Few instances of Chinese involvement in Tibetan history are as rife with controversy as that of the Golden Urn. The Urn was used in a method for confirming the identity of reincarnated lamas that was mandated by the Qianlong Emperor in 1792, in the wake of the Nepali invasion of Tibet. Qianlong was disgusted with the stunning incompetence of the Tibetan government and with the rampant corruption in the selection of lamas. (It was an open secret that aristocratic families and monastic factions placed their own contenders on the throne.) Since it was the Chinese army that drove Nepali forces out of Tibet, the Emperor was able to assert the right to reorganize the Tibetan government, and took the opportunity to reform the selection process for reincarnations of major lamas. Tibetan, Chinese, and Western scholars have been debating over the extent to which the Urn was actually used ever since. Biographies are naturally one venue in which the controversy has played out, and a handful of biographies on the Treasury of Lives touch on the use or deliberate avoidance of the Golden Urn.

The Qianlong’s new method, based on an age-old Chinese divination technique, was fairly simple. A search party, having identified several candidates in the traditional manner (dreams, visions, prophesies and the like), would provide the Chinese representative in Lhasa with the names. These names would be written on ivory slips in Tibetan, Chinese, and Manchu—the language of the Qing Dynasty—and put inside the Golden Urn. In front of the Jowo Shakyamuni statue in Lhasa—perhaps the holiest image in Tibet—the Urn would be shaken and the boy whose name was on the first slip to fall out would be confirmed as an incarnation.

While biographies on the Treasury of Lives that deal with the Golden Urn don’t represent a large enough sample to draw conclusions, they do suggest some interesting trends. All belong to the Geluk tradition, which has been dominant in Tibetan politics since the mid-17th century. The biographies also suggest that although the Golden Urn was officially in use until the end of the Qing Dynasty, its use was likely enforced only for the first few decades. Moreover, it seems that after several initial implementations, the Urn was rigged so that only the names of candidates desired by the Tibetan search committees were placed inside.

The Ninth Dalai Lama.

The four short-lived Dalai Lamas—the Ninth through the Twelfth—were all born at a time when the Urn was in use, offering a nice case study. The Ninth Dalai Lama, Lungtok Gyatso (1805–1815), who lived only nine years, was the first to be recognized after the official institution of the new system, and the process of his identification and confirmation reveals Tibetan officials’ disinclination to use it. Tibetan officials favored Lungtok Gyatso over the other candidate, leading the Seventh Panchen Lama, Lobzang Tenpai Nyima (1782–1853), to quickly confirm the selection by traditional means, bypassing the Golden Urn. The new emperor in Beijing, in order to save face, announced that he had given the Tibetan Government his permission to forgo use of the Urn.

The story of the confirmation of the Tenth Dalai Lama, Tsultrim Gyatso (1816–1837), demonstrates that the Urn did little to prevent Tibetan factional fighting. One of the six candidates located was generally agreed upon to be the true successor to the Dalai Lama institution. The death of the Tibetan regent, however, forced a delay in the official installation of the child, and emboldened the Qing representative to push for the use of the Urn, which the families of the rival candidates supported. Nevertheless, Tibetan historians claim that the originally favored candidate was ultimately confirmed without the use of the Urn.

It was the Eleventh Dalai Lama, Kedrub Gyatso (1838–1855), who seems to have been the first Dalai Lama confirmed by the Urn. The 73rd Ganden Tripa, Ngawang Jampel Tsultrim Gyatso (1792–c.1862), who was then regent, had sent search parties to various places, and settled on a single candidate from Kham that was brought back to be confirmed. The Urn was then used to confirm the selection without any reported controversy, but the records do not indicate whether or not another candidate’s name was added to the Urn, suggesting that the first official use of the Urn was rigged.

The Twelfth Dalai Lama, Trinle Gyatso (1856–1875), was also identified using the Urn, and again it seems that the system was rigged. Three infants were brought to Lhasa in 1857, and again one gained the favor of officials. The Tibetan record has it that the Tibetan people urged the regent, the Third Reting Ngawang Yeshe Tsultrim (1816–1863)—possibly with threats of violence—to forgo the Urn, fearing that the obvious candidate might lose. Despite this, the Urn was used, and luckily the preferred candidate again prevailed.

A dozen other biographies on the Treasury of Lives also touch on the use or avoidance of the Golden Urn. For the most part, the historical records are simply not reliable enough to know for certain when it was and was not used. The biographies of the Pakpa Lha (the Eighth and Ninth) and Zhiwa Lha (Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh) incarnations of the period, for example, state without hesitation that the Urn was used, but the same text in which those biographies are written claims that the Fourth Zhiwa Lha, Pakpa Gelek Gyeltsen (1720–1799) was confirmed by Golden Urn in 1723, 70 years before it was instituted. Other biographies such as those of the Third Jamyang Zhepa, Tubten Jigme Gyatso (1792–1855), and the Fourth Ling Rinpoche (c.1811–1853) offer further evidence that the use of the Urn was most likely rigged. Most Tibetans continue to express contempt for the very idea of the Urn as a symbol of Chinese interference in Tibetan affairs, proving that even a rigged system can be symbolically offensive.

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.