Tsongkapa Life-story Main Page
Tsongkhapa Lobzang Dragpa
Tsongkhapa Lobzang Dragpa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa), 1357-1419, was born in the Tsongkha (tsong kha) region of Amdo in 1357. His mother was Shingza Acho (shing bza' a chos, d.u.) and his father was Lubum Ge (klu 'bum dge, d.u.). Among the numerous miraculous incidents and omens believed to have taken place surrounding his birth, perhaps the most famous is that of a drop of blood from Tsongkhapa's umbilical cord that is said to have fallen on to the ground, giving rise to a sandalwood tree whose leaves bore symbols related to the Simhanada manifestation of the bodhisattva Maajushri, a deity with whom Tsongkhapa would later be identified. His mother later built a stupa on this spot and over time further structures and temples were added. Today the location of Tsongkhapa's birth is marked by Kumbum Monastery (sku 'bum dgon pa), founded in 1583 by the Third Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 03 bsod nams rgya mtsho, 1543-1588) on the spot of the original stupa.
At the age of three, Tsongkhapa took lay upasaka vows from the Fourth Karmapa Rolpai Dorje (karma pa 04 rol pa'i rdo rje, 1340-1383) and received the name Kunga Nyingpo (kun dga' snying po). Then at the age of eight he received the novice ordination of a sramanera, together with the name Lobzang Drakpa (blo bzang grags pa), from the Kadam master Choje Dondrub Rinchen (chos rje don grub rin chen, b. 1309). Dondrub Rinchen, a great practitioner of Vajrabhairava, had been in contact with Tsongkhapa and his family since the boy's birth, and is said to have received prophecies of the child's importance from his own teacher and deity.
Tsongkhapa spent much of his youth studying with Dondrub Rinchen; he is said to have been so sharp that he easily understood and memorized even the most complicated texts. From Dondrub Rinchen he received numerous tantric empowerments, most importantly that of Vajrabhairava. According to his secret biography, at the age of seven he experienced visions of Atisha Dipa?kara (c.982-1054) and the deity Vajrapa?i. Communication with various historical masters and deities would eventually become particularly central in the development of Tsongkhapa's understanding of Buddhism.
At the age of sixteen Lobzang Drakpa travelled to U-Tsang, never to return to his homeland. In U-Tsang he studied with more than fifty different Buddhist scholars. As noted in his autobiography, Fulfilled Aims (rtogs brjod mdun legs ma), he studied at length texts and topics such the 'Five Treatises of Maitreya' (byams chos sde lnga) and related works by Asa?ga (4th century), the Abhidharma of Vasubhandu (4th century), the logic systems of Dignaga and Dharmakirti (6th century) and the Madhyamaka system of Nagarjuna (c.150-250) and his followers such as Aryadeva (3rd century). Following figures such as Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyeltsen (sa skya paN Di ta kun dga' rgyal mtshan, 1182-1251) and Buton Rinchen Drub (bu ston rin chen grub, 1290-1364), it was Tsongkhapa's emphasis on philosophical study and logic that would eventually become some of the defining characteristics of the Geluk tradition.
Tsongkhapa's studies were mainly focused on the existing scholarly currents at that time, of which the most important were the Sakya tradition and the tradition of Sangpu (gsang phu), an important Kadam monastery. One of Tsongkhapa's main teachers was the Sakya master Rendawa Zhonnu Lodro (red mda ba gzhon nu blo gros, 1349-1412) who was a strong proponent of the Prasangika view of Madhyamaka. Tsongkhapa's devotion to Rendawa was so great that he composed the famous Migtsema (dmigs brtse ma) verse in praise of him. According to tradition, Rendawa felt that the verse was more applicable and descriptive of Tsongkhapa's qualities and thus offered the prayer back to him. Today this verse is still considered by the Gelug faithful as the principal method to invoke the blessings of Tsongkhapa.
In addition to Dondrub Rinchen, some of Tsongkhapa's main tantric gurus included Chennga Sonam Gyeltsen (spyan snga rin po che bsod nams rgyal mtshan, 1378-1466), a Drigung lama from whom he received the Six Dharmas of Naropa (na ro'i chos drug); the Bodong lama Chogle Namgyel (bo dong phyogs las rnam rgyal, 1306-1386), from whom he received the Kalacakra cycle; and the Sakya master Rinchen Dorje (rin chen rdo rje, d.u.), from whom he received the Lamdre teachings (lam 'bras) and the Hevajra Tantra.
Perhaps most importantly, he received the Guhyasamaja cycle from Khyungpo Lepa Zhonnu Sonam (khyung po lhas pa gzhon nu bsod names, d.u.) a student of Buton Rinchen Drub, and the cycle of the body ma??ala (lus dkyil) of Heruka Cakrasa?vara from the Sakya master Lama Dampa Sonam Gyaltsen Palzangpo (bla ma dam pa bsod nams rgyal mtshan dpal bzang po, 1312-1375). Tsongkhapa's studies on tantra were not limited to the anuttarayoga tantras; he extensively studied the kriya, carya and yoga tantras as well, noting the importance of a gradual approach to the Vajrayana in his brief autobiography. Furthermore, although it would not become a doctrine of the later Geluk tradition, Tsongkhapa also studied the Dzogchen teachings with Lodrak Drubchen Namkha Gyeltsen (lho brag grub chen nam mkha' rgyal mtshan, 1326-1401).
