In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tsongkhapa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies and Hagiographies
  • Tsongkhapa on Pramāṅa (Epistemology)

Buddhism Tsongkhapa
Gareth Sparham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0169


Tsongkhapa Losang Drakpa (Tsong kha pa Blo bzang grags pa), also known to his followers as Je Rinpoche (Rje Rin po che) (“Precious Lord”) (b. 1357–d. 1419), is a historical figure, and has at least two further, distinct, mythological identities. Historically, he is the founder of Ganden (Dga’ ldan) monastery (the oldest monastery of the Gelukpa [Dge lugs pa] sect), the rejuvenator of the Great Prayer Festival (Smon lam chen mo) in Lhasa, and a prolific author whose collected works run to eighteen or nineteen volumes. He was born at the end of a long period of Tibetan history marked by diversity and scholarship, culminating in the final redaction of the Buddhist canon in Tibetan (the Bka’ ’gyur and Bstan ’gyur), primarily under Buton (Bu ston Rin chen grub) who died in 1364. The years after Tsongkhapa’s death are marked by the growth of large monasteries and an increasing religious identification with sect, rather than teacher. Tsongkhapa in myth is the cultic center of the Gelukpa sect. In this form, flanked by his two most important followers, Darma Rin chen and Kedrup Pelzangpo (Mkhas grub dpal bzang po), all wearing the distinctive conical yellow hats of the sect, Tsongkhapa is equivalent to the historical Buddha Śākyamuni. After the rise to power of the Fifth Dalai Lama (b. 1617–d. 1682), this mythic form of Tsongkhapa legitimated the power of the Dalai Lamas and their pre-1959 Ganden Potrang (Dga’ ldan pho brang) government. In Western myth, Tsongkhapa is the Protestant, Martin Luther–like reformer who defeated the excesses of the degenerate (red-hat) Buddhist church in Tibet. Largely the construction of 19th-century Orientalism, this Tsongkhapa is the founder of a rational and ethical Buddhism that contrasts with the superstition and debauchery of other Lamaist sects. Finally, Tsongkhapa in the myth of the modern New Kadampa sect is one of a triumvirate of buddhas, preceded by Śākyamuni, and followed by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. His pure dharma is protected by Dorje Shugden.

General Overviews

Richardson 1962, Snellgove and Richardson 1968, and Powers 2007 are standard works on Tibet and Tibetan culture with sections on Tsongkhapa and the Gelukpa sect. Kapstein 2006 documents the history of the rise to power of the Dge lugs pa sect under the Fifth Dalai Lama; Kawamura 1998 gives Tsongkhapa’s early critics and defenders.

  • Kapstein, Matthew. “The Rule of the Dalai Lamas.” In The Tibetans, 127–142. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    This chapter contains a history of the Gelukpa sect up until the 18th century.

  • Kawamura, Leslie S. “Buddhism, Mādhyamika: India and Tibet.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 2. Edited by Edward Craig. London: Routledge, 1998.

    Part 4 contains a brief, clear summary, in English (based on S. Matsumoto’s article in Japanese, “Tsonkapa to gelukupa,” published in Chibeto Bukkyo, by S. Matsumoto [Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1989]), of the main critics of Tsongkhapa, and his defenders in the centuries after his death.

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

    Chapter 15 (pp. 467–496) is a history of the Gelukpa sect, starting with Tsongkhapa.

  • Richardson, Hugh, E. Tibet and Its History. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.

    Still valuable; chapter 2 is an overview of the place of Tsongkhapa and the Gelukpa sect in Tibetan history.

  • Snellgrove, David L., and Hugh E. Richardson. A Cultural History of Tibet. New York: Praeger, 1968.

    Chapters 6–8 (pp. 157–232) provide a clear overview of the Gelukpa sect from its origins at the time of Tsongkhapa to the end of the 18th century.

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