Tibetan Religion

Religions in Tibet

Religions in Tibet have different stories due to their long history, but generally, it is categorized into three main religions: Animism, Bon, and Buddhism. Animism is subjected to the control of animistic forces by bards and storytellers. Bon accentuates the purity of space, funerary rituals, and certain meditative practices, which may have originated in Zoroastrianism or Kashmiri Buddhism.

Buddhism is the means of liberation from suffering-cyclic existence originated in ancient India by Shakyamuni Buddha or Gautama Buddha. Below we introduce religions on the Tibet plateau based on the above three categories.

Quick content:

1.    Animism
2.    Founder of Yungdrung Bon-Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche and Bon religion Origination in Zhang-zhung;
Bon appearance in Tibet
Bon Spirituality
3.    Gautama Buddha and the Origination of Buddhism in India.

The initial appearance of Buddhism in Tibet

Guru Padmasambhava
Decline and revival
A brief biography of Tsongkapa
Labeled Wheel of life


Animism (from the Latin word anima “soul, life”) refers to the belief that non-human entities are spiritual beings, or at least embody some kind of life principle. Animism encompasses the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) worlds, and souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in all other animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographical features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment.

Animism is particularly widespread in indigenous religions. It is a type of animism based on the worship of the elements and mountain deities and has been identified as the most ancient form of Tibetan religion by RA Stein. Incense offerings would be made to appease local mountain spirits, and “wind horse” or “Lungta” in Tibetan prayer flags or cairns affixed on prominent passes to ensure good auspices.

Solemn declarations of truth and oaths would be made in the presence of local deities, to invoke good fortune. Talismanic objects or places were revered as life-supporting forces. Enemies or hostile forces could then be overpowered by drawing on their life-supporting talisman in a ceremony known as “Lahguk”. The so-called religion of humans (Michoi in Tibetan) which evolved out of this early animism relied upon storytellers (Drungkhen in Tibetan) and singers of riddles or epic poems to provide an ethical framework for social behavior.

Founder of Yungdrung Bon-Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche and Bon religion Origination in Zhang-zhung












According to the Bön religion, about 18,000 years ago Lord Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche (Founder of Bon and Great Man of the Shen Tribe) was born in the land of Olmo Lung Ring Tazik. “Öl” symbolizes unborn, “mo” implies undiminishing, “Lung” denotes the prophetic words of Tonpa Shenrab, “Ring” refers to his everlasting compassion, and “Tazik” indicates the region that scholars of the modern day recognize the present-day Tajikistan, which is situated north-west of Tibet that once thought to be the mythical kingdom called Zhang-Zhung (ShangShung in Tibetan). Olmo Lungring is also known as “Shambhala” in Sanskrit and it continues to be known by this name among Tibetan Buddhists even today.

At the age of thirty-one, he renounced the world and lived in austerity, teaching the Dharma. During his whole life, his efforts to propagate the Bön religion were obstructed by the demon Khyabpa Lagring (Khyab-pa Lag-ring), who fought to destroy or impede Tonpa Shenrab’s work until eventually the demon was converted and became his disciple.

Once while pursuing a demon to recover his stolen horses the Lord arrived in present-day western Tibet. This was his only visit to Tibet. On this occasion, he imparted some instructions on ritual performance but found the people unprepared to receive more teachings. Before leaving Tibet he prophesied that all his teachings would flourish in Tibet when the time was appropriate. Buddha Tonpa shed his human shell at eighty-two. Admittedly 82 years in Olmo Lungring correspond to 8,200 years of human time.

Lord Tonpa Shenrab has three biographies. The earliest and shortest one is known as “Epitome of Aphorisms”; the second is in two volumes and is called “Piercing Eye”. These two accounts were rediscovered as Terma (Tibetan words literally meaning treasure) in the 10th and 11th centuries respectively. The third and largest is the twelve-volume work entitled “The Glorious”. This last book belongs to the category of Bon scriptures known as “Oral transmission”, and was dictated to Loden Nyingpo in the 14th century.

