When Lobsang Khan invaded Lhasa in 1705 and seized the Sixth Dalai Lama, he unleashed forces beyond his comprehension and control. He slew the regent Sangye Gyatso, took the Dalai Lama to the Manchu emperor of China and placed a monk of his own choice in the Potala. Just before leaving under armed escort for China, the Sixth Dalai Lama gave a farewell message to his people:
After he died on the road to China, some said that he was assassinated, but others held that he had seated himself in the posture of meditation and consciously abandoned his body to seek another. The Tibetan people, faced with these events, readily rejected Lobsang Khan's choice for the throne of Lhasa and happily accepted the news that the Seventh Dalai Lama had been born in Lithang, just as his predecessor had promised.
Gyalwa Kalsang Gyatso was born in 1708 in Lithang near the Tubchen Jampa Ling Monastery in the Amdo region of eastern Tibet. His luminous intelligence and profound spiritual inclination were evident almost from the moment of his birth. When he was four years old he received a vision of Buddha surrounded by the sixteen arhants, and in the following year he had a vision of Tsong-Kha-Pa, who instructed him to take up his duties in central Tibet. Although he preferred to study and meditate in seclusion, he followed the dictates of his dharma and involved himself in the turmoil of the world. At the age of six he placed himself under Ngawang Lobsang Tempa, who became his Teacher, and within a year he yielded to requests to offer an Avalokiteshvara mandala initiation. So rapidly did his study of the sutras and the tantras progress that by his eighth year he was invited to visit and bless monasteries all over eastern Tibet. He travelled to Kumbum, the great monastery founded by the Third Dalai Lama at the site of Tsong-Kha-Pa's birth, and there he sat on the Dalai Lama's throne and gave discourses to a large assemblage of monks.
While at Kumbum, Gyalwa Kalsang Gyatso shaved his head and received ordination as a monk. Placing himself under Chuzang Nomohan, he took up an intense study of Buddhist dialectics, the doorway to Buddha's five great themes. He studied Dharmakirti for pramana, right thought and perception; Maitreya and Asanga for prajnaparamita, perfection of wisdom; Nagarjuna, Aryadeva and Chandrakirti for madhyamika, the Middle Way doctrine of shunyata or the Void; Vasubandhu for metaphysics; and Gunaprabha for vinaya or monastic discipline. Having immersed himself in the sutras and the tantras, taken all the vows of a monk and mastered both dialectics and the broad divisions of Buddhist teaching, Gyalwa Kalsang Gyatso turned his attention to Lhasa.
In 1717 the Dzungar Mongols invaded Tibet with the declared aim of deposing the pretender and placing the Seventh Dalai Lama on the throne. They succeeded in entering Lhasa, killed Lobsang Khan and removed his pretender to the throne. But they could not make good on their promise to install the true Dalai Lama, for he had come under the 'protection' of the Manchu emperor. When the Dzungars subsequently began to loot the temples and houses of Lhasa, the Tibetans looked to the Chinese for assistance. In 1720 K'ang Hsi invaded Tibet, drove the Dzungars out and oversaw the enthronement of the Seventh Dalai Lama. The price of this service was the Chinese foothold he established in Tibet. In 1720 Gyalwa Kalsang Gyatso was welcomed into the sacred city as the Seventh Dalai Lama. He proceeded to the Great Temple, where he discoursed to an enormous number of monks and lay people. Then he went to the Potala, where he was greeted by Lobsang Yeshe, the Second Panchen Lama, and received ordination at his hands. In keeping with the tradition founded by the Fifth Dalai Lama, he declared his desire to study under the Panchen Lama and submitted to his discipline.
Since Lhasa had become peaceful when the Dzungars had been driven out and the Seventh Dalai Lama entered the city, the Chinese withdrew their military forces and established diplomatic relations with the Dalai Lama's government. For the next few years the Seventh Dalai Lama studied under the Panchen Lama and other illustrious teachers. First, he took up Tsong-Kha-Pa's Lamrim chenmo, the exposition of the stages of the Path, and listened to the Panchen Lama's discourses on it. In addition, he received initiations into the Vajrabhairava Tantra and learnt the highest forms of Yoga Tantra. Then he moved to Drepung Monastery, where he reviewed all that he had learnt in logic and studied Dharmakirti's Seven Treatises on Pramana, as well as Nagarjuna's texts, the works of the Madhyamika school and Tsong-Kha-Pa's commentaries. Returning to Lhasa, he was ordained by the Panchen Lama and assumed the full authority of his office. Despite his onerous duties as the Dalai Lama, he spent long periods of time within the sanctity of the Tushita Chamber of the Potala, where the Panchen Lama gave him numerous initiations into the Guhyasamaja and Heruka Tantras, along with Tsong-Kha-Pa's Teachings concerning them. He also devoted a great deal of time to Abhidharma metaphysics.
