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Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa)
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In U-Tsang he studied with numerous teachers of all traditions and engaged in many retreats resulting in his development of a fresh interpretation of Nāgārjuna's Madhyamaka view and a reinvigoration of the monastic Vinaya.
Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa) was born in the Tsongkha (tsong kha) region of Amdo in 1357. His mother was Shingza Acho (shing bza' a chos, d.u.) and his father was Lubum Ge (klu 'bum dge, d.u.).
Among the numerous miraculous incidents and omens believed to have taken place surrounding his birth, perhaps the most famous is that of a drop of blood from Tsongkhapa's umbilical cord that is said to have fallen on to the ground, giving rise to a sandalwood tree whose leaves bore symbols related to the Simhanāda manifestation of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, a deity with whom Tsongkhapa would later be identified.
Today the location of Tsongkhapa's birth is marked by Kumbum Monastery (sku 'bum dgon pa), founded in 1583 by the Third Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma bsod nams rgya mtsho, 1543-1588) on the spot of the original stupa.
Then at the age of eight he received the novice ordination of a srāmanera, together with the name Lobzang Drakpa (blo bzang grags pa), from the Kadam master Choje Dondrub Rinchen (chos rje don grub rin chen, b. 1309).
Dondrub Rinchen, a great practitioner of Vajrabhairava, had been in contact with Tsongkhapa and his family since the boy's birth, and is said to have received prophecies of the child's importance from his own teacher and deity.
As noted in his autobiography, Fulfilled Aims (rtogs brjod mdun legs ma), he studied at length texts and topics such the
“Five Treatises of Maitreya” (byams chos sde lnga) and related works by Asaṅga (4th century), the Abhidharma of Vasubhandu (4th century), the logic systems of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti (6th century) and the Madhyamaka system of Nāgārjuna (c.150-250) and his followers such as Aryadeva (3rd century).
Following figures such as Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyeltsen (sa skya paN Di ta kun dga' rgyal mtshan, 1182-1251) and Buton Rinchen Drub (bu ston rin chen grub, 1290-1364), it was Tsongkhapa's emphasis on philosophical study and logic that would eventually become some of the defining characteristics of the Geluk tradition.
Tsongkhapa's studies were mainly focused on the existing scholarly currents at that time, of which the most important were the Sakya tradition and the tradition of Sangpu (gsang phu), an important Kadam monastery.
In addition to Dondrub Rinchen, some of Tsongkhapa's main tantric gurus included Chennga Sonam Gyeltsen (spyan snga bsod nams rgyal mtshan, 1378-1466), a Drigung lama from whom he received the Six Dharmas of Nāropa (na ro'i chos drug); the Jonang lama Chokle Namgyel (phyogs las rnam rgyal, 1306-1386), from whom he received the Kālacakra cycle; and the Sakya master Rinchen Dorje (rin chen rdo rje, d.u.), from whom he received the Lamdre teachings (lam 'bras) and the Hevajra Tantra.
Perhaps most importantly, he received the Guhyasamāja cycle from Khyungpo Lepa Zhonnu Sonam (khyung po lhas pa gzhon nu bsod nams, d.u.) a student of Buton Rinchen Drub, and the cycle of the body maṇḍala (lus dkyil) of Heruka Cakrasaṃvara from the Sakya master Lama Dampa Sonam Gyeltsen Pelzangpo (bla ma dam pa bsod nams rgyal mtshan dpal bzang po, 1312-1375).
Tsongkhapa's studies on tantra were not limited to the anuttarayoga tantras; he extensively studied the kriyā, caryā and yoga tantras as well, noting the importance of a gradual approach to the Vajrayāna in his brief autobiography.
Furthermore, although it would not become a doctrine of the later Geluk tradition, Tsongkhapa also studied the Dzogchen teachings with Lodrak Drubchen Namkha Gyeltsen (lho brag grub chen nam mkha' rgyal mtshan, 1326-1401).
By his early twenties he had begun composing his most important early work, The Golden Garland (legs bshad gser phreng), which deals with Prajñāpāramitā. Tsongkhapa would continue to write throughout his life, producing an eighteen volume collection of texts.
Although Tsongkhapa is credited with being the author of his writings, it is believed that many were composed through the instruction and inspiration of deities that he saw in visions, particularly Mañjuśrī, as described in his secret biography.
In the same way Tsongkhapa initially relied on his teacher Umapa Pawo Dorje (dbu ma pa dpa' bo rdo rje, d.u.), to act as an intermediary with Mañjuśrī. Tsongkhapa had met this Kagyu lama when he was thirty-three.
Eventually, however, Tsongkhapa himself began to experience visions and was able to communicate with Mañjuśrī directly, receiving instructions and tantric empowerments, most importantly those related to Mañjuśrī and Vajrabhairava.
Although Tsongkhapa is widely regarded as being a manifestation of Mañjuśrī, the nature of his visions has nevertheless been contested by some non-Geluk masters, especially the Sakya scholar Gorampa Sonam Sengge (go rams pa bsod nams seng ge, 1429-1489), who was critical of Tsongkhapa and his approach to Madhyamaka.
Thus in 1402, at the age of forty-six, while at Reting Monastery (rwa sgreng), he composed the Lamrim Chenmo (lam rim chen mo), known in English as The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, undoubtedly his most famous work.
Echoing the doubt the Buddha felt after his Enlightenment that people would understand his teaching, it is said that Tsongkhapa was initially disheartened by the thought that most readers would be unable to comprehend his explanations of emptiness which form the latter part of the work.
In 1402 Tsongkhapa performed his second great deed. While staying at Namtsedeng (rnam rtsed ldeng) during the rainy season with his teacher Rendawa and Kyabchok Pelzangpo (skyabs mchog dpal bzang po, d.u.), he gave a detailed commentary on the Vinaya to a large assembly of monks.
Following the composition of the Lamrim Chenmo he composed several other works around 1407 and 1408, specifically his commentary on Nāgārjuna's Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) called The Ocean of Reasoning (rigs pa'i rgya mtsho) and The Essence of Eloquence (legs bshad snying po).
In 1415 he composed the Lamrim Dring (lam rim 'bring), known in English as The Medium-Length Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, which is a condensed version of the Lamrim Chenmo.
As a companion volume to the Lamrim Chenmo, Tsongkhapa wrote the NgakrimChenmo (sngags rim chen mo), The Great Treatise on the Tantric Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, in 1405, covering all the four classes of tantra according to the sarma traditions, with a detailed explanation of the two stages of anuttarayoga tantra.
Other important tantric works include his works on Guhyasamāja, especially his 1401 Commentary on the Vajrajñānasamuccayanāma Tantra (ye shes rdo rje kun las btus pa zhes bya ba'i rgyud) and the 1411 Exposition of the Five Stages of Guhyasamāja (gsang 'dus rim lnga gsal sgron]]).
Tsongkhapa refused, and a second invitation was sent in 1413.
Although Tsongkhapa again refused he delegated his student Shakya Yeshe (shakya ye shes, 1354-1435) to go in his stead. Shakya Yeshe had a successful trip to China, receiving his title of Jamchen Choje (byams chen chos rje) from the emperor.
Tsongkhapa's death is commemorated with the annual festival of Ganden Ngacho (dga' ldan lnga mchod), which translates as "The Ganden Offering of the Twenty-Fifth", during which devotees light butter lamps on their roofs and windowsills.
Tsongkhapa designated Gyeltsabje Darma Rinchen (rgyal tshab rje dar ma rin chen, 1364-1432) as his successor, who in turn appointed Khedrubje Gelek Pelzang (mkhas grub rje dge legs dpal bzang, 1385–1438) as the next throne-holder of Ganden.
His other students include the Gendun Drub, who was posthumously identified as the First Dalai Lama (ta la'i bla ma ge 'dun grub, 1391-1474) and Jamyang Choje Tasho Pelden ('jam dbyangs chos rje bkra shis dpal ldan, 139-1449), the founder of Drepung Monastery in 1416.
Nevertheless all of these students continued to spread Tsongkhapa's doctrine through their own teachings and writings as well as other means such as the establishment of monasteries, allowing for the Geluk tradition to take shape.