Elaboration of the Life of Tsongkhapa

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I’d like to present a short biography of Tsongkhapa. I am a little bit picky, I must say, so I find it helpful to pronounce people’s names correctly. There’s a commonly made convention – which I think is really quite incorrect, totally incorrect – which is to divide Tsongkhapa’s name as Tsong and then Khapa, which then makes people think that Khapa was his last name. They say “Tsong Khapa,” which is absolutely absurd. This person was born in the land of Tsongkha, and “pa” just means somebody who was born there. So it’s Tsongkhapa, not Tsong Khapa. 

The biography of a great lama is in Tibetan called a namthar (rnam-thar); and namthar means a “liberating biography” because it inspires listeners to follow the example of the lama and trying to achieve liberation or enlightenment based on his or her example. And, of course, one has to admit from a more historical point of view that these biographies are often embellished to make them a little bit more inspiring; to have a good story. This is true even with the biography of Buddha himself, if one looks at it a bit more historically. The basic facts that are there are true, certainly in terms of what they studied, retreats they did, what they taught, and so on; these are accurate. And that’s inspiring enough. But in Tsongkhapa’s biography actually there isn’t very much that has been added for dramatic effect that one can see – maybe a few little things, but not so much. In some other biographies it’s quite a lot.

Prophesies and Childhood

Tsongkhapa’s birth was prophesied by both Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Rinpoche. And before Tsongkhapa’s birth there were several indications that he would be a great being: His parents had very auspicious dreams that the child would be an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Vajrapani, which is what Tsongkhapa is always considered. And his future teacher, when he was quite young (his name was Choje Dondrub Rinchen), received a vision of Yamantaka – that’s the furious form of Manjushri – that he, Yamantaka, would come to Amdo in a certain year and become his disciple. This teacher had some sort of vision that this disciple was going to be born; a very special disciple. 

Tsongkhapa was born in the area called Tsongkha. Actually it comes from the word “onion.” He was born in “Onion Land”; it’s the place where a lot of tsong (onions) grow. That doesn’t sound very nice in English, does it – the man from Onion Land. Very arbitrary. And this is in Amdo, northeastern Tibet. He was born in the year 1357, the fourth of six sons. The day after his birth, this teacher who had this vision that this disciple would be born there, Choje Dondrub Rinchen, sent his main disciple to the parents with gifts, and a statue, and a letter. He really had this strong feeling that this child would be really special. 

Now this is not so fantastic, actually, if you think about it. I mean, it is fantastic from one point of view, but it’s not so uncommon. Because often His Holiness the Dalai Lama has various dreams of where different high lamas are reborn; and, based on those dreams, they usually go looking for the reincarnations. And so this is a common occurrence among very, very highly-developed teachers. I think that Lama Zopa also has had some dreams like that, hasn’t he, of finding incarnations.

Tsongkhapa was not like any ordinary child. He never misbehaved; he instinctively engaged in bodhisattva types of actions; he was extremely intelligent and always wanted to learn everything. And we do come across, occasionally, little children like that, don’t we? And at the age of three, he took the lay vows from the Fourth Karmapa. 

Again, I think of the example of the young Serkong Rinpoche. As soon as he could talk, he would point to the picture of the old Serkong Rinpoche in his family’s house and say, “That was me.” And when the people from his old household came – based on His Holiness saying where to look for him – he recognized somebody by their name, and all he wanted to do was to go with them back to Dharamsala; back to his monastery. He was only three years old. He never ever asked for his parents after he left; never. I mean, you come across many fantastic things among the Tibetans, but for them it’s fairly commonplace. 

So it is not so fantastic that he wanted to take lay vows and took them when he was three. And soon after he took these vows, his father invited this teacher, Choje Dondrub Rinchen, to their home. And the lama said he would educate the boy, and the father agreed. So this lama stayed at their house and educated the boy until he was seven. Just seeing the lama read, he instinctively knew how to read; he didn’t have to be taught how to read. And again, this is not so fantastic. The son of my nephew is like that. Nobody had to teach him how to read. He could read when he was three. He just knew how to read. So it does happen.

During this time, this teacher gave the boy various empowerments to Five-Deity Chakrasamvara, Hevajra, Yamantaka, and Vajrapani. By the age of seven, he had already memorized – and this is quite fantastic – at the age of seven he had already memorized the complete rituals of all of these, and had done the Chakrasamvara retreat, and was already doing the self-initiation. At seven. That’s pretty good. He already had visions of Vajrapani, and he dreamt of Atisha, and so on. But also you find among the young tulkus and with the Tibetans that some of them have extraordinary memories; able to memorize really quite extraordinarily when they were young. Tsongkhapa surpassed everybody in that.

