Tsongkhapa: A Guide to His Life and Works

Tsongkhapa

From Images of Enlightenment: Tibetan Art in Practice

Next year, 2019, marks the 600th anniversary of Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (1357–1419), one of the most important figures in Tibet, historically and philosophically.

To mark this anniversary, we will be publishing what will be the most comprehensive, definitive biography of this great figure, written by Thupten Jinpa. The author is best known as the main translator for the Dalai Lama, but he is an author and scholar himself, having earned a Geshe degree. In the author’s words,

this new biography of Tsongkhapa…is aimed primarily at the contemporary reader. And it seeks to answer the following key questions for them: ‘Who was or is Tsongkhapa? What is he to Tibetan Buddhism? How did he come to assume the deified status he continues to enjoy for the dominant Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism? What relevance, if any, do Tsongkhapa’s thought and legacy have for our contemporary thought and culture?

In the meantime, we thought to lay out what is currently available. This is only a portion of the 210 treatises—which fill 18–20 volumes in Tibetan—that comprise Tsongkhapa's oeuvre, but more is coming out. His collected works are divided into nine parts: biographies by his students; teachings on guru yoga; lists of teachings he himself received; notes of teachings by his disciples; works of praise, letters, short teachings, prayers, poems, invocations, and other short works; works on tantra; works on Lamrim; hermeneutics; and commentaries on Indian texts including The Way of the Bodhisattva, Nagarjuna's The Root Stanzas of the Middle WayOrnament of Reason, and others.

As for other biographical material, Robert Thurman wrote a short book in the 1970s that was recently reissued called The Life and Teachings of Tsongkhapa which, despite the title, includes only a twenty-five-page biography of him.

We have a brief biography of Tsongkhapa included in Geshe Sonam Rinchen's commentary on The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, which is excerpted here.

There is also a biography available on the excellent Treasury of Lives site.

The categories below are somewhat arbitrary—the Lamrim genre encompasses much of Tsongkhapa's sutrayana teachings including Abhidharma, Mahayana, etc. and Madhyamaka is part of Mahayana. But this seemed the clearest way to present what is available is English.

Ganden monastery, from Charles Bell, 1921
Ganden monastery, founded by Tsongkahapa, photographed in 1921 by Sir Charles Bell

The Lamrim

The Lamrim genre, present in many Tibetan Buddhist traditions, stems from Atisha’s classic, The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. Tsongkhapa wrote several works in this class of teachings.

The Lamrim Chenmo (completed 1402) [Lam gyi gtso bo rnam gsum]

Tsongkhapa's main contribution to this genre is the famous Lamrim Chenmo or The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. It is also generally considered his most influential work, studied and practiced by tens of thousands today.

The background to this work is on one of Tsongkhapa’s own letters to a lama, included in Art Engle's The Inner Science of Buddhist Practice, where he describes it as building on Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment: “It is clear that this instruction [introduced] by Dīpaṃkara Śrījnāna on the stages of the path to enlightenment . . . teaches [the meanings contained in] all the canonical scriptures, their commentaries, and related instruction by combining them into a single graded path. One can see that when taught by a capable teacher and put into practice by able listeners it brings order, not just to some minor instruction, but to the entire [body of] canonical scriptures. Therefore, I have not taught a wide variety of [other] instructions.”

In other places Tsongkhapa referred to the Ornament of Realization or Abhisamayalamkara, as the other basis for the Lamrim.

Engle describes Tsongkhapa's Lamrim in Inner Science of Buddhist Practice, discussed below:

Thus, a key point to recognize about the Lamrim teaching is that at its heart it is a systematic collection of oral instructions that make use of the entire range of Buddhist literature to present a comprehensive program for spiritual transformation. In addition to copious citations from traditional Indian Buddhist literature, Je Tsongkapa’s Great Treatise includes many pithy and insightful sayings of the early Tibetan teachers known as followers of the Kadampa School. The instructions begin with the most fundamental elements of Buddhist doctrine and then gradually introduce the student to the requisite meditation practices that will enable him or her eventually to become fully engaged in the vast and profound tradition that is Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Here is a short video of His Holiness the Dalai Lama discussing how this is the one work he personally carried out on his escape from Tibet in 1959.

