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Short Biography of Tsongkhapa

Short Biography of Tsongkhapa

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A Short Biography of Tsongkhapa

Alexander Berzin, August 2003 partly based on a discourse by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey Dharamsala, India

The biography of a great lama is called a "namtar" (rnam-thar), a liberating biography, since it inspires the listeners to follow the example of the lama and achieve liberation and enlightenment. The biography of Tsongkhapa (rJe Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) (1357-1419) is indeed inspiring. Prophesies and Childhood Both Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Rinpoche prophesied Tsongkhapa’s birth and attainments. At the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, a young boy who was a previous incarnation of Tsongkhapa presented a crystal rosary to Buddha and received a conch shell in return. Buddha prophesied Manjushri would be born as a boy in Tibet, would found Ganden monastery, and would present a crown to my statue. Buddha gave the boy the future name Sumati-kirti (Blo-bzang grags-pa, Lozang-dragpa). Guru Rinpoche also prophesied a monk named Lozang-dragpa would be born near China, would be regarded as an emanation of a great bodhisattva, and would make a Buddha-statue into a Sambhogakaya representation. Several indications before Tsongkhapa’s birth also indicated that he would be a great being. His parents, for example, had many auspicious dreams that their child would be an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Vajrapani. His future teacher, Chojey Dondrub-rinchen (Chos-rje Don-grub rin-chen), was told by Yamantaka in a vision that he (Yamantaka) would come to Amdo (A-mdo, northeastern Tibet) in a certain year and become his disciple. Tsongkhapa was born in Tsongkha (Tsong-kha), Amdo, in 1357, the fourth of six sons. The day after Tsongkhapa’s birth, Chojey Dondrub-rinchen sent his main disciple to the parents with gifts, a statue, and a letter. A sandlewood tree grew from the spot where his umbilical cord fell to the ground. Each leaf had a natural picture of the Buddha Sinhanada (Sangs-rgyas Seng-ge sgra), and was thus called Kumbum (sKu-‘bum), a hundred thousand body images. The Gelug monastery called Kumbum was later built on that spot. [See: A Brief History of Kumbum Monastery.] Tsongkhapa was not like an ordinary child. He never misbehaved; he instinctively engaged in bodhisattva type actions; and he was extremely intelligent and always wanted to learn everything. At the age of three, he took lay vows from the Fourth Karmapa, Rolpay-dorjey (Kar-ma-pa Rol-pa’i rdo-rje) (1340-1383). Soon after, his father invited Chojey Dondrub-rinchen to their home. The lama offered to care for the education of the boy and the father happily agreed. The boy stayed at home until he was seven, studying with Chojey Dondrub-rinchen. Just seeing the lama read, he instinctively knew how to read without needing to be taught. During this time, Chojey Dondrub-rinchen gave the boy the empowerments of Five-Deity Chakrasamvara (Dril-bu lhalnga), Hevajra, Yamantaka, and Vajrapani. By the age of seven, he had already memorized their complete rituals, had completed the Chakrasamvara retreat, was already doing the self-initiation, and already had a vision of Vajrapani. He frequently dreamt of Atisha (Jo-bo rJe dPal-ldan A-ti-sha) (982-1054), which was a sign that he would correct misunderstandings of the Dharma in Tibet and restore its purity, combining sutra and tantra, as Atisha had done. At the age of seven, Tsongkhapa received novice vows from Chojey Dondrub-rinchen and the ordination name Lozangdragpa. He continued to study in Amdo with this lama until he was sixteen, at which time he went to U-tsang (dBusgtsang, Central Tibet) to study further. He never returned to his homeland. Chojey Dondrub-rinchen remained in Amdo, where he founded Jakyung Monastery (Bya-khyung dGon-pa) to the south of Kumbum. Early Studies in Central Tibet In Central Tibet, Tsongkhapa first studied at a Drigung Kagyu monastery, where he learned the Drigung mahamudra tradition called "possessing five" (phyag-chen lnga-ldan), medicine, and further details about bodhichitta. By seventeen, he was a skilled doctor. He then studied Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs-rgyan, Skt. Abhisamayalamkara), the other texts of Maitreya, and prajnaparamita (phar-phyin, far-reaching discriminating awareness) at several Nyingma, Kagyu, Kadam, and Sakya monasteries, memorizing the texts in just days. By nineteen, he was already acknowledged as a great scholar. He continued to travel to the most famous monasteries of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, studying the five major Geshe-training topics and the Indian tenet systems, debating them and sitting for debate examinations. He received the Kadam lam-rim (lam-rim, graded sutra path) teachings and also innumerable tantric empowerments and teachings,

