, fortune-tellers, and exorcists, who misused the Tantric teachings as an excuse to indulge in worldly pleasures.

Partly in reaction to this degeneration, the Gelukpa emphasized a disciplined monastic life, including strict celibacy and a systematic study of Buddhist philosophy and logic, as well as a graded step-by-step course of meditation. Advanced Tantric practices were included in the Gelukpa curriculum, but were taught to followers only after they had participated in a long period of study. The sexual symbolism of the old Tantras remained as an inner meditation rather than as an actual rite.

The Gelukpas rose to political power when the Third Dalai Lama converted the leader of the Altan Mongols, who installed him as the ruler of Tibet. His leadership was opposed, however, by a coalition of followers of the old translation schools and Tibetan nobles. By the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the country had fallen into a state of near anarchy.

The Great Fifth Dalai Lama, as he came to be known, was a prolific scholar who left works on philosophy, history, and poetics. He was also a deeply compelling spiritual leader. His meeting with Gushri Khan in 1638 resulted in the conversion of the Khan and all his tribesmen to the Gelukpa doctrine. With the Khan backing him, he succeeded in uniting the warring factions of Tibet and ushered in a period of peace. In 1645, he moved his government to Lhasa and laid the foundation for his fortified palace, the Potala, on Red Hill, amidst the ruins of the palace of the king who had brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century. Like the Dalai Lamas, this king was considered an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, and the hill had long been thought to be the sacred abode of the bodhisattva.

During the long reign of the Great Fifth, sectarian rivalry diminished—or at least became less violent. In fact, though he by no means neglected the monks and scholars of his own Gelukpa school, the Great Fifth exhibited a rather unorthodox predilection for the old Tantric school of the Nyingmapa. One of his closest teachers was a master of the Dzogchen teachings.

During the last three years of his life, the Fifth Dalai Lama withdrew from public view, devoting himself more intensively to his spiritual life. He entrusted his affairs to the Desi, his regent or chief minister, who had been groomed for this position since childhood. Indeed, it was commonly thought that the Desi was actually the Great Fifth’s son. This idea was partly given currency by the Great Fifth’s Nyingma leanings. It was also fueled by a popular song recounting how the Great Fifth’s rosary had been found in the house where the Desi was born. None of the rumors, however, affected the high esteem in which the Great Fifth was held.

poem2 copyThe Desi—who was destined to play a key role in the life of the Sixth Dalai Lama was an immensely gifted and worldly man. An erudite scholar, he was the author of treatises on history, medicine, rhetoric, and astrology. At the same time he had a taste for the sensual things in life. He was celebrated for his skill on the piwang, the Tibetan lute. He was also known to have had numerous affairs, and it was whispered that no attractive woman—or young boy—was safe from his advances.

When the Great Fifth died in 1682, the Desi perpetrated a rumor in order to prevent political chaos. He said that the Great Fifth had entered a strict meditation retreat and could not be disturbed. He was motivated by the fear that if the Great Fifth’s death had become known to the various Mongol tribes, held in check by their devotion to him, they would resume their wars, and work on the Potala would not be completed.

And warfare among the Mongols could open the way for the Manchu emperor of China to conquer or, at least, control Tibet. The Desi went to extraordinary lengths to prevent anyone from discovering the truth. To keep his secret, food and drink were prepared for the Great Fifth and left outside his chambers every day. Occasionally, the sound of the Great Fifth’s Tantric bell and drum could be heard. When state papers needed to be signed, the Desi would disappear into the Dalai Lama’s private sanctum and reappear with the papers stamped with the Dalai Lama’s personal seal.

It might appear that the Desi was keeping the Great Fifth’s demise secret for his own purposes. But that does not seem to be the case—or at least not the whole case. (He later explained that the Great Fifth himself had instructed him to keep his death secret.) The Desi did send out clandestine search parties, made up of a few trusted ministers, to seek out the Great Fifth’s reincarnation shortly after his death. Sure enough, in 1685, the discovery of an extraordinary young boy was reported in the border district of Mon. His family were adherents of the Nyingma and relatives of the great terton—or treasure-finder of hidden teachings—Jigme Lingpa of Bhutan.

