Je Tsongkhapa

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Je Tsongkhapa in the fifth vision of Khedrub Jey (mkhas 'grub)
Je Tsongkhapa
Tibetan name
Tibetan ཙོང་ཁ་པ།
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 宗哥·善慧稱
Simplified Chinese 宗哥·善慧称

Tsongkhapa ("The man from Tsongkha",[1] 1357–1419), usually taken to mean "the Man from Onion Valley", was a famous teacher of Tibetan Buddhism whose activities led to the formation of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. He is also known by his ordained name Losang Drakpa (Wylie: blo bzang grags pa) or simply as "Je Rinpoche" (Wylie: rje rin po che).

In his two main treatises, the Lamrim Chenmo (Wylie: lam rim chen mo) and Ngakrim Chenmo (Wylie: sngags rim chen mo), Tsongkhapa meticulously sets forth this graduated way and how one establishes oneself in the paths of sutra and tantra.


Early years[edit]

With a Mongolian father and a Tibetan mother, Tsongkhapa was born into a nomadic family in the walled city of Tsongkha in Amdo, Tibet (present-day Haidong and Xining, Qinghai) in 1357. It is said that the Buddha Sakyamuni spoke of his coming as an emanation of the Bodhisattva Manjusri in the short verse from the Root Tantra of Manjushri (Wylie: 'jam dpal rtsa rgyud):

After I pass away

And my pure doctrine is absent,
You will appear as an ordinary being,
Performing the deeds of a Buddha
And establishing the Joyful Land, the great Protector,
In the Land of the Snows.[2]

According to hagiographic accounts, Tsongkhapa's birth was prophesized by the 12th abbot of the Snar thang monastery, and was recognized as such at a young age, taking the lay vows at the age of three before Rolpe Dorje, 4th Karmapa Lama and was named Künga Nyingpo (Wylie: kun dga’ snying po).[3] At the age of seven, he was ordained as a śrāmaṇera by Döndrup Rinchen (Wylie: don grub rin chen, 1309-1385), the first abbott of Jakhyung Monastery (Wylie: bya khyung brag), and was given the ordination name Losang Drakpa (Wylie: blo bzang grags pa).

Monastic career[edit]

It was at this early age that he was able to receive the empowerments of Heruka, Hevajra, and Yamantaka, three of the most prominent wrathful deities of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as being able to recite a great many Sutras, not the least of which was Mañjuśrīnāmasamgīti. He would go on to be a great student of the vinaya, the doctrine of behaviour, and even later of the Six Yogas of Naropa, the Kalachakra tantra, and the practice of Mahamudra. At the age of 24, he received full ordination as a monk of the Sakya school.

From Zhönnu Lodrö (Wylie: gzhon nu blo gros) and Rendawa (Wylie: red mda’ pa), he received the lineage of the Pramanavarttika transmitted by Sakya Pandita.[4] He mastered all the courses of study at Drigung Monastery in Ü-Tsang.[4]

As an emanation of Manjusri, Tsongkhapa is said have been of "one mind" with Atiśa,[5] received the Kadam lineages and studied the major Sarma tantras under Sakya and Kagyu masters.[4] He also studied with a Nyingma teacher, the siddha Lek gyi Dorjé (Wylie: legs gyi rdo rje) and the abbot of Shalu Monastery, Chö kyi Pel (Wylie: zhwa lus pa chos kyi dpal),[4] and his main Dzogchen master was Drupchen Kekyi Dorje (Wylie: grub chen las kyi rdo je), also known as Namkha Gyaltsen (Wylie: nam mkha' rgyal mtshan, 1326-1401).[6]

In addition to his studies, he engaged in extensive meditation retreats. He is reputed to have performed millions of prostrations, mandala offerings and other forms of purification practice. Tsongkhapa often had visions of iṣṭadevatās, especially of Manjusri, with whom he would communicate directly to clarify difficult points of the scriptures.