This text is, of course, three volumes, so you may prefer to start with an introduction to it that is a bit more concise, and there are several good options.

One is His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s From Here to Enlightenment: An Introduction to Tsong-kha-pa's Classic Text The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment.

The other is Introduction to Emptiness: As Taught in Tsong-kha-pa's Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path, which presents one of the more challenging aspects of Mahayana Buddhism using contemporary examples.

Three Principal Aspects of the Path (Lam gyi gtso bo rnam gsum)

This is the shortest Lamrim text Tsongkhapa composed. Tsongkhapa wrote the fourteen stanzas of this classic distillation of all the paths of practice that lead to enlightenment. The three principal elements of the path referred to are: (1) renunciation, tied to the wish for freedom from cyclic existence; (2) the motivation to attain enlightenment for the benefit of others; (3) cultivating the correct view that realizes emptiness.

The Three Principal Aspects of the Path: An Oral Teaching

In this book, Geshe Sonam Rinpoche, the teacher of countless Westerners for decades in Dharamsala, unpacks these verses and explains how to put them into practice.

This text is also included in Cutting Through Appearances: Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism in which Geshe Sopa annotates the Fourth Panchen Lama’s instructions on how to practice this text in a meditation session.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches on this text, and this is included as the chapter “The Path to Enlightenment” in Kindness, Clarity, and Insight.

Lotsawa House also includes a translation of these fourteen stanzas.

Another work where Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim is featured is in Changing Minds: Contributions to the Study of Buddhism and Tibet in Honor of Jeffrey Hopkins. There are three chapters devoted to Tsongkhapa:

  1. Guy Newland’s Ask a Farmer: Ultimate Analysis and Conventional Existence in Tsongkhapa’s Lam Rim Chen Mo
  2. Daniel Cozort’s Cutting the Roots of Virtue: Tsongkhapa on the Results of Anger
  3. Elizabeth Napper’s Ethics as the Basis of a Tantric Tradition: Tsongkhapa and the Founding of the Gelugpa Order

Abhidharma

One of the components of The Great Treatise is Abhidharma; indeed, understanding some Abhidharma is highly valued in the Lamrim teaching system. This connection is explored in Art Engle’s Inner Science of Buddhist Practice: Vasubandhu's Summary of the Five Heaps with Commentary by Sthiramati which has nearly 100 references to him.

Teachers of the Lamrim tradition viewed learning at least some Abhidharma material as essential to one’s spiritual practice. In his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path, Je Tsongkapa makes a passing reference to Sthiramati’s work when he states, “I have explained these ten mental afflictions according to the descriptions that are found in The Compendium of Higher Learning [i.e., Asaṅga’s Abhidharmasamuccayaḥ], The Levels of Spiritual Practice [Asaṅga’s Yogācārabhūmiḥ], and [Sthiramati’s] commentary to the Summary of the Five Heaps.” Je Tsongkapa also quotes the early Kadampa teacher Gönbawa Wangchuk Gyeltsen (1016–1082) as saying, in part, “To learn the essential characteristics of the mental afflictions, you must listen to teachings on the Abhidharma. At a minimum, you must receive instruction on A Summary of the Five Heaps.

Mahayana

Medium-Length Exposition of the Stages of the Path (1415) [Lam rim chung ngu]

Balancing the Mind: A Tibetan Buddhist Approach to Refining Attention

For centuries, Tibetan Buddhist contemplatives have directly explored consciousness through carefully honed and rigorous techniques of meditation. B. Alan Wallace explains the methods and experiences of Tibetan practitioners and compares these with investigations of consciousness by Western scientists and philosophers. Balancing the Mind includes a translation of the classic discussion of methods for developing exceptionally high degrees of attentional stability and clarity (shamatha/shiney) by Tsongkhapa.

Tsong-kha-pa's Final Exposition of Wisdom
In fourteenth and fifteenth-century Tibet there was great ferment about what makes enlightenment possible, since systems of self-liberation must show what factors preexist in the mind that allow for transformation into a state of freedom from suffering. This controversy about the nature of mind, which persists to the present day, raises many questions.

