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[PT 9.

2 (2008) 179-191] Political Theology (print) ISSN 1462-317X

doi:10.1558/poth.v9i2.179 Political Theology (online) ISSN 1473-1719

The Rhetoric of War in Tibet:

Toward a Buddhist Just War Theory*

Derek F. Maher
East Carolina University
Philosophy Department
A-327 Brewster Building
Greenville, NC 27858

This article analyzes the rhetoric that the Fifth Dalai Lama Ngag dbang
blo bzang rgya mtsho (1617–1682) employs to describe various forms of
violence. In particular, I explore the justifications he offers or implies for
various types of violence to which he seems to grant his approval. I focus
on his 1643 Song of the Queen of Spring, written immediately after a broad-
ranging war that culminated in his own ascent to political rule over Tibet.
Concentrating on his assessment of Gushri Khan, the Mongolian strong-
man responsible for installing the Dalai Lama in power, I conclude that the
Dalai Lama attempts to legitimize Gushri Khan’s violence by representing
the khan as a transcendent agent of benefit, a bodhisattva whose own good-
ness permits him to perform actions that would be condemned if performed
by a less exalted actor.

Keywords: Buddhism, Fifth Dalai Lama, Gushri Khan, justification, vio-

lence, warfare.

During Buddha’s ministry, he frequently spoke out against aggression and

urged his followers to pursue the path of peace, both in outward behav-
ior and in their interior lives. Echoing a theme that was first developed
centuries earlier in the Chaμndogya Upanis\ad, he taught his followers to live
non-violently according to the principle of ahim|sa, a term that carries both
the negative gloss of non-harmfulness and the positive sense of proactive
beneficial behavior. What is known about the early Buddhist communities

* An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the American Academy of Religion
conference in Washington, DC on November 19, 2006.

© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2008, Unit 6, The Village, 101 Amies Street, London SW11 2JW.
180 Political Theology

indicates that these teachings were among the most vital threads in the
initial articulations of the religion.1 This emphasis can be detected in
many canonical contexts in early Buddhist circles. For example, the first
of the five precepts assumed by lay Buddhists commits the adherent to
avoid killing, and a wide variety of monastic precepts also curtail various
forms of violence.2
Throughout the first few centuries of Buddhism, we discover frequent
reminders that the tradition rejected violence. One of the most important
early paradigms reinforcing these values is the conversion story of King
Asoka. According to inscriptions, he was so viscerally repelled by the grisly
carnage he had unleashed on the battlefield as his Mauryan forces crushed
the Kalin³ga armies that he disavowed all violence in the future. His Rock
Edict XIII says, in part:3
Directly after the annexation of the Kalingas, began His Sacred majesty’s
zealous protection of the Law of Piety, his love of that Law, and his giving
instructions in that law (dharma). Thus arose His Sacred Majesty’s remorse
for having conquered the Kalingas, because the conquest of a country previ-
ously unconquered involves the slaughter, death, and carrying away captive
of the people.

Later Buddhist traditions portray this terrible conquest as precipitating

Asoka’s conversion to Buddhism. According to these accounts, his con-
quering days at an end, he turned his attention instead to patronizing the
proliferation of a peaceful Buddhism.4
Despite this seemingly pervasive message in favor of non-violence,
there are contrary indications that violence may sometimes be acceptable

1. Romila Thapar, “Ethics, Religion, and Social Protest in the First Millennium B.C.
in Northern India,” in idem, Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations (Hyderabad,
India: Orient Longman, 1978), 48–50. For a vivid and convincing narrative account of the
social context in which Buddha lived, see also Richard F. Gombrich, Theravaμda Buddhism:
A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Columbo (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,
1988), 49–59.
2. Étienne Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Saka Era (Lou-
vain La-Neue, France: Université Catholique de Louvain, 1988), 53ff.
3. Vincent A. Smith, The Edicts of Asoka (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial, 1992),
4. John S. Strong, The Legend of King AsŒoka (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1983), 214–19, recounts an alternate version of Asoka’s conversion in which he is
inspired by both the prophetic words of a monk named Samudra and his imperviousness
to torture. Ironically, after “the king’s faith in the Buddha was aroused,” AsŒoka is depicted
as endorsing the torture and incineration of Can\d\agirika, Samudra’s ineffective tormentor.
See also Romila Thapar, AsŒoka and the Decline of the Mauryas (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1997), 33–40 and 166–68; and Lama Chimpa and Alaka Chattopadhyay, Taμranaμtha’s
History of Buddhism in India (Delhi: Motilal Benarsidass, 1970), 50–75.

