The Illusive Play: The Autobiography of the Fifth Dalai Lama tells the story of Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho), the fifth Dalai Lama, also known as the “Great Fifth.” As an autobiographical account, The Illusive Play tells Lobsang Gyatso’s life story, having been designated from a young age as an incarnate of the Dalai Lama. With immense pressure building on him throughout the region, he refined his practice and pursued Buddhist truth through a great deal of traveling and studying with various monasteries and teachers throughout Tibet. The Mongolian conflict was pervasive during this time, as well as epidemics and environmental disasters, all of which Lobsang Gyatso had to reckon with, particularly as his cultural influence grew. This autobiographical account gives a thorough account of the political, environmental, and spiritual climate in Tibet in the 17th century, as well as details the hardship of great power and responsibility as a cultural authority.
The Illusive Play: The Autobiography of the Fifth Dalai Lama begins with the musings of Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (the subject) navigating the task of commencing an autobiographical account, with Lobsang Gyatso ending this opening passage with the summation of his process: “I wrote in a spontaneous manner all that occurred naturally to my mind.” Lobsang Gyatso continues in the following chapter to lay foundations of his clan and familial origins, detailing generations of both paternal and maternal lineage. He constructs brief but thorough accounts of his ancestors and their occupations, histories, major notable events such as conflicts with the Mongolians, and even interests like astrology or poetry. As Lobsang Gyatso moves to discuss his birth and early life he makes note of the astrological context of his birth, and in this account as well as throughout the autobiography, he often uses calendrical designations such as Earth-horse year (1618) or Iron-tiger year (1650).
In his account of his early life and infancy, Lobsang Gyatso notes how external actors such as teachers, family members, and family friends/town locals would remark on his fortune and singularity with little to go off other than his general character even at a young age. In line with remarks of his own fortune as well as the consistent nods to astrology, the concept of fortune and divine “signs” factor heavily into this text, often driving justifications and deductions in Lobsang Gyatso’s narration as he progresses through chapters and stories. His narrative continues from his account of his infancy to his early childhood where he stayed with an uncle in Yardrog, and thus begins his memorable autobiography, rather than that which was “stated according to what other people had said.” Through these years, the Mongolian conflict continued to escalate, propelling the nomadic lifestyle exhibited by Lobsang Gyatsho’s family during this time.
Still in his childhood, Lobsang Gyatso was marked as special given his general character, fortune, and recognition of Buddhist spiritual objects associated with past Dalai Lamas. As such, he was sent to Drepung to be with monks and study with other Buddhist practitioners and/or reincarnates. Lobsang Gyatso, after initiation rituals such as hair-cutting and the commencement of his practice, continued to live a nomadic lifestyle, traveling from Drepung to Rigo to Chokhorgyal to Sera and many more places. He spent much of his youth traveling and both learning from assemblies and monasteries that he visited as well as imparting wisdom to those he interacted with. During these years of intense traveling and pedagogy, Lobsang Gyatso saw not only political conflict but biological/environmental conflict in the form of measles and smallpox outbreaks and great windstorms as well.
As Lobsang Gyatso grew older and better versed in the breadth of Buddhist practice, he developed a wish to learn of “Tantras, meditation of visualization and achievement, tantric ritual practices form an expert,” but this was not a shared vision among the monks and teachers he was surrounded by, who more so wished for him to study Buddhist philosophy and metaphysics. Throughout his adolescence, Lobsang Gyatso studied many topics of Buddhism and practiced with many monks and teachers, and (at least in retrospect) maintained an inquisitiveness into what, how, why, and with whom he was studying. He felt a strong urge through his studies to connect more with the tantric side rather than the dialectic side of Buddhism; he was very skilled in debate and recitation.
Lobsang Gyatso continued traveling and studying. He was often met with big opinions on how he should practice by those hosting or receiving him at their monasteries. Throughout his travels, he was often forced to question his convictions and glean from his surroundings in order to best hone his practice. Through this time, he lost many teachers and friends to early deaths. Through his many travels, often libations and offerings were reciprocally made between himself and his host(s), such as tea or barley. The military conflict with the Mongols was pervasive and often influenced his movements and programs of study, however, Lobsang Gyatso himself mostly held to the belief that “‘It would be better not to get involved in this conflict.’”
In his later years of study, Lobsang Gyatso refines his Sanskrit skills but notes that due to the instability of the times, many of his materials like books were largely lost. Through these later years, Lobsang Gyatso additionally cemented his influence as a cultural tent pole in Tibet, corresponding with many lamas to not only build his own practice but also contribute to awareness of astrological events like a lunar eclipse or take a focal role at the end of the year celebrations, acting as “lead officiator for performing the hurling rite based on the deity Shinje.” In the years following, he performed many cultural and ceremonial rites for various towns, provinces, and communities throughout Tibet. Much of the rites and prayers he performed or initiated were predicated upon the military conflict, which was still influencing the political climate in the region, even during Gyatsho’s later years. Although his time was split throughout many communities and monasteries, from this account it seems a bulk of the time was spent at Drepung. The smallpox epidemic continued.
In 1640 (the Iron-dragon year), further environmental disasters like frequent earthquakes and drought disrupted the stability of the region, and Lobsang Gyatso consequently performed earth-taming rites, further cementing his role as a person of great cultural influence and authority. He continued to contribute culturally, helping construct temples, write letters, and help create ornamental/aesthetic additions to cultural sites.
Later, he developed his meditative and Tantric practice, as well as extended his purview beyond just Tibet, venturing to Beijing and meeting the Manchu emperor in the 1650s, receiving gifts, and expanding his cultural reach. He then returned to Tibet; none of his journeys within, to, or from Tibet were straight shots. He stopped often and earnestly, making offerings and correspondences with people and Buddhist practitioners in the towns/monasteries he stopped at. Conflicts with Mongolian forces and interests as well as rising tensions with Nepal fed into increased political tension during these later years of Lobsang Gyatso’s travels. Due to epidemics, environmental events, and the less-than-contemporary lifespan during the 17th century, many of Lobsang Gyatsho’s teachers and friends passed away and Lobsang Gyatso held many funerals and performed funeral rites.
Lobsang Gyatso continued to act as a cultural proponent in the region, even through illnesses like gout and through the political turmoil in the region. His legacy and status were well-cemented by the mid-late 17th century, and he was well-known and revered by Buddhist practitioners, political figures, and common people alike. He continued acting as a spiritual and cultural guide, offering support, wisdom, and ritual healing to those he encountered until his death.