First, a brief history of the Jetsun Dhampa institution. The first Jetsun Dhampa Lobsang Tenpay Gyaltsen (also known as Zanabazar) was recognized in the 17th century with the involvement of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Fourth Panchen Lama and came to be accepted as the spiritual head of Mongolian Buddhists. The subsequent incarnations may have been involved in predominantly spiritual matters, but the eighth incarnation came to be known as the Bogd Khan and also became the political head of Mongolia. While the first two incarnations were Mongolians, the next six have been born in Tibet. The Jetsun Dhampa was also recognized as the reincarnation of Taranatha, head of the Jonang tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Following the Communist takeover of Mongolia in the 1920s and after the passing away of the eighth incarnation, the then-Mongolian government banned the recognition of the Jetsun Dhampa.
But the 9th Jetsun Dhampa Jampal Namdol Chokyi Gyaltsen was in anyway discovered in Tibet, having been born in 1932. When he was four years old, he was recognized by Radreng Rinpoche, who had by then become the Regent of Tibet after the 13th Dalai Lama passed away in 1933. But given the Mongolian political situation then, the recognition was not made public even though the reincarnation underwent his spiritual education. It was only after Mongolia became a democracy and its monastic emissaries went to India to request the Dalai Lama for information about the 9th Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa. Subsequently, His Holiness had this to say, “After Mongolia became free once more, I formally recognised and enthroned him where he lived in Madhya Pradesh” and the 9th Jetsun Dhampa’s public recognition took place on Jan. 13, 1992. As an aside, the 9th Jetsun Dhampa and I shared a train cabin at one time in 1993. We were in Sikkim for the Kalachakra Initiations that H.H. the Dalai Lama bestowed there and were returning to New Delhi by train. Following his public recognition, he was invited to visit Mongolia for the first time in 1997, eventually being settled in the country in 2010 and was given citizenship by the government. He passed away in Mongolia in 2012.
Although the Dalai Lamas in general have had a special relationship with the Mongolian spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama says his family had a close connection with the Jetsun Dhampa. In 2013, during a teaching in south India, he explained this by saying people in his birth region of Kumbum were in fact closer to Jetsun Dhampa than to the Dalai Lamas. While he was growing up in Lhasa, His Holiness told the gathering that he would often find the young Jetsun Dhampa with his mother when he went to visit his family.
After the 9th Jetsun Dhampa passed away in March 2012, His Holiness the Dalai Lama took part in a memorial prayer gathering held in Dharamsala then. He also composed a prayer for the Jetsun Dhampa’s speedy rebirth and also publicly mentioned his belief that the reincarnation would be born in Mongolia.
Those who follow the issue of the Jetsun Dhampa would know that for the next few years thereafter, the Dalai Lama continued to update the public about the Mongolian spiritual leader at teachings that he gave in different places.
During special teachings for devotees from Mongolia who had gathered in the Indian capital New Delhi on Dec. 4, 2013, the Dalai Lama gave a reading transmission of his prayer for the swift return of the Jetsun Dhampa. At the end of the same month, the Dalai Lama was giving a teaching at Sera Monastery in South India, where again he referred to the Jetsun Dhampa and the prayer he had composed, saying, “This prayer refers to his previous lives and makes the wish that he come back in Mongolia as a scholar able to teach.”
In December 2014, at yet another teaching requested by Mongolian devotees, this time in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama gave the reading transmission of his prayer for the swift rebirth of the Jetsun Dhampa. The Dalai Lama also “mentioned that he had encouraged him to take his next birth in Mongolia,” according to His Holiness’ website.
In 2016, on Nov. 23, during a visit to Mongolia, the Dalai Lama publicly spoke about the rebirth of the Jetsun Dhampa, telling the media then, “the boy is very young right now, so there is no need for haste in making an announcement. When he is 3, 4 or 5 years old, we’ll see how things are. Placing a small child on a high throne is not what’s important. What is much more important is that he is able to study and become learned so he will be able to contribute to the flourishing of the Buddha dharma.”
The Dalai Lama also outlined his special reason for his interest in the Jetsun Dhampa. He told the media in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar then, “Previous Jetsun Dhampas have been close to the Dalai Lamas in the past. I knew the 9th Jetsun Dhampa from childhood. As the time of his death approached, he asked me where and when he should pass away, which surprised me a little. However, during our last meeting, when he was already in poor health, I told him that it was important for him to be reborn in Mongolia. Considering the significance of his reincarnation and bearing in mind that he is a personal friend, I feel I have a responsibility to look after his reincarnation.”
Therefore, this is the background to the public appearance of the young 10th Jetsun Dhampa in Dharamsala in March. The occasion was a two-day Buddhist teaching on the Krishnacharya lineage of Chakrasamvara (part of the higher tantric practice) by the Dalai Lama that was requested by the main Mongolian monastery, Gandan Tegchenling, which is located in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The 10th Jetsun Dhampa was among the 600 or so Mongolians who had arrived in Dharamsala for the teachings.
While it was certainly the 10th Jetsun Dhampa’s first public appearance, it was not an announcement of his recognition, as can be discerned from developments in 2016. This can also be seen from how His Holiness refers to the young reincarnation at the beginning of the teachings on March 8. His Holiness is seen reading from a note (whether by himself or by the organizers) placed on his table, “The reincarnation of (Khalkha) Jetsun Dhampa is here.” He then looks around and asks, “Where is he? Does he understand Ukay (central Tibetan dialect)?” His Holiness continues reading from the note, “He is here to receive the empowerment of Krishnacharya lineage of Chakrasamvara. The reincarnations of the Khalkha (Jetsun Dhampa) have been adopting the Krishnacharya lineage of Chakrasamvara as their main practice and so this is an auspicious occasion without having planned for it.”
The reincarnation is later seen participating in some of the ritual procedures as part of the empowerment.
This was certainly a newsworthy story, given that the young reincarnation is the spiritual leader of Mongolian Buddhists. But there were a few distortions.
The Jetsun Dhampa is not the successor to the Dalai Lama, as some media reports implied, nor is he “traditionally one of the Buddhist leaders who recognize the Dalai Lama’s successor,” as another one contented. While making this latter misleading assertion, one news outlet even inserted just below it an ad for its own newsletter, ironically stating, “Don’t let yourself be misled. Understand issues with help from experts.” Neither conventionally nor historically have the Jetsun Dhampas had any roles in the search for the Dalai Lamas.
Yet another misunderstanding was that the Jetsun Dhampa was “the third most important spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism.” While Tibetan Buddhism is traditionally clear that the Dalai Lama is the supreme leader, there is no clear system that describes the hierarchy thereafter. The Tibetan government does have a system of classifying reincarnated masters into levels of ranks, made use also to determine seating during public events where the lamas might be gathering.
If the Mongolian Buddhists are the sources for this assertion of the Jetsun Dhampa being the third most important spiritual leader, then a possible reasoning could be from the particular history of the institution of the Jetsun Dhampas, whose initial establishment was connected to the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, the two most well-known Tibetan masters. But in any case this would not be the case for the overall world of Tibetan Buddhism.
As for the China connection, which some media outlets projected in different ways, in general anything connected to the Dalai Lama somehow seems to invite some sort of China context whether there is relevance or not. This is further fueled by the tendency of Beijing to go to any extent to reduce space for the Dalai Lama, and not because they have a stake in the Jetsun Dhampa. But the Jetsun Dhampa is connected to an independent nation of Mongolia, and if the Mongolian Buddhists have acceptance of the reincarnation, that is what is relevant. At best the Communist regime in China might only be in a position to sow confusion by causing internal dissension in Mongolia. It cannot claim authority over the recognition of Jetsun Dhampa, just as we cannot think of any China connection to the reincarnation of Zhabdrung Rinpoche, a prominent lama in the Drukpa Kagyu lineage in Bhutan. Zhabdrung Rinpoche was a Tibetan lama who settled in Bhutan some centuries back.
The 10th Jetsun Dhampa is significant because he symbolizes the aspiration of the Mongolian Buddhists for their spiritual renewal, a process that began following the downfall of the Communist regime there. This is the only relevant angle to the public appearance of the reincarnation. To me, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was only helping in the realization of this Mongolian aspiration, nothing more and nothing less.