The Gelug Tradition

The Kadam Tradition

The forerunner of the Gelug, the Kadam School, emerged in the 11th century from the teachings of the Indian master Jowo Je Atisha (982 – 1054) and his principal Tibetan student, Dromtonpa (1008 – 1064) who founded Reting, the first monastery of the Kadam School.

The name “Kadam” signifies that the teachings of the school are based on oral teachings (“dam pa”) derived from the transmitted teachings (“ka”) of the Buddha.

The Kadam School relies upon the Seven Divine Dharmas which are the three pitakas (the three collections into which Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings are divided: the Vinaya, Sutra and Abhidharma) and four meditational deities (Shakyamuni Buddha, Chenrezig, Tara and Achala).

The six basic texts of the Kadam are:
To inspire faith:
1) Udanavarga (the Sanskrit Dhammapada, a collection of sayings by the Buddha)
2) Jataka Tales (stories of the Buddha’s previous lives)
To teach conduct:
3) Shantideva’s Shikshasamucchaya (Compendium of Training)
4) Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara (Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life)
For meditation:
5) Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhumi (The Bodhisattva Stages)
6) Maitreya’s Mahayanasutralankara (Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras)

Although it no longer exists as an independent school, the Kadam’s teachings were incorporated into all four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and in particular formed the basis of the later Gelug School. The Kadam teachings are still prized today for their uniquely practical application of the bodhisattva’s altruistic ideal in everyday life, as taught in their many Lojong (Mind Training) texts.

The Gelug Traditon

The Gelug School is the largest of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Founded by Je Tsong Khapa in the 15th century, this tradition integrates the methodical study and practice of the sutras and tantras as transmitted by Je Tsong Khapa and his successors. The Gelug School is based in part upon the older Kadam lineage which derived from the teachings of Jowo Je Atisha.

The Gelug School places great emphasis on philosophical study of the classical Indian treatises, especially on Madhyamika (the Middle Way philosophy of Nagarjuna) and the view of shunyata (emptiness). Strict following of the monastic code (Vinaya) is also stressed. Within the Gelug tradition of Vajrayana, the three main deity practices are Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara and Yamantaka; with Kalachakra also being emphasised.

Je Tsong Khapa’s followers were first known as the Gadenpas or Riwo Gadenpas, after the monastery of Gaden which Je Tsong Khapa founded. Only later did his followers become known as the Gelugpas, the Virtuous Ones, because of their emphasis on the Vinaya teachings, and the Yellow Hats because of their yellow ceremonial hats.

Quickly spreading through the activity of Je Tsong Khapa’s many illustrious disciples, the Gelug School eventually became the predominant school in Tibet, with major centres around Lhasa and in Amdo. Je Tsong Khapa’s main disciples included Tokden Jampal Gyatso, Gyaltsap Je, Khedrup Je, Jamyang Choje Tashi Palden (who founded Drepung Monastery in 1416), Jamchen Choje Shakya Yeshe (who founded Sera Monastery in 1419), and Gendun Drup (who founded Tashilhunpo Monastery at Shigatse in 1447, and who eventually became known as the First Dalai Lama). Kumbum Jampaling was founded at Tsongkhapa’s birthplace in 1583 by His Holiness the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso. Jamyang Sheypa Ngawang Tsöndrü founded Labrang Tashikhyil Monastery in Amdo in 1710. Other important Gelugpa masters have include the later Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama Speaks about the Gelug Tradition

‘Now it is about six hundred years since Lama Tsong Khapa lived in Tibet. About three hundred years earlier, Dipamkara Atisha founded the great Kadam tradition. Lama Tsong Khapa used this school as his foundation. He started a tradition that emphasised tantric study that concentrated on practices of the three deities, Guhyasamaja, Heruka Chakrasamvara and Yamantaka.

“May this tradition of the Conqueror, Losang Dragpa,
That teaches the outward, calm and controlled demeanor of the hearer,
And the internal poise associated with the two stages of the yogic practitioner,
And adopts both Sutra and Tantra as mutually complementary paths, flourish.”

‘And as to what is achieved through the adoption of such a practice, we have the words:

“May this tradition of the Conqueror, Losang Dragpa
That takes the emptiness explained in the Causal Vehicle (sutra),
And the great bliss that is achieved through the Resultant Means (tantra),
Conjoined with the essence of the collection of eighty-four thousand teachings flourish.”