This book first includes the corresponding lhatong or vipashyana section from the Medium-Length Exposition of the Stages of the Path. It also includes a section from the text below.

Illumination of the Thought: Extensive Explanation of Chandrakirti’s Supplement to Nagarjuna’s “Treatise on the Middle” (1418) dGongs pa rab gsal, or dBu ma la ’jug pa’i rnam bshad dgongs pa rab gsal

The first five chapters of this are included in Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism which Shambhala will reissue.

Chapter 6 from this text, on the object of negation on the two truths, is also included in Tsong-kha-pa’s Final Exposition of Wisdom. The book then details the views of his predecessor Dolpopa, the seminal author of philosophical treatises of the Jonang order, as found in his Mountain Doctrine (featured in The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen), followed by an analysis of Tsongkhapa’s reactions. By contrasting the two systems—Dolpopa's doctrine of other-emptiness and Tsongkhapa's doctrine of self-emptiness—both views emerge more clearly, contributing to a fuller picture of reality as viewed in Tibetan Buddhism. Tsongkhapa's Final Exposition of Wisdom brilliantly explicates ignorance and wisdom, explains the relationship between dependent-arising and emptiness, shows how to meditate on emptiness, and explains what it means to view phenomena as illusions.

The Prajnaparamita Corpus

Golden Garland of Eloquence, Legs bshad gser phreng

ornament of reason gone beyondIn Gone Beyond: The Prajnaparamita Sutras, The Ornament of Clear Realization, and Its Commentaries in the Tibetan Kagyu Tradition Karl Brunnholzl relates that in in the Blue Annals, Tsongkhapa’s first teacher said to him:

You will first study earnestly the Abhisamayālaṃkāra, which is the
ornament of the three “Mothers.”
If you become learned in it, you will be able to master all the
Scriptures.
Keep this advice in a corner of your mind!

Tsongkhapa certainly did study it in earnest, and the fruit was the Legs bshad gser phreng, or “Golden Garland of Eloquence,” an extensive commentary on Maitreya’s Abhisamayalamkara, “Ornament for the Clear Realizations,” and thus is also on the Prajñaparamita, or “Perfection of Wisdom” teachings. This is explored in detail in Gone Beyond, where Tsongkhapa’s work is referred to throughout.

The third volume of this trilogy of commentaries, Groundless Paths on the Ornament of Reason (Abhisamayalamkara) is based on the Nyingma commentaries on this text, in particular those by Patrul Rinpoche.  Interestingly, of the four works on this text by Patrul Rinpoche, two of them, The General Topics of the Abhisamayalamkara and A Word Commentary on the Abhisamayalamkara, are nearly verbatim or obvious abridgments of Tsongkhapa's Golden Garland. This large volume goes into great detail tracing the relationship between Tsongkhapa’s work (which he based on the commentary of Haribhadra and Vimuktisena) and Patrul Rinpoche’s.

Robert Thurman’s The Central Philosophy of Tibet is an annotated version this text.

Madhyamaka

Tsongkhapa is famous—and in some circles controversial—for his presentation and positioning of the Prasangika view of Madhyamaka. Any discussion or debate of this subject invariably references Tsongkhapa.

A Memorandum on Eight Great Difficult Points of [Nagarjuna’s] Mülamadhyamakakārikā

A discussion of this text is included in Unique Tenets of The Middle Way Consequence School. The “unique tenets” correspond to the difficult points.

The Center of the Sunlit Sky: Madhyamaka in the Kagyu Tradition

This comprehensive work by Karl Brunnholzl explores all facets of Madhyamaka in the Kagyu tradition, but no analysis of Madhyamaka can leave out Tsongkhapa who appears throughout this work. There is a sixty-page section comparing the views of Tsongkhapa to those of Mikyo Dorje’s “whose writing, not only is a reaction to the position of Tsongkhapa and his followers but addresses most of the views on Madhyamaka that were current in Tibet at the time, including the controversial issue of ‘Shentong-Madhyamaka.’”