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Maher   The Rhetoric of War in Tibet 181

and even recommended within Buddhism. According to a narrative often

recounted in the oral tradition, but deriving from the UpaμyakausŒalya Sutra,
Saμkyamuni Buddha, in a previous lifetime, chose to kill a wayward man
determined to murder five hundred other bodhisattvas on a ship captained
by the future Buddha. In this story, the future Buddha, whose name was
Great Compassion, preemptively eliminated the would-be murderer,
electing to take upon himself the negative karma of murder out of compas-
sion for the intended killer, who otherwise would have suffered the much
greater karmic impact of his multiple crimes.5 In a different Jaμtaka Tale,
the bodhisattva who would become Saμkyamuni Buddha compassionately
killed a few Brahmin priests when they spoke ill of the buddhadharma,
similarly hoping to preserve them from greater sinful deeds and more
significant karmic retribution.6
Such apparent approval of violence within particular situations has
resulted in far more ambiguous attitudes towards violence in subsequent
Buddhist contexts. For example, Buddhist monk armies were known to
exert profound influence on the course of history in Heian Japan; the leg-
endary Indian meditation master Bodhidharma has been credited with the
introduction of martial arts to China; and Buddhism has been employed
to sanction warfare throughout Asia. Despite the widespread contempo-
rary popular view of Buddhism as a purely pacific religion, the tradition is
While a comprehensive taxonomy of apparently sanctioned forms of
violence is beyond the scope of this article, at least one general category
of acceptable violence is evident even in what has been described thus far.
The two examples mentioned above appear to be members of a particular
class, that is, killings undertaken in order to preserve sinful opponents of
Buddhism from committing worse crimes that could be expected to earn
them more severe karmic retribution than if they had not been killed.
Such killings can be represented as beneficial to the world at large in that

5. Mark Tatz, trans., The Skill in Means Sutra (Delhi: Motialal Benarsidass, 1994).
6. Paul Williams, Mahaμyaμna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (London: Routledge,
1989), 161.
7. An increasing body of scholarship is emerging that addresses the many dimen-
sions of Buddhist violence. For further information on some of the themes alluded to here,
the interested readers can refer to the following: Brian A. Victoria, Zen at War (New York:
Weatherhill, 1997); Lambert L. Schmithausen, “Aspects of the Buddhist Attitude to War,” in
Violence Denied: Violence, Non-Violence and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural
History, eds Jan E. M. Houben and Karel R. van Kooij (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1999); Tessa J.
Bartholomeusz, In Defense of Dharma: Just War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka (London: Rout-
ledge Curzon, 2002); and Mahinda Deegalle, Buddhism, Conflicts and Violence in Modern Sri
Lanka (London: Routledge Curzon, 2006).