At the age of seven, he received novice vows from the same lama, Choje Dondrub Rinchen, and he got the ordination name Losang Dragpa. That’s the name he is usually known by. And he continued to study in Amdo with this lama until he was sixteen, and then he went to Central Tibet to continue his studies and he never returned to his homeland.

Early Studies in Central Tibet

So when he went to Central Tibet he studied with masters at the monasteries from all the traditions that were there in Tibet. A very interesting and very good point. He didn’t just join one tradition; he went around to all of them. First, he went to a Drikung Kagyu monastery. There he learnt the Drikung mahamudra system, and also medicine, and more about bodhichitta. Within one year – he was just seventeen and he’d already become a very skilled doctor. I mean, looking at everything else that he did, he was also a doctor on top of that. And then he studied there this text – I translate it as Filigree of Realizations, the Abhisamayalamkara – that’s probably the most central text that the Tibetans study, in terms of their monastic training. It deals with prajnaparamita, the stages of the path for understanding voidness. So he studied that there, at this Drikung Kagyu monastery. And the other texts of Maitreya. And he didn’t study this just at this Kagyu monastery; he went around to Nyingma, Sakya, and Kadam monasteries as well, to study these texts to see how each of the traditions explain them.  

This was really his style, because he was very critical of the understanding that people had of these texts; he was never satisfied at that time. And so he really made quite an effort to find out what everybody – from all the different traditions – what they said about it; what they understood. This I find really quite an outstanding quality of Tsongkhapa. You find this throughout his education. He was never satisfied with the level of explanation that he received. Because very often we hear explanations and we just say, “Oh, okay,” and we accept it. But if it didn’t quite make sense to Tsongkhapa – okay, this teacher maybe doesn’t have the greatest understanding of this, and then we go to another, and another, and another, and look at all the different angles of it to try to really understand. And he was able to memorize all the texts in just a few days. By the age of nineteen, he was already recognized as a great scholar; he was very learned.

He continued to travel to the most famous monasteries throughout Central Tibet, from all the Tibetan traditions, and he studied what we now call the five major geshe-training topics and the Indian tenet systems; he studied all of that. And what he always did everywhere was to debate – and he really enjoyed this – with the various masters and students there and let himself be examined. The way the Tibetan system works with debate: you’re the one who is challenging the people’s understanding, or you sit and other people challenge your understanding. And so Tsongkhapa did this a great, great deal, everywhere that he went. He always let himself – his understanding – be examined by the people there to see if they could find some fault in what he understood, and he always was challenging their understanding.  

You have to picture this. I mean, Tsongkhapa was very, very brave. He was a nineteen-year-old kid. And he’s going and he’s challenging all the adult great masters of his day for them to try to find fault in his understanding and for him to challenge their understanding. Really quite something, if you think about it. Very courageous. And formidable. Everybody was overwhelmed at his intelligence and understanding; they would be very intimidated and shy.

Question: You said that he did what is now called the geshe training. Isn't this something typical only for the Gelugpa tradition?

Not at all. Everybody studied the major topics: Madhyamaka, prajnaparamita, pramana (logic, ways of knowing), vinaya monastic rules, abhidharma. Everybody studied that if you went through the monastic education. The title of the degree that you got at the end of that was different in different traditions; but it’s different in different monasteries as well, even within one tradition. But at the time of Tsongkhapa, monastic education did not confer degrees and “geshe” was not used as a degree title. The word “geshe” just means a spiritual friend. 

Tsongkhapa also received from the Kadam tradition the lam-rim teachings, and he got lots and lots of tantric empowerments and teachings. So in the Sakya tradition this lamdre (lam-bras, path and its results); that’s the name. Tantric teachings from the Kagyu – the six teachings of Naropa (usually called the six yogas of Naropa). Also Kalachakra. So he was into all of that quite early. And he also studied poetic composition, astrology, and mandala construction as well. And he was a doctor. A very well-rounded education. And he only had to hear an explanation once and then he understood it and remembered it perfectly. 

The old Serkong Rinpoche was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and he said His Holiness the Dalai Lama was exactly like that. He never had to explain something twice to His Holiness. He explained it once and he was like, “Oh, yeah, I remember that.” Sort of like refreshing his memory, then he understood it and remembered it. Tsongkhapa was like that. Sometimes the memories of these Tibetans are quite extraordinary. Serkong Rinpoche as an old man – the old Serkong Rinpoche – told me once that he remembered everything that he had ever studied in his life. He’s not going to boast or brag to me, or anything like that. But he really did. Their memories are really very, very well trained. I think that comes from constantly reviewing. They recite so many things all the time. If we think about that – as adults, if we are not working as scientists, how many of us can remember the algebra that we learned in high school? I certainly don’t.

