3rd Dalai Lama

John Florens | Dec 15, 2022

Table of Content


Sönam Gyatso (near Lhasa, 1543 - April 20, 1588) was the first person to be named Dalai Lama upon his life. In the chronological list of succession, he is considered the third Dalai Lama. His two predecessors as the main tulku of the Gelug tradition, Gendün Drub and Gendün Gyatso, received that designation posthumously.

His father, Namgyal Drakpa, was a wealthy noble landowner and traced his lineage to the period of the Tibetan empire of the Yarlung dynasty of the 8th and 9th centuries. His mother, Peldzom Buthrie, daughter of Wangchuk Rinpoche, was also of noble descent. Her family traditionally had close ties to the Phagmodru dynasty dominant in that part of Tibet at that time.

As is often the case with tulku, his biography mentions many miracles that are said to have occurred during his birth. Nevertheless, his parents feared that an accident or fatal illness would befall him at a young age, since all their previously born children had died early. Therefore, to avert that danger, they mainly gave him milk from a white goat to drink. His biography reports that for this reason he received the name Ranusi Chöpal Zongpo (or Ranu Sicho Pelzang), the lucky one, who was protected by goat's milk.

Even as a child, he showed remarkable gifts and skills. In 1546, he was recognized as the reincarnation of Gendün Gyatso and installed at Drepung Monastery. There he received the name Sönam Gyatso Pelzango Tanpe Nyima Chok Thamce Lenampar Gyalwas, which was shortened to Sönam Gyatso.

In addition to his studies, he began to travel at an early age. In 1556 - at the age of thirteen - he made a journey through almost all the important monasteries of central Tibet. In particular, he had a relationship with Chokorgyel Monastery, which had been founded by Gendün Gyatso.

From 1559 he became the personal teacher of Ngawang Tashi Dragpa, the then king of the Phagmodru dynasty, a position that lasted until the king's death in 1564. In addition to being abbot of Drepung Monastery from 1552, he also became abbot of Sera Monastery in 1558.

Sönam Gyatso was a great promoter of the interests of the gelug tradition in Tibet at that time. In central Tibet, he founded a number of monasteries and temples. In 1568 or 1574 he founded a personal home temple, the Kusho Dratsang Pende Lekshe Ling, which was later incorporated into the west wing of the Potala Palace during the period of the fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso. Which later became, under the name of Namgyal, the personal temple of all the Dalai Lamas that followed.

By 1558, Sönam Gyatso had already visited the northern border areas of central Tibet. He founded monasteries there, such as Lithang in Kham and Kumbum in Tsongkhapa's birthplace. A little after 1570, the first delegation of Altan Khan arrived. This leader of the Tümed Mongols had managed to overcome a large number of neighboring tribes, repeatedly invaded northern China and thus managed to obtain concessions from the Ming dynasty. Altan Khan realized, however, that more was needed to anchor his conquests permanently. Altan Khan therefore sought that solution in converting his court and people to Buddhism in the Tibetan form.

After declining an initial invitation, Sönam Gyatso arrived at the court of the Altan Khan in 1578. It is not clear where this meeting took place. Most historians place it in Mongolia itself. A few others place it near Lake Qinghai thousands of miles south in the Kokonor area, where Mongolian principalities had been present since the time of Dzhengis Khan (died 1227 ). Sönam Gyatso preached Buddhism and the khan and his court converted to it. The khan gave Sönam Gyatso the title magnificent Vajradhara, good, brilliant, praiseworthy ocean, abbreviated to ocean lama or dalai lama. Incidentally, it is a title found in Mongolian sources as early as the 13th century as Ocean Khan. A more trivial explanation is that the name Gyatso in Sönam Gyatso in Tibetan also means ocean. Altan Khan might have addressed Sönam Gyatso with the Mongolian translation of his name when first greeting him. That led to Dalai Lama.

Sönam Gyatso gives the Altan Khan the title Dharmaraja, Great Brahma of the Gods. Other persons of Mongolian nobility are also given titles by Sönam Gyatso.

It is unclear, why the visit of precisely the most important lama of the gelug led to the future far-reaching consequences. Tibetan lamas had been active in the area of the Tümed Mongols for decades. It is clear from the literature, that other lamas from other traditions also paid regular visits to Altan Khan. It is known that Gyalpo Künga Tashi of the kagyüt tradition visited the Altan Khan twice. Solemn titles were also given to each other during this trip. Even after 1578, the Altan Khan continued to receive lamas from other traditions. One explanation could be, that the karmapa, the head of the kagyüt tradition, at that time clearly the most influential and powerful tulku of Tibetan Buddhism had close ties with the Chinese Ming dynasty. In order to profile his independence from that dynasty, Althan Khan would have chosen the relationship with the gelug's most important tulku.

Sönam Gyatso did not return to Central Tibet. For the rest of his life, he preached mostly in eastern Tibet. In 1582, Altan Khan died. In 1584 and 1588, Sönam Gyatso traveled to Mongolia again. These trips were mainly to the northeastern Mongolian region. Several Mongolian tribal leaders tried to match or surpass Altan Khan's exploits in this area for reasons of political prestige. During the journey of 1584, a meeting took place between Sönam Gyatso and Abadai Khan (also written as Abtai Sain Khan) of the Khalkha Mongols living more to the northeast. Starting in 1585, Abadai had the monastery Erdene Zuu built, the oldest monastery in Mongolia. Sönam Gyatso sent a lama from the sakya tradition to consecrate the monastery. Consequently, in this part of the Mongolian territory, a majority of the elite remained committed to this tradition until after the mid-17th century.