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182 Political Theology

they permit Buddhism to prosper, but they are also portrayed as compas-
sionate deeds in which the killed person is actually the recipient of great
Buddhist kindness. This interpretative maneuver provides a justification
for such killing in terms that are familiar to and make sense to Buddhists.
Approaches of this sort have been employed in many parts of the Bud-
dhist world to legitimize individual executions, and moreover, Buddhist
canonical sources make provisions for compassionate killing.8
However, warfare seems a more difficult sell for Buddhists, particularly
given the nearly inevitable collateral damage entailed by large-scale fight-
ing. Vasubandhu, an important fourth-century Indian scholar, seemed to
condemn all warfare when he remarked, “Because there is just one purpose
in war, everyone engaged in it is the same.”9 Hence, at first glance, it seems
doubtful that Buddhists could find a way to justify incidental deaths. In
other words, even if narrowly tailored violence could be sanctioned in a
particular circumstance, it is puzzling to see how Buddhists could argue
that Buddha himself would have sanctioned a given war, an enterprise
in which so many innocents inevitably fall. Yet, this is precisely what can
be seen in Sri Lanka, Japan, China, and many other Buddhist contexts,
including Tibet. Theoreticians from many parts of the Buddhist world
have employed Buddhist rhetoric in order to depict warfare as religiously
justified. Contemporary scholarship has only begun to explore discourse
of this sort, and given the enduring conflict in Buddhist Sri Lanka, it is no
surprise that much of the research has been dedicated to warfare in that
troubled land. Very little attention has been given to assessing justification
for war in Tibet.10
For some, the notion that there have been wars in Tibet, never mind
wars justified by Buddhism, conflicts with the widely presumed lay view
of Tibet as having been an ideal land, the tranquil spiritual Shambhala, a
perfect Shangri-la set in its remote and inaccessible fastness. Inspired partly
by James Hilton’s Lost Horizons and abetted by indigenous Tibetan nar-
ratives, such idealized representations of Tibet endure.11 These romantic

8. Rupert Gethin, “Can Killing a Living Being Ever Be an Act of Compassion? The
Analysis of the Act of Killing in the Abhidhamma and Pali Commentaries,” Journal of Bud-
dhist Ethics 11 (2004): 167–202.
9. Cited in Tsepön W. D. Shakabpa, One Hundred Thousand Moons: An Advanced Politi-
cal History of Tibet, translation forthcoming by Derek F. Maher. The passage is found in
volume I, p. 419 of Shakabpa’s Tibetan text.
10. Elliot Sperling, “ ‘Orientalism’ and Aspects of Violence in the Tibetan Tradition,”
in Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies, eds Thierry Dodin and Heinz Räther
(Boston: Wisdom, 2001), 317–29.
11. James Hilton, Lost Horizons (New York: Pocket Books, 1933). A film of the same
name and based on the novel was made in 1937 and remade in 1973. See a contemporary

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Maher   The Rhetoric of War in Tibet 183

notions are nurtured also by some scholars with simplistic and unrealistic
appraisals like the following:
From the 7th century on, Tibetans became more and more interested in
Buddhism. Their own histories credit the Buddhist movement with giving
them a whole new way of thinking, feeling, and acting that eventually trans-
formed their personal and social lives. It turned their society from a fierce
grim world of war and intrigue into a peaceful, colorful, cheerful realm of
pleasant and meaningful living.12

Tibet has really never been free of war and even more rarely has it been
devoid of intrigue. While Buddhism may have had a salutary effect on
Tibet’s earlier imperial aspirations, it never entirely dissuaded the pow-
erful from waging war on one another. Rather, it simply called for new
rhetorical strategies to justify violence that continued in different forms.
In the following, I will examine some particular narrative accounts
of warfare and other forms of violence in Tibet. My objective is to see
what kinds of rhetoric are employed to justify warfare and other forms
of violence, how these arguments are couched in specifically Buddhist
terms, and what type of picture emerges of a Buddhist account of the just
cause criteria for a just war. I will focus on the writings of the Fifth Dalai
Lama Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho (1617–1682), a key figure who
not only distinguished himself as one of the more important historians of
the seventeenth century, but who also ended up at the center of a war that
served as a significant pivot point in Tibetan history, a war of which he was
a notable beneficiary.
The Fifth Dalai Lama’s attitudes towards warfare and violence can
be fathomed by exploring how he describes particular incidents in
which Buddhists fought wars. Fortunately, he was a prolific author, and
he wrote a wide range of historical, biographical, and autobiographical
material, thereby providing many examples for analysis. In particular, his
highly motivated history of Tibet, Song of the Queen of Spring, A Dynastic
History, provides insights into his thinking on Buddhist justifications for
The Dalai Lama, for example, recounts the familiar story of the ninth-
century King gLang dar ma, the anti-Buddhist king who followed on the

reflection on the enduring impact of these accounts in Jamyang Norbu, “Behind the Lost
Horizon: Demystifying Tibet,” in Imagining Tibet, 373–78.
12. Marylin M. Rhie and Robert A. F. Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred
Art of Tibet (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991), 22.
13. Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho (Fifth Dalai Lama), Song of the Queen of Spring,
A Dynastic History [rgyal rabs dpyid kyi rgyal mo’i glu dbyangs] (Lhasa: composed 1643;
reprinted Gangtok, Sikkim: Sikkim Research Institute of Tibetology, 1991).

