Tag Archives: Gelugpa

Buddhism 101: The Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism

School of the Dalai Lama

Gelug monks wear the yellow hats of their order during a formal ceremony. Jeff Hutchens / Getty Images

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.

The Founding of Gelugpa

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.

The Dalai Lama

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 Panchen Lama

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.

Gelugpa Today

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.

Buddhism 101: The Short Life, And Tragic Death, Of The Sixth Dalai Lama. Poet & Playboy?

The Sixth Dalai Lama. Courtesy Himalayan Art Resources

The 6th Dalai Lama’s life story is a curiosity to us today. He received ordination as the most powerful lama in Tibet only to turn his back on monastic life. As a young adult he spent evenings in taverns with his friends and enjoyed sexual relations with women. He is sometimes called the “playboy” Dalai Lama.

However, a closer look at His Holiness Tsangyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama, shows us a young man who was sensitive and intelligent, even if undisciplined. After a childhood locked away in a country monastery with hand-picked tutors, his assertion of independence is understandable. The violent end of his life makes his story a tragedy, not a joke.


The story of the 6th Dalai Lama starts with his predecessor, His Holiness Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama. The “Great Fifth” lived in a time of volatile political upheaval. He persevered through adversity and unified Tibet under his rule as the first of the Dalai Lamas to be political and spiritual leaders of Tibet.

Near the end of his life, the 5th Dalai Lama appointed a young man named Sangye Gyatso as his new Desi, an official who managed most of the Dalai Lama’s political and governing duties. With this appointment the Dalai Lama also announced that he was withdrawing from public life to focus on meditation and writing. Three years later, he died.

Sangye Gyatso and a few co-conspirators kept the 5th Dalai Lama’s death a secret for 15 years. Accounts differ as to whether this deception was at the 5th Dalai Lama’s request or was Sangye Gyatso’s idea. In any event, the deception averted possible power struggles and allowed for a peaceful transition to the rule of the 6th Dalai Lama.

The Choice

The boy identified as the Great Fifth’s rebirth was Sanje Tenzin, born in 1683 to noble family that lived in the border lands near Bhutan. The search for him had been carried out in secret. When his identity was confirmed, the boy and his parents were taken to Nankartse, a scenic area about 100 kilometers from Lhasa. The family spent the next 12 years in seclusion while the boy was tutored by lamas appointed by Sangye Gyatso.

In 1697 the death of the Great Fifth finally was announced, and 14-year-old Sanje Tenzin was brought in great fanfare to Lhasa to be enthroned as His Holiness the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, meaning “Ocean of Divine Song.” He moved into the just-completed Potala Palace to begin his new life.

The teenager’s studies continued, but as time passed he showed less and less interest in them. As the day approached for his full monk’s ordination he balked, then renounced his novice ordination. He began to visit taverns at night and was seen staggering drunkenly through the streets of Lhasa with his friends. He dressed in the silk clothes of a nobleman. He kept a tent outside Potala Palace where he would bring young women.

Enemies Near and Far

At this time China was ruled by the Kangxi Emperor, one of the most formidable rulers of China’s long history. Tibet, through its alliance with fierce Mongol warriors, posed a potential military threat to China. To soften this alliance, the Emperor sent word to Tibet’s Mongol allies that Sangye Gyatso’s concealment of the Great Fifth’s death was an act of betrayal. The Desi was trying to rule Tibet himself, the Emperor said.

Indeed, Sangye Gyatso had become accustomed to managing Tibet’s affairs on his own, and he was having a hard time letting go, especially when the Dalai Lama was mostly interested in wine, women and song.

The Great Fifth’s chief military ally had been a Mongol tribal chief named Gushi Khan. Now a grandson of Gushi Khan decided it was time to take affairs in Lhasa in hand and claim his grandfather’s title, king of Tibet. The grandson, Lhasang Khan, eventually gathered an army and took Lhasa by force. Sangye Gyatso went into exile, but Lhasang Khan arranged his assassination, in 1701. Monks sent to warn the former Desi found his decapitated body.

The End

Now Lhasang Khan turned his attention to the dissolute Dalai Lama. In spite of his outrageous behavior he was a charming young man, popular with Tibetans. The would-be king of Tibet began to see the Dalai Lama as a threat to his authority.

Lhasang Khan sent a letter to the Kangxi Emperor asking if the Emperor would support deposing the Dalai Lama. The Emperor instructed the Mongol to bring the young lama to Beijing; then a decision would be made what to do about him.

Then the warlord found Gelugpa lamas willing to sign an agreement that the Dalai Lama was not fulfilling his spiritual responsibilities. Having covered his legal bases, Lhasang Khan had the Dalai Lama seized and taken to an encampment outside Lhasa. Remarkably, monks were able to overwhelm the guards and take the Dalai Lama back to Lhasa, to Drepung Monastery.

Then Lhasang fired cannon at the monastery, and Mongol horsemen broke through defenses and rode into the monastery grounds. The Dalai Lama decided to surrender to Lhasang to avoid further violence. He left the monastery with some devoted friends who insisted on coming with him. Lhasang Khan accepted the Dalai Lama’s surrender and then had his friends slaughtered.

There is no record of exactly what caused the 6th Dalai Lama’s death, only that he died in November 1706 as the traveling party approached China’s central plain. He was 24 years old.

The Poet

Yama, mirror of my karma,
Ruler of the underworld:
Nothing went right in this life;
Please let it go right in the next.