The Seventh Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso b.1708 - d.1757
Name Variants: Jayang Gekpai Langtso Yangchen Gyepai Dorje
Kelzang Gyatso (skal bzang rgya mtsho) was born in the region of Litang (li thang) in Kham, during the earth-rat year of the twelfth sexagenary cycle, 1708. His father was named Sonam Dargye (bsod nams dar rgyas, d.1744) and his mother Sonam Chotso (bsod nams chos mtsho). The child's birth was said to have been accompanied by wonders, including the infant's utterance of marvelous words, and a maternal uncle gave him the auspicious name Kelzang Gyatso, the "ocean of good fortune."
According to legend, soon after the birth a local monk was possessed by the protective divinity Oden Karpo ('od ldan dkar po), who declared that the boy was the rebirth of the teacher "fulfilling to see," a phrase that was taken to refer to the late Dalai Lama. The oracle further stated that the boy must not remain at home, but should be taken immediately to a monastery. A later legend attributes a poem to the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 06 tsangs dbyangs rgya mtsho, 1683-1706), that came to be popularly considered as a prophecy of the boy’s identity: "White crane lend me your wings. I will not fly far; from Litang I shall return" (bya de khyung khyung dkar po nga la gshog rtsel g.yar dang thag ring rgyang nas mi 'gro li thang bskor ne slebs yong).
The report that the Dalai Lama had been reborn in Kham gradually spread throughout far eastern Tibet, whose Tibetan and Mongol leaders welcomed the news. Soon rumors were circulating in central Tibet, too, where Lhazang Khan (1677-1717), who had inherited the title of “King of Tibet” from his ancestor, the Fifth Dalai's patron Gushri Khan, was displeased by this turn of events; following the deposition and death of the Sixth Dalai Lama, Lhazang had named his own son, Ngawang Yeshe Gyatso (ngag dbang ye shes rgya mtsho, b.1686), as Dalai Lama, an act for which he was generally despised by the Tibetans.
Lhazang Khan sent two of his military commanders, a Tibetan and a Mongol, to investigate the Litang boy. Norbu Ngodrub (nor bu dngos grub), the Tibetan officer, on learning that the child was considered to be the rebirth of Tsangyang Gyatso, sought to defuse the situation by maintaining that, because Tsangyang Gyatso had been judged by the Mongols and Manchus not to have been the true Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso posed no threat, the logic being that even if he was the reincarnation of Tsangyang Gyatso he was still not the legitimate Dalai Lama. Norbu Ngodrub recognized that this ruse would serve to protect the boy for only a short time and so he counseled his father, Sonam Dargye, to find a safe refuge. The family fled into the wilderness that very evening, returning home only after Lhazang's emissaries had returned to central Tibet.
In 1714, upon hearing once more that some of Lhazang's men would again be in the vicinity, Sonam Dargye decided that it would be best to seek a haven for his son in Derge (sde dge). Though well-received by the prince of Derge, Tenpa Tsering (bstan pa tshe ring, 1678-1738), it was by no means sure that, should Lhazang decide to send troops there, Derge would be so safe as was hoped. The Mongol chieftain of Kokonor, Qingwang Baturtaiji, and others therefore arranged for the boy's passage to Amdo, where at last it was possible for representatives from the main central Tibetan Geluk monasteries to examine him. As a result, Kelzang Gyatso was finally recognized officially but in secret as the new Dalai Lama. The Namgyel Dratsang (rnam rgyal grwa tshang), the personal monastic institution of the Dalai Lamas that had been founded by the Fifth, Lobzang Gyatso (ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, 1617-1682), was now reestablished; and its continuous history until the present is said to date from this time.
When Kelzang Gyatso reached eight years of age, the Qing Emperor Kangxi (康熙, r.1661-1722), following the precedents established by his father's relation with the Fifth Dalai Lama, sent representatives of the court so that a combined Chinese-Tibetan-Mongol cavalry could escort the rebirth to Kumbum (sku 'bum), the famous monastery near Xining marking the place of Tsongkhapa's birth. It was here that Kelzang Gyatso was enthroned and an imperial proclamation was publicly read, affirming that “this emanation is the veritable rebirth of the former Dalai Lama … As the Omniscient One comes into the world like the sun, which cannot be blocked out with the hand, the light rays of his compassion and enlightened deeds embrace the whole world, so that the Buddha's teaching expands and increases.”