Sönam Gyatso died during the second trip to Mongolia and was eventually succeeded by Yonten Gyatso, the fourth Dalai Lama.

The main source for knowledge regarding Sönam Gyatso's life comes from a biography written by the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso about 100 years later. That one based the work on earlier biographies, which were written though shortly after Sönam Gyatso's death. However, none of those biographies have survived. Thus, the work of the fifth Dalai Lama remains the most important source.

That work is of the genre called namthar in Tibetan. That is derived from the term nampa tharpa, which literally means complete liberation. This type of biography is based on the assumption, that the person described has attained Buddhahood - complete liberation. The biography thus aims to illustrate their exemplary lives and inspire others to follow this example. Here - as in classical Tibetan historiography - historical truth-seeking is often subordinated to the intended educational and religious purpose.

An often described element in the encounter with Altan Khan is the supposed fact, that Sönam Gyatso declared Altan Khan to be the reincarnation of Kublai Khan and Altan Khan declared Sönam Gyatso to be the reincarnation of Phagspa. On this basis, then, the pattern-priest relationship of the 13th century would be reconfirmed in that between Sönam Gyatso and Altan Khan. Mongolian sources of the encounter with Altan Khan did survive. Based on these, then, contemporary historians conclude that this part of their encounter did not take place in a factual sense. In a strictly historical sense, this is a fiction added by the fifth Dalai Lama and then became part of the myth.

Contemporary historians view the Mongol connection from a dual perspective. The alliance formed with Althan Khan, the subsequent installation of a great-grandson of his as the fourth Dalai Lama Yönten Gyatso assured the Gelug in the 17th century of sufficient military support to first avoid their elimination in the civil war of that century and then under the fifth Dalai Lama to become the dominant power factor in Tibet. However, the connection also resulted in Tibet becoming a battleground for mutual Mongolian strife in the early 18th century. The moment the Chinese emperor began to see this as a security threat, it resulted in Tibet effectively becoming a Chinese protectorate beginning in 1720.


  1. 3rd Dalai Lama
  2. Sönam Gyatso
  3. (Schwieger 2014, p. 33) « Although the Mongolian word dalai is equivalent to the Tibetan word gyatso, meaning "ocean", and would therefore seem to refer to this component in the names of the Dalai Lamas (except for the first one), it was constructed in analogy to the older Mongolian title dalai-yin-qan, "Ocean Qan". Thus the word dalai was not translated into Tibetan but only transliterated into Tibetan script when the title was cut into the seal. »
  4. (en) Anne Chayet, in Authenticating Tibet, Anne-Marie Blondeau, Katia Buffetrille eds., 2008, p. 35 : « he received from Altan Khan the title Dalai Lama (Dalai, from the Mongol Tale, meaning "ocean", equivalent to the Tibetan gyatso; and lama, Tibetan bla ma, meaning "the highest," and designating the Indian guru). »
  5. a b c d et e Roland Barraux, Histoire des dalaï-lamas, Quatorze reflets sur le Lac des Visions, Albin Michel, 1993. Réédité en 2002, Albin Michel, (ISBN 2226133178).
  6. (en) St. Elmo Nauman Jr, Dictionary of Asian Philosophies, p. 40 « Dalai meaning "ocean" in Mongolian, a translation of gyatso »
  7. (en) Thomas Laird The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama, 2006, p.143
  8. ^ "tbrc.org: dge 'dun rgya mtsho". Archived from the original on 2009-07-06. Retrieved 2008-11-04.
  9. a b c L. Petech: The Dalai-Lamas and regents of Tibet: a chronological study. W: The History of Tibet (pod red. A.McKaya). T. II: The Medieval Period: c.850-1895 The Development of Buddhist Paramountcy. Londyn, Nowy Jork: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003, s. 569. ISBN 0-415-30843-7.
  10. R. Barraux: Dzieje Dalajlamów. Czternaście odbić w Jeziorze Widzeń. Warszawa: Alfa, 1998, s. 81-91. ISBN 83-7179-113-5.
  11. a b c d e H.E. Richardson: The Dalai Lamas. W: The History of Tibet (pod red. A.McKaya). T. II: The Medieval Period: c.850-1895 The Development of Buddhist Paramountcy. Londyn, Nowy Jork: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003, s. 556-557. ISBN 0-415-30843-7.
  12. a b c L.W.J.van der Kuijp: The Dalai Lamas and the Origins of Reincarnate Lamas. W: The Tibetan History Reader (pod red. G.Tuttlea i K.R.Schaeffera). Nowy Jork, Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2013, s. 336-338. ISBN 978-0-231-51354-8.
  13. ^ Laird, p. 139.
  14. ^ Stein, pp. 171-172.
  15. ^ Das, p. 172.
  16. ^ Laird, p. 143.

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