The Fifth Dalai Lama and his Peer,
Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen

In Drepung monastery10 near Lhasa at this time there were two principal recognized reincarnation lineages: the upper and lower residences. Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen (1619-1656) was the recognized reincarnation of the upper residence (gzim khang gong ma), while the Fifth Dalai Lama was the recognized reincarnation of the lower residence (gzim khang ‘og ma) (ATT, 129). This was the Dalai Lama’s original reincarnation title, while “Dalai” was an epithet given by the Mongolians. Both reincarnations were students of the great Gelug master Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen and took Vinaya ordination11 him on the same year of 1638 (COT, 192).

As expected, both masters were spiritually realized beings, but according to the worldly view it would appear there was a rivalry due to the various power struggles by the administration of the Fifth Dalai Lama. It is clear, according to the Fifth Dalai Lama’s autobiography, that in 1634, before the arrival of Gushri Khan and the overthrow of the Tsang kingdom, there were no personal rivalries (SPF, 12):

From this time right through to the iron-serpent [year] (1641) the incarnate lama of the gZims-khang-gong, next to me in rank, continued to attend the smon lam [prayer] (f. 75a5).

However, Sonam Rabten saw this equal status as a threat the Dalai Lama’s prestige. An incident in the Fifth Dalai Lama’s autobiography recounts how in 1639 Sonam Rabten objected to a lineage prayer listing Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen’s previous incarnations, which resulted in a disagreement with a senior monk (SPF, 12-13). As illustrated in the overthrow of the Tsang regime described above, Sonam Rabten was regarded as an assertive figure.12 On the eve of assumption of power, he himself allegedly killed Karma Tenkyong Wangpo, the deposed Tsang king (AOK, 39) after Gushri’s forces were victorious.

Sonam Rabten’s protege, Nangso Norbu,13 already had some previous entanglements with Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen’s family called the Gad-kha-sa. According to the Fifth Dalai Lama’s autobiography, in 1638 he seized their land after some members of the family were killed by Mongols (SPF, 13). After the assumption of power by Fifth Dalai Lama and Sonam Rabten, there were more signs of rivalry against Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen. From the Fifth Dalai Lama’s autobiography (SPF, 15):

...until then [his] seating and so forth were accorded the respect due to a great lama, but since the water-horse [year] (1642) he had been downgraded to the third rank by the decision of the Regent [de sris Sonam Rabten] himself. (f137a1-3)

On the year of Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen’s demise, 1656, the Fifth Dalai Lama himself, according to his autobiography, set off to perform a ritual on behalf of Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen who had fallen ill, but his plan was called off by an order of Sonam Rabten (SPF, 15). Using this illness as a cover, Sonam Rabten and Nangso Norbu,14 with the motivation to suppress Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen’s rising fame, murdered him (SPF, 16). The Dalai Lama’s autobiography notes that Nangso Norbu took on the aspect of guilt for his murder (DCG, 104), which is the only authoritative source on culpability of this incident.

Normally, after an incarnate lama dies, his successor is sought out. After Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen’s murder, there was never another reincarnation of the upper residence sought or recognized. Instead, according to the Fifth Dalai Lama’s autobiography, on the advice of the Nechung oracle, Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen’s residence at Drepung was dismantled and his reliquaries were relocated by Sonam Rabten (SPF, 18).

10 One of the three principal Gelug monasteries (gdan sa gsum).

11 In the original Mulasarvastivada tradition of monk ordination which was brought to Tibet (smad 'dul).

12 There are noted disagreements between the domineering Sonam Rabten and the Dalai Lama himself. Also, according to A Cultural History of Tibet by Snelling and Richardson, Sonam Rabten was “a capable, though arrogant and self-seeking man, and he is said to have urged the Dalai Lama to assert himself over the Pan-chen Lama, his own teacher, an old and greatly revered figure.”

13 According to some, Nangso Norbu was Sonam Rabten’s son, and to some his nephew. According to Yamaguchi in SPF, he is an adopted son (sras po). The safest term is protege, because whether or not he is a blood relative he was apparently groomed by Sonam Rabten. Nangso means majordomo, and Nangso Norbu was also a local governor (sde ba) in the Dalai Lama’s administration. After Sonam Rabten’s death, there was a standoff between Nangso Norbu and the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1659. The Fifth Dalai Lama did not want Nangso Norbu to replace Sonam Rabten as sde sris, but Nangso Norbu would not stand down. Many lamas in Lhasa, including the Panchen Rinpoche, became involved as the use of force loomed. Ultimately, Trinley Gyatso was appointed sde sris by the Fifth Dalai Lama (SPF, 20-23).

14 According to TBRC, which cites bod rig pa'i tshig mdzod chen mo shes bya rab gsal, responsibility of his murder rests with Nangso Norbu.