Tsong kha pa

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TSONG KHA PA (13571419) is the founder of the Dga' ldan pa (Gandenba) or Dge lugs pa (Gelukba) school of Tibetan Buddhism. His official, monastic name was Blo bzang grags pa, but he is more typically known in the Dge lugs pa tradition under the honorific titles of Rje rin po che (Precious Lord) and Jam dgon bla ma (Lama who is the Protector Mañjuśrī). Tsong kha pa lived during a period of Tibetan history in which large portions of the country had been unified under a central authority. It was a time of great religious efflorescence, brought about in large part by the high level of political stability that the country enjoyed.

Tsong kha pa's Life

Tsong kha pa was born in the Tsong kha region of A mdo in Eastern Tibet. Hagiographical accounts tell us that Tsong kha pa's birth was prophesied by the twelfth abbot of Snar thang monastery, Blo bzang grags pa (12991375), who told his student Chos rje don grub rin chen (13091375) to find the boy and give him his own name. His birth was augured by all of the traditional auspicious signs. Chos rje Don grub rin chen traveled back from Central Tibet to his home region of A mdo, recognized the young boy, and took him under his tutelage. Tsong kha pa took lay vows at the age of three from the Karma pa Rol pa'i rdo rje (13401383), and novice (dge tshul) ordination from Don drup rin chen at the age of seven. He spent the next decade or so receiving tantric initiations and teachings, and learning Buddhist doctrine. When he was sixteen or seventeen, following the advice of his teacher, he traveled to Central Tibet.

Central/Western (Dbus Gtsang) Tibet was the intellectual center of the country at this time. Tsong kha pa studied at many of the great monastic academies of the day, gaining expertise in all of the major texts and subjects of the Indian Buddhist scholastic tradition. In 1381 Tsong kha pa took full monastic (dge slong) ordination. He then began to focus more intentionally on the esoteric teachings of Tantra. It was during this period that he also met one of his major teachers, Bla ma Dbu ma pa (fourteenth century), a mystic and visionary, and a specialist on the practices of the deity Mañjuśrī, who, it was said, spoke to Tsong kha pa through Bla ma Dbu ma pa, answering his questions about the doctrine of emptiness.

Although Tsong kha pa studied with many teachers from all of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, it was the great Sa skya pa scholar Red mda' ba Zhon nu blo gros (13491412) whom Tsong kha pa would come to regard as his chief spiritual master. He studied with Red mda' ba extensively during this period, but eventually Red mda' ba and Tsong kha pa would become each other's teacher, spending a great deal of time together both teaching and in retreat.

By the early 1390s Tsong kha pa had completed his philosophical studies, and he had established his abilities and reputation as a scholar by engaging in the so-called monastic rounds (grwa skor ), the practice of submitting to public examinations at various institutions. He continued to take teachings and initiations from various masters during this next phase of his life, receiving many lineages that would be important to the later Dge lugs order. But what really characterized this phase of Tsong kha pa's life was an emphasis on practice, teaching, and writing. For the next decade, he would alternate periods of teaching and learning with periods of retreat, all the while dedicating himself to "com-position."

Tsong kha pa was also gathering disciples. One close group of students, the so-called eightfold pure retinue, accompanied him into a four-year intensive retreat at ʿOl kha, during which Tsong kha pa and his students had many visions of various deities. Visionary experiences, both in waking life and in dreams, had been a part of Tsong kha pa's life from his youth, but they became more frequent during this time, and would continue for the rest of his life. Especially important are a series of visions he had of Indian and Tibetan saints that were seen by Tsong kha pa (and by the later Dge lugs tradition) as legitimating his unique interpretation of the doctrine of emptiness.

Tsong kha pa had already begun to write before this period, but it was really during and after his time in intensive retreat that he wrote some of his most important philosophical and tantric works. In 1408 the Ming emperor invited Tsong kha pa to the Chinese court, but he declined, sending a close disciple in his stead. Clearly, Tsong kha pa thought that he still had much to accomplish in his native land.

