The Rise and Fall of The Forgotten Asian Empire: The Struggle of the Tibetan Nation
China History

Research Report
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Potala Palace in Lhasa
    Tibet developed uniquely due to a variety of factors including geography, climate, and particularly influences from surrounding regions.  The introduction of Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism from India and its synthesis with Bon, an animist religion native to Tibet, created the unique Buddhist sect of Lamaism.  This along with outside influences (especially Mongol) led to the development of the Lamaist state with the Dalai Lama as its religious and secular leader.  With a new religion and head of state, Tibetan religion and society became necessarily intertwined, dominating every aspect of Tibetan life.  Eventually the power of the Tibetan state declined, mostly due to foreign influences and the Chinese quest for stability to its North and West.  This paper will examine the rise and fall of the Lamaist state and the institution of the Dalai Lama in Tibet through the mid-18th century.  Importance will be placed on Chinese and Mongol influences in the development and decline of the Tibetan nation and the role of the Dalai Lama in the Tibetan political and religious structure. 
Historical Background

     Tibet developed as a nation with very unique societal structures and customs due to geographic isolation, but was eventually greatly influenced by surrounding nations.  Interactions with India, Mongolia, and especially China had dramatic consequences in Tibet.  The introduction of Buddhism in particular changed the face of Tibetan history and led to the creation of the Lamaist sect of Buddhism, and eventually led to the rise of the Lamaist state in Tibet with the Dalai Lama as its religious and secular head of state.  This foreign influence would play a role in Tibetan history from the early seventh century A.D. to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 20th century.

    Early in its history, Tibet was a great kingdom, rivaling Chinese power in Central Asia.  Tibet had originally been divided among many clans, but in the early sixth century A.D. several clans combined and eventually unified the nation.  This newly unified nation set to expansion almost immediately, expanding its borders East towards China (Richardson 28).  Then in 635 Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo pushed into China demanding and soon receiving from the Tang a Chinese princess as his bride (Feigon 31).  The expansion continued, with an expedition into India in 648 and the capture of Chinese strongholds in Chinese Turkestan in 670 (Richardson 29).  The foundation had been laid for a great Tibetan Empire in Central Asia. 

Research Report

    The introduction of Buddhism into Tibet would change the course of Central Asian history.  Aside from initiating the first contact between Tibet and China, Songtsen Gampo is also known for introducing a writing system and, more importantly, Buddhism in the latter half of the seventh century.  The introduction of Buddhism probably resulted from the influence of two of Songtsen’s wives, one being the aforementioned Tang Chinese princess and the other being a Nepalese princess (Waddell 784).  At this time Buddhism was not widespread in Tibet and was confined mainly to royalty and nobility.  The Buddhism in Tibet was of a distinct Indian background in Tantric and Mahayana Buddhism.  The way these combined with the native animist religion of Bon to form the distinct Lamaist sect will be discussed at further length later.  The first Buddhist monastery, called Samye, was built in 779 and signaled the beginning of Buddhism’s popular acceptance (Richardson 31).  The highly stratified Tibetan social structure, consisting of an upper class of nobles and a lower class of commoners, would have to adjust to include monks and eventually Lamas.  The transition was eased partly by the fact that the early Tibetan Buddhist monks came from the existing upper class, but Lamaist Buddhism would soon spread to the masses.
Clay sculpture of Songtsen Gampo
    The development of the unique Buddhist sect of Lamaism was greatly influenced by the Buddhism of India.  Songtsen Gampo urged for the translation of Buddhist writings from India.  His grandson, Ti-song-Detsen, invited a Tantric Buddhist scholar to enhance the position of Buddhism in Tibet, as the people were more accepting of Tantric Buddhism due to its similarities with Bon, an animist religion (Burman 4-5).  Tantric Buddhism focuses on channeling and controlling energies for the sake of overcoming the sufferings that arise when one is unable to tame the mind.  Mahayana Buddhism also greatly influenced Lamaism and was the major sect in India at the time, with its focus on enlightenment for all.  Mahayana Buddhists strive for the rank of “Buddhahood, the nonabiding nirvana, the supreme liberation, for the sake of others” (H. H. the Dalai Lama 29-30).  The Tibetans somehow managed to combine these three ideologies to form Lamaism. 

