By Tsering Shakya
On 8th March, the Dalai Lama gave the Chakrasamvara Empowerment, a tantric rite of initiation, in Dharamsala, in northern India; the ceremony is said to have been requested by Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar. At the ceremony, slightly lower than the Dalai Lama’s throne, was another throne or raised dais on which a young boy of 7 or 8 years sat. This was the first time this child had appeared in public and it drew the attention of onlookers. Who was the boy? Why was he sitting on a throne next to the Dalai Lama?
In due course, the Dalai Lama mentioned in passing to those present that the boy was the 10th Jetsun Dampa of Mongolia, but his public appearance was not accompanied by any formal announcement. The fact that the boy sat on a throne next to the Dalai Lama during a tantric initiation ceremony in which he performed a role led to speculation that the ceremony was also the formal announcement or extension of the recognition of the child as the 10th Jetsun Dampa. Biographies of the previous Jetsun Dampas refer to two ritual procedures that were performed by the senior most lama in Lhasa of the Gelugpa school. The first such ritual was the “recognition” (ngos ‘dzin), and the second was the “hair cutting” (skra phud), which is accompanied by the child taking a vow as a novice monk (dge bsnyen sdom pa bzhes). In this case, the reports of the event in India give no indication that the boy has taken religious or novice vows or that the hair-cutting ceremony had taken in private or during previous visits to Dharamsala, although a spokesman for the Private Office of the Dalai Lama later said that the boy had visited the Dalai Lama there several times in past years.
Identifying a Reincarnation
In an interview with the Tibetan-language service of the Voice of America, Yangteng Rinpoche, an official in the Dalai Lama’s Private Office, said the child had been selected from an initial list of 100,000 boys’ names from Mongolia, and that the list had been reduced in time to 13 names.
The boy has been given a religious name in Tibetan: Tenzin Jampel Choekyi Wangchuk (bstan ‘dzin ‘jam dpal chos kyi dbang phyug.) We know very little about how the recognition process took place and to what extent it involved the Dalai Lama; the spoke person of the Dalai Lama’s office implied that some secrecy was required and that some details had to be kept confidential. In general, recognition by the Dalai Lama of young reincarnate lamas happens often and hardly makes the news. In this case, the recognition attracted global media coverage, particularly in the Indian media, and included a good deal of exaggeration and misunderstanding – some of it even comical, such as one Indian television news channel that proclaimed that the boy could be the next Dalai Lama or would be responsible for selecting the next Dalai Lama.
An 8-year old boy is at the centre of a tense geo-political chess game played out between powerful governments in east Asia — and the survival of Tibetan Buddhism may depend upon the outcome. My piece about the reincarnation of the 10th Jetsun Dhampa. https://t.co/Mk4PmeNWio
— Richard Lloyd Parry (@dicklp) March 26, 2023
China, the Dalai Lama, and Mongolia
Much of this speculation is prompted by the ageing Dalai Lama and the looming clash between Tibetan Buddhists and the Chinese government over the selection of the next Dalai Lama. The PRC government has already stated that the final authority for determining the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama rests with Beijing alone. It will undoubtedly choose and appoint the person it declares is the next Dalai Lama, with counter-selection by the Tibetan Diaspora, and the media and public commentators will play a significant role in the crisis of belief, values and political contestation that this conflict will produce.
The present Dalai Lama has said that he will announce his successor in due course, but has said that they will not be born in Chinese-controlled Tibet, indicating that the future Dalai Lama will be found outside China. The suppositions that the Jetsun Dampa will be involved in the selection of the Dalai Lama or that re-establishing the Jetsun Dampa lineage is somehow designed to prevent Chinese interference in the selection process for the next Dalia Lama have no serious basis. The Chinese claim over the right to select the Dalai lama is embedded in the notion of “sovereignty” and the authority to appoint any religious leaders who assert a claim of authority within territory under the rule of the PRC government – be they Tibetan lamas or Catholic bishops, China insists that they must be approved by the Chinese government and that no external religious authority will be accepted. The PRC government does not, in fact, claim authority over all Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and with regard to Mongolia, as an independent state, China does not make any claim over whom its citizens choose as a religious leader. Of course, there is a question of political influence over religion in Inner Mongolia, but historically Inner Mongolia has less connection to the Jetsun Dampa lineage than in Mongolia. In fact, in the 1920s, Mongols among the elite in Inner Mongolia did not join the effort to create a united Mongolia because they objected to the Jetstun Dampa being anointed as the Bogd khan, or “Holy Emperor”, and opposed the merging of secular and religious authority under the Jetsun Dampa institution. Nevertheless, the PRC government does not make claims over lamas outside of PRC territory. Conjecture that the PRC is concerned about the selection of the Jetsun Dampa is at best speculation and at worst feeding global fear of “Chinese interference”.
