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Tibet Mandala
mandala To share and promote interest in Tibetan culture, people and land

The Bohemian Poet - A Short Biography of the Sixth Dalai Lama

by Ivy Hsu
October, 1996
Chinese (BIG5) version

I first became interested in the life story of the Sixth Dalai Lama when I came across a book called "The Turquoise Bee"* by Rick Fields and Brian Cutillo. The first thing that struck me was how unconventional this person was. He was the only Dalai Lama ever to choose to give up his monastic vows. His short, dramatic, and tragic life as well as his talents in poetry bring to my mind the great poetic emperor of China, Li Ho-Ju.

Tsangyang Gyatso became the Dalai Lama under a rather unusual circumstance. The Great Fifth Dalai Lama was an outstanding leader both spiritually and politically. Among his accomplishments was the founding of the Potala Palace on Red Hill in Lhasa. He also appointed his tutor Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen as the abbot of Tashilhunpo Monastery. Since then, the reincarnations of Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen have been recognized and known as the Panchen Lamas.

The Fifth Dalai Lama withdrew himself from public life in his later years. The young and capable Desi, or regent, assumed the responsibilities of running the court. The eventual death of the Great Fifth was kept secret by the Desi for thirteen years. The occasional use of an impostor presiding over important events helped maintain the appearance that the Great Fifth was still alive. During this period, the Desi sent out clandestine search parties for the reincarnate. The search efforts led to the discovery of an extraordinary boy born in southern Tibet.

In 1697, when the Desi finally made the announcement, he explained that he was acting on the instruction of the Great Fifth, who feared possible unrest among the Mongol tribes upon his death. The Panchen Lama gave the reincarnate, now fourteen years of age, the vows of a novice monk and the religious name Tsangyang Gyatso, meaning "Ocean of Melodious Song." This name indeed turned out to be very accurate.

Although the young Dalai Lama quickly excelled in his studies, he proved to be quite unconventional for his status. He continued to live the life of an ordinary Tibetan inside the Potala Palace, doing without servants and shunning protocols. Meanwhile, like most romantic youths, he started to be involved in bittersweet love affairs. He also developed his talent in poetry. His unpretentious, unadorned love songs are still greatly treasured by his countrymen today. The following poem is one that I particularly like. It is quite representative of his sensitive, romantic nature: (All translations are taken from Reference [1])

Lovers who met while traveling
Were fixed up by the wine-shop woman
If trouble or debts are born from this
Please take care of her for me

At night he would slip out of Potala in disguise and frequent Shol-town, the brothel area in Lhasa. Before dawn he would tiptoe back to his living quarter, and resume his duties as the Dalai Lama in the morning. His ventures were finally discovered when servants traced his footprints in the snow. This is vividly recounted in one of his most famous poems:

I sought my lover at twilight
Snow fell at daybreak
Residing at the Potala
I am Rigzin Tsangyang Gyatso
But in the back alleys of Shol-town
I am rake and stud
Secret or not
No matter
Footprints have been left in the snow

The Desi appealed to the Panchen Lama to give the young man his full monastic ordination. However, at the ordination ceremony, the 20-year-old Tsangyang Gyatso surprised everyone by insisting to renounce his monastic vows, threatening to take his own life otherwise. The lamas and nobles finally gave in, freeing the Dalai Lama to live as a layman.

A few years later, the alliance between the Desi and another Mongol tribe enraged Lozang Khan, the grandson of Gushri Khan. After an unsuccessful attempt to poison Lozang Khan, the Desi was defeated and killed in battle. The chieftain and his backer, the Manchu emperor Kang Hsi, decided to also depose the Sixth Dalai Lama.

An angry crowd of monks fought to protect Tsangyang Gyatso and kept him in the Drepung Monastery. However, after Lozang Khan's troops shelled the monastery with artillery, the Sixth Dalai Lama surrendered himself in hopes of preventing a massacre. He wrote to a lady friend in Shol-town as he was taken away:

That bird - white crane
Lend me your skill of wing
I will not go far
I'll return from Litang

Litang turned out to be where the Seventh Dalai Lama was born. Tsangyang Gyatso died on the way to Beijing, at age 25.

The lifestyle of the Sixth Dalai Lama may raise some eyebrows even in modern times.** However, he continues to be loved and revered by Tibetans. One thing to keep in mind is the amount of courage and honesty it took for this young man to remain true to his heart under the pressures and expectations of his position. Rick Fields ended the introduction of "The Turquoise Bee" with a quote by Thubten Jigme Norbu: "Tsangyang Gyatso's most fundamental teaching," he said, is "that life itself, in whatever form it appears to us, is one of our greatest teachers." I hope this story reminds ourselves to look at the world with more compassion and less judgment.


* The Sixth Dalai Lama often referred to himself as the turquoise bee in his poems.

** It was believed that the Sixth Dalai Lama's romantic inclination might have to do with the Great Fifth's interest in the old Tantric teachings of the Nyingmapa, which include certain secret disciplines involving a consort or yogi partner.


  1. "The Turquoise Bee" by Rick Fields and Brian Cutillo.
  2. (In Chinese) Illustrated Stories of Tibetan Buddhism" by Ding-Ya Chu.
  3. "The Wheel of Time and Sand Mandala" by Barry Bryant.