    This new religion would eventually serve to unite the people of an area that to this point had lacked a major unifying factor.  Just as this unifying factor was starting to gain momentum, though, Lang Darma, the last in Songtsen Gampo’s line, persecuted Buddhism with such intensity that it was almost driven out of Tibet completely.  After his death in 842 the kingdom broke up into several small kingdoms and Buddhism went into remission for a while.  The Tang dynasty declined almost concurrently with the Tibetan Empire, but outlasted its western counterpart just long enough to regain the territories that had been taken by Tibet.  Tibet would never again reach these territorial borders and turned inward in its isolated mountain plateau.  China and Tibet would have no major contact for over three hundred years after the fall of the Tang Dynasty in 905 and Buddhism would lie stagnant for about two hundred years until a revival started in 1042 (Richardson 32-33).  After this revival Buddhism regained its momentum quickly over the next two hundred years as Lamaism turned into a major force in Central Asia.
Buddhist monastery of Samye
    Tibet was finally dragged out of its isolation by the emergence of the Mongol empire in the 13th century.  Genghis Khan had risen to power and expanded dangerously close to Tibet in 1207.  The Tibetans avoided Mongolian conquest by offering submission, but this lasted only until 1239 when Godan, a regional Mongol governor,  pushed almost to Lhasa and then in 1247 named Sakya Pandita, a Tibetan Lama, Viceregent in Tibet.  Then in 1253 a nephew of Sakya Pandita visited the court of Kublai Khan, who had become the Mongolian leader in 1251.  Khan was so impressed by him that he appointed him his chaplain and gave him sovereignty over all of Tibet (Richardson 33-34). 

    Tibet had instantaneously gone from complete isolation to accepting a Mongol overlord, with explicit religious ties between the two.  The Mongols went on to conquer all of China in 1279 and found the Yuan dynasty, reestablishing a link between Tibet and China.  The successors of Khan were not well liked in Tibet and a national prince named Chang-chub Gyaltsen, with the help of secular and religious leaders in Tibet, assumed control of the nation by 1358.  The Yuan leaders seemed to have little interest in these developments and so once again Tibet existed as a sovereign nation (Feigon 63).  Limited contact with China would continue throughout the Ming dynasty despite Ming efforts to gain influence in Tibet.

    During the time of Mongol control and national reemergence in Tibet Buddhism became an integral part of Tibetan affairs.  From the reemergence of Buddhism in the 11th century through the Yuan and Ming dynasties, religious influence in state affairs grew due to the spread of Lamaism and the growing monastic life.  Starting in the 11th century, Buddhism reemerged as the dominant religion in Tibet and by the time of Genghis Khan's presence in the region in 1207, many religious leaders held secular positions in the government.  The Buddhist monasteries, like those of China, were forces to be reckoned with, each with its own army.  The Mongols established the first religious head of state in Sakya Pandita in 1247, but leaders of other sects were jealous of the distinction and Chang-chub Gyalsten would rise to power (Richardson 39-40).

    The Dalai Lamas did not come into existence until the late 14th century when Tsong Khapa founded a new sect called the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat sect (Burman 8).  Tsong Khapa aimed to reform monasticism in Tibet in an attempt to end the divisions that existed between the many sects in Tibet.  His nephew, Gedun Truppa, carried on for his uncle and founded a great Gelugpa monastery.  He died in 1475 and within years it was found that he had been reincarnated into a young monk named Gedun Gyatso, who was reincarnated into a child named Sonam Gyatso upon his death.  Sonam Gyatso grew into a man of incredible talents and managed to convert a leading Mongolian prince in 1578.  The prince gave him the title of Dalai, which means ocean, to signify the depth of his knowledge.  Since he was the third incarnation of Gedun Truppa, he later became known as the third Dalai Lama (Richardson 40-41).  Soon the new sect was followed by almost all of the Mongolian tribes, which had important ramifications.

    This sect would serve to unify the Mongolian tribes, leading to the rise of the Dalai Lama as the leader of Tibet.  In the meantime, the sect gradually gained influence in Tibetan secular life to rival the dominant sect of the time.  In 1642 a Mongol prince named Gusri Khan invaded Tibet and deposed the King and ruling sect.  He placed the fifth Dalai Lama as the religious head of Tibet.  Gusri Khan died in 1655 and his successors, like those of Kublai Khan, had little interest in Tibet.  This allowed the fifth Dalai Lama, a charismatic and determined man, to assume secular power over Tibet (Richardson 41-42, 44, 45).  Lamaism had risen from a small sect grown out of three unique ideologies, to the dominating force in Tibetan religion and politics.

