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Master Tsongkhapa and the Gelug Tradition

Master Tsongkhapa

Who is Master Tsongkhapa?

Tsongkhapa is one of the most acknowledged and popular masters of Tibet. He is also known as Je Rinpoche, where the literal meaning of his name is “Precious Master.” Considered as an emanation of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, Master Tsongkhapa founded the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Not only did Tsongkhapa found the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, he also mastered the teachings of many lineages and assembled his learning into the Gelug curriculum. They feature the Tibetan Buddhist teachings extensively, along with philosophy, debate, and some advanced yogic and Tantric practices. He was born in the Northeast Tibet, in the Amdo valley. To commemorate his birthplace, this is where the Kumbum monastery was established.

The common belief is that the story of Tsongkhapa had been predicted by Shakyamuni Buddha and Padmasambhava. Tsongkhapa was a young boy during the time of Shakyamuni. Tsongkhapa gave Buddha a clear crystal rosary whereas Buddha gave him a conch shell in return. It probably symbolizes Tsongkhapa’s early spirituality and reverence towards Buddha, as well as Buddha’s faith in his greatness and potential to be a great master. It was predicted by Buddha that the boy will be born in Tibet in his later life, and would go on to establish a great monastery, among his other accomplishments.

Similarly, the fact that a fully ordained Buddhist monk would be born in east China had also been predicted by Padmasambhava. He would go on to attain the bliss body, or Sambhogakaya of Buddha, as an emanation of a Bodhisattva. The same old conch shell was later unearthed during the construction of Ganden Monastery in Lhasa in 1959, and it was still available to see in the Drepung monastery. In Lhasa at the Jokhang, the crown still adorns the head of the Buddha in Lhasa at the Jokhang.

Events in the Life of Tsongkhapa

At the age of 3, he took vows and at 7, received ordination as a novice monk. Tsongkhapa received the empowerment of Chakrasamvara, Hevajra, and Yamantaka within the next five years. He traveled to different parts of Tibet to study with many masters. When 16 years old, he journeyed to Drigung Monastery.

He studied Perfection of Wisdom philosophy, the Great Seal (Mahamudra). And also, he gained mastery over a wide range of principal Mahayana and Vajrayana texts. His fame began to spread rapidly. And so, he began to transmit his knowledge to a growing number of disciples at many monastic colleges, such as as Drigung, Samye, Zhalu, and Sakya.

He experienced his first encounter with the Bodhisattva Manjushri when he was 33. Not only could he experience Manjushri's presence directly, but he also received his teachings. And hence, Tsongkhapa is called an emanation of the divine Manjushri, Bodhisattva of wisdom.

Tsongkhapa attained perfect enlightenment in 1390. He established the Great Prayer (Monlam) Festival at Lhasa in 1409. He founded a monastery and named it Ganden, "Joyous," after the Tushita Paradise of Maitreya in 1410. The first Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripa) was Tsongkhapa. It was under his leadership that the Gelug sect spread across Tibet and became the largest school of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Iconographic Depiction of Tsongkhapa in Thangkas

Tsongkhapa is depicted as being seated on a lotus on a moon disc. He sits on an adamantine Vajra posture, where both of his hands are in teaching mudra. He is clad in an ornate robe and a conical yellow hat rests on his head. This is the distinctive headgear of Gelug and resembles that of Bengali Pandita. It is because of this that they are also known as the "Yellow Hat" sect.

A lotus supports a Perfection of Wisdom text above his left shoulder. And there is a lotus that supports a sword of wisdom on his right shoulder. The book and the sword are the emblems of Manjushri that proclaim his identity with the Bodhisattva. There is the Vaishravana displaying his mongoose and victory banner, six-armed blue Mahakala, and Yama Dharmaraja on the bottom left to right.

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