Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso

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Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama

Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (Tib. ངག་དབང་བློ་བཟང་རྒྱ་མཚོ་, Wyl. ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho) aka Dorje Tokmé Tsal (རྡོ་རྗེ་ཐོགས་མེད་རྩལ་, rdo rje thogs med rtsal) (1617-1682), the Fifth Dalai Lama is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in Tibetan history. His many achievements and reforms ensured the continued reign of the Dalai Lamas in spite of the premature deaths that befell many of his subsequent incarnations.


The Fifth Dalai Lama was prophesied in certain termas as an emanation of the enlightened activity of King Trisong Detsen. He was born in 1617 to descendants of the royal house of Zahor. Out of the chaos of seventeenth century Central Asia, he emerged in 1642 with the whole land of Tibet from Ladakh to Tachienlu under his rule. Ten years later he was invited to Beijing by the emperor Shun-chih, where he was treated as an equal and offered an imperial proclamation inscribed in gold, calling him ‘Dalai Lama, Vajra Holder and Master of the Teaching’.

He constructed the Potala Palace, pioneered the dual system of spiritual and temporal governance of Tibet, and is credited with establishing a national health system and educational programme. He was a prolific writer, his historical and autobiographical writings supplying a crucial source for historians of the period.

He felt a deep connection with the Nyingma tradition of Guru Padmasambhava, and had a number of important Nyingma teachers, such as Zurchen Chöying Rangdrol, Khöntön Paljor Lhundrup, and Terdak Lingpa, Minling Terchen Gyurmé Dorje. He was particularly close to the masters of the Northern Treasures lineage of Rigdzin Gödem, who appear frequently in his visions. In his autobiography he also speaks of Pema Rigdzin, the first Dzogchen Rinpoche, whom he urged to found the Dzogchen Monastery in Kham; he calls him “the great Dzogchenpa who has totally understood the Nyingtik”.

He was a tertön and is especially renowned for his cycle of pure vision teachings known as Sangwa Gyachen, 'Bearing the Seal of Secrecy'.

He passed away in his sixty-sixth year in 1682 in the Potala Palace, while absorbed in meditation on Kurukulla, a deity associated with power and magnetizing.


The Fifth Dalai Lama signs many of his works as "the monk of Zahor" (ཟ་ཧོར་གྱི་བན་དེ་, za hor gyi ban de), and this name even appears in the title of his autobiography. It is a reference to the noble family into which he was born, the Zahor of Taktse (སྟག་རྩེ་, stag rtse) in the Yarlung Valley, site of the tombs of the Tibetan kings. The family claimed to be descended from a king of the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Zahor — although this claim was famously disputed by Sokdokpa Lodrö Gyaltsen.

  • Dorje Tokme Tsal (one of the names he was given when receiving Nyingma empowerments) (རྡོ་རྗེ་ཐོགས་མེད་རྩལ་, rdo rje thogs med rtsal)


Further Reading

  • Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, Its Fundamentals and History, trans. and ed. Gyurme Dorje (Boston: Wisdom, 1991)
  • Samten Karmay, Secret Visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Serindia, 1998
  • Nancy G . Lin, Recounting the Fifth Dalai Lama's Rebirth Lineage in Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines, 2017
  • Kurtis Schaeffer, 'The Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lopsang Gyatso (1617–1682)' in Martin Brauen (ed.), The Dalai Lamas: A Visual History, Serindia, 2005

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