    The fifth Dalai Lama died in 1682 and conflict arose as a result.  Sangye Gyatso, a regent under the Dalai Lama, ruled after his death and was so hated that he was killed by Lhabzang Khan, the son of Gusri.  As a result the Dzungar Mongols invaded because they were enemies of Lhabzang Khan.  Lhabzang turned to K’ang Hsi, the Qing emperor, for help.  Lhabzang defeated the Dzungars with the Qing help and continued to depose the sixth Dalai Lama, who was the son of Sangye Gyatso and appeared to be an unsuitable Dalai Lama.  Due to his apparent unsuitability it seemed that the people would have no problem with deposing the Dalai Lama and replacing him, but that was a faulty assumption.  The Tibetans were so devoted to the Dalai Lama that they overlooked his shortcomings and when he was killed on a journey to China, the fury of the Tibetan people was released.  To make matters worse the Qing emperor made Lhabzang Khan pay tribute in return for protection, marking the first time Tibet would pay tribute to China (Richardson 46-48). 

    The people had found a child who they believed to be the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and with the help of the Dzungars, hoped to replace the current Dalai Lama with this child.  The Dzungars defeated Lhabzang Khan, but K’ang Hsi had the good fortune of having the child in his custody.  Without the child, the Dzungars were nothing but foreign intruders encroaching on Tibetan territory.  The people rose against the conquerors and hoped for help from China.  The emperor sent forces, drove the Dzungars out, and brought the child Dalai Lama.  Through this series of events, K’ang Hsi had cunningly gained a significant influence in Lhasa, which would be crucial in maintaining control over the dangerous Mongolians, seeing that they were Lamaists and thus hailed allegiance to the Dalai Lama.  The Qing first tried establishing a military governor in Tibet, which was met with public disdain.  They then tried a civil leader with no military presence, but he lacked any real power or protection.  Finally they established two civil leaders in Lhasa with an armed garrison to maintain order.  These men still had no real power but were there to report back to the Emperor on the happenings of Tibet (Richardson 47-49, 51-52). 

    The Qing decided to systematically reduce the power of the Dalai Lama in 1728 and eventually removed him from Lhasa by inviting him to Peking.  He was sidetracked on his way out of Tibet, detained by Qing forces, and allowed to return to Lhasa only on the condition that he did not take an active role in politics.  The reduction of the power of the Dalai Lama continued with the establishment of the Panchen Lama by the Qing in 1728.  This was used to challenge the religious authority of the Dalai Lama by playing each Lama off the other (Richardson 53).  With the systematic reduction of the power of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan state was left mainly under the control of the Chinese government, and this influence in Tibetan affairs by the Chinese was a prelude of things to come in the 20th century. 

Historical Significance

    The connections to be made between the reduction of the power of the Dalai Lama to gain influence in Tibet by the Chinese and the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 are far from subtle.  Early in its history, Tibet had existed as an equal with China and had even established supremacy over China, as is evidenced by the turning over of the Tang princess.  As Chinese and Mongolian influences increasingly infiltrated Tibet, the foreigners were able to weaken the state.  After the establishment of the Dalai Lama as the religious and secular leader of Tibet, China’s interest in the region grew dramatically because the Dalai Lama was also the religious leader of most of the Mongolian tribes.  This meant that controlling the Dalai Lama and Tibet allowed for control of the Mongolian threat that had plagued China for centuries.  This desire for control of Central Asia seems to have survived over the next 200 years into the 20th century, leading to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and eventually the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama (Richardson 183).

    This history also has implications for the future of Tibet and the possibility of a return of the exiled Dalai Lama and the Lamaist state.  As happened after the invasion by both Kublai Khan and Gusri Khan, it is possible that the affairs of Tibet will be forgotten under new leaders, especially if problems arise in China.  In the modern age this seems less likely though, because of the international attention being drawn to the cause of Tibet and its exiled leader and the prosperity that is being enjoyed by China.  There seem to be no major problems on the horizon, with the exception of a conflict with the United States over Taiwan, which is highly unlikely.  It seems that in the near future, Tibet is doomed to suffer Chinese control and the absence of its spiritual leader. 


Burman, Bina Roy. Religion and Politics in Tibet. New Delhi: Vikas, 1979.

Feigon, Lee. Demystifying Tibet. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Buddhism of Tibet. ed. trans. Jeffrey Hopkins. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1975. 

Richardson, H. E. A Short History of Tibet. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1962.

Waddell, L. A. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Vol. 7. 1980 ed. 

Web Resources
     The official website of the Tibetan government in Exile
     A short history of and guide to Tibetan Buddhism
     The center for Tibetan Studies, Practice, and Culture
     Everything you ever wanted to know about Tibet.  Includes History, Religion, Art, etc.
     Information on Tibetan History and many useful links on Tibet

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