it would seem impossible that anyone could do even one of them in a lifetime. One of his main teachers was Rendawa (Red-mda’-ba gZhon-nu blo-gros) (1349-1412). he traveled widely again and received many empowerments and teachings on the three lower tantra classes. After that. Tsongkhapa could memorize each day seventeen double-side Tibetan pages of nine lines on each side. the paths and the result). at the age of 34. This great master had studied Madhyamaka with the Sakya tradition and. six yogas of Niguma). he had many disciples of his own. he only had to hear an explanation once and then he understood and remembered it perfectly – as was the case with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. had daily visions of Manjushri. but was never satisfied with his learning or level of realization. jenang) of Sarasvati (dByangs-can-ma) for wisdom. Tsongkhapa decided to engage in intensive study and practice of all four tantra classes. also on the same day. [See: Hundreds of Deities of Tushita (Ganden Lhagyama). one session on each every day. especially Kalachakra. He synthesized and discussed all twenty-one Indian commentaries. He also studied further the five-stage complete stage (rdzogs-rim) of Guhyasamaja and Kalachakra. It later became the verse repeated for Tsongkhapa guru-yoga. Intensive Tantra Study and Practice Soon after this. which he recited fluently with no mistakes.including the Sakya tradition of lamdray (lam-‘bras. how much he wrote. at age 32. a stilled and settled state of mind) and vipashyana (lhag-mthong. he substantiated with quotes from the entire span of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist literature. and with staggering. Thus. Unlike previous scholars. he studied and analyzed the entire Kangyur (bKa’-‘gyur) and Tengyur (bsTan-‘gyur) – the translated direct teachings of Buddha and their Indian commentaries. since childhood. Study and Retreats for Gaining Nonconceptual Cognition of Voidness Tsongkhapa also went to study the practice of Manjushri Dharmachakra (‘Jam-dbyangs chos-kyi ‘khor-lo) and Madhyamaka with the Karma Kagyu Lama Umapa (Bla-ma dbu-ma-pa dPa’-bo rdo-rje). After this. with his first teaching being on abhidharma (mdzod. taught. He also began to write and do more retreats. he also did the self-initiation (bdag-‘jug) of Yamantaka and all his other tantric practices. and consider how much he studied. Everyone was astounded at his erudition. He gained great realization. The next closest could only do two and a half. Although some accounts say Tsongkhapa took full monk vows at age 21. It was probably later in his 20s. Tsongkhapa won with four pages. special topics of knowledge). six yogas of Naropa). If we look at his life of only 62 years. Tsongkhapa did his first major tantric retreat. Soon. A disciple requested Tsongkhapa to do the same. Once some scholars held a memorizing contest to see who could memorize the most pages before the sun hit the banner on the roof of the monastery. practiced (including making tsatsa clay statues). As he later wrote. Normally. comparing and critically editing even different translations. He also studied poetic composition. astrology. and Kalachakra. In all his studies. and especially the subsequent permission (rjessnang. he never shied away from explaining the most difficult and obscure passages in any text. At one point. He debated and sat exams with most of the learned masters of his day. Tsongkhapa taught instead seventeen major sutra texts. Tsongkhapa wrote the Migtsema (dMigs-brtse-ma) praise to him. all from memory. who taught him . During this retreat. Whatever he wrote. he wrote A Golden Rosary of Excellent Explanation (Legs-bshad gser-phreng). and did retreats. he meditated intensely on the six teachings of Naropa and the six teachings of Niguma (Ni-gu’i chos-drug. he refuted incorrect interpretations of each and established his own view. but this master rededicated it to Tsongkhapa. starting them all on the same day and finishing them all three months later. Tsongkhapa always had strong renunciation. He easily achieved shamatha (zhi-gnas. one cannot truly appreciate the profundity of anuttarayoga tantra unless one has practiced and understood deeply the three lower tantras. Each day during the discourse. the Drigung Kagyu tradition of the six teachings of Naropa (Na-ro’i chos-drug. an exceptionally perceptive state of mind). and mandala construction. it is uncertain in which year this actually took place. on Chakrasamvara according to the Kagyu lineage. One great lama was famous for teaching eleven texts at the same time. a Sakya master. During the discourse. Tsongkhapa soon began to give tantric empowerments and teachings. He continued to travel and requested teachings over and again even on the same texts. He also continued his study of tantra.] Early Teaching and Writing Tsongkhapa began to teach while in his 20s. He lived extremely humbly and kept his vows purely. a commentary on Filigree of Realizations and thus on prajnaparamita.

