Tsong Khapa (1357 – 1419)

Jan Jelle Keppler – Belgium

[This talk was given during 15th Annual International Theosophy Conference held in August 2013 in New York. The theme title of the conference was “How to Awaken Compassion? - H. P. Blavatsky and the Eternal Secret Doctrine”]


During my studies at the Faculty for Comparative study of Religions in Antwerp, Belgium, lectures were given by Mrs. Drs. Martine Strubbe on the subject of Buddhism. For the exam at the end of the academic year 2009-2010, she requested her students to prepare a paper in the form of a treatise about a Buddhist scholar.

The scholar I chose, Tsong Kha-pa, lived in Tibet from 1357 until 1419. According to many writers he is considered to be the main reformer of Tibetan Buddhism. He is also seen as the actual founder of the order of the New Kadampa also called the Gelugpa’s or the Yellow Cap monks. Both the Tibetan Head of State in exile, the Dalai Lama as well as the spiritual leader, the Panchen Lama, belong to this order.

The colossal Himalayan Mountains form a border between the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Asia. The Himalayas are the world’s tallest mountains, towering more than five miles above sea level. Himalaya means “home of snow” because the tallest peaks of the Himalayas are always capped with snow.

medley - tsong khapa 2

The Himalayas include Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. Everest rises 29,028 feet above sea level on the border between India and Nepal. No plant life grows near the mountain’s peak due to powerful winds, extremely cold temperatures, and a lack of oxygen. Many adventurous people attempt to climb Everest every year. Often their venture ends in sickness or death. Most people are unable to breathe 20,000 feet above sea level because there is not enough oxygen in the atmosphere. A person will suffer brain damage when one is unable to breathe. Strong winds and frigid temperatures make the climate even more rigorous. Clearly the peak of Mount Everest is a place for only the heartiest of people.

Check this link :

The life of Tsong Khapa (1357-1419)

Tsong Khapa, also called Je Rimpoche, was born in eastern Tibet in the Valley of Tsong Kha (Onion Valley) in the province of Amdo. It is said, that at the place where he was born later the Kumbum monastery was founded. His birth took place in the Tibetan “Year of the Bird”, or in the year 1357 of our era. Many of the facts and circumstances described here are in the first part of the book Life and Teachings of Tsong Khapa by Robert A. F. Thurman. He was the fourth of a family with six sons. The father was a hefty, but modest and taciturn man. This energetic and subdued man was constantly with his thoughts on the teachings of the Buddha and recited every day the "the pronunciation of the names of Maňjushri”. Maňjushri is one of the main bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. His name means compassion. The mother was a most friendly and unsuspecting woman. She always sang the mantra of Avalokiteshvara “Om Mani Padme Hum” = “See the Jewel of the Lotus is Coming” The name of Avalokiteshvara means “He who is seen”, or “He who looks down”. He is also named Padmapani, or the Lotus Carrier, and is one of the main bodhisattvas of the Northern Buddhism.

In the “Year of the Monkey” prior to his birth, his parents would have had many auspicious dreams, which indicated that a being of particular high stature would be born, who could be considered as an emanation both of Avalokitesvara and of Maňjushri. The mother during childbirth would have experienced no pain. There would also have appeared a star in the sky. All in all, the stories around his birth have resemblance to those of Buddha and Jesus.

At the age of three Tsong Khapa, took the laity vow before the Fourth Karmapa, Rolpay Dorje and he got the name Kunga Nyingpo. His first teacher was the Lama Choeje Dondrup Rinchen. After this Lama had given many gifts to his father, including horses and sheep, he was permitted to take him away from his parents.

Tsong Khapa took the novitiate vow and got the name Losang Drakpa, at the age of seven. This name he would later use as a pseudonym for the publication of his controversial work. Before he took the novitiate vow he received many teachings and initiations, including the “Heruka Permission” within the tantric practice of the generation of Mandalas inside the human body, and he got the secret name Donyo Dorje. Buddha Heruka is a manifestation of enlightened compassion.

On the advice of his teacher he first studied the great treatise of Abhisamayalamkara and then the other treatises.

