Dge Lugs Pa

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DGE LUGS PA . The Dge lugs pa (Geluk pa) order of Tibetan Buddhism was founded in the early fifteenth century by Tsong kha pa (13571419) in the area of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. He established a monastic university on a mountain called Dga' ldan ("the joyous") in 1409, and his sect was thus originally called Joyous Way (Dga' ldan pa'i lugs); later it came to be called Virtuous Way, Dge lugs pa. Students built two other large monastic universities in the Lhasa area, 'Bras spung (Drepung) (1416) and Se ra (1419), and the system gradually spread throughout the country. Within two hundred years the sect had become an important political force, such that around 1640, with the help of the Mongolian potentate Gushri Khan, the fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) assumed power as head of the government. The lineage of Dalai Lamas maintained this position until the Chinese takeover in 1959.

The Dge lugs pa educational system so captured the imagination of Tibetans that its universities attracted great numbers of men. Dge lugs pa gradually became the dominant mode of religious education and the dominant cultural force in an area ranging from the Kalmyk Mongolian lands in Russia near the Caspian Sea through Outer Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Mongolian Siberia, parts of China, and Tibet. Lhasa, with its large Dge lugs pa universities, became the cultural, religious, educational, medical, and astrological capital of Buddhist Inner Asia. Great influence was exercised by a complex system of education, devotion, meditation, and cultism, the pattern for which was set by brilliant Dge lugs pa leaders in Lhasa over several centuries.

In Lhasa each monastery had at least two competing faculties and student bodies, which periodically met to debate in intense competition. Factionalism between groups of differing philosophic opinion was highly encouraged; thus there was more intellectual activity within the Dge lugs pa order on this level than between Dge lugs pa and the other orders of Tibetan Buddhism.

Although the Western study of Dge lugs pa education is scarcely more than a half century old, it is possible to piece together a picture of this highly developed program for stimulating the metaphysical imagination. In general, Dge lugs pa doctrinal training is classified into two types, sūtra and Tantra, based on a division of the texts regarded as the Buddha's word. Training in the sūtra system is further divided into a more "practical" and a more "theoretical" system of study. Both practical and theoretical systems are based on great Indian books and Tibetan texts that consist of either explicit commentaries on those texts or expositions of main themes in them.

The practical system centers on Tsong kha pa's Lam rim chen mo (Great exposition of the stages of the path) and Indian texts such as Śāntideva's Bodhicāryāvatāra (Engaging in the Bodhisattva deeds). The theoretical system centers either on comparative systems of tenets, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, or on the "Five Great Books." The large Dge lugs pa universities take the latter approach for a curriculum of sūtra study that begins when the student is around eighteen and continues for twenty to twenty-five years.

To prepare students for study of these texts, the curriculum begins with a class on introductory debate that serves to establish the procedure of combative and probing analysis used throughout the entire course of study. The approach is at once individualistic (as used in the preparation and execution of specific debates) and group-stimulated (in that information and philosophic positions are acquired from fellow debaters in an ongoing network of communication). The preliminary classes further study basic psychology and basic theory of reasoning. Then begins a reading of the first of the Five Great Books: the future Buddha Maitreya's Abhisa-mayālamkāra (Ornament for clear realization), a rendering of the hidden teaching on the path structure in the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras; this work is usually studied for six or seven years.

The class then passes on to the second Great Book, Candrakīrti's Madhyamakāvatāra (Supplement to [Nāgārjuna's] treatise on the middle), to explore for two years the explicit teaching on the emptiness of inherent existence expounded in the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras. Next is Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa (Treasury of manifest knowledge), a compendium of the types and nature of afflicted phenomena (kliadharma ) as well as the pure phenomena (vaiyavadānikadharma ) that act as antidotes to them; this takes two years. The fourth Great Book is Gunaprabhā's Vinaya Sūtra (Aphorisms on discipline), also studied for two years.

Each year throughout the entire twenty-year program, time is taken out for pursuit of the last of the Great Books, Dharmakīrti's Prāmaavarttika (Commentary on [Dig-nāga's] compilation of prime cognition), largely epistemological and logical studies. At the end there are several years for review and preliminary rounds of debate in preparation for the national yearly debate competition in Lhasa; the winner becomes a national hero.

Throughout the long course of study reasoned analysis is stressed, but at the same time the student maintains daily practice of Tantric rites revolving around visualization of himself as a deity. He also participates in cultic rites at the university, college, and subdivision levels to appease and satisfy various protector deities associated with those units, and participates in devotional assemblies on a daily basis centered on deities like the savioress Tārā. Because of the long training period in sūtra studies, this less obvious, yet very strong and even dominant Tantric side of Dge lugs pa often goes unnoticed by foreign observers.

After taking a dge bśhes degree, a monk can proceed to a Tantric college, the two prime ones being the Tantric College of Upper Lhasa and the Tantric College of Lower Lhasa. Both have as their main purpose the study, transmission, and practice of the Guhyasamāja Tantra, again through the extensive commentaries of Tsong kha pa. The distinguishing feature of Tantrism is deity yoga; its practitioners meditate on themselves as having the physical form not of an ordinary person, but of a deity embodying the highest levels of wisdom and compassion.

Underlying this entire program of religious immersal through doctrinal, devotional, ritualistic, and meditational means is a commitment to reason. The harmony of reason with the most profound religious experiences of compassion, wisdom, deity yoga, and manifestation of the fundamental innate mind of clear light is stressed. Meditation is viewed as being of two varieties, stabilizing (or fixating) meditation and analytical meditation, with the latter receiving great stress in Dge lugs pa. To develop compassion, reflective reasoning is used to enhance basic feelings that are recognized as part of common experience. To develop wisdom, reflective reasoning is used in an intricately devised process so that the student may penetratively understand the incorrectness of assent to the false appearance of phenomena as if they existed in their own right. The aim is not merely to defeat rival systems but to overcome an innate, unlearned misconception of the nature of phenomena.