Tsongkhapa received direct instruction from Manjushri in pure visions and was able to receive from him answers to all his questions. and after that. he was a radical reformer with the courage to go beyond current beliefs when he found them inadequate. it is regarded as his second great deed. and bake cakes that are even more delicious than those our teachers made. and wrote most of Lamrim chen-mo. To make a cake. From this time onward. Next. Gurupanchashika) to emphasize them as the foundation for tantra practice. while continuing to teach. and so on. after teaching a short while. After he finished Lam-rim chen-mo. he had to ask his questions to Manjushri through Lama Umapa. we are not being disrespectful toward our teachers. Due to our teachers’ kindness.000 mandala offerings. but Vajrapani advised to stay in Tibet since he would be of more benefit there. and they also became mutual teacher and disciple. Thus. He also wrote on Yamantaka and on Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka texts. clarifying many questions. who continually had visions of Vajrapani. This does not mean that we cannot make some changes. During the rainy season after this. Tsongkhapa and he became mutual teacher and disciple. The Chinese Emperor invited him to become his imperial tutor. milk. they will rejoice in our improvement on the recipe and enjoy the new cakes with us. Tsongkhapa felt he still did not have a proper understanding of Madhyamaka and Guhyasamaja. [See: Special Features of the Gelug Tradition. he stayed. They did thirty-five sets of 100. invited Tsongkhapa. Tsongkhapa entered a four-year retreat with eight close disciples at Olka Cholung (‘Ol-kha chos-lung). He transmitted to him the Kadam lam-rim and oral guideline lineages. however. Our teachers show us how to make a cake and bake a few for us. we now know how to make a cake. he had never felt satisfied with the level of explanation. Then. He resolved that later he would write A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path (Lam-rim chen-mo) on the graded sutra path and then A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Tantra Path (sNgags-rim chen-mo) on the stages of practice of the four tantra classes. Together with Lama Umapa. Manjushri advised that he do a very long retreat and then would understand the notes he had taken from his instructions. During the retreat. consequently during the retreat. he wrote Ngag-rim chen-mo and many commentaries on Guhyasamaja. Seeing our spiritual teachers as Buddhas does not mean that we can not go beyond them in our realizations. since visions can be influenced by demons. In this regard. In doing so. add some different ingredients. After this. Manjushri advised him to rely on the Madhyamaka commentary by Buddhapalita (Sangs-rgyas bskyangs). a one-year retreat on Madhyamaka. Tsongkhapa decided to teach more fully on tantra. Tsongkhapa and his disciples restored a great Maitreya statue in Lhasa. Before this. one each to the thirty-five confession Buddhas. Tsongkhapa did an extensive retreat on Manjushri.] Tsongkhapa always based his reforms strictly on logic and scriptural references. Tsongkhapa wanted to go to India to study more. monastic rules of discipline) so clearly. he studied the six practices of Naropa and mahamudra further with Drigung Kagyu. They may be very delicious and we may enjoy them greatly. Skt. he was not committing a breach of his close bond and relationship with his teachers. he wrote extensive commentaries on the bodhisattva vows and Fifty Stanzas on the Guru (Bla-ma lnga-bcu-pa. After the retreat. Tsongkhapa then did an extensive retreat on the Kalachakra complete stage. When he established his own view as the deepest meaning of the great Indian texts. Thus. gained full nonconceptual cognition of voidness. Tsongkhapa did so and. During the retreat.000 prostrations. eggs. this time with his teacher Rendawa. we need to put together many ingredients – flour. Tsongkhapa revised completely the understanding of the Prasangika-Madhyamaka teachings on voidness and related topics that the teachers and learned masters of his day had held. Although Tsongkhapa had learned much about Madhyamaka and voidness from his teachers. Before entering this one-year retreat. Tsongkhapa again went into retreat. butter. Lama Umapa checked with Tsongkhapa to get confirmation that the teachings he received in his visions of Manjushri were correct.one verse each day. but Tsongkhapa excused himself saying he was too . They had a vision of Maitreya afterwards. Based on his realization. he taught vinaya (‘dul-ba. If the teachers are really qualified. They then went into retreat for five more months. he had a vision of Atisha and the lam-rim lineage masters that lasted for a month. First. the Nyingma Lama Lhodrag Namkagyeltsen (Lho-brag Nam-mkha’ rgyal-mtshan). and eighteen sets of 100. This is very important. which was the first of his four major deeds. Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II explained this with the following example. with many Yamantaka self-initiations and study of The Avatamsaka Sutra (mDo phal-cher) for bodhisattva deeds. Further Great Deeds After teaching more.

