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The lineage of the Dalai Lamas extends back into history for more than 600 years. Fourteen men have held the title; and all of them have been learned and holy - some more than others.
Just as Alfred, Charlemagne, and Catherine rose above the crowd of European potentates, only two Dalai Lamas have so far set themselves apart, and been called 'Great'. They were the 5th Dalai Lama, builder of the Potala Palace1, and the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso.
Thubten Gyatso was a small, rather frail man with a pockmarked complexion. He became Dalai Lama at a time when Tibet was in imminent danger of being destroyed by the machinations of Russia, China, and Great Britain. There were also serious problems within Tibetan society; the ruling elite had become corrupt and the power of the monasteries had become oppressive.
The Great Thirteenth rose to the challenge by addressing the problems within Tibetan society, such as petty regionalism and the traditional rivalries of the monastic orders; he created a small national army and tried desperately to establish diplomatic links with other nations in order to extricate Tibet from the web of treachery being spun around it.
He was born in Southern Tibet in 1876, at a time when the prestige of the Dalai Lama was at a very low ebb. His four most recent incarnations had been little more than figureheads, manipulated in a struggle for secular power. They had all died young. The influence of the Manchu emperors of China had grown during this period of instability, as had the imperial ambitions of the European powers.
The young Dalai Lama found Himself alone at the centre of this miasma of intrigue and corruption. To His people, He was a powerful symbol of authority; but He was still a boy at the mercy of seasoned politicians, many of whom were completely unscrupulous, even regicidal. His prospects for a long and productive life were far from good. Nevertheless, Thubten Gyatso managed not merely to survive but to succeed in this dangerous environment.
There were also many good and honest men among His advisors; and many of His people were eager for reform. Nevertheless, the vested interests of the ruling elite were a huge obstacle to overcome.
One such problem was the Great Prayer Festival, the Monlam Chenmo, during which the population of Lhasa doubled, as monks and nuns from all over Tibet packed into the city. Traditionally, control of the city was awarded to one of the great monasteries (Drepung, Ganden, and Sera) for the three-week duration of the festival. The monasteries would bid for the right to administer the ceremonies and provide security. Unfortunately, a new tradition had evolved in which the representatives of the winning candidate imposed such a scandalous array of fines and taxes on the lay population, in order to recoup its investment, that ordinary Lhasans had become accustomed to running away to the countryside, while the monks were in town, in order to avoid bankruptcy.
The Dalai Lama is said to have sent for the monks in charge of the festival and demanded to be told who had given them the authority to wield such abusive power.
They replied, 'By the authority of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama.'
'And who is the Great Fifth Dalai Lama?' He persisted.
Of course, they had to concede that the young man before them was the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, literally in the flesh.
The Great Game
The political intriguing that ultimately led to the end of Tibet's existence as an independent country is referred to as 'The Great Game'. Sadly, no one thought to ask Tibetans whether or not they wanted to play.
The seeds of distrust between Tibet and Britain, which resulted in Sir Francis Younghusband's military expedition, were sown in 1876, when Britain signed the Chefoo Convention with China, which placed Tibet in the sphere of Chinese influence in exchange for British rights to exploit Burma. This was considered something of a coup for British diplomacy, because, in addition to paving the way for further colonial expansion, it guaranteed the lucrative trade with China and placed the Manchu Empire as a buffer between British India and the expanding Russian Empire.
Naturally, the Tibetans were insulted by being bypassed by the British, and refused to acknowledge the terms which granted Britain any rights to pursue trade in their country. They refused to recognise any further British overtures and returned letters addressed to the Dalai Lama unopened.
The British, for their part, mistook Tibetan reticence as evidence that they were seeking an alliance with Russia. This fear was supported by the visits made by Tibetan emissaries to the court of the Czar and the close cultural ties between Tibet and the Buddhist subjects of Russia's recently acquired domain in Central Asia.
