White Crane

White Crane, a song by Tshangyang Gyatso, the Sixth Dalai Lama.

Oh marvelous white crane

Lend me your wings

I shall not fly far

From Lithang I shall return!

This is a popular song in Tibet and is beautifully sung in the video below by Dolma who runs the Golden Sun Hotel in a small town in Kham. Before building and running this hotel, Dolma was a professional singer. She sang Tibetan songs in Chengdu and other big cities across China. She is a devout Buddhist and her uncle is a well known lama.

As you can imagine, Dolma’s beautiful voice and face stayed with me as I created Dechen, one of the female characters in my novel Windhorse Warrior.


History repeats itself.

Three hundred years ago, the people tried to protect the Sixth Dalai Lama to keep him from being taken away to China.

Sixty years ago, the Tibetan people rebelled against Communist Chinese attempt to remove the Fourteenth Dalai Lama from spiritual and temporal power. They came out to surround the Norbu Lingka, where the Dalai Lama was residing, to protect him and to keep him from accepting an invitation to attend a Chinese function. Within a few days, the Dalai Lama agreed to go into exile in India.

Three hundred years ago ‘The Great Fifth’ Dalai Lama, Ngawang Losang Gyatso, was the first of the Dalai Lama lineage to assume full spiritual and secular control over the whole of Tibet. When the Great Fifth died suddenly in 1682, at age 68, Desi (regent) Sangay Gyatso kept secret the Dalai Lama’s death for 15 years. He told the Tibetan people, the Mongol princes and the Manchu emperor that the Dalai Lama was doing an indefinite meditation retreat. Meanwhile the Regent started the search for the Fifth’s reincarnation by telling the search party that the search was for someone else. In 1685, an extraordinary boy was discovered. He was born two years earlier on March 1, 1683, in the land of Mon (Tawang — east of present day Bhutan). 

The Regent accepted this child as the true reincarnation but to keep the boy’s existence secret, he and his mother were under virtual house arrest until he was fifteen years old. In 1697, a message was sent to the Manchu court in Peking officially announcing the Fifth Dalai Lama’s death and the discovery of his reincarnation. In October of that year, Losang Rigdzin Tshangyang Gyatso (Precious Ocean of Pure Melody) was enthroned as the Sixth Dalai Lama. The fact that the reincarnation was already 15 years old was explained as the Great Fifth’s request that his death be kept secret for the stability of Tibet. The Tibetan and Mongolians believed this and accepted the boy as the Sixth Dalai Lama.

Up until that time the young man had not received any of the rigorous training ordinarily given to a Dalai Lama before his enthronement. When his training began, the tall, handsome, talented and intelligent lad was not very diligent. He preferred archery, horseback riding and an outdoor life. His nature was humble and he preferred a simple life to the pomp and ceremony of life at the Potala. He lived in the Potala without servants and made his own tea which he readily served visitors. 

Though Tshangyang Gyatso was not dedicated to his monastic training, he was highly intellectual and wrote learned treatises on a variety of subjects. He was an architect and remodeled the Norbu Lingka summer palace. He was an enthusiastic dancer and modified many aspects of Tibetan monastic opera. As a result the Regent, who was responsible for the young man’s political and spiritual education grew frustrated and pleaded with the young Dalai Lama to take his office seriously. 

By the time he was twenty, Tshangyang Gyatso refused to take the gelong vow, the final initiation of consecration as a monk, he went further and even renounced his novice vow he took in 1697 when he was enthroned. He returned to the status of layman and, though not able to fulfill his responsibility as spiritual leader, he remained the temporal head of Tibetan society. 

From the day he renounced his vows, he dressed as a layman, kept his hair long and wore elaborate clothing and rings on his fingers. Though he continued to live at the Potala, he wandered the streets of Lhasa and other nearby towns. He spent time with friends practicing archery, riding horses and, in the evenings, visiting taverns, drinking, composing and singing love songs, and dallying with his lovers.

This was during a time of a great power play between the Mongols and the Manchus over Tibet. The Mongols had helped the Fifth Dalai Lama establish control over all of Tibet, but were now divided among themselves and susceptible to influence by the Manchus who suggested that keeping the existence of the Sixth Dalai Lama secret was a ploy used by the Regent to remain in power. This was not the case, but the idea turned the Mongols against the Regent, and later the Sixth Dalai Lama. Because of this distrust, the Regent was overthrown and beheaded in 1705 by the Mongols.  

