Dialogue  October-December, 2012, Volume 14 No. 2

7.      14th Century Emergence of Gelug Tradition and its Significance in Revival of Buddhism in Tibetan Tradition 

Kalsang Wangmo       


Gelug tradition was established in Tibet about six hundred years ago. The tradition traces back its origin to phenomenal work by Atisha (980-1054) and establishment of Kadam tradition nearly three hundred years before Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) was born. Lama Tsongkhapa emphasized on tantric study and concentrated on practices of the three deities, Guhyasamaja, Heruka Chakrasamvara and Yamantaka, but a very important feature of the newly established Gelug tradition was, equal emphasis on texts and practice (of tantric); in effect keeping the basic Mahayana method of logic and curiosity alive in a teacher-student based monastic system, where understanding and realization of concepts could have easily succumbed to rote learning as the time went by and civilizations and dynasties changed. Gelug texts are more or less derived from Sakya, except the profound commentary, which is again a significant contribution of Gelug towards state of the present day Buddhism in Tibetan Tradition. There were no new concepts, as Tibetan traditions are never seen to stray too far from emptiness and interdependence, yet the elucidation and rendition of these concepts have been a very important factor in what eventually led to establishment of a new Buddhist tradition. [1]

* Dr. Kalsang Wangmo, Department of Buddhist Studies, University of Delhi, Delhi-110007.

Brief History of Tibet

Songtsän Gampo (617-680), Trisong Detsen (755-797), and Tritsu Detsen (806-838) (better known as Tri Ralpacan) are traditionally regarded as three dharma kings who are responsible for introducing and establishment of Buddhism in Tibet. Tri Ralpacan was 41st king of Tibet, and the Tibetan empire reached its greatest extent during his rule including parts of China, reached up to Bengal in India, and Nepal. As per most available records, Tri Ralpacan was murdered by his brother Langdharma (838-841 CE), who was influenced by ministers seeking end of Buddhism and re-establishment of Bon religion in Tibet [2][3]; although there are several other varying accounts. Nevertheless, death of Tri Ralpacan also marked the decline of Tibetan empire which later, after death of Langdharma, succumbed slowly to series of civil wars. While the central rule got embroiled in series of civil wars, local warlords began to take control. This era, starting from mid-9th century to mid of 11th century, saw the lowest point of Buddhism in Tibet. There is a very little and varying information available on this era, with some accounts referring to preservation of Buddhism in Amdo region of Tibet, and bringing it back later to central Tibet. Nevertheless, there was large-scale persecution/execution of Buddhist monastic order, and a number of lay religious movements started in Tibet. [4]

On the positive note, an effort to end this chaos rightly led into arrival of some of the greatest Masters on the scene – Naropa (956–1041), Atisha (980-1054), Milarepa (1052-1135), Sakya Pandita (1182–1251), – and establishment of Kadam, Kagyu, and Sakya traditions. Eventually, all the chaos led into what can be termed as the most productive era of Buddhism in Tibetan tradition. This was the second wave of translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit, which began towards the end of 11th century. [5]

According to Blue annals [6], in 1042, on the insistent of King Lha Lama Yeshe Yod of Kingdom of Guge in western Tibet, his nephew Lha Lama Jangchp Od invited Atisha to revive Buddhism in Tibet and translate some of the original Buddhist text. Atisha was invited to Tholing, and stayed there for several years. He came from the great Buddhist University of Vikramshila, and was known as one of the greatest religious authority on Buddhism in India. Soon he was recognized by all the schools of Tibet. His chief disciple was Domton (1005-1064), who founded the Kadampa School1, which was famous for its strict monastic discipline, its ritualism, and for its meditation practice. Reting Monastery was established in 1056 as the seat of the Kadampa lineage which was the first major monastery of the Sarma revival. From this school there developed, at the end of 14th century, the Gelugpa School under the leadership of Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419). [7]