In 1408, with the help of two patrons, Tsong kha pa founded the tradition of the Great Prayer Festival (Smon lam chen mo) in Lhasa, a New Year festival where the focus was on making offerings, both to the assembled clergy and to the image of the Jo bo rin po che (Tibet's most famous Buddha statue). This tradition would become one of Tibet's most important festivals, observed until the final Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959. It also marks a turning point in Tsong kha pa's life, initiating a period of more public engagement, and one of greater concern with the institutionalization of his tradition.

The spectacle of the Great Prayer Festival brought even greater prominence to Tsong kha pa. With the help of patrons, he founded in 1409 the monastery of Dga' ldan, an institution that would become his principal seat (and that of his successors). He remained chiefly at Dga' ldan, giving extensive teachings and composing principally tantric works from 1410 until 1416. The monasteries of ʿBras spungs and Sera, the other two "seats" (gdan sa ) of the Dge lugs pa school, were founded by two of Tsong kha pa's disciples in 1416 and 1419, respectively. In 1419 Tsong kha pa took ill. He passed away at Dga' ldan on the twenty-fifth day of the tenth Tibetan month. His body was preserved there in a golden reliquary, where it remained for over five hundred years until the monastery was bombed (and his tomb sacked) by Chinese troops.

Tsong kha pa's Thought

Tsong kha pa believed himself to be following an intellectual and spiritual trajectory that extended from the Buddha, through the great scholar-adepts of India and Tibet, up to his own time. Whether or not he saw himself as actually reviving the Bka' gdams pa tradition, founded almost half a millennium earlier by the Indian scholar-saint Atiśa, Tsong kha pa's early followers came to refer to themselves as the "New Bka' gdams pa."

Conservative in his approach, Tsong kha pa believed that the great texts of Indian Buddhism were the standard by comparison to which the authenticity of doctrines and practices was to be judged. Bemoaning the fact that in his day "those who strive at yogic practice have studied little, while the learned are uninformed about the details of practice," Tsong kha pa sought to steer the tradition back to its Indian roots, grounding yogic practice in textual learning and philosophical analysis. He believed that the essence of Buddhism was not preserved in secret, oral lineages (man ngag ), but that it was instead publicly accessible in the writings of the Indian Buddhist masters. His written work, therefore, can be seen as an attempt to critically reappropriate the Indian classics, and to show their relevance to practice.

His writings are holistic and synthetic, characterized by the impulse to harmonize all of the Buddha's teachings into a consistent whole. He especially sought to do this in his summa. His Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path (Lam rim chen mo ) and his Great Exposition of the Stages of Tantra (Sngags rim chen mo ) are erudite, grand syntheses of exoteric and esoteric Buddhism that offer the reader complete maps of these traditions. His Essence of Eloquence (Legs bshad snying po ) attempts to reconcile the apparent contradictions in the Mahāyāna philosophical corpus through the hermeneutical distinction between the provisional (drang ba'i) and definitive (nges pa'i) meaning of texts. Tsong kha pa devoted many of his works to the interpretation of emptiness. Candrakīrti's (seventh century) interpretation of emptinesscalled the Consequentialist, or Prāsagika (thal ʿgyur pa ), interpretationwas for Tsong kha pa the highest expression of the Buddha's philosophical view (lta ba ). Tsong kha pa saw emptiness as a corollary of the Buddhist doctrine of dependent arising (rten ʿbrel), and this became a hallmark of his analysis of "Middle Way" (Madhyamaka) philosophy. All told, Tsong kha pa's collected works comprise about seventeen volumes.

As is obvious from Tsong kha pa's own life, study, learning, and theory was only part of the equation. Equally important was practice. As he states in a letter:

Over many years I strove to understand the meaning of the [texts]. Based on that [understanding], and taking as the basis [for practice] the safeguarding of the moral discipline to which I had committed myself, I practiced many forms of accumulating [merit] and purifying [sin] [bsag sbyang ], and devoted myself to the cultivation of the various meditational objects that constitute the path in its entirety. With this as the cause, I was able to achieve insight into at least the rough features of the path of Sūtra and Tantra.