Following quotation is from,

Check this link:

One of the major Mahayana sutra texts studied by all four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism is Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Skt. Abhisamayalamkara), a commentary by Maitreya on the Prajnaparamita Sutras (phar-byin mdo, Sutras on Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness, Perfection of Wisdom Sutras). It receives such emphasis in the Tibetan traditions – and not in the Indian or East Asian Mahayana ones – perhaps because Haribhadra, the author of its main commentary, was a disciple of the mid-eighth century Indian master Shantarakshita. Shantarakshita was the first Indian master to visit Tibet.”

He stayed with his first teacher, until he went to central Tibet at the age of 16. There he had as teacher the head of the Drikung Kargyu monastery, the Lama Chennga Choekyi Gyalpo, from whom he received instruction in boddhicitta (the selfless spirit) and mahamudra (Great Seal). In this monastery he was also inaugurated in the main medical treatises by the famous doctor Konchog Kyab and his fame began spreading already.

At age of 17, he went to the Choedra Chenpo Dewachen monastery in Nyetang. There he studied with Tashi Senghi, Densapa Gekong and Yonten Gyatso. It was the last one, who taught him how to study the great treatises and helped him with the Ornament for Realisations. Of this work both the basic text and the commentaries he had learned by heart and he understood them, within 18 days. Also the Prajňa Pāramitā (perfection of wisdom), he made effortlessly his own within the shortest times. At the age of 19 he was considered as a great scholar, both by his teachers as by his fellow students.

Therefore he began to travel around in the U-tsang province in central Tibet to have debates in several monasteries, such as those of Samye, Zhalu, Sazang, Tzechen and Sakhya, where he got extensive instructions and a number of initiations. In Sakhya he did the exams in the Prajňa Pāramitā. In Tzechen he met the revered Sakhya Lama, Rendawa Shönu Lodro, who had a special method in the teaching of the Treasury of Knowledge and who he would be regarding as his most important teacher. The two developed a mutual teacher-pupil relation. Rewanda taught him the Madhyamika philosophy of the Way of the Middle. He also received instruction by Chandrakirti on the Entrance to the Road of the Middle.

He returned to Lasha via Nyetang and became apprentice to the Abbot Kazhiwa Losal, a great scholar in Vinaya, Monastic Discipline. Under his direction, he studied the basic texts of the Discipline and of the Treasury of Knowledge with the many associated comments. He could handle more than forty pages of text per day, learn them by heart and understand them. He knew more than twenty thousand verses of the Prajňa Pāramitā by heart. While praying with the other monks, he could effortlessly do the one-pointed concentration exercise on insight meditation.

During a harsh winter in Nyetang, he gave his first teaching, while he had to remain there, because he suffered from severe back pain. He taught the knowledge or metaphysics of the Mahayana Abhidharma on the basis of the Compendium of Knowledge of Ashanga. He taught also in this context the Treasury of Knowledge by Vasubhandu, what text he had had mastered completely, at first reading on the spot.

He traveled around along important monasteries and teachers, began to hold retreats and to master all major works of the complete Kanjur (The Teachings of the Buddha) and Tanjur (The Comments on Doctrine). He took exams in the four remaining of the five treatises on the Middle Way, Logic, Knowledge, Perfection of Wisdom and Discipline. One is not sure, where and when he received his ordination, but it is generally assumed, that this was at the age of 21 in a monastery not far south of Lasha.

He returned to his second teacher the head of the Drikung Kargyu monastery, Lama Chennga Choekyi Gyalpo, from whom he received all the teachings, which Marpa had given to Milarepa and Ngogchu Dorje, two of his four sons. This teacher taught him even in tantra, the Six Doctrines of Naropa and many other issues, such as the teachings of Je Phagmo Drupa and of the the founder of the Drikung Kergyu monastery.

Following text is from,

Check this link:

Phagmo Drup Dorje Gyalpo (1110-1170) was born in Kham in far eastern Tibet. At the age of four he took the vows of a novice monk and began his training on the spiritual path. He traveled to central Tibet to receive further training from masters residing in the vicinity.

He received his training from a series of masters, including the head of the Sakyapa school, who taught him the complete Lam-Dre teachings. Thus he attained mastery in Buddhist Philosophy and a technical understanding of the Sutras and Tantras.

