Yontan Gyatso – 4th Dalai Lama (1589 – 1616)

Following the unexpected death of the Third Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso (bsod nam rgya mtsho) in Mongolia in 1588, his patrons there, the leaders of the Tumed Mongols, decided to identify his reincarnation among their own people. No doubt eager to preserve the patronage of the Mongolians that the Third Dalai Lama had only recently established, the Gelug hierarchs accepted the arrangement.

Yontan Gyatso was born in 1589, the child of Sumbur Secen Cugukur, the son of Altan Khan’s successor Sengge Durureng Khan, and his wife, Bighcogh Bikiji.

Although the identification was an immediate boon for the new Gelug tradition in Mongolia, Tibetans back in Lhasa were less enthusiastic, and Yontan Gyatso did not travel to Tibet until he was more than ten years old. Instead, he enjoyed the patronage of the Tumed Mongols, enthroned at the Erdeni-juu temple in Kokekhota, which had been built by Altan Khan.

The Fourth Dalai Lama commenced his education with a significant emphasis on ritual practice and tantra, with much less emphasis on the study of the traditional texts. As a result of this, perhaps, Yontan Gyatso became extremely adept in the shaman-like crafts favored by the Mongolians and the tantric practices of the lineage.

Only in 1600 did the Mongolians send a delegation to Lhasa to request formal recognition and enthronement by the Drepung (’bras spungs) establishment.

They returned to Mongolia with a party of Gelug hierarchs, who, having subjected the boy to a series of tests meant to prove his status as the reincarnation of the Sonam Gyatso, brought the boy to Lhasa in 1602. Because the Twenty-fifth Ganden Tripa, Peljor Gyatso (dga’ ldan khri pa 25 dpal ’byor rgya mtsho), the throneholder of the Gelug tradition was too old to make the trip, the Third Dalai Lama’s treasurer, Gushri Palden Gyatso (gu shrI dpal ldan rgya mtsho) made the voyage and accompanied the young boy to Lhasa.

In Lhasa the Fourth Dalai Lama was given novice vows by the new Ganden Tripa, Zurpa Sanggye Rinchen (dga’ ldan khri pa 26 zur pa sangs rgyas rin chen) at the Jokhang. He ordained fully in 1614, with his chief tutor, Panchen Lobzang Chokyi Gyalsten (paN chen blo bzang chos skyi rgyal mtshan).

The alliance with the Mongolians gave the Gelug tradition considerable strength in Tibet, allowing them to grow into a force strong enough to oppose the kings of Tsang, who were then expanding their territory. The Tsang rulers, traditionally supporters of the Kagyu and Sakya traditions, nevertheless also engaged with the new Gelug tradition, patronizing the Panchen Lamas and their Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse. However, the Gelug hierarchs in Lhasa once refused the Tsang king an empowerment on the basis that he was an enemy of the faith, evidence of the growing antagonism between the Gelug and the other traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

Only once during the Fourth Dalai Lama’s brief life was Mongol military strength used to defend the Gelug against the rulers of Tsang, driving them out of Kyisho and Nedong in the last year of the Dalai Lama’s life.

The Fourth Dalai Lama’s ashes were enshrined in a stupa at Drepung.



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. 60-61.

Tucci, Giuseppe. 1949. Tibetan Painted Scrolls. Rome: La Libreria dello Stato , vol. 1, pp. 50 ff.

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.

Miranda Adams
September 2008


dge legs lhun grub


ngag dbang chos kyi dbang phyug
bstan ‘dzin blo bzang rgya mtsho
rnam rgyal dpal ‘byor
lha dbang phyogs las rnam rgyal

Source: http://www.treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Fourth-Dalai-Lama-Yonten-Gyatso/3085



2 Responses to “Yontan Gyatso – 4th Dalai Lama (1589 – 1616)”
  1. Sarah says:

    The Fourth Dalai Lama was the only Dalai Lama to be born as a non-Tibetan. His Mongolian heritage strengthened the Mongolians’ commitment to Buddhism and their allegiance to the Dalai Lama.

  2. home says:


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