These circumstances were not in themselves unusual. Incarnations of one school were often reborn in families belonging to another school. And it could even be argued that the new incarnation’s Nyingma background was merely another indication of his authenticity, considering the Great Fifth’s interests in the school.

His age was unusual. Incarnations were generally identified at an early age—by one or two. To protect them from developing a taste of worldly pleasures, they often began their monastic training at the age of four or five. But the difficulties caused by the Desi’s double concealment (he kept the Sixth Dalai Lama in hiding until he was old enough to rule), meant that the Great Fifth’s incarnation did not begin serious training until he was twelve. It is commonly thought that this “late start” was at least partly responsible for the Sixth Dalai Lama’s unconventional lifestyle. We can probably assume that he had already developed the independent spirit which would stand him in such good stead—and get him into so much trouble—later in his life.

poem3 copy

In 1697, when the Sixth Dalai Lama was fourteen, he and his family were moved to Nakartse, under the strictest security. This time, they were received as guests in the mansion of an uncle of the Great Fifth. The Panchen Lama, who had served as the Great Fifth’s tutor, gave the Sixth Dalai Lama both the vows of a novice monk and a prophetic religious name Tsangyang Gyatso, meaning Ocean of Melodious song. Now the Desi felt he could reveal his secret. Ministers were sent out with the news that the Fifth Dalai Lama had died fifteen years earlier and that his new incarnation was on his way to Lhasa. A delegation also set forth to carry the same message to K’ang Hsi, the Manchu emperor in Peking.

The young boy now had an entourage befitting his new status. In addition to the Desi, he had gained a secretary, a chamberlain, attendants, and a tutor. The whole retinue made their way to Lhasa, stopping in the town of Nyethang. Here they were met by a large party of monks and state officials who made offerings to the new Dalai Lama before a great crowd.

Most Tibetans seem to have accepted the Desi’s explanation, but a few senior officials grumbled that he had concealed the Great Fifth’s death far too long. Some of the Mongol princes were also angry at the Desi for his concealment. But the most annoyed of all was K’ang Hsi, the Manchu emperor, who issued an edict to the Tibetan envoy: “If the Dalai Lama is dead, in principle, it is right to inform all thv Lords Protectors of the Faith. . . . We repeatedly sent envoys to ask him. The Desi did not let any of the envoys have an interview with the Dalai Lama. Falsely, he told them that the Dalai Lama was living on the top of a high tower.” The edict ended on an ominous note:

“The Desi,” charged the emperor, “is deceiving the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, and is destroying the faith of Tsong-kha-pa.”

For the moment, the Desi’s audacious ruse seemed to have worked. The Sixth Dalai Lama proceeded to Lhasa and took up residence in the Potala. His formal enthronement that winter was witnessed by state officials, monks from the three major monasteries, Mongol princes, and representatives of the Manchu emperor.

The Sixth Dalai Lama’s training now began in earnest, and he applied himself with great intelligence to his spiritual and secular studies. It soon became clear to his teachers that this Dalai Lama was different from all other Dalai Lamas. He appeared to have no interest in monastic discipline. Neither did he seem to have any taste for the ceremony and protocol that played such an important role in the life of a Dalai Lama. Instead, he lived simply and unostentatiously. In the Potala, he did without servants and courtiers, brewing his own tea and serving his own guests.

Outside the Potala, he went on foot instead of riding horseback. He spent most of his days practicing archery and going on picnics with his aristocratic young friends. When he delivered the religious discourses that were part of his training, he bypassed the learned monks in the assembly halls and spoke instead to ordinary people in the public parks in language they could understand.

poem4 copy copy

But he had a secret. During the day, as we know from his poems, he had to conceal the affairs he had with the ladies of the aristocracy. His love poems from this period tell of flirtations with daughters of great officials, of catching a smile from his seat in the row of lamas, and of the ever-present need for secrecy.

At night, he would rise from his chambers in the upper palace, don a disguise, and surreptitiously slip out a backdoor. He would make his way across the fields to Shol town disreputable section of lower Lhasa. There he would carouse in taverns and brothels, drinking chang (Tibetan barley beer), singing songs, gambling, and often spending the night with whichever lady had stolen his heart. Judging by his poems, he experienced both the ecstasies and anguish of any romantic youth.