Kagyu lineage traces back its origin to Buddha Shakyamuni through Marpa (1012–1097), the great translator and yogi, who brought the unbroken lineage from India to Tibet. The Kagyu lineage followed as Tilopa (988–1069), Naropa (956–1041), Marpa (1012–1097), Milarepa (c.1052—c.1135 CE), to Gompopa (1079–1153), who was equally well known in Tibet as Dagpo Lhaje, who founded the Dagpo Kagyud School in 1125. The Sakya Tradition also originated in 11th century A.D., and has been closely connected with one of the holy families of Tibet, the Khon Family, since early times. One of the family members, Khon Lui Wangpo Sungwa, became a disciple of the great Indian saint Padmasambhava in the 8th century, being amongst the first seven monks to be ordained in Tibet. It was Khon Konchok Gyalpo (1034–1102) who, in 1073 built Sakya monastery and thereby established the foundations of the Sakya Tradition in Tibet.

Although, Tibet was politically defragmented, the spiritual progress gained impetus during the end of 11th century A.D, when the second wave of translation progressed after the arrival of Atisha. It was not until Yuan dynasty established central rule in Tibet in mid 13th century A.D. that Tibet was once again politically united. Sakya lama retained religious power over Tibet with structural administration of Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) rulers in Mongolia with an appointment of Dpon-chens2. In 1251 Sakya Pandita (1182–1251) died. Drogon Chogyal Phagpa (1235–1280), his nephew, succeeded Sakya Pandita at the Mongol court. Phagpa became a religious teacher to Kublai Khan (1215 –1294) and developed the priest-patron concept that characterized Tibeto-Mongolian relations from that point onward. [8]

In 1265, Phagpa returned to Tibet and attempted to establish Sakya hegemony with the appointment of Sakya Zangpo as the Dpon-chen. By the end of the 13th century A.D, Western Tibet lay under the effective control of Mongols, while the kingdoms of Guge and Pu-rang retained their internal autonomy. Sakyas ruled till mid 14th century, when Mongol Yuan dynasty began to weaken rapidly, and Tai Situ Changchub Gyaltsen (1302–1364 or 1371) established an autonomous Tibetan rule by 1358. Tai Situ came from the Phagmodru, a large and wealthy monastery managed by the Lang family, and was originally founded as a hermitage in 1158 by the famous Kagyu scholar Phagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo (1110-1170). [9]

By the 1370 the lines between Buddhist schools were clear. [10]

Tai Situ was a pro-Tibetan tradition and abolished all Mongol laws and customs. This was the time Lama Tsongkhapa was receiving his novice vows in Amdo.

Birth of Lama Tsongkhapa

So it was nearly 300 years after some of the greatest Buddhist texts had been translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan – oral teachings of Vajrayana and Mahamudra had arrived through Marpa, and system of Lamdré, deriving from the Mahasiddha Virupa (one among the 84 mahasiddhas) based upon the Hevajra Tantra, esoteric Vajrayogini lineage, and cycles of Vajrakila, Mahakala and Guhyasamaja were accessible through Sakya texts – control of Mongol Yuan dynasty neared its end, the divisions between Sakya and Kagyu began to become clear, as they fought over political control of Tibet – in such a tussle in 1290, the Drikung Kagyu monastery was burned by Sakya and eastern Mongols, killing 10,000 people [8]– it was this time of political and social instability that Lama Tsongkhapa was born in 1357, in a nomadic family in Amdo, receiving layman ordination as early as the age of three from 4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje (1284–1339), and receiving novice ordination at the age of seven, from Choje Dhondup Rinchen.

Lama Tsongkhapa studied with great teachers from all the orders, even as the conflict between the schools intensified after Mongols left Tibet. Lama Tsongkhapa was upset by what he saw as the state of ethical decay among monks, particularly those who drank alcohol and were not celibate, but also by the battle of supremacy between them. He wanted to return to the pure roots of Buddhism, abstinence included. [11]

At a very early age, Lama Tsgongkapa received training on the great Mandalas of the Yoga Tantra and a complete set of standard initiation into the three lower classes of Tantra, as well as, in Heruka Tantra in accordance with the three traditions of the Mahasiddha, Luipada, Gantapa and Krishnapada, followed by instructions on the Anutarayoga Tantra and Cakrasamvara according to the tradition of Luipa and Naropa; in all he received empowerments in three most wrathful tantric deities – Guhyasamaja, Heruka Chakrasamvara, Hevajra, and Yamantaka. This reflected later in his works – out of total 18 volumes of collected teachings written by him, 5 were devoted solely to Guhyasamja.[1]

Lama Tsongkhapa’s attempts to bring together meditation, study of Buddhist text, and tantric, reflected in his prolific works.