Tsongkhapa always had very strong renunciation. He lived very humbly and kept his vows very purely. This is always the style that has been preferred in the Gelug tradition. Of course there are some exceptions, but this is this very humble Kadampa Geshe style. And Tsongkhapa was really like that. Serkong Rinpoche was like that as well. If he had his choice, he never would go on first class Indian trains; he always would go in the very lowest class, even if it meant sleeping next to the toilet, like Gandhi. 

Tsongkhapa also very easily achieved shamatha and vipashyana – this perfect concentration and exceptionally perceptive state of mind – but was never satisfied with his learning and level of realization. He continued to travel and request teachings over and over again, even on the same texts. He went to the most learned masters of his day – he studied with them, he would challenge them, debated with them, let them really examine him very well. One of the main ones of these was Rendawa, a Sakya master. And Tsongkhapa wrote this verse Migtsema in praise to Rendawa. You’re basically Chenrezig and Manjushri and Vajrapani; this verse. And Rendawa said, “This doesn’t really suit me,” and he rededicated it back to Tsongkhapa. And this eventually became the verse that is used for Tsongkhapa guru-yoga.

Early Teaching and Writing

So Tsongkhapa began to teach when he was in his 20s, and the first thing that he taught was abhidharma (mdzod, the special topics of knowledge). Everybody was astounded at his erudition. And he already started at that age to write some things and to do more retreats. And soon he had disciples of his own. Now some accounts say that he took the full monk vows at the age of 21, but it seems to be uncertain, the actual year that that took place. It was sometime in his 20s.

At some point, probably also in his late 20s, he studied and analyzed the entire Kangyur and Tengyur. That’s a hundred big thick volumes of Buddha’s teachings and two hundred thick volumes of the Indian commentaries. He went through all of that. And if you look at his writings, it seems as though he probably memorized them. And he analyzed them. I mean, you can see this in his later writings. He was very critical of the translations of some of these and he checked different translations of these various texts, and always was also challenging the Indian commentaries as to whether they had got the original texts correct. So after that, at the age of 32, he wrote his first big, big major text. This is called A Golden Rosary of Excellent Explanations (Legs-bshad gser-’phreng), a commentary on prajnaparamita. He put together and discussed all twenty-one Indian commentaries to the text. And that’s very difficult, if you think about it. There are no computers, and you’re putting it together; he has to keep all twenty-one in his mind to do that. 

In everything he wrote, what really is quite noteworthy is that he always supports all his criticism, and all his new interpretations, with quotations. Always saying, “I didn’t just make this up.” Giving quotations. And he quotes from the entire span of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist literature, and comparing different translations as well. There are other masters earlier than Tsongkhapa who wrote lots of commentaries to different texts and so on, but often what they did: the most difficult and obscure passages, they would just skip; they would just leave it and not comment on that, just comment on the easy parts. And Tsongkhapa never did that. The most difficult passages, the most obscure passages, that’s what he loved, and he would explain all of them. He never shied away. Very special feature of Tsongkhapa. It’s like the Tibetan saying: “When we study, we shouldn’t be like an old man who only chews the soft potatoes and spits out the tough meat.” Not spit them out.

As I mentioned, Tsongkhapa had a tremendous capacity to memorize. Normally, every day he would memorize seventeen double-sided big Tibetan pages. The great masters continue to memorize all the time; it’s not that they just do that as a child. Always memorizing more and more texts. If you listen to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, how much he’s memorized – it’s unbelievable what he can quote from memory. So Tsongkhapa normally did seventeen big pages a day in addition to everything else that he did. Once, they had a contest: So the scholars wanted to see who could memorize the most pages before the sun hit the banner on the roof of the monastery. I don’t know how many hours that was. Not too long. But probably some of the students wanted to test the teachers – who was the best at memorizing? And so Tsongkhapa won; he was able to do four double-sided big pages in that short time, which he was then able to recite fluently with no mistakes. I mean, they’re big pages. A lot of words on it. He was able to do in that short time – from when it started to get light, until the sun actually rose – he was able to do four double-side pages. He recited without any mistakes, just really fluently. And the closest runner-up could only do two and a half; and he recited it, staggered – he wasn’t so sure of himself. Tsongkhapa was the best. He won.

Soon Tsongkhapa started to give tantric empowerments and teachings as well. He especially often gave this jenang (rjes-snang), this subsequent permission of Sarasvati – this is the female counterpart or partner of Manjushri – for wisdom. That was his favorite, at this time, to give. And also he continued his study, especially of Kalachakra. Sarasvati is the one with the lute, and she’s especially known to have the wisdom for beautiful composition – to be able to write and explain clearly – and music. Not just poetic, but clear explanations.