Before the sun rose, he would retrace his steps, quietly open the back door, tiptoe through the ornate halls and waiting rooms of the Potala, and slip into bed. When morning came, he would commence his duties as the Dalai Lama.

For a while, he was able to conceal his nightly jaunts. But one morning an attendant noticed footprints in the snow leading to the back door of the Potala. He followed them to a tavern in Shol-town. The Sixth Dalai Lama was exposed.

The Desi had continued to pressure the young man to take the full monastic ordination from the Panchen Lama, but Tsangyang Gyatso had so far managed to avoid the issue. Finally, the Desi asked the Panchen Lama to come to Lhasa to convince the Dalai Lama himself. The Sixth Dalai Lama apparently learned of the Desi’s plans and announced that he had decided to journey to the Panchen Lama’s monastery to receive the vows.

When he finally arrived for the ordination ceremony, an imposing crowd of dignitaries were waiting. Tsangyang Gyatso surprised them again. He prostrated three times before the Panchen Lama, first reciting, “I confess to breaking my lama’s commands,” and then announcing, in front of all the assembled guests, that he would not receive the full monastic vows. Even worse, he insisted on giving up his novice vows as well.

The lamas and nobles pleaded, cajoled, coaxed, and appealed to his sense of duty, but the Dalai Lama held his ground. Finally, it is said, the young Dalai Lama threatened to put an end to his own life if the issue were forced. Faced with this ultimatum, the lamas and nobles had no choice but to accede.

The Sixth Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa his own man. He was no longer a monk, but he was still the Dalai Lama.There was no rule that said the Dalai Lama had to be a monk, though he always had been and, it was assumed, always would be. Nor, for that matter, was there a rule dictating the shape or form an incarnation of Avalokitesvara must take. In fact, there were numerous stories about bodhisattvas who had appeared in whatever form was most helpful at the time, including tavern girls and dissolute youths.

poem5 copy

The Dalai Lama was now able to live openly as a layman. He dressed in light blue silk brocades, let his hair grow long, and decorated his fingers with elegant rings. He went about carrying his beloved bow and quiver and practiced archery at the back of the Potala with his young friends. He wandered around the countryside and continued to visit his old haunts, some of which were painted yellow in commemoration of the nights he had spent there with his lovers.

In the Potala, the Sixth Dalai Lama proved himself a gifted architect. The mortar and cement that held together the towering walls of the Potala had been dug form a clay quarry that now gaped unattractively behind the Red Hill. Tsangyang Gyatso had the quarry flooded to create a large pool. He then had built a lovely temple, which he had designed as a Chinese pavilion. The pavilion gave him a place to entertain his friends and meet his lovers outside the sacrosanct precincts of the Potala.

Tsangyang Gyatso’s carefree ways put the Desi in a difficult position. On the one hand, he cautioned people against criticizing the Dalai Lama, who was the incarnation of Avalokitesvara and therefore the foundation of the Desi’s power. On the other hand, people were talking more and more about the Sixth Dalai Lama’s scandalous behavior. The Mongols in particular, who tended to be rather fundamentalist and puritanical Geluk-pas, were beginning to voice their doubts.

The Qosot Mongol chieftain, Lozang Khan, hoping to assert his position as king—the position once enjoyed by his grandfather, Gushri Khan—had found a powerful ally in the Manchu emperor, K’ang Hsi. The Desi, meanwhile, had entered into friendly negotiations with another Mongol tribe, the Dzungars, with whom the Manchus were hostile. The Desi’s possible alliance with the Dzungars was especially alarming to the Manchus. If the Dzungars gained the Dalai Lama’s support, they might be able to once again unite the other Mongol tribes against the Manchu empire.

poem6 copy copy

The Desi relied on intrigue once again. First he tried to poison Lozang Khan. When that failed, he attempted to assassinate him during the Great Prayer Festival of 1705. Lozang Khan responded by mounting a full-scale attack against the Desi, who was defeated in battle and then beheaded. The Manchu emperor congratulated the Khan on a job well done, and sent imperial representatives “to support Lhazan Khan against the disaffected and to finish putting order among the Lama partisans of the Desi.”

With the Desi out of the way, Lozang Khan and K’ang Hsi now turned their attention to the Sixth Dalai Lama. Lozang Khan accused the Sixth Dalai Lama of being not merely a dissolute and licentious youth, but a heretic who adhered to the dangerous teachings of his relative, the Nyingma treasure-finder Jigme Lingpa. Lozang Khan reported to the emperor, for example, that members of the Sixth Dalai Lama’s secret Tantric circle “took women,” and were “taught the offerings of the symbols of the private parts of men and women. . . “

K’ang Hsi mayor may not have taken these charges seriously, but decided that the time had come to depose the Sixth Dalai Lama. He nevertheless advanced with caution, reminding his councilors, “Although he is false, he still had the name Dalai Lama and all the Mongols follow him.”

In Lhasa, Lozang Khan tried to prepare by putting the question of the Dalai Lama’s fitness to a council of influential lamas and nobleman. But he did not find the unequivocal support he was looking for. The council concluded that “although they were shocked at his behavior, Tsangyang Gyatso was the rightful Dalai Lama,” They did add, however, that “the spiritual enlightenment [bodhi] no longer dwelt in him.”

Neither Lozang Khan nor anyone else could be certain what the learned lamas meant by that statement, but the Khan decided that he could wait no longer. On June 11, 1706, h is troops removed the Sixth Dalai Lama from the Potala and brought him to the Lha-ku gardens on the outskirts of Lhasa. When monks from the three great monasteries attempted to see him, they were forcefully driven back by the Khan’s troops.

On June 27, Lozang Khan declared that Tsangyang Gyatso, the Sixth Dalai Lama, had been deposed and was summoned by imperial decree to go to Peking. As the party escorting the Dalai Lama moved out, a furious crowd of monks attacked them with sticks and stones. They succeeded in rescuing the Dalai Lama, who sought refuge in his summer residence, the Ga-dan palace at Drepung.

The next day, the monks hastily called for the state oracle. Possessed by the god, the oracle “proclaimed that whoever denied that Tsangyang Gyatso was the incarnation of the Great Fifth, was snared by devilish illusions.” The jubilant monks vowed to defend the Dalai Lama at any cost.

On June 29, Lozang Khan’s troops fired on the monastery with artillery. Realizing that the end was near, Tsangyang Gyatso turned to poetry one last time, composing one of his most famous and, at the time, enigmatic songs: “White crane, lend me your skill of wing.” He sent the poem to an unknown lady in Shol-town. Then, hoping to avoid a massacre, he walked out of the palace accompanied by two or three companions. As he was surrounded, he declared, “It’s no matter if I live or die. I’ll meet my lamas and monks again soon.” His companions went down fighting, and the Sixth Dalai Lama let himself be taken.

Tsangyang Gyatso died near Kunga-nor Lake on the journey to Peking, on November 14, 1706, after writing a final death-poem in which he lamented, “things didn’t go right in this life.”

Official Chinese and Tibetan accounts say that he fell ill. Other accounts say he was executed or murdered. The Manchu Court was notified. They replied with terse instructions: “The false Dalai Lama, who had been sent under escort by Ha-Zan, came to fall ill outside the pass of Hsi-ning, and died there of disease. The false Dalai Lama’s behavior was perverse and disorderly. Since he has now died on the way, of disease, we ought to abandon the corpse. The emperor approves of this proposal.”

Thus ended the life of the sixth Dalai Lama. According to one source his body was cremated, the smoke drifting toward the city of Litang, before the emperor’s order to abandon the body was received of all the Dalai Lamas, he is the only one who is not interred in the great mausoleum in the Potala.

With his mortal life ended and his spiritual essence safely passed on, Tsangyang Gyatso entered the world of legend.

It was said that he had not really died at Kunga-nor Lake but had simply vanished in a great fog. According to one story, he had gone to live as a mountain yogi and sheepherder. According to another, he had reappeared as a beggar in Lhasa and had even been spotted in a crowd at the court of the Seventh Dalai Lama. But as soon as he had been recognized, he had vanished. Still another account, tells how he went on a pilgrimage to India and then spent forty years in missionary work among the Mongols.