Meanwhile Tibet began a gradual transformation into an autonomous, free country. Rule of Phagmodrup dynasty continued till 1434. By the time of birth of Lama Tsongkhapa, military hostility in Tibet more or less ended, and Mongol power reduced to mere notional value, with some interference in choosing head of Sakya monasteries. Later on, after establishment of Gelug School, Altan Khan (1507–1582); invited the third Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso3(1543–1588) to Mongolia in 1569, however Lobsang Gyatso (1617–1682), the fifth Dalai Lama was the first to wield effective political power over central Tibet. From this point onward, Dalai Lamas remained the Tibet’s Head till 1959.

Establishment of Gelug Tradion

Lama Tsongkhapa’s attempt to find roots of Buddhism rightly led him to compose some of his greatest non-tantric works: [14]

1. ‘Golden Garland of Eloquence’ (Abhisamayalankara) which is an extensive commentary on the ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ (Prajnaparamita) teachings.

2. ‘The Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path’ (lam rim chen mo), and ‘Condensed Exposition of the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment’ (Lam rim chung ba/ Dingwa).

3. ‘Essence of Eloquence’ (Legs bshad snying po), in which Tsongkhapa sorts out and determines, which teachings are definitive and which are only provisional.

4. ‘Ocean of Reasoning’ (Rigs pa’i rgya mtsho), commentary on Nagarjuna’s ‘Root Treatise on the Middle Way’ (Mulamadhyamakakarika)

5. ‘Elucidation of the Intention’, commentary on Candrakirti’s ‘Introduction to the Middle’ (Madhyamakavatara). It was written one year before his death.

Apart from this, there were numerous shorter non-tantric works, and as mentioned earlier, there was extensive focus on tantric works. Among tantric works, the most renowned works which formed the core of Gelug tradition are:

1. The Great Exposition of Tantras (Sngags rim chen mo), and

2. The Clear Exposition of the Five Stages of Guhyasamaja (Gsang ’dus rim lnga gsal sgron)

3. Commentary on Six Yogas of Naropa (Zab lam Na-ro’i chos drug gi sgo nas ’khrid pa’i rim pa yid ches gsum ldan)

4. On the Six Yogas of Naropa (Na-ro’i chos drug gi dmigs skor lag tu len tshul)

5. Fruit Clusters of Siddhis: An Explanation of Tantric Morality (dNgos grub kyi snye ma, or gSang sngags kyi tshul khrims kyi rnam bshad dngos grub kyi snye ma

In 1409, Lama Tsongkhapa founded the Ganden monastery, which went on to become the main seat of administrative and political head of Gelugs. Lama Tsongkhapa’s preserved body was entombed there in a silver and gold encrusted tomb by his disciples in 1419. [12]

With the arrival of Gelug, the entire Buddhist concepts which lay isolated and disconnected were united into single coherent concept. In one of the speech the Dalai Lama clearly identifies the coherence and inter-relationship amongst the Buddhist schools in Tibetan tradition:

"When it comes to detailed study of the great texts, it is the Sakya and Gelug systems which are the most developed. Of course, it would be correct to say that the Gelug tradition is in reality derived from the Sakya. That being said, we could probably judge the Gelug commentarial elucidations to be the most profound and the best….In the Dzogchen tradition, we find a special treatment of the emptiness component within the unified view. The same can be said about the treatment in the Highest Yoga Tantra. However, explaining exactly how the interdependence of things - how they are on the level of appearances - can itself be used as a reason to establish their ultimate, empty nature is something peculiar to the works of Lama Tsongkhapa" [1]

