The Kadampa tradition founded by Atisha was the direct source of inspiration for the development of the Gelug tradition founded by Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419).
Tsongkhapa was born in the Amdo province. At the age of three he received full-fledged lay ordination from the Fourth Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje, and the name Kunga Nyingpo. At the age of seven he received novice vows from his teacher, Chöje Dhondup Rinchen, and was given the name Lobsang Drakpa. Even by this young age he had received many teachings and initiations of Heruka, Yamantaka and Hevajra, and could recite by heart texts like Expression of the Names of Manjushri.
Tsongkhapa travelled extensively in search of knowledge and studied with masters of all the existing traditions beginning with Chennga Chökyi Gyelpo, from whom he received teachings on topics such as the mind of enlightenment and the Great Seal (Mahamudra). He was taught the medical treatises by Könchok Kyab at Drikung. In Nyethang Dewachen he studied the Ornaments for clear Realisation and the Perfection of Wisdom.
Excelling in debate, Tsongkhapa became famous for his erudition. He also travelled to Sakya where he studied monastic discipline, phenomenology, valid cognition, the Middle Way and Guhyasamaja with lamas such as Kazhipa Losel and Rendawa. He also received transmissions of the Six Doctrines of Naropa, the Kalachakra. Mahamudra, Lamdre, Chakrasamvara and numerous others. In turn, Tsongkhapa transmitted them to his disciples.
In addition to his studies and teachings, Tsongkhapa engaged in extensive meditation retreats. The longest, at Wolkha Cholung, lasted four years during which he was accompanied by eight close disciples. He is reputed to have performed millions of prostration’s, mandala offerings and other forms of purification practice. Tsongkhapa frequently had visions of meditational deities and especially of Manjushri, with whom he could communicate to settle his questions about profound aspects of the teachings.
Tsongkhapa studied with more than a hundred teachers. He practiced extensively and taught thousands of disciples mainly in the central and eastern regions of Tibet. In addition he wrote a great deal. His collected works, comprising eighteen volumes, contain hundred of titles relating to all aspects of Buddhist teachings and clarify some of the most difficult topics of sutrayana and mantrayana teachings. Major works among them are: the Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path, the Great Exposition of Tantras, the Essence of Eloquence on the Interpretive and Definitive Teachings, the Praise of Relativity, the Clear Exposition of the Five Stages of Guhyasamaja and the Golden Rosary.
Among his many main disciples, Gyeltsab Dharma Rinchen (1364-1432), Khedrub Geleg Pelsang (1385-1438), Gyalwa Gendun Drup (1391-1474), Jamyang Chöjey Tashi Pelden (1379-1449), Jamchen Chöjey Shakya Yeshe, Jey Sherab Sengey and Kunga Dhondup (1354-143S) arc some of the more significant.
Tsongkhapa passed away at the age of sixty on the twenty-fifth of the tenth Tibetan month, entrusting his throne in Ganden to Gyeltsabjey. So began a tradition which continues to the present day. The one-hundredth successor to the Ganden throne, and thus the formal head of the Gelugpa, is Ven. Lobsang Nyima.
Of the major Gelugpa monasteries in Tibet, Ganden Monastery was founded by Tsongkhapa himself in 1409 and was divided into two colleges, Shartse and Jangtse.
Jamyang Chöje Tashi Pelden founded Drepung Monastery in 1416. At one time it had seven branches but these were later amalgated into four Loseling, Gomang, Deyang and Ngagpa. Drepung and Gomang have survived up to the present time.
Another of Tsongkhapa’s spiritual sons, Jamchen Chöjey Shakya Yeshi established Sera Monastery in 1419. This too initially had five colleges which were later amalgated into two: Sera-Jey and Sera-Mey.
Similarly, Gyalwa Gendun Drup, the First Dalai Lama, founded Tashi Lhunpo Monastery at Shigatse in 1447, which was to become the seat of the successive Panchen Lamas. It originally had four colleges.
The Lower Tantric College of Gyumey, was established by Jey Sherab Sengey in 1440, and the Upper Tantric College of Gyutö by Gyuchen Kunga Dhondup in 1474.
At their peak there were more than five thousand monks in each of the monastic universities around Lhasa, Ganden, Drepung and Sera, while there were at least five hundred in each tantric college. Young men would travel from all three regions of Tibet to enroll at these monastic universities as monks in order to receive an education and spiritual training.
The Gelug tradition lays special emphasis on the place of ethics, as expressed through monastic discipline, as the ideal basis for religious education and practice. Consequently, the great majority of Gelugpa lamas are monks and the master who is a layman is a rarity. In addition, the Gelug tradition regards sound scholarship as a prerequisite for constructive meditation, hence, the teachings of both sutra and tantra are subject to rigorous analysis through the medium of dialectical debate.
In general, the curriculum of study covers the five major topics: the perfection of wisdom, philosophy of the Middle Way, valid cognition, phenomenology and monastic discipline. These five are studied meticulously by the dialectical method using Indian texts as well as Indian and Tibetan commentaries to them, often textbooks unique to each monastic tradition, for a period of fifteen to twenty years. On completing this training, a monk is awarded one of three levels of the degree of Geshe (Doctorate of Buddhist Philosophy): Dorampa, Tsogrampa and Lharampa, of which the highest is the Geshe Lharampa degree.
Subsequently, if he so wishes the Geshe may join one of the tantric colleges to study the tantras and so complete his formal studies, or he may return to his local monastery to teach, or retire into seclusion to engage in intensive meditation. A monk who has completed a Geshe’s training is respected as being a fully qualified and authoritative spiritual master worthy of devotion and esteem.