What is true for us today, however, is that the Sixth Dalai Lama lives still another life. This is the life of his poems. We can hear him taking up his lute in taverns, drunk on chang and dharma, musing on his strange fate, puncturing the pretensions of both worldly and spiritual charlatans, and, finally, singing an ecstatic vajra-song that joins bliss and emptiness.

Tsangyang Gyatso’s is part of a Tibetan poetic lineage that combined the Tantric dohas—or songs of Indiansiddhas or yogis—with popular Tibetan folk songs that satirized the powerful and pompous. Most of these bards sang their songs from the margins of Tibetan society. But Tsangyang Gyatso sang his from the very center of Tibetan political and ecclesiastical power. His poems, like his life, thus possess both an unusual authority and an unusual degree of ambivalence, irony, and paradox.

The Dalai Lama was now able to live openly as a layman. He dressed in light blue silk brocades, let his hair grow long, and decorated his fingers with elegant rings. He went about carrying his beloved bow and quiver and practiced archery at the back of the Potala with his young friends. He wandered around the countryside and continued to visit his old haunts, some of which were painted yellow in commemoration of the nights he had spent there with his lovers.

In the Potala, the Sixth Dalai Lama proved himself a gifted architect. The mortar and cement that held together the towering walls of the Potala had been dug form a clay quarry that now gaped unattractively behind the Red Hill. Tsangyang Gyatso had the quarry flooded to create a large pool. He then had built a lovely temple, which he had designed as a Chinese pavilion. The pavilion gave him a place to entertain his friends and meet his lovers outside the sacrosanct precincts of the Potala.

Tsangyang Gyatso’s carefree ways put the Desi in a difficult position. On the one hand, he cautioned people against criticizing the Dalai Lama, who was the incarnation of Avalokitesvara and therefore the foundation of the Desi’s power. On the other hand, people were talking more and more about the Sixth Dalai Lama’s scandalous behavior. The Mongols in particular, who tended to be rather fundamentalist and puritanical Geluk-pas, were beginning to voice their doubts.

The Qosot Mongol chieftain, Lozang Khan, hoping to assert his position as king—the position once enjoyed by his grandfather, Gushri Khan—had found a powerful ally in the Manchu emperor, K’ang Hsi. The Desi, meanwhile, had entered into friendly negotiations with another Mongol tribe, the Dzungars, with whom the Manchus were hostile. The Desi’s possible alliance with the Dzungars was especially alarming to the Manchus. If the Dzungars gained the Dalai Lama’s support, they might be able to once again unite the other Mongol tribes against the Manchu empire.

poem6 copy copyThe Desi relied on intrigue once again. First he tried to poison Lozang Khan. When that failed, he attempted to assassinate him during the Great Prayer Festival of 1705. Lozang Khan responded by mounting a full-scale attack against the Desi, who was defeated in battle and then beheaded. The Manchu emperor congratulated the Khan on a job well done, and sent imperial representatives “to support Lhazan Khan against the disaffected and to finish putting order among the Lama partisans of the Desi.”

With the Desi out of the way, Lozang Khan and K’ang Hsi now turned their attention to the Sixth Dalai Lama. Lozang Khan accused the Sixth Dalai Lama of being not merely a dissolute and licentious youth, but a heretic who adhered to the dangerous teachings of his relative, the Nyingma treasure-finder Jigme Lingpa. Lozang Khan reported to the emperor, for example, that members of the Sixth Dalai Lama’s secret Tantric circle “took women,” and were “taught the offerings of the symbols of the private parts of men and women. . . “

K’ang Hsi mayor may not have taken these charges seriously, but decided that the time had come to depose the Sixth Dalai Lama. He nevertheless advanced with caution, reminding his councilors, “Although he is false, he still had the name Dalai Lama and all the Mongols follow him.”

In Lhasa, Lozang Khan tried to prepare by putting the question of the Dalai Lama’s fitness to a council of influential lamas and nobleman. But he did not find the unequivocal support he was looking for. The council concluded that “although they were shocked at his behavior, Tsangyang Gyatso was the rightful Dalai Lama,” They did add, however, that “the spiritual enlightenment [bodhi] no longer dwelt in him.”