History of the Jetsun Dampa
The global news media’s focus on the Dalai Lama’s succession and on the PRC’s interest of it has overlooked the impact of the event in contemporary Mongolia. In particular, observers have failed to notice a number of precedents that have been set. Since the establishment of the Jetsun Dampa lineage in the 17th century, only the first two were ethnic Mongols. The first was the son of Tüsheet Khan, a royal prince and a descendent of Chinggis Khan. His religious and Tibetan name was Lobsang Tenpé Gyaltsen (Blo bzang bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan, 1635–1723). He is today commonly known as Zanabazar. The Mongols recognized him as the reincarnation of Taranatha (1575–1634), a Tibetan lama and scholar who had founded the Jonang tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The Gelug school at the time regarded his teachings as heretical, leading Taranatha to flee to Mongol territory, according to some sources, and some oral histories and legends say that he passed away in Mongolia, or even in what is today the area of Ulaanbaatar. According to Mongolian oral sources, he was a guru for Tusheet Khan and Setsen Khan, both of whom later proclaimed Zanabazar as the Jetsun Dampa. Zanabazar visited Tibet twice, first in 1649 and again in 1651. He met the 5th Dalai Lama, but his primary teacher was the 4th Panchen Lama, Lobsang Gyaltsen.
Zanabazar had significant impact on religious and cultural life among Mongols. He was not only a brilliant religious scholar and artist, who left a huge legacy behind him, but was linked to the bloodline of Chinggis Khan, thus having unparalleled importance that no other lamas could match. In today’s Mongolia, Zanabazar’s name is ubiquitous, the Bogd Khan Palace Museum displays primarily works by him, and Mongolians attribute the origins of many of the symbols of contemporary nationalism to his creations – the ‘Soyombo’, the national emblem of modern-day Mongolia, is said to have been designed by Zanabazar and today he is as much an important rallying point for Mongolian cultural nationalists as for his religious standing. The contemporary reverence and admiration for the first Jetsun Dampa does not translate into glorification of his office, however. Zanabazar is also held responsible for losing Mongol autonomy by bringing them under the rule of the Manchus. From this perspective, for Mongolian nationalists Jetsun Dampa does not represent a heroic defender of the Mongols.
Tibetan Jetsun Dampas
After the first two Jetsun Dampas, bitter squabbling arose between various Mongol princes, and there was a fear that religious and secular authority would coalesce in one family. With Manchu intervention, all subsequent reincarnations were found in Tibet, and thus no Mongol prince was privileged by having the reincarnation taking birth in a Mongol family. From the third lineage-holder onwards until the 9th, all the Jetsun Dampas were ethnic Tibetans. This, however, brought its own problems. The child in each case was taken to Mongolia at an early age and became fully acculturated in Mongol tradition and language, but the 3rd to 7th holders of the lineage did not live long and passed away without having any major impact on Mongol culture or politics. The 4th Jetsun Dampa was recognized in 1770 by the 6th Panchen Lama, who thereby became instrumental in creating a family lineage, since the new child and the 8th Dalai Lama were both from his brother’s family. This perceived nepotism and corruption was one reason why the Manchu Emperor imposed the use of the Golden Urn lottery in 1793 for the selection of the high reincarnate lamas. Imposing the use of the Golden Urn and insisting that the child should be from Tibet meant that the Manchus were able to sever ties between the Jetsun Dampa hierarchs and the Chinggis Khan lineage, which otherwise would have provided any future Jetsun Dampa with uniquely powerful legitimation. The 5th till the 8th Jetsun Dampa were selected using Gold Urn instituted by the Manchu. The 6th died shortly after contracting smallpox, having never even travelled within Mongol territory, and the 7th Jetsun Dampa died at the age of 19 in Tibet.
The 8th Jetsun Dampa, whose Tibetan and religious name was Ngawang Lobsang Choekyi Nyima Tenzin Lodroe Wangchuk, was born near Lhasa and moved to Urga at the age of 5 with his family. His family had kinship ties to the 12th Dalai Lama. His younger brother later became an important figure in Mongolia in his own right and was recognized as the Chojin Lama Lubsankhaidav, the state oracle of the Mongols. In 1904 the 8th constructed the Choijin Lama temple (brtse phel gling in Tibetan) in honour of his brother in what is now Ulaanbaatar.
Although recognitions were carried out by the Dalai Lama, Tibetan biographies do not show the Dalai Lama and Jetsun Dampa forming teacher-student relations, which would have implied much more significant ties between the two institutions. The 8th Jetsun Dampa did not have a good relationship with the 13th Dalai Lama. When in 1905, in the aftermath of the British invasion of Tibet, the 13th Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia, his arrival was not welcomed by the Jetsun Dampa and his court. The Jetsun Dampa refused to leave the city to welcome the Dalai lama, whom he referred to as an “uninvited guest”. When the two met, their courtiers feuded over which should have the higher throne, with the Mongol entourage insisting that the Dalai Lama should be seated lower since he was in the Jetsun Dampa’s territory. In the end, the conflict was resolved by the two lamas sitting face-to-face on Western style chairs. The Tibetan biography of the 13th Dalai Lama records that the Jetsun Dampa’s courtiers were unhappy with the amount of donations and gifts lavished by Mongol princes on the visiting Dalai Lama and depicts the Jetsun Dampa as driven by jealousy and rage by the presence of the Tibetan leader in Urga, then the capital of Mongols.