Tsongkhapa was one of the foremost authorities of Tibetan Buddhism at the time. He composed a devotional prayer called the Migtsema Prayer to his Sakya master Rendawa, which was offered back to Tsongkhapa, with the note of his master saying that these verses were more applicable to Tsongkhapa than to himself.[7]


Tsongkhapa died in 1419 at the age of sixty-two. After his death several biographies were written by Lamas of different traditions.[8] Wangchuk Dorje, 9th Karmapa Lama, praised Tsongkhapa as one "who swept away wrong views with the correct and perfect ones."[8] Mikyö Dorje, 8th Karmapa Lama, wrote in his poem In Praise of the Incomparable Tsong Khapa:

Tsongkapa, 15th-century painting, Rubin Museum of Art

When the teachings of the Sakya, Kagyue, Kadam

And Nyingma sects in Tibet were declining,
You, O Tsong Khapa, revived Buddha's Doctrine,
Hence I sing this praise to you of Ganden Mountain.[9]


Statue of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa school, on the altar in his temple (his birthplace) in Kumbum Monastery, near Xining, Amdo, Tibet.


Tsongkhapa was acquainted with all Tibetan Buddhist traditions of his time, and received lineages transmitted in the major schools.[4] His main source of inspiration was the Kadam school, the legacy of Atiśa. Tsongkhapa received two of the three main Kadampa lineages (the Lam-Rim lineage, and the oral guideline lineage) from the Nyingma Lama, Lhodrag Namka-gyeltsen; and the third main Kadampa lineage (the lineage of textual transmission) from the Kagyu teacher Lama Umapa.[10]

Tsongkhapa’s teachings drew upon these Kadampa teachings of Atiśa, emphasizing the study of Vinaya, the Tripiṭaka, and the Shastras.[4] Atiśa’s Lamrim inspired Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, which became a main text among his followers. He also practised and taught extensively the Vajrayana, and especially how to bring the Sutra and Tantra teachings together, wrote works that summarized the root teachings of the Buddhist philosophical schools, as well as commentaries on the Prātimokṣa, Prajnaparamita, Candrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara, logic, Pure Land and [11] the Sarma tantras.[4]

Monasticism and lineage[edit]

Tsongkhapa emphasised a strong monastic Sangha.[4] With the founding of the Ganden monastery in 1409, he laid down the basis for what was later named the Gelug ("virtuous ones") order. At the time of the foundation of the Ganden monastery, his followers became to be known as "Gandenbas." Tsongkhapa himself never announced the establishment of a new monastic order.[12]

After Tsongkhapa had founded Ganden Monastery in 1409, it became his main seat. He had many students, among whom Gyaltsab Je (1364–1431), Khedrup Gelek Pelzang, 1st Panchen Lama (1385–1438), Togden Jampal Gyatso, Jamyang Choje, Jamchenpa Sherap Senge, and the 1st Dalai Lama (1391–1474), were the most outstanding. After Tsongkhapa’s passing his teachings were held and kept by Gyaltsab Dharma Rinchen and Khedrub Gelek Pälsang. From then on, his lineage has been held by the Ganden Tripas, the throne-holders of Ganden Monastery, among whom the present one is Thubten Nyima Lungtok Tenzin Norbu, the 102nd Ganden Tripa.

After the founding of Ganden Monastery by Tsongkhapa, Drepung Monastery was founded by Jamyang Choje, Sera Monastery was founded by Chöje Shakya Yeshe and the 1st Dalai Lama founded Tashilhunpo Monastery. Many Gelug monasteries were built throughout Tibet but also in China and Mongolia. He spent some time as a hermit in Pabonka Hermitage, which was built during Songsten Gampo times, approximately 8 kilometres north west of Lhasa. Today, it is also part of Sera.

Among the many lineage holders of the Gelugpas there are the successive incarnations of the Panchen Lama as well as the Chagkya Dorje Chang, Ngachen Könchok Gyaltsen, Kyishö Tulku Tenzin Thrinly, Jamyang Shepa, Phurchok Jampa Rinpoche, Jamyang Dewe Dorje, Takphu Rinpoche, Khachen Yeshe Gyaltsen, Trijang Rinpoche, Domo Geshe Rinpoche,[13] and many others.

Prayer Festival[edit]

The annual Tibetan prayer festival Monlam Prayer Festival was established by Tsongkhapa. There he offered service to ten thousand monks. The establishment of the Great Prayer Festival is seen as one of his Four Great Deeds. It celebrates the miraculous deeds of Gautama Buddha.

Views on emptiness[edit]

Tsongkhapa's first principal work (The Golden Garland of Eloquence) demonstrated a philosophical view in line with the Yogācāra school[14] and, as became one of his hallmarks, was more influenced by Indian authors than contemporary Tibetan sources. At this time his account of the Madhyamaka focused on it's interpretation as a negative dialectic structure.

