Gendun Gyatso – 2nd Dalai Lama (1476 – 1542)

Name Variants: Gendun Gyatso

Gendun Gyatso was the reincarnation of Gendun Drup. He served as abbot of three of the most powerful Gelug monasteries in both U and Tsang, significantly contributing to the spread of the Gelug tradition. Gendun Gyatso retained relations to his family’s religious traditions, which included Nyingma, Shangpa Kagyu, and Sakya teachings. He built the Ganden Podrang at Drepung around the year 1530, which came to be the residence of the Dalai Lamas and the seat of their government of Tibet in later centuries. His abbacies occurred during a time of intermittent war between the Kagyu rulers of Tsang and the Gelug leaders of Lhasa.

Gendun Gyatso (dge ‘dun rgya mtsho) was born in 1475 in the Tanak area of Tsang. He was born to a family of yogic practitioners who had forged a connection to his predecessor the first Dalai Lama, and also had a strong historic connection with Samye Monastery, where an ancestor was an abbot. His paternal grandfather, a Shangpa Kagyupa named Lama Donyo Gyaltsan, was a disciple of the Sakya patriarch Namkha Naljor (nam mkha’ rnal ’byor) and founder of the Sakya monastery Tanak (rta nag). Donyo Gyaltan’s son, Kunga Gyaltsan (kun dga’ rgyal mtshan), a disciple of Gendun Drup, was Gendun Gyatso’s father. His mother was Kunga Palmo (kun dga’ dpal mo), considered to be a reincarnation of the consort to the Kagyu master Gotsangpa (rgo tsang pa). Gendun Drup was born when his father was forty-five years old. He wrote in his autobiography that at the moment of his birth he faced the direction of Tashilhunpo (bkra shis lhun po) and smiled. His birth name was Sangge Pel (sangs rgyas ’phel).

Gendun Gyatso was, by all accounts, an extraordinary child, speaking in song of his previous lives and expressing the wish to return to his monastery, Tashilhunpo to all those who would listen. He records that at three, upon being scolded by his mother, he responded with “Don’t get annoyed at me or I won’t stay, I’ll go back to Tashilhunpo.” Soon after, a delegation from Tashilhunpo came to his home, and it is said that the child manifested extreme delight at their appearance, greeting each of them by name, and relating to them as if they were old friends.

At this time, in the early years of the Gelug lineage in Tibet, the tradition of recognizing reincarnated lamas was extremely unusual, and Gendun Gyatso remained at home for some time, before being enthroned as the reincarnation of Gendun Drup at Tashilhunpo in 1487. He did, however, receive novice vows at age ten or eleven, when he received the name Gendun Gyatso.

Gendun Gyatso trained at the nearby monasteries of Nenying (gnas rnying) Nartang (snar thang), and his family’s monastery of Tanak. It is likely that among the obstacles to his recognition was the reputation of his family, who openly embraced so many different religious traditions. Gendun Gyato’s continued embrace of his family’s eclectic traditions no doubt served him well as he sought to spread Tsongkhapa’s Gelug teachings. This was important because during his youth the Kagyu leaders of Tsang and the Gelug heirarchs of Lhasa were at war, with the Tsangpa occupying Lhasa from 1498 to 1517.

Even before his studies were completed, Gendun Gyatso began to teach and give initiations, and was greeted by the faithful in droves. Despite his fame, or, some say, perhaps because of it, Gendun Gyatso found the environment at Tashilhunpo increasingly uncomfortable, and in 1494 left for central Tibet, where he studied with Jamyang Legpai Chojor (’jam dbyang legs pa’i chos ’byor) at Drepung Loseling Monastery (’bras spungs blo gsal gling), taking full ordination and completing his studies.

For the next twenty years, Gendun Gyatso spent his life doing practice, pilgrimage and giving teachings, and developed an enormous following in Tibet. During this time he met and took teachings and instruction from the solitary yogi Khedrup Norsang Gyatso (mkhas grub nor sang rgya mtsho), and the two spent many months together practicing and meditating. Gendun Gyatso’s biographies state that he attained enlightenment under the tutelage of this master.