His students were very impressed with Tsongkhapa and, like enthusiastic students, they always wanted to have contests to see what Tsongkhapa really could do. And so, at that time, there was one great lama who was able to teach eleven different texts at the same time. So the students asked Tsongkhapa to do the same. “Tsongkhapa, can you do that?” That type of thing. (His Holiness teaches now – basically, he does the same thing. He never just teaches one text anymore; he always teaches two or three at the same time, interweaving them. He teaches some from one text, and then supplementing it from another text, and then another text. Like that.) So Tsongkhapa, instead of doing eleven, he did seventeen major sutra texts. He taught them all from memory. He never actually used a book; he taught them all from memory. And he did one session on each text every day. He started all seventeen on the same day, and he finished them all on the same day three months later. 

Can you imagine that? Never lost his place. Never got confused. Always knew how much to teach each day so that it would all finish on the same day. Seventeen sessions a day. Unbelievable. I mean, these are all the major texts that he taught all at the same time: Madhyamakavatara, Bodhicharyavatara, the abhidharma texts, Abhisamayalamkara. He taught all of them at the same time. And during the discourse, he refuted incorrect interpretations of each of them and established his own view. That’s astounding enough. But also during each day, during the discourse, he also did the self-initiation of Yamantaka with some of his disciples. It takes a long time to do; it is not a short thing to do. And all these other tantric practices. (Like His Holiness doing four hours of meditation in addition to everything else that he does, let’s say when he gives a Kalachakra initiation.)

If you look at his life – I mean, he only lived 62 years. If you consider how much he studied and how much he practiced – including making who knows how many of these little tsatsa clay statues, which really is very time-consuming – and if you look how much he wrote, and how much he taught, and how many retreats he did, it seems impossible that anybody could do even one of them in a lifetime. And he did all of them. How could he write all these things with no computer (most of the time in a cave, by candlelight). It’s unbelievable. He didn’t carry around all his reference books; he knew them all by memory.

Intensive Tantra Study and Practice

Soon after this, Tsongkhapa did his first major tantric retreat. That was Chakrasamvara according to the Kagyu tradition. And he meditated intensely on the six teachings of Naropa and gained great realization. Also the six teachings of Niguma; that’s another type of teaching.

So by now he was 34 years old, and he decided that he wanted to engage in intensive study and practice of all four classes of tantra. He said you can’t really appreciate the anuttarayoga highest class of tantra, how special it is, if you haven’t really a thorough study and practice of the other classes of tantra. So he did that. This is actually quite rare. If you look at the modern masters, it’s only people like His Holiness and his teacher Serkong Rinpoche, and so on, who really are masters of all four classes. Usually they just do a little bit of the first class (kriya tantra) and then the highest class (anuttarayoga tantra). And then he also studied further the complete stage practices (rdzogs-rim) of Guhyasamaja and Kalachakra – things he kept on studying over and over again.

Study and Retreats for Gaining Nonconceptual Cognition of Voidness

Then he went to study with a great Karma Kagyu master called Lama Umapa. Umapa means Madhyamika; someone who follows Madhyamaka. He went to study Madhyamaka with him, and also one special form of Manjushri. This lama had daily visions of Manjushri; Manjushri taught him one verse every day. And so Tsongkhapa and Lama Umapa became mutual teacher and disciple. They studied with each other and taught each other, which is a nice type of relationship. Sometimes you find that, certainly with the teachers of His Holiness. They have that type of relationship with each other; they share teachings with each other. 

What’s very interesting is Lama Umapa started to check with Tsongkhapa to get confirmation that the teachings he received in his visions of Manjushri were correct or not. And this also is pointed out as an important point: even if you get visions from Manjushri, how do you know that it is not some ghost that’s pretending to be Manjushri and teaching you things? And so he checked with Tsongkhapa to get confirmation: Is it really correct? Does it make sense or not?

So, together with Lama Umapa, Tsongkhapa did a very extensive retreat on Manjushri. And from this time onwards, Tsongkhapa himself received direct instruction from Manjushri in pure visions and he was able to receive directly from Manjushri the answers to his various questions. Before that, he had to ask his questions to Manjushri through Lama Umapa. Now he could communicate directly with Manjushri. 

So, of course, we could ask the question – these skeptical Westerners – what in the world does this mean, to be able to have visions and communicate and get teachings from Manjushri? I never asked the old Serkong Rinpoche, but I asked the young Serkong Rinpoche. He’s now 19. I have certainly as close a relation with him as I had with the old one. So I asked him about this. Because the old Serkong Rinpoche’s father, Serkong Dorjechang, had a vision of Tsongkhapa; and in this vision of Tsongkhapa – Tsongkhapa’s most difficult text is called The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po). It’s the most difficult text on the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka schools. The old Serkong Rinpoche recited it every day from memory. It’s 250 pages long. Every day he recited it from memory. 