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184 Political Theology

heels of the three great religious kings through whose patronage Bud-
dhism had been planted in Tibet. gLang dar ma is depicted as the reac-
tionary opponent to Buddhism who tore its fragile roots from the soil,
anxious to return to the traditional religious landscape. The Dalai Lama
frames his narration of the story in explicitly Buddhist terms, describ-
ing gLang dar ma as possessed of the ten non-virtues and representing
him as intending to destroy Buddhist monasticism. In the end, the king
sealed up the key temples and monasteries, defrocked those in robes, and
set back the advance of Buddhism for a period of centuries. Because of
these many perceived harms to Buddhism, a plan to eliminate the king
was conceived by the ascetic Lha lung dPal gyi rdo rje, who the Dalai
Lama described as “perpetually in meditation.” He also associates dPal gyi
rdo rje with a prophecy which said, “Aside from you, there are no adepts
in Tibet today. Hence, it is time for this sinful king to go to the beyond.”
When the king went out in public, the ascetic pierced his heart with an
arrow and rode away to safety. The Dalai Lama suggests that the success
of this mortal mission was connected to the “compassion of the three
supreme [jewels],” and that the yogin himself thereby “achieved signs of
[his own] realization.” In other words, the Dalai Lama is arguing that this
act of regicide was itself a cause of the attainment of a high spiritual state
by dPal gyi rdo rje [44b–46a].14
Later in the Song of the Queen of Spring, the Fifth Dalai Lama recounts a
brief story from the fourteenth century that runs along similar lines. One
of the Phag mo gru pa kings had six sons, among them, the incarnation
sPyan snga Rin po che. The latter lama is described in formulaic terms as
being intent on listening to and thinking about the bKa’ brgyud doctrine
and as having become an accomplished master of all meditative practices.
At the same time, a malevolent magician named Dor rta nag po (whose
name means either “Black Crotch” or “Killer with the Black Horse”) was
raging through the area “killing all those within sight” and “terrifying all
those within hearing.” The Dalai Lama explains that sPyan snga Rin po
che magically disposed of him, thereby rendering a “great kindness to the
people of Tibet” [71b–72a].
Both of these accounts are conveyed with transparent approval, the
Dalai Lama clearly signaling that, in his mind, it was meritorious to kill
such harmful beings. Perhaps both cases could be construed as acts of
compassionate violence, paralleling the canonical examples mentioned
above in which the bodhisattva that would become Buddha had authored
violence partly in order to save his malevolent victims from suffering from

14. Hereafter, square brackets embedded in the text refer to the Tibetan text of the
Dalai Lama’s Song of the Queen of Spring.

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Maher   The Rhetoric of War in Tibet 185