Empires to Nations
In 1911, following the fall of the Qing dynasty, the Mongol revolt and the declaration of Mongolian independence, the Jetsun Dampa was declared the new theocratic ruler of Mongolia, with the title Bogd Khan, meaning “Holy Emperor”, elevating his status of that of the political leader of newly declared independent nation as well as its prime religious figure. This elevation of the Jetsun Dampa to royal status was not welcomed by everyone. Some saw this as the creation of a theocratic state, and others questioned the Bogd Khan’s personal fitness for the office; he had a terrible reputation as a womanizer and was said to be syphilitic. There was also no escaping from the fact that he was not an ethnic Mongol. Some began to refer to the new Emperor as a “wretched Tibetan beggar”. A Swedish missionary living in Urga at that time described the brief rule of the Bogd Khan from 1911 to 1921 as “a good season in which wealth abounded [and] Mongolia prospered as never before”, but that description was deceptive, as the Bogd Khan’s Mongolia faced challenges from all sides. The newly established Republican government of China entered Mongolia and restored Chinese rule, and it was only with the help of a White Russian army fleeing Russian revolutionary forces that the Bogd Khan’s government was able to expel the Chinese garrison. The presence of anti-Soviet groups invited military intervention by the Soviets, which in turn led to the establishment of what was only the second communist revolution in the world, and the first revolutionary government in Asia. The Bodg Khan’s government was deposed, and the new People’s Revolutionary Government was established in Mongolia in 1921.
The Jetsun Dampa in the People’s Republic of Mongolia
Three years later, in May 1924, the 8th Jetsun Dampa passed away. The Buddhist clergy asked the new government for permission to search for the new reincarnation. The new government discussed the issue, with their Comintern advisors who were not averse to installing a new Jetsun Dampa, given his popularity with the masses: the lama could be a valuable conduit for spreading revolutionary messages, and the record shows that the Comintern agreed to consult with the 13th Dalai Lama. In 1926 a Comintern-sponsored delegation arrived in Lhasa and met with the Tibetan leader. Records do not show how discussions over the new reincarnation proceeded, but finally, in 1929, following instructions from the Soviets and advice from the Comintern, the new revolutionary government of Mongolia made it illegal to recognise any reincarnation of the Jetsun Dampa and the sale or distribution of his image was made a criminal offence. Following the example of Stalin’s Red Terror, most of the monasteries in Mongolia were destroyed and monks and trulkus massacred. The followers of the Jetsun Dampa nevertheless searched for the 9th reincarnation, but only after the 1933 death of the 13th Dalai Lama, since he was politically astute and cognizant that the new government of Mongolia had outlawed such recognition. In 1935 Reting Rinpoche, the Regent of Tibet, conferred recognition on a child as the 9th Jetsun Dampa. Until 1990, the 9th Jetsun Dampa led an obscure and unremarkable life. In 1959, like thousands of Tibetans he fled to India where he lived as an ordinary Tibetan refugee; he married twice and is said to have had seven children. His presence among the Tibetan refugees was hardly noticed by the Tibetans. And without a large Mongolian Diaspora, the 9th Jetsun Dampa lacked patronage and support, and would have disappeared into obscurity had the democratic revolution of Mongolia taken place in the early 1990s. It was only then that some Mongolian lamas renewed contact with the Dalai Lama and learned of the existence of the reincarnation of the 9th Jetsun Dampa. In the mid-1990s, he was invited by the Dalai Lama to move to Dharamsala and began preparations for his eventual journey to Mongolia. In 2010 he was allowed to move to Mongolia and was given Mongolian citizenship. However, since he had had no contact with Mongolians for most of his life, he could not converse in Mongolian. On his return to Gandantegchinlen monastery in Ulaanbaatar, he may have been revered by the monks, but he remained virtually unknown and unable to communicate with local followers, apart from a few Tibetan speakers; he was very much isolated and too beset with ill health to be an effective spiritual leader of contemporary Mongolians. He passed away in 2012.
In the 1970s Soviet Union found a new use for Buddhism: it could be instrumentalized to counter American-supported Buddhist Organizations. It therefore established a Soviet-backed international Buddhist organization headquartered at Gandantegchinlen. The organization’s first international meeting was attended by the current Dalai Lama in 1979, drawing the condemnation of the US and China. This was the first time since 1929 that there had been an attempt to revive some Buddhist traditions in Mongolia, and it led to the re-opening of Gandantegchinlen Monastery with a small number of monks.
Tsering Shakya on the Jebtsundampa in Contemporary Mongolia
About Tsering Shakya
Tsering Shakya is a historian of Tibet and an Associate Professor at the Department of Asian Studies/ School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, BC, Canada.