Also See: Guide to Locales Connected with Life of Zanabazar

The Life of Zanabazar: The First Bogd Gegen of Mongolia

Chapter 1

Altan Khan and the Dalai Lama

(Unedited: Work in Progress. Last Updated September 9, 2003)

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Sonam Gyatso was believed to be the reincarnation of Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542), a prominent lama and teacher who himself was believed to be a reincarnation of Gendun Drubpa (1391-1474), one of the original disciples of Tsongkhapa, founder the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism which would later acquire both religious and political domination of the country of Tibet. Sonam Gyatso almost didn't bother making an appearance in this world. According to the traditional Tibetan account, after the death of Gendun Gyatso-Sonam Gyatso's predecessor-his disincarnated self made an appearance before the formidable triumvirate of Padmasambhava, who had first introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century, Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa sect, and Maitreya, the future Buddha, during which he was questioned about his future plans. For the moment these were uncertain, he explained. Given the sorry state of the world with various factions warring with each other in Tibet-often in the name of religion itself-with the virtual disappearance of Buddhism in India under the Islamic onslaughts which had resulted in the deaths of so many monks and the destruction of monasteries, temples, and libraries, and with the Mongols rampaging to the north and the Manchus threatening from the east, Gendun Gyatso's disincarnation opined that perhaps returning to an earthly existence wasn't such a great idea after all. Padmasambhava then felt it necessary to buck him up with the prediction that if he choose rebirth, after 100 years his subsequent reincarnation would achieve both religious and secular dominance within Tibet and have it within its power to end much of the conflict which his previous incarnation had found so disturbing. As Tibetologist Glenn Mullin, who relates this legend points out, "Exactly one hundred years later-the year was 1642-this prophecy fulfilled when the Fifth Dalai Lama was appointed both spiritual and temporal leader of a newly unified Tibetan Nation."

Sonam Gyatso was born in 1643 at Khangar Gong in the Tolung Valley. He emerged from his mother's womb still enveloped in his caul-the amnion or inner membrane that surrounds the fetus-a traditional sign that the child was spiritual blessed. Indeed, he came from an illustrious line of spiritual teachers. His father traced his descent from Ma Richen Chok, an illustrious translator of Sanskrit texts from time of Padmasambhava, and was himself an advanced meditator and tantric practitioner. His mother, likewise proficient in meditation and scriptural study, was the daughter of the famous Nyingma master Wangchuk Rinpochey Kunzang.

It was immediately noticed that even as a tiny tot Sonam Gyatso seemed familiar with the rituals performed by the monks who visited his parents' home, and he himself often spoke of the various spiritual entities who appeared before him. He also recognized Sunrab Gyatso, a monk who had been Gendun Gyatso's chief attendant and manager of his affairs both secular and religious. When Sunrab Gyatso came to visit the home of Sonam Gyatso he rode the horse of Gendun Gyatso. The little boy immediately recognized the horse from a distance and called it by name. He then greeted Sunrab Gyatso by name, although of course he had never met him in his present life. He also recognized a small statue of White Tara and a crystal mala (prayer beads). which had belonged to Gendun Gyatso. The boy wanted to leave immediately for Drepung Monastery with Sunrab Gyatso but the latter convinced him to stay with his parents awhile longer until he was called for.

Not until 1546, when the boy was four years old, was he finally taken to Drepung where he was officially recognized as the reincarnation of Gendun Gyatso and given the name Sonam Gyatso Palzangpo Tenpai Nyima Chokley Namgyal. It was from this time that he became known as Sonam Gyatso. At the age of nine, in 1552, he was formally placed on the Golden Throne of Drepung, and the following year he presiding over the Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa. At the age of twenty-two, after extensive training in the sutras and tantras, he was fully ordained as a monk.