There’s a lineage that goes back to Tsongkhapa – it went down through all the generations – but there’s this special lineage that the old Serkong Rinpoche’s father, Serkong Dorjechang, received from a vision of Tsongkhapa, who gave him the oral transmission of the text and explained it to him. So I asked, “What’s this? What’s the story?” And so he told the story that Dorjechang was doing a retreat on this text in some cave up in the mountains to try to understand it more deeply. And one day a monk walked into his cave and sat down and explained to him the whole text; gave him the transmission. And it was quite an extraordinary explanation, and so on. And at the conclusion of it the monk said, “Oh, excuse me, I have to go out to the toilet.” And so the monk went outside and then didn’t come back, and so Dorjechang was wondering why. What happened? Maybe something happened. There was all snow and stuff, high up in the mountains outside of the cave. And he walked outside the cave – and there were no footprints; there was no nothing. And so he concluded that this had to have been a vision of Tsongkhapa. But when it actually was happening, it seemed as though it was an actual real person. This I found very interesting. I never had heard an explanation of what happens during a pure vision – what is it like. And of course he explained it as though it’s the most common, ordinary thing in the world. Tibetans are like that.

So Tsongkhapa’s doing this intensive retreat with his teacher and getting these visions of Manjushri. During the retreat, Tsongkhapa felt that he still didn’t have a proper understanding of Madhyamaka and Guhyasamaja. And he was no dummy. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t studied. He really worked hard. He probably had a better understanding of anybody in his day, but he still felt it was not good enough. And so Manjushri advised him to do a very long retreat and then he would understand the notes from the instructions that Manjushri had given him – because Manjushri had explained what Tsongkhapa just couldn’t get. So Manjushri was saying, “Do a very, very long retreat. Build up more positive force.” (Guhyasamaja, by the way, is called “King of the Tantras.” It’s in the explanations to this by Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti, both great Madhyamika masters, that you find the mechanism, the key for understanding all of tantra theory. So that’s the main thing when you study tantra.) “You need to build up positive force. Merit.”

And so, after teaching a little bit after that, Tsongkhapa went into a four-year retreat with eight of his close disciples. During this retreat – he was already in his mid-30s when he was doing this – and during this retreat, they did thirty-five sets of 100,000 prostrations, one to each of the thirty-five confession Buddhas, and eighteen sets of 100,000 mandala offerings. No small thing. And consider how learned and how advanced he was before he did this. And, of course, at the same time they did Yamantaka self-initiation all the time and studied the Avatamsaka Sutra; that’s a huge sutra, and Tsongkhapa always said that this was the main source for learning about bodhisattva deeds. 

After this retreat, Tsongkhapa had a vision of Maitreya Buddha. After the retreat, Tsongkhapa and his disciples restored this huge Maitreya statue in Dzingji Ling to build up even more positive force. It’s interesting that this is considered Tsongkhapa’s first great deed – restoring that statue. Not his teaching, not his retreats, not his books, or anything like that. Restoring a statue. Because it’s not only positive for him, but it gives other people great opportunity. As Lama Zopa says about the Maitreya statue he wants to build in India, it gives people the great opportunity to build up a lot of positive force. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lama Zopa thinks of this example of Tsongkhapa.

And then, after that, Tsongkhapa went back into retreat for another five months to try to put it all together. So it really shows the importance that if we have an impasse in our understanding, no matter how far we are on the path, the only way past that impasse is to really build up a tremendous amount of positive force – through purification and these sort of things, and actually doing something for the service of others. And rely on Manjushri; on the Manjushri mantra. After doing these incredible preliminary practices for four years and restoring the Maitreya statue, then Tsongkhapa went into another retreat for another five months.  

There was a very famous Nyingma lama at the time called Lhodrag Namka Gyaltsen, and this Nyingma lama had, continually, visions of Vajrapani. And he invited Tsongkhapa, and they became mutual teacher and disciple. It’s from this Nyingma lama that Tsongkhapa got his main lam-rim transmissions from the Kadam tradition – two of the main Kadam lineages. There are three Kadampa lineages that had split. He got two of them from this Nyingma lama and one from a Kagyu lama. The Kadampa was divided into three: One was the lam-rim teachings, one was the textual teachings, and one was the oral guideline teachings. So he got the lam-rim and the oral guideline lineages from this Nyingma lama, and the textual tradition from a Kagyu lama. This I find very interesting. One always thinks that he got them from Kadampa lamas; he didn’t. And that Gelugpa was so separate from all these other traditions; it wasn’t. Look at this Kagyu lama, Lama Umapa, that Tsongkhapa studied Madhyamaka with; he had studied Madhyamaka with Sakya. The Sakyas were the main Madhyamaka people of those days.

