Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama, was the first to be known as the 'Great'. Whilst tremendous reverence was shown to all the Dalai Lamas throughout Tibetan history, he alone held that appellation until the Great Thirteenth, the immediate predecessor of the present Dalai Lama. And in circumstances that seem to echo the times of the Great Fifth, some Tibetans have begun to speak of the Great Fourteenth. The Fifth Dalai Lama's historical eminence is due to the exceptional insight, skill and discipline he brought to his reign, despite the peculiar and complex conditions in which he exercised his authority. He secured the smooth spiritual transmission of Tsong-Kha-Pa's reforms and established a stable political foundation for Tibet which survived three centuries of invasion, duplicity and betrayal. He inspired in the Tibetan people a trust and confidence that has never wavered, a feat unmatched by priests, popes, kings or presidents elsewhere in the world.
When the 'religious kings' ruled Tibet and the Teachings of Buddha poured into the Land of Snows from India and, to a lesser extent, from China, there existed no monastic tradition. Beginning with Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava, monasteries were built but distinct orders did not emerge until much later. During this period there was a clear though not rigid distinction between political and spiritual authority. In retrospect, the persecution of Buddhadharma and its fledgling Tibetan institutions during the rule of King Lang Darma was disastrous. Whether Lang Darma really despised the Buddhist tradition, as many Tibetan histories aver, or whether he merely accommodated the Bonpa leanings of the aristocracy to secure his throne, as some sources suggest, the consequences were tragic. Central kingship vanished in the ceaseless strife of kinglets and warlords, while monks were isolated in little (and sometimes clandestine) groups to continue as best they could. When the 'second foundation' was established by Atisha and others, Tibet stood in great need of spiritual reform at a time when the Indian sources of renewal were exhausted and prone to corruption. The initial emergence of the Tibetan monastic orders provided continuity for the religious community, and Tsong-Kha-Pa's reforms consolidated the spiritual life of the country. The Fifth Dalai Lama seized the opportunities afforded by his time to unify Tibet politically.
By the time the Third Dalai Lama had received the title 'Dalai' from Altan Khan, Mongolian intervention in Tibet had become customary, since Tibet was a strategic piece in a complex game played out between Mongolia and China. The Buddhist orders had sought the patronage of local rulers and over time had been drawn into political intrigues. Once the Mongolian presence was firmly established, the orders sought to ally themselves with strong tribes amongst them. First the Sakyas dominated, and then the Karmapas gathered strength even as the Third Dalai Lama won the support of Altan Khan. His reincarnation, the Fourth Dalai Lama, was Altan Khan's great grandson. Mongolian influence, however, centred in Kokonor and only sporadically extended west and south to Lhasa and beyond. With the help of the kings of Tsang, the Karmapas persecuted the Gelukpas, as did the Bonpas and other older orders on good terms with them. Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen, who would become the First Panchen Lama, was enthroned as the abbot of Tashilhumpo in 1600. As the most prominent lama after the Dalai Lama, he looked after the daily affairs of the Gelukpa community in the south, whereas the Fourth Dalai Lama, who ruled from Drepung, gave much of his attention to northeastern Tibet and Mongolia.
After the Fourth Dalai Lama died in 1616, Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen supervised and confirmed the discovery of the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1617. Even during the reign of the Fourth Dalai Lama, the rulers of Tsang had attempted to exploit divisions amongst the Mongolian tribes and rivalries within the Tibetan Buddhist orders. Now that the Dalai Lama was a child, they redoubled their efforts. An attempt was made to assassinate him, and though he escaped, his mother was murdered. Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen protected his young lord and inaugurated an intense programme of education. He instructed the Dalai Lama in every aspect of the sutras and tantras and nurtured his inherent propensities for devotion and meditation. At the same time, he trained the Dalai Lama for rulership, showing by word and example that soaring spirituality and scrupulous ethical conduct are compatible with wise and effective leadership. By the time Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso assumed the full powers of the office of Dalai Lama, he fully understood the potentials and precariousness of his position. Knowing that every action would have enormous consequences for good or ill, he reflected carefully and then moved boldly. Beginning with total trust and faith in his Teacher, he gave him supreme authority over the region around Tashilhumpo and turned his own attention to resolving conflicts in Tibet as a whole.
Tsang rulers attacked Sera and Drepung, slaughtering hundreds of monks, and handed over smaller monasteries to the Karmapas. Knowing that he could not prevent such activities on his own, the Fifth Dalai Lama looked to the fragmented Mongols for assistance. Part of his genius as a leader was revealed in his capacity to recognize the karma of leadership in others. He began quiet negotiations with Gushri Khan of the Qoshot Mongols, a man of uncommon political ability and genuine sympathy for Buddhist teaching and Gelukpa practice. Gushri Khan launched an effort to conquer the whole of Tibet, defeated the king of Tsang, killed the head of the Karmapa Order, subdued eastern Tibet and marched west to the Ladakh border. By 1642, when the Great Fifth was twenty-five years old, Gushri Khan had brought the whole of Tibet under one ruler. To the surprise of many, but not of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Gushri handed over all spiritual and much temporal authority to him. Retaining the title of Po-Gyalpo, King of Tibet, he appointed a regent to work with the Dalai Lama, but he refrained from involving himself in the internal affairs of the reunified country save to assure its military protection.