The Emperor continued to affirm the legitimacy of Lhazang Khan's rule in Tibet, however, and so, for the time being, central Tibet remained under Lhazang's control. The young Dalai Lama's protectors had no choice but to raise him at Kumbum, where he pursued his studies under a succession of noteworthy tutors. Among these was the Second Chubzang, Lobzang Tenpai Gyeltsen (chu bzang 02 blo bzang bstan pa'i rgyal mtshan, 1652-1723), who gave him his novice vows. Another tutor of the period was Kelzang Trinle (skal bzang 'phrin las, d.u.), his first teacher on the mundane sciences.
In 1717 the Dzungar Mongols invaded central Tibet and Kham and drove out Lhazang. They deposed his son, who spent the rest of his life in a monastery in Lhasa. In 1720, when the Dzungars army began to crumble under the assault of combined Manchu and Tibetan forces, Kelzang Gyatso's attendants decided that the time had come for the thirteen-year-old Kelzang Gyatso to claim his throne in Lhasa. The Kangxi Emperor favored the move and sent his own fourteenth son, the prince Yinti (胤禵, 1688-1756) to accompany the Dalai Lama, together with leading representatives of Tibetan Buddhism at the Qing court and Manchu, Chinese and Mongol military leaders. Among the prominent Tibetans to accompany him to Lhasa was the Second Tukwan Ngawang Chokyi Gyatso (thu'u bkwan 02 ngag dbang chos kyi rgya mtsho, 1680-1736).
Clearly, the Emperor wished to demonstrate to the Tibetans that the Dalai Lama was an object of his reverence who was at the same time a dependent of the court. Manchu devotion thus contained always an element of menace; both were equally real, and it required probity and skill on the part of the Tibetans who dealt with the Manchus to find the appropriate equilibrium between these apparently opposite tendencies. The Manchus never withdrew their rejection of Tsangyang Gyatso, and thus asserted that Kelzang Gyatso was the Sixth Dalai Lama. His career would be played out in the crosscurrents between imperial faith and power.
Kelzang Gyatso arrived at the Potala during the autumn in 1720. That same winter he was ordained by the foremost Geluk master of the day, the Fifth Paṇchen Lama, Lobzang Yeshe (paN chen bla ma 05 blo bzang ye shes, 1663-1737), who gave him the monastic name Lobzang Kelzang Gyatso (blo bzang skal bzang rgya mtsho). Even on this joyful occasion, however, political complications could not be altogether avoided: the Tibetan government, in making seating arrangements for the honored guests invited to witness the event, gave preference to the Tibetan nobles and the emissaries of the Qing court, leaving only inferior seats for the Mongol lords. This perceived insult would be later cited as one of several causes of the rebelliousness of the Mongols and their Tibetan supporters during the years that followed.
In fact, it was in Amdo that opposition to the Manchus first erupted into open conflict. In 1723, soon after the death of the Kangxi Emperor and as the new ruler, Yongzheng (雍正, r. 1722-1735) was just establishing his authority, Mongol tribesmen claiming the succession of Gushri Khan, together with their Amdo Tibetan allies and supported by some factions within the monasteries, rose up against the Qing in the region of Kokonor. Yongzheng insisted on violent reprisals and the Manchu army unleashed a scorched earth campaign in Amdo, destroying villages and monasteries believed to have sided with the rebels and killing their inhabitants indiscriminately. Even the Second Chuzang, who had been the Dalai Lama's chief tutor during his childhood at Kumbum, was numbered among the victims. On hearing of these events, the Tibetan Buddhist leadership of Beijing, as well as Kelzang Gyatso himself, petitioned the court, pleading for clemency. Eventually the Emperor relented and ordered that the damaged monasteries be rebuilt with funds from the Imperial coffers. By extending direct patronage to the Tibetan Buddhists of Amdo, the Qing intended to ensure their loyalty henceforth, and in this they proved to be at least partially successful.
One of the major sites to feel the Manchus' wrath was the monastery of Gonlung Jampa Ling (dgon lung byams pa gling), in the Monguor territory to the east of Xining. The monastery was thoroughly devastated and its six-year old incarnation, the Third Changkya, Rolpai Dorje (lcang skya 03 rol pa'i rdo rje, 1717-1786), was taken into hiding in the surrounding wilderness. His previous incarnation, Ngawang Choden (ngag dbang chos-ldan, 1642-1714), had been a close disciple of the Fifth Dalai Lama and, in later life, a tutor of the Kangxi Emperor. Accordingly, an order was issued that the boy should by all means be found and brought to Beijing unharmed. Rolpai Dorje was raised and educated under the direct protection of the court, groomed from childhood to serve as an intermediary between the seat of Manchu power and the Buddhists of Tibet and Mongolia.
