In his iconic form, wearing a tall yellow hat, he is the center of the Gelugpa (Tib. dge lugs pa) sect that ruled Tibet until the Chinese takeover in 1951, and whose de facto leader is the Dalai Lama. [
and strongly influenced by the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist logico-epistemological tradition (Sk. pramāṇa, Tib. tshad ma) founded by the Indian epistemologists Dignāga and Dharmakīrti (fifth to seventh century).
He unerringly characterizes all statements about ultimate truths (Sk. paramārtha-satya) framed in positive terms as false, but develops a hermeneutics to retain the authority of correct moral statements on a covering (Sk. saṃvṛti) or conventional (Sk. vyavahāra) level.
He gives pride of place to apparently antinomian tantric praxis without devaluing the centrality of ordinary moral life, and develops a distinctive analysis of dependent origination (Sk. pratītya-samutpāda).
Biographical information about Tsongkhapa comes from clues in his own writing, and from the hagiography written by his student Kedrup Pelzangpo (mKhas grub dpal bzang po) (1385–1438) called Stream of Faith (Dad pa'i 'jug ngog) (partial translation in Thurman 1982).
The name Tsongkhapa derives from Tsong kha, an ancient name for a part of the A mdo region of Greater Tibet (Bod chen) now included in Qinghai Province of the People's Republic of China, and the Tibetan suffix pa that works as an agentive nominalizing particle.
called “the later diffusion of Buddhism” (Tib. spyi dar) that began with translator Rin chen bzang po (958–1055) and the scholar-saint Dīpaṃkāra-śrījñāna Atiśa (980–1054), and ended with the most important editor of the Kanjur, Butōn (Bu ston Rin chen grub, 1290–1364).
According to Kedrup, on his arrival in Central Tibet Tsongkhapa first studied Tibetan medicine, then a traditional Buddhist curriculum of abhidharma, tenet systems (Tib. grub mtha') focusing on the Middle Way and Mind Only (Sk. cittamātra
the Sangphu tradition (gSang phu ne'u tog) founded by Ngok (rNgog bLo ldan shes rab) (1059–1109), and the Sakya (Sa skya) epistemological tradition based primarily on the works of the Sa skya paṇḍi ta (1182–1251).
He also studied and practiced tantric Buddhism.
In his early years he wrote a number of essays on topics in abhidharma (Apple 2008), a detailed investigation of the ālaya-vijñāna (Sk.) (“foundation, storehouse, basis-of all consciousness”) (Sparham 1993), and an important treatise, Golden Garland (Legs bshad gser phreng), on the Perfection of Wisdom (Sk. prajñā-pāramitā) literature based on the codification of its topics in the Ornament for the Chapters (Abhisamayālaṃkāra) (Sparham 2008–2010).
He engaged in meditation and ritual religious exercises in Southern Tibet (Lho kha) where, as evidenced in his short autobiographical writing from this transitional period (Thurman 1982), and corroborated by traditional sources (Kaschewsky 1971, Vostrikov 1970), he resorted to a communion or dialogue with Mañjuśrī––the iconographic representation of perfect knowledge in the Buddhist pantheon.
Through the voice of Mañjuśrī he articulated a hierarchical system of philosophies culminating in what he characterized as a pristine, Middle Way, *Prāsaṅgika-madhyamaka (Tib. dBu ma thal 'gyur pa) that avoided over-reification (of the absolute) and over-negation (of the conventional).
His philosophy gets its name Prāsaṅgika (“those who reveal the unwelcome consequences inherent in other's assertions”) from the importance it gives to Buddhapalita's (late fifth century) explication of Nāgārjuna's work, and to Candrakīrti's (mid-sixth to mid-seventh century) defense of Buddhapalita's explanation, in the face of criticism by Bhavaviveka (sixth century).
Tsongkhapa presented his mature philosophy in a series of volumes during the later period of his life, beginning with the publication of his most famous work, the Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path (Lam rim chen mo) in 1402, at the age of 46.
This was followed by Essence of Eloquence (Legs bshad snying po) and Ocean of Reasoning (Rigs pa'i rgya mtsho) (1407–1408), the Medium-Length Exposition of the Stages of the Path (Lam rim 'bring) in 1415, and, in the last years of his life, his Elucidation of the Intention (dGongs pa rab gsal).
Together, in this series of works written over a seventeen year period, he succeeded in setting the agenda for the following centuries, to a great extent, with later writers taking positions pro and con his arguments.
As is so often the case, his stature pushed much of earlier Tibetan intellectual history into the shadows, until its rediscovery by the Eclectic Movement (Tib. Ris med) in Derge (sDe dge) in the late 18th century.
Tsongkhapa wrote his major works on tantra and ethics at the same time as his major philosophical works. Volumes 3–12 of his collected works in 18 or 19 volumes deal exclusively with topics based on tantric sources.
In 1405 he completed his Great Exposition of Tantra (sNgags rim chen mo), a companion volume to his Great Exposition, where, in harmony with his philosophy, he argued that tantra is defined neither by special insight (Sk. vipaśyana) or Mahāyāna altruism (Sk. bodhicitta), but solely by deity yoga (Tib. lha'i rnal 'byor) (Hopkins 1980).
In 1402, Tsongkhapa, with his teacher Rendawa (Red mda' ba gzhon nu blo gros, 1349–1412) and others, at the temple of Namstedeng (rNam rtsed ldeng/lding) convened a gathering of monks with the intention of reinvigorating the Buddhist order.
From this came Tsongkhapa's short, but influential works on basic Buddhist morality (Sk. prātimokṣa) that in turn laid the foundation for the importance some Gelukpa monasteries would place on a stricter adherence to the monastic code.
By 1409, at the age of 52, his place in Tibetan society was sufficiently established that he could garner the support and sponsorship necessary for a successful rejuvenation of the central temple in Lhasa,
for establishing a new-year prayer festival (smon lam chen mo), and for completion of a large new monastery, Ganden (dGa' ldan), where he lived for much of his subsequent life until his death there in 1419.
He inspired two of his students Tashi Palden (bKra shis dpal ldan) (1379–1449) and Shakya Yeshey (Ye shes) (1354–1435) to found Drepung ('Bras spungs) monastery in 1416, and Sera Monastery in 1419, respectively.
2. Early Period
In the former he gives a detailed explanation of the ālaya-vijñāna (“foundation consciousness”)––according to Tsongkhapa the distinctive eighth consciousness in the eight-consciousness system of Asaṅga's (fourth century) Indian Yogācāra Buddhism.
Tsongkhapa then discovers in the different usages of the term ālaya-vijñāna and its near synonyms a negative connotation conveying the cause and effect nature of repeated suffering existences (Sk. saṃsāra).
He surveys the relevant literature, limiting his discussion of gotra (“lineage,” in the sense of the innate ability a person has to grow up into a fully enlightened being) to the presentation given in Asaṅga's Bodhisattva Levels (Bodhisattva-bhūmi).
demonstrating thereby the influence the categories used in the recently redacted Kanjur and Tenjur (Tib. bsTan 'gyur, the name for the commentaries in Tibetan translation included in the canon) had on his thinking.
When Tsongkhapa arrived in Central Tibet, the pressing philosophical issue of the day was Dolpopa's (Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan) (1292–1361) Great Middle Way (Tib. dBu ma chen po, Sk. *Mahā-madhayamaka) philosophy.
It propounded a hermeneutics based on the principle that a Buddha will always tell you clearly what he means. Based on a wide array of sources, and without making a clear distinction between tantric and non-tantric works, its central tenet is that an absolute, pure, transcendental mind endowed with all good qualities exists radically other than the ordinary world of appearance.
Dolpopa distinguishes a pure, transcendental knowledge (Tib. kun gzhi ye shes) that is quite other than the defiled foundation consciousness (Tib. kun gzhi rnam shes), and equates the former with his single absolute, endowed with all the qualities of a Buddha.
Later, in his mature period, as explained below, Tsongkhapa will be explicit.
He will say the ālaya-vijñāna, devoid of subject-object bifurcation, provides the essential mind-stuff for defilement (=saṃsāra) and carries seeds for purification (=nirvāṇa) in a Yogācāra system that is fundamentally wrong, and at odds with the way things actually are.
He will give the ālaya-vijñāna only a heuristic value, and say a correct view (the *Prāsaṅgika-madhyamaka view) of the workings of psycho-physical reality (the Buddhist skandhas) totally invalidates it.
As Jeffrey Hopkins (2002, 2006b) has shown conclusively, such statements constitute an explicit rejection of Dolpopa's view, a view Tsongkhapa is still formulating in early works like the Explanation of the Difficult Points.
he leaves unanswered the question of the final ontological status of the eighth consciousness; and he allows the views of Asaṅga set forth in the Bodhisattva-bhūmi to retain an authority he will later explicitly deny.
It takes the form of a long explanation of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñā-pāramitā) sūtras, given pride of place in the Kanjur as the foremost words of the Buddha, after the Vinaya section (the codifications of ethical conduct).
It propounds a philosophy that later Gelukpas, following the taxonomy developed in the mature works of Tsongkhapa himself, call Yogācāra-svātantrika-madhyamaka, in essence a Middle Way that incorporates many of the categories of Yogācāra Buddhism, yet does not have the authority of Candrakīrti's Prāsaṅgika interpretation.
Historically, the Gelukpa's Yogācāra-svātantrika-madhyamaka is another name for the mainstream philosophical school that developed in Tibet, based primarily on the teaching of Śāntarakṣita and his student Kamalaśīla (both fl. end of the eight century), the two most important Indian paṇḍitas in the dissemination of Buddhist ideas to Tibet.
Later Gelukpa scholastics, basing themselves on the mature works of Tsongkhapa, are unequivocal that Yogācāra-svātantrika-madhyamaka, like the Yogācāra philosophy of Asaṅga, is wrong, and has only heuristic value.
In the Golden Garland, Tsongkhapa, following Śāntarakṣita's school as it developed in Tibet, asserts that all bases (Sk. vastu) (the psycho-physical factors locating the person as they begin their philosophical career), all mental states along the course of the path (Sk. mārga), and the final result, are illusory, because they lack any essential nature.
But it is not yet clear how the basis relates to the final outcome (the result).
He is still content with discrediting Dolpopa and surveying different points of view.
He uses Yogācāra terminology to present his own opinion, and uses a language to describe enlightened (and enlightening) knowledge that retains for it a separateness (through its freedom from all mental construction) from all other mental states.
The primary object of philosophical inquiry in the Golden Garland is the unity of the perceiving subject in enlightenment, a topic that reflects the language and concerns of the Yogācāra-svātantrika-madhyamaka school.
Dolpopa says the two Defenses of the Perfection of Wisdom ūtras (Tib. Gnod 'jom) by “the foremost, Great Middle Way master Vasubandhu,” stand as the primary scriptural authority for the Great Middle Way doctrine, superior even to the partial truths revealed by Nāgārjuna.
Finally, Dolpopa propounds a doctrine that holds that the basis, path, and result are eternally the same, and all else is thoroughly imaginary, but the Golden Garland is certain that such a view is wrong, and directly cites a passage from Dolpopa's work, though without naming its author, saying, “since no other great path-breaker, [i.e., founder of an original philosophy] besides him has ever asserted what Dolpopa says], learned persons are right to cast out [what he says] like a gob of spit” (Sparham 2008, p. 425).
3. Mature Period
“Nonetheless, before the stream of this life Flowing towards death has come to cease That I have found slight faith in you— Even this I think is fortunate. Among teachers, the teacher of dependent origination, Amongst wisdoms, the knowledge of dependent origination— You, who're most excellent like the kings in the worlds, Know this perfectly well, not others.”
There, in the context of an investigation into the end-product of an authentic, intellectual investigation into the truly real (Sk. tattva, Tib. de kho na), and into the way things finally are at their deepest level (Sk. tathatā, Tib. de bzhin nyid),
by avoiding two errors:
going too far (Tib. khyab che ba) and
not going far enough (Tib. khyab chung ba).
That his project does not presuppose a privileged, soul-like, state of consciousness that surveys and categorizes phenomena is evident from his assertion that these two errors originate in a latent psychological tendency in philosophers:
first, to hold on to vestiges of truth (reality) where there is in fact an absence of it, and second, to fall back on some version of truth (reality) in ordinary appearance after failing to avoid nihilism in a futile quest for meaning.
This section of Tsongkhapa's work is based on the opening verse of Nāgārjuna's Root Verses on the Middle Way (Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā). Tsongkhapa's Ocean of Reasoning (Garfield and Samten 2006a) is a detailed exegesis of this work.
In it, Nāgārjuna says nothing is produced because it is not produced from itself, other, both or neither.
In Tsongkhapa's Great Exposition, the subject of Nāgārjuna's syllogism is primarily the embodied person, reflecting the trend that runs throughout Buddhist philosophical literature, in general, to stress the application of philosophical analysis to praxis.
It is axiomatic for Buddhist philosophers that there is no independent subject (soul) other than the five heaps (skandhas), so the subject of the syllogism becomes the complex or continuum of sense-faculties in the present instant.
Nāgārjuna's statement that such a person was never produced seems paradoxical, to say the least, because it appears to undercut the reality of the very intellectual act in which the thinker is self-evidently engaged.
Tsongkhapa's choice of the opening line's of Nāgārjuna's work as a point of departure for his philosophy stems from his belief that he has gained a true insight into dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda).
Thus he says in his Great Exposition,
“Therefore, the intelligent should develop an unshakeable certainty that the very meaning of emptiness is dependent-arising… Specifically, this is the subtle point that the noble Nāgārjuna and his spiritual son Āryadeva had in mind and upon which the master Buddhapālita and the glorious Candrakīrti gave fully comprehensive commentary.
This is how dependent-arising bestows certain knowledge of the absence of intrinsic existence; this is how it dawns on you that it is things which are devoid of intrinsic existence that are causes and effects” (Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee Vol. 3, 139).
Tsongkhapa set out the ramifications of his view in “eight points that are difficult to understand” (Tib. dka' gnas brgyad) first enumerated in notes (rjes byang) to one of his lectures by his contemporary and disciple, Darma rin chen (also called rGyal tshab rje “the regent”). Tillemans (1998) has nicely rendered the opening of the text as follows,
(1) the conventional nonacceptance of particulars and of
(2) the storehouse consciousness, and
(3) the acceptance of external objects. Concerning the path, there are the following [four points]:
(4) the nonacceptance of autonomous reasonings as being means for understanding reality and
(5) the nonacceptance of self-awareness;
(6) the way in which the two obscurations exist;
(7) how it is accepted that the Buddha's disciples and those who become awakened without a Buddha's help realize that things are without any own-nature. Concerning the result, there is:
(8) the way in which the buddhas know conventional things in their full extent. Thus, there are four accepted theses and four unaccepted theses.”
They have been discussed by a number of writers (Ruegg 2002, Cabezon 1992, 397).
For Tsongkhapa, it is only possible to understand cause and effect (in particular, as experienced in the immediate moment by an embodied person), by correctly understanding that dependent origination precludes any essential existence whatsoever.
This is the first of Tillemans's eight difficult points.
This is consistent with Tsongkhapa's view that any intellectual act is itself utterly devoid of any essential reality, yet functions on a conventional level through the natural workings of dependent origination (Sk. dharmatā).
This view allows him to conclude that Dignāga and Dharmakīrti's Logico-epistemological school is equivalent to Asaṅga's Yogācāra school insofar as the former school asserts a specific mark, seen by direct sense perception, that is necessary in order to retain the reality of the conventional world.
Ultimately, therefore, external objects are projections of a deluded mind. Tsongkhapa rejects this, though he suggests only those who have understood the emptiness of inherent existence through reflecting on the natural workings of dependent origination can set it aside. As he says in his Ocean of Reasoning,
He asserts that it is enough, when proving that any given subject is empty of intrinsic existence, to lead the interlocutor, through reasoning, to the unwelcome consequences (prasaṅga) in their own untenable position; it is not necessary to demonstrate the thesis based on reasoning that presupposes any sort of intrinsic (=autonomous) existence.
This gives Tsongkhapa's philosophy its name *Prāsaṅgika-madhyamaka, i.e., a philosophy of a middle way (between nihilism and eternalism) arrived at through demonstrating the unwelcome consequences (in any given position that presupposes intrinsic existence).
In the context of this assertion, Tsongkhapa offers a distinctive explanation of the well-known Nayāyika objection to Nāgārjuna's philosophy, namely, if the statements he uses to prove his thesis are themselves without any final intrinsic reality, they will be ineffective as proofs.
This is one of the most contentious assertions of Tsongkhapa.
Tsongkhapa's rejection of any form of self-referential consciousness (Sk. sva-saṃvitti, sva-saṃvedana) (the fifth point) is in essence a rejection of Śāntarakṣita's position that such self-referential or reflexive awareness is necessary to explain the self-evidential nature of consciousness, and to explain the privileged access the conscious person has to their own consciousness as immediate and veridical (Garfield 2006b).
Tsongkhapa characterizes basic ignorance (Sk. avidyā), the root cause of suffering in Buddhist philosophy, not as a latent tendency, but as an active defiling agency (Sk. kleśāvaraṇa) that projects a reality onto objects that is in fact absent from them.
By privileging the principle in this way he is able to assert that any authentic realization of truth is a realization of the way things are, namely, a realization of no sva-bhāva (Sk.) (“own-being, own-nature, intrinsic identity”).
For Tsongkhapa, therefore, Hīnayānists (by which he intends followers of the basic Buddhist doctrine of the Four Noble Truths set forth in the earliest scriptures), necessarily have the same authentic knowledge of reality.
Were they not to have such knowledge, he argues, they could not have reached the goals they reached (the seventh point).
In Tsongkhapa's mature philosophy, therefore, all appearance is false––to appear is to appear as being truly what the appearance is of, and the principle of dependent origination precludes such truth from according with the way things actually are.
(1) of a set of “true” and “false” statements that they are all equally untrue, and
According to Tsongkhapa, and worked out in detail in his Essence of Eloquence, the given record of the Buddha's diverse statements seems to contain contradictions, so a reader must decide on criteria for interpreting them.
When human reason is brought to bear on the diverse statements of the Buddha, it concludes that all statements that an essential or intrinsic identity exists, or any statements that presupposes that, cannot be taken literally, at face value.
Statements that require interpretation Tsongkhapa groups into those of different Buddhist philosophical schools: in ascending order, Listener (Sk. Śrāvaka) schools based on older Buddhist sources (the Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika),
Tsongkhapa was certainly not the first doxographer, but his clear and definitive categories had immense influence on later writers, so much so they have anachronistically been read back into works that were written before his time.
Tsongkhapa's particular hermeneutics, the primary means he employs to lead readers to his philosophical insight, allows him to characterize particular, authentic, Buddhist philosophies as wrong (because they are wrong from a Prāsaṅgika perspective), yet right from the perspective of those particular systems.
They are right because the philosophies have particular roles to play in a larger, grander scheme.
This scheme is part of the larger philosophy of a perfect person whose views are in perfect accord (Sk. tathāgata) with the way things are, i.e., dependent origination, and whose statements are motivated solely by the benefit they have to those who hear them.
are based on an authentic insight into emptiness (the seventh of the eight difficult points listed above), and it leads him to assert that the “origin” of the Mahāyāna is located in bodhicitta, and bodhicitta alone
There is an unspoken presupposition that ethical statements are grounded in reality, in the sense that suffering (Sk. duḥkha) comes from actions (Sk. karma) that are not in accord with the way things actually are (Tib. dngos po'i gnas lugs).
Beyond these three, his Great Exposition suggests ordinary ethical conduct is codified as well, in the main, in the ten ethical points (Sk. daśa-kuśala-patha) basic to any human life that rises above the mere animal.
Since for Tsongkhapa each higher code incorporates all the rules in the lower code, he conceives of the seven (or even twelve) sub-codes making up the basic code as, in descending order, containing fewer and fewer of the rules that constitute the full code.
For Tsongkhapa, it is axiomatic that human life is not ipso facto privileged above any other form of life, but his detailed explanation gives greater “weight” to the karmic retribution that comes from killing humans, and amongst humans, noble persons, for example, than less fortunate forms of life.
Tsongkhapa's explanation of the bodhisattva moral code presented in the Bodhisattva-bhūmi (Tatz 1987) follows naturally from the importance he gives to the altruistic principle (bodhicitta) in his other writing.
He reconciles rules in the bodhisattva code that enjoin behavior contradicting the basic code by positing an elite that, through a noblesse oblige of the spiritually advanced, are required to do things which would be unethical in an ordinary person.
Their not doing so constitutes an ethical lapse.
Tsongkhapa accepts that the diverse body of literature, including the historically latest Buddhist tantras (some of which are distinctly antinomian in character), are the work of a fully awakened being (Sk. buddha).
It stresses ethical conduct even in the context of works that appear, in line with the nihilistic drift of Buddhist philosophy, to count ethical codes as a block to the highest spiritual and philosophical attainment.
He gives two interpretations of the rules for the higher tantras, reserving the truly antinomian behavior for a theoretical elite whose altruism is so strong, and whose understanding and status is so ennobled, that they engage in what ordinarily would be condemned as gross immorality.
According to this code, it is an ethical lapse not to eat meat, perhaps even human flesh, the logic being that in certain specific and unusual circumstances, in a person at this stage of development, such behavior would constitute a skillful means to benefit others.
What differentiates tantric activity from other ordinary Mahāyāna activities is deity yoga (Tib. lha'i rnal 'byor), i.e., whether or not, from a first person perspective, the person is acting as a perfect, “divine” subject when engaging in (primarily ritual) behavior.
Tsongkhapa wrote works on the Vajrabhairava, Cakrasaṃvara, and Kālacakra tantras, but is best known for his exposition of the Guhyasamāja tantra based on Indian commentaries associated with the names of Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva,
particularly his short but influential Commentary on the Jñāna-vajra-samuccaya (Ye shes rdo rje kun las ‘dus pa'i ṭī kā) (1410), and magisterial Clear Exposition of the Five Stages of Guhyasamāja (gSang ‘dus rim lnga gsal sgron) (1411).
In this respect, his work is firmly located in the mainstream Tibetan tradition, influenced in particular by the translator Mar pa (Mar pa Chos kyi blo gros) (1012–1097), who spread the Six Teachings of Nāropa (Nā ro chos drug), a later Indian synthesis of diverse tantric practices, in Tibet.
Tsongkhapa is praised, in particular, for his explanation of theory and praxis associated with the illusory body (Sk. māyā-kāya, Tib. sgyu lus) and clear light (Sk. prabhāsvara, Tib. 'od gsal), a skillful adaptation of his understanding of the two truths to yogic praxis.
This is summed up nicely in the statement, “The Pañcakramasaṃgrahaprakāśa (Illumination of the Summary of the Five Steps), a short treatise attributed to Nāropa (956–1040), combining the Six Teachings with the ‘Five Steps’ (pañcakrama) of the Ārya tradition provided Tsong kha pa with the basic ideas of his Tantric system” (Tillemans 1998).
<poem> Primary Works
Three sets of Collected Works of Tsongkhapa (“the Kumbum Jampaling, Tashilhunpo Parnying, and Lhasa Sho printery editions”), Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center.
In Praise of Dependent Origination (Brten 'brel bstod pa trans. by Tupten Jinpa [Available online (pdf)].
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Other Internet Resources
Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center. A repository of digitally preserved works in Tibetan, including a number or editions of Tsongkhapa's collected works.
Tibetan and Himalayan Library, University of Virginia. A hub resource for Tibetan studies in universities worldwide. Asian Classics Input Project. The ACE tool allows readers to browse and search a number of Tsongkhapa's texts.
The Tibet Album, Collections of photographs of Tibet (British photography in Central Tibet 1920-1950). Excellent record of pre-1959 dGe lugs monasteries and other institutions influenced by Tsongkhapa..
UMA Institute for Tibetan Studies. UMA = Union of the Modern and the Ancient Institute for Tibetan Studies. Contains audio-files of explanations of works of Tsongkhapa by traditional Tibetan teachers, translated by Jeffrey Hopkins.
The Berzin Archives. The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin. A non-academic, but sometimes informative site for dGe lugs pa explanations of Tsongkhapa's ideas maintained by Alexander Berzin
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