Among the many accomplishments of his life, Gendun Gyatso is remembered for the construction of Chokhor Gyal Metok Tang (chos ’khor rgyal me tog thang) in 1509. Chokkhor Gyal came to be known as the personal monastery of the Dalai Lamas. Gendun Gyatso also was crucial in the empowerment of Lhamo Lhatso (lha mo lha mtsho). This lake continued to play an important role in the recognition of later Dalai Lamas, and is still considered the most powerful source of divinations in Tibet. Gendun Gyatso served as abbot of Tashilhunpo in 1512, and of Drepung in 1517, following the return of Lhasa to Gelug control. In 1528, he became the abbot of Sera. Gendun Gyatso also founded Ngari Dratsang (mnga’ ris grwa tshang) in 1541, in response to the growing support for Gelug teachings of the kings of Guge (gu ge) in Ngari. His influence stretched from Ngari to Kham.

Around the year 1530, Gendun Gyatso built the Ganden Phodrang (dga’ ldan pho brang) at Drepung. It was built on land donated in 1518 by the Phagmodru leader of the time. This came to be the residence of the Dalai Lamas until the Potala was built in the 17th century, and gave its name to the government of the Dalai Lamas after the time of the Great Fifth.

Gendun Gyatso passed away in meditation in 1542, after displaying miracles of rainbows and flower rains. His body was cremated and he left countless sacred relics behind for the faithful, as well as many volumes of verse, composition, and practice instructions.



Dge ’dun rgya mtsho. 1979. Rgyal ba dge ’dun rgya mtsho’i rnam thar. Thimphu: Kunsang topgyel and mani dorji.

Tshe mchog gling yongs ’dzin ye shes rgyal mtshan. 1970 (1787). Biographies of Eminent Gurus in the Transmission Lineages of the teachings of the Graduated Path, being the text of: Byang chub Lam gyi Rim pa’i Bla ma Brgyud pa’i Rnam par Thar pa Rgyal mtshan Mdzes pa’i Rgyan Mchog Phul byung Nor bu’i Phreng ba. New Delhi: Ngawang Gelek Demo, vol 2, pp. 699-700.

Yon tan rgya mtsho. 1994. Dge ldan chos ’byung gser gyi mchod sdong ’bar ba. Paris: Yon tan rgya mtsho, pp. 222-229.

Heller, Amy. 2005. “The Second Dalai Lama Gendun Gyatso.” In Brauen, Martin, ed. The Dalai Lamas: A Visual History. London: Serindia, pp. 43-50.

Mullin, Glenn. 1986. “De-Si Sang-Gye Gya-Tso’s the life of the second Dala Lama.” Tibet Journal, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 3-16.

Miranda Adams
September 2008


kun dga’ bde legs
kun dga’ bde legs rin chen
nor bzang rgya mtsho
lung rigs rgya mtsho


bsod nams grags pa
blo gros rgyal mtshan
Wensapa Lobzang Dondrub b.1505 – d.1556 (Name Variants: Lobzang Dondrub)
dge legs dpal bzang




5 Responses to “Gendun Gyatso – 2nd Dalai Lama (1476 – 1542)”
  1. Sarah says:

    The Second Dalai Lama continued the work of the First, extended the influence of the Dalai Lama’s office and achieved national prominence. The national prestige that he achieved exceeded even that of the First and when he died in 1542, there was hardly a single prominent lama in Tibet who had not studied with or received a tantric initiation from him or one of his disciples. One of his most prominent disciples was Panchen Sonam Dragpa. After his death, a committee was set up to search for his reincarnation and from that time on all Dalai Lama reincarnations would be identified by means of formal search committees. (Glenn H. Mullin, Mystical Verses of a Dalai Lama”, p. 11)

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