Notes on Madhyamakālamkāra (dBu ma rgyan gyi zin bris)

The Ornament of the Middle Way: A Study of the Madhyamaka Thought of Shantarakshita
The late James Blumenthal explores this important text by Shantarakshita and brings in Tsongkhapa’s text on this subject.

For a different take on this same text, see The Adornment of the Middle Way: Shantarakshita's Madhyamakalankara with Commentary by Jamgon Mipham translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, whose introduction goes into helpful detail on the various interpretations. This longer passage offers a glimpse into some of the fault lines in the debate:

The brilliance of Tsongkhapa’s teaching, his qualities as a leader, his emphasis on monastic discipline, and the purity of his example attracted an immense following. Admiration, however, was not unanimous, and his presentation of Madhyamaka in particular provoked a fierce backlash, mainly from the Sakya school, to which Tsongkhapa and his early disciples originally belonged. These critics included Tsongkhapa’s contemporaries Rongtön Shakya Gyaltsen (1367–1449) and Taktsang Lotsawa (1405–?), followed in the next two generations by Gorampa Sonam Senge (1429–1487), Serdog Panchen Shakya Chokden (1428–1509), and the eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje (1505–1557). All of them rejected Tsongkhapa’s interpretation as inadequate, newfangled, and unsupported by tradition. Although they recognized certain differences between the Prasangika and Svatantrika approaches, they considered that Tsongkhapa had greatly exaggerated the divergence of view. They believed that the difference between the two subschools was largely a question of methodology and did not amount to a disagreement on ontological matters.

Not surprisingly, these objections provoked a counterattack, and they were vigorously refuted by Tsongkhapa’s disciples. In due course, however, the most effective means of silencing such criticisms came with the ideological proscriptions imposed at the beginning of the seventeenth century. These followed the military intervention of Gusri Khan, who put an end to the civil war in central Tibet, placed temporal authority in the hands of the Fifth Dalai Lama, and ensured the rise to political power of the Gelugpa school. Subsequently, the writings of all the most strident of Tsongkhapa’s critics ceased to be available and were almost lost. It was, for example, only at the beginning of the twentieth century that Gorampa’s works could be fully reassembled, whereas Shakya Chokden’s works, long thought to be irretrievably lost, were discovered only recently in Bhutan and published as late as 1975.

The Wisdom Chapter: Jamgön Mipham’s Commentary on the Ninth Chapter of The Way of the Bodhisattva

This work on the Wisdom Chapter of Shantideva’s classic, written more than four centuries after Tsongkhapa, is a presentation of a different view than that expounded by Tsongkhapa. It is, in fact, a superb source for understanding the impact of his Madhyamaka presentation in a wider context, historically and philosophically. The extensive introduction gives a very complete and comprehensive account. In sum:

In his treatment of the Gelugpa account, Mipham concurs in all important respects with Gorampa and the rest of Tsongkhapa’s earlier critics. Indeed, his critique is possibly even more effective in being expressed moderately and without vituperation. Nevertheless, he is careful never to attack Tsongkhapa personally. Given the fact that Mipham was a convinced upholder of the nonsectarian movement, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the humble and respectful manner with which he invariably refers to Tsongkhapa. No sarcasm is detectable in his words:

In the snowy land of Tibet, the great and venerable lord Tsongkhapa was unrivaled in his activities for the sake of the Buddha’s teaching. And with regard to his writings, which are clear and excellently composed, I do indeed feel the greatest respect and gratitude.

There is, however, a striking contrast between Mipham’s veneration of Tsongkhapa, on the one hand, and his penetrating critique of his view, on the other. Mipham’s assessment seems to oscillate between an approbation of some of Tsongkhapa’s positions, regarded as unproblematic expressions of a Svātantrika approach that Mipham valued, and a determination to demolish Tsongkhapa’s philosophical innovations and their pretended Prāsaṅgika affiliations. This discrepancy has led some scholars to accuse Mipham of inconsistency. Closer scrutiny suggests, however, that Mipham’s admittedly complex attitude to Tsongkhapa was in point of fact quite coherent.

Poetry

Songs of Spiritual Experience: Tibetan Buddhist Poems of Insight and Awakening

 Thupten Jinpa’s collection of Tibetan poetry includes two poems by Tsongkhapa.

The first is Reflections on Emptiness (pp. 83-84), which is an extract from a larger work, the rTag tu ngu’i rtogs brjod, which is a poetic retelling of the story of the bodhisattva Sadāprarudita, who is associated with the 8,000 Verse Prajnamaramita Sutra.

The second poem is A Prayer for the Flourishing of Virtues (pp. 129-133).

Jinpa presents Tsongkhapa’s poetry both in terms of a.) his mastery of composition and b.) his mastery of the Buddhist path.

The first example comes through in the introduction:

Tsongkhapa’s famous long poem entitled ‘‘A Literary Gem of Poetry’’ uses a single vowel in every stanza throughout the entire length. This is the poem from which come the famous lines:

Good and evil are but states of the heart:
When the heart is pure, all things are pure;
When the heart is tainted, all things are tainted.
So all things depend on your heart.

In the original Tibetan, this stanza uses only the vowel a. Of course, this kind of literary device can never be reproduced in a translation, whatever the virtuosity and command of the translator.

For the mastery of the Buddhist path, we find the following:

To a contemporary reader, Tsongkhapa’s famous ‘‘Prayer for the Flourishing of Virtues’’ gives an insight into the deepest ideals of a dedicated Tibetan Buddhist practitioner; it presents a map of progressive development on the path. Beyond this, the mystic must utterly transform the very root of his identity and the perceptions that arise from it. From the ordinary patterns of action and reaction that make up our psyche and emotional life, the meditator must move toward a divine state of altered consciousness where all realities, including one’s own self, are manifested in their enlightened forms. In other words, the meditator must perfect all dimensions of his or her identity and experience, including rationality, emotion, intuition, and even sexuality. This, in Tibetan Buddhism, is the mystical realm of tantra.

Here is Jinpa discussing the book overall:

Tantra

[A brief note. For those unfamiliar or only exposed through books, we strongly encourage readers to study tantra under the guidance of a qualified teacher. Book reading can only take you so far as the transmission of tantric teaching is about more than what can be put on paper.]

Great Exposition of Secret Mantra: sNgags rim chen mo (1405)

great expositionThis work is analogous to the tantra version of the Lamrim Chenmo, though it is very much the sarma (or later transmission from India) presentation of tantra. The first four sections of this work comprise the series The Great Exposition of Secret Mantra.

There are three books by Tsongkhapa and His Holiness the Dalai Lama that form a series focused on Tsongkhapa's Great Exposition of Secret Mantra. In this text, Tsongkhapa presents the differences between sutra and tantra and the main features of various systems of tantra. Each of the three books below begins with the Dalai Lama contextualizing and commenting on the points presented in Tsongkhapa's text, followed by a translation of the corresponding part of the text itself.

In Volume 1 | Tantra in Tibet, the foundations of motivation, refuge, and the Hinayana and Mahayana paths are presented. He then gives an overview of tantra, the notion of Clear Light, the greatness of mantra, and initiation or empowerment.

Continuing his commentary in Volume II | Deity Yoga, His Holiness discusses deity yoga at length with a particular focus on action and performance tantras (the first two categories of tantra as described in the sarma, or “new translation” schools).

Then in Volume III | Yoga Tantra the Dalai Lama details the practice of the next level of tantra, yoga tantra. With a preliminary overview of the motivation, His Holiness explains this level, which focuses on internal yoga, which here means the union of deity yoga with the wisdom of realizing emptiness. He details the yoga, both that with and that without signs, and then briefly explains how gaining stability in these practices is the foundation for some other practices that lead to mundane and extraordinary “feats.”

An explanation of the highest yoga tantra is not included in these works, but an excellent resource is Daniel Cozort's Highest Yoga Tantra, as well as the recent and upcoming publications on Tsongkhapa's text from Columbia.

