Chris Peacock


The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama (trans. Simon Wickham-Smith)[1] is a professed account of the activities of Tsangyang Gyatso (Tsangs dbyangs rgya mtsho), the Sixth Dalai Lama. The text was composed by Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé (Ngag dbang lhun grub dar rgyas), a Mongol who became a student of the text’s subject and decided to record the events of his life, which he completed in 1757. The text recounts the Sixth Dalai Lama’s early life before diverging from the standard historical narrative that Tsangyang Gyatso died en-route to China in 1706. From here, the author depicts the lama’s missionary travels throughout the Tibetan plateau up to his eventual death in the 1740s.

The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama is a curious text. It ostensibly tells us about the life of a major figure in Tibetan history – Tsangyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama. The Tsangyang Gyatso known to most histories of Tibet died in 1706; this narrative, however, tells us of a Tsangyang Gyatso that did not, and in fact spent the rest of his years traveling around the Tibetan plateau and beyond. Perhaps even more strangely, this narrative declines to paint the picture of the Sixth Dalai Lama known in the popular imagination – that of a romantic hedonist. The Dalai Lama in Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé’s construction is, rather, a pious Buddhist and a wandering yogin, interested in furthering his progress on the path to enlightenment. While few historians take The Hidden Life very seriously as an account of the actual historical Sixth Dalai Lama, it is still a widely known text in the Tibetan cultural and historical tradition, and as such it demands our attention. Precisely what we do with this source is, however, another question.

Historical Uses

The uncertainty over how to treat this text in a scholarly fashion is understandable, given that the subject of the text himself is an uncertain figure. The question of the historical identity of the figure in the Hidden Life is not limited to scholarly discourse – it is commented upon extensively in the text as well. The biography begins with some rather appropriate descriptions of Tsangyang Gyatso’s evasiveness, especially when it comes to the details of his personal background. As the author notes, with a perhaps unintended resonance, “even when he was being at his most candid, it was difficult to grasp what was fact and what was dissemblance.”[2] To those who speculate on his origins, the lama responds angrily: “I don’t even know who I myself am, how on earth could you know!?”[3] Presumably this attitude predates his decision to relate his life story, as throughout the rest of the narrative the subject and his biographer are in no doubt about his identity. The lama is repeatedly recognized and identified as the Sixth Dalai Lama by numerous figures in the text. Below is a representative exchange between the protagonist and a lama from Katsel monastery:

“At that time I spoke the Kham dialect well, and I said that I was a pilgrim from Kham. He remained silent and kept looking at my face. He took hold of my robe and, pulling it with great force, he began to weep. ‘Don’t do that,’ I said, ‘I’m a pilgrim from Kham – you’re confusing me with someone else.’ But he said, ‘I know you from the sound of your voice.’ He made obeisance and I made him promise not to tell anyone about me.”[4]

Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé does not shy away from the aspersions that might be cast on his Dalai Lama. The author includes mention of Lhazang Khan’s suspicions and his request for an investigating committee from China. This committee cannot decide whether or not the protagonist is indeed the rebirth of the Fifth Dalai Lama, but “what they observed of his noble body was indeed perfect.”[5] While the author’s opinions on Lhazang Khan “and the fools who supported him”[6] is in little doubt, contemporary scholars have been much more skeptical about this figure’s identity. As the translator notes, Michael Aris was firmly of the opinion that he was an imposter.[7] Elliot Sperling likewise considers his veracity to be a matter warranting serious consideration. Sperling makes the persuasive observation that, despite the text’s numerous references to this Dalai Lama’s meetings with famous personages of the era, his existence is not corroborated in any of the historical materials relating to them. “Put simply,” Sperling concludes, “Michael Aris was correct.”[8]

Nevertheless, while the subject’s authenticity may not be an insignificant question, establishing it one way or another does not necessarily invalidate the other historical information that we can take from this source. After all, if we are able to suspend our disbelief about other religious biographies in order to use them as historical materials, why not this one? Wickham-Smith has a point when he argues that the veracity issue can distract from what this text might be able to tell us about Tibetan and Mongolian society in the 18th century.[9] To begin with, the author provides detailed information about the travels of his lama, details which could certainly speak to the movements of religious figures and the spread of missionary activity in this period. Following his decision to go on a pilgrimage (when the historical Sixth Dalai Lama is said to have died), our subject travels through Degé, Mount Emei in Sichuan Province, and Litang. He journeys to Assam and from there back up to Lhasa, visiting Drepung and Sera, before moving on to Nepal and his birthplace of Mön. Finally, he travels to Domé and Alashan (in present day Inner Mongolia). The author, himself a Mongol whose Tibetan was a second language, is keen to stress the importance of the spread of the teachings in these “barbaric borderlands.”[10] In all of these places, information on key figures that the lama supposedly met with is offered, including the Panchen Lama and the Chinese generals Nian Gengyao and Yue Zhongqi. As Sperling suggests, these concrete references provide our best means of refuting the subject’s existence (or at least his claims to be who he says he is). However, what they also show is the text’s grounding in a concrete historical context. If the narrative is entirely a fiction, then at the very least it is a fascinating one that merges its fiction with historical reality.