Tsongkhapa taught lam-rim and tantra extensively and wrote The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po) on the definitive and interpretable meanings of the Mahayana tenets. in 1409. since enlightenment in this lifetime requires practice with a consort at least once. After Tsongkhapa’s passing away. He continued his writing and in the end. who later had five visions of Tsongkhapa. and do retreats. This began the tradition of the Ganden Throne Holder (dGa’-ldan khri-pa. Gyu Sherab-senggey (rGyud Shes-rab seng-ge) (1383-1445) founded Gyumay Lower Tantric College (rGyud-smad Grva-tshang) in 1433 and Gyelwa Gendun-drub (rGyal-ba Ge-’dun grub) (1391-1474). he inaugurated the Monlam Great Prayer Festival (sMon-lam chen-mo) at the Lhasa Jokang (Jo-khang). Tsongkhapa continued to teach. his collected works totaled eighteen volumes. After this. and Yamantaka. with the largest amount being on Guhyasamaja. [See: A Brief History of Ganden Monastery. whereas Nirmanakaya forms live only a short time. He commissioned the building of the great Ganden hall with a huge Buddha statue and copper three-dimensional mandalas of Guhyasamaja. at the age of 62. The Gelug lineage has flourished ever since. who held the Ganden throne for twelve years afterwards. He offered a gold crown to the Shakyamuni statue. This was to emphasize the need for monks to follow strict celibacy. Disciples Several of Tsongkhapa’s close disciples founded monasteries to continue his lineages and spread his teachings. Tsongkhapa gave his hat and robe to Gyeltsabjey (rGyal-tshab rJe Dar-ma rin-chen) (1364-1432). Chakrasamvara. not just Nirmanakaya. posthumously named the First Dalai Lama. Before he passed away. Then. Passing Away Tsongkhapa died at Ganden in 1419.old and wanted to stay in retreat. Sambhogakaya forms of Buddhas live until all beings are liberated from samsara. While Tsongkhapa was still alive. at the age of 52. He attained enlightenment after his death by achieving an illusory body (sgyu-lus) instead of bardo. This is considered his fourth great deed. signifying that it was now a Sambhogakaya statue. his disciples asked him to stop traveling so much and they founded Ganden Monastery (dGa’-ldan dGon-pa) for him. This is considered his third great deed. Pages with Similar Content: A Brief History of Ganden Monastery . Jamyang Chojey (‘Jam-dbyangs Chos-rje bKra-shis dpal-ldan) (1379-1449) founded Drepung Monastery (‘Bras-spungs dGon-pa) in 1416 and Jamchen Chojey (Byams-chen Chos-rje Shakya ye-shes) (1354-1435) founded Sera Monastery (Se-ra dGon-pa) in 1419. Ganden Tripa) being the head of the Gelug order. founded Tashilhunpo Monastery (bKra-shis lhun-po) in 1447. write (especially on Chakrasamvara).] At Ganden. Over the next two years. The next throne holder was Kaydrubjey (mKhas-grub rJe dGe-legs dpal-bzang) (1385-1438). clarifying his doubts and answering his questions.

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