After this early work, his attention focussed on the Prajnaparamita sutras and Dharmakirti's Pramanavartika, and it is this emphasis that dominates all his later philosophical works.[14] Garfield suggests his stance as:

A complete understanding of Buddhist philosophy requires a synthesis of the epistemology and logic of Dharmakirti with the metaphysics of Nagarjuna[14]

Thupten Jinpa states, regarding Tsongkhapa's reading of Madhyamaka,[15] that if Madhyamaka philosophy is to be regarded as an important lineage within the Buddhist religious and philosophical milieu - and therefore, is understood to share the basic soteriological concerns of the Buddhist path, then something similar to Tsongkhapa's interpretation of the school's key tenets is unavoidable. Specifically, the following elements contribute to a coherent understanding of the Madhyamaka refutation of essentialist ontology:

  • his distinction between the domains of the conventional and ultimate perspectives
  • his insistence on a prior, correct conceptual identification of the object of negation
  • his differentiation of the various connotations of the all-important term 'ultimate' (paramartha skt.)
  • the distinction he draws between that which is not found and that which is negated.

Almost as soon as Tsongkhapa's later works were published they became highly influential and have remained that way to present. However, opinion on whether or not his views are correct remain hotly debated. Some of the greatest subsequent Tibetan scholars have become famous for their own works either defending or attacking Tsongkhapa's views. As Thakchö says,[16] Rongton Shakya Gyaltsen, Taktsang Lotsawa, Gorampa, Shakya Chogden, The eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje, Mipham Rinpoche, Gendün Chöphel and others have raised serious and fierce objections against Tsongkhapa’s views of Madhyamaka, whereas Gyaltsab Je, Khedrub Je, Gendun Drub, Sera Jetsun Chokyi Gyaltsen, Panchen Sonam Dragpa, Panchen Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen, The first Jamyang Zhépa, Changkya Rolpai Dorje, Konchog Jigme Wangpo and others have vehemently defended his interpretation.

As Jinpa, Garfield and others [17]point out, this controversy remains particularly active, and can be easily seen in modern published works.

Tsongkhapa himself was not particularly interested in working from within the constraints of contemporary tradition. In the first chapter of the Ngag Rim, [18] he says that to use Buddhist and non-buddhist scripture as a means of establishing the truth of one's contentions is inappropriate and only reasoning should be used to analyse what does or does not represent the truth.


Thupten Jinpa notes Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka deviated from tradition:

The traditional Geluk understanding of these deviations in Tsongkhapa's thought attributes the development of his distinct reading of Madhyamaka philosophy to a mystical communion he is reported to have had with the bodhisattva Manjusri...It is interesting that the tradition Tsongkhapa is claiming to honour is, in a strict sense, not the existing system in Tibet; rather, it appears to be in the tradition of Manjusri as revealed in a mystic vision![19]

Both Sonam Thakchoe and José Cabezón note that Gorampa insinuated Tsongkhapa conversed with a demon instead of Manjusri:

Gorampa, in the Lta ba ngan sel (Eliminating the Erroneous View), accuses Tsongkhapa of being "seized by demons" (bdud kyis zin pa) and in the Lta ba'i shan 'byed (Distinguishing Views) decries him as a "nihilistic Madhyamika" (dbu ma chad lta ba) who is spreading "demonic words" (bdud kyi tshig).[20][21]

Karl Brunnholzl notes that Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka is not consistent with "any Indian text" or the other Tibetan schools:

First, with a few exceptions, the majority of books or articles on Madhyamaka by Western - particularly North American - scholars is based on the explanations of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Deliberately or not, many of these Western presentations give the impression that the Gelugpa system is more or less equivalent to Tibetan Buddhism as such and that this school's way of presenting Madhyamaka is the standard or even the only way to explain this system, which has led to the still widely prevailing assumption that this is actually the case. From the perspective of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism in general, nothing could be more wrong. In fact, the peculiar Gelugpa version of Madhaymaka is a minority position in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, since its uncommon features are neither found in any Indian text nor accepted by any of the other Tibetan schools.[22]

All critics of Tsongkhapa, including the Eighth Karmapa, agree that many features of his Centrism are novelties that are not found in any Indian sources and see this as a major flaw.[23]

Sam van Schaik notes that Tsongkhapa "wanted to create something new" and that the early Gandenpas defined themselves by responding to accusations from the established schools:

Though the Sakya had their own teachings on these subjects, Tsongkhapa was coming to realize that he wanted to create something new, not necessarily a school, but at least a new formulation of the Buddhist Path.[24]

As Khedrup and later followers of Tsongkhapa hit back at accusations like these, they defined their own philosophical tradition, and this went a long way to drawing a line in the sand between the Gandenpas and the broader Sakya tradition.[25]


Tsongkapa, 15th-century painting, Rubin Museum of Art

Tsongkhapa promoted the study of logic, encouraged formal debates as part of Dharma studies,[4] and instructed disciples in the Guhyasamāja, Kalacakra, and Hevajra Tantras.[4] Tsongkhapa's writings comprise eighteen volumes, with the largest amount being on Guhyasamāja tantra. These 18 volumes contain hundreds of titles relating to all aspects of Buddhist teachings and clarify some of the most difficult topics of Sutrayana and Vajrayana teachings. Tsongkhapa's main treatises and commentaries on Madhyamaka are based on the tradition descended from Nagarjuna as elucidated by Buddhapālita and Candrakīrti.

Major works[edit]

Major works among them are:

  • The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (lam rim chen mo),
  • The Great Exposition of Secret Mantra (sngags rim chen mo),
  • Essence of True Eloquence (drang nges legs bshad snying po; full title: gsung rab kyi drang ba dang nges pai don rnam par phye ba gsal bar byed pa legs par bshad pai snying po),
  • Ocean of Reasoning: A Great Commentary on Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (dbu ma rtsa ba'i tshig le'ur byas pa shes rab ces bya ba'i rnam bshad rigs pa'i rgya mtsho),
  • Brilliant Illumination of the Lamp of the Five Stages / A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages (gsang ’dus rim lnga gsal sgron),
  • Golden Garland of Eloquence (gser phreng) and
  • The Praise of Relativity (rten ’brel bstod pa).

English translations[edit]

Bronze depicting Tsongkhapa, who is known and revered by Mongolians as Bogd Zonkhova.
Lam Rim = Great Treatise
Lam Rim - Medium Treatise
Lam Rim - Small Treatise
Golden Garland of Eloquence
Lamp of the Five Stages


  1. ^ van Schaik, Sam. "Amdo Notes III: Gold and turquoise temples". early Tibet. Retrieved 11 November 2014. 
  2. ^ Heart Jewel: The Essential Practices of Kadampa Buddhism, p. 3, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1997) ISBN 978-0-948006-56-2
  3. ^ Cabezón & Dargyay 2007, p. 9386
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Crystal Mirror VI : 1971, Dharma Publishing, page 464, 0-913546-59-3
  5. ^ Geshe Tenzin Zopa, LAM RIM Graduated Path to Enlightenment, p. 7
  6. ^ The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan yogin by Źabs-dkar Tshogs-drug-raṅ-grol, Matthieu Ricard. State University of New York Press: 1994. ISBN 0-7914-1835-9 pg 25[1]
  7. ^ Thurman 2009, p. 9
  8. ^ a b Thurman 2009, p. 34
  9. ^ Thurman 2009, p. 243
  10. ^ Berzin, Alexander (December 2003). "Life of Tsongkhapa". Berzin Archives. Retrieved 2015-01-27. 
  11. ^ Halkias, Georgios. Luminous Bliss: a Religious History of Pure Land Literature in Tibet. With an Annotated Translation and Critical Analysis of the Orgyen-ling golden short Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013, Chapter 4.
  12. ^ Cozort/Preston : 2003, Buddhist Philosophy, page VIII-IX
  13. ^ Kyabje Domo Geshe Rinpoche
  14. ^ a b c Ngawang Samten/Garfield. Ocean of Reasoning. OUP 2006, page x
  15. ^ Thupten Jinpa. Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy - Tsongkhapa's quest for the middle way. RoutledgeCurzon 2002, pages 68-69
  16. ^ Thakchoe 2004, p. 4
  17. ^ see especially Philosophy East and West 56 (2):201-228 (2006), where Garfield offers a rejoinder to Willliam's critique against Tsongkhapa, following Mipam
  18. ^ Thomas Yarnell, Great treatise on the stages of mantra AIBS, 2013, page 15
  19. ^ Jinpa, Thupten. Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy. Routledge 2002, page 17.
  20. ^ Thakchoe 2004, p. 125
  21. ^ Cabezón & Dargyay 2007, p. 17
  22. ^ Brunnhölzl 2004, p. 17
  23. ^ Brunnhölzl 2004, p. 555
  24. ^ van Schaik 2011, p. 103
  25. ^ van Schaik 2011, p. 109


External links[edit]