Through his studies Tsongkhapa's understanding of Madhyamaka philosophy became more concrete and experiential. By his early twenties he had begun composing his most important early work, The Golden Garland (legs bshad gser phreng), which deals with Prajnaparamita. Tsongkhapa would continue to write throughout his life, producing an eighteen volume collection of texts.
Although Tsongkhapa is credited with being the author of his writings, it is believed that many were composed through the instruction and inspiration of deities that he saw in visions, particularly Ma?jusri, as described in his secret biography. Tsongkhapa is said to have initially relied on his teachers to communicate with various deities on his behalf. His Nyingma teacher Namkha Gyeltsen, for example, was believed to be able to communicate with Vajrapa?i and to have acted as an intermediary between the deity and Tsongkhapa. Later in his life Tsongkhapa was interested in travelling to India but was dissuaded to do so by Vajrapa?i through this medium.
In the same way Tsongkhapa initially relied on his teacher Umapa Pawo Dorje (dbu ma pa dpa' bo rdo rje, d.u.), to act as an intermediary with Manjuhri. Tsongkhapa had met this Kagyu lama when he was thirty-three. By this time Tsongkhapa had completed his work on The Golden Garland and was, with Pawo Dorje, studying Candrakirti's (seventh century) Madhyamakavatara. Pawo Dorje and Tsongkhapa undertook a retreat together during this period and Tsongkhapa is said to have posed numerous questions to Manjusri through Pawo Dorje. Eventually, however, Tsongkhapa himself began to experience visions and was able to communicate with Manjusri directly, receiving instructions and tantric empowerments, most importantly those related to Ma?jusri and Vajrabhairava. Over the course of his life Tsongkhapa continued to receive visions of Ma?jusri as well as a host of other deities and masters such as Asa?ga and Nagarjuna. Although Tsongkhapa is widely regarded as being a manifestation of Ma?jusri, the nature of his visions has nevertheless been contested by some non-Geluk masters, especially the Sakya scholar Gorampa Sonam Sengge (go rams pa bsod nams seng ge, 1429-1489), who was critical of Tsongkhapa and his approach to Madhyamaka.
Apart from a short period of teaching, Tsongkhapa continued to engage in intensive retreats. He and a community of eight disciples began a long retreat at Chadrel (bya bral) Hermitage in 1392, moving to Olka Cholung ('ol kha chos lung) several years later. During this retreat they famously completed extensive preliminary practices, for example completing 3,500,000 prostrations in conjunction with the practice of the Triskandhadharmasutra.
Following the retreat, Tsongkhapa travelled to Dzingji ('dzing ji) where he performed his first out of four great deeds: the restoration of a famous statue of Maitreya. During this period, in 1398, Tsongkhapa is believed to have attained realization and a perfect understanding of the Madhyamaka due to a vision of an assembly of the great Indian Prasa?gika masters. Immediately following this experience he composed the Praise to Dependent Origination (rten 'brel bstod pa). This experience began a new epoch in Tsongkhapa's life, one which shifted more towards composing and teaching to others what he had discovered. Thus in 1402, at the age of forty-six, while at Reting Monastery (rwa sgreng), he composed the Lamrim Chenmo (lam rim chen mo), known in English as The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, undoubtedly his most famous work. Based on Atisha Dipa?kara's Bodhipathapradipa, it described in detail the gradual path to enlightenment from the perspective of the Sutrayana. Echoing the doubt the Buddha felt after his Enlightenment that people would understand his teaching, it is said that Tsongkhapa was initially disheartened by the thought that most readers would be unable to comprehend his explanations of emptiness which form the latter part of the work. A vision of Ma?jusri, however, inspired Tsongkhapa to complete the composition.
In 1402 Tsongkhapa performed his second great deed. While staying at Namtsedeng (rnam rtsed ldeng) during the rainy season with his teacher Rendawa and Kyabchok Pelzangpo (skyabs mchog dpal bzang po, d.u.), he gave a detailed commentary on the Vinaya to a large assembly of monks. Apart from his emphasis on study, Tsongkhapa is perhaps best known for the importance he places on the monastic discipline of the Vinaya.
Following the composition of the Lamrim Chenmo he composed several other works around 1407 and 1408, specifically his commentary on Nagarjuna's Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika) called The Ocean of Reasoning (rigs pa'i rgya mtsho) and The Essence of Eloquence (legs bshad snying po). In 1415 he composed the Lamrim Dring (lam rim 'bring), known in English as The Medium-Length Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, which is a condensed version of the Lamrim Chenmo.
Tsongkhapa was a prolific author of tantric literature. As a companion volume to the Lamrim Chenmo, Tsongkhapa wrote the Ngakrim Chenmo (sngags rim chen mo), The Great Treatise on the Tantric Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, in 1405, covering all the four classes of tantra according to the sarma traditions, with a detailed explanation of the two stages of anuttarayoga tantra. Other important tantric works include his works on Guhyasamaja, especially his 1401 Commentary on the Vajraj?anasamuccayanama Tantra (ye shes rdo rje kun las btus pa zhes bya ba'i rgyud) and the 1411 Exposition of the Five Stages of Guhyasamaja (gsang 'dus rim lnga gsal sgron). Texts on the Guhyasamaja Tantra feature prominently in Tsongkhapa's collected works, making up the majority of his eighteen volumes of writings.
By this time Tsongkhapa's fame as a great scholar and realized practitioner had grown all over Tibet and even China. In 1408 the Yongle Emperor (r. 1402-1424) of the Chinese Ming Dynasty sent an invitation to Tsongkhapa to visit his court and capital in Nanjing. Tsongkhapa refused, and a second invitation was sent in 1413. Although Tsongkhapa again refused he delegated his student Shakya Yeshe (shakya ye shes, 1354-1435) to go in his stead. Shakya Yeshe had a successful trip to China, receiving his title of Jamchen Choje (byams chen chos rje) from the emperor. The materials he received as offerings enabled him to establish Sera Monastery in 1419. Following the death of the Yongle Emperor in 1424, Shakya Yeshe visited the Xuande Emperor's (r. 1425-1435) new capital of Beijing. Through these visits the first links between Tsongkhapa's tradition and the emperors of China were established and would last until the fall of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in 1911.
In 1409 Tsongkhapa instituted the Monlam Chenmo (smon lam chen mo), or Great Prayer Festival, in Lhasa, which is celebrated around the time of the Tibetan New Year, Losar (lo gsar). This celebration is traditionally centered on the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa and is counted as being Tsongkhapa's third great deed. At this time he also offered jeweled ornaments and a crown to the statue of the Jowo Shakyamuni, the most sacred statue in the Jokhang and the whole of Tibet. By offering these ornaments the statue was transformed from being a nirmanakaya representation of the Buddha Sakyamuni to one representing his sambhogakaya manifestation.
At his students' request Tsongkhapa established a monastery which was consecrated in 1410, the year following the inauguration of the Monlam Chenmo. The monastery was given the name of Ganden (dga' ldan), the Tibetan translation of Tu?ita, the pure land of the future buddha Maitreya. The monastery would eventually become the largest monastery in Tibet, perhaps the world, and is considered the principal monastery of the Geluk tradition. It was Tsongkhapa's wish to construct three-dimensional representations of the ma??alas of his main three anuttarayoga tantra deities: Guhyasamaja, Vajrabhairava and Cakrasa?vara. Temples for these constructions were completed in 1415 and the ma??alas and deities were installed in 1417. These acts are counted as Tsongkhapa's fourth great deed. He is counted as the first throne-holder of Ganden, or Ganden Tripa (dga' ldan khri pa), a title held by successive abbots of the monastery.
Tsongkhapa died in 1419 at Ganden Monastery, the year after he completed his composition of The Elucidation of the Thought (dbu ma dgongs pa rab gsal) in 1418. He was 62 years old, and is believed to have attained enlightenment through yogic practices during the death process, attaining the illusory body (sgyu lus). His body was entombed inside a jeweled stupa at Ganden. Tsongkhapa's death is commemorated with the annual festival of Ganden Ngacho (dga' ldan lnga mchod), which translates as "The Ganden Offering of the Twenty-Fifth", during which devotees light butter lamps on their roofs and windowsills. Tsongkhapa designated Gyeltsab Darma Rinchen (rgyal tshab dar ma rin chen, 1364-1432) as his successor, who in turn appointed Khedrubje Gelek Pelzang (mkhas grub dge legs dpal bzang, 1385?1438) as the next throne-holder of Ganden.
Apart from his own teachers, many of whom Tsongkhapa also taught in turn, Tsongkhapa had a number of other illustrious students. These include Gyeltsab, Khedrub and Shakya Yeshe. His other students include the Gendun Drub, who was posthumously identified as the First Dalai Lama (ta la'i bla ma 01 ge 'dun grub, 1391-1474) and Jamyang Choje Tasho Pelden ('jam dbyangs chos rje bkra shis dpal ldan, 139-1449), the founder of Drepung Monastery in 1416. Today Khedrub and Gyeltsab are considered to have been Tsongkhapa's foremost disciples, although whether or not this is actually true has been contested by modern scholarship. Duldzin Drakpa Gyeltsen ('dul 'dzin grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1374-1434), a close disciple, for example, was relegated to a lesser status by later tradition. Nevertheless all of these students continued to spread Tsongkhapa's doctrine through their own teachings and writings as well as other means such as the establishment of monasteries, allowing for the Geluk tradition to take shape.
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Joona Repo, August 2011
[Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. March 2012].