Besides, the basic Mahayana concept of Boddhisattva renouncing the Nirvana and reincarnating for the sake of awakening of all the beings, was retained, followed with some procedural variations from precedent set by the Karmapas in 12th century A.D., Gelugpas had adopted the concept of reincarnating hierarchs, lineage of the Dalai Lama being the reincarnations of Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteshwara. The Dalai Lama system actually began the recognition of the 2nd Dalai Lama. "After the passing away of Lama Tsongkhapa’s disciple Gedun Grupa (1391–1474), his reincarnation was recognized as Gedun Gyatso (1475-1542), while his successor, the third incarnation Sonam Gyatso, set in motion a new phase in history; albeit one that characteristically drew on traditional precedents" [15]

As per one account, Sonam Gyatso, when invited by Altan Khan, declared himself reincarnation of Tibetan Sakya monk Drogon Chogyal Phagpa, who was the spiritual advisor to Kublai Khan, and as per some Mongolian beliefs, 3rd Dalai Lama, upon meeting Altan Khan, said "The Khan and I have the signs that, because we have performed meritorious deeds in our former lives, we will meet and together propagate the religion in this life" [13]

Gedun Drupa, and Gedun Gyatso were thus recognized as 1st and 2nd Dalai Lamas, posthumously.

Sonam Gyatso never returned to Tibet since then, and Gelug tradition spread under patronage of the Khans. When Sonam Gyatso died in 1588, his chosen incarnation, Yonten Gyatso (1589-1617), was found to be the great-grandson of Altan Khan, "a discovery with obvious political advantage for the Gelug-Mongol alliance." [16]

Yonten Gyatso died in an early age, mid-twenties, and fifth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, became the first Gelug head to unite Tibet by defeating the rival Kagyu and Jonang traditions, and the Tsang prince. Tsang ruler Karma Phuntsok Namgyal (1587–1620) invaded Drepung and Sera Monasteries in 1605, killing 5000 monks, and expelled Mongol troops which assisted Fourth Dalai Lama Yonten Gyatso. [17]

Later in 1641, Gushri Khan (1582–1655), a Mongol ruler invaded Kham and Central Tibet, and presented to the fifth Dalai Lama Lobsang Gyatso. With this began a peaceful, Dharma-based reign of Gelug for almost 300 years until 1950s. Lama Tsongkapa reformed the Kadampa School which then became known as the Gelug School. The lineage of Lama Tsongkhapa was held by Ganden Tripas,4 the throne holders of Ganden Monastery, present Ganden Tripa being Thubten Nyima Lungtok Tenzin Norbu.


Socio-political events and the religious environment have been briefly reviewed here, closely with emergence of Gelug School, in an attempt of laying down a pattern of linked events which preceded the arrival of Lama Tsongkhapa, the Gelug founder, and eventually led to revival and spread of Buddhism in Tibetan tradition. Gelug master Lama Tsongkhapa contributed immensely to the revival of Buddhism in Tibetan tradition. He, not only successfully brought all available Buddhist texts coherently under single umbrella, but also composed some of the greatest simplified commentaries on most profound Buddhist concepts of Emptiness, Dependent Origination, and Middle Path, and all this while retaining due focus on tantric teaching and meditation. It is also observed that, prior to arrival of Lama Tsongkhapa, all the greatest Buddhist texts were translated from Sanskrit and political and administrative influence of Mongol rulers diminished making the religious environment favorable for undertaking the huge responsibility of unifying Buddhist ideas of Tibetan tradition. Lama Tsongkhapa’s desire to do so was also influenced by then state of hostility and power struggle amongst various Buddhist traditions. With the establishment of Gelug school, which, in essence had nothing new, but merely a justified mix of pre-existing teachings, Buddhism in Tibetan tradition only grew in influence and prospered for next more than five centuries, and is largely the face of present day Buddhism in Tibetan tradition.


1. Speech by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to the Second Gelug Conference, Dharamsala, 6 December 2000)

2. Tibet: A Political History, by Shakabpa, Tsepon W. D., Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1967, p. 51.