Anyway, Tsongkhapa at this point wanted to go to India to study more. This also is very interesting. This is at the end of the 1300s. There’s this common part of the anti-Muslim prejudice which is that, well, Buddhism was all destroyed in India in the early 1200s and then it was finished. That wasn’t the case. This is the end of the 1300s, and Tsongkhapa wanted to go to India to study Buddhism. Obviously there were some teachers there. But Vajrapani advised Tsongkhapa to stay in Tibet since he would be of more benefit there. So Tsongkhapa didn’t go to India. But in staying, he resolved that in the future he would write the Lam-rim chen-mo (The Grand Stages of the Lam-rim Path) and the sNgags-rim chen-mo (The Grand Presentation of the Stages of Tantra) on all four classes of tantra. This is how he would most benefit. 

He didn’t write them immediately, because he went into retreat again. And this time he did a retreat on the Kalachakra complete stage. And he got out of this retreat and he was still not satisfied. After all this time, he had done all these preliminaries and all this meditation, yet still hadn’t really gotten the full essence of the Madhyamaka teachings on voidness. He was still not satisfied. And it’s part of the tantric vows to never to be satisfied with your level of understanding until you reach enlightenment. 

So Manjushri advised him to rely on the commentaries of Buddhapalita, a great Indian master. It’s interesting that Manjushri didn’t just give him all the answers; he directed him to the Indian texts to study. And so Tsongkhapa entered another one-year retreat at this stage, on Madhyamaka. And it was during this retreat – the end of the retreat – he got the full non-conceptual cognition of voidness. It was only at this point that he became an arya. The path of seeing.

Based on his realizations, Tsongkhapa revised completely the understanding of Prasangika-Madhyamaka of his day – the teachings on voidness and the related topics. He was a radical, radical revolutionary. It took unbelievable courage. He revised almost everything – the understanding of all the great masters of his day. And, after him, not many people agreed. His disciples agreed, but everybody else tried to refute him. And none of the other Tibetan traditions accepts what he says; his revisions. The only ones who accept some of what he said about Prasangika is Karma Kagyu, from the time of the Eighth Karmapa. They accept a little bit of his presentation of Prasangika, but the rest of the Kagyus and the Sakyas and the Nyingmas don’t accept it at all.

Tsongkhapa, however, based all his reforms strictly on logic and scriptural references. He didn’t base it on: “Well, Manjushri told me in a vision.” Based strictly on scripture and logic. He wasn’t satisfied with what his teachers had said as the deepest meaning of the great Indian texts. Now in doing this – in contradicting all his teachers, everything that they said, when he was refuting them – he wasn’t committing a breach of his close bonding relationship with his teachers. That’s very interesting. 

I asked the young Serkong Rinpoche: “Seeing our teachers as Buddhas, doesn’t that mean that you can’t really go beyond them in terms of their realizations or refute them? You’re a Buddha, but your realization is wrong. Isn’t there something strange and contradictory about that?” So I asked the young Serkong Rinpoche the question, and the young Serkong Rinpoche explained. He said, “No no. It’s not any problem.” He said that to make a cake, for example, you need to put together many ingredients; you have to put together flour, butter, milk, and eggs. So our teachers show us how to make a cake and they bake a few for us. And they are very, very delicious, and we can enjoy them very much. And due to our teachers’ kindness, we now know how to make cake, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make some changes to the recipe and add a few more ingredients – some chocolate or something like that – and bake cakes that are even more delicious than the ones our teachers made. And, in doing so, we’re not being disrespectful toward our teachers. And if the teachers are really qualified, they’ll rejoice at our new recipe and enjoy the new cakes with us, and they might even decide that it’s more delicious than the ones they made.

The example of the cake is quite nice, but we’re talking here about something a little bit more serious, which is that Tsongkhapa is questioning the understanding of voidness that these arya people have, which actually is bringing into question whether or not they’ve ever achieved the path of seeing, let alone liberation or enlightenment. The path of seeing; have they actually achieved that? And of course you could look at it in that way. Shantideva argues in the Bodhicharyavatara, in the ninth chapter about the Prasangika understanding of voidness: If you had a low understanding of voidness, although you might think that you’ve achieved liberation, you haven’t. And so a rude awakening – as a so-called arhat – when you’re about to die and you find that you’re going to activate the twelve links again. So you could say, “Well, wasn’t Tsongkhapa saying that?” And I think that’s one way of interpreting it, but it’s not the only way of interpreting it.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains sometimes, when he talks about various views, that you have to distinguish – actually Shantideva did say this as well – you have to distinguish between what these great authors write and what they actually experience and achieve in meditation. And he says a great many highly-realized masters are not very skilled in explaining themselves clearly – what they actually realize. And because of their lack of skill in writing clearly, if you just look at what they wrote, then you’ll find quite a lot of contradictions in it and inaccuracies. But you can’t say on the basis of that that nobody ever achieved the path of seeing – or liberation, or enlightenment – without having the Gelugpa view. So that’s how His Holiness explains, and I think that’s very reasonable. Because you certainly can meet a lot of different masters who don’t have this skill of being able to explain themselves clearly. To teach clearly is really very, very rare. It’s interesting. Tsongkhapa emphasized, from very young, Sarasvati. That’s the special figure to be able to get clear explanations and to write so that other people really can understand clearly. And how important that is.