Eighteen hundred years after Tönpa Shenrab’s passing, Mucho Demdug came from heaven to the Olmo Lung Ring as Tönpa Shenrab’s speech emanation. Mucho Demdug turned the Bön wheel so that all Tönpa Shenrab teachings would be organized and classified. He taught many students, the best known of which are the Six Great Scholars or the “Six Ornaments of the Universe” (Zamling Khepi Gyendug). They translated the Bön teachings into their own languages and spread them throughout their native lands. These six famous masters are Mutsa Tahe, Tritok Partsa, and Huli Paryag from Tagzig; Lhadag Ngagdo from India; Legtang Mangpo from China; and Sertok Chejam from Trom.

Bon appearance in Tibet

The Bön teachings were well established in Zhang-Zhung. Zhang-Zhung was an independent state with its own language, literature, and culture. It was divided into three sections called the “Three Doors”: inner (Phugpa), outer (Gopa), and middle (Barpa). The inner door is Olmo Lung Ring, the middle door is Tazik, and the outer door is Zhang Zhung itself.

Tonpa Shenrab teaches Bon doctrine and is recorded in three accounts. It was spread by his disciples to adjacent countries such as Zhang-Zhung, India, Kashmir, and China, and finally reached Tibet. Its transmission was secured by Siddhas and scholars who translated texts from Zhang-Zhung into Tibetan. The Bonpo canon as we know it today is written in Tibetan.

However, a number of them, especially the older ones, retain the titles and at times whole passages in the language of Zhang-Zhung. Therefore, the teachings flourished throughout the ancient empire of Zhang-Zhung, and they were gradually brought to Central Tibet sometime before 600 A.D. Since then the teachings also prospered in the Tibetan area until Buddhism.

Due in part to the nature of the narrative being slowly reshaped by Buddhism’s influence in Tibet in the 7th century. The Bön religion itself has actually passed through three distinct phases: the Animistic Bön, Yungdrung or Eternal Bön, and the New Bön. Many native Bon elements are evident within Tibetan Buddhist rituals, and the New Bon of these days reflects Buddhist influence undoubtedly.

Though there remain many distinctions between these two religions, both share a common and ultimate commitment to the enlightenment of all sentient beings. Integral to Bön’s religious practice is a heightened sense of aesthetics. Whether it be through the arts, philosophy, theology, mudras, mantras, ritual, dance, or astrology, examining, perceiving, and experiencing our intrinsic relationship to nature, and to the natural mind is an ever-evolving outspread of revelation and practice that transforms mere existence into an experience of living with universal wisdom and compassion for all.

In the eighth century, the assassination of Emperor Ligmincha by the 38th Tibetan king Trisong Detsen ended Zhang Zhung’s independence. Thereafter, Zhang Zhung’s land and culture were assimilated into Tibet and eventually disappeared. However, many Zhang Zhung words from ancient Bön texts still exist in the modern languages of Kinnaur, Lahul, Spiti, Ladakh, Zanskar, and some Himalayan regions of Nepal.”

Currently, the practitioners of New Bon still honor the abbot of Menri monastery as the leader of their tradition.

Bon Spirituality

As mentioned above, the Bon religion has passed through three distinct phases which include Old Bon, Yungdrung Bon, and New Bon. The Yungdrung doctrine, otherwise known as Eternal Bon, perpetuates the teachings of their founder Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche. Miwoche occupies a preeminent position in Bon culture similar to Sakyamuni’s in Buddhism.

The teachings and practice of Yungdrung Bon contain the Nine Ways or Nine Gradual Views of Bon. They also contain the Four Portals and the Fifth Treasure, as well as the External, Internal, and Secret Bon.
Bön was officially recognized by the Dalai Lama as the fifth wisdom school of Tibet in 1978.

  1. Cha Shen Thegpa: the Way of Prediction – Describes the four methods of prediction; astrology, ritual examination of causes, and prophecy.
    2. Nang Shen Thegpa: the Way of the Visual World – explains the psychophysical universe, the origin and nature of gods and demons living in the world, and the methodology of exorcism and the liberation of beings through energetic exchange
    3. True Shen Thegpa: the Way of Illusion-rites for dispersing adverse powers
    4. Si Shen Thegpa: The Way of Existence – describes the phases after death and the methods for guiding living beings toward final liberation.
    5. Ge Nyen Thepga: the Way of a virtuous layperson’s Path, offers ten principles of practice for well-being, and the practice of fasting.
    6. Drang Song Thegpa: the Way of Monkhood – explains monastic conduct rules and the first level of tantric practices.
    7. A Kar Thegpa: the Way of Pure A or Primordial Sound – elucidates higher tantric practices and the necessary rituals of visualization as well as the tantric practice of Cherim, explaining how to cut the bonds of rebirth, death, and the intermediate state.
    8. Ye Shen Thegpa: the Way of Primordial – expounds upon the essential reasons for having the appropriate master, place, and occasion for tantric practice. It emphasizes the perfection tantric process Dzog rim, and obtaining the illusory body, Gyu lu.
    9. La na me ba: the Unsurpassable Way – details the doctrine, views, meditation, and behavior of the Great Perfection, Dzogchen

Gautama Buddha and the Origination of Buddhism in India











You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger”—Quoted by Buddha

It was more than 2500 years ago, Buddha was born as a prince of King Suddhodana leader of the Shakya clan in the Kapilavastu kingdom. This is currently Lumbini in the south of Nepal. And his birth was widely celebrated throughout the kingdom.

Various sources hold that Buddha’s mother Queen Maha Maya died at his birth, a few days or seven days later, the infant was given the name Gautama Siddhartha, meaning “he who achieves his aim” where Gautama was his family name. Being a prince, he was free from vexations.

One day he disguised himself as a servant, came into town, and discovered all the world’s miseries. One evening, he met an old man, a dying person, a man with the plague crying in pain and a corpse covered in blood. He then realized that life was not a bed of roses. Material wealth is not the ultimate goal for anyone.

From then on Gautama Buddha dedicated himself to finding a way or a solution to end human misery and pain. He moved on to become an ascetic, but that was not what he was looking for, so he was not getting what he wanted, nor did he find solace in the so-called spiritual guidance of his times.

It was then one fine day when he heard a music teacher who would help him with his musical learning, speak of string resistance. A string that was too tight would not play the notes well, but if it was too loose it would be shabby. That was when he realized and decided to follow a middle path, one that went between his beliefs as an ascetic and those of the worldly individual.

Accordingly, Gautama Buddha began his quest to find an answer through intense yogic forms of meditation, that took place under a Pipal tree in Benaras, India, under this key to saving humanity. At the end of a single night of undisturbed meditation, he got to understand the meanings of life and death and the cycles of rebirth, and most importantly, he understood and got the answer to his main question on how to end the cycle of infinite pain and sorrow in this world, and if preached and practiced in a virtuous manner, he could save the world at large.

Here is when Siddhartha Gautama emerged as the Buddha or the Awakened One. His first teachings took place at Deer Park, Benaras, where he spoke about the Four Noble Truths of the world. This is what the Buddha had gone forward doing in various parts of India and the world and thus after the holy master had long passed away, and when King Asoka of the Mauryan empire converted to Buddhism, the teachings of the holy master gained momentum and started spreading like wildfire across the country and parts of South East Asia and other places like Sri Lanka and Japan, as well. It seems that Buddhism has become fragmented in various parts of the world, except in Sri Lanka, where they strictly adhere to the original teachings of the Mother.

After Buddha’s death, steles, stupas, and monuments were built wherever Buddha had preached. His disciples met one year after his death in Rajagrha, the capital of Maghada, to write the Buddhist holy canon, which is divided into 3 “parts” Vinaya (the discipline), Sutras (sayings of the Buddha) and Abbidharma (or metaphysics). It was then gradually established that other Buddhas, Tathagathas (4 or 7) preceded him, and one defines the statute of Boddhisatvas. Who are these Bodhisattvas?

In fact, future Buddhas who, before deliverance, remained halfway, and were given a mission, helping men to reduce the number of rebirths to reach They will receive our prayers. When the image of a Buddha is stared at, there is no communication, because he is outside this world; on the other hand, if one stares at a Boddhisatva, this one may transmit to us this strength we seek from him.

This is why the Dalai-lama who represents a Boddhisatva will be more venerated than the Panchen-lama who represents only one Buddha. In -250 B.C., a school assumed that the Buddha and his likenesses could only be produced outside concrete existence. Then, within the Indian University of Nalanda, a legendary man, Nagarjuna founded the school of Madhamika (or the average path). This school gained deep importance in Buddhism diffusion in Tibet and China.

In holy texts, there were the 10 capital sins, and the 10 virtues, and among them, 6 were transcendental or “paramitas “. By means of meaningless expressions, he developed the doctrine of vacuity, or the void, in texts named Prajnaparamita or “transcendental extreme intelligence.” If we read them, we will be closer to the promise of the deliverance. The concept of void takes form. ” Tantrism ” is a form of Buddhism that followed from there, copying the symbol of the couple Shiva-Kali, and introducing female demonstrations (Dankinis, yoginis, etc) into the Buddhist Pantheon.

This new form of Buddhism is called Mahayana whereas its primitive form in South-East Asia (Thailand, Burma, Kampuchea, etc) is known as Hinayana. The first Mahayana texts arrived in China around 65 years A.D. Many Chinese travelers, Fa-hien, Hiuan-tsang, etc. They came to Maghada to obtain texts over the Himalayas in Karakorum.

They speak little about Tibet, yet the Buddhist texts speak of the holy lake of Anavatapta from which spout the four large holy rivers of India. In the north of this lake, of a giant tree whose top (sap) is transformed into gold sheets and touches the sky. It is easy to recognize the lake Manasarovar and Mt Kailash in Tibet. Eventually, it also took root in the 7th century and flourished well till then.

Indeed, in the world, there are animals, creatures deprived of conscience and thus responsible for their acts. For these creatures, misfortunes are without explanation. There are individuals deprived of morals who can perpetrate the darkest deeds to satisfy their desires. There are others who, although non-evil, are greedy and work to get rich (and often without success). Finally, there are those who like him wish to have an existence where the individual, transgressing his personal case, seeks a healthy life, in harmony with nature, animals, and especially people.

Moreover, this moral objective must place the conscience on a level where earthly misfortunes are controlled by the spirit and have no effect on our minds. As a result, pain and all terrestrial miseries can be dominated. The spirit of conscience will rise to the level of the divine beings as imagined at the time unburdened by human vicissitudes and away from time.

Buddha defined twelve stages that mark the life of an individual. These stages include the discovery of the 5 senses, knowledge, love, family founding, getting property, etc.

In addition, life is an uninterrupted succession of births and rebirths. This conscience which is given to us at birth, if it is well used, if it is gradually enriched by knowledge, humanism, and generosity, still transcends mankind towards higher happiness. Thus any action, any word, corresponds to an energy that will be either positive (towards the goddess or the ideal of man), or negative (as the animal) according to whether we achieve benevolent or evil deeds. In the same way, our souls will leave an imprint on future generations. Thus, it can be said that it does not die.

The initial appearance of Buddhism in Tibet












In many references, it states the first official introduction of Buddhist scriptures into Tibet was during the reign of 28th Yarlung king Lhatho Thori Nyantsen (around 500 CE). However, the book was not translated.

Then later the 33rd King of Tibet, Song Tsen Gampo (born 617) translated it, furthermore, the king Songtsen Gampo married two wives from alliances with neighboring powers. One came from Nepal, the other from China; both are Buddhist and both brought with them precious Buddhist images as part of their dowry.

Eventually, they built temples in Lhasa to house Buddha images. The Jokhang temple was built by Princess Brikuti (a Nepalese prince) and the Ramoche temple was built by Prince Wencheng (a Chinese prince). It is the first visible Buddhism foothold in Tibet. But Tibetan kings actively promote Buddhism in the 8th century. It is the 38th King of Tibet, Trisong Detsen (in some history books it says he was the 37th King of Tibet. He invited Indian Pandits Shantarakshita and Kamalasila. They suggested inviting Padmasambhava (or Guru-Rinpoche) to Tibet when they failed to construct the Samye monastery against the Bon objection.

An ordained spiritual community was established in the first Buddhist monastery, Samye, built by Padmasambhava. It was during this period that scriptures began to be translated. At that time, many Indian scholars were invited to Tibet, and Buddhism’s canons were translated into Tibetan. Guru Padmasambhava controlled the Bon believers’ rebellion at the same time. So all these contributed to the firmly established status of Buddhism in Tibet, as Sangha is considered essential.

In 792, after an extensive philosophical debate, King Trisong Detsen officially declared Indian Buddhism the state religion of Tibet, not Chinese Buddhism who was failed in the debate.

Guru Padmasambhava












A magician originating in Hindhukush Padmasambhava introduced deeper into the tantric doctrines of Mahayana. For this case, the problem was in implementing the occult forces (or any existing magic ritual) that would ensure deliverance and prevent endless rebirths. One could use shamanism methods but with revised objectives.

Padmasambhava succeeded in modifying the Tibetan faith after triumphing over all the magicians Bon-Po, whom he defeated one after the other. Under his impulse, the large temple of Samye was built in 12 years (towards 775) after an Indian temple (perhaps Nalanda). He erected many temples between Lhasa and the valley of Yarlung, as well as hundreds of meditating caves within the country. These caves are believed to have been blessed by his attendance. Those hermitages and caves can still be visited and used by local yogis and meditators.

Delineation and revival

Buddhism almost disappeared after 842 when King Lang Darma violently persecuted Buddhism. After this, for a long time, there were no ordinations and no central religious authority in Tibet. Instead, the original Bon religion prevailed.
In 978, with the introduction of several Indian Pandits and Tibetan monks studying in India, Buddhism was revived. This was done with the help of King Yeshe O from the Guge Kingdom. A real revival occurred after 1042 when Atisha-di-Pankhara (or Jo Je Palden Atisha) put Tibetans “back on the right track”.

He presented Buddhist philosophy in a very clear and condensed manner, which became the basis for philosophical teachings in most Tibetan traditions. After Atisha, Indian teachers had limited influence. Atisha’s main disciple was the layman Dromtönpa, who founded the Kadam tradition. This tradition does not exist in that form anymore, but it strongly influenced the later schools of Kargyu, Sakya, and especially Gelug.

Tibetan teachers like His Holiness the Dalai Lama insisted that Tibetan Buddhism today still carefully reflects Buddhism as it was present in India around the 11th century. He also rejects the term Lamaism, as it suggests Tibetan teachers have developed their own Buddhism form.
Since Buddhism originated in Tibet, it encountered various impressions in different periods of time and that gave rise to the present Tibetan Buddhism, which is distinct from its original in Indian and other Asian counterparts, and Tibetan Bon religion has testified one that influenced the most, arguably the prayer flags and burning incense are passed from Bon.

Not only the external influences but also the rising of Buddhist scholars within Tibet has contributed to the development of Buddhism and it gradually evolved into four different sects in different periods, which are Nyinmapa founded by Guru Padmasambhava, Kadam founded by Atisha and his Tibetan disciple Dromtonpa, which is later converted into Gelug, Kargyu founded by Marpa Lozawa and Kyungpo Nyaljor, Sakya founded by Khon Konchok Gyalpo and Gelug founded by Je Tsongkhapa.










The word “Nyingma” literally means antiquity and is the oldest Buddhist tradition in Tibet. The Nyingma school is more or less a continuation of Buddhism that was first introduced by the Indian Pandit Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche). Historic information about Padmasambhava is generally shrouded in myths (he is said to have lived for 3,600 yrs in India prior to coming to Tibet). However, he came to Tibet in 817 at the invitation of the 38th King Trisong Detsen.

Initially, logic and philosophy were limited, but tantric practice was emphasized. It must be noted, however, that within the Nyingma school, considerable reformation has taken place over the ages.

Some typical aspects of the Nyingma tradition: the practice of Dzogchen (seeking to examine the fundamental nature of mind directly, without relying on visualizations and images) and the presence of hidden scriptures or “terma” from Padmasambhava, which were discovered by later Masters.

In the present day, the head of the Nyingmapa sect is Mingdrolling Trichen Gyurme Kunsang Wangyal, unfortunately, he passed away in 2008 in India. And then the throne holder of the Payul lineage Kyabjé Drubwang Pema Norbu Rinpoche or Penor Rinpoche, was widely renowned in the Tibetan Buddhist world as a master of Dzogchen, he also passed away in 2009. Now the Lama Achuk (H.H Jamyang Lungdok Gyaltsen) Rinpoche from Yachen monastery of Ganzi prefecture and Dordrak Rinzin Choephle from Dorje Drak monastery in southern Tibet are two prominent figures of the sect.


Not existing as such anymore, but it was the main reformation school after the Buddhism revival in the 11th century by Atisha di Pankara from India and Dromtonpa as his Tibetan disciple. Atisha combined two lineages: from Manjushri via Nagarjuna (emphasizing emptiness) and from Maitreya via Asangha (emphasizing compassion). Atisha’s brief text ‘A lamp for the path to full awakening‘ formed the basis of the later Gelug presentation of Lamrim.












This tradition started with the Tibetans Marpa Chökyi Lodro (1012-1097) and Khyungpo Nyaljor, in the 11th century. They had Tilopa (988-1069) and his disciple Naropa (1016 – 1100) as Indian masters.

Probably the most famous practitioner and master in the lineage is Milarepa (1040-1123), who attained Buddhahood in one lifetime by demonstrating a remarkable display of perseverance. Milarepa was a disciple of Marpa who was a pupil of Naropa. The Kargyu tradition is both a meditation lineage and a philosophical lineage. Kargyu tradition features Mahamudra practice (not like Nyingma Dzogchen) and the Six Yogas of Naropa.

Later the Kargy lineage is divided into 12 lineages which basically categorized into 2 as four primary schools of the Dagpo Kargyu and eight secondary schools of the Dagpo Kargyu, where the four primary schools of the Dagpo Kargyu are Karma Kamtsang, Barom Kargyu, Tshalpa Kargyu, and Phagdru Kargyu. Then Eight secondary schools are Drikung Kargyu, Drukpa Kargyu, Martsang Kargyu, Shugseb Kargyu, Taklung Kargyu, Trophu Kargyu, Yabzang Kargyu and Yelpa Kargyu. But in the present day, existing Kargyu lineage schools are Karma Kargyu (with as leader the Karmapa), the Drikung Kargyu, and the Drukpa Kargyu schools.
In the present day, the prominent head of the sect is 17th Karmapa where there are two candidates claimed to be the reincarnation of 16th Karmapa who died in 1981, Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorjee one of the two who is currently resident at Gyurdui monastery in Himachal Pradesh of Northern India, he was recognized by 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche in 1992, and the other is Karmapa Thaye Dorje who is recognized by the H.H Shamarpa Mipham Chokyi Lodro in 1994, currently Karmapa Thaye Dorje is resident in Rumtek monastery in Sikkim of India where the monastery of previous Karmapa is exist.









The Sakya tradition has its origins in the translator Drogmi, who transferred the Indian master Virupa’s lineage to Khon Konchog Gyalpo. On this occasion, Khon Konchog Gyalpo built the Sakya monastery (meaning grey earth) and founded the Sakya tradition. In 1247, the Mongolian prince Godan Khan conquered Tibet and gave temporal authority over Tibet to Abbot Kunga Gyaltsen (better known as Sakya Pandita).

Abbot Kunga Gyaltsen was one of the earliest major figures in this lineage. In 1254, the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan invited Chögyal Phagpa from this sect to teach. Also, Kublai Khan made Buddhism the state religion in Mongolia and made Chogyal Phagpa the first religious and secular leader in Tibet. Sakya masters ruled Tibet for more than 100 years before the Gelug took secular power from the Dalai Lamas.

A typical aspect of the Sakya tradition is called Lamdrey (leading to the state of Hevajra), a concise presentation of Buddhist philosophy. The Sakyas were heavily influenced by the Kadam lineage.
In 1354, Tibet was ruled by Changchub Gyaltsen, who was not a Sakya practitioner and after this, the tradition of Sakya declined in importance in Tibet.

Among the Sakya lineage, there are two most important figures recognized as heads of the lineage. They are Sakya Drolma Phudrang, who lives in Dehradun (North of India), and Sakya Phuntsok Phudrang in the USA, both of whom hold the power of Sakya lineage head alternatively by generations, since both are allowed to marry and their sons succeed the throne upon heirs. There is currently an importance placed on Sakya Trichen Drolma Phudrang.

Biography of Tsongkapa(1357-1419)











Tsongkapa was born in Tsongka, Amdo, in 1357, the fourth of six sons. The day after Tsongkapa’s birth, Chojey Dondrub Rinchen sent his main disciple to his parents with gifts, a statue, and a letter. A sandalwood tree grew from the spot where his umbilical cord fell to the ground. Each leaf had a natural picture of Buddha Sinhanada and was called Kumbum, a hundred thousand body images. The Gelug Buddhist monastery was later built on that spot.

