Lama Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) was born in Amdo, in northeast Tibet. Interested in the miraculous events that occurred at Tsongkhapa’s birth, the master Choje Dondrup Rinchen took charge of his education when he was seven, giving him many teachings and tantric empowerments.
Tsongkhapa left Amdo at sixteen to further his studies, studying under fifty teachers (some biographers say 100) and gaining a wide knowledge of both sutra and tantra, being especially impressed with Dignaga and Dharmakirti’s system of reasoning. There followed an intense period of study and meditation, during which he experienced visions of Manjushri.
It is traditionally said that he did four great deeds during his life: the renovation of the Maitreya statue at Dzingji monastery and the great prayer festival that accompanied its completion (1400); his extensive work on the vinaya (code of monastic discipline) which is said to have revitalized the tradition of monasticism in Tibet; the establishment of the annual Great Prayer festival—monlam—(still going on today in Tibetan monasteries); and the founding of Ganden monastery.
Founder of the Gelugpa tradition
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.
Tsongkhapa was also a prolific writer, and left eighteen volumes of collected teachings containing hundreds of titles, among the most important texts in Tibetan Buddhism, including the seminal text on Guhyasamaja tantra.
Some of his most important works include:
- The Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path (Lamrim Chenmo)
- The Great Exposition of Tantras (sNgag-rim chenmo)
- The Essence of Eloquence on the Interpretive and Definitive Teachings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po)
- The Praise of Relativity (rTen-'brel bstodpa)
- The Clear Exposition of the Five Stages of Guhyasamaja (gSang-'dus rim-lnga gsal-sgron)
- The Golden Rosary (gSer-phreng)
These works are prime sources for the studies of the Gelug tradtion and have been praised by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as being the true essence of Buddhapalita’s work.
About the Lamrim Chenmo