Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives mine primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized on their website. The following summarizes the biography of the First Dalai Lama, Gendun Drub, by Miranda Adams.

Dalai Lama II, Gendun Gyatso. Tibet, 18th Century. Ground Mineral Pigment, Fine Gold Line on Cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art.

Did you know that the 2nd Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso (1476–1542), was posthumously identified as the Second Dalai Lama only after the 3rd Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, (1543–1588) was given the title?

Gendun Gyatso (1476–1542), born in the Tanak area of Tsang to a family of yogic practitioners, was identitied as the incarnation of the posthumously recognized 1st Dalai Lama, Gendun Drub (1391–1474), to whom his family had strong connections. He writes in his autobiography that, at the moment of his birth, he faced the direction of Tashilhunpo—an important monastery founded by Gendun Drub—and smiled.

Gendun Gyatso was, by all accounts, an extraordinary child. Tradition tells that he recounted in song his previous lives, expressing his wish to return to Tashilhunpo. He records that upon being scolded by his mother at the age of 3, he responded, “Don’t get annoyed at me or I won’t stay, I’ll go back to Tashilhunpo. My house there is better than here. There’s even molasses for me to eat there.” Soon after, a delegation from the monastery came to his home, and it is said that the child manifested extreme delight at their appearance, greeting each member of the delegation by name, and relating to them as if they were old friends.

Dalai Lama II, Gendun Gyatso. 1900 – 1959. Block print on paper. Collection of Private.

At this time, the tradition of recognizing reincarnated lamas was still somewhat rare, and Gendun Gyatso remained at home for some time before being enthroned as the reincarnation of Gendun Drub at Tashilhunpo in 1487. He trained at the nearby monasteries of Nenying, Nartang, and his family’s monastery of Tanak. In the increasingly sectarian milieu, his family openly embraced many different religious traditions. Gendun Gyatso’s continued embrace of his family’s eclectic traditions no doubt served him well as he sought to spread Geluk teachings. During his youth the Kagyu leaders of Tsang and the Geluk hierarchs of Lhasa were at war.

Even before his studies were completed Gendun Gyatso began to teach and give initiations, and was well liked and regarded by the faithful. In 1494, Gendun Gyatso left for U, where he studied with Jamyang Lekpai Chojor at Drepung Loseling Monastery, taking full ordination and completing his studies. Due to political tensions in Lhasa, Gendun Gyatso accepted invitations to give teachings outside of the Lhasa region.  

For the next 20 years, he spent his time in meditation, pilgrimage, and giving teachings, developing an enormous following in Tibet. Among the many accomplishments of his life, he is remembered for the construction of Chokhor Gyel Metok Tang Monastery in 1509, an institution that later came to be the personal monastery of the Dalai Lamas. Gendun Gyatso also was crucial in the empowerment of Lhamo Lhatso Lake, which played an important role in the recognition of later Dalai Lamas, and is considered the most powerful source of divinations in Tibet to this day.

Gendun Gyatso served as abbot of Tashilhunpo in 1512, and of Drepung in 1517, following the return of Lhasa to Geluk control. He then spent six months a year in Lhasa and resided in Chokhor Gyel the rest of the year. In 1528, he became the abbot of Sera. He also founded Ngari Dratsang in 1541, in response to the growing support for Geluk teachings of the kings of Guge in Ngari. His influence stretched from Ngari (western Tibet) to Kham (eastern Tibet).

Around 1530, Gendun Gyatso built the Ganden Podrang at Drepung Monastery. Built on land donated in 1518 by the Pakmodru leader of the time, it would be the residence of the Dalai Lamas until the Potala was built in the 17th century.

In 1542, at the age of 66, Gendun Gyatso passed away, leaving behind many volumes of verse, composition, instructions, and important temples.


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