The Sixth Dalai Lama’s Short and Tragic Life

The Sixth Dalai Lama’s Short and Tragic Life January 27, 2023

The Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso (1683–1706) didn’t want the job. He was enthroned as the Dalai Lama at age 16, but he wanted only to be a teenager. He renounced monastic vows and preferred to spend evenings in taverns with his friends to studying Buddhist philosophy. Today he is sometimes called the Playboy Dalai Lama. But the Sixth Dalai Lama’s life story is more of a tragedy than a joke.

The existence of the Sixth Dalai Lama was a fiercely guarded secret for years. The Fifth Dalai Lama was the first Dalai Lama to rule Tibet. And a big setback to having a reborn lama as a head of state is that there will be a gap of several years between the death of one Dalai Lama and the enthronement of the next. The Great Fifth’s death in 1682 was kept secret for many years to avoid political instability. During this time the acting head of the government was a high official called the Desi who told people His Holiness was observing a religious retreat. On occasions when the Dalai Lama’s presence was required, an elderly monk who resembled the Great Fifth would stand in.

Meanwhile, the child identified as the Sixth Dalai Lama had to be kept secret also. He and his family were kept in seclusion in Nankartse, a scenic area about a hundred miles from Lhasa. The Desi saw to it the child was well educated, but he may not have had much opportunity to be a child.

The Sixth Dalai Lama Goes to Lhasa

In 1696 the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama was, at long last, announced. The 16-year-old Sixth Dalai Lama left his mother and his seclusion behind and was taken to Lhasa in grand style. He was met by thousands of excited Tibetans. The Desi rode out to meet him with Lajang Khan (also spelled Lha-bzang), the titular King of Tibet. Lajang was the grandson of Gushi Khan, the Mongolian who conquered Tibet and called himself King of Tibet but gave Tibet to the Fifth Dalai Lama to rule. (For background, please see How the Fifth Dalai Lama Became Ruler of Tibet.) Upon entering Lhasa the Sixth Dalai Lama burst into tears. He may have been moved; he may have been terrified.

By all accounts Tsangyang Gyatso was a handsome youth, and at first he seemed well prepared for the role. He was given novice monks’ ordination and enthroned as the Sixth Dalai Lama. He graciously greeted those who came to see him. But he began balking at his studies. He was more interested in watching archery competitions and writing poetry than studying Buddhism. The Desi arranged for the young man to take his full monastic vows, hoping monastic discipline would settle him down. Instead, the Sixth Dalai Lama refused to be a monk at all.

The Sixth Dalai Lama renounced all previous vows, grew his hair long, and wore the silk clothes of a Tibetan noble instead of monk’s robes. He spent his evenings with friends in taverns, singing songs and pursuing girls. He kept a tent in a quiet part of Lhasa for enjoying the company of young women, since such things weren’t permitted in Potala Palace. He wrote mildly erotic poetry about how he couldn’t keep his mind on anything but love. He was an amiable young man and popular with the people of Lhasa, even though it was acknowledged he didn’t amount to much as a Dalai Lama.

Danger Comes for the Sixth Dalai Lama

In far-away Beijing, the Kanxi Emperor of China heard the news about the change in Dalai Lamas and saw an opportunity. The Tibetan-Mongolian alliance was a worry to him. Tibet and its Mongolian allies could, potentially, be a threat to China. The Emperor decided to use the Desi’s deception about the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama to drive a wedge between the allies. The Kanxi Emperor sent word to the Mongols that the Desi was plotting to take Tibet for himself. (Note also that this occurred during a time in which China today claims Tibet was entirely under the rule of China. Clearly, it was not.)

At the same time, the Mongolians were not happy about the Sixth Dalai Lama’s behavior. Lajang Khan blamed the Desi for the teenager’s un-monastic lifestyle, and the two men grew apart. The Desi was still running the government of Tibet, as the Dalai Lama wasn’t interested in being a head of state. But soon the Desi was pressured into retirement. The new Desi was the old Desi’s son, however, and the old Desi continued to run things in the background. This ended when the retired Desi was lured out of his home by one of Lajang Khan’s wives, who beheaded him.

Meanwhile, Lajang Khan decided he would be the true King of Tibet and take the power his grandfather had given away for himself. The Khan sent a letter to the Kanxi Emperor asking for the Emperor’s support in deposing the Sixth Dalai Lama. The Emperor gave his promise of support and told the Khan to bring the young Dalai Lama to Beijing. I will decide what is done with him, the Emperor said. The Khan also received support from other high lamas of the Gelug school, although this support may have been given at the point of a sword.

The Sixth Dalai Lama Is Kidnapped

In 1706 warriors sent by Lajang Khan seized the Sixth Dalai Lama in Potala Palace and took him to a Mongol encampment outside Lhasa.  As word of the kidnapping spread through Lhasa, hundreds of monks and laypeople converged at the encampment, demanding the Dalai Lama’s release. Lahang Khan told the crowd that Tsangyang Gyatso was not the true Dalai Lama, but the people were not appeased. Monks of Drepung Monastery ambushed the Mongolians as they were departing for Beijing and rescued the Dalai Lama. At Drepung, the Nechung Oracle declared that Tsangyang Gyatso was in fact the true Sixth Dalai Lama, and the monks of Drepung vowed to fight to the death to protect him.

It soon seemed that the monks would be put to death. Canon fire rained on Drepung, and Mongol horsemen rode into the grounds. The Sixth Dalai Lama decided to give himself up to Lajang Khan to stop further bloodshed. Some friends accompanied him so that he wouldn’t be alone. But as soon as he surrendered the Dalai Lama saw his friends executed where they stood, and Lajang and his warriors carried the Sixth Dalai Lama away to begin the journey to Beijing. Along the way thousands of people turned out to see the Dalai Lama and be blessed by him. But something was wrong. While the encourage was still on the Tibetan Plateau, near Qinghai, the Sixth Dalai Lama died. He was 24 years old.

With the Dalai Lama and the old, meddling Desi out of the way, Lajang Khan was ready to claim Tibet for himself. He produced a monk about the same age as Tsangyang Gyatso and told Tibetans this young man was the true Sixth Dalai Lama. But the Tibetans didn’t accept him. They blamed Lajang Khan for the Sixth Dalai Lama’s death. Of course, there were also rumors that the Sixth Dalai Lama was still alive and enjoying himself in a tavern somewhere, singing songs with his friends.


The last official act of the Sixth Dalai Lama was to leave a poem that seemed to point to his rebirth. “Little white crane, / lend me your wings. / I’ll not go far away, / just around Litang and back.” The Seventh Dalai Lama would be found in Litang.

There was more intrigue and violence to come before Lajang Khan was deposed and the Seventh Dalai Lama was enthroned in Potala Palace. I intend to take this up in the next post. 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.


Prayer flags at Ugyenling monastery, which is associated with the birthplace of the Sixth Dalai Lama. Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

Close Ad