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Great Je Tsong Khapa

BIOGRAPHY OF JE TSONGKHAPA : Je Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa(Wylie: rje tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa, 1357-1419), also known as Lama Tsongkhapa or by the honorific title Je Rinpoche (rje rin po che, “Precious Lord”) was born in 1357 at Tsongkha valley, Amdo region of northeastern Tibet. His birthplace is marked by the famous Kubum (sKu ‘bum) Monastery.

Education and Studies: At the age of three, Je Tsnogkhapa took lay vows from the 4th Karmapa Rolpay Dorje. Afterwards, he started his education with the Kadam master Choje Dondrub Rinchen, from whom he received numerous teachings and tantric initiations. Je Tsongkhapa is said to have been so sharp that he easily understood and memorized even the most complicated texts. When he was seven, he received novice vows from Choje Dondrub Rinchen and was given the ordination name of Lobzang Drakpa. Je Tshongkhapa continued studying with Choje Dondrub Rinchen until the age of sixteen when he left Amdo to pursue his quest for philosophical knowledge and trainings in central and southern Tibet, where he received teachings from more than fifty prominent teachers.

Je Tsongkhapa arrived in Central Tibet at the end of the Chi-Dar period (phyi dar, the Later Diffusion) of the long flowering of Buddhist intellectual activities. He started his studies with Tibetan medicine, followed by Buddhist texts and topics including Abhidharma, tenets focusing on Madhyamaka (the Middle Way) and Cittamātra (the Mind Only) views, Perfection of Wisdom, Five Treatises of Maitreya, and Pramāṇa (Valid Cognition). He also studied and practiced tantra extensively.He gained a rigorous intellectual training and a wide knowledge of both sutra and tantra during this period.At the age of 20, Je Tsongkhapa received the bhikshu vows of fully ordained monk. By studying intensively the works on valid cognition by Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, Je Tsongkhapa was deeply impressed and moved by the efficacy of Dharmakirti’s system of reasoning.It was Je Tsongkhapa’s emphasis on philosophical study and logic that would eventually become some of the defining characteristics of the Gelug tradition.

Je Tsongkhapa’s studies were mainly focused on the existing scholarly traditions of the time, of which the most significant being the Sakya tradition and the tradition of Sangphu, an important Kadam monastery. With a determination of combining scholarship with the practice of both tantra and sutra, Je Tsongkhapa also continuously received tantric teachings and initiations from, in addition to Choje Dondrub Rinchen while in Amdo, a number of important masters of different lineages, including those of Kagyu, Jonang, Sakya, and Nyingma.

Lamas: One of Je Tsongkhapa’s main teachers was JetsunRedawa Zhönu Lodrö (1349-1412)who was a strong proponent of the Prāsaṅgika view of Madhyamaka.Out of great devotion, Je Tsongkhapa wrote the famous verse, Migtsema (dMigs-brtse-ma), in praise of Jetsun Redawa, but this master re-dedicated it to Je Tsongkhapa thinking that the verse was more applicable and descriptive of Je Tsongkhapa’s qualities.It later became the verse recited for the Guru Yoga of Je Tsongkhapa or to invoke the blessings of Je Tsongkhapa.

At the age of thirty-three, Je Tsongkhapa encountered the remarkable Lama Umapa Pawo Dorje, with whom he studied Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra (Entry to the Middle Way).Being able to have pure visions of Mañjuśrī, Lama Umapa became the intermediaryof Je Tshonkhapa in communicating with this Bodhisattva who would provide advices and responses to Je Tsongkhapa’s numerous questions concerning the correct understanding of the reality. Eventually,Je Tsongkhapa himself began to experience pure visions and was able to communicate with Mañjuśrī to receivedirect instructions and tantric initiations. Over the course of his life, Je Tsongkhapa continued to experience pure visions of Mañjuśrī as well as a host of other deities and masters such as Asaṅga and Nāgārjuna. It is believed that many of Je Tshongkhapa’s works were composed through the instructions and inspiration of deities and masters appearing in thepure visions, particularly Mañjuśrī, as described in his secret biography.


MEDITATION AND RETREAT:  Tsongkhapa combined studies with practice from a very early age. After completing his Golden Garland of Eloquence in 1388-1389, Je Tsongkhapa spend a period of some ten years engaging in meditation and retreats, including undertaking tantric retreats, doing an extensive retreat on Mañjuśrī with Lama Umapa, and, as advised by Mañjuśrī, going into a long, extensive retreat with his eight disciples at Chadrel Hermitage and Wölkha Cholung from 1392 to1398. Je Tsongkhapa is reputed to have performed millions of prostrations, mandala offerings and other forms of purification practice during the long retreat. Meanwhile, he simultaneously continued to study the most important texts dealing with the nature of reality.