Exile and Return
Although by now the young Dalai Lama had been for some years installed in the Potala, he was still in his minority and Tibet, politically unstable as it was, continued to be ruled by others. He continued to be occupied solely with his religious education. Lobzang Dargye (blo bzang dar rgyas, 1662-1723), who later served as the Forty-ninth Ganden Tripa (dga' ldan khri pa 49), was assigned as his tutor for four years, teaching mainly philosophical courses starting from logic through to the last chapter of Abhisamayālaṃkāra. Pelden Drakpa (dpal ldan grags pa, d. 1729), who later served as the Fifty-first Ganden Tripa (dga' ldan khri pa 51), was another tutor. Khardo Zopa Gyatso (mkhar rdo bzod pa rgya mtsho, 1672-1749) was an assistant tutor (mtshan zhabs); the Dalai Lama sponsored the development of Khardo Hermitage (mkhar rdo ri khrod) above Sera.
In the aftermath of the war with the Dzungars in 1720, Beijing had punished harshly those in the Tibetan government who had collaborated with the enemy and at the same time sought to impose strict discipline upon the general population, measures that did nothing to endear them to the Tibetan people overall. To rule Tibet, the Qing established an oligarchy of five leading Tibetan nobles, led by Khangchenne Sonam Gyelpo (khang chen nas bsod nams rgyal po, d. 1727), who exercised authority in collaboration with two Manchu representatives, the ambans. Adding to the complexity of these arrangements was the new status of the Dalai Lama's father, Sonam Dargye, who was ennobled following his son's installation, and who soon became entangled in the affairs of the ruling oligarchy.
Throughout the 1720s relations among the Tibetan oligarchs grew increasingly fractious. Kangchenne, though in many respects a capable leader, was nevertheless arrogant and ill-suited to cooperate with others. Three of his peers -- Ngapo Dorje Gyelpo (nga phod rdo rje rgyal po, d. 1728), Lumpawa Tashi Gyelpo (lum pa ba bkra shis rgyal po, d. 1728), whose daughters had married Sonam Dargye, and Jarawa Lodrö Gyelpo (sbyar ra ba blo gros rgyal po, d.u.) -- plotted rebellion, apparently with the collusion of Sonam Dargye. The fourth, Polhane Sonam Tobgye (pho lha nas bsod nams stobs rgyas, 1689-1747), like Khangchenne a supporter of Manchu power in Tibet, was the latter’s sole ally on the council.
In 1727 Ngapo, Lumpawa, and Jarawa murdered Khangchenne together with his retainers and family. Polhane, who was out of Lhasa at the time, was warned by one of the Dalai Lama's tutors to stay away, but when he learned of the murder he reacted by rallying armies in western Tibet and Tsang to overthrow the killers and those who supported them. Though badly outnumbered, he was the superior strategist and, by carefully concentrating his forces, secured control of important fortresses in Tsang, notably Shigatse, while waiting for Manchu reinforcements. Once these arrived, the rebellion was firmly suppressed, but it was now clear to the Qing court that local governmental arrangements in Tibet needed to be thoroughly overhauled.
The oligarchy was henceforth abandoned in favor of a unified rule under Polhane. Though in principle he exercised authority in concert with the ambans, foreign observers during this period, such as the renowned Capuchin missionary Cassiano Beligatti de Macerata (b.1708), came to regard Polhane as the real “king” of Tibet. Part of Polhane's price for accepting his newly elevated position, however, was the exile of Dalai Lama, the only practical means of forcing Sonam Dargye out of Lhasa.
These developments placed the Manchus in an awkward position. For, on the one hand, Polhane had in effect saved Manchu authority in Tibet and so had a just claim for their support, while, on the other, the Kangxi and Yongzheng emperors had themselves approved of Kelzang Gyatso's recognition, so that the court was bound to remain loyal to the Dalai Lama they had helped to install. The pragmatic solution that was adopted, though perhaps not ideal, was to install the Dalai Lama in a newly built monastery, Gartar (mgar thar), on the eastern edge of Kham, ostensibly to allow him to further his religious education.
For the next eight years the Dalai Lama devoted himself entirely to study and meditation, while teaching and writing on behalf of those who gathered to receive his blessing. Ngawang Chokden (ngag dbang mchog ldan, 1677-1751), who later served as the Fifty-fourth Ganden Tripa (dga' ldan khri pa 54), was appointed tutor, primarily focusing on tantric topics. It was during this period that he became reputed as one of the great tantric masters of the Geluk tradition, for which reason he is sometimes represented in Tibetan artwork as a yogin. His great commentary on the maṇḍala and initiation rites of the Guhyasamāja Tantra is the most extensive of his works and is regarded among the leading masterpieces of Geluk tantric exegesis.
The Qing decision simultaneously to support the Dalai Lama and to support his exile involved a contradiction that could not continue indefinitely. In 1735 it was decided that the time had come to authorize Kelzang Gyatso's return to Lhasa. Polhane was now secure of his own authority and, though he clearly did not relish the idea of hierarch's renewed presence in Lhasa, he recognized that it made no sense to oppose it and so acquiesced in the imperial decision under the condition that Kelzang Gyatso be permitted to assume only religious and ceremonial functions. Under the order of the Yongzheng Emperor, a royal entourage of five hundred religious, civil and military representatives was sent to accompany the Dalai Lama from Gartar to Lhasa. The religious leader of the delegation was none other than Changkya Rolpai Dorje, then eighteen years of age.
Changkya seems to have enthusiastically embraced the occasion to continue his studies under the guidance of the Dalai Lama and his tutors. During the two years that followed, he became Kelzang Gyatso's intimate confidant and close disciple, and many years later would be his official biographer, too. In 1737, Changkya travelled to Tashilhunpo (bkra shis lhun po) in Shigatse to receive his complete ordination, as the Dalai Lama himself had done, from the Fifth Paṇchen Lama. His sojourn with this master, however, was cut short by news of the Yongzheng Emperor's sudden death, and Changkya was obliged to return in haste to Beijing. The new Emperor, Qianlong (乾隆, r.1735-1796) was, as matters turned out, his closest friend among the princes. Given Changkya's connections both with the Manchu ruler and Kelzang Gyatso, he came to play a uniquely important role in Sino-Tibetan affairs throughout the decades that followed.
Mature Achievements and Legacy
The death of Polhane in 1747 ushered in a new period of instability. He was succeeded by his second son, Gyurme Namgyel ('gyur med rnam rgyal, d.u.), who sought to renew ties with the Dzungars, forever the opponents of Manchu hegemony in Inner Asia. He is also said to have shunned the Dalai Lama. Tensions brewed and came to a head in 1750, when Gyurme Namgyel was assassinated at the order of the ambans. In retaliation, the office of the amban was attacked by Gyurme Namgyel's supporters, the ambans were killed, and a general massacre of the Chinese in Lhasa ensued. A delegation sent by the emperor did not hesitate to take severe punitive measures; the members of Gyurme Namgyel's faction who were captured were either executed or imprisoned. Their rebellion against both the Dalai Lama and Manchu rule made it impossible for Kelzang Gyatso to intercede on their behalf.
In the wake of these events, Qianlong decided that the Tibetans could no longer be trusted to rule themselves and that henceforth the two court-appointed ambans would act as the sole governors of the region, effectively therefore transforming Tibet from a protectorate into a colony. The value of Changkya Rolpai Dorje's role as the intermediary between the Tibetan clergy and the Emperor now became clear: he argued that the attempt to place the Tibetans under direct Manchu rule would have untoward consequences, of which the outcome would surely be armed rebellion. It was his recommendation that his teacher and friend, the Dalai Lama, now be allowed to assume his rightful role. The Emperor, for his part, came to recognize the merits of Changkya's position, and in a long proclamation addressed to the Tibetan authorities he justified the complete suppression of Gyurme Namgyel's faction, while establishing a system of shared rule in which the ambans and the Dalai Lama, with the aid of respected officials such as Doring Paṇḍita Tendzin Peljor (rdo ring paNDita bstan 'dzin dpal 'byor, d. 1760) would together take charge of Tibetan affairs. For the first time in his life, Kelzang Gyatso now occupied the political center-stage.
The Seventh Dalai Lama's success as a political leader was unforeseen. His personal reputation for learning and spiritual integrity, together with the widespread devotion of the Tibetan people to the figure of the Dalai Lama, earned him the cooperation of the general population as well important factions of the clergy and aristocracy and, of course, the Manchu court. It was therefore possible for him to act with a degree of consensus that partisan elements in the Tibetan leadership had lacked.