Such analytically derived realization of emptiness constitutes the first step in practicing deity yoga in Tantrism. The wisdom consciousnessthe realization of emptiness impelled by compassionis then used as the basis for manifesting as a divine being. The wisdom consciousness itself appears as a deity in an indivisible fusion of wisdom and compassion that is symbolized by a vajra, a diamond. Utilizing these continuous divine appearances, stabilizing meditation can then be performed on essential points within the body to induce subtler levels of consciousness that are used to realize the same emptiness of inherent existence. When the most subtle consciousness, the fundamental innate mind of clear light, is actualized, the wind (Skt., prāna; Tib., rlung ), or energy, associated with this most subtle consciousness is said to be used as the substantial cause for appearing in an actual divine body such that one no longer needs the old coarse body. Transformation is literally both mental and physical.

This most subtle mind is the same as the clear light of death that terrifies ordinary beings, who fear they are being annihilated when it manifests. The Dge lugs pa system of education is aimed at overcoming this fear of one's own most basic nature; thus it suggests that the sense of otherness that many of the world's cultures associate with profound religious experience of the awesome is based on a misconception about the basic nature of one's own being. Further, it suggests that this fear and sense of otherness can be caused to disappear through an understanding of the actual status of phenomena, which is gained through reasoned investigation brought to the level of a profoundly moving experience. This highly developed view of the compatibility of reason and deep mystic insight, expressed in a system of education and ritual exercise, is a distinctive feature of Dge lugs pa.

Since the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet in 1959, just prior to the takeover of the government by Chinese Communists, a refugee community of Dge lugs pas under his leadership (which is not confined to members of the Dge lugs pa order) has, in scattered places throughout India, reestablished smaller versions of Lhasa's three main monastic universities (each having two competing colleges as subdivisions) as well as two of the Tantric colleges and the monasteries of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. Thus the Dge lugs pa educational system has been reestablished in India and, as of 2003, involved approximately ten thousand monks. There are also approximately eight hundred Dge lugs pa nuns in India and Nepal, with scholastic education being introduced in the early 1990s in some nunneries, a remarkable development in the empowerment of women. Clearly this re-establishment of monastic training in exile is a feat of considerable achievement by an overall Tibetan refugee population in India and Nepal of 120,000.

See Also

Buddhism, Schools of; Dalai Lama; Tsong kha pa.


The study of Dge lugs pa is in its infancy, but several helpful expositions have emerged. For a historical and political study, see David L. Snellgrove and Hugh E. Richardson's A Cultural History of Tibet (1968; reprint, Boulder, Colo., 1980), pp. 177267. An anthropological treatment of Dge lugs pa power structures is found in Martin A. Mills' Identity, Ritual and State in Tibetan Buddhism: The Foundations of Authority in Gelukpa Monasticism (London and New York, 2003). A short biography of Tsong kha pa, the founder of Dge lugs pa, and scattered samples of his teachings are given in The Life and Teachings of Tsong Khapa (Dharamsala, 1982), edited by Robert A. F. Thurman. Tsong kha pa's Lam rim chen mo is being translated as The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment by the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee, Joshua W.C. Cutler, editor-in-chief (volume one: Ithaca, N.Y., 2000; volume three: Ithaca, N.Y., 2003). Tsong kha pa's analytic style in which reason dominates over and interprets tradition is evidenced in his Tantra in Tibet, translated and edited by me (London, 1977, Ithaca, N.Y., 1987). Glenn H. Mullin's The Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred Legacy of Reincarnation (Santa Fe, 2001) includes biographies of all fourteen Dalai Lamas. Janice D. Willis's Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition (Boston, 1995) presents hagiographies of a number of saints from the Dge lugs pa order. For a stirring autobiography of a Dge lugs pa scholar and lama as well as a description of the course of training and basic teachings of the school, see The Life and Teaching of Geshé Rabten, translated and edited by B. Alan Wallace (London, 1980). Georges B.J. Dreyfus's The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk (Berkeley, Calif, 2003) compares the educational systems of Dge lugs pa monasteries with that of Rnying ma pa. A sense of how a Dge lugs pa scholar's mind probes issues can be gained from Lati Rinbochay's Mind in Tibetan Buddhism, edited, translated, and introduced by Elizabeth Napper (London, 1980); in this work the topic of basic psychology is examined in depth. The themes of death, the subtler levels of consciousness, and the mind of clear light, as presented by an eighteenth-century Dge lugs pa scholar, Yang jen ga way lo drö, is given in Lati Rinbochay and my Death, Intermediate State, and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism (London, 1979, Ithaca, N.Y., 1985), and these topics are also treated in intimate and practical detail in His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Advice of Dying and Living a Better Life (New York, 2002). The doctrine of emptiness and its place in the Dge lugs pa worldview is presented in considerable detail, drawing from several works of their scholastic tradition, in my works Meditation on Emptiness (London, 1983,1996), Emptiness in the Mind-Only School of Buddhism (Berkeley, Calif., 1999), and Reflections on Reality (Berkeley, Calif., 2002). How the doctrine of emptiness and expression of compassion is practiced in Anuttarayoga Tantra is presented in detail in Daniel Cozort's Highest Yoga Tantra (Ithaca, N.Y., 1986).

Paul Jeffrey Hopkins (1987 and 2005)