3. The Making of Modern Tibet, by A. Tom Grunfeld, M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1996, p. 37

4. Lay Religious movements in 11th and 12th Century Tibet: A Survey of Sources, by Dan Martin, 1996, Kailash, Volume 18, Number 3-4, pp 23-56

5. The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, by Zabs-Dkar Tshogs-Drug-Ran-Grol, Snow Lion, 2001, p. 547.

6. The Blue Annals by Gö Lotsawa. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1976, Reprint in 1979, Translated by Roerich, George N. and Gedun Choepel, 1988.

7. Buddhist Reflections by Lama Anagarika Govinda, 1991, English translation, Samuel Weiser, Inc. p-172-173

8. Imperial China 900-1800, by F. W. Mote, Harvard University Press, 1999. p.501

9. The Merging of Religious and Secular Rule in Tibet, by Dung-dkar blo-zang ‘phrim-las, Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1991)

10. The story of Tibet: Conversation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, by Thomas Laird, Grove press, 1953, p 124

11. Ibid., p 125

12. Ibid., p 126

13. Ibid., p 145

14. Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa’s Quest for the Middle Way, by Thupten Jinpa 2002

15. History of Tibet, by Alex McKay, Routledge Curzon, 2003, p-18

16. Ibid., p. 19

17. Biographies of the Tibetan Spiritual Leaders Panchen Erdenis, by Ya Hanzhang, Beijing, 1994, p. 26.

18. Eight Verses for training of the mind, by Gesha Sonam Rinchen, translated & edited by Ruth Sonam, Snow lion Publications, 2001, p.88.

19. Khubilai Khan: His life and Times, by Morris Rossabi, University of California Press, 1988, p. 144.

20. The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama, by Melvyn C. Goldstein, University of California Press, 1997, p.9.


1. Dromton Gyelway Jungnay (‘Brom ston rGyal ba’i ‘byung gnas), a lay practitioner and the main Tibetan disciple of the Indian master Atisha, was the founder of the Kadampa (bKa’ gdamspa) tradition. The Kadampa masters were known for their down-to-earth approach to practice, which they presented according to the three levels of capacity explained in Atisha's Lamp for Path to Enlightenment. In public they laid great emphasis on the practice of sutra and kept their personal practice of tantra hidden. They regarded all of the Buddha’s words (bka’) as actual instructions (gdams) for practice. [18]

2. The administrative structure Kublai established in 1268 envisioned first a member of the Sakya sect as State Preceptor (at the time, the ‘Phags-pa lama), who would supervise the Buddhist throughout the empire as well as in the state of Tibet, but would reside in China. The Mongols would, in addition, select a Tibetan official, known in Tibetan as dpon-chen, to live in and to administer Tibet. [19]

3. Sonam Gyatso, was an energetic proponent of the Yellow Hat (Gelug) sect’s ideology with strong missionary tendencies. His fame reached the ears of powerful Mongol ruler called Atlan Khan who invited Sonam Gyatso to visit him. In 1578, they met in today’s Qinghai province (Amdo). Sonam Gyatso impressed the Khan with his spirituality and religious power, and they exchanged honorific titles in the manner of the time. The Lama enhanced the stature of the Khan in relation to other Mongol chiefs by giving him the title "king of the religion, majestic purity", and the Khan gave Sonam Gyatso the Mongolian title of Dalai, "Ocean" in Mongolianj, the implication being that his knowledge or spirituality was as vast as the ocean. Thus was born the title Dalai Lama. Sonam Gyatso was the first to hold the title, but since he was the third incarnation in the Yellow Hat sect’s incarnation line, he came to be known as the third Dalai Lama, with the titles of first and second Dalai Lama given posthumously to his two predecessors. [20]

            4. The Ganden Tripa is an earned position and is awarded on the basis of competitive examination. The position is held for only a 7-year term. Either Lama Tsongkapa may be     considered to have been the first Ganden Tripa or Gyaltsab Je who was the next Abbot of Ganden monastery after the passing away of Lama Tsongkhapa. The Ganden Tripa or Gaden Tripa (tib. dGa’-ldan Khri-pa) ("Holder of the Ganden Throne") is the title of the spiritual leader of the Gelug (Dge-lugs) Buddhist school of Tibetan tradition.

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