A 17th Century Tibetan Deception

Statuette of the Fifth Dalai Lama. Mongolia, 19th century CE. (Wikipedia)

In 1679, China under the powerful Qing dynasty was trying to claim power over Tibet. The Fifth Dalai Lama was in his final years and the future looked bleak. To ensure that the spiritual and political leadership continued  he came up with a brilliant plan: he announced that he was retiring and appointing an official named Sangye Gyatso as the leader of the Tibetans. To see how this innocent looking plan, which is being repeated once again by the 14th Dalai Lama, fooled the Chinese, read on.

When the Fifth died in 1682 at the age of sixty-five, Sangye Gyatso duly informed the public that the Dalai Lama was in retreat. On the rare occasions when important visitors were allowed an audience, he enlisted an elderly monk of similar age and appearance to pretend to be the Fifth; the monk wore a large eye-shade, much like the current Dalai Lama, albeit for different reasons.

The deception was so effective that it was fourteen years before the Chinese Emperor realized he had been duped, and then only because some Mongolian prisoners of war mentioned reports they had heard in Lhasa that the Dalai Lama had died more than a decade earlier. By then the next Dalai Lama had been identified, educated, and established: a succession crisis had largely been avoided. The Qing had been denied any say over the selection of the Sixth Dalai Lama, thus taking away a fundamental part of their claim to overlordship. “You, Regent!” thundered the Emperor Kangxi in a 1696 edict to Sangye Gyatso, “You are nothing except an administrator working for the Dalai Lama, you were elevated to be the ‘King of Tibet’ by us! …This news should have been communicated to us directly!”

Hence the concern in some quarters of Beijing that the current Dalai Lama might be similarly using his retirement to prevent China from selecting his spiritual successor and thus reinforcing its claim to sovereignty over Tibet. [The Dalai Lama’s ‘Deception’]

1 Comment

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