But to return to the historical, there is no denying that, should we look for it, The Hidden Life can provide numerous promising avenues of exploration. There are many passages and details that do little to add to the central hagiographical focus of the narrative, and could thus be reasonably assumed to have some historical currency. When the lama returns to Katsel, for instance, we are given a description of banditry in the region that seems by no mean unreasonable: “Despite the fact that I didn’t have much on me, they robbed me of the little tea and tsampa I did have. I continued to suffer great hardships until I reached the border of Tibet.”[11] Elsewhere, we have a detailed description of the process of founding a monastery. The text deals with both the bureaucratic and financial hurdles involved in construction, and provides a detailed list of expenses for practical considerations such as wages and funding for the construction of repositories for the Kangyur and Tengyur.[12]

The Character of Tsangyang Gyatso

It is worth paying some attention to the characterization of Tsangyang Gyatso in this biography. Given the controversy that surrounded the historical Sixth Dalai Lama and the questioning of hisability to lay claim to being the reincarnation of the Great Fifth, it is perhaps understandable that someone may wish to reassert his claim to the title. The Sixth Dalai Lama to whom the majority of Tibetans maintained loyalty, however, was an entirely different construction to the one we see in this text. The Sixth Dalai Lama of the popular Tibetan imagination was (and is) an easy-going lover of women, drink, and songs who shrugged off his role as the pre-eminent representative of the Geluk school. The Sixth Dalai Lama in Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé’s biography could not be further from this image. None of the behavior popularly associated with the Sixth Dalai Lama is mentioned; this Tsangyang Gyatso is, rather, the epitome of saintly perfection, and his portrayal is consistent with what we might expect from the hagiographies of the Tibetan tradition. The author begins by noting the “ability, brilliance, clarity and wisdom” of his parents and the requisite supernatural signs that accompanied Tsangyang Gyatso’s birth.[13] From there, the young Dalai Lama proceeds to study diligently:

“… he listened to all the mantra empowerment and permission and explication, the fundamental instruction and the tantric explanation, the explanation of the generation and completion stages, the sutra instruction and the guidance of the condensed and expanded stages of the path. He looked, above all, to his root lama, Jamyang Drakpa and, over the course of three years, made great effort to listen, during which time he enjoyed the words of the four books, flowing like the Ganges.”[14]

The faintest hint of the ‘other’ Dalai Lama is present in an anecdote about the protagonist ‘wandering around’ instead of listening to his teacher, but the lightest of reprimands puts him back on the right track.[15] The majority of Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé’s account in fact concerns the pilgrimages, teachings, and pious missionary activities of the Sixth, as is in fact made clear by the titles of parts II and III, which comprise the majority of the text: “The Activity and Practice Which He Carried Out to Benefit All” and “His Journey to Domé and How He Taught Those Needing Instruction.” The insistence on this characterization at every turn and the conspicuous absence of the popular profile is indeed one of the most striking features of this account. As the translator summarizes it, “Where the first Sixth was a failed monk, this Sixth is the ideal monastic leader. When the first was a poet and romantic by reputation, this one is a sage teacher, a humble mendicant.”[16]

Alternative Readings

Lastly, one potential reading of this text that is often overlooked is that which emphasizes its value as, among other things, an entertaining and titillating tale. The premise of the narrative – that Tsangyang Gyatso did not in fact die, but went on to lead a ‘secret’ life among the people – inherently arouses one’s curiosity. The narrative makes use of the innate ‘riches to rags’ potential in such a story, which might be said on some level to also reflect the life story of the historical Buddha. Shortly after embarking on his anonymous travels, Tsangyang Gyatso encounters a group of nomads, who are shocked at his refined complexion and dress. He shares a cup of tea with them, pointedly noting that it is the first time he has drunk from a cup belonging to another person – and a dirty cup, at that.[17] Elsewhere, the biography recounts exhilarating episodes of the lama’s life: among other things, Tsangyang Gyatso is attacked by and must overcome dogs, yetis, and zombies.[18] While his vanquishing of these foes sometimes serves to emphasize his spiritual accomplishments, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the author seeks to invest his account with appeal through entertainment. Wickham-Smith describes this second section as a “strange, oneiric fantasy,”[19] a valid characterization that seems all the more appropriate when we consider the potential social value this text may have enjoyed as literature.


Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé. The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama. Translated by Simon Wickham-Smith. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2011.

Sperling, Elliot. “Review of The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama.” The Journal of Asian Studies 71, no. 3 (2012): 794 – 797.

[1] It must be noted that Elliot Sperling has called into question the reliability of this translation. He strongly cautions against its usage without reference to the original text. See Elliot Sperling, “Review of The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama,” The Journal of Asian Studies 71, no. 3 (2012): 794 – 797.
[2] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, translated by Simon Wickham-Smith (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2011), 3.
[3] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, 4.
[4] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, 27.
[5] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, 15.
[6] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, 73.
[7] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, xxxv.
[8] Elliot Sperling, “Review of The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama,” 797.
[9] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, L.
[10] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, 59.
[11] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, 26.
[12] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, 76.
[13] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, 8.
[14] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, 14.
[15] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, 14.
[16] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, viii.
[17] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, 18.
[18] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, 34-7.
[19] Ngawang Lhundrup Dargyé, The Hidden Life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, xliii.

Daven Farnham
The Fugitive Lives of The Sixth Dalai Lama
Abstract: “The Fugitive Lives of The Sixth Dalai Lama” chronicles the life of Tsangyang Gyamtso after his supposed death in 1706. Although it is widely believed that the 6th Dalai Lama died en route to Beijing, there are skeptics. This biography presupposes that the Dalai Lama was able to evade capture and carry out the rest of his life as a wandering monk. The account neglects events prior to 1706, instead focusing on Tsangyang’s pilgrimages, meetings, and mystical experiences after his deposition from the throne. From a purely factual standpoint, this work is problematic due to its uncertain veracity; resources on the 6th Dalai Lama are scarce, making corroboration impossible. Anthropologically, however, it offers a glimpse into the complexities of Tibetan Buddhism and the nuanced set of beliefs it provides its practitioners.


The reign of the 5th Dalai Lama was immensely successful. A charismatic leader who understood the importance of international relations, he was able to cement military support through the utilization of Buddhism. By proselytizing to the Chinese and Mongols, Tibet gained powerful allies able to repel invading armies. Domestically, it provided the Dalai Lama’s Gelukpa sect with unmatched power. Competing traditions were put on the defensive, falling subject to active persecution or slowly slipping into ancillary positions of authority. By the time the Dalai Lama died in 1682, although much had been done to unify Tibet under Gelukpa rule, their position was a precarious one. The Mongols were reluctant to leave, the Red Hats still posed a serious competitive threat, and the Chinese were wary of all the intrigue that seemed to be plaguing their neighbor to the west. It was under these circumstances that the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyamtso, was born.

His identification was concealed until 1697, officially enthroned fifteen years after the death of his predecessor. During this extended gap, the regent, Sangye Gyamtso, convinced others that the Dalai Lama had simply gone on retreat and could not be bothered. Although this charade could not be extended indefinitely, the extra time allowed Sangye Gyamtso to solidify the position of the Gelukpa. Vacancies of power often lead to political tension and fighting. By concealing the death of the Dalai Lama until his reincarnation had almost reached the age of majority, the interim period remained relatively peaceful.

After Tsangyang Gyamtso’s official enthronement, however, things began to deteriorate. Sangye Gyamtso was assassinated by Lhazang Khan, and Tsangyang exhibited a strong aversion to his religious studies. Preferring physical pleasures to religious instruction, he enjoyed food and wine, parties, composing poetry, and the company of women. His behavior was cause for concern among the religious elite, some of whom began to question the validity of his selection. Although he never denied being the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, he did renounce his role as spiritual leader of the Gelukpa church. His actions, coupled with the changing political climate, led to a trip to Beijing where he was called to an audience with the Emperor. Many saw this as a ploy to eliminate his influence, an instigation later supported when he was reported to have died en route. This is where “The Fugitive Lives of The Sixth Dalai Lama” begins.

[Although the credibility of the subject is open to debate, for the rest of this paper he will be referred to as “subject” or Tsangyang Gyamtso, the person he claims to be.]

The biography begins with a formulaic introduction, praising the innumerable and indescribable attributes of its subject, “An enquiry about the basic personality of [Tsangyang Gyamtso] would truly bring us joy for innumerable aeons” (6). Autobiographies manifest an expressive dichotomy, mixing parts of modesty with self-adulation. Biographies can be more straight forward in their praise and, in the case of “The Fugitive Lives of the Sixth Dalai Lama,” defense of their subject. The author (Ngawang Lhundrup Dargye) tries to dismiss issues of credibility, acknowledging the paucity of background information, yet emphasizing the profundity of his subject’s spiritual abilities. Even without explicit confirmation that this is the deposed 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang’s behavior and reception by others are evidence enough to corroborate his identity.

This work’s controversial assertion that the 6th Dalai Lama did not die in 1706 contradicts historical accounts and therefore should be looked at skeptically. Is there any evidence that this man is actually the 6th Dalai Lama? The credibility of the work is immediately complicated by its authorship. Transcribed by one of the subject’s disciples, it is doubtful Tsangyang’s life was recorded objectively. As with any biography, the scribe could have misunderstood certain parts, omitted others, or made changes to problematic sections, further altering a work whose reliability is already suspicious.

Apart from briefly mentioning an aversion to scholarship, “I was young then and, when I was receiving instruction, I didn’t stay put – rather I got up and wandered about,” there is nothing to link this narrative with accounts of Tsangyang Gyamtso’s life before 1706 (20). Although the biographer surveys major events, Tsangyang never goes into his life in Lhasa or role as Dalai Lama. Details are simply omitted. When pressed for an explanation, the subject brushes aside the questions as unimportant, “I don’t even know who I myself am, how on earth could you know!” (7)
Regardless of the limited scope and modifications, the biographer maintains that factual errors are inconsequential when compared to the good Tsangyang Gyamtso was able to provide others, “where this holy man was hampered by error or fault [in retelling his story,] great Manjusri would have been more affected had he been poked in the heart with the finest of hair. What happened, as recounted below, was solely for the benefit of others” (9). The good of this biography is in its ability to influence others, to help others realize their own ability to transcend desire and follow the way of the Buddha. Its credibility is ancillary to its function as part of the bodhisattva.

A Life to Benefit All

According to this biography, Tsangyang did not die en route to Beijing, but rather escaped. He headed off into a sand storm, leaving his life as spiritual leader of the Gelukpa church behind. Considering his reluctance to embrace the life of a Dalai Lama, one would expect him to have completely eschewed religiosity. Instead, he decided to dedicate himself to pilgrimages and meditations, to take on the life of a yogin (27). This is not completely out of character. Although he renounced his spiritual authority as Dalai Lama, there are accounts that describe him as a devout religious practitioner.

His account oscillates between the mundane, the didactic, and the supernatural. There are passages where he was simply traveling between sites, staying with patrons, or meditating. Almost like diary entries, they chronicle his daily activities and meetings. Aside from these, the work is also infused with supernatural stories. He fought with zombies, stumbled across the great Precious Elephant, identified animals as past reincarnations, and had miraculous premonitions and visions of dakinis (61, 67, 43, 31). For Buddhists, these kinds of inexplicable events are plausible and in a sense, necessary. Great spiritual leaders cannot announce themselves as superior beings; outside forces have to single them out. These stories lend credibility to the subject’s spiritual superiority.

In many cases, his stories are also didactic. During one of his pilgrimages, Tsangyang comes across a man living without a head. He does not heal him, but rather uses the situation as a metaphor for generosity (37). To attain enlightenment, one must give that which is most important. The goal of this biography is to promote Buddhism and reverse the spiritual decay in the world. When Tsangyang looked around, he saw the Dharma being trampled under the feet of the ignorant (64). Whether his identity is believed or not, Tsangyang hopes his life will help lead others down a more religious path.

Contradictions and Buddhist Beliefs

This work’s reception among the Buddhist community is fascinating. Some dismiss it and others accept it; there is no clear consensus about its validity. People’s desire to believe in legends undoubtedly contributes to some of the story’s appeal. However, the 7th Dalai Lama was identified shortly after the supposed death of his predecessor. For people who believe that Tsangyang did not die in 1706, how do they reconcile having two Dalai Lamas at the same time? The translator, Simon Wickham-Smith, does a good job explaining the intricacies of Buddhist ideology, a system where a trulku can manifest into multiple people at the same time.

Buddhism has proved to be amazingly flexible. It has the capacity to incorporate outside influences and adapt to any situation, creating a plethora of different sects and beliefs that can all be classified under Buddhism. Similarly, this biography offers something different. One’s opinion on the “fugitive life” of the 6th Dalai Lama is more personal choice than officially sanctioned doctrine. For those who do not want it, it is easily ignored. For those who find it useful, however, it provides an alternative history that might lead some down a more enlightened path.