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Je Tsongkhapa (Tsong-kha-pa) in the fifth vision of Khedrub Jey (mkhas ’grub)
Tibetan name
Tibetan ཙོང་ཁ་པ།
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 宗喀巴, 羅桑札巴
Simplified Chinese 宗喀巴, 罗桑札巴

Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), whose name means “The Man from Onion Valley”, was a famous teacher of Tibetan Buddhism whose activities led to the formation of the Geluk school. He is also known by his ordained name Lobsang Drakpa (blo bzang grags pa) or simply as Je Rinpoche (rje rin po che).

Tsongkhapa heard Buddha’s teachings from masters of all Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and received lineages transmitted in the major schools.[1]

His main source of inspiration was the Kadampa tradition, the legacy of Atiśa. Based on Tsongkhapa’s teaching, the two distinguishing characteristics of the Gelug tradition are:

  • The union of Sutra and Tantra, and
  • The emphasis on Vinaya (the moral code of discipline)

Early years

Statue of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa school, on the altar in his temple (his birth place) in Kumbum Monastery, near Xining, Qinghai (Amdo), China.

Born into a nomadic family in Amdo province in 1357, Tsongkhapa received the layman ordination (skt. Upasaka) at the age of three from the 4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje, and was entitled “Kunga Nyingpo” (kun dga’ snying po). At the age of seven he took the novice ordination (skt. Sramanera, tib. Getsul) from Choje Dhondup Rinchen (chos rje don ’grub rin chen) and was given the name “Lobsang Drakpa” (blo bzang grags pa). It was at this early age that he was able to receive the empowerments of Heruka Chakrasamvara, 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 Manjushri-nama-samgiti. He would go on to be a great student of the Buddhist Vinaya, the doctrine of behaviour, and even later of the Six Yogas of Naropa, the Kalachakra Tantra, and the acclaimed practice of Mahamudra. At the age of 24 Tsongkhapa received the ordination of a full monk (skt. Bhikshu, tib. Gelong) in the Sakya Tradition.

From Zhönnu Lodrö (gzhon nu blo gros) and Rendawa (red mda’ pa) he received the lineage of the Pramanavarttika transmitted by Sakya Pandita (sa skya pandita).[1] He mastered all the courses of study at Drikung Monastery in Central Tibet,[1] a major Kagyü Center, and travelled extensively in search of knowledge, studying with more than 100 teachers of all the existing traditions all topics of the doctrine, including Dzogchen.

Tsongkhapa, who was considered by many as an emanation of Atisha,[1] received the Kadam lineages, and studied the major Sarma (gsar ma) Tantras (the Tantras from the “New Translation School”) under Sakya and Kagyü masters.[1] He also studied with Nyingma siddha Legpey Dorje (Wylie: legs gyi rdo rje), and the Zalupa Chökyi-pal (zha lu pa chos kyi dpal),[1] and his main Dzogchen master was Lodrak Drupchen Kekyi Dorje (lho brag grub chen las kyi rdo je), also known as Namkha Gyaltsen (nam mkha' rgyal mtshan, 1326-1401).[2]

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 meditational deities and especially of Manjushri, with whom he would communicate directly to clarify difficult points of the scriptures.

He was effective as a teacher in Tibetan Buddhism and became a leading figure amongst his peers as well as his students. Many of his teachers eventually joined him as students, such as Rendawa, Umapa, the Nyingma Lama Lhodrak, and they taught and revered each other. Revered as having strong influence, compassion, and wisdom he is referred to as a second Buddha.


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.[3] Tsongkhapa’s teachings drew upon the teachings of Atisha, emphasizing the study of Vinaya, the Tripiṭaka, and the Shastras.[1] Atisha’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 Pratimoksha, Prajnaparamita, Candrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara, logic, and the Sarma Tantras.[1] Tsongkhapa emphasised a strong monastic Sangha.[1] Furthermore, he promoted the study of logic, encouraged formal debates as part of Dharma studies,[1] and instructed disciples in the Guhyasamaja, Kalacakra, and Hevajra Tantras.[1]

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.[4] After Tsongkhapa's passing away, several biographies were written by Lamas of different traditions, and they all agreed that he was a teacher without parallel.[5] The 9th Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje, praised Tsongkhapa as one "who swept away wrong views with the correct and perfect ones."[5] The 8th Karmapa, Gyalwa Mikyö Dorje, 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.[6]

Further, 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 (Tib. '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.[7]

Although Tsongkhapa would finally pass away in 1419 at the age of sixty-two, he left to the world 18 volumes of collected teachings, 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.

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).

These scriptures are the prime source for the studies of the Gelugpa tradition and these and other teachings of Tsongkhapa endured into the modern age and are seen as a protection against misconceptions in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Tsongkhapa's main treatises and commentaries on Madhyamaka are based on the tradition descended from Nagarjuna as elucidated by Buddhapalita and Candrakīrti.

After Tsongkhapa had founded the monastery of Ganden in 1409, it became his main seat. He had many students, among whom Gyaltsab Dharma Rinchen (1364–1431), Khedrup Gelek Pelzang (1385–1438), Togden Jampal Gyatso, Jamyang Choje, Jamchenpa Sherap Senge, and the first Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Gendün Drup (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 Gendün Drup 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 Yellow Hat Tradition (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,[8] and many others.

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 Buddha Shakyamuni.

In the "Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra", HH Dalai Lama points out:

Tsongkhapa never left any texts, especially on the madhyamaka view, with even a single syllable that he did not fully understand. He took special interest in the most difficult points that the previous learned scholars had not taken interest to explain, whether because they did not know what they meant or had not fully realized them, or for whatever reason they might have had. Relying on the Buddha-figure Manjushri, he explained each and every word and line.

No one else had ever done what Tsongkhapa did. These are not words of sectarianism, but are the fact. The special, unique talent of Tsongkhapa was his ability to explain every word and line of the most difficult sections of the texts in a totally clear and decisive manner. If we compare the collected works of Tsongkhapa with those of some of his predecessors, such as the great Sakya encyclopedist, the omniscient Bodong Choglay-namgyel, the works of the latter were certainly more extensive. He knew and explained each and every text there was on each and every topic. But except for mostly giving a general overview and collecting and abbreviating the major issues, he rarely explained the difficult points concerning each word and line by presenting all the previous interpretations, giving the logical objections to them and, through a process of reason, coming to a decisive conclusion about their meaning. Although Tsongkhapa's works cannot compare with Bodong Choglay-namgyel's in extensiveness and breadth, yet he treated all the difficult points that the latter glossed over.

Let me cite the example of another encyclopedist, the omniscient Buton. This prolific Sakya master has written An Explanatory Discourse on [Chandrakirti's] "An Illuminating Lamp [for 'The Guhyasamaja Root Tantra']" and An Extensive Commentary on [Nagarjuna's "A Method to Actualize Guhyasamaja] Made in Brief." His explanations flow well, are easy to read and are very extensive, but have considerable trouble making the difficult points intelligible. Tsongkhapa's writings, on the other hand, are unlike anyone else's.

Having come to a decisive understanding of the madhyamaka view of reality, Tsongkhapa was able to gather together the opinions stated in a wide variety of texts and decisively settle the most difficult issues and make them uncommonly easy to understand. This is his special manner of explication which makes him so excellent.

TsongKhapa's teachings on emptiness

Tsongkhapa taught emptiness based on an understanding of dependent arising, that things that appear to exist of their own accord arise depending on other factors. The Dalai Lama in a teaching summarized it like this [9]: :

"He said that emptiness and dependent arising are complementary. If dependent arising makes you think of emptiness and emptiness makes you think of dependent arising at the same time you have a proper understanding of emptiness."

"Je Tsongkhapa was dissatisfied with explanations he had received sought out and read all the extant texts on emptiness and their commentaries and analysed what he read to reach the correct view. In retreat he had a vision of Manjushri, after which he read Buddhapalita’s commentary and came to a full realisation of emptiness. He understood that because things are dependent on other factors they are empty of inherent existence; but they are not non-existent. Neither non-existent nor inherently existent, they exist as functional phenomena, but only by way of designation. Scientists of His Holiness’s acquaintance appreciate this explanation."

"His Holiness pointed out that when we see anything it appears to exist of its own accord; we don’t see it as dependent on other factors. He said that when we see him, he appears to exist concretely and yet reasoning tells us this is not the case."

His teaching of emptiness is the approach of Prasangika Madhyamika in the Rangtong tradition. See Rangtong and Shentong - Rime Approach

Tsongkhapa's teachings lead to vigorous debate

Tsongkhapa proposed eight theses that have lead to much debate, both amongst Gelugpas and between the Gelugpas and other schools, especially the Sakyas[10].