In 1727 the Seventh Dalai Lama's father was involved in political intrigues that led to brief civil strife between factions of the aristocracy. By the time the Chinese arrived in Lhasa, the capital was calm, but their suspicion that the Dalai Lama had been involved – a conclusion for which there is no evidence – induced them to send him into exile for seven years. Rather than succumb to defeatism or despair, he seized this opportunity to enter upon a retreat accompanied by excellent teachers and to intensify his study and meditation. He visited various monastic communities and discoursed on the Teachings of Buddha, Tsong-Kha-Pa and previous Dalai and Panchen Lamas. Concluding his exile with a grand tour of central Tibet, he returned to the Potala amidst a joyous welcome and began to give ordination to neophytes. He requested that the Panchen Lama return to Lhasa and sit at his side, but the old monk declined because of fragile health. Once the Dalai Lama had ordered affairs in Lhasa, he made the hard journey to Tashilhumpo Monastery to be with his chief teacher. There the two companions in wisdom and selfless service had daily conversations, and the Dalai Lama studied the Panchen Lama's Direct Path and looked after his Teacher's needs. The great monasteries of Tibet sought his presence, however, and in time the Dalai Lama was compelled by his office to travel to Drepung, Sera and a host of other centres. When the Second Panchen Lama died in 1737, the Dalai Lama mourned his loss but continued to travel, teach and initiate monks while waiting for the Panchen Lama's reappearance.
Once Palden Yeshe, the Third Panchen Lama, was old enough to make his will known, he asked for instruction from the Dalai Lama. Effortlessly, the two companions renewed their friendship and reversed their roles. The Third Panchen Lama showed the same profound reverence for the Seventh Dalai Lama that the Seventh had shown for the Second Panchen Lama. Despite his devotion to meditation and study, the Dalai Lama became increasingly active in later life. In addition to tutoring the young Panchen Lama, he regularly visited monasteries to teach, preach, reform and initiate. Although the Chinese had placed Phola, a powerful military officer, in Lhasa after the revolt of 1727, the Dalai Lama had quietly reorganized and strengthened the Tibetan government. He did not challenge Phola, but he gradually made him irrelevant to the administration of Tibet.
When Phola died, his son, Gyurma Namgyal, an impulsive man who had witnessed the subtle divestment of Phola's authority, sought to restore by force of arms the power of the office he inherited. A new revolt broke out and the Manchus sent an army into Lhasa, but, by the time they arrived, total order had been restored and all issues had been settled by the Dalai Lama himself. Embarrassed by their over-reaction, the Chinese realized that the Dalai Lama was better able to govern Tibet than any agent they might select, and so his temporal authority was accepted and the army withdrew. Though remembered as the most scholarly of the Dalai Lamas, the Seventh was also an adept in meditation and an able ruler.
He persuaded one of his teachers to gather and master materials on the Kalachakra Tantra, especially everything Tsong-Kha-Pa had written and taught concerning it. Synthesizing all that could be found, he restored the great Kalachakra initiation, which intimates the mysteries of Shamballa. He established the Kashag, a cabinet of ministers to oversee the operations of government, and reorganized the departments of state. He also built the most famous landmark in Lhasa after the Potala, the Norbulingka or Jewel Park summer palace. The procession of the Dalai Lama from the one to the other became the central festival of the Tibetan year, during which the population greeted their spiritual guide and temporal ruler with joyous abandon. When the Seventh Dalai Lama died in 1757, he left a legacy that survived more than a century of vicissitudes and aided the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in his efforts to restore the political dignity and spiritual vitality of Tibet.
The Seventh Dalai Lama was beloved in his lifetime, and his amazing knowledge of the scriptures was matched by his deep spiritual insight. Once when he performed the Vajrabhairava Tantra for a thousand monks, flowers fell from the clear sky and advanced practitioners of meditation witnessed the manifestation of mystical forces. Despite his extensive travels from monastery to monastery, he found time to compose spiritual songs and poems. When he visited Ganden, founded by Tsong-Kha-Pa, he was overcome by reverential feeling and poured out a profusion of songs. His attainments won the respect of spiritual Teachers of all lineages, and his natural humility and simplicity of life endeared him to his subjects. Among the common people he was remembered as the Lama who never forgot them. If he recognized the face of a peasant from his village or from some town he had visited, he would invite him into the Potala or Norbulingka Palace for tea and a brief discourse on Buddhadharma. To every monk he gave the advice he offered to the young Third Panchen Lama when his period of study had ended:
In a poem which he wryly called a "dry log of a thing", the Seventh Dalai Lama indicated the immense seriousness of the spiritual Path. Bowing to Tsong-Kha-Pa, he taught:
Noting the abyss between the illusory search for happiness in a transient world and the behests of Buddha's teaching, he deplored the delusion of people in general:
In language reminiscent of the Dhammapada and the Udanavarga, he expressed horror at the myriad ways the same delusion creeps unchecked into every effort to live the spiritual life:
The Seventh Dalai Lama was revered for his gentleness and kind-heartedness, but he was neither sentimental nor compromising. Encouraging every sincere aspirant, he had no sugary words for those who deluded themselves about their spiritual progress or sought to impress others:
It is impossible, the Seventh Dalai Lama taught, to find one's way unaided when one's own thinking can betray one's best aspirations. Yet help cannot be taken at random without the likelihood of being misled by others just as blind as oneself:
If one is blest with the good fortune of fruitful guidance from a true spiritual friend, one has to practise faithfully what one has been taught. Even though the Seventh Dalai Lama knew all the major Tantras, he did not advise aspirants to focus upon them. The basis for any assault on the deceptions of consciousness and illusions of the world is ethical thought and action, not fragmentary flashes of insight or sombre rituals:
The effort to shed delusion and shun attachment is not conducted only in respect to others. Besides reorienting oneself in relation to the world, learning to speak and act on a radically different basis from that recommended by the worldly, one has to confront one's mental dynamics as well:
The inner and outer practices which lead towards spiritual emancipation and universal compassion are summed up in the six paramitas: dana or kindly generosity, shila or calm self-control, kshanti or serene patience, virya or steadfast perseverance in meditation and service, dhyana or uninterrupted meditation, and prajna or transcendental wisdom:
For the Seventh Dalai Lama, the Bodhisattva Path is the only means worth thinking about or considering. Treading this Path of several stages demands a tremendous effort of self-development, but never for the sake of self, however subtly conceived. The only thought which is fundamental enough to be at once the essence of consciousness, the mode of Bodhisattvic thinking and the means to its own fruition is bodhichitta, the seed of wisdom- consciousness. In a poem he declared:
Bodhichitta, "the elixir which transforms gross beings into Buddhas", is the innermost secret of spiritual alchemy. The world could not contain its qualities if they were all made manifest simultaneously, and not even Buddha tried to describe "the ocean of beneficial effects of bodhichitta".
Although he was esteemed for his immense erudition and dialectical skill, the Seventh Dalai Lama wrote verses which are startling in their simplicity and subtlety. In a poem written to help an old monk prepare for death, he said:
In the middle of a complex song dealing with the multitudinous tricks the ignorant deploy to support a false sense of 'I', he addressed the problem of bridging meditation and practice:
And in the same poem he suggested the vital connection between causality and shunyata, the voidness of all things:
Just as the kindly and compassionate manner of the Seventh Dalai Lama was accompanied by an uncompromising insistence that spiritual life is the only issue that compels human concern, so too his humility and spiritual severity were wedded to bright humour. Many of his poems were written at the request of monks, and he added colophons which made fun of his efforts in ways that illuminated some important truth of the moment. Having just conveyed the enormous effort needed to transcend the ego, he signed himself, "the lazy Buddhist monk Gyalwa Kalsang Gyatso". When a great monk asked for a second poem, he received a beautiful text, to which was appended the note: "This work contains nothing not found in the song I wrote for him earlier, but because he persistently asked for another, I wrote it to silence his constant requests." Thereby he added a small, significant lesson about asking for spiritual teachings.
Subtlety of thought, delicacy of feeling and resilience in action marked the Seventh Dalai Lama's life. A man of meditation and action, imbued with probing compassion and profound devotion, he left a radiant record of his life in his poems and songs. The quintessence of his Teaching, repeatedly tested in his own life, may perhaps be found in his short "Three Meditations", written for a hermit: