Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism
The Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism was founded by Tsong Khapa Lobsang Drakpa (1357 – 1419), one of the great figures of Tibetan religious history. A renowned scholar, meditator, and philosopher, his written work contains a comprehensive view of Buddhist philosophy and practice that integrates sutra and tantra, analytical reasoning, and yogic meditation. He was also life to revitalizing Tibetan Buddhism and recapturing the essence of Buddha’s teachings as he understood them.
The beginning of his order can be traced to his founding of Ganden Monastery in 1410. This monastery was intended to provide a center for his reformed order of Buddhism, an order in which monks would strictly adhere to the rules of Vinaya, sharpen their intellects in philosophical debate, and engage in the high-level tantric practice. The school he founded was originally referred to a Gandenpa, after its first monastery, and later became known as Gelugpa or “system of virtue” in accordance with its reformist orientation.
Tsong Khapa was born in the Tsongkha valley in the Amdo province of eastern Tibet. According to traditional biographies, his birth was the culmination of a process of spiritual development that began during a previous life, at the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. As a young boy, he offered a crystal rosary to Buddha, who presented him with a conch shell and told his attendant Ananda that in a future life the young boy would be born in Tibet. There he would found a great monastery and become one of the most influential figures in the spread of the Dharma in the “Land of Snows”. The Buddha then predicted that in his future life the young boy would be named Sumatikirti (the Sanskrit Equivalent of Lobsang Drakpa)
One of the main goals of his teaching, writing, and practice was the reform of Tibetan Buddhism. He was greatly concerned with what he perceived to be lapses in monastic discipline, shoddy thinking on exoteric and esoteric topics, and a decline in tantric practice. Part of his reform program was the creation of a new order which, like its founder, has traditionally stressed the importance of strict adherence to the rules of the Vinaya, the importance of the comprehensive study of Buddhist thought, and reformed tantric practice that accords with the vows of monks.
The primary teachings of the Gelug School are Lamrim or the “Stages of the Path” and the systematic cultivation of the view of emptiness. The first teaching rests upon the teachings of Atisha, an 11th-century Indian master. This is united with the deity yogas of Highest Yoga Tantra deities where the central focus is the realization of the indivisible union of bliss and emptiness.
Each Gelug Monastery has its own set of texts, however, the texts written by the Gelug School founder are considered most important. These texts 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 Clear Exposition of the Five Stages of Guhyasamaja.
Tsong Khapa’s teaching was continued by his two greatest students, Kedrup and Gyeltsap. At the request of the other disciples, Gyeltsap ascended the throne of Ganden, indicating that he was recognized as the primary successor to Tsong Khapa’s lineage. He held this position for twelve years until his death. He composed a number of important treatises, and his collected works are contained in eight volumes. Gyeltsap was succeeded as throne holder of Ganden by Kedrup, who retained the position for seven years until his passing at the age of fifty-four. These tow Lamas came to be regarded as the “spiritual sons” of Tsong Khapa and are commonly depicted witting on either side of their master in Thangka and other religious associated paintings.
The Gelugpa order stresses both monasticism and scholarship. Thus, it is not surprising that it has a highly structured monastic order that contains hierarchically arranged levels of academic achievement. The first division is the distinction, made in all orders of Tibetan Buddhism, between ordinary monks and incarnate Lamas. The latter are people who have been recognized as reincarnations of deceased Lamas. They are commonly ordained as monks at an early age and begin their religious training soon after. Monks can enter a monastery at any age, but it is common for them to join when they are still young, often because of urging by their families.
A monk who successfully completes all aspects of this scholastic program may then compete for the degree of Geshe, which is a recognition of superior scholarship. Very few of those who begin the training program ever earn this degree, since it may take from fifteen to twenty-five years and is extremely rigorous.
Important Gelug Monasteries in Tibet:
- Gaden monastery the mother monastery of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism founded by reverent Master Tsongkhapa.
- Sera Monastery the second biggest Gelugpa learning center founded by Chamchen Choeje Shakya an important student of reverent master Tsong Khapa.
- Drepung monastery the biggest Gelugpa learning centre founded by Jamyang Choeje Tashi Palden one of the main disciples of master Tsongkhapa
- Tashi Lhunpo monastery the biggest Gelugpa learning center in the Tsang region or the present Shigatse prefecture. It is the primary seat of successive Panchen Lamas, the second highest ranking lama in Geluk lineage of Tibetan Buddhism
- Olka Cholung monastery where master Tsongkhapa spent five years in retreat based on advice from the Dakinis, and where he gained some of his deepest realizations into the nature of reality
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