April 13, 2011

Sangye Gyatso and China's Long Memory

A week ago, Professor Robert Barnett wrote for the New York Review of Books, explaining some history to those curious why China is so sensitive to news of the 14th Dalai Lama's planned retirement—news that recently upset many Tibetans. He traces the cause back to the Fifth Dalai Lama, the first to hold temporal power, bestowed, as is well known, by the Mongol Khan (who, I think, was a follower of the Sakya school, not the Gelugs.) In the Fifth Dalai Lama's declining years, the new and ambitious Qing Dynasty claimed sovereignty over Tibet (and many other areas thousands of miles from their capital of Shenyang and later Beijing.)

The process for selecting a new Dalai Lama was long and arduous and the Fifth Dalai Lama was old, so he appointed as regent the youthful (26 years old, which F. Scott Fitzgerald, a notorious ageist, described as the acme of bachelorhood) and energetic Sangye Gyatso—a name reviled and censored in China even today, at least in political circles—to oversee the process of selecting the Sixth Dalai Lama (who turned out to be a bit of a character.) The regent successfully hoodwinked Beijing for long enough after the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama to get the Sixth onto the throne and the succession secure. He also oversaw the completion of the Potala Palace, begun by the Fifth Dalai Lama. (A palace of some sort had existed on the hill for long before that, but not the palace as we know it today.)

So this charming snippet of history, Barnett argues, explains China's obsessive interest in the Dalai Lama's recent announcement. What was the regent's later life like, while the Sixth lived his playboy lifestyle, writing erotic poetry? The regent was very interested in medicine and science and was not above harboring a grudge or two...

Several points: This story demonstrates that there is a precedent of non-spiritual political authority in Tibet, and a succession system based on reincarnation is vulnerable to outside influence and interference. Read Professor Barnett's whole article at the NYRB site here (and buy a book while you're there too—they publish a huge variety of great books! Maybe Glenway Wescott's Apartment in Athens?)

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Monty McKeever's picture

Update: A scholar emailed in the below correction/clarification:

"He traces the cause back to the Fifth Dalai Lama, the first to hold
temporal power, bestowed, as is well known, by the Mongol Khan (who, I
think, was a follower of the Sakya school, not the Gelugs.) "

The Mongol Khans at the time of the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century
had nothing to do with Sakya. The Mongols supporting the 5th Dalai
Lama had earlier relations with the 3rd Dalai Lama (16th century). The
4th Dalai Lama was born into the Mongol Chieftain's family (possibly a
son) but the child died young.

It was during the Yuan empire that Sakya Pandita and Chogyal Pagpa of
the Sakya Tradition had some temporal control over Tibet given to
Chogyal Paga (1235-1280) by Kublai Khan. The Sakyas lost influence in
Tibet with the end of Yuan empire in China less than one hundred years
later.