In a sequence of events which would be comic if not for their ultimately tragic consequences, the British occupied Lhasa in 1904, forcing the Dalai Lama to withdraw to Mongolia and ultimately to China. Then, in 1909, the Manchus, no doubt suspicious of British expansionism, invaded Tibet, forcing the Dalai Lama to seek refuge in British India.
When the Qing Dynasty of Manchu-ruled China collapsed in 1911, the Tibetans were able to drive the invaders from their soil and restore some semblance of normalcy to Tibet... until the Communists defeated the Nationalist government in 1949; and Chinese attention once again turned to Tibet.
Sir Charles Bell
Sir Charles Bell was a career diplomat in the service of the British Raj, the personification of the grandeur of an empire that spanned the world. The Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet was the spiritual and temporal leader of a remote and isolated theocracy in the heart of the Himalayas. Sir Charles represented the power and limitless potential of the new century. The Dalai Lama was the literal embodiment of an ancient lineage, an incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the ruler of one of the most inaccessible and forbidding places on earth. That the two men should find so much in common and develop a bond of deep and lasting friendship is a wonder that does credit to them both. Sir Charles' biography of the Dalai Lama, Portrait of a Dalai Lama: The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth2 is the story of that friendship.
The book takes us into a bygone Tibet, fearful of and hostile to outsiders. He brings to life the cold and dusty streets of Lhasa, a capital hundreds of years out of step with the modern world, and introduces us with remarkable sensitivity to a culture that is so alien to our own that it could easily belong on another planet. He describes the hardship, the inconvenience, the discomfort of life on the cold, arid Tibetan plateau in a way that emphasizes the dignity of the people who flourish there.
That hygiene in Tibet at the turn of the 20th Century was low by the standards of a cultured European is not ignored; but through his eyes we see that the comparison is unimportant in a near arctic climate. And the dustiness of a noble's home is insignificant when measured against the hospitality and warmth of a noble spirit. We see that what Tibet lacked in material development it made up for in a level of ethics and philosophical sophistication that might have been the envy of the world.
The Great Thirteenth3 brought his country to terms with the new age. He modernized government, the judiciary, and Tibet's tiny army through sheer hard work and unflinching determination, in the face of fierce opposition from monks and aristocrats. Sir Charles shows us a lonely man driven by a powerful vision. The Dalai Lama desperately tries to redefine Tibet's relationship with its powerful neighbours, Russia, British India, and China, which looms menacingly on the horizon. Both men clearly saw the impending Chinese onslaught, and both recognised the tragedy of what was to befall Tibet.
Sir Charles Bell gives us a unique insight into the personality of the man behind the ritual and pageantry of his high office. He shows us a man of profound intelligence and sensitivity, a man of wit and humour, a man quick to anger, a man of compassion. This man, who ruled with absolute authority and was revered as a living god, gave Sir Charles Bell his friendship; and, through his eyes, we see a man of warmth and charm, who loved his dogs and his garden. This is a moving book one should feel very privileged to read.
The Measure of Greatness
What makes a person 'great'? We often use the term rather loosely, describing sports heroes or musicians as 'great'. In that sense, we usually mean that they demonstrate a level of accomplishment beyond that of their peers.
Dalai Lamas are, by definition, a cut above the ordinary. What made the 13th Dalai Lama special was the sheer superhuman scope of His work. Any one aspect of His life's work would be an impressive accomplishment. This frail son of a peasant farmer travelled, taught, brought reforms and bestowed blessings, wrote profound and profoundly beautiful commentaries on ancient texts, laid the foundation of a modern state (albeit one that was crushed in its infancy), and restored the prestige of His ancient lineage to a degree not seen since the 17th Century and the days of the Great Fifth.
Perhaps the truest way to measure greatness is by how a person is remembered. Thubten Gyatso is revered as a Dalai Lama, but He is truly and deeply loved as The Great Thirteenth.
Portrait of a Dalai Lama: The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth, first published in 1946, is available in paperback from Wisdom Books London (1987).
The Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred Legacy of Reincarnation by Glenn H Mullin (Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama), published by Clear Light Publishers (2001).