In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geluk (Dge lugs)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Tsongkhapa’s “Spiritual Sons”
  • The Geluk vis à vis China and the Mongols

Buddhism Geluk (Dge lugs)
Elijah Ary, Roger Jackson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0025


The Geluk (Dge lugs), which also may be phonetically rendered as “Gelug,” is the youngest of the four major orders, or schools, or traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Here, “Geluk” by itself refers to the tradition; with a “pa” added to form “Gelukpa” (Dge lugs pa), it refers to any person, text, or institution associated with the tradition. The Geluk traces its origins back to the scholar and practitioner Tsongkhapa Losang Drakpa (Tsong kha pa Blo bzang grags pa, b. 1357–d. 1419). Originally dubbed the Gandenpa (Dga’ ldan pa), literally, “those of Ganden,” because of their affiliation with Ganden (Dga’ ldan) Monastery, founded near Lhasa in Central Tibet (Dbus) in 1409, and also Gedenpa (Dge ldan pa, “the virtuous ones”), adherents of the order later came to be known by the title Gelukpa (literally, “those of the virtuous tradition”). Though the order presumably began with a relatively small number of followers, it quickly grew to become one of the predominant Buddhist schools in Tibet, thanks in part to its close ties with powerful Tibetan, Chinese, and Mongolian political figures—the Phakmodru ruler (Phag mo gru gong ma) Drakpa Gyaltsen (Grags pa rgyal mtshan, b. 1374–d. 1432) himself helped finance the construction of Ganden Monastery and the establishment of the important Lhasa Mönlam (smon lam) prayer festival, which is still commemorated annually by the Gelukpa community. Between 1497 and 1517, a change in regime caused the loss of Geluk dominance in Ü. They were eclipsed by the Kagyupas (Bka’ rgyud pa), who had the favor of the new rulers, the Rinpung (Rin spungs) family of the west-central region, Tsang (Gtsang). In 1517 the Rinpungpas were driven out of Lhasa, and the Gelukpas regained their previous status, thanks in part to the efforts of the second Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso (Dge ’dun rgya mtsho, b. 1475/1476–d. 1542), who had forged a network of alliances with important figures stretching from western Tibet, through Mustang in present-day Nepal, to the doorstep of Kham (Khams) in eastern Tibet. The fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Losang Gyatso (Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, b. 1617–d. 1682), secured Mongol military assistance against his rivals, and in 1642 founded the Ganden Podrang (dga’ ldan pho brang, literally “Ganden citadel”), the system of government through which, until the 1950s, the Geluk secured their hold on the Tibetan state, and continued to expand the order, building new monasteries, appropriating for their own purposes monasteries founded by other orders, and establishing a complex set of bureaucratic traditions. In the 18th century, the Geluk gained influence at the Chinese court in Beijing under the Qing emperors, and became a significant religious force in Mongolia and the Russian regions of Kalmykia and Buryatia, as well. By the mid-1900s, the three major Geluk monasteries surrounding Lhasa—Ganden, Drepung (’Bras spungs, founded in 1416), and Sera (Se ra, founded in 1419)—were together home to upward of twenty thousand monks who exerted great political influence and produced important traditions of thought and practice. The Gelukpas retained their power in Tibet under successive Dalai Lamas, or their regents, until the Chinese takeover of the 1950s. Since 1959, the Geluk has lost much of its institutional prestige and authority in Tibet itself, but in the Tibetan diaspora in South Asia and beyond, it remains powerful and distinctive, in part because of charisma, intellect, and activities of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. The great pre-1959 monastic institutions retain only a trace of their former glory in Tibet, but have reemerged in India, where they now count almost as many monks as they did in their heyday on the plateau.

General Overviews

Very few scholars have turned their attention to describing the Geluk’s history in detail. In particular, the early period of the school’s development (i.e., the mid-14th–16th centuries CE) has remained rather nebulous, although some good historical work has been done recently: see, for example, Ary 2015 (under Tsongkhapa’s “Spiritual Sons”), and Tsering 2020 (under Tsongkhapa’s Life). Tibetan historiographers have tended to paint a picture of a unified and homogeneous entity, a monolithic tradition in which philosophical rigor and interpretive unity are, from its very inception, given primacy. In more recent times, however, scholars who have directed their attention to this era in Tibetan Buddhist history have begun to discover that this was not necessarily the case. Instead, the early Geluk school would seem to have been in a rather inchoate state, and the 14th–16th centuries proved to be a critical time of formulation, consolidation, and unification, during which no one interpretation yet had primacy. There are no Western scholarly works dedicated solely to the history of the Geluk, or even to providing a general overview of its doctrines. Some works that introduce Tibetan Buddhism do provide basic information, but it is often scant. Indeed, a work focusing solely on the history and doctrines of the Geluk would be a vital and welcome contribution to Tibetan studies. Samuel 1993, Laird 2006, Powers 2007, and Kapstein 2013 are four good and easily accessible overviews of Tibetan Buddhism in which to find information on the tradition, while Schaeffer, et al. 2013 contains a large number of primary sources relevant to the Geluk, in translation. The political aspect of the Geluk is covered broadly in Snellgrove and Richardson 1967, and in detail in Shakabpa 2009. Thuken 2009 includes a useful historical and doctrinal overview from the perspective of a late-18th-century Gelukpa scholar. Kanakura, et al. 1953 provides catalogue descriptions of every single work by a number of important Gelukpa masters, while Smith 2001 includes well-contextualized studies of several masters from the 17th and 18th centuries. Online, BUDA: The Buddhist Digital Archives provides a vast library of scanned Tibetan texts, including many by Gelukpas; the Berzin Archives, maintained by Alexander Berzin, contains a large number of articles on various aspects of Geluk history and philosophy; and the Treasury of Lives includes a multitude of biographical entries on important Gelukpa masters.