This tradition remains dynamic even after coming into exile. The major Gelug monasteries, Sera, Drepung, Ganden, and Tashi Lhunpo monasteries and Gyumey Tantric College have been re-established in various Tibetan settlements in Karnataka, and Gyutö Tantric College has been re-established in Bomdila, Arunachal Pradesh, all in India.
The formal head of the lineage is the 101st Ganden Tripa, Khensur Lungri Namgyel, who assumed the throne in January of 2003.
Born in Amdo province of Tibet during 1357, Tsongkhapa received the layman ordination (skt. Upasaka) at the age of three from the 4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje (Rol-pa’i Rdo-rje), and was entitled “Kunga Nyingpo” (Kun-dga’ Snying-po). At the age of seven he took the novice ordination (skt. Sramanera, tib. Getsul) from Choje Dhondup Rinchen (Chos-rje Don-‘grub Rin-chen) and was entitled “Lobsang Drakpa” (Slob-bsang Graks-pa). It was to his credit then, that at such an early age, he was able to receive the empowerments of Heruka Chakrasamvara, Hevajra, and Yamantaka, three of the most prominent wrathful deities of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as being able to recite a great many sutras, not the least of which was Manjushri-nama-samgiti. Additionally, he would go on to be a great student of the Buddhist Vinaya, the doctrine of behaviour, and even later the Six Yogas of Naropa, the Kalachakra Tantra, and the acclaimed practice of Mahamudra. At the age of 24 Tsongkhapa received the ordination of a full monk (skt. Bhikshu, tib. Gelong) in the Sakya Tradition.
Tsongkhapa travelled extensively in search of knowledge and studied with more than 100 teachers of all the existing traditions all topics of the doctrine, including Dzogchen. In addition to his studies, he engaged in extensive meditation retreats. He is reputed to have performed millions of prostrations, mandala offerings and other forms of purification practice. Tsongkhapa had often visions of meditational deities and especially of Manjushri, with whom he could communicate directly to clarify difficult points of the scriptures.
As such an accomplished scholar and practitioner, he was therefore quite effective as a teacher in Tibetan Buddhism, and became a leading figure amongst his peers as well as his students. Most of his teachers became also his students, like Rendawa, Umapa, the Nyingma Lama Lhodrak and they taught and revered each other. Out of his strong influence, compassion, and wisdom he is referred to as a second Buddha.
Tsongkhapa would go on to found the Geluk (Dge-lugs-pa) order, built on the foundations of the Kadampa (Bka’-gdams-pa) tradition, with an emphasis on the Vinaya and scholarly pursuits. He had studied at Sakya (Sa-skya), Kadam (Bka’-gdams) and Drikung Kagyu monasteries, built up his knowledge, received many empowerments, and was one of the foremost authorities of Tibetan Buddhism at the time. Further, it is said that the Buddha Sakyamuni spoke of his coming as an emanation of the Bodhisattva Manjusri in the short verse from the Root Tantra of Manjushri:
“After I pass away
And my pure doctrine is absent,
You will appear as an ordinary being,
Performing the deeds of a Buddha
And establishing the Joyful Land, the great Protector,
In the Land of the Snows.”
Although Tsongkhapa would finally pass away in 1419 at the age of sixty, he left to the world 18 volumes of collected teachings, with the largest amount being on Guhyasamāja tantra. These 18 volumes contain hundred of titles relating to all aspects of Buddhist teachings and clarify some of the most difficult topics of sutrayana and vajrayana teachings.
Major works among them are:
The Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path (Lam-rim chen-mo),
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) and
The Golden Rosary (gSer-phreng).
These scriptures are the prime source for the studies of the Gelugpa (Dge-lugs-pa) tradition and these and other teachings of Tsongkhapa endured into the modern age and are seen as a protection against misconceptions in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.
Tsongkhapa founded the monastery of Ganden in 1409, and it became his main seat. He had many students, among whom Gyaltsab Dharma Rinchen (1364-1431), Khedrup Gelek Pelzang (1385-1438), Togden Jampal Gyatso, Jamyang Choje, Jamchenpa Sherap Senge and Gyalwa Gendün Drup, the first Dalai Lama (1391-1474) were the most outstanding. After Tsongkhapa’s passing his teachings were held and kept by Gyaltsab Dharma Rinchen and Khedrub Gelek Pälsang. From then on, his lineage has been held by the Ganden Tripas, the throne-holders of Ganden Monastery, among whom the present one is Khensur Lungri Namgyal, the 101st Ganden Tripa.
After the founding of Ganden Monastery by Tsongkhapa, Drepung Monastery was founded by Jamyang Choje, Sera Monastery was founded by Chöje Shakya Yeshe and the Gyalwa Gendün Drup founded Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Many Gelug monasteries were built throughout Tibet but also in China and Mongolia.
Among the many lineage holders of the Yellow Hat Tradition (Gelugpas) there are the successive incarnations of the Gyalwa Rinpoche (commonly known as the Dalai Lama), and the succession of the Panchen Lama as well as the Chagkya Dorje Chang, Ngachen Könchok Gyaltsen, Kyishö Tulku Tenzin Thrinly, Jamyang Shepa, Phurchok Jampa Rinpoche, Jamyang Dewe Dorje, Takphu Rinpoche, Khachen Yeshe Gyaltsen and many others.
The annual Tibetan prayer festival Monlam Prayer Festival (Mönlam Chenmo) was established by Tsongkhapa. There he offered service to ten thousand monks. The establishment of the Great Prayer Festival is seen as one of his Four Great Deeds. It celebrates the miraculous deeds of Buddha Shakyamuni.