Not long after, a faction of the Mongols attempted to depose the Sixth Dalai Lama from power but they misjudged the Tibetan people. Even though Tshangyang Gyatso was a layman, the people loved him. 

With help from the Manchu emperor, the Mongols eventually deposed the Sixth Dalai Lama on June 27, 1706 and tried to send him to China under armed guards. The Tibetan people rose up to rescue him near Drepung monastery where he took refuge. The next day the Mongols surrounded the monastery and threatened to destroy it with artillery. To prevent bloodshed, Tshangyang Gyatso, walked out of the monastery and surrendered. But the monastery was looted and destroyed anyway for harboring the Sixth Dalai Lama. 

Tshangyang Gyatso was once again taken away toward China. When he reached Gung-nor, south of Kokonor, he ‘disappeared’ — that is, he was most likely murdered. He must have known this would happen because this is when he composed the ‘White Crane’ song foretelling his reincarnation in Lithang. It was written and sent to a lady-friend in Shol, an area of Lhasa he frequented.

And again, the Mongols misjudged the Tibetans. After the Sixth Dalai Lama’s ‘disappearance’, the Mongols appointed a young monk as the ‘real’ Sixth Dalai Lama! Believing the Mongols had gone too far, the Manchu emperor delayed recognizing the new Sixth Dalai Lama. And when the Seventh Dalai Lama was found in Lithang, he was secretly moved to Derge, in northern Kham, to protect him from the Mongols. 

The Manchu’s found their opportunity to intervene in Tibetan politics by protecting the young Seventh Dalai Lama, sending an army to defeat the Mongols in Lhasa and enthroning Kalzang Gyatso, the boy from Lithang, but recognized him as the Sixth Dalai Lama rather than the Seventh. This, of course, enraged the Tibetans. 

The Mongols were driven out of Tibet for good, with the help of the Manchus but modern Chinese propaganda uses this turn of events as the beginning of Chinese control in Tibet. 


Tshangyang Gyatso, the Sixth Dalai Lama had made another prophesy. He said that he would return to Tawang, his birth place, when three identical sandalwood trees grew beside each other. In 1959, the people of Tawang noticed these trees and soon after, the Dalai Lama came to Tawang again, this time as the Great Fourtheenth on his way to exile in India.

The succession of the next Dalai Lama, the Fifteenth, is sure to be complicated by the Chinese if they assert their so-called right to enthrone a Dalai Lama of their own choice. This is exactly what the Mongols and Manchus attempted three hundred years ago. The present Dalai Lama jokes that he will return as a Western woman to indicate that any choice by Chinese officials is bound to be false. 

Some of Tshangyang Gyatso’s songs:

Drops of rain wash away

The love songs written in

Black and White

But love, though unwritten

Remains long after, in the heart.


She sparkled her smile

To the crowd in the tavern

But from the corner of her eyes

She spoke to me of her love.


Accepting the desires of my beloved

Will ruin my chance to profess dharma

Yet my retreat into a solitary hermitage

Will break my beloved’s tender heart.


I incline myself

To the teachings of my lama

But my heart secretly escapes

To thoughts of my beloved


If I could meditate on dharma

As intensely as on my beloved

I would attain enlightenment

In this one life-time.

The Sixth Dalai Lama was a poet of the people. His songs found ‘a permanent place in the heart of the Tibetan people, especially in the young whose joy of love, despair in loneliness and frustration with social injustice so often were reflected in his songs.’ (K. Dhondup, Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama) His songs were filled with protest against the feudal order which oppressed the common people. Shorn of literary devices, the poetry excels in ‘rare descriptions of basic human emotion and experiences of love, loyalty, loneliness and betrayal etc., with the use of a wide range of images.’ (ibid) Other songs mock monks who are not true to their vows. 

One of his songs expresses his situation clearly:

In my Palace, the place of Heaven on Earth

They call me Rigdzin Tshangyang Gyatso

Chenresig Reincarnate.

But below my Palace,

In the little town of Shol,

They call me Chebo Tangsang Wangpo,

The Profligate,

For my lovers are many.

It is thought that the courtesans of Lhasa had their own version of this song:

In the Potala he is Rigdzin Tshangyang Gyatso

But in Lhasa and Shol, he is a delightful young blade!


With thanks to K. Dhondup of Dharmsala who translated these verses and wrote an informative introduction in Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama in 1981.

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