When Sonam Gyatso received his first invitation from Altan Khan in 1571 he replied that he was not free at the moment but would come at a later date. In the meantime he sent one of his disciples, Tsundru Zangpo, as his personal representative to the court of the Khan. Apparently he was not adverse to the journey himself. According to one of his recent biographers, Glenn Mullin, he "felt that he possessed a karmic link with Mongolians that would enable him to civilize them and cause them to abandon their war-like ways." Many Tibetans, however, both monks and lay-persons, feared for his safety on such a long and hazardous journey to the court of the unruly Mongols and made strenuous objections.

The Altan Khan issued several more invitations and finally his entreaties could no longer be ignored. One never knew with the Mongols. If his requests continued to be ignored it was just possible that Altan Khan and his army would ride to Lhasa and seize Sonam Gyatso just as he had captured the monks who had taught him about Buddhism in the first place.

Sonam Gyatso finally left Lhasa for the Khan's court in late 1577 (the 28th day of the 11th Hor month, according to the Rosary of White Lotuses). A huge entourage, including the previous and then-current Gandan Tripas who headed the Gelugpa sect, following him to Reting, the monastery 95 miles north of Lhasa which had been founded in 1057 by Dron Tönpa, chief disciple of Atisha, and where Tsongkhapa was inspired to write his famous work The Great Exposition on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, which is still in print today. Here Sonam Gyatso's followers again begged him to abandon his hazardous journey to the court of the Altan Khan. But there could be no turning back now. Ordering most of the entourage to stop here at Reting, he was about to continue on his journey when Tibetan King Tashi Rabten ran up and told hold of his stirrup, crying out:

"May your lotus feet proceed safely, o Lama who are the glory of the Buddha's Teachings! May the whole word fill with the Holders of this teaching!"

Tashi Rabten wanted to say more, but he burst into tears and was unable to continue his speech. Sonam Gyatso comforted him with the words:

May there always be faithful and

Devoted patrons of the Dharma such as you;

And may there be auspicious signs

Of the Dharma flourishing for long


Continuing on with a much smaller retinue Sonam Gyatso and his party eventually reached the Yangtze River. it was in flood and they were unable to cross, but according to legend, Sonam Gyatso repeated mantras and prayers which caused the river to subside and soon they were able to continue on. (According the Rosary of White Lotuses, "he only pointed at it with his finger and the river became quiet, allowing him to cross." ) The same thing happened at the Yellow River crossing.

Soon they reached a place called Upper Nyentsho, where a multitude of monks and lay people assembled for teachings and initiations. In return they gave Sonam Gyatso "3000 silver sangs and other gifts."

After a few more obstacles-one night a host of evil horse-headed and camel-headed Mongolian demons appeared and tried to cause mischief, only to be "subdued and dominated" by Sonam Gyatso, according to the Rosary of White Lotuses-the party arrived at a place known as the White Areg Plateau (present-day name unknown), where a camp had been set up for him by his followers among the local nomads. The nomads also made elaborate offerings, including a thousand horses and 10,000 head of other livestock. A delegation of 500 men from the court of Altan Khan, led by Tsundru Zangpo, who Sonam Gyatso had earlier sent ahead as his representative, soon arrived at the White Areg Plateau. Accompanied by this group Sonam Gyatso and his retinue proceeded northward, the party getting ever larger as the nomadic peoples of the region streamed to met the Tibetan religious leader.

They finally arrived at the Altan Khan's camp south of Qinghai Lake (Khökh Nuur in Mongolian) on the 15th day of the 5th month of the Earth Male Tiger Year, the 12th year of the 10th Rabjung, according to the Kalachakra calendar (May of 1578), some seven months after leaving Lhasa. Thousands of Tibetan and Mongolian monks and lay-persons lined the route of his arrival. According to the Rosary of White Lotuses,

When they reached the site of their midday meal, [Altan Khan] himself-the Turner of the Wheel of the Golden Age, he whose long life Heaven had protected-arrived, dressed in white clothes, which meant he had whitened the boundless realms of darkness. He was accompanied by the retinue of about 10,000 men, his wife and many attendants.