They do not accept (quoting / paraphrasing from Ringu Tulku's summary)

  1. that things have inherent characteristics
  2. any reasonings that assert what is true
  3. self awareness as direct perception
  4. the Alaya-vijnana of Shentong (the idea of the "luminous mindstream" endowed with limitless Buddha qualities)

They affirm:

  1. there is some outer reality, in other words there is interdependence and everything is not simply the mind
  2. clinging to true existence is the obscuration of the afflictive emotions (not the subtle habitual obscurations)
  3. That the absence of something is itself a thing
  4. That arhats realize the selflessness of phenomena

The third of the affirmations has particularly lead to much debate amongst Gelugpas. Then the Sakya Gorampa Sonam Senge compiled eighty contradictions to refute his eight theses, which were later used by Khenpo Rinchen, a great Sakya logician of the twentieth century in his debates with the Gelugpas. [10]

Jamgong Kongtrul didn't affirm or negate any of the eight theses, but rather presented his own prsesentation of Prasangika in five special points in his Treasury of Knowledge, as presented by Ringu Tulku[10]:

  • Conceptual imputations are abandoned; all things are merely designations.
  • Compounded phenomena are deceptive; nirvana is not deceptive.
  • The root of samsara is clinging to true existence, which generates the obscurations of the afflictive emotions
  • Since the first three yanas have the same way of seeing reality, there is only one path of seeing
  • All phenomena dissolve such that one's enlightenment only appears for the perception of others.

Rime understanding of the great debates within Tibetan Buddhism

Note: this section may appear in multiple articles in order to provide context on the great debates on emptiness and other philosophical concepts within Tibetan Buddhism. See also Rimé movement.

In his text The Rime Movement of Jamgön Kongtrul the Great, Ringu Tulku provides the following context for philosophical debates within Tibetan Buddhism:[11]

'Khenchen Kunpal on Clarifying Misunderstanding'

'So, does this mean that the treatises written by the great, learned masters of the past that criticize certain views and establish other views are useless? No, it is not like that. Those treatises were not just criticizing each other; they came from unbiased minds in order to show how ordinary beings can have misunderstandings. If you thoroughly examine their main points, their clarifications become a source of deep understanding. It is as Khenchen Kunpal says:'

"Those who are very learned from their study of the five branches of knowledge and other topics, and those who have reached the stage of warmth in their meditative experience, receive predictions and are directly cared for by their lamas and special deities. These learned and accomplished masters truly benefit the teachings and beings through their activities of teaching, debating, and writing. Those who use reason and debate meaningfully to refute misunderstanding and establish right understanding are great masters, whether they come from our tradition or another tradition. If we look deeply to find their real intention and do not look in a wrong way, their presentations strengthen our understanding. Rather than causing harm, they are highly beneficial."

"If you do not approach other traditions with an open mind, and you criticize them by exaggerating and denigrating their views just because of hatred, then you will cause great harm. Those who are ignorant, from the cowherds upwards, will be like the storybook animals who were alarmed by a rabbit running scared at the sound of a branch falling in the river. Like those forest animals, they will join the panicking crowd and have wrong views about the genuine dharma. They will make baseless allegations, and that is a serious fault. Your criticism will bring others to disaster, and you will be a long way from the liberated lifestyle of a noble being. Devastated from the desire to talk too much, you will expose your dirty guts for all to see. You will stray far from the teachings of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and that is highly inappropriate."
Khenchen Kunpal

'What Khenchen Kunpal says is true. That is why the two emanations of Manjushri, Khyentse and Kongtrul, together with their students and lineages, have the conviction that all the great tenets of Buddhism arrive at the same ultimate point. They do not act in sectarian ways; they do not try to bring people over to their side, nor are they attached to their own traditions and hateful toward others. They instruct us to hold all the teachings within our mindstreams without contradiction, and when it is our turn to teach the dharma to others, we should explain it and emphasize the main points just like the great charioteers of the past. We should not change the teachings or corrupt them even the tiniest bit.'

'Doctrinal Disputes'

'Then why are there so many debates and criticisms among the different schools of Buddhism? There is an old saying in Tibet:'

"If two philosophers agree, one is not a philosopher.
If two saints disagree, one is not a saint."

'It is accepted that all realized beings have the same experience, but the question is how to describe it to others. Almost all debates are concerned with ways of using language. For example, the main debate between the schools of Svatantrika and Prasangika Madhyamaka comes down to whether to include the word “ultimately” or not. For example, whether to say, “Form is empty” or “Form is ultimately empty.”'

Visions of Manjushri

Tsongkhapa developed his understanding of emptiness through reading the Indian treatises, through the teachings of Rendawa and through visions of Manjushri, initially through his teacher Lama Umapa and then directly. In these visions Manjushri explained difficult points to him and guided his research. The Dalai Lama explained it like this[12]:

"His elucidation of both philosophy and tantra was such that when he declared his own teacher Rendawa the 'crown jewel of scholar in Tibet', Rendawa returned the compliment saying it was more appropriate to him. His reading of the Indian classics was thorough and his analysis of them remarkable. He was able to consult Manjushri initially through the visions of his teacher Lama Umapa and later developed his own visions. It was Manjushri who told him that Rendawa would be the best person to teach him the Madhyamaka view, advising that what the teacher could not explain he could discover by reading the Indian treatises."

"He had his first vision of Manjushri in retreat, in the course of which he was given a terse explanation of emptiness that he found hard to understand. Manjushri advised him to do practices that would clear defilements and accumulate merit, so he went into retreat again to do so. He also had a vision of the five masters of Madhyamaka-Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka and Chandrakirti. From amongst them, Buddhapalita, who he noticed had a bluish, dark complexion, came forward and touched the book he carrying to Tsongkhapa's head. Subsequently, he acquired and read the treatise known as Buddhapalita and gained an insight into emptiness."

English translations of some of Tsongkhapa’s works


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Crystal Mirror VI : 1971, Dharma Publishing, page 464, 0-913546-59-3
  2. 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]
  3. Cozort/Preston : 2003, Buddhist Philosophy, page VIII-IX
  4. Robert Thurman, Life & Teachings of Tsongkhapa, p. 9
  5. 5.0 5.1 Robert Thurman, Life & Teachings of Tsongkhapa, p. 34
  6. Robert Thurman, Life & Teachings of Tsongkhapa, p. 243
  7. Heart Jewel: The Essential Practices of Kadampa Buddhism, p. 3, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1997) ISBN 978-0-948006-56-2
  8. Kyabje Domo Geshe Rinpoche
  9. 'Teaching About Emptiness and Dependent Arising at Likir, Ladakh', His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, July 2014
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, Ringu Tulku page 184 and page 185
  11. Chapter 1 of: The Rime Movement of Jamgön Kongtrul the Great offered online with kind permission from Ringu Tulku
  12. 'In Praise of Dependent Origination', His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet


  • The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great: A Study of the Buddhist Lineages of Tibet by Ringu Tulku, ISBN 1-59030-286-9, Shambhala Publications.
  • Essence of Refined Gold by the Third Dalai Lama: with related texts by the Second and Seventh Dalai Lamas. (1978) Translated by Glenn H. Mullin. Tushita Books, Dharamsala, H.P., India.
  • Crystal Mirror VI, Annual of Tibetan Buddhism, Dharma Publishing, ISBN 0-913546-59-3
  • Life & Teachings of Tsongkhapa by Robert Thurman, LTWA
  • Heart Jewel: The Essential Practices of Kadampa Buddhism by Kelsang Gyatso, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1997) ISBN 978-0-948006-56-2
  • Great Treasury of Merit: How to Rely Upon a Spiritual Guide by Kelsang Gyatso, Tharpa Publications (1992) ISBN 978-0-948006-22-7
  • Tharpa Publications, Commentaries to Lama Tsongkhapa’s major works
  • Wallace, B. Alan (1995). 'The Cultivation of Sustained Voluntary Attention in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism.' Thesis.. Source: [2] (accessed: Sunday January 31, 2010) NB: this thesis gives an extended treated to Tsongkhapa and includes a translation and the original Tibetan of 'Small Exposition of the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment' (Wylie: byang chub lam gyi rim pa chung ba)

External links

This article uses material from the September 2012 revision of Tsongkhapa on Wikipedia ( view authors). License under CC BY-SA 3.0. Wikipedia logo
This article uses material from the August 2014 revision of Tsongkhapa on Wikipedia ( view authors). License under CC BY-SA 3.0. Wikipedia logo

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