Neither Lozang Khan nor anyone else could be certain what the learned lamas meant by that statement, but the Khan decided that he could wait no longer. On June 11, 1706, h is troops removed the Sixth Dalai Lama from the Potala and brought him to the Lha-ku gardens on the outskirts of Lhasa. When monks from the three great monasteries attempted to see him, they were forcefully driven back by the Khan’s troops.

On June 27, Lozang Khan declared that Tsangyang Gyatso, the Sixth Dalai Lama, had been deposed and was summoned by imperial decree to go to Peking. As the party escorting the Dalai Lama moved out, a furious crowd of monks attacked them with sticks and stones. They succeeded in rescuing the Dalai Lama, who sought refuge in his summer residence, the Ga-dan palace at Drepung.

The next day, the monks hastily called for the state oracle. Possessed by the god, the oracle “proclaimed that whoever denied that Tsangyang Gyatso was the incarnation of the Great Fifth, was snared by devilish illusions.” The jubilant monks vowed to defend the Dalai Lama at any cost.

On June 29, Lozang Khan’s troops fired on the monastery with artillery. Realizing that the end was near, Tsangyang Gyatso turned to poetry one last time, composing one of his most famous and, at the time, enigmatic songs: “White crane, lend me your skill of wing.” He sent the poem to an unknown lady in Shol-town. Then, hoping to avoid a massacre, he walked out of the palace accompanied by two or three companions. As he was surrounded, he declared, “It’s no matter if I live or die. I’ll meet my lamas and monks again soon.” His companions went down fighting, and the Sixth Dalai Lama let himself be taken.

Tsangyang Gyatso died near Kunga-nor Lake on the journey to Peking, on November 14, 1706, after writing a final death-poem in which he lamented, “things didn’t go right in this life.”

Official Chinese and Tibetan accounts say that he fell ill. Other accounts say he was executed or murdered. The Manchu Court was notified. They replied with terse instructions: “The false Dalai Lama, who had been sent under escort by Ha-Zan, came to fall ill outside the pass of Hsi-ning, and died there of disease. The false Dalai Lama’s behavior was perverse and disorderly. Since he has now died on the way, of disease, we ought to abandon the corpse. The emperor approves of this proposal.”

Thus ended the life of the sixth Dalai Lama. According to one source his body was cremated, the smoke drifting toward the city of Litang, before the emperor’s order to abandon the body was received of all the Dalai Lamas, he is the only one who is not interred in the great mausoleum in the Potala.

With his mortal life ended and his spiritual essence safely passed on, Tsangyang Gyatso entered the world of legend.

It was said that he had not really died at Kunga-nor Lake but had simply vanished in a great fog. According to one story, he had gone to live as a mountain yogi and sheepherder. According to another, he had reappeared as a beggar in Lhasa and had even been spotted in a crowd at the court of the Seventh Dalai Lama. But as soon as he had been recognized, he had vanished. Still another account, tells how he went on a pilgrimage to India and then spent forty years in missionary work among the Mongols.

What is true for us today, however, is that the Sixth Dalai Lama lives still another life. This is the life of his poems. We can hear him taking up his lute in taverns, drunk on chang and dharma, musing on his strange fate, puncturing the pretensions of both worldly and spiritual charlatans, and, finally, singing an ecstatic vajra-song that joins bliss and emptiness.

Tsangyang Gyatso’s is part of a Tibetan poetic lineage that combined the Tantric dohas—or songs of Indiansiddhas or yogis—with popular Tibetan folk songs that satirized the powerful and pompous. Most of these bards sang their songs from the margins of Tibetan society. But Tsangyang Gyatso sang his from the very center of Tibetan political and ecclesiastical power. His poems, like his life, thus possess both an unusual authority and an unusual degree of ambivalence, irony, and paradox.

poem7 copy copy

The Turquoise Bee: The Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama will be published in March and is reprinted with permission from HarperSanFrancisco. The introduction is written by Rick Fields; the translations are by Rick Fields and Brian Cutillo.

The Turquoise Bee: The Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama will be published in March and is reprinted with permission from HarperSanFrancisco. The introduction is written by Rick Fields; the translations are by Rick Fields and Brian Cutillo.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.