‘Having all of these features then, this doctrine is a consummate one. It incorporates study, contemplation and meditation in balanced, equal measure and this is what makes it so remarkable. When it comes to detailed study of the great texts, it is the Sakya and Gelug systems which are the most developed. Of course, it would be correct to say that the Gelug tradition is in reality derived from the Sakya. That being said, we could probably judge the Gelug commentarial elucidations to be the most profound and the best. All of the Tibetan traditions attempt to engage in a practice that has appreciation of emptiness, but also the interdependence of phenomena. However, when it comes down to a coherent exposition of how those two are inter-linked, it is the presentations of Lama Tsong Khapa that stand out. In the Dzogchen tradition, we find a special treatment of the emptiness component within the unified view. The same can be said about the treatment in the Highest Yoga Tantra. However, explaining exactly how the interdependence of things – how they are on the level of appearances – can itself be used as a reason to establish their ultimate, empty nature is something peculiar to the works of Lama Tsong Khapa. This was not a case of Je Rinpoche having been innovative and creating something new. Now it is possible that subsequent figures within the Gelug might be open to the charge of introducing new ideas. However, this is not so with Je Rinpoche. The way that he explains things is just as we find in Buddhapalita, the Auto Commentary to Madhyamakavatara and Prasannapada. His works represent a simplification and clarification of the philosophy set out in those works, but it is the same view, not something new. I feel that if the original teachers were here now, if Chandrakirti, Buddhapalita and their master Nagarjuna were here now they would express their wholehearted agreement and satisfaction with the way that Je Rinpoche explained things. His works on the middle way are an encapsulation of the view of Nagarjuna, Aryadeva and particularly of Chandrakirti. The original texts, for example Prasannapada is very bulky. However, Je Rinpoche’s commentary is brief in comparison. This is only a contraction of the words though. Indeed when we read Buddhapalita, we can sometimes actually get the feeling that it is one of Je Rinpoche’s works that we have. This is a special feature, something that really distinguishes these works from others. If we look at another of Je Rinpoche’s works, something like his Golden Rosary of Eloquence, we see his brilliance really shining through in his ability to survey and summarize the whole Indian Prajnaparamita commentarial tradition. The profundity of these works is such that they really are a delight for those well versed in the subjects. That is what lies at the heart of this tradition.

‘Then on the Tantric side there are the three main deities, Guhyasamaja, Heruka Chakrasamvara and Yamantaka as well as Kalachakra. Of those it is Guhyasamaja, that is the chief. There is a saying in the Gelug, “If one is on the move, it is Guhyasamaja. If one is still, it is Guhyasamaja. If one is meditating, it should be upon Guhyasamaja”. Therefore, whether one is engaged in study or practice, Guhyasamaja should be one’s focus. It is very significant that if we look at the eighteen volumes that comprise Je Rinpoche’s collected works, we find that five volumes of them are devoted solely to Guhyasamaja. Therefore, this tradition of practise of Guhyasamaja has been passed down through Je Rinpoche and his main disciples, via Jetsun Sherab Senge, and occupies an exceedingly important position in the Gelug. Je Rinpoche used the earlier Kadam as his foundation and supplemented that with an emphasis upon the study and practice of Guhyasamaja and this is how the tradition has remained for the past six hundred years. That the insights of earlier spiritual figures have been handed down to us by means of this tradition and thus continue to the present day is something that is very laudable.

‘Now if we look at the institutions of study in the Gelug that have played a major role in the upholding of traditions; the most important ones in the central area of Tibet have been Sera, Drepung, Ganden and Tashi Lhunpo. In the Amdo (and Kham) areas, it was mainly Tashi Khyil. Now Kumbum was supposed to be one of the centres of study, and it did originally produce some scholars, but later on there was not so much of note there. Mongolia we find also has given rise to a multitude of scholars, maintainers and promoters of the doctrine of Je Rinpoche.’

Extracted from His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Speech to the Second Gelug Conference (Dharamsala, India, 6 December 2000) at: www.dalailama.com.

For more information

For more information about the histories of some of the main Gelug monasteries, see the following links:

For more information about the Gelug tradition, see The Berzin Archives: