Monday, August 31, 2009

The marks of a Gelugpa

Someone posted this question at an internet forum and I have been thinking about it since I first saw it. I was lost for an answer at first, and subconsciously prayed to Je Rinpoche for guidance if there was indeed an answer to that question. Then few days back, I got the answer. And the answer was obtained after I read Janice D. Willis’ book entitled “Enlightened Beings-Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition” and other texts.

In that book she published the translations of the biographies of six of the most renowned Gelugpas that ever lived in Tibet. They were regarded as both scholars as well as siddhas in their own right. Even though Je Tsongkhapa himself is the perfect answer to the question above, these six early Gelugpa masters display attitudes and characteristics not different from that of Je Rinpoche himself. So, I think these masters (and probably others too not described in this book), are the answer we are seeking when we ask about the attitude and characteristic of what a Gelugpa should have. Times have changed and a few “later day” Gelugpa masters may have displayed slightly different characteristics than these earlier masters. As a result of this, a few recent ones may even have invited some controversies. However, whoever feels he/she belongs to this lineage that comes from the Victorious One - Je Tsongkhapa, then any son or daughter of the lineage should study these namtars and take heed of the lessons embedded in their life stories of Je Rinpoche and these six great Gelugpa masters.

From what I gathered from Janice’s book, these are my observations on what should be the marks of a classical Gelugpa. The words within the quotes are extracted from the book:

1. Extensive study and meditation. Quote from Janice: “The Gelugpa order has emphasized that training in logic be coupled with proper meditation on the Buddha’s teachings…. Siddhas are usually viewed as wild yogis who shun book learning in preference for yogic meditation. These stories, though, show the Gelugpa’s style of joining the two.” While they do spend time at the famed Gelug monasteries, each of them also spent considerable time meditating in isolated retreat. The extensive study is important so that whatever attainment or “new dharma” is gained via meditation/ discovered/understood, it can be verified to the original Sakyamuni Buddha’s teachings as well as other classical texts. However, more important than the mere words of a text, a true Gelugpa would even go to the extent of seeking explanation directly from the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas themselves to confirm or clarify some points of doubt. This is evident in Je Rinpoche’s life where he sought Arya Manjusri to clarify some points of doubt regarding Emptiness. So, with this attitude the Gelugpas do not fool themselves and others by contradicting with the Buddha’s teachings. Another example, if we do not study Madhyamakavatara, how else would be certain that the emptiness we thought we had experienced is genuine? Hence this is the first mark of a Gelugpa.

2. Upholding the moral conduct. These Masters are fully ordained monks and holders of the three sets of vows. Je Rinpoche’s emphasis on upholding the vinaya is prominent within the Gelug tradition. Hence on certain moral issues, such as celibacy and being vegetarians, these are emphasized more strongly within Gelug as compared to other traditions. For example, married lamas are not a common feature within Gelug. Hence this is the second mark of a Gelugpa.

3. Non-sectarian attitude. The classical Gelugpa would learn the dharma from any other sources. These six masters not only study texts considered traditionally texts of Gelug but they also study those from other traditions. Indeed, they follow Je Rinpoche’s attitude, who studied not just from one lineage but many of the major lineages of his time. Quote from Janice: “Thus, these siddha’s are shown studying the manuals of Lamdre and Taknyi, the two systems associated with the Sakya tradition. The first Panchen not only observed for a time the Kagyu practice of wearing only a cotton covering but, on another occasion, made the practice of ‘taking only essences’ his main meditative endeavor. All six siddhas received instructions on the oral tradition of Chod, and, because they were Mahamudra siddhas, they of course received full instructions in Naropa’s Six Yogas. Thus, like the great Tsongkhapa, these are examples of the unbiased and true nonsectarian character and spirit with which the lamas of old approached the Buddha’s teachings.” However, despite this being the case (of studying other tradition’s teachings), due to the first mark as mentioned above, they do not run away from the path. Hence this is the third mark of a Gelugpa.

And I would add a fourth one not mentioned in the book but is widely accepted as a key feature of the Gelug tradition.

4. Emphasis on Lam Rim as preliminary. Je Tsongkhapa wrote extensively on Lam Rim because it is important and central to all Gelugpas to seriously gain a deep understanding of the Three Principal Aspects of the Path. And the latter forms an important preliminary (ngondro) to entering the tantric practices and teachings. In his composition, “A Book of Three Inspirations”, he spoke at length on why we should not by-pass this General Mahayana preliminary (i.e. the Lam Rim contemplations) before entering into tantra. Hence, I would posit that any Gelugpa who does not study and contemplate the Lam Rim is not a true Gelugpa. In fact, this Lam Rim ngondro is even more important than the traditional Vajrayana preliminaries (such as prostrations, Vajrasattva mantras, etc) because without the Lam Rim preliminary, all the latter practices are nothing but mere worldly activities grounded in samsara. Hence this is the forth mark of a Gelugpa.

I liken these four marks of a Gelugpa to the four legs of a table. Even if one is broken, the other three would not be able to uphold the top, hence there is no table even with a leg broken. These four mutually support each other.
And thus, I humbly present to my fellow lineage family the marks of a classical Gelugpa. I stand to be corrected to what I just wrote if there is anything incorrect.

With humble respects to all the Gelug Lineage Masters, I pay homage!


1. Willis, Janice Dean. Enlightened Beings-Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition. Boston. Wisdom Publications. 1995.

2.Mullin, Glenn H. The Practice of The Six Yogas of Naropa. New York. Snow Lion Publications. 2006.

3. Tsong-kha-pa. The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. Vol. III. New York. Snow Lion Publications. 2002.

Dated: 31/8/2009 (I started writing this yesterday and completed it today)

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