How the Fifth Dalai Lama Became Ruler of Tibet

How the Fifth Dalai Lama Became Ruler of Tibet January 24, 2023

The Fifth Dalai Lama, His Holiness Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617–1682), was the first Dalai Lama to become the highest spiritual and political leader of Tibet. He is remembered by Tibetans as the Great Fifth.

The boy who would be the Fifth Dalai Lama was born into a wealthy and aristocratic family in central Tibet. He also was born into a time of  instability.  Tibet had only recently been reunited after a period of fracturing, and the new King had ordered an end of the lineage of Dalai Lamas. The reason for this isn’t clear to me, but I suspect the well-established relationship between the Gelug school and Mongolians might have had something to do with it. (Please see The First Dalai Lama for background.) Two other schools of Buddhism also wanted to claim the child as a tulku, the rebirth of a past lama. Connection to wealthy families was a beneficial thing. The acrimony between Kagyu and Jonang became so intense the King told Gelugpa to take the boy. And so a Fifth Dalai Lama was recognized.

Early Life of the Fifth Dalai Lama

When the future Fifth Dalai Lama was only three years old, his father was imprisoned for plotting against the King. Father and son never saw each other again. To protect the child his mother moved in with her family, also wealthy and aristocratic, and kept the boy in seclusion. When he was identified as the Fifth Dalai Lama, the protective walls around him grew thicker. He had to be hidden from the King, other schools, and from the reverent Mongolians who considered him “their” lama and wanted to take him away from Tibet. Among the few people who had access to the child was the Panchen Lama, who ordained the boy. The young lama also had teachers who gave him a rigorous education in Buddhism as well as astrology, medicine, and poetry. Eventually he took his place as the Dalai Lama in Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.

Meanwhile, power shifts were taking place among the Mongolians. A tribe of fierce warriors of western Mongolia, recent converts to Buddhism, came forward to supplant the older tribe that had forged relationships with previous Dalai Lamas. The leader of the new tribe was Gushi Khan (1582–1655; sometimes spelled Gushri). In 1637, Gushi Khan and his forces fought their way to the edge of Tibet. From there the Khan traveled to Lhasa to meet the Fifth Dalai Lama, by then 20 years old. This meeting went very well. Gifts and honorary titles were exchanged, and the patron-priest relationship previous Dalai Lamas had enjoyed with previous Mongolian leaders was established. Through this relationship the Khan committed to protecting the Dalai Lama and the Gelug school. In turn, the Dalai Lama gave teaching and spiritual benefit to the Khan.

How the Fifth Dalai Lama Became the Ruler of Tibet

Gushi Khan and his mounted warriors swept into central Tibet in 1641 and soon had the King besieged in his fortress.  It’s generally believed the Fifth Dalai Lama did not personally know of or approve of this invasion in advance. The Dalai Lama’s chief administrator, an official called the Desi, certainly did know about it and encouraged it. In any event the King surrendered in April 1642. The Fifth Dalai Lama left his temple to meet Gushi Khan on the battlefield. In an elaborate ceremony the Khan offered his spiritual mentor many valuable gifts, including a ritual vessel made of emerald. He also gave the Dalai Lama Tibet itself. Although Gushi Khan gave himself the title King of Tibet, he intended the Dalai Lama to be the greater power.

However, Gushi Khan did not yet control all of Tibet. The principle opposition came from some of the King’s allies and also from the Kagyu school. The Karmapa, a prominent Kagyu lama, lived in a Great Encampment with other monks that traveled across Tibet. The Dalai Lama sent word to the Encampment of Tibet’s change in leadership. If Kagyu accepted Gelugpa rule, Kagyu would come to no harm, he said. The Karmapa refused to sign an agreement of compliance, and soon the encampment was surrounded by Mongol and Tibetan soldiers. The Karmapa was able to slip away before the soldiers moved in to destroy the Encampment, killing many monks.

The King’s remaining allies and Karma Kagyu supporters organized a rebellion. They were no match for the Mongolians, who also executed the imprisoned King to remove him as a threat. So it was that in 1642 the Fifth Dalai Lama became the ruler of all Tibet.

This mural in the main temple at Samye Monastery in Tibet probably dates from the 17th Century. In the center is the Fifth Dalai Lama. The small figure on the left his Mongolian military commander, Gushi Khan. The Desi is on the right, with a blue halo. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

The Fifth Dalai Lama and Potala Palace

The Fifth Dalai Lama was advised to build an impressive palace as a symbol of his authority. At first he demurred. But then others argued persuasively that what he really needed was a fortress. That suggestion was approved.

In 1645 the Fifth Dalai Lama climbed Marpori, the hill above Lhasa, where ruins of an ancient palace had long stood. The palace had been home to King Songtsen Gampo (569–649), who had helped introduce Buddhism to Tibet. There the Fifth Dalai Lama began a ritual to prepare the ground for the building of a fortress. Many monks and laypeople were assembled to observe, and Mongolian and Tibetan horsemen watched from their saddles.

An old woman stepped forward to give His Holiness a statue of Avalokiteshvara, the iconic bodhisattva of compassion and the patron deity  of Tibet. Just as this happened a gentle rain shower fell. This reminded those assembled of the tears shed by the bodhisattva, who hears the cries of the world.  Avalokiteshvara has come home to Tibet, the Fifth Dalai Lama said. The symbolism of the moment riveted the Tibetans. In that moment, the Fifth Dalai Lama connected his spiritual lineage to the ancient kings of Tibet and to Avalokiteshvara himself. After five years of construction a large section of Potala Palace was completed, and the Fifth Dalai Lama moved in. Potala Palace became a symbol of Tibet and home for Dalai Lamas until the 14th Dalai Lama escaped Tibet in 1959.


After leaving the Encampment, His Holiness the 10th Karmapa spent several years as a refugee, mostly in Bhutan. He returned to Tibet in 1672 and was formally reconciled with the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1674.

My impression, from reading several accounts, is that the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Desi functioned as co-rulers of Tibet most of the time, although after the 1645 ceremony on Marpori the Tibetan people came to see the Dalai Lama as their temporal as well as religious ruler.

The Fifth Dalai Lama spent the next few years consolidating his power. One of his most significant acts was to establish diplomatic relations with the Qing Dynasty of China. The Fifth Dalai Lama is also remembered as a prolific writer and a respected scholar. He left many volumes, including an autobiography, that became primary sources for the history of the period.

The Fifth Dalai Lama’s death in 1682 was kept secret for several years. A new Desi, only 30 years old, ran the government and trotted out an elderly monk dressed as the Dalai Lama when the Dalai Lama’s presence was required. The truth wasn’t revealed until the 16-year-old Sixth Dalai Lama was enthroned in Potala Palace in 1697. No Dalai Lama after the Fifth functioned as head of state for very long until the Thirteenth (1867–1933). Instead, most of the time the government was in the hands of regents, military strongmen, or a cabal of monied aristocrats.

If you want to learn more about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhist history I highly recommend the book Tibet: A History (Yale University Press,  2011) by Sam van Schaik.

Potala Palace
Potala Palace. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
About Barbara O'Brien
Barbara is the author of The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern World (Shambhala, 2019). You can read more about the author here.

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