Among the principle political institutions created under the Seventh Dalai Lama, one must take special note of the Kashak (bka' shag), the leadership council or cabinet, which served as the apex of secular administration in Tibet until 1959 and continues today under the Tibetan government-in-exile. Because prominent members of the first Kashak -- notably Doring Paṇḍita and Dokhar Zhabdrung (mdo mkhar zhabs drung tshe ring dbang rgyal, 1697-1763) -- had been important allies of Polhane, an appropriate measure of continuity in government was also maintained.
In 1754, the Dalai Lama moved to enhance the education of lay officials by founding a new school specializing in calligraphy, the literary arts and astrology -- the principle subjects required for Tibetan government service -- which included the famous Dopel ('dod dpal) artistic workshop in the Zhol quarter beneath the Potala. An archival office (yig tshang las khung) was later added to these new facilities, which together regulated the material aspects of Tibetan secular and monastic administration. During the years that followed, the Dalai Lama personally supervised a considerable production of religious art and publication.
In 1756 the Dalai Lama's health began to weaken, and he passed away during the following year, at the age of just fifty. The reins of government were assumed by a regent, the Seventh Demo Jampel Delek Gyatso (de mo 07 'jam dpal bde legs rgya mtsho, 1723-1777).
The Seventh Dalai Lama is listed as the teacher to dozens of prominent Geluk lamas of his day, among them Longdol Lama Ngawang Lobzang (klong rdol bla ma ngag dbang blo bzang, d. 1794); the Fifty-seventh Ganden Tripa, Samten Puntsok (dga' ldan khri pa 57 bsam gtan phun tshogs, 1703-1770); the Sixty-first Ganden Tripa, Ngawang Tsultrim (dga' ldan khri pa 61 ngag dbang tshul khrims, 1721-1791); and the Second Jamyang Zhepa, Konchok Jigme Wangpo ('jam dbyangs bzhad pa 02 dkon mchog 'jigs med dbang po, 1728-1791).
He is credited in the course of his life with the novice ordination of some 9,774 men and the full ordination of 16,993 monks, as well as having given lay vows to countless Buddhist laymen and laywomen. He confirmed the identity of numerous reincarnated lamas, including the Fourth Zhabdrung Karpo, Lobzang Tubten Gelek Gyatso (zhabs drung dkar po 04 blo bzang thub bstan dge legs rgyal mtshan, 1729-1796); the Sixth Pakpa Lha, Jigme Tenpai Gyatso ('phags pa lha 06 'jigs med bstan pa'i rgya mtsho, 1714-1754); and the Third Tukwan Lobzang Chokyi Nyima (thu'u bkwan 03 blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma, 1737-1802).
The seven volumes of his Collected Works make him, after the Great Fifth and Thirteenth, the third most prolific writer among the Dalai Lamas (and probably in fact the second, as the Thirteenth’s œuvre consists very largely of documents that he authorized, but did not actually author). His works include commentaries, liturgical texts, and a wide variety of official and consecratory documents. His most admired literary achievements, however, are his religious poems, which include homely advice for the Buddhist religious life together with profound instructions for contemplation. It is fitting, therefore, to conclude the present, brief account of his life, with a short excerpt from these. In the original Tibetan the selections offered here are composed in the dance-song meter that had been favored by the Sixth Dalai Lama for verses on worldly themes.
When stirred by that demon, “Grasping-as-real,”
Relative appearances arise.
But cut through this, your own error,
While investigating what reason can know;
Turn back errant illusion,
Just look at reality's show!
In the face of an empty-clear sky,
There is no independent true thing,
But manifold causal conditions
Together make rainbow designs.
Just look at this! It's amazing
How it all aimlessly seems to arise!
Though you can't catch hold of anything
By analysis that seeks out a “this,”
It's in the nexus of conditions,
The attribution of names alone,
That all doings and deeds are established.
Open your eyes to this illusion!
This essay is adapted from Matthew Kapstein, "The Seventh Dalai Lama Kalsang Gyatso", in Martin Brauen, ed., The Dalai Lamas: A Visual History. London: Serindia, pp. 103-115.
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Xiangyun Wang. 2000. “The Qing Court's Tibet Connections: Lcang skya Rol pa'i rdo rje and the Qianlong Emperor.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 60, no. 1, pp. 125-163.
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- Historical Period