more dire karma. Yet the Dalai Lama does not depict them in that light.
The case of dPal gyi rdo rje is primarily framed in terms of terminating
the harm gLang dar ma was doing to Buddhism. However, in the second
case, the killed killer, Dor rta nag po, was at best injurious to Buddhism
only in an indirect way, perhaps in that his victims were incidentally Bud-
dhists. However, aside from the facts that sPyan snga Rin po che killed
Dor rta nag po by yogic magical means and that the lama was himself a
revered spiritual teacher, the death merely amounts to a judicial execution
and there is nothing particularly Buddhist about it. Still, the Fifth Dalai
Lama’s tone clearly conveys approval for both of these individual acts of
fatal violence. But what does he say about war?
In his writings, the Fifth Dalai Lama discusses a large number of wars
throughout Tibetan history, but the one that most occupies his literary
attention is the one that culminated with his 1642 ascension to political
power. The seeds of that war were sown in the latter part of the sixteenth
century when a period of disharmony began to manifest between the well-
established bKa’ brgyud School and the Dalai Lamas’ own up-and-coming
dGe lugs School. The two schools were in competition for patronage and
adherents, and according to dGe lugs sources, those allied to the bKa’ brgyud
School, located primarily in gTsang, persecuted the dGe lugs School of the
Dalai Lamas, based in dbU. Hence, the conflict simultaneously operated
along sectarian and regional lines. Reportedly, the patronage tours of the
Fourth Dalai Lama (1589–1617) in gTsang and mNga’ ris in western Tibet
were hindered by pro-bKa’ brgyud gTsang partisans, the dGe lugs bKra
shis lhun po Monastery in Shigatse was bombarded by bKa’ brgyud monks
who built their own monastery on the hill above it, and various affronts of
protocol were directed at the Dalai Lama by bKa’ brgyud pas. Simultane-
ously, non-Buddhist Bon religious rivals of the dGe lugs were perceived to
be persecuting the latter school in eastern Tibet.
Surviving the Fourth Dalai Lama, these violent trends are represented
as having emerged in a more virulent form during the lifetime of the
Fifth Dalai Lama. In 1618, these disputes erupted into open conflict in
Lhasa, and pro-dGe lugs forces killed a large number of bKa’ brgyud-
allied gTsang troops in Lhasa and around the dGe lugs ’Bras spungs
Monastery. A counter-attack caused the pro-dGe lugs Mongolian allies
to flee to the east, and pro-bKa’ brgyud Tsang forces were able to loot
Se ra and ’Bras spungs monasteries. According to dGe lugs sources,
many dGe lugs monasteries were subsequently converted to the bKa’
brgyud School. Such grievances festered over a period of decades while
new complaints accumulated, continuing to animate dGe lugs imagina-
tions. New provocations from Bon po opponents in eastern Tibet ignited
pro-dGe lugs Mongols to act.

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186 Political Theology

In 1635, a Mongolian army under the leadership of Gushri Khan was

assembled and launched with the objective of rectifying all of these perceived
wrongs to the Dalai Lamas’ school. Before we turn to the Dalai Lama’s
history, it will be illuminating to see how he comments on these events in his
autobiography, the Good Silk Cloth. There he describes a meeting he held
in the Potala Palace with his own regent Zhal ngo bSod nams chos ’phel
and with dKa’ bcu dge bsnyen don grub, the envoy from Gushri Khan, his
Mongolian patron. The three men discussed how the Mongolians would
protect the Dalai Lama’s dGe lugs interests in eastern Tibet from the
persecution of the Bon chieftain from Be ri, whereupon the Mongolian
military force would withdraw. The Fifth Dalai Lama writes:
That night in the camp, Zhal ngo gave instructions to the messenger, dKa’
bcu dge bsnyen don grub, in my presence. He said that Be ri should be cut
at the root by all necessary means. Thereafter, Gushri Khan himself should
return to the Blue Lake. His two queens and a group of pilgrims were invited
to come to Lhasa. I gave extensive advice against fomenting any sort of civil
conflict. The next day, when dKa’ bcu dge bsnyen don grub was departing,
Zhal ngo rode out to dGa’ ldan Khang gsar to give him provisions. Just the
two of them rode along speaking for the time it takes to prepare tea twice.
However, it hadn’t occurred to me that the trill of the flute had changed into
the whistle of an arrow.15

In other words, the Dalai Lama is claiming that his regent freelanced and
changed the instructions that were conveyed to Gushri Khan, and that this
deception was responsible for launching a war the Dalai Lama himself did
not anticipate or authorize.
In the event, the Mongolian forces did not return to northeastern Tibet
after defeating the Be ri chieftain. Instead, they progressed to Lhasa and
moved throughout dbU-gTsang, where a broad-ranging war resulted in the
defeat of most of the Dalai Lama’s opponents, the death of many soldiers
and civilians, and the establishment of dGe lugs hegemony.16 While the Dalai
Lama uses his own autobiography to distance himself from responsibility
for the conflict, he took great care in the Song of the Queen of Spring to
glorify Gushri Khan and to justify his war.
In fact, in that text, he pulls out all the stops to trumpet his endorse-
ment of his Mongolian patron’s endeavors. He begins the description of

15. Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho (Fifth Dalai Lama), The Good Silk Cloth, the Play
of Illusion, Setting Forth the Biography of Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, the monk of Za hor [za hor
gyi bande ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho’i ‘di snang ‘khrul pa’i rol rtsed rtogs brjod kyi
tshul du bkod pa du kU la’i gos bzang] (Lhasa: Tibetan People’s Printing Press, 1991), vol. I,
16. This outline of the events leading up to Gushri Khan’s 1642 victory is drawn from
chs 6 and 7 of vol. I of Shakabpa, One Hundred Thousand Moons.

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Maher   The Rhetoric of War in Tibet 187

Gushri Khan’s exploits by identifying him as an emanation of Vajrapaμni, the

bodhisattva representing perfect yogic power. He writes that, out of com-
passion for humanity, the bodhisattva “would take birth as a religious king,
whereupon he would radiate a hundred rays of light in the ten directions,”
and that as Gushri Khan, “he had dispatched all obscuration to a great dis-
tance.” He goes on to say that even hearing the name of the dGe lugs school
made the young khan happy, and that he prostrated in the direction of Lhasa
so often that his forehead became swollen. He is praised as having realized
emptiness [107b–108a].
Still in his twenties, before the wars that concern us came to fruition,
Gushri Khan is described as having settled a terrible conflict between rival
Mongolian factions, and, as he phrases it, the young warrior, moved by great
compassion for other beings, plunged into “an overgrown forest of dissen-
sion between limitless numbers of people born in bad transmigration due to
their murderous ways.” As a sign of his transcendent status, he managed to
sort out that quarrel, seemingly all by himself. Thereupon, the Dalai Lama
cites a prophecy saying, “A dharma-protecting king, the second Srong btsan
sgam po, has come” [108b]. If there is a more potent royal symbol to evoke
than King Srong btsan sgam po, credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet
in the seventh century, it would be the legendary King Ge sar of Ling, the
paradigmatic martial hero, savior of Tibet, and exemplar of wise rule. And
it will come as no surprise that the Dalai Lama also likens Gushri Khan
to King Ge sar [3b]. Leaving no symbolic opportunity unexploited, he
also likens Gushri Khan to Buddha in the prologue verses [2a]. All of
these rhetorical maneuvers are directed to legitimizing Gushri Khan as a
sanctified, righteous warrior in the cause of Buddhism.
But the Dalai Lama does not stop there. He also endeavors to frame
the particular events of the wars leading up to 1642 in Buddhist terms.
For example, it is said of one of his primary antagonists, Hal ha Chog
thu, a Mongolian chieftain who had come from western Mongolia to the
Blue Lake region in northeastern Tibet, that “his mind was possessed by
malevolent black spirits, due to which he implemented plans to undermine
Buddhism in general and the teachings of Tsong kha pa in particular.” He
goes on to say that as a result, Gushri Khan “gathered an army from his
own region, with Buddhism as his only concern, and went to the Blue
Lake in the first month of 1637.” Here the Dalai Lama evokes the resonant
literary paradigm of the Indian epic, the Raμmaμyan\a, saying:
Just as the powerful King Raμma dispatched the lord of Lanka, so [Gushri
Khan] destroyed Chog thu and 40,000 troops, until only the name remained.
He took control of the region up to the eastern edge of the lake and pro-
tected his subjects in happiness by way of a religio-political government.
Gradually, the sun dawned in the domain of central Tibet, and Gushri Khan

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188 Political Theology

established a festival in which the stores of merit were enhanced. At the

vajra seat of the Tibetan land in the Ra sa ’phrul snang Temple, he received
the title and assumed the responsibilities of a great Dharmaraμja such that he
came to stand above all other kingdoms [108b-109a].

Here, the Dalai Lama not only embeds Gushri Khan’s military within a Bud-
dhist narrative, but with the analogy between the varjaμsana of Bodhgaya and
the Ra sa ’phrul snang Temple, he intends to evoke, once again, an identity
between Buddha and the khan.
In 1639, Gushri Khan battled the Bon chieftain from Be ri, who is rep-
resented as oppressing Buddhism and only permitting the Bon religion to
grow in Kham. “In the fifth Hor month of the Earth-Hare year of 1639,” we
are told, “Gushri Khan brought his forces down on top of Be ri, whereupon
he seized most of the latter’s subjects” [109a]. The Be ri coalition fell apart,
and many of the principals were imprisoned. Now that the danger to Bud-
dhism was overcome, according to the Dalai Lama, the lamas and leaders of
the Sa skya, dGe lugs, Kar ma bKa’ brgyud, ’Brug pa bKa’ brgyud, sTag lung
pa, and so forth were liberated from a dungeon and sent home. In this terse
account of a very complex situation, Gushri Khan is depicted as an impartial
supporter of a broad array of Tibetan Buddhist schools.
This interpretive move seems to be required by the general tenor of the
Fifth Dalai Lama’s argument justifying violence and warfare. It is one thing
to deploy Buddhist imagery and narratives to justify the defense of Buddhist
interests being persecuted by some malevolent non-Buddhist oppressor; it is
quite another to legitimize sectarian conflicts between Buddhists. The Dalai
Lama has a heightened sensitivity to this question, and he downplays the
inter-religious basis of the most substantial warfare that took place leading
up to the culmination of events in 1642. The battle against Chog thu and
the Be ri chief were minor sideshows compared to the decisive battles that
took place in dbU and gTsang between partisans of the Buddhist dGe lugs
and bKa’ brgyud schools respectively. When the Dalai Lama reaches this part
of the story, he merely mentions that Gushri deployed billions of troops and
subjugated the land, but he makes no mention of who was defeated. He
obfuscates matters when he concludes by remarking that the kings and min-
isters of Tibet had to learn to bow humbly to Gushri Khan in 1642 [109b].
The tone of neutrality the Dalai Lama attempts to convey is in stark
contrast to the way this series of events was perceived by others at the time
and in the decades and centuries that followed. In the eyes of non-dGe lugs
pas, Gushri Khan’s conquests and the ascendancy of the Dalai Lama as the
paramount political force in the country were both imbued with partisan
agendas. Monasteries were seized and converted, land estates were reas-
signed to support dGe lugs institutions, and the entire symbolic universe
was reconfigured to feature the institution of the Dalai Lama at its core.

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Maher   The Rhetoric of War in Tibet 189

But the Fifth Dalai Lama wrote Song of the Queen of Spring in an attempt
to influence the way people perceived these conquests soon after they took
place. It would do no good for the dGe lugs pa alliance to win on the
battlefield and then be unable to legitimize that victory through a narra-
tive that would be compelling in the court of public opinion. This fact
goes a long way to explaining why the Dalai Lama rushed this historical
work into print within a year of the 1642 victory.
Yet the ideological split the Dalai Lama was attempting to knit together
remains in his text. He finds that he must address the essential partisan
question. In the closing pages of the text, he comments fleetingly on the
relationship between members of the dGe lugs and bKa’ brgyud lineages:
Gushri Khan became king over the three regions of Tibet… Even though
he had a strong commitment to maintaining an earnest respect for all tenet
systems without distinction, the Kar ma pa’s functionaries were unskilled in
their behavior due to which the khan forcefully deployed forces up to the
Kong po region in the east [110a].

The Dalai Lama is careful not to blame the Kar ma pa himself, a figure as
prestigious in the bKa’ brgyud School as the Dalai Lama was then for the
dGe lugs pas. But he does try to depict Gushri Khan’s military action as
legitimate by portraying the people who surround the Kar ma pa as having
behaved badly. The language is indirect and glosses over the real tensions,
but he then attempts to fortify the notion that the khan is in the right by
citing two additional prophecies legitimizing the Mongolian.
In the concluding lines to the body of the text, he returns to a more
explicitly pro-dGe lugs tone. He writes:
Because of taking birth as the receptacle of the three secrets, imbued with
the nectar of compassion of the great Conqueror Tsong kha pa, [Gushri
Khan] fulfills the qualities of a king who transforms with a golden wheel all
aspects of religio-political government [110a].