Further Great Deeds

After teaching some more, Tsongkhapa again went into retreat; this time with his teacher Rendawa. He went into a writing retreat, and it was during this retreat that he wrote most of Lam-rim chen-mo. He wrote Lam-rim chen-mo only after he’d had nonconceptual cognition of voidness. He didn’t write it as just the beginning stuff. And then he studied some more of the six practices of Naropa and mahamudra further with Drikung Kagyu. And he had done lots of retreats on this already but he went for more teachings, back to Drikung Kagyu. And then, during the rainy season after this, he taught vinaya (dul-ba, the monastic rules of discipline); and he taught it so clearly and so profoundly that it’s regarded as his second great deed. That’s very interesting. His teaching Madhyamaka and his revising the understanding – all these things – that’s not considered one of his great deeds. Teaching the monastic discipline rules; that’s considered a great deed because he clarified these things and really got the whole monastic community back in shape, which had a very long-lasting influence in terms of the preservation of the Buddhadharma. The Buddha said, “So long as the monastic sangha survives, the Dharma survives.”

So, after this, Tsongkhapa finished Lam-rim chen-mo and he decided that now he would teach more fully on tantra. But before teaching on tantra, he wrote extensive commentaries on the bodhisattva vows and the Fifty Stanzas on the Guru (Bla-ma lnga-bcu-pa, Skt. Gurupañcāśikā); that was the foundation for tantra practice. Then, while he was teaching tantra, he wrote Ngag-rim chen-mo (The Stages of the Tantra Path) and so many of his commentaries on Guhyasamaja. From the eighteen volumes that he wrote, the topic that he wrote the most about is Guhyasamaja. This tantra system from which comes all the basic teachings on how do you understand tantra; the whole theory of tantra. It comes out of that literature.

Then the Chinese Emperor invited him to become the Imperial Tutor, but Tsongkhapa excused himself, “Sorry. I’m too old, and I want to stay in retreat,” and he sent one of his disciples instead. Now that’s a very good example. Suppose you’re in a position in which you are really doing something about what you think is beneficial in terms of pure Dharma. And then we get this opportunity. Somebody offers us as a job or something and we could become really, really famous and make a lot of money. Are we willing to turn that down and stay as a humble practitioner and do what we think is the best for Dharma? And Tsongkhapa clearly decided, “No, thank you.” Tsongkhapa decided it was much more important to stay and continue writing and to teach his disciples in the monasteries. Very inspiring example.

Over the next two years Tsongkhapa taught lam-rim and tantra extensively and wrote this text that I mentioned, The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings. It’s a very difficult text on the different tenet systems and on voidness. He wouldn’t have written it if he’d gone to China.

Then in the year 1409, at the age of 52, he started the Monlam Great Prayer Festival (sMon-lam chen-mo) in Lhasa at the Jokhang. All the monks from all the different monasteries and traditions come together for a great session of prayers, and practice, and bringing everybody together. Very important. And there’s a big Shakyamuni Buddha statue at the Jokhang, this temple, and he offered it a golden crown. Rather than it just being like a Buddha monk, Shakyamuni monk, he offered it a golden crown – like a prince – which signifies that now it was a Sambhogakaya statue rather than a Nirmanakaya statue. This is significant because a Nirmanakaya manifestation of a Buddha, like Shakyamuni, lives a life and passes away – like an ordinary being – but a Sambhogakaya stays forever, until everybody has reached liberation. And so this is considered his third great deed, crowning the statue, because it was such an auspicious thing in terms of the positive force from that – that the teachings not just come and go, like ordinary life, but will endure like a Sambhogakaya. It would be very, very inspiring for people who came and saw this statue.

After this, his disciples asked him to stop traveling so much, and so they founded for him Ganden monastery (dGa’-ldan dGon-pa), Tsongkhapa’s personal monastery. There he continued to teach and write and do more retreats. And he commissioned that they build the great Ganden hall with a huge Buddha statue and copper three-dimensional mandalas – quite big – of the three main tantra deities that he practiced: Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, and Yamantaka (Vajrabhairava). And building these three-dimensional mandalas in Ganden hall, that’s considered his fourth great deed. 