  • Berzin Archives.

    Excellent online source for understanding various aspects of Geluk history, ritual, and philosophy, maintained by a Harvard-trained Tibetologist who spent many years as a translator at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives established by the fourteenth Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. Berzin’s terminology occasionally is baffling, but his mastery of the tradition is unquestionable.

  • BUDA: The Buddhist Digital Archives.

    Maintained by the Buddhist Digital Resource Center, founded by E. Gene Smith, this collection of scanned Tibetan (and other) Buddhist texts includes nearly every work of consequence ever written by a Gelukpa. Although primarily a tool for those who know Tibetan, it is full of interesting information on various aspects of Tibetan Buddhism in general and the Geluk in particular.

  • Kanakura, Yensho, Ryujo Yamada, Tokan Tada, et al. A Catalogue of the Tohoku University Collection of Tibetan Works on Buddhism. Sendai, Japan: Seminary of Indology, Tohoku University, 1953.

    This extraordinary work of scholarship provides brief catalogue descriptions of every single text in the standard collected works (gsung ’bum) of several key Gelukpa masters: Tsongkhapa (pp. 87–129); Gyaltsap Jé (Rgyal tshab rje Dar ma rin chen, b. 1364–d. 1432) (pp. 130–137); Khedrup Jé (Mkhas grub rje Dge legs dpal bzang, b. 1385–d. 1438) (pp. 139–159); the first, second, fifth, and seventh Dalai Lamas (pp. 161–295; for details, see the listing under Works by the Dalai Lamas); the fourth Panchen Lama, Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen (Blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan, 1570–1662), aka Panchen Chögyen (Paṇ chen chos rgyan) (pp. 297–313); and Yeshé Gyaltsen (Ye shes rgyal mtshan, 1713–1793) (pp. 315–346).

  • Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetans. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2013.

    Chapter 5 of this fine overview of Tibetan culture and history focuses on “The Rule of the Dalai Lamas”; references to the Geluk are found elsewhere in the work, too.

  • Laird, Thomas. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama. New York: Grove, 2006.

    Intriguing and accessible overview of Tibetan history, which combines the knowledge acquired over several decades by a longtime student of Tibet with the perspective of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, as revealed in fifty hours of interviews conducted between 1997 and 2000.

  • Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Rev. ed. Ithaca, NY, and Boulder, CO: Snow Lion, 2007.

    A good general introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, this work contains a description of the Geluk’s history, institutions, practices, and tenets (pp. 467–496). Also, the chapter on Tibetan tantra (pp. 249–324) is written from a primarily Gelukpa perspective.

  • Samuel, Geoffrey. Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1993.

    Includes a brief overview of the Geluk school’s growth and rise to religious supremacy in Central Tibet up until the early 18th century (pp. 525–533), along with multiple other references. Samuel regards the Geluk as the “clerical” order of Tibetan Buddhism par excellence, as opposed to the more “shamanic” Kagyu and Nyingma (Rnying ma).

  • Schaeffer, Kurtis R., Matthew T. Kapstein, and Gray Tuttle, eds. Sources of Tibetan Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

    Part 4 of this magisterial anthology (pp. 505–699) contains translations of brief excerpts from many important works about aspects of the Geluk: religious, political, and institutional.

  • Shakabpa, Tsepon Wangchuk Deden. One Hundred Thousand Moons: An Advanced Political History of Tibet. Translated by Derek Maher. Brill’s Tibetan Studies Library 23. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004177901.i-1186

    A voluminous and authoritative history by a 20th-century Tibetan politician and scholar, which goes into great detail about the rise—and the regime—of the Geluk, primarily from the point of view of political, diplomatic, and military history.

  • Smith, E. Gene. Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Tibetan Plateau. Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001.

    Part 4 of this compilation of essays by one of the greatest of all modern Tibetologists includes articles on a number of important Gelukpa figures, including Panchen Chögyen; Changkya Rölpai Dorjé (Lcang skya rol pa’i rdo rje, 1717–1786); the third Thuken, Losang Chökyi Nyima (Thu’u bkwan Blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma, b. 1737–d. 1802); and Yeshé Gyaltsen.

  • Snellgrove, David, and Hugh Richardson. A Cultural History of Tibet. New York: Praeger, 1967.

    Still perhaps the most readable single history of Tibet, this work by two giants of 20th-century Tibetology devotes Part 3—almost a third of the book—to “the Yellow Hats,” that is, the Gelukpas.

  • Thuken, Losang Chökyi Nyima. The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems: A Tibetan Account of Asian Religions. Translated by Geshe Lhundub Sopa, E. Ann Chávez, and Roger R. Jackson, and edited by Roger R. Jackson. Library of Tibetan Classics 25. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009.

    Chapters 10–12, accounting for over a quarter of this voluminous analysis of Indian, Tibetan, and other Asian tenet-systems (grub mtha’) by a peripatetic Gelukpa scholar from northeast Tibet, are devoted to the Geluk, focusing, respectively, on Tsongkhapa’s life and achievements, the expansion of the Geluk, and the school’s superiority to other traditions.

  • Treasury of Lives: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia, and the Himalaya.

    This online resource includes over four hundred entries related to the Geluk, most of them brief but well-researched articles on great masters of the tradition.

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