WRITINGS AND TEACHINGS : Je Tsongkhapa began to teach in his 20s. He also started composing essays and treatises in these early years, including his most major early work, the Golden Garlandof Eloquence (Legs bshad gser phreng), a commentary on Maitreya’s Ornament for Clear Realization, completed at the age of 32.

During the last year of his retreat in Wölkha Cholung in 1398, Je Tsongkhapa is believed to have attained the highest realization and a perfect understanding of the ultimate reality. Upon this experience, he composedIn Praise of Dependent Origination to praise and pay homage to Buddha Sakyamuni for his profound teachings of dependent origination and emptiness. Following this spiritual experience, Je Tsongkhapa made a dramatic change in his life, turning more towards writing and teaching what he had realized. Most of his works were composed after that.

In 1402, at the age of forty-six, he composed the Lamrim Chenmo (The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment), undoubtedly his most famous masterpiece. Based on Jowo Atisha Dīpaṃkara’s Bodhipathapradīpa (Lamp to the Path of Enlightenment), it describes in detail the gradual path to enlightenment from the perspective of the Sutrayāna. Following the composition of the Lamrim Chenmo, he wrote several other works around 1407 and 1408, specifically TheOcean of Reasoning (rigs pa’i rgya mtsho), a commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā),and The Essence of Eloquence (legs bshad snying po). In 1415 he composed the Lamrim Dring (The MediumTreatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment), a condensed version of the Lamrim Chenmo, and in 1418, one year before his death, the Elucidation of the Intention (dGongs pa Rab gSal)on Candrakīrti’s Entry to the Middle Way. Influential works on monastic codes andethical codes for bodhisattvas as well as tantric practitioners were also written in the course of time.

Je Tsongkhapa was also a prolific author of tantric literature. As a companion volume to the Lamrim Chenmo, he wrote in 1405 the Ngagrim Chenmo (The Great Exposition of Tantra), covering all the four classes of tantra according to the sarma (new) traditions, with a detailed explanation of the two stages of Anuttarayoga (Highest Yoga) tantra. Other important tantric works include his works on Guhyasamāja, especially his Commentary on the Vajrajñānasamuccayanāma Tantra(ye shes rdo rje kun las btus pa zhes bya ba’i rgyud) in 1401and Lamp Illuminating the Five Stages of Guhyasamāja (gsang ‘dus rim lnga gsal sgron) in 1411. Texts on the Guhyasamāja Tantra feature prominently in Je Tsongkhapa’s collected works, making up the majority of his eighteen volumes of writings. During his last years, Je Tsongkhapa devoted much of his time to giving extensive teachings.

THE FOUR GREAT DEEDS : Among Je Tsongkhapa’s numerous beneficial activities,four are mentioned in particular. The first deed was the renovation of the Maitreya statue and the subsequent great festival he organized during the Tibetan New Year in 1400 at Dzingji (‘Dzingji) temple, which housed the statue. The second deed was an extensive teaching on the vinaya (code of monastic discipline)for the ordained that he, Jetsun Redawa and Kyabchok Pal Zangpo gave for several months at Namtse Deng (gNam rtse Ideng) in 1402, which is said to have revitalized the tradition of monasticism in Tibet. The third deed was his establishment of the annual Great Prayer Festival (Monlam Chenmo) for universal well-being during the Tibetan new year in Lhasa in 1409, a tradition that is still performing to this day. And the fourth deed was the founding of Gaden Monastery (dGa’ Idan) in 1410 near Lhasa, which became his main seat, and the construction of the maṇḍalas of his main three Anuttarayoga tantra deities:Guhyasamāja, YamāntakaandCakrasaṃvara.

He is perhaps best known for other amazing deeds, however. He founded the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, built on the foundations of the Kadampa tradition, the legacy of Atisha. Based on Tsongkhapa’s teachings, the two distinguishing characteristics of the Gelug tradition are the union of sutra and tantra and the emphasis on vinaya. Having studied at Sakya, Kadam and Drikung Kargyu monasteries, he was one of the foremost authorities on Tibetan Buddhism.

PASSING AWAY : Je Tsongkhapa passed away in 1419 at Gaden Monastery and was succeeded by one of his chief disciples, Gyaltsab Darma Rinchen, as the throne-holder of Gaden. His teachings were upheld and kept by Gyaltsab Darma Rinchen and another main disciple Khedrub Gelek Palsang. Personally and through his disciples, Je Tsongkhapa made an extremely significant impact on the development of Buddhism in Tibet and his influence extended to Mongolia and China. His eighteen volumes of collected works contain hundreds of titles relating to all aspects of Buddhist teachings and explicitly clarify some of the most difficult topics and points in both sutra and tantra. Thanks to Je Tsongkhapa’s un-biased, thorough and lucid style, his heritage ofmasterpieces and great teachings remain illuminating, inspiring and unparalleled today.


Berzin Archives-A Short Biography of Tsongkhapa, Alexander Berzin, August 2003.




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