Dge Lugs (Geluk)

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Although the place of the scholar Tsong kha pa (1357–1419) in the formulation of the main ideas and practices of the Dge lugs (pronounced Geluk) tradition is clear, his role in the creation of a separate tradition is less obvious. What is clear is that Tsong kha pa, who had received his training mostly from Sa skya (Sakya) scholars, stressed the importance of separate monastic institutions. It is also known that he was exceptionally charismatic and made an enormous impression on his contemporaries in Tibet, where he had a large following of powerful families and highly gifted students, including Rgyal tshab (1364–1432) and Mkhas grub (1385–1438). These institutional facts, along with the power of Tsong kha pa's ideas, explain the development of the Dge lugs as a tradition claiming to represent the apex of Tibetan Buddhism. This claim is reflected in the highly loaded name (Dge lugs pa means "the virtuous ones") that adherents later chose to call themselves.

The beginnings were, however, quite different. During the first decades of the fifteenth century, Tsong kha pa's followers were known as Dga' ldan pa (the ones from the monastery of Dga' ldan) and seem to have been just one group within a tradition in which sectarian affiliations were fluid. This situation changed during the later decades of the fifteenth century. The details of this process cannot be described here, but a few relevant events must be kept in mind: the rapid increase in the size of the three monasteries around Lhasa; the creation of other large monasteries, such as Bkra shis lhun po, founded in 1445 by Dge 'dun grub (1391–1474); the move to Lhasa by Dge 'dun grub's reincarnation, Dge 'dun rgya mtsho (1475–1542), who was recognized posthumously as the Second Dalai Lama; and Dge 'dun rgya mtsho's construction of a large estate at 'Bras pung, the Dga' ldan pho brang, which became the seat of the Dalai Lamas. Equally relevant is the development of sectarian differences, as reflected in the acerbic critiques of Tsong kha pa by other Sa skya thinkers such as Rong ston (1367–1449) and Stag tshang (1405–d.u.).

This process was further strengthened by the political climate of the times, particularly the rise of political tensions between the groups vying for power in Tibet: the Ring pung family supported by the bka' brgyud and the Sa skya, and forces from Central Tibet supported by the Dge lugs. The next century and a half saw a veritable civil war between these two groups, which ended only in 1642 with the victory of the forces of Central Tibet supported by a Mongolian tribe, the Gushri Khan's Qoshot, and the installation of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682) as the ruler of Tibet.

The rise of the Dalai Lamas as the leaders of the Dge lugs school cannot be explored here. It is important, however, to note that originally the Dga' ldan tradition was not directed by reincarnated lamas. Its head, the Holder of the Throne of Dga' ldan, was chosen from among senior scholars, the first being Rgyal tshab and the second Mkhas grub. Gradually, however, the power of the head of the tradition was eclipsed by rein-carnated lamas, who became the de facto leaders of the Dge lugs. The victory of the Fifth Dalai Lama also seems to have involved a power struggle among rein-carnated lamas whose dark reflections can be seen in the myths surrounding the controversial deity, Rdo rje shugs ldan. There, the Fifth Dalai Lama's government is depicted as being responsible for the death of Gragspa Rgyal mtsham, one of the main Dge lugs lamas of that time.

The victory of the Dalai Lamas marked a decisive turn for the Dge lugs, which henceforth became the dominant tradition. Its great monasteries, particularly the three monastic seats around Lhasa, became the undisputed centers of learning in Tibet, drawing scholars from all parts of the Tibetan religious world. Even non–Dge lugs scholars would go there to receive training. The rule of the Dalai Lamas' government also ensured that the Dge lugs school could avail itself of the resources of the state. In this way, it maintained its hegemony more or less unchallenged until the invasion of Tibet by the People's Republic of China in 1950. The consequences of this tragic situation have yet to emerge, but it is likely that the Dge lugs tradition will not find it easy to maintain its dominant position.

See also:Panchen Lama; Tibet


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Georges B. J. Dreyfus