Even here, the Dalai Lama continues to minimize his own role in events.
Perhaps he was waiting to see how events would unfold in a still unstable
The Fifth Dalai Lama skillfully narrates these events, shaping them
to serve his own emerging agenda. While he does not explicitly employ
the justification that violence is beneficial and compassionate towards
the target of such violence, as we noted in the two Jaμtaka paradigms,
he implies the warfare is justified because it is authored by a righteous
religious-warrior king, a man that is rhetorically connected to many of
the most potent emblematic figures in the Indo-Tibetan symbolic uni-
verse: Saμkyamuni Buddha, King Srong btsan sgam po, King Ge sar, and
others. Each of these characters is a sovereign on a religious mission and a

© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2008.

190 Political Theology

transcendent agent of the dharma intent on furthering Buddhism, even if

it involves the commission of sanctified violence. In other words, because
of who Gushri Khan is, his violence is justified.
As Rupert Gethin argues, the reason that violence is forbidden for
conventional Buddhists is that it harms the agent mentally, fostering the
very cognitive states the practitioner seeks to overcome.17 Yet, a highly
advanced Buddhist yogin may be able to undertake acts of violence that
serve salutary ends without themselves experiencing afflictive emotions.
Thus, cases of murder, suicide, self-sacrifice, warfare, and other types of
violence may be seen as legitimate within Buddhist discourse so long as
they are carried out by people capable of undertaking them without gener-
ating harmful mental attitudes. The Dalai Lama seems to have something
of this sort in mind when he glorifies the many deeds of Gushri Khan
that would, in another circumstance, be regarded as dreadful sins violating
core Buddhist values.
This assessment of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s understanding of violence
sheds light on the two initial examples we examined from his Song of the
Queen of Spring. Although the motives differed in those cases, Lha lung
dPal gyi rdo rje’s assassination of the anti-Buddhist King gLang dar ma
and sPyan snga Rin po che’s yogic execution of Dor rta nag po, the situ-
ations are alike in that a realized Buddhist teacher carried out an act of
violence. It would seem that the Dalai Lama told those two stories in an
effort to lay the groundwork for justifying Gushri Khan’s broader vio-
lence. Finally, this theme sheds light on the Dalai Lama’s sense of a just
war. A war is just or not just by virtue of whether it is undertaken by a
sufficiently advanced spiritual practitioner. In such a case, the just cause
criteria familiar in standard just war traditions is of less concern than the
identity of the instigator.

Derek F. Maher researches Tibetan religions, history, and biogra-

phy.  He is currently finalizing his translation of Tsepön Shakabpa’s
One Hundred Thousand Moons: An Advanced Political History of Tibet. He
has also written about the way that biographical writings are deployed
ideologically.  Presently, he teaches Buddhism and Islam at East Caro-
lina University, where he the Co-Director of the Religious Studies
Program.  He holds a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist History of Religions
from the University of Virginia.

17. Rupert Gethin, “Buddhist Monks, Buddhist Kings, Buddhist Violence: On the
Early Buddhist Attitudes to Violence,” in Religion and Violence in South Asia: Theory and Prac-
tice, eds J. R. Hinnells and Richard King (London: Routledge, 2007).

© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2008.

Maher   The Rhetoric of War in Tibet 191

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Society for the Study of
Christian Ethics
2008 Conference

The Sermon on the Mount

in Christian Ethics
5th-7th September, Wescott House, Cambridge

Presenters include

Oliver O’Donovan
Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology
Edinburgh University

Glen Stassen
Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics
Fuller Theological Seminary

Susan Parsons
President, Society for the Study of Christian Ethics
Editor, Studies in Christian Ethics

Carolyn Muessig
Senior Lecturer in Medieval Theology
University of Bristol

Richard Bauckham
Professor Emeritus of New Testament
University of St Andrews

Call for papers

The conference committee invite short papers related to the theme of the event
and more general outlines of work in progress
Please send abstracts to Dr Jeff Bailey:

For further details and booking arrangements see: