School of the Dalai Lama
Gelugpa is best known in the West as the school of Tibetan Buddhism associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In the 17th century, the Gelug (also spelled Geluk) school became the most powerful institution in Tibet, and it remained so until China took control of Tibet in the 1950s.
The story of Gelugpa begins with Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), a man from Amdo Province who began studying with a local Sakya lama at a very young age. At 16 he traveled to central Tibet, where the most renowned teachers and monasteries were located, to further his education.
Tsongkhapa did not study in any one place. He stayed in Kagyu monasteries learning Tibetan medicine, the practices of Mahamudra and the tantra yoga of Atisha. He studied philosophy in Sakya monasteries. He sought independent teachers with fresh ideas. He was particularly interested in the Madhyamika teachings of Nagarjuna.
In time, Tsongkhapa combined these teachings into a new approach to Buddhism. He explained his approach in two major works, Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path and Great Exposition of the Secret Mantra. Other of his teachings were collected in several volumes, 18 in all.
Through most of his adult life, Tsongkhapa traveled around Tibet, often living in camps with dozens of students. By the time Tsongkhapa had reached his 50s, the rugged lifestyle had taken a toll on his health. His admirers built him a new monastery on a mountain near Lhasa. The monastery was named “Ganden,” which means “joyful.” Tsongkhapa lived there only briefly before he died, however.
At the time of his death, Tsongkhapa and his students were considered to be part of the Sakya school. Then his disciples stepped up and built a new school of Tibetan Buddhism on Tsongkhapa’s teachings. They called the school “Gelug,” which means “the virtuous tradition.” Here are some of Tsongkhapa’s most prominent disciples:
Gyaltsab (1364-1431) is thought to have been first the abbot of Gendun after Tsongkhapa died. This made him the first Ganden Tripa, or throne-holder of Gendun. To this day the Ganden Tripa is the actual, official head of the Gelug school, not the Dalai Lama.
Jamchen Chojey (1355-1435) founded the great Sera monastery of Lhasa.
Khedrub (1385-1438) is credited with defending and promoting Tsongkhapa’s teachings throughout Tibet. He also began the tradition of high lamas of Gelug wearing yellow hats, to distinguish them from Sakya lamas, who wore red hats.
Gendun Drupa (1391-1474) founded the great monasteries of Drepung and Tashillhunpo, and during his life, he was among the most respected scholars in Tibet.
A few years after Gendun Drupa died, a young boy of central Tibet was recognized as his tulku, or rebirth. Eventually, this boy, Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542) would serve as abbot of Drepung, Tashillhunpo, and Sera.
Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588) was recognized as the rebirth of Gendun Gyatso. This tulku became the spiritual adviser to a Mongol leader named Altan Khan. Altan Khan gave Gendun Gyatso the title “Dalai Lama,” meaning “ocean of wisdom.” Sonam Gyatso is considered to be the third Dalai Lama; his predecessors Gendun Drupa and Gendun Gyatso were named first and second Dalai Lama, posthumously.
These first Dalai Lamas had no political authority. It was Lobsang Gyatso, the “Great Fifth” Dalai Lama (1617-1682), who forged a fortuitous alliance with another Mongol leader, Gushi Khan, who conquered Tibet. Gushi Khan made Lobsang Gyatso the political and spiritual leader of the entire Tibetan people.
Under the Great Fifth a large part of another school of Tibetan Buddhism, Jonang, was absorbed into Gelugpa. The Jonang influence added Kalachakra teachings to Gelugpa. The Great Fifth also initiated the building of Potala Palace in Lhasa, which became the seat of both spiritual and political authority in Tibet.
Today many people think the Dalai Lamas held absolute power in Tibet as “god-kings,” but that is inaccurate. The Dalai Lamas who came after the Great Fifth was, for one reason or another, mostly figureheads who held little real power. For long stretches of time, various regents and military leaders were actually in charge.
Not until the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (1876-1933), would another Dalai Lama function as a real head of government, and even he had limited authority to enact all the reforms he wished to bring to Tibet.
The current Dalai Lama is the 14th, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso (born 1935). He was still an adolescent when China invaded Tibet in 1950. His Holiness has been exiled from Tibet since 1959. Recently he relinquished all political power over the Tibetan people in exile, in favor of a democratic, elected government.
The second highest lama in Gelugpa is the Panchen Lama. The title Panchen Lama, meaning “great scholar,” was bestowed by the Fifth Dalai Lama on a tulku who was fourth in a lineage of rebirths, and so he became the 4th Panchen Lama.
The current Panchen Lama is the 11th. However, His Holiness Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (born 1989) and his family were taken into Chinese custody shortly after his recognition was made public in 1995. The Panchen Lama and his family have not been seen since. A pretender appointed by Beijing, Gyaltsen Norbu, has served as Panchen Lama in his place.
The original Ganden monastery, Gelugpa’s spiritual home, was destroyed by Chinese troops during the 1959 Lhasa uprising. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard came to finish whatever was left. Even the mummified body of Tsongkhapa was ordered burned, although a monk was able to recover a skull and some ashes. The Chinese government is rebuilding the monastery.
Meanwhile, exiled lamas re-established Ganden in Karnataka, India, and this monastery is now Gelugpa’s spiritual home. The current Ganden Tripa, the 102nd, is Thubten Nyima Lungtok Tenzin Norbu. (Ganden Tripas are not tulkus but are appointed to the position as adults.) The training of new generations of Gelugpa monks and nuns continues.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has lived in Dharamsala, India since he left Tibet in 1959. He has dedicated his life to teaching and to gain greater autonomy for Tibetans still under Chinese rule.
- O’Brien, Barbara. “The Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-gelug-school-of-tibetan-buddhism-449627.