In those days the Mongols still expected religious figures to perform mirific feats and Sonam Gyatso did not disappoint, as least according to traditional Tibetan sources. Asked by the Altan Khan to demonstrate his power, "he reached his arm into an enormous boulder lying near the Khan and from it extracted a huge conch shell, the matrix of which circled in reverse. He placed the conch to his lips and blew a sharp note, whereupon the earth shook."

Sonam Gyatso then delivered a discourse to the assembled throng. He implored them to give up the practice of human and animal sacrifices which so often accompanied the death of a important Mongol (Chingis Khan's own son Ögedai had forty "moon-faced virgins" and numerous horses and other livestock scarified in honor of his father's memory) and told them to destroy their ongghot, the shamanic idols which many Mongolians kept in their homes and worshipped. Instead of blood sacrifices he suggested that the Mongols offer part of the deceased possessions to temples and monasteries and offer prayers to the deceased. He also implored the Mongols not to conduct bloody raids on their neighbors, including the Chinese, the Tibetans, and other Mongol tribes, and instead try to live in peaceful coexistence with their neighbors. He also suggested they make prayers and conduct other religious practices on the days of the new, half, and full moons. Finally he taught them a meditation on Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, and the accompanying six-syllable mantra om mani padme hum.

In honor of this auspicious convocation Altan bestowed upon Sonam Gyatso the title of "Dalai Lama". Dalai is a Mongolian word meaning "vast" or "oceanic"; it is also a direct Mongolian translation of the Tibetan word gyatso and thus a particularly fitting title for Sonam Gyatso. In turn, Sonam Gyatso gave Altan Khan the title "King of the Turning Wheel and Wisdom" and officially recognized him as a reincarnation of Khubilai Khan, the grandson of Chingis Khan and founder of the Yüan Dynasty in China.

Indeed, according to the Rosary of White Lotuses, Khubilai Khan was just one of a long line of Altan Khan's previous reincarnations. During the time of Buddha he had appeared as Dawa Zangpo, the first Dharma King of Shambhala (unfortunately, the author of the Rosary never follows up on this intriguing suggestion). Dawa Zangpo was considered a manifestation of the bodhisattva Vajrapani, as was Altan Khan himself. Much later he appeared as Lhalung Pelkyi Dorje, who assassinated the enemy of the Dharma King Langdarma in 842 and who escaped to the temple complex at Drak Yerpa, 28 miles northeast of Lhasa, where a temple named after him still exists to this day. A still later reincarnation was Ngog Lepgpei Sherab, the well-known disciple of Atisha. Then after Khubilai but before Altan Khan there was yet another incarnation in the form of Wangchug Norzang Gyatso, tutor of Gendun Gyatso, Sonam Gyatso's previous reincarnation. So it appeared that the Sonam Gyatso and Altan Khan were destined to met.

In what at first may look like an attempt to guild the lily Sonam Gyatso went on to intimate that he himself was also a reincarnation of Sakya Pakpa, the guru of Khubilai and that the Preceptor-Protector relationship which had first been established first between Chingis and Sakya Pandita and later between Khubilai and Sakya Pakpa was now being continued in the persons of himself and Altan Khan.

The Rosary of White Lotuses relates a legend about this. After receiving a teaching from Sakya Pakpa, Khubilai made him an offering of seven black mantles and one white one. Commenting on the gift, Sakya Pakpa said: "The seven black pieces you offered mean that the two of us shall not meet for the duration of seven rebirths. The single white piece you offered means that when the time comes we meet again, you will bear the name of gold, and I the name of water." Altan, it should be pointed out here, means "gold", and Gyatso means "ocean" (water).

This assertion would later cause some confusion because Sonam Gyatso was also recognized, as we have seen, as the latest in a different line incarnations whose two previous representatives were Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542) and Gendun Drubpa (1391-1474). Even in the nineteenth century, when the Rosary of White Lotuses was written, the author felt it necessary to write: "Some say that this Protector, Phagspa [Sakya Pakpa], appears only in the rebirth cycle of the All-Knowing Changchyas [a lineage whose most famous representative was Rolpei Dorje] and therefore has no connections with the successions of the Dalai Lamas, yet such a view is not correct." The author of the Rosary then goes on with a complicated exegesis of this theme which need not concern us here. The latest biographer of the Dalai Lamas, Tibetologist Glenn H. Mullin, heatedly adds:

A number of Western scholars have suggested that the Third Dalai Lama proclaimed Altan Khan to be the reincarnation of Kublai Khan, and himself to be the reincarnation of Kublai Khan's guru Sakya Pakpa, as a cunning means of winning the Khan's devotion and patronage. There is no historical evidence from any traditional source to support this view, and nothing other than vulgar cynicism to suggest it.

In any case, it is not as a reincarnation of Sakya Pakpa that Sonam Gyatso is best remembered. Altan Khan had given him the title of Dalai Lama and his two previous incarnations in the more accepted line, Gendun Gyatso and Gendun Drubpa, were posthumously given the same title, thus making Sonam Gyatso the Third Dalai Lama. This term was originally used only by Mongolians, the Tibetans preferring their own appellations-Kundun, Jey Tamchey Khyenpa, etc.-but it was by this name that these reincarnations eventually became known throughout the world, most famously in the case of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama.


According to the Rosary of White Lotuses the first meeting between the Altan Khan and Sonam Gyatso took place at a place called Hoang-Ho Hot Springs, south of Qinghai Lake (Khökh Nuur). Shortly after their meeting a temple was supposedly built on the spot and given the name Thegchen Chonchor Ling. At the present time there appears to be no place south of Qinghai Lake with the name Hoang-Ho Hot Springs. However, one recently published guide to Tibetan landmarks says that the meeting where Sonam Gyatso was given the title of Dalai Lama took place near the current-day town of Gonghe, eighteen miles south of Qinghai Hu.

Qinghai Hu is an immense (4587 square kilometers) salt water lake at an altitude of 10,460 feet in what is now Qinghai Province of China. Both to the north and the south are Tibetan autonomous prefectures with considerable populations of Tibetans. The lake is ringed by a belt of steppe not unlike the steppe of Mongolia, but immediately to the south of this is a range of mountains called the Qinghai Nan Shan with peaks of up to at least 15,238 feet. A road crosses a pass through this range to the small town of Gonghe. A small stream runs through a broad valley here, and much of the land in the level valley bottom is cultivated by the local Huis, a Chinese people who are followers of Islam. On either side of this valley extend desert-steppe and salt marshes.

A few miles before the town of Gongde is a huge chorten, of apparently recent provenance, dedicated to the 9th Panchen Lama, and several attendant temples. None of the monks here knew of any connection between this place and the meeting between Altan Khan and the Third Dalai Lama. There are also three Buddhist monasteries in the vicinity of Gonghe, in the barren foothills of the Qinghai Nan Shan: the Kasar Gompa, the Jamru Gompa, and the Dungkar Gompa. None of the monks at these places seemed to recognize the name Thegchen Chonchor Ling, the name given to the monastery built on the spot where Altan Khan and Sonam Gyatso first met.

At the Jamru Gompa, about 20 miles west of Gonghe, a monk told us that Sonam Gyatso had visited this monastery in his lifetime, but did not recognize the name Altan Khan and was unable to say if this was the place where the Dalai Lama first got his title. The monks we talked to also said that there was a hot spring complex near the Chinese town of Wenquan, about 60 miles southwest of Gonghe, and that there was a Tibetan monastery there, but curiously none of them seemed to know its name. I was unable to visit this place and I cannot say if this is the Hoang-Ho Hot Springs mentioned in the Rosary of White Lotuses, or if the monastery there is the Thegchen Chonchor Ling mentioned in the Rosary.

It is indicative of the current political situation in Tibet and China that a very conspicuous chorten has been built at Gonghe in memory of the Panchen Lama while apparently no monument marks the spot, nor is the location commonly known, where the historic meeting between Altan Khan and Sonam Gyatso took place and the Dalai Lamas first received their title.

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Chapter 2 | Avtai Khan Introduces Buddhism into Mongolia

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