Tsongkapa was not an ordinary child. He never misbehaved; he instinctively engaged in bodhisattva-type actions; and he was extremely intelligent and always wanted to learn everything. At three, he took lay vows from the Fourth Karmapa, Rolpay Dorjey (1340-1383). Soon after, his father invited Chojey Dondrub Rinchen to their home. The Lama offered to care for the boy’s education and his father agreed. The boy stayed at home until seven, studying with Chojey Dondrub Rinchen. Just seeing the lama read, he instinctively knew how to read without being taught.

During this time, Chojey Dondrub Rinchen gave the boy the empowerment of Five-Deity Chakrasamvara, Hevajra, Yamantaka, and Vajrapani. By seven, he had memorized their apprehension rituals. He had completed the Chakrasamvara retreat, was already doing self-initiation, and had a vision of Vajrapani. He frequently dreamt of Atisha (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 seven, Tsongkapa received novice vows from Chojey Dondrub Rinchen and the ordination name Lozang Dragpa. He continued to study in Amdo with this lama until sixteen when he moved to U-tsang (Central Tibet) to study further. He never returned to his homeland. Chojey Dondrub Rinchen remained in Amdo, where he founded Jakyung Monastery (Bya-khyung Don-pa) to the south of Kumbum.

At 40, and probably the most learned man of his era, Tsongkapa joined the Kadam Monastery of Rating. Here, in 1402, Tsongkapa completed his magnum opus, The Great Graduated Path (lam. rim. Chen. mo), which was principally based on Atiśa’s Bodhipathapradīpa, and has become the root text of the Gelug school.

As elsewhere in his voluminous writings, Tsongkapa emphasizes Prāsaṅgīka-madhyāmaka as the highest form of reasoning and stresses the correct understanding of relative reality as that which, while not possessing even a conventional own-being, can nevertheless be demonstrated by reasoning to be not non-existent.

At the heart of The Great Graduated Path is the thesis that, while tantra may be necessary to become a fully enlightened Buddha, a prior study of sūtra is absolutely necessary for the preliminary development of wisdom and compassion. In another significant work, The Great Graduated Path of Mantra, which discusses the four classes of tantra, Tsong Khapa defines the relationship of tantra to sūtra as that between method and wisdom.

In 1408, Tsongkapa established the Great Prayer (Mon. lam. Chen. mo), a New Year festival held in Jokhang, which won him much devotional support. In 1409, Tsongkapa had enough followers to found his own monastery in Riwo Ganden. Although initially calling his order the ‘New Kadam’, they soon became known as the Gelugs.

Tsongkapa’s views were similar to those of Atia. It is unclear whether Tsongkapa reformed a Kadam tradition that had become lax, or whether the Gelug simply grew out of the Kadam under his own personal renown. Drepung was founded in 1416, and Sera in 1419, the year of Tsong Khapa’s death. His body was embalmed and placed inside a chörten (tomb stupa) in Ganden.













The Gelugs (yellow hats) tradition was founded by Tibetan teacher Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419). The basis is the old Kadam lineage, but it includes all other Tibetan traditions. For example, Tsongkhapa’s main teacher was Sakya teacher Rendawa.

Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588), received the title ‘Dalai Lama’ (Ocean of Wisdom) from Mongol ruler Althan Khan in 1578. In 1642, the 5th Dalai Lama became the temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet by order of the Mongol ruler Gushri Khan. Although trained in all four schools, all Dalai Lamas were Gelug; one of the reasons the Gelug tradition is most widespread in Tibet. Note that the posthumously declared “First Dalai Lama” Gedun Drupa (born 1391) was a disciple of Je Tsongkhapa.

Unlike what many people think, the Dalai Lamas are not the spiritual heads of the Gelugpa school; this is always the Gaden Tripa. Some typical aspects of the Gelug tradition: are an emphasis on ethics and sound scholarship. The main Buddhist teachings are collected in the Lamrim presentation (not unlike the Sakya Lamdrey teachings). The Gelug introduced the scholarly title “Geshe” as a fully qualified and authoritative spiritual master.

Ganden Tripa is the spiritual title of the Gelugpa head, not the Dalai Lama as often misunderstood. Ganden Tripa is neither reincarnation nor heritable. It is appointed based on competitive examination among candidates, and the duration of the position is 7 years. It was the 102nd Ganden Tripa Thupten Nyima Lungthok Tenzin Norbu that took place recently.