Je Tsongkhapa | Overview of Works

Je Tsongkhapa
(1357-1419)

Although Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) is considered by many as a seminal figure, the nature of his contribution is not always well understood.

He is often presented as a reformer of Tibetan Buddhism or as being hostile to tantric practice. To correct these misapprehensions, he must be placed within his historical context before sketching some of his key ideas.

Je Tsongkhapa was born during a crucial period in the second development of Tibetan Buddhism, which had started at the end of the 10th century.

One of the important questions debated during this period
was the relation between monasticism and tantric practice.

A solution was initiated by the famous Indian teacher Atiśa (982-1054) and further developed by other Tibetan thinkers such as Dromtön (1005-1064) and Sakya Paṇḍita (1182-1251):

According to this model, monasticism and tantric practices are included in the Path of the Bodhisattva, which provides the ethical framework for the entire range of Buddhist practices.

In this perspective, higher tantric practices, ethically subordinated to the Bodhisattva ideal, are the most effective way to realize this ideal, while monasticism is the best way of life to embody it.

Je Tsongkhapa devoted much of his work to the continuation of this moral tradition, as is made clear in his masterful Lam rim chen mo (Extensive Stages of the Path to Enlightenment).

He regarded the promotion of monasticism as one of his central missions, as illustrated by his establishment in 1409 of the Great Prayer festival in Lhasa, which is said to have brought together 8 thousand monks.

Je Tsongkhapa’s biographers consider this one of his most important deeds:

It laid the ground for the foundation during the same year of the Ganden monastery, one of the 3 main monasteries near Lhasa:

The other 2 monasteries, Drepung and Sera,

were founded shortly thereafter by 2 of Je Tsongkhapa’s direct disciples, thus creating the famous 3 Seats, the institutional basis for the future growth of his tradition.

Je Tsongkhapa’s fame is also due to the quality of his works and the power of his ideas:

He lived during the period in which Tibetans developed their own systematic presentation of the range of Buddhist materials they had received from India:

Je Tsongkhapa’s synthesis, which brings together the exoteric and esoteric aspects of the tradition, is not only masterful in the quality of its scholarship,

it is also highly original and distinctive in its interpretations, particularly in the fields of the Madhyamaka School and Tantra, which Je Tsongkhapa considered his specialties.

Je Tsongkhapa’s interpretation of Indian Madhyamaka is characterized by his strong preference for the Prāsaṅgika (consequentialist) approach of Candrakīrti (ca. 600-650 C.E.), which Je Tsongkhapa sees as the only fully correct view.

In asserting the superiority of the Prāsaṅgika, Je Tsongkhapa adopts the views of earlier thinkers such as Patsab Nyima Drakpa (1055-1145?) and his followers, as well as Je Tsongkhapa’s own main teacher Rendawa Zhonnu Lodro (1349-1412).

These teachers extolled Candrakīrti’s Prāsaṅgika view of Śūnyatā (emptiness) as being utterly beyond any description and hence beyond the reach of logical thinking.

Je Tsongkhapa, however, insists on retaining a place for the traditional tools of Buddhist logic within this radical view, arguing that even in the context of the search for the ultimate one need probative arguments.

This trust in Buddhist logic in a Prāsaṅgika context is unique to Je Tsongkhapa:

Earlier thinkers such as Chapa Chokyi Senge (1109-1169) had insisted on the importance of Buddhist Logic in Madhyamaka, but they followed the Svātantrika of Bhāviveka (ca. 500-578 C.E.).

Je Tsongkhapa adopted Chapa Chokyi Senge’s realist interpretation of Buddhist logic but integrated it into Candrakīrti’s interpretation:

This led to the creation of an audacious synthesis, which conciliates a radical undermining of essentialism and a realist confidence that thinking can apprehend reality, at least partly, and therefore can lead to insight into the ultimate nature of things.

For Je Tsongkhapa, this conviction is reflected in the development of the 3 types of critical acumen (prajñā; or) articulated by the Indian Buddhist tradition:

1) First, one should study extensively both sūtras and tantras.

2) Then one should start the process of internalization of the teachings by reflecting inwardly on them:

This is the stage at which probative arguments are essential, because without proper inferences understanding remains superficial and fails to reach conviction in the Buddhist teaching in general and in the validity of the Prāsaṅgika view in particular.

3) Finally, one should enter into prolonged meditative retreats to attain the experiential realization of the studied teachings, as Je Tsongkhapa did himself at several of his famous retreats.

During one of his tantric retreats he received important visions of Mañjuśrī, his tutelary deity. This progression was particularly significant for Je Tsongkhapa, who saw his entire life accordingly.

As his practice makes clear, Je Tsongkhapa’s work is not limited to the exoteric domains:

In fact, the majority of his famous 18 volumes of collected works are devoted to the study of Tantras:

For Je Tsongkhapa, the most important tantra is the Guhyasamāja Tantra, which provides the key to the interpretation of the entire tantric corpus:

Together with the Yamāntaka and Cakrasaṁvara, this tantra provides a map of the entire tantric practice, thus completing the vast synthesis of the tradition, from the most basic practices of monasticism to the highest yogic practices.

For Je Tsongkhapa, tantric practice is central, but it is essential that it be undertaken gradually, as advocated by Atiśa, after extensive preliminaries involving the study and assimilation of the entire exoteric path.