The Fifth Dalai Lama embarked on a variety of activities to strengthen Tibet and the Buddhist tradition. He prompted the orders to enter the Gelukpa fold and induced the great orders to initiate those reforms which would acknowledge his spiritual authority, withdraw them from independent political alliances with external powers and restore their inner integrity. In doing so, he diffused the spirit of Tsong-Kha-Pa's reforms throughout the orders, whilst honouring the traditions of each and protecting their spiritual independence. In 1645 he began the construction of the Potala, the great palace in Lhasa which is the seat of the Dalai Lamas. Choosing the site of the ancient palace of the great 'religious king' Songtsen Gampo, he created an edifice which became one of the architectural marvels of the world and the symbol of Tibetan unity. Naming it after the secret mountain abode of Chenrezi (Padmapani or Avalokiteshvara) in South India, he prepared the way for startling revelations. Meanwhile, he managed so delicately to balance his increase in authority with excellent relations with Gushri Khan and his regent that within a century even the title 'King of Tibet' had disappeared. Simultaneously, he cultivated warm relations with the new Manchu dynasty in China, thereby lessening threats from the east. When Gushri Khan died in 1655, the Fifth Dalai Lama deftly secured the right to appoint the Tibetan regents of the Mongol king of Tibet. He selected as regent his nephew Sangye Gyatso, a man of remarkable talents, and instructed him to complete a census of all monasteries and to revise the system of taxes and revenues. Sangye Gyatso also supervised the continuing construction of the Potala, a task which took a total of forty-four years.
Although Tsong-Kha-Pa had abolished the traditional principle of monastic continuity through hereditary succession of abbots when he enforced celibacy upon Gelukpa monks, the alternative principle of governance by reincarnated abbots had its own problems. Despite the overall secrecy which had veiled the doctrine of rule by reincarnation, the idea had become partly exoteric when Altan Khan saw in the Third Dalai Lama the reincarnation of the great Sakya Pandita. The Great Fifth chose to reveal much more: whilst confirming that the same being had reincarnated in each Dalai Lama from the First, he added that each had been and would continue to be a personification of Chenrezi, the Bodhisattva who protected Tibet. Thus the reigns of the Dalai Lamas were not only wise but also hallowed. Further, he declared that his Teacher, the abbot of Tashilhumpo, was not merely a reincarnation of a close associate of Tsong-Kha-Pa, but indeed the embodied presence of the celestial Buddha Amitabha. The moral and spiritual effect of these revelations has been joyous and profound, for they have meant that the continuity assured by the reincarnations of the Dalai Lama has been preserved in the complementary reincarnations of the Panchen Lamas, who have transmitted the arcane tenets of Tibetan Buddhism. When his Teacher died, the Fifth Dalai Lama oversaw the discovery of his reincarnation as the Second Panchen Lama, and since then the older of the two lamas has supervised the studies of the younger.
According to some accounts, the Fifth Dalai Lama ruled actively for only two years before entering a prolonged retreat for meditation. Whether or not this claim is strictly accurate, all sources agree that he did retire in his later life, appearing only for certain ceremonial occasions and in order to take fundamental decisions. During the Fifth Dalai Lama's long withdrawal from public view, Sangye Gyatso administered the affairs of Tibet. By the time the Great Fifth died in 1682, Tibet was a land unified politically and spiritually. Sangye Gyatso was well aware, however, of the fragility of Tibet's accomplishments. The Mongols had once again taken a political interest in Tibet and the Chinese were looking for ways to extend their influence in Tibet as a way to check Mongol expansion. In the face of these dangers, Sangye Gyatso proved to be as bold as his lord. Whilst taking only the most senior abbots and palace officials into his confidence, he initiated a successful secret search for the Sixth Dalai Lama. He found an old monk who resembled the Great Fifth and hid him in the Potala. For thirteen years no announcement was made of the Dalai Lama's demise. The old monk disguised himself as the Great Fifth and appeared occasionally at ceremonies dressed in concealing vestments. Although the Chinese eventually suspected that they had been deceived, Sangye Gyatso managed to consolidate the Dalai Lama's rule and finish the Potala palace before announcing the death of the Fifth and the imminent succession of the Sixth Dalai Lama in 1695. Some historians hold that the regent was greedy and ambitious, whilst others see him as fulfilling the programme of the Fifth and serving the interests of the line of Dalai Lamas. In view of the enigmatic brilliance of his mentor, it may be that he and the Fifth Dalai Lama planned this course of action in advance of the Fifth's death.
A new Mongol alliance used the Sixth Dalai Lama's unusual behaviour as an excuse to declare him an impostor – an accusation firmly rejected by Tibetans then and now. Marching into Lhasa, Lhapsang Khan of the Qoshot Mongols killed Sangye Gyatso and captured the Sixth Dalai Lama. He was sent to Peking to meet the Manchu emperor in 1706 but he died under mysterious circumstances while on the way. Many believe that Lhapsang Khan had arranged for his assassination. However that may be, Lhapsang Khan imposed his own candidate on the throne of Lhasa, but though he remained there for a decade, he was not accepted. When the Manchus invaded Lhasa in 1720 and pushed the Mongols out of Tibet permanently, the true Seventh was installed. Although neither the Great Fifth nor the First Panchen Lama nor the regent Sangye Gyatso could prevent the confusion and turbulence of the early 1700s, the unquestioned firmness of the institution of the Dalai Lamas is testimony to the brilliance of their work. Of the silver tombs of the Dalai Lamas outside the Potala, that of the Fifth has always been the most deeply venerated.
Events ensured that the Fifth Dalai Lama would be remembered by historians as an accomplished statesman. He himself, however, placed greater emphasis on cultivation of the Bodhisattva Path and the development of meditation and universal compassion integral to it. Having become proficient in the four levels of tantra, all of which require initiation by a guru, he wrote numerous works to assist meditators involved in the lower tantras, that is, the first three levels. Though there are practices which involve no symbols, the sutra and tantra traditions are bridged by a yoga of symbols, a means of transforming consciousness through meditation by a disciplined use of symbols that has been called Deity Yoga. The symbols invoked include detailed visualizations and specific mantras which transform intellectual understanding of the sutras into immediate cognition of aspects of oneself as corresponding to aspects of the cosmos. These practices lead, under the watchful eye of the guru, to the highest yoga tantras, such as the Heruka and Kalachakra tantras, but they remain suitable for daily practice throughout a lifetime, regardless of the level of attainment in meditation. Recognizing the importance of right beginnings, the Fifth Dalai Lama wrote a number of texts to give direction in the practice of meditation.
In "A Meditation Upon Orange Manjushri", the Fifth Dalai Lama made obeisance to Tsong-Kha-Pa as the embodiment of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. Reminding the disciple to begin by taking refuge in the Three Jewels – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – by generating bodhichitta, the altruistic thought of Enlightenment, and by contemplating the immeasurable thoughts of love, compassion, joy and equanimity, he instructed the disciple to visualize an unfolding set of symbols:
Having completed this visualization, culminating in a union of consciousness with the vision it invokes, mental offerings are made to Manjushri, who is conceived as a graceful youth of beautiful speech.
The disciple then visualizes a yantra which contains a mantra of sacred syllables. They are imagined to contain collectively every level of wisdom attained by Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, shravakas, Pratyeka Buddhas and "the wise and learned masters of all the Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions". This universality of inclusion is matched at the end of the meditation period by an equally universal aspiration:
The imagery of this yoga of symbols saturates the mind, yet its richness of forms has nothing to do with fantasy or pleasant dreamlike states. Its precision in every detail is rooted in a profound and arcane knowledge of colours, sounds and numbers, their correspondences and their permutations.
In "The Fasting Practice of Eleven-Faced Avalokiteshvara", the meditation follows a pattern similar to that of "A Meditation Upon Orange Manjushri", with the addition of a fast and the taking of precepts. The Fifth Dalai Lama warned that the practice must be taken seriously – a fast means a total fast and vows are not to be taken lightly. Noting that there were many "propounders of a false type of fasting retreat" who did not clearly distinguish between sutra and tantra or even between Mahayana and Hinayana, he pointed out that the intimate interrelation of all things should not be an excuse for confusing them. If distinct entities are muddled together, the correspondences between them and their connections with various states and aspects of consciousness are lost. Regarding those who teach facile methods, he laughed, "They, upon surveying the suffering of the six types of beings, proceed to count radishes as things having minds". He emphasized the importance of being guided by a preceptor and of studying the works of great scholars, including those of the Second Dalai Lama.
The force and beauty of his "Sadhana Focussing on the Bodhisattva Maitreya", Buddha of love and futurity, included a meditation which invoked the spirit of Maitreya in one's consciousness.
Once the mind is purged, purified, collected and one-pointed, the meditator visualizes Maitreya:
The offering made in this sadhana on Maitreya included an invocation which represents the spiritual confidence and selfless service that marked the Life and labours of the Great Fifth: