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A Short Biography of Tsongkhapa
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Prophesies and Childhood
Buddha prophesied Manjushri would be born as a boy in Tibet, would found Ganden monastery, and would present a crown to my statue. Buddha gave the boy the future name Sumati-kirti (Blo-bzang grags-pa, Lozang-dragpa).
Guru Rinpoche also prophesied a monk named Lozang-dragpa would be born near China, would be regarded as an emanation of a great bodhisattva, and would make a Buddha-statue into a Sambhogakaya representation.
His future teacher, Chojey Dondrub-rinchen (Chos-rje Don-grub rin-chen), was told by Yamantaka in a vision that he (Yamantaka) would come to Amdo (A-mdo, northeastern Tibet) in a certain year and become his disciple.
See: A Brief History of Kumbum Monastery.
Soon after, his father invited Chojey Dondrub-rinchen to their home.
The boy stayed at home until he was seven, studying with Chojey Dondrub-rinchen.
He frequently dreamt of Atisha (Jo-bo rJe dPal-ldan A-ti-sha) (982-1054), which was a sign that he would correct misunderstandings of the Dharma in Tibet and restore its purity, combining sutra and tantra, as Atisha had done.
At the age of seven, Tsongkhapa received novice vows from Chojey Dondrub-rinchen and the ordination name Lozang-dragpa. He continued to study in Amdo with this lama until he was sixteen, at which time he went to U-tsang (dBus-gtsang, Central Tibet) to study further.
Early Studies in Central Tibet
In Central Tibet, Tsongkhapa first studied at a Drigung Kagyu monastery, where he learned the Drigung mahamudra tradition called "possessing five" (phyag-chen lnga-ldan), medicine, and further details about bodhichitta.
By seventeen, he was a skilled doctor.
He then studied Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs-rgyan, Skt. Abhisamayalamkara), the other texts of Maitreya, and prajnaparamita (phar-phyin, far-reaching discriminating awareness) at several Nyingma, Kagyu, Kadam, and Sakya monasteries, memorizing the texts in just days.
He continued to travel to the most famous monasteries of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, studying the five major Geshe-training topics and the Indian tenet systems, debating them and sitting for debate examinations.
He received the Kadam lam-rim (lam-rim, graded sutra path) teachings and also innumerable tantric empowerments and teachings, including the Sakya tradition of lamdray (lam-‘bras, the paths and the result), the Drigung Kagyu tradition of the six teachings of Naropa (Na-ro’i chos-drug, six yogas of Naropa), and Kalachakra.
In all his studies, he only had to hear an explanation once and then he understood and remembered it perfectly – as was the case with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
He lived extremely humbly and kept his vows purely.
He easily achieved shamatha (zhi-gnas, a stilled and settled state of mind) and vipashyana (lhag-mthong, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind), but was never satisfied with his learning or level of realization.
He continued to travel and requested teachings over and again even on the same texts.
Everyone was astounded at his erudition. He also began to write and do more retreats.
It was probably later in his 20s. ] At one point, he studied and analyzed the entire Kangyur (bKa’-‘gyur) and Tengyur (bsTan-‘gyur) – the translated direct teachings of Buddha and their Indian commentaries.
He synthesized and discussed all twenty-one Indian commentaries.
Unlike previous scholars, he never shied away from explaining the most difficult and obscure passages in any text.
Normally, Tsongkhapa could memorize each day seventeen double-side Tibetan pages of nine lines on each side. Once some scholars held a memorizing contest to see who could memorize the most pages before the sun hit the banner on the roof of the monastery.
Tsongkhapa won with four pages, which he recited fluently with no mistakes. The next closest could only do two and a half, and with staggering.
Tsongkhapa taught instead seventeen major sutra texts, all from memory, one session on each every day, starting them all on the same day and finishing them all three months later, also on the same day.
If we look at his life of only 62 years, and consider how much he studied, practiced (including making tsatsa clay statues), how much he wrote, taught, and did retreats, it would seem impossible that anyone could do even one of them in a lifetime.
After this, at the age of 34, Tsongkhapa decided to engage in intensive study and practice of all four tantra classes. As he later wrote, one cannot truly appreciate the profundity of anuttarayoga tantra unless one has practiced and understood deeply the three lower tantras. Thus, he traveled widely again and received many empowerments and teachings on the three lower tantra classes.
This great master had studied Madhyamaka with the Sakya tradition and, since childhood, had daily visions of Manjushri, who taught him one verse each day. Tsongkhapa and he became mutual teacher and disciple.
Together with Lama Umapa, Tsongkhapa did an extensive retreat on Manjushri. From this time onward, Tsongkhapa received direct instruction from Manjushri in pure visions and was able to receive from him answers to all his questions. Before this, he had to ask his questions to Manjushri through Lama Umapa.
Manjushri advised that he do a very long retreat and then would understand the notes he had taken from his instructions. Thus, after teaching a short while, Tsongkhapa entered a four-year retreat with eight close disciples at Olka Cholung (‘Ol-kha chos-lung).
They did thirty-five sets of 100,000 prostrations, one each to the thirty-five confession Buddhas, and eighteen sets of 100,000 mandala offerings, with many Yamantaka self-initiations and study of The Avatamsaka Sutra (mDo phal-cher) for bodhisattva deeds.
He resolved that later he would write A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path (Lam-rim chen-mo) on the graded sutra path and then A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Tantra Path (sNgags-rim chen-mo) on the stages of practice of the four tantra classes.
Before entering this one-year retreat, Manjushri advised him to rely on the Madhyamaka commentary by Buddhapalita (Sangs-rgyas bskyangs). Tsongkhapa did so and, consequently during the retreat, gained full nonconceptual cognition of voidness.
Based on his realization, Tsongkhapa revised completely the understanding of the Prasangika-Madhyamaka teachings on voidness and related topics that the teachers and learned masters of his day had held. In this regard, he was a radical reformer with the courage to go beyond current beliefs when he found them inadequate.
[See: Special Features of the Gelug Tradition.]
Tsongkhapa always based his reforms strictly on logic and scriptural references. When he established his own view as the deepest meaning of the great Indian texts, he was not committing a breach of his close bond and relationship with his teachers. Seeing our spiritual teachers as Buddhas does not mean that we can not go beyond them in our realizations. Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II explained this with the following example.
To make a cake, we need to put together many ingredients – flour, butter, milk, eggs, and so on. Our teachers show us how to make a cake and bake a few for us. They may be very delicious and we may enjoy them greatly.
This does not mean that we cannot make some changes, add some different ingredients, and bake cakes that are even more delicious than those our teachers made. In doing so, we are not being disrespectful toward our teachers.
If the teachers are really qualified, they will rejoice in our improvement on the recipe and enjoy the new cakes with us.
Further Great Deeds
During the retreat, he had a vision of Atisha and the lam-rim lineage masters that lasted for a month, clarifying many questions. Next, he studied the six practices of Naropa and mahamudra further with Drigung Kagyu.
After he finished Lam-rim chen-mo, Tsongkhapa decided to teach more fully on tantra. First, however, he wrote extensive commentaries on the bodhisattva vows and Fifty Stanzas on the Guru (Bla-ma lnga-bcu-pa, Skt. Gurupanchashika) to emphasize them as the foundation for tantra practice.
Over the next two years, Tsongkhapa taught lam-rim and tantra extensively and wrote The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po) on the definitive and interpretable meanings of the Mahayana tenets.
He offered a gold crown to the Shakyamuni statue, signifying that it was now a Sambhogakaya statue, not just Nirmanakaya. Sambhogakaya forms of Buddhas live until all beings are liberated from samsara, whereas Nirmanakaya forms live only a short time.
[See: A Brief History of Ganden Monastery.]
He commissioned the building of the great Ganden hall with a huge Buddha statue and copper three-dimensional mandalas of Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, and Yamantaka. This is considered his fourth great deed.
Tsongkhapa died at Ganden in 1419, at the age of 62. He attained enlightenment after his death by achieving an illusory body (sgyu-lus) instead of bardo. This was to emphasize the need for monks to follow strict celibacy, since enlightenment in this lifetime requires practice with a consort at least once.
The Gelug lineage has flourished ever since.