The Six Yogas of Naropa, Zab lam Nā-ro’i chos drug gi sgo nas ’khrid pa’i rim pa yid ches gsum ldan

The Six Yogas of Naropa: Tsongkhapa's Commentary Entitled A Book of Three Inspirations: A Treatise on the Stages of Training in the Profound Path of Naro's Six Dharmas, commonly referred to as The Three Inspirations.

This is the famous arrangement of Naropa’s collection of tantric practices as explained by Tsongkhapa. This includes the full translation of this text and also includes an in-depth analysis of it from a historical perspective, leaving the reader a clear understanding of the text itself.

Tsongkhapa's treatise on this system of tantric practice ... became the standard guide to the Naropa tradition at Ganden Monastery, the seat he founded near Lhasa in 1409. Ganden was to become the motherhouse of the Gelukpa school, and thus the symbolic head of the network of thousands of Gelukpa monasteries that sprang up over the succeeding centuries across Central Asia, from Siberia to northern India. A Book of Three Inspirations has served as the fundamental guide to Naropa's Six Yogas for the tens of thousands of Gelukpa monks, nuns, and lay practitioners throughout that vast area who were interested in pursuing the Naropa tradition as a personal tantric study. It has performed that function for almost six centuries now.

Tsongkhapa the Great's A Book of Three Inspirations has for centuries been regarded as special among the many. The text occupies a unique place in Tibetan tantric literature, for it in turn came to serve as the basis of hundreds of later treatments. His observations on various dimensions and implications of the Six Yogas became a launching pad for hundreds of later yogic writers, opening up new horizons on the practice and philosophy of the system. In particular, his work is treasured for its panoramic view of the Six Yogas, discussing each of the topics in relation to the bigger picture of tantric Buddhism, tracing each of the yogic practices to its source in an original tantra spoken by the Buddha, and presenting each within the context of the whole. His treatise is especially revered for the manner in which it discusses the first of the Six Yogas, that of the “inner heat.” As His Holiness the present Dalai Lama put it at a public reading of and discourse upon the text in Dharamsala, India, in 1991, “the work is regarded by Tibetans as tummo gyi gyalpo, the king of treatments on the inner heat yoga.” Few other Tibetan treatises match it in this respect.

A Practice Manual on the Six Yogas of Naropa: Taking the Practice in Hand Nå-ro’i chos drug gi dmigs skor lag tu len tshul

A Practice Manual on the Six Yogas of Naropa: Taking the Practice in Hand

Another text that is included in Tsongkhapa’s collected works is the short Practice Manual on the Six Yogas. This is included in the wider collection of texts on this practice titled The Practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa. Also included in this book are works by Tilopa, Naropa, Je Sherab Gyatso, and the First Panchen Lama.

Gelug Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra

This work has three main sections: an overview of Mahamudra; the First Panchen’s text The Main Road of the Truimphant Ones, and a commentary by the Dalai Lama. The author contextualizes the selection saying that the tradition of Mahamudra in the Gelug tradition comes through Tsongkhapa. He is referenced throughout the book.

Other Notable Works Related to Tsongkhapa

Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre is a collection by leading Tibetologists. The immensity of Tibet's literary heritage, unsurprisingly, is filled with references to Tsongkhapa across a wide range of subjects. Just a sampling of them include: the establishment of the Gelug order; the monastic curriculum; debate manuals; establishment of Ganden; a comparison with Milarepa; the controversies about his views; a classification of his texts; and a lot more.

Mind in Tibetan Buddhism is an oral commentary on Geshe Jampel Sampel's Presentation of Awareness and Knowledge Composite of All the Important Points, Opener of the Eye of New Intelligence. This topic, lorig in Tibetan, was not one on which Tsongkhapa wrote a dedicated text, but he does include it in an introduction to Dharmakirti’s Seven Treatises and one of his sections includes a brief presentation on lorig. Tsongkhapa is brought up throughout this book.

Maps of the Profound: Jam-Yang-Shay-Ba's Great Exposition of Buddhist and Non-Buddhist Views on the Nature of Reality

This master (and massive) work by Jamyang Shaypa refers back to Tsongkhapa throughout, relying on his texts.

 

Tsongkhapa is also referenced in about 60 articles on shambhala.com, mostly from the Snow Lion newsletter archive.