Look behind the curtains of late nineteenth-early twentieth century Russo-Tibeto-Mongolian affairs and you are more than likely to find there, directing the hesitant actors, prompting the tongue-tied, and ready to stride on stage himself whenever necessary, the enigmatic figure of the always-present but paradoxically ever-elusive Agvan Dorzhiev, or Ngawang Losang, as he was known in Tibetan. Dorzhiev was born in the valley of the Uda River, which flows into the Selenga River at the city of Ulaan Ude (in Dorzhiev’s time, Verkhneudinsk) in the current autonomous republic of Buryatia in the Wood Tiger Year of the 14th sixty-year cycle of the Kalachakra calendar (1854 according to the Gregorian calendar). A precocious student with obvious linguistic talents he soon excelled in Russian—his native language was Buryat—and, oddly enough for the time and place, French. He showed an early interest in Buddhism and quickly added Tibetan, the language of most religious texts, to his resumé. At the age of thirteen he received an Amitayus Long-Life Empowerment from a local lama, who also advised him to go to Tibet for further studies.
Tibet, however, was far off; and Dorzhiev’s means were limited. Örgöö [Ulaanbaatar], in Mongolia, was much closer, and it was there that Dorzhiev went a year later, in 1868. He took the precepts of an upsaka, or religious layman, restraining himself from killing, stealing, lying, irresponsible sexual activity, and the use of intoxicants. Apparently at this point he was not totally convinced of his religious vocation and not yet ready to become a fully ordained monk. Instead he soon married a woman named Kholintsog and may have fathered a child—coitus in the married state not being considered irresponsible sexual activity. He quickly discovered that “the household life, both in this and future births, is like sinking into a swamp of misery.” After consulting with his teacher, the revered Mongolian lama Penchen Chomphel, he decided to advance a further step on the path of his religious vocation by taking the vows of a celibate layman, or ubashi. At this point wife and purported child disappear from his curriculum vitae, never to be heard from again.
For the really serious student of Buddhism there was only one ultimate destination—Lhasa, the lodestar of Inner Asian Buddhists. Dorzhiev was nothing if not ambitious and he soon trained his sights on the Tibetan capital, where he hoped to eventually acquire the degree of geshé, the Buddhist equivalent of a doctorate. But here we get the first whiff of intrigue that was to hover like a miasma around Dorzhiev for the rest of his life. Historian of Russian and Tibetan relations Alexandre Andreyev has speculated that even at this early date Dorzhiev may have working for Russian intelligences services. Documents in the archives of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society propose “sending one or more Buryat Buddhists to Lhasa . . . with a Mongolian mission which was to bring back to Urga a new incarnation of the recently deceased Khutukhtu.” The Buryats were to concern themselves with “intelligence gathering.”
According to one source Dorzhiev and Penchen Chomphel left Mongolia for Lhasa in the winter of 1873. They may well have been accompanying the caravan sent to bring back the little Tibetan boy, a relative of the Dalai Lama, who had determined to be the Eighth Bogd Gegeen. As mentioned, all Europeans and citizens of the Russia empire were still strictly barred from entering Tibet at this time, and Dorzhiev, although a Buryat and a Buddhist, was still a citizen of Russia. Thus he went along on the caravan disguised as a Khalkh Mongol attendant to Penchen Chomphel. This was quite a dangerous undertaking for the Buryat. If exposed he would have been subjected to severe punishments, perhaps even ending up in a Tibetan dungeon. Any Tibetan who aided him risked having his property confiscated, or might have even be sewed up in a leather bag and thrown into the Tsangpo River to drown, the fate of Lama Senchen, the Shigatse monk who in the early 1880s had befriended the Indian pundit Chandra Das, who was in the pay of the British.
In Lhasa Dorzhiev found temporary refuge at Gomang College in Drepung Monastery. Here he could blend in with Mongolian monks who would be unlikely to expose him even if they know his true status. We cannot say for sure if Dambijantsan was there at the time. If our chronology is correct he entered the monastery at Dolonnuur around 1867 but we do not know how long he studied there before moving on to Drepung in Tibet. If they were both at Drepung at they had one thing in common; as Russian citizens they were both in Tibet illegally. Dambijantsan, perhaps already at this time a master of assumed identities, did not seem to have a problem, but word seems to have leaked about Dorzhiev’s true origins. His position precarious and running low on funds, he decided to forgo for the moment his dream of pursuing Buddhist studies in Lhasa and instead return to Örgöö. Here the record is clearer; he and Penchen Chomphel did accompany the caravan bringing the little four-year-old 8th Bogd Gegeen to Mongolia.
The Tibetan monk Luvsanchoijinimadanzinbanchug (1870–1924) was the twenty-third incarnation of Javsandamba and eighth in the line of Bogd Gegeens of Mongolia established by Zanabazar. He would witness the fall of the Qing Dynasty and oversee the rise of an independent state of Mongolia; in additional to his role as head of Buddhism in Mongolia he would eventually be crowned king of Mongolia; and he would live to see his power usurped by the Bolshevik communists who had seized control of the country in 1922. As his life was inextricably intertwined with that of Dambijantsan’s we will have more to say about him later.
By the time Dorzhiev returned to Örgöö he had decided on his religious vocation. At the age of twenty-one he was given full ordination as a monk by Penchen Chomphel and began studies with a number of other venerable monks who initiated him into various tantric practices, including the sadhana of Vajrabhairava, which would become his life-long practice. He also studied at monasteries at Wutai Shan in Shanxi Province, China, a mountain (actually a cluster of five peaks) dedicated to Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. He had not given up his dreams of continuing his studies in Lhasa, however. Informed by knowledgeable lamas at Wutai Shan that the obstacles he had previously faced could be overcome by generous offerings to monasteries and officials in Lhasa, he returned to Buryatia and managed to solicit a considerable amount of alms from his fellow countrymen, duly impressed as they were by the energetic and charismatic monk who already seemed destined for greater things. Part of this booty was given to Dzasak Rinpoche, a high-ranking lama at Wutai Shan. This worthy, who apparently had good connections in Tibet, smooth the way for Dorzhiev’s trip back to Lhasa and even determined an auspicious time for him to leave on his journey.
The twenty-six year old Dorzhiev arrived back in the Tibetan capital in 1880. Upon his arrival he made generous offerings to the Big Three monasteries of Sera, and Gandan, and Drepung, with an extra and especially munificent donation to Gomang College at Drepung. “By this means,” relates his biographer, “which may not exactly have been bribery, but something very much like it, the earnest and energetic young Buryat was able ‘to create favourable conditions for my studies’”. The matter of his Russian citizenship was for the time being forgotten.
Dorzhiev’s subsequent career at Lhasa was nothing short of meteoric. He studied with some of the most distinguished lamas in Tibet and in 1888, just eight years after his arrival in Lhasa, he was awarded the Buddhist equivalent of a doctorate, passing the exams with the highest honors. Normally it took fifteen or twenty year to earn such a degee. “It is . . . a little puzzling how he managed to complete the course so quickly,” observes his biographer, “for there is usually a waiting list and ample funds are necessary to pass the final hurdles. Everything points to Dorzhiev having an influential patron and sponsor. Perhaps money was reaching him from Russia—and perhaps from high places in Russia. Naturally he is reticent about anything of this kind.” He immediately began instructing Mongolian and Buryat students in Buddhistic logic and metaphysic and soon became “a recognized member of the monastic elite.”
All this would pale in comparison to his next assignment. That same year, 1888, he was appointed as tutor of the-then twelve-year old Thirteenth Dalai Lama. For the next ten years he was the Dalai Lama’ ‘inseparable attendant,” himself instructing the Dalai Lama on a near-daily basis and present when other lamas gave him initiations into the highest teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism. He would also eventually rank as the Dalai Lama’s closest political advisor. The fact that he was a Russian citizen had been forgiven but not forgotten. Some in the Dalai Lama’s entourage were appalled that a foreigner should have became the religious leader’s right hand man, and they intrigued to have him dismissed and thrown out of Tibet. But he had the support of the Dalai Lama himself and all their objections were in vain. The Buryat monk who had first slunk into Lhasa in disguise had become one of the most powerful men in the country.
Indeed, to this day Dorzhiev has not been forgotten at Drepung Monastery. When questioning monks there in 2001 about Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia, I described him as “a famous Mongolian lama who had once studied at Drepung.” The monk I was talking to at first thought I was referring to “Ngawang Losang, the Mongolian monk from Russia.” This was of course Dorzhiev. (It turned out he also knew about Zanabazar, and was even aware that the Ninth Bogd Gegeen is now living in India.)
Much of Dorzhiev’s subsequent career lies outside the scope of our narrative. Suffice it to add here that he became the leader of the pro-Russian faction in the Tibetan court, and the British would use his Great Game intrigues with Russia, intended as they were to bring Tibet into the Russian sphere of influence, to justify their 1904 invasion of Tibet by the Younghusband Expedition. The Dalai Lama, accompanied by Dorzhiev, would flee Tibet in advance of the British invasion and eventually turn up in Örgöö, now Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia . . .