Je Tsongkhapa | Life & Biography

Je Tsongkhapa
(1357-1419)

Tsongkhapa Lobsang Drakpa was born in the Tsongkha region of Amdo in 1357.

His mother was Shingza Acho and his father was Lubum Ge.

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 Siṁhanāda manifestation of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, a deity with whom Tsongkhapa would later be identified.

His mother later built a Stūpa on this spot and over time further structures and temples were added.

Today the location of Tsongkhapa's birth is marked by Kumbum Monastery, founded in 1583 by the Third Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588) on the spot of the original Stūpa.

At the age of 3, Tsongkhapa took lay upāsaka vows from the Fourth Karmapa Rolpe Dorje (1340-1383) and received the name Kunga Nyingpo.

Then at the age of 8 he received the novice ordination of a Śrāmaṇera, together with the name Lobsang Drakpa, from the Kadam master Choje Döndrup Rinchen (b. 1309):

Döndrup Rinchen, a great practitioner of Vajrabhairava (Yamāntaka), 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 Döndrup Rinchen; he is said to have been so sharp that he easily understood and memorized even the most complicated texts.

From Döndrup Rinchen he received numerous tantric empowerments, most importantly that of Vajrabhairava.

According to his secret biography, at the age of 7 he experienced visions of Atiśa Dīpaṁkara (c.982-1054) and the deity Vajrapāṇi.

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 16 Lobsang Drakpa travelled to U-Tsang, never to return to his homeland.  In U-Tsang he studied with more than 50 different Buddhist scholars.

As noted in his autobiography, Fulfilled Aims, he studied at length texts and topics such as

the “Five Treatises of Maitreya” and related works by Asaṅga (4th century),
the Abhidharma of Vasubandhu (4th century),
the logic systems of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti (6th century)
and the Madhyamaka system of Nāgārjuna (c.150-250)
and his followers such as Āryadeva (3rd century).

Following figures such as Sakya Paṇḍita (1182-1251) and Buton Rinchen Drub (1290-1364),

it was Tsongkhapa's emphasis on philosophical study and logic that would eventually become some of the defining characteristics of the Gelug 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, an important Kadam monastery.

One of Tsongkhapa's main teachers was the Sakya master Rendawa Zhonnu Lodro (1349-1412) who was a strong proponent of the Prāsaṅgika view of Madhyamaka.

Tsongkhapa's devotion to Rendawa was so great that he composed the famous Miktsema 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 Döndrup Rinchen, some of Tsongkhapa's main tantric gurus included:

Chennga Sonam Gyaltsen (1378-1466), a Drigung lama from whom he received the Six Teachings of Nāropa;

the Jonang lama Chokle Namgyal (1306-1386), from whom he received the Kalachakra cycle;

and the Sakya master Rinchen Dorje, from whom he received the Lamdre (path-fruit) teachings and the Hevajra Tantra.

Perhaps most importantly, he received the Guhyasamāja Tantra from Khyungpo Lepa Zhonnu Sonam, a student of Buton Rinchen Drub,

and the cycle of the body maṇḍala of Heruka Cakrasaṁvara from the Sakya master Lama Dampa Sonam Gyaltsen Pelzangpo (1312-1375).

Tsongkhapa's studies on tantra were not limited to the anuttara-yoga tantras;

he extensively studied the kriyā, caryā and yoga tantras as well, noting the importance of a gradual approach to the Vajrayāna in his brief autobiography.

Furthermore, although it would not become a doctrine of the later Gelug tradition, Tsongkhapa also studied the Dzogchen teachings with Lodrak Drupchen Namkha Gyaltsen (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, which deals with Prajñā Pāramitā.

Tsongkhapa would continue to write throughout his life, producing an 18 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 Mañjuśrī, 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 Gyaltsen, for example, was believed to be able to communicate with Vajrapāṇi 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 Vajrapāṇi through this medium.

In the same way Tsongkhapa initially relied on his teacher Umapa Pawo Dorje, to act as an intermediary with Mañjuśrī. Tsongkhapa had met this Kagyu lama when he was 33:

By this time Tsongkhapa had completed his work on The Golden Garland and was, with Pawo Dorje, studying Candrakīrti's (7th century) Madhyamakāvatāra (Introduction to the Middle Way).

Pawo Dorje and Tsongkhapa undertook a retreat together during this period and Tsongkhapa is said to have posed numerous questions to Mañjuśrī through Pawo Dorje.

Eventually, however, Tsongkhapa himself began to experience visions and was able to communicate with Mañjuśrī directly, receiving instructions and tantric empowerments, most importantly those related to Mañjuśrī and Vajrabhairava.

Over the course of his life Tsongkhapa continued to receive visions of Mañjuśrī as well as a host of other deities and masters such as Asaṅga and Nāgārjuna.

Although Tsongkhapa is widely regarded as being a manifestation of Mañjuśrī, the nature of his visions has nevertheless been contested by some non-Gelug masters, especially the Sakya scholar Gorampa Sonam Sengge (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 Hermitage in 1392, moving to Olkha Cholung 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 Tri-skandha-dharma-sūtra (Sūtra of the Three Heaps or Thirty-five Confession Buddhas).

Following the retreat, Tsongkhapa travelled to Dzingji where he performed his first out of 4 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 Prāsaṅgika masters:

Immediately following this experience he composed the Praise to Dependent Origination.

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 46, while at Reting Monastery, he composed the Lam rim Chenmo, known in English as The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, undoubtedly his most famous work:

Based on Atiśa Dīpaṁkara’s Bodhipathapradīpa (A Lamp for the Path to Awakening), it described in detail the gradual path to Enlightenment from the perspective of the Sūtra-yāna.

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 Mañjuśrī, however, inspired Tsongkhapa to complete the composition.

In 1402 Tsongkhapa performed his second great deed:

While staying at Namtsedeng during the rainy season with his teacher Rendawa and Kyabchok Pelzangpo, 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 Lam rim Chenmo he composed several other works around 1407 and 1408, specifically his commentary on Nāgārjuna's Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā) called The Ocean of Reasoning and The Essence of Eloquence.

In 1415 he composed the Lam rim Dring, 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, The Great Treatise on the Tantric Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, in 1405,

covering all the 4 classes of tantra according to tradition, with a detailed explanation of the 2 stages of anuttara-yoga tantra.

Other important tantric works include his works on Guhyasamāja, especially his 1401 Commentary on the Vajra-jñāna-samuccaya-nāma Tantra and the 1411 Exposition of the Five Stages of Guhyasamāja.

Texts on the Guhyasamāja Tantra feature prominently in Tsongkhapa's collected works, making up the majority of his 18 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 Yung-lo Emperor (1360 -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 (1354-1435) to go in his stead:

Shakya Yeshe had a successful trip to China, receiving his title of Jamchen Choje from the emperor. The materials he received as offerings enabled him to establish Sera Monastery in 1419.

Following the death of the Yung-lo Emperor in 1424, Shakya Yeshe visited the Xuande Emperor's (1399 -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, or Great Prayer Festival, in Lhasa, which is celebrated around the time of the Tibetan New Year, Losar:

This celebration is traditionally centred on the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa and is counted as being Tsongkhapa's third great deed.

At this time he also offered jewelled ornaments and a crown to the statue of the Jowo Śākyamuni, the most sacred statue in the Jokhang and the whole of Tibet:

By offering these ornaments the statue was transformed from being a Nirmāṇakāya representation of the Buddha Śākyamuni to one representing his Saṁbhogakāya 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, the Tibetan translation of Tuṣita, 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 Gelug tradition.

It was Tsongkhapa's wish to construct 3-dimensional representations of the maṇḍalas of his main 3 anuttara-yoga tantra deities: Guhyasamāja, Vajrabhairava and Cakrasaṁvara. Temples for these constructions were completed in 1415 and the maṇḍalas 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, 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 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.

His body was entombed inside a jewelled Stūpa at Ganden.

Tsongkhapa's death is commemorated with the annual festival of Ganden Ngacho, which translates as "The Ganden Offering of the 25th", during which devotees light butter lamps on their roofs and windowsills.

Tsongkhapa designated Gyaltsab Je (Gyaltsab Dharma Rinchen 1364-1432) as his successor,

who in turn appointed Khedrup Je (Khedrup Gelek Pelzang 1385–1438, later recognized as 1st Panchen Lama) 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 Gyaltsab, Khedrup and Shakya Yeshe.

His other students include the Gendun Druppa, who was posthumously identified as the First Dalai Lama (1391-1474) and Jamyang Choge Tashi Palden (1397–1449), the founder of Drepung Monastery in 1416.

Today Khedrup Je and Gyaltsab Je are considered to have been Tsongkhapa's foremost disciples, although whether or not this is actually true has been contested by modern scholarship:

Duldzin Dragpa Gyaltsen (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 Gelug tradition to take shape.