Nevertheless, Phagmo Drupa realized that this was not enough; he needed the guidance of a qualified Yogi to transform his meditation into direct realization. He therefore placed himself at the feet of Gampopa (Link: ).

Sometime after a brief discussion with the latter, Phagmo Drupa experienced a sudden awakening into the true nature of his own mind, and thereby fully realized ultimate Truth. During the next few days, following this experience, Phagmo Drupa completely mastered the full and direct realization of Mahamudra (Link: ).”

At the age of 32 Tsong Khapa wrote “Legshay Serteng” or the Rosary of Eloquent Teaching, a comment on the Perfection of Wisdom in the form of a summary of all 21 Indian commentaries on Decoration of the Realizations.

At the age of 33, he came in contact with Lama Umapa, whose life as a shepherd was completely changed after a vision of Manjushri. This Lama saw in Tsong Khapa an appearance of the Buddha of Compassion and wanted to become his disciple. It was through the fixed connection that this Lama had with Manjushri and later in a self-developed direct relationship with Manjushri, that Tsong Khapa received the teaching of the Buddha of Compassion.

He travelled together with his disciples and held fasting-retreats. He received instruction in the Kalachakra-cycle and instructions on astrology and on how to create Mandalas. Kalachakra means wheel of time and is also the name of one of the Tantric meditation Buddhas. He also began to give tantric teaching and tantric initiations. He kept traveling and holding retreats for two decades, the longest of which lasted four years. During this retreat he would have done three and a half million fully outstretched prostrations and one million eight hundred thousand mandala offering sequences. He took more and more students of the various schools to himself and taught the teachings of the Buddha. He received and gave initiations and wrote treatises and poems.

He refused to go to India, where he could have become Abbot of a large monastery. Also he refused to go to China, where he could have taught at the request of the Emperor. Instead, he stayed in Tibet, where he gave teachings, read and wrote lyrics and held meditative retreats with his disciples. He laid particular emphasis on the Monastic Discipline, Vinaya, and kept himself always accurately to all the requirements up to even the least significant ones.

From the age of 52 years, he traveled less because of his serious health problems. His pupils offered him to build a monastery for him on a place to be indicated by him. (Life and Teachings of TsongKhapa, by Robert A. F. Thurman) He chose the Mountain Drogri, or the Nomads Mountain, and gave the place the name Ganden, which means “The Residence of Maitreya” or “The Pure Land”. Together with his pupil Gendun Drup, who later would be posthumously promoted as first Dalai Lama, he visited the place. Within a year 70 buildings were erected. The following year, Tsong Khapa began already to teach in the monastery.

The construction of the Ganden monastery is considered to be the fourth of the major works of Tsong Khapa. The monks of this monastery are wearing yellow colored head caps to distinguish themselves from the other orders, who wore red caps (Nyingmapa) and black caps (Karmapa). The Abbot of the monastery called the Ganden Tripa is also the head of the Gelugpa order. Gelug means the virtuous. The teachings are contained in Lam-Rim lectures. Lam-Rim lecturing is one of the three methods of teaching within each of the Tibetan Lama traditions, of which the other two are the study of texts and oral instructions.

At 61 years of age he gave still lengthy instructions. He wrote a work with comment on Entering the Middle Path. Until the end of his life he continued daily to say prayers and perform rituals. On the 25th day of the 10th month of the Year of the Pig (1419) he died at the age of 62, while he sat in meditation in the lotus position.

The work “The Eighty (Main Deeds) of Thongkhapa”, which was written by the great Lama Kargyu Panchen, immediately after Tsong Khapa's death, contains a very comprehensive and detailed description of his life and is considered his most authoritative biography. This work could not be found in the form of a translation.

The work of Tsong Khapa (1357-1419)

medley - tsong khapa 3

In the 8th century AD, early Buddhism, which had been preached in Tibet since two centuries, had been founded by Padmasambhava with the first monastery of the order of the Nyingma-pa (meaning “The Old School”) in Samye, east of Lasha. Today the original building does not stand. The site was destroyed during the cultural-revolution, but restored afterwards.