I found this really quite interesting to look at. He did so many fantastic things during his lifetime, and what were chosen as his four greatest deeds? It’s restoring this Maitreya statue, teaching on vinaya, crowning this statue in the Jokhang, and building these mandalas. If we had to choose his four greatest deeds, we probably would not choose those, would we? If you think about it, they didn’t choose what Tsongkhapa did basically to gain his own realizations – in terms of all his practice or his insights – those weren’t considered his great deeds. His great deeds were what he did for the future, to benefit people for many, many, many generations in the future. In terms of this great Maitreya statue – Maitreya is the next Buddha, so that’s very auspicious for the future. The vinaya – the lasting of the Buddha’s teachings is with the pure vinaya. Sambhogakaya is for Buddha to teach forever. And the mandalas of the tantric deities to make everything into a pure land. I think it’s on this basis, of what was significant for building up tremendous positive karmic force for the flourishing of the teachings in the future. Those were considered his great deeds – for the benefit of others, not his personal insights or his personal practices or personal accomplishments. 

What’s significant is that people make the prayers. So you’re inspired by the statue: “May I be able to meet and be among the first disciples of Maitreya when Maitreya comes.” The Maitreya prayer. Everybody recites that. Because you have to build up the karmic connection with Maitreya in order to actually be a disciple of Maitreya. It gives us a great deal of respect for Lama Zopa’s project with this huge Maitreya statue. Because, of course, it’s very easy to criticize and think it’s impractical – could use the money to buy food for the poor people. But if you look at it in light of what Tsongkhapa did, and the whole thing in terms of the future lasting of the teachings and future connections, then Lama Zopa is really trying to follow, I think, in the steps of Tsongkhapa with this example. This is why I think it’s quite important – although I must say that I myself was skeptical in the beginning – but I think it’s quite important, when we talk about karma and dedication. 

The Tibetans always use an example: Even if we put just one grain of rice in this huge, huge bag of rice that’s going to be used to feed people on their journey – well, we’ve made our contribution to that. And so that will build up a positive force until the whole thing is used up. And so, likewise, even if we just make a little bit of a donation to this, we’ve contributed in something which will really have long, long future consequences. If it ever happens. I mean if they’re ever able to succeed in building this thing. So I think this is the thinking behind Lama Zopa.

Passing Away

Tsongkhapa continued to live and write and teach in Ganden, and he died there in 1419 at the age of 62. He attained enlightenment after his death by – instead of bardo, achieving an illusory body after the clear light of death and then went on from that to enlightenment. And this was to emphasize the need for monks to follow strict celibacy, because to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime requires practice with a consort at least once. Only once. It’s basically to be able to move the energy-winds that are on the surface of the skin to get them to dissolve into the central channel. So it requires a certain type of powerful blissful awareness that will actually get those energies to start to move; those subtle energies. We only have to have it once, and then you can start to manipulate those energies and get them to centralize in the central channel. That’s the only purpose. Quite technical. 

And before Tsongkhapa passed away, he gave his hat and robe to Gyaltsab Je, his senior disciple, who held the Ganden throne for twelve years afterwards. This began the tradition of the Ganden Throne Holder (dGa’-ldan khri-pa, Ganden Tripa), the head of the Gelug order. The next throne holder was Kedrub Je, who later had five visions of Tsongkhapa. During these five visions, Tsongkhapa clarified some of his doubts and answered some of his questions. And the Gelug lineage has flourished ever since then.


Several of his close disciples founded monasteries to continue his lineages and teachings. While he was still alive, one of them founded Drepung (Bras-spungs dGon-pa) and one of them founded Sera (Se-ra dGon-pa). So those three were already there while Tsongkhapa was alive. After he passed away, one established the Lower Tantric College (rGyud-smad Grva-tshang); the upper one wasn’t established until much later. And another one, who was posthumously called the First Dalai Lama, founded Tashilhunpo Monastery (bKra-shis lhun-po), which is in another part of Tibet. So that’s how it began. Those four – the three that were main monasteries (Ganden, Sera, and Drepung) and then Gyume, the Lower Tantric College – they were all in the Lhasa area. That’s in U; the province of U. And then the next province to the west is Tsang, and that’s where the First Dalai Lama founded Tashilhunpo. So quite early it spread to another province.


I find it very inspiring if you look and start to analyze some of the things that he did, then one really appreciates what a revolutionary he was and how extraordinary he was. And it’s quite clear that people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other of the great lamas really look to Tsongkhapa as a model.

Original Audio from the Seminar