Buddhism Geluk (Dge lugs)
Elijah Ary, Roger Jackson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0025


The Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa) school is the youngest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It traces its origins back to the scholar and practitioner Tsongkhapa Lobsang Dragpa (Tsong kha pa Blo bzang grags pa, b. 1357–d. 1419). Originally dubbed the Gadenpa (dGa’ ldan pa), literally, “those of Ganden,” because of their affiliation with Ganden (dGa’ ldan) Monastery, founded in 1410, and also Gedenpa (dGe ldan pa, “the virtuous ones”), the order later came to be known by the title Gelugpa (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 close ties with powerful Tibetan, Chinese, and Mongolian political figures—the Pagmodru ruler (Phag mo gru gong ma) Dragpa Gyaltsen (Grags pa rgyal mtshan, b. 1374–d. 1432) himself helped finance the construction of Ganden Monastery and the establishment of the important Mönlam (smon lam) prayer festival, which is still commemorated annually by the Gelugpa community. Between 1497 and 1517, a change in regime caused the loss of the Gelugpa’s dominancy in Ü (dBus). They were eclipsed by the Kagyupas (bKa’ rgyud pa), who had the favor of the new rulers, the Rinpung (Rin spungs) family of Tsang (gTsang). In 1517 the Rinpungpas were driven out of Lhasa, and the Gelugpas regained their previous status, thanks in part to the efforts of the second Dalai Lama Gendun Gyatso (dGe ’dun rgya mtsho, b. 1475/6–d. 1542), who had forged a network of alliances with important figures stretching from western Tibet, through Mustang, to the doorstep of Kham (Khams) in eastern Tibet (see Dalai Lamas, Panchen Lamas). Under the fifth Dalai Lama, the Gelugpas secured their hold on Tibetan politics and continued to grow. By the mid-1900s, the three major monasteries surrounding Lhasa—Ganden, Drepung (’Bras spungs, founded in 1416), and Sera (Se ra, founded in 1419)—were home to upward of twenty thousand monks. Though there is a greater call for harmony and unity among the Tibetan Buddhist schools today, the Gelug order remains largely predominant. The major intellectual monastic institutions of yore have, since 1959, reemerged in India, where they now count almost as many monks as they did in their heyday (see Monastic Institutions).

General Overviews

Very few scholars have turned their attention to describing the school’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. 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 have begun directing their attention to this particular formative era in Tibetan Buddhist history, and they have begun to discover that this was not necessarily the case. Instead, the early Gelugpa school would seem to have been in a rather heterogeneous state, and the 14th–16th centuries proved to be a critical time of formulation, consolidation, and unification in which no one interpretation had primacy. There are no Western scholarly works dedicated solely to the history of the Gelugpa school, or even to providing a general overview of its doctrines. There are works that introduce Tibetan Buddhism generally, and while some information is provided in these volumes, it is often scant. A work focusing primarily on the history and doctrines of the Gelugpa school would be a vital and welcome contribution to Tibetan studies. Powers 1995 and Tucci 1980 are two good and easily accessible overviews of Tibetan Buddhism in which to find information on the Gelugpa order. Another source is Samuel 1993, which provides information on numerous topics and contains a good discussion of the historical context in which the Gelugpa school ascended to primacy in Central Tibet (dBus gtsang).

  • Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1995.

    Though a good general introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, this work contains a brief description (pp. 402–430) of the Gelugpa school’s history and tenets. Begins with a discussion of Tsongkhapa’s life and education, then moves on to describe, albeit briefly, the political stage at the time following his death in 1419. Describes the Gelugpa monastic system and some of the philosophical views that are distinct to this tradition.

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

    An overview of the Gelugpa school’s growth and rise to religious supremacy in Central Tibet up until the seventh Dalai Lama (525–533). The work also contains information on many different aspects of the Gelugpa tradition scattered throughout the work.

  • Tucci, Giuseppe. The Religions of Tibet. Translated by Geoffrey Samuel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

    Seminal work on Tibetan religious history that contains a brief introduction to the Gelugpa school (p. 37) and a description of this school’s main tenets, along with that of the other major schools, in the section entitled “The Doctrines of the Most Important Schools” (pp. 47–109). Discussion covers not only the doctrinal differences of the schools, but also the sociopolitical context in which Tibetan religion thrived.

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