Pearlman, Ellen (2002). Tibetan Sacred Dance: a journey into the religious and folk traditions. Rochester, Vermont, USA: Inner Traditions. p.94:

When Padmasambhava consecrated Samye Monastery with the Vajrakilaya dance, he tamed the local spirit protector, Pehar Gyalp, and bound him by oath to become the head of the entire hierarchy of Buddhist protective spirits. Pehar, later known as Dorje Drakden, became the principal protector of the Dalai Lamas, manifesting through the Nechung Oracle.”

Dorje (1999), p. 173:

Samye Monastery is laid out in the shape of a giant mandala, with the main temple representing the legendary Mount Meru in the centre. Other buildings stand at the corners and cardinal points of the main temple, representing continents and other features of tantric Buddhist cosmology. The main temple is full of Tibetan religious art in both mural and statue form, as well as some important relics. Many Tibetan Buddhists come on pilgrimage to Samye, some taking weeks to make the journey.”

The Tibetan king Lang Darma suppressed Buddhism in his country, in the 9th century.

At nearly the age of 60, in the year 1038, the Indian Prince Atisha came to Tibet, like many other Indian monks around the year 1000, to reform Buddhism, which had degenerated in this country. At the time, the understanding of the relationship between sutra and tantra was completely lost in Tibet. Atisha founded the Kadam-pa sect and had such a great influence, that also the existing Kargyu-pa- and Sakya-pa sects reformed partially.

Especially the Sakya Lamas, who usually were married and had their positions inherited from father to son, hereinafter gained worldly power. The great Chinese Emperor Khublai Khan, descendant of Djenghiz Khan, who conquered Tibet in the year 1206, recognized the head of the Sakya school in 1270 as head of this order and granted him the worldly power to reign over Tibet. The Mongol shamanism was apparently closer to Buddhism than Christianity, Islam and Confucianism, which also were known to the emperor.

The legend says that the emperor had requested different religious representatives to produce a miracle and that it was only the Buddhists who could succeed. In return the Sakya Pandita had to ordain the Crown of the Chinese emperor.

In 1368, eleven years after Tsong Khapa was born, the Ming dynasty came to power in China. For political reasons the Chinese Emperors decided to put the leaders of the two other sects, the Kadam-pa and the Kagyu-pa on an equal footing with the Sakya-pa.

It is in this complicated political situation, that Tsong Khapa would complete the work of Atisha and that the reforms of the Kadam-pa sect would take place. In particular, he showed how the path of knowledge can be united with that of the yoga exercises.

The complete collected works of Tsong Khapa span 18 thick volumes. He studied, so says the tradition, with more than 100 teachers from all the schools of Lamaism or Tibetan Buddhism existing in his time. (There were four schools, the Kadam, Kagyu, Sakya and Nyingma. The name of the latter means the “old school” and its members are called the Red hoods.) He wrote prose and poetry on hundreds of topics.

His greatest merit is that he made accessible for everyone the path to enlightenment with his magnum opus, “The great treatise on the stages of the path to enlightenment”, which he wrote during his stay in Reting in the year 1402 when he was 46 years old. The Reting Monastery is located three day trips on horseback north of Lasha amid beautiful juniper shrub forests.

It must be said, though, that he makes a distinction between two categories of readers.

On the one hand, the ordinary people or beginners, people who are still attached to the pleasures of life and just long for a better next incarnation and also those people, who search only for themselves for liberation and enlightenment.

On the other hand, those people, who stirred by compassion, want to awaken spiritually in order to put an end to the suffering of all sentient beings.

He describes in this book, in a language understandable for ordinary mortals, how man can come to enlightenment through understanding of the teachings of the Buddha. He relies both on the classical Indian and Tibetan literature. It has become a handbook for meditation, in which the existing exoteric writings on the sutras are summarized.

All exercises, which are necessary in order to illuminate the mind, are treated. The Teaching, the Teacher, Meditation, Life, Death, Future Life, The Three Refuges, Karma, Ethics, Attitude of Life, Cause of Suffering, Twelve Dependencies, The Path to Liberation, The Nature of the three Exercises, these are all titles of chapters in part one of the book, which part is intended for people with mediocre abilities.

In this book he actually treats the six Paramitas, or perfections of the bodhisattva: prajna dana or generosity, sila or ethical discipline, ksanti or patient susceptibility, virya or energy and courage, dhyana or meditation and prajna or analytical understanding.

He is not to be regarded as a reformer in the meaning of innovator of the teaching. After the Buddha and Nagarjuna had brought the wheel of the teaching into motion for the first and second time, Tsong Khapa did it for the third time. Each time, the teaching is still the same and the four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the Tripitaka (three baskets with the books) remain unchanged.

In addition to the fame, to which he rose by writing many treatises and poems, Tsong Khapa has also obtained notoriety, by the following four deeds, which in Tibtan Buddhism are considered as his main works:

1 - He organized the renovation of a dilapidated statue of the future Maitreya Buddha in the Dzingji Temple and the large New Year Celebration of the year 1400 in this same Temple.

2- In company of Rendawa and Kyapchok Pel Zangpo he gave an extensive teaching in the Discipline, as enshrined in the vows of the ordained monks and nuns at Namtze Deng, a monastery with 600 monks. As a result, that the original tradition of monastic life of ordained monks and nuns was restored.

3 - He organized the first of the Tibetan new year Prayer festival in Lhasa in 1409. On new year's eve of the year of the mouse, there were 8,000 monks gathered. The culmination of this traditional festival, which henceforth takes place during the first two weeks of each year, is located at full moon. During the festival prayers are said for the universal welfare and in the main temple of Lhasa valuables are being sacrificed to the statue of the Buddha. The first day of the Tibetan New Year was February 22, 2012, or Losar 2139.

4 - He founded the Ganden Monastery, which was inaugurated in 1410. In the year 1415 a special temple was built for the Mandalas, by the use of which tantric rituals could be held. These were intended only for the initiates and had to remain hidden from the view of laymen. In the year 1417 a number of images including a large Buddha statue were erected in the great Hall of the monastery. There were further placed in that hall specially crafted three-dimensional gilded-brass Mandalas intended for the 32 exercises of the Godhead Guhyasamaja, the 62 exercises of the deity Heruka and 13 exercises of the deity Yamantaka. The monastery was destroyed under the Chinese occupation in 1959.


For the student of Western culture Tson Khapa seems an implausible legendary figure. All those stories about the predictive dreams of his parents and his teachers seem to have resemblance to the stories of the fantastic fairy tales from “1001 Nights”.

The parallels with the stories and mystifications about the lives of the Buddha and the Christ, who also could give teaching to the learned doctors at a very young age, appears but all too clearly. For a sober, Western, critical and scientific spirit it is almost impossible to take for granted all these theological stories and statements, which come to them from second and third hand.

A sense of humility comes over us, however when studying the many testimonies on such a perfect life as that of Tsong Khapa. While researching deeper into the subject there comes a moment that one would like to wish the same as what is said of his second great teacher, the Abbot of the Drikung Kargyu monastery, Lama Chennga Choekyi Gyalpo. When the Abbot met again with Tsong Khapa after his ordination he was overwhelmed by tears and he is said to have wished that he also would have been able to have had such intensive practice in his youth.

It is regrettable however that, within a few generations after Tsong Khapa reformed the degenerated Tibetan Buddhism, a relapse to the King-Priesthood took place there again, with all the associated court intrigues, violence and murdering.

It is encouraging to hear, that the 14th Dalai Lama, current Tibetan head of State and spiritual leader in exile, has recently announced that he will transfer his spiritual tasks to a successor, who will not have state power. The separation of Church and State in Tibetan Buddhism is in this way in fact restored.

One of the important conclusions is that according to Tibetan Buddhism besides the current Buddha also the Maitreya Buddha of the future actually communicates through visions with people on Earth. But, especially in Northern Europe, this also seems to apply for Sinterklaas and, still wider, for Santa Claus.

For reasons of safety within Tibetan Buddhism the Tantras may not be studied or practiced by the non-initiated. I know from my own experience, that for more than thirty years ago a warning was given to me that one should not get involved with tantra nor mantra, because Westerners don't know what these are and what their impact can be.

Text Size

Paypal Donate Button Image

Subscribe to our newsletter

Email address
Confirm your email address

Who's Online

We have 226 guests and no members online

TS-Adyar website banner 150



Vidya Magazine