Life of the 13th Dalai Lama, Part 3

An Attempt to Modernize Tibet

His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama
His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama. Public Domain

(This is the third and last article in a three-part series on the life of the 13th Dalai Lama. For previous articles, see "Life of the 13th Dalai Lama, Part 1" and "Tibet's Declaration of Independence.")

When the 13th Dalai Lama returned to Tibet in 1913, he returned to a fractured nation. Many Tibetans were glad for his return; others were not.

Those ministers and high lamas who had cooperated with China during the recent occupation of Chinese troops found themselves under suspicion.

Worse, the abbots of the Gelugpa monastery Drepung had allied themselves with China, and Drepung monks had actually fought with Chinese troops against Tibetans. The powerful 9th Panchen Lama also had forged an alliance with China.

The Dalai Lama's Tenuous Position

To appreciate the Dalai Lama's position, it's important to remember that before the 13th, Tibet had not actually been governed by a Dalai Lama for more than a century. The 9th through 12th Dalai Lamas had all died young, either in childhood or as they just entered adulthood. It is believed some or all of them were assassinated to keep them from assuming power. Attempts had been made on the life of the young 13th that he was careful enough to escape.

In the absence of legitimate leadership, Tibet had fallen into something like feudalism, with landowning aristocrats and heads of monasteries acting as lords ruling their individual fiefs.

Their resistance to the return of the Dalai Lama was not so much about who they wanted to govern them, but that they didn't want to be governed at all.

Few of Tibet's established elite had traveled; they had little understanding of the geopolitical upheavals going on in the rest of the world. They also had no idea why the Dalai Lama was so determined to sever ties with China.

The patron-priest relationship with the old Manchu emperors had benefited Tibet, and they didn't understand why it couldn't continue with the leaders of the new Republic of China.


The 13th Dalai Lama had traveled through China and India and was painfully aware of how backward and insulated Tibet had become. So he attempted to modernize Tibet.

He initiated a program that sent groups of Tibetan boys to Britain to be educated. He also opened secular primary schools around the country and built a medical school in Lhasa. He reformed the prison system, applying uniform standards and abolishing capital punishment and most corporal punishment. He had electric street lights installed in Lhasa. He also make regulations to reduce exploitation of the peasants by the wealthy landowners.

Determined to defend Tibet's independence from China, the 13th Dalai Lama decided that Tibet's army must be modernized. He turned to the British for help, requesting weapons and instructors. The British wanted a strong Tibet to buffer India from China and were willing to help. But the Tibetan government was broke, so new taxes were levied on the monasteries as well as the landowning aristocracy.

The 13th Dalai Lama also initiated religious reforms.

He curtailed the ability of monks to run businesses outside the monasteries. He stopped the common practice of awarding religious degrees for money. He also stopped monasteries from levying taxes on laypeople.

Rift With the 9th Panchen Lama

The 9th Panchen Lama -- the second highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism -- had grown accustomed to considerable independence from the Dalai Lama. From his court at Tashilhunpo, the Panchen Lama ruled over a large part of western Tibet, and he had been doing so without oversight from Lhasa.

The regulations and taxes of the 13th Dalai Lama were unwelcome, and the Panchen Lama resisted them. In 1923, under increasing pressure from Lhasa, the 9th Panchen Lama fled to China. However, he fled into a trap. The Chinese would not let the Panchen Lama return to Tibet without a military escort, and the Dalai Lama would not permit Chinese troops on Tibetan soil.

The two lamas remained estranged for the rest of their lives. Indeed, China has managed to separate even their later rebirths. (See "The Panchen Lama.")

Last Years

Worn down by the entrenched conservatism of the other high lamas and the landowners, in time the 13th Dalai Lama scaled back his modernization plans. First and foremost, he remained a Buddhist monk. He combined his governing duties with meditation and study. Among his other achievements, he had new printing blocks carved to print the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon of scriptures.

Shortly before his death in 1933, the 13th Dalai Lama issued what some consider to be a prophecy. Warning against the consequences of a Communist takeover of Tibet, he said,

"... if you are not able to defend yourselves now, the institutions of the Dalai Lama, venerable incarnates and those who protect the Teachings shall be wiped out completely. Monasteries shall be looted, property confiscated and all living beings shall be destroyed. The memorable rule of the Three Gardian kings of Tibet, the very institutions of the state and religion shall be banned and forgotten. The property of the officials shall be confiscated; they shall be slaves of the conquerors and shall roam the land in bondage. All souls shall beimmersed in suffering and the night shall be long and dark."

After his death, most of the 13th Dalai Lama's remaining reforms were abandoned and the army neglected. In the absence of a strong leader, the aristocrats and the heads of monasteries fell back into their old patterns of protecting their individual turfs.

Tibet would be unprepared for the Chinese invasion when it came in 1950.

For more on this period of Tibetan history, see Sam van Schaik's Tibet: A History (Yale University Press, 2011) and Melvyn C. Goldstein's The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama (University of California Press, 1997).