Jul 062018

Today is the birthday (1935) of the 14th Dalai Lama of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. His name at birth was Lhamo Thondup, but the more usual name used now is Tenzin Gyatso, a shortened from Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso. He was born into a farming and horse trading family in the small hamlet of Taktser, or Chija Tagtser, (Hongya (红崖村) in Chinese) at the edges of the traditional Tibetan region of Amdo. His family was of Monguor extraction. The Monguor are a small ethnic minority related to Mongols. He was one of seven siblings to survive childhood. His eldest brother, Thupten Jigme Norbu, had been recognized at the age of eight as the reincarnation of the high Lama Taktser Rinpoche. His sister, Jetsun Pema, spent most of her adult life on the Tibetan Children’s Villages project. The Dalai Lama has said that his first language was “a broken Xining language which was a dialect of the Chinese language,” a form of Central Plains Mandarin, and his family did not speak the Tibetan language.

Following reported signs and visions, three search teams were sent out to the north-east, the east, and the south-east to locate the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama when Lhamo Thondup was about two years old. Amongst other omens, the head of the embalmed body of the 13th Dalai Lama, at first facing south-east, had turned to face the north-east, indicating, it was interpreted, the direction in which his successor would be found. The Regent, Reting Rinpoche, shortly afterwards had a vision at the sacred lake of Lhamo La-tso which he thought indicated that Amdo was the region to search. This vision was also interpreted to refer to a large monastery with a gilded roof and turquoise tiles, and a twisting path from it to a hill to the east, opposite which stood a small house with distinctive eaves. The team, led by Kewtsang Rinpoche, went first to meet the Panchen Lama (second highest leader), who had been stuck in Jyekundo, in northern Kham. The Panchen Lama had been investigating births of unusual children in the area ever since the death of the 13th Dalai Lama. He gave Kewtsang the names of three boys whom he had discovered and identified as candidates. Within a year the Panchen Lama had died. Two of his three candidates were crossed off the list but the third, a “fearless” child, the most promising, was from Taktser village, which, as in the vision, was on a hill, at the end of a trail leading to Taktser from the great Kumbum Monastery with its gilded, turquoise roof. There they found a house, as interpreted from the vision—the house where Lhamo Thondup lived.

At the time, the village of Taktser, according to villagers themselves, stood right on the “real border” between the region of Amdo and China. When the team visited, posing as pilgrims, its leader, a Sera Lama, pretended to be the servant and sat separately in the kitchen. He held an old string of prayer beads that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and Lhamo Thondup, aged two, approached and asked for it. The monk said “if you know who I am, you can have it.” The child said “Sera Lama, Sera Lama” and spoke with him in a Lhasa accent, in a dialect the boy’s mother could not understand. The next time the party returned to the house, they revealed their real purpose and asked permission to subject the boy to certain tests. One test consisted of showing him various pairs of objects, one of which had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and one which had not. In every case, he chose the Dalai Lama’s own objects and rejected the others.

From 1936 the Hui ‘Ma Clique’ Muslim warlord Ma Bufang ruled Qinghai as its governor under the nominal authority of the Republic of China central government.  According to an interview with the 14th Dalai Lama, in the 1930s, Ma Bufang had seized this north-east corner of Amdo in the name of Chiang Kai-shek’s weak government and incorporated it into the Chinese province of Qinghai. Before going to Taktser, Kewtsang had gone to Ma Bufang to pay his respects. When Ma Bufang heard that a candidate had been found in Taktser, he had the family brought to him in Xining. He first demanded proof that the boy was the Dalai Lama but the Lhasa government, though informed by Kewtsang that this was the one, told Kewtsang to say he had to go to Lhasa for further tests with other candidates. They knew that if he was declared to be the Dalai Lama, the Chinese government would insist on sending a large army escort with him, which would then stay in Lhasa and refuse to leave. Ma Bufang then refused to allow him to depart unless he was declared to be the Dalai Lama, but withdrew this demand in return for 100,000 Chinese silver dollars ransom. Kewtsang managed to raise this huge sum, but the family was only a