Sonam Gyatso – 3rd Dalai Lama (1543 – 1588)

Name Variants: Sicho Pelzang; Sonam Gyatso

Sonam Gyatso (bsod nams rgya mtsho) was born in 1543 in the Kyisho (skyid shod) region of U to a family with strong ties to the Sakya tradition and the Pagmodru rulers of Tsang. His father, Namgyal Dragpa (rnam rgyal grags pa), was an official in the government. His mother, whose family also had ties to the Pagmodru family, was Peldzom Butri (dpal ’dzom bu khrid). Her father, Wangchuk Rinpoche (dbang phyig rin po che) was a renowned tantric master in the service of the royal household. Because of negative omens that preceded his birth, his parents gave him the milk of a white nanny goat, earning him the name Ranusi Chopal Zangpo (ra nu sri chod dpal bzang po) – “happy boy protected by goat’s milk.”

From a young age he demonstrated unusual interest in all things ritual, and spoke to his parents and those around him of visions of buddhas and bodhisattvas that appeared to him on a seemingly regular basis. A local lama received a vision in which the young child was prophesied to be the incarnation of Avalokitesvara, and from this point forward his reputation spread. By the time he was two years old, rumors were spread that he was the reincarnation of Sonam Gyatso, the famous abbot of Drepung (’bras spungs) and Tashilhunpo (bkra shis lhun po), and the following year, in 1546, he was enthroned at Drepung by the rulers of the house of Nedong (sne’u gdong). He took his novice vows with Panchen Sonam Dragpa (paN chen bsod nams grags pa), who gave him the name Sonam Gyatso Pelzangpo Tanpe Nyima Chok Tamche Lenampar Gyalwa (bsod nams rgya mtsho dpal bzang po bstan pa’i nyi ma phyogs thams cad las rnam par rgyal ba). In 1552 he was made abbot of Drepung, and 1558 became abbot of Sera as well.

Like his previous incarnation, Sonam Gyatso cultivated relations with members of ruling houses across Tibet, receiving an invitation from the king of Guge, Jigten Wangchuk Pegarde (l’jig rten dbang phyug pad dkar lde) to propigate the Gelug tradition in Ngari (mnga’ ris), although he seems to have declined this. He did become a court minister to the Pagmodru family, visiting the seat at Nedon (sne gdong) in 1559.

In 1564, at the age of twenty-two, Sonam Gyatso took full ordination and gave his first teachings at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Sonam Gyatso founded a number of monasteries, in keeping with his previous incarnation’s work of spreading the Gelugpa tradition. Best known of these is Namgyal monastery, the Dalai Lamas’ personal monastery. Initially it was a house at Drepung, named Dratsang Pende Legshaling (grwa tshang phan bde legs bshad gling), later absorbed into the Potala by the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. In 1578, on his way to Mongolia, Sonam Gyatso stopped at the site of Tsongkhapa’s birth, where a monk named Rinchen Tsondru Gyaltsan (rin chen brtson ’drus rgyal mtshan) had founded a small temple in 1560. Sonam Gyatso asked him to expand it, and in 1583 consecrated it as Kumbum Jampaling (sku ’bum byams pa gling), which would grow to be one of the largest Gelug monasteries in the world.

Sonam Gyatso’s greatest missionary triumph was his forging of a relationship with the Mongol leaders. Altan Khan, the leader of the Tumet Mongols, initially sent a delegation to Drepung in the early 1570s, to invite Gelug hierarchs to Mongolia without success. A second delegation arrived in 1577 and pursuaded Sonam Gyatso to return with them. Upon meeting, the two agreed to enter into a “patron-priest” relationship (yon mchod) modeled on that of ’Phags pa and Khubilai in the 13th century. For Altan, patronage of the growing Gelug tradition was a way to recreate his forebears’ influence in Tibet; for Sonam Gyatso, the opportunity for Mongol support for his missionary work both inside and outside of Tibet (he had earlier spent time on the Amdo borderlands spreading the Gelug teachings) was surely extremely attractive. It was at this time that Altan Khan gave Sonam Gyatso the title, in Mongolian, of ghaikhamsigh vcir-a dar-a say-in cogh-tu buyan-tu dalai, meaning “wonderful Vajradhara, good, brilliant, commendable ocean” and subsequently shortened to Dalai Lama.

While still in Mongolia, Sonam Gyatso received an invitation from the Ming Emperor Wanli to visit Beijing, an offer he refused. On his return to Tibet he passed through Kham and founded Tubchen Monastery in Litang (li thang thub chen dgon pa) in 1580.

Although Altan Khan died in 1582, Sonan Gyatso again returned to Mongolia, this time at the invitation of Altan’s son, Dugureng. He also spent time among the Odros Mongols, converting them to Buddhism, and the Khalkha Mongols, at the invitation of Abadai Khan, who founded the first Buddhist monastery in Khalkha.

Sonam Gyatso passed away in 1588, in Mongolia, after a period of illness. His remains were interred at Kokekhota.

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Kam Tak-sing. 2000. “The dGe-lugs-pa Breakthrough: The Uluk Darxan Nangsu Lama’s Mission to the Manchus.” Central Asiatic Journal. 44:2, p. 161-176.

Kollmar-Paulenz, Karenina. 2005. “The Third Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso and The Fourth Dalai Lama Yontan Gyatso.” In Brauen, Martin, ed. The Dalai Lamas: A Visual History. London: Serindia, pp.. 53-59.

Rawski, Evelyn S. 1998. The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 244-262.

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. 703‑721.

Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho. 1982. Rje btsun thams cad mkhyen pa bsod nams rgya mtsho’i rnam thar dngos grub rgya mtsho’i shing rta and ’jig rten dbang phyug thams cad mkhyen pa yon tan rgya mtsho dpal bzang po’i rnam thar thar pa nor bu’i ’phreng ba. Dolanji: Tashi Dorjee.

Okada Hidehiro. 1992. “The Third Dalai Lama and Altan Khan of the Tumed.” In Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 5th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Narita 1989, edited by Ihara Shoren and Yamaguchi Zuiho. Narita: Naritasan Shinshoji, pp. 645-652.

Miranda Adams
September 2008


bsod nams grags pa
bsod nams dpal bzang
dbang phyug rgyal mtshan
blo gsal rgya mtsho
dge legs dpal bzang


chos rgya mtsho
nam mkha’ rgyal mtshan
yon tan rgya mtsho
dam chos yar ‘phel
bsod nams dpal bzang
dkon mchog chos ‘phel
chos dpal bzang po
lha dbang chos kyi rgyal mtshan
dpal ‘byor lhun grub
don yod chos kyi rgya mtsho




One Response to “Sonam Gyatso – 3rd Dalai Lama (1543 – 1588)”
  1. Sarah says:

    The Third Dalai Lama, like his predecessor, also achieved national prominence. He was invited to Mongolia to teach and as a result, Mongolia became a Buddhist nation. He also travelled extensively in Tibet, spreading the influence of the Dalai Lama’s office and Lama Tsongkhapa’s Gelug tradition. It is interesting to note that he became the disciple of Panchen Sonam Dragpa who studied under his previous incarnation, the Second Dalai Lama. This shows that the lineage of the Dalai Lamas is inextricably linked with that of the Dragpas.

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