Following in the footsteps of the Bka' gdams pa masters, Tsong kha pa believed that moral discipline (tshul khrims ), epitomized by the monk's life, was the basis for the practice of both the sūtra and the tantric paths. The later tradition maintains that so crucial was the practice of monasticism to him that he eschewed taking a consortand thereby postponed his own enlightenment until the after-death, intermediate stageso as to teach to his followers the importance of celibacy.

The Cult of Tsong kha pa

Like many Tibetan masters of his day, Tsong kha pa came to be considered an emanation (sprul pa ) of a specific deity: in his case, Mañjuśrī, the deity of wisdom. Iconographically, Tsong kha pa is most often represented as a monk wearing a pandit's hat, with a text emanating from his left shoulder and a blazing sword (the symbol of Mañjuśrī) from his right shoulder. Tsong kha pa's apotheosis is celebrated in a variety of rites, arguably the most famous of which is a visualization/recitation practice called "The Hundred Deities of Dga' ldan" (Dga ldan lha rgya ma ), that concludes with the recitation of a verse of homage to Tsong kha pa called "The Object[less] Compassion [Verse]" (dmigs rtse ma ). The mantra-like "accumulation" (or repetition) of the verse is a common practice, and is touted as efficacious in everything from curing illness to achieving enlightenment.

The cult of Tsong kha pa has taken more popular forms as well. Pilgrimage to Dga' ldan monastery (and to his tomb) has always been a favorite practice among the laity and clergy alike. Devotees circumambulate the monastery, prostrate before his tomb, and collect small pieces of dough that have been molded (and thereby blessed) by coming into contact with a relic of Tsong kha pa's tooth. Finally, Tsong kha pa's death date is celebrated throughout Tibet in the religious festival called the "Dga' ldan Offering of the [Twenty] Fifth" (Dga' ldan lnga mchod), which culminates in offerings of butter lamps after nightfall. On this occasion, during a midwinter's night, entire monasteries become filled with the flickering of butter lamps, making it one of the most beautiful events in the Tibetan liturgical calendar.

See Also

Buddhism, Schools of, article on Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism; Mañjuśrī; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Buddhist Devotional Life in Tibet.


Various Tibetan-language editions of Tsong kha pa's collected works (gSungs ʿbum ) have been preserved and published in India, China, and Japan. These remain the standard references for his life and thought. In European languages, on Tsong kha pa's life, see Rudolf Kaschewsky, Das Leben des lamaistischen heilegen Tsongkhapa bLo-bza-grags-pa (13571419), Dargestellt und erläuert anhand seiner Vita: "Quellort allen Glückes" (Wiesbaden, 1971), 2 vols; and Robert A. F. Thurman, ed., The Life and Teachings of Tsong khapa (Dharamasala, India, 1982). The latter work also contains translations of some of Tsong kha pa's minor works. The last two decades have seen the translation of some of Tsong kha pa's major works. The Lam rim chen mo, arguably his most important work, has now been translated as The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment: Lam rim chen mo by Joshua Cutler, Guy Newland, et al. (Ithaca, N.Y., 20002003), 3 vols. Tsong Khapa's Speech of Gold in the Essence of True Eloquence, translated by Robert A. F. Thurman (Princeton, 1984), is a translation of Tsong kha pa's Legs bshad snying po ; this work has also partially been translated in Jeffrey Hopkins's Emptiness in the Mind-Only School of Buddhism (Berkeley, 1999). Tantra in Tibet and Deity Yoga (both Ithaca, N.Y., 1987) are translations by Jeffrey Hopkins of portions of the Sngags rim chen mo, with the commentary of the Dalai Lama. Tsong kha pa's Six Yogas of Naropa (Ithaca, N.Y., 1997) is Glenn Mullins's translation of the Yid byes gsum ldan, Tsong kha pa's main work on this subject. Tsong kha pa's Dbu ma dgongs pa rab gsal, his commentary to Candrakīrti's Madhyamakāvatāra, has been partially translated by Jeffrey Hopkins in Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism (Ithaca, N.Y., 1980), and by Jeffrey Hopkins and Anne Klein in Path to the Middle (Albany, N.Y., 1994).

JosÉ Ignacio CabezÓn (2005)