Just as the creative ferment in ancient Greek thought had prepared the way for Plato, and the Buddhist reformation in India had provided the context for Shankaracharya, so too the Buddhist renaissance and proliferation of schools in Tibet laid the groundwork for the remarkable Tibetan teacher, the great synthesizer Tsong-Kha-Pa. Despite the influx of diverse streams of Buddhist teaching at various times and from different parts of India, Khotan and China, there persisted a singular unanimity regarding Buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha. But whilst the Sangha stagnated in India through loss of contact with lay people and owing to its emphasis upon intellectual rigour to the neglect of ethics, it was retarded in Tibet by its laxity in discipline. This was in part due to divergences of practice in the various lineages and in part due to a growing gap between theory and practice under the harsh conditions of Tibetan life. The political entanglements of the monasteries, undertaken in the prolonged search for patrons and aggravated by the increasing concern for wealth, power and prestige, contributed to a pervasive corruption in self-discipline. Continuity of the Buddhist tradition in Tibet had been ensured despite formidable cultural and religious obstacles, radical differences in language, significant alterations in Tibetan political modes and ambivalent magical practices. The price paid had been considerable laxity, distortion and inversion in the monastic orders, whilst the threat of irreparable damage from within rose in direct proportion to the diminution of external influence.
Tsong-Kha-Pa's parents were blest by a variety of unusual dreams before his birth. His mother dreamt that a statue of Avalokiteshvara as huge as a mountain appeared before her and gradually diminished in size until it entered her through the brahmanda or crown opening. Tsong-Kha-Pa's father dreamt of Vajrapani, who sent a vajra or lightning-bolt sceptre from his celestial realm into his wife. These and other symbolic dreams indicated that Tsong-Kha-Pa was the emanation of both Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri. In time, he would be recognized as the boy who Buddha had told Ananda would be reborn in Tibet as Sumati Kirti – 'glory of wisdom' – Losang Drakpa in Tibetan. When he was born in the onion country of Amdo in eastern Tibet, an auspicious star appeared in the heavenly vault. Choje Dondrup Rinchen, Tsong-Kha-Pa's first teacher, was returning to Amdo from Lhasa when Tsong-Kha-Pa was born. Divining the descent of an emanation of Manjushri, he hurried back and presented sacred gifts to Tsong-Kha-Pa's father. At the age of three Tsong-Kha-Pa took layman's vows from Rolpay Dorje, the Fourth Karmapa, and then entered into such profound communion with Vajrayana deities – Heruka, Hevajra and Yamantaka – that he was ready to receive the vows of a novice at the age of seven. Choje Dondrup Rinchen then took charge of Tsong-Kha-Pa and watched over him until his sixteenth year, when he travelled to the great cathedral in Lhasa to take the Bodhisattva vow before the image of Buddha.
Knowing that he would never again return to Amdo, Tsong-Kha-Pa accepted his first teacher's parting advice to meditate on Yamantaka for continuity of practice, Vajrapani for freedom from distraction, Manjushri for wisdom and discrimination, and Amitayus for long life, amongst others. Then he set out to master the teachings of all the lineages. His travels would require a book merely to catalogue, though the pattern they followed was simple: in every case, he went to the best teachers of a particular school or doctrine, or to those who alone knew a particular text or treatise. As a little boy he went to Drikung Monastery, whose head lama of the Kargyu Order imparted to him the teachings of bodhichitta – the altruistic seed of Enlightenment – mahamudra – the great seal of perfection – and medicine. By the age of seventeen Tsong-Kha-Pa had become a proficient doctor of medicine. Moving on to Chodra Chenpo Dewachen Monastery, he rapidly learnt the Prajnaparamita Sutras and the works of Maitreya, and by his nineteenth year he was renowned as a scholar. He debated at Samye Monastery, received the Heruka initiation at Zhalu and took his examinations in the Prajnaparamita at Sakya. Then he met Rendawa Zhonnu Lodro, who was to become a lifelong spiritual companion, and received from him the essence of the Madhyamika or Middle Way philosophy. Here he inaugurated a method which was to provide the foundation of his reform. He became a disciple to Rendawa in some respects and his teacher in others. His application of dialectics to the guru-chela relationship eventually led to his recognition as the undisputed master of all the lineages and teachings.
Taking up the works of Chandrakirti – the Mahayana version of the philosophical Abhidharma – of Vasubandhu and Dharmakirti, he began to teach Buddhist philosophy. His reputation spread rapidly, and soon he was invited to various monasteries to instruct senior monks in the highest subtleties of the Buddhavachana. Whilst at Choday in northern Tibet he was initiated into a number of tantric practices. Upon his return to Lhasa he found an entire delegation from Amdo waiting to plead with him to come home. He felt that such a journey would interrupt his studies dedicated to the welfare of all beings, and so he renounced the offer, but he sent his mother a portrait of himself which spoke to her when she opened it. Later, he refused an invitation to become imperial tutor for the emperor of China. Journeying to Narthang, he consulted the complete texts of the Kangyur and the Tengyur and studied the treatises of Nagarjuna. Then he returned with Rendawa to Sakya, where he finished his examinations. Tsong-Kha-Pa had become a powerful dialectician, in large measure because of his utter calm and fair-mindedness in the midst of heated and intense debates. People were both fascinated and awed by him, but in his presence they were soon put at ease. His respectful and patient treatment of every sincere question infused teaching and learning with a sanctified joy that regenerated listeners and motivated them to uphold their vows and persevere on the Path.
Although his matchless intelligence and depth of mystical insight amazed those who came into contact with him, his utter selflessness and transparent morality demonstrated a seemingly effortless translation of sublime ethics into the visible arena of daily activities. This led many monks and laymen to recognize in Tsong-Kha-Pa one of those great beings who choose their incarnations for the sake of universal Enlightenment. When he began to write at the age of thirty-two, many who had known him only by reputation could benefit from his teachings. Tagtsang, a monk and translator who had previously been critical of Tsong-Kha-Pa's eclectic doctrines, was stunned by his Golden Garland of Eloquent Teaching. Writing to Tsong-Kha-Pa, he confessed, "As your sun of wisdom rises, my flower of arrogance disappears." During this period Tsong-Kha-Pa was ordained, received the teachings which had been preserved by the lineage founded by Marpa, and undertook an extensive study of the kalachakra tantra cycle, the heart of which is Shamballa conceived as a spiritual, mental and physical centre of reality. Though his outward movements can be traced for the remainder of his life, his arcane practices and secret activities cannot. He cultivated the super normal siddhis, including the meditation wherein the body can be made to generate and radiate remarkable amounts of heat. He travelled north and south from Lhasa to give initiations, and also, with Rendawa, performed initiations on Potala hill, where the palace of the Dalai Lamas would later be built.
Tsong-Kha-Pa now made a systematic study of the four levels of the Vajrayana, involving deep understanding of the mysteries of Sarasvati, the Black Manjushri, Manjushri Dharmachakra and the Guhyasamaja, 'king of tantras' He then entered upon an intensive retreat during which he determined the course of the remainder of his life. It may have been during this period that he took the decision to inaugurate a seven-century plan in which Bodhisattvas would take incarnation in the Western world to relight the Mystery fires there and to help receptive human beings free themselves from deadly dogmatism and growing materialism. It is said that when he emerged from this retreat, he was thereafter able to question Manjushri at will, consulting him and receiving guidance from him in all important matters. From this time onward Tsong-Kha-Pa alternated extended retreats with his disciples, during which many mystic visions occurred, with very specific meetings and religious activities. He assimilated, for example, the Kadampa tradition founded by Atisha and made it the basis of his own reform. When he met the Nyngma lama Khenchen Namkha Gyaltsen, there was an instantaneous mutual recognition. Khenchen saw Tsong-Kha-Pa as Manjushri, and Tsong-Kha-Pa recognized him as Vajrapani. When Tsong-Kha-Pa thought of going to India, Vajrapani advised against it, not only because of the difficulties involved in such a journey, but also because Tsong-Kha-Pa, with his mystic powers, would be of greater service by remaining in Tibet. He did so and used the time he would otherwise have spent in travels to write his great lam-rim treatise, the Great Exposition on the Stages of the Path.
Tsong-Kha-Pa took the spirit of Nagarjuna's dialectic and applied it to Atisha's teaching (which he felt expressed the methodology of Buddha) to create the lam-rim teachings. A vision in which Maitreya appeared confirmed his intuition. Beginning with Guru Yoga as the basis for all spiritual growth and advancement, he explained the path to Enlightenment in terms of gradual stages and progressive awakenings. Such a conception, which subordinates the radical methods of insight of the Vajrayana, requires a balanced development of the whole individual and places meditation on the foundation of morality. Integral to this approach – a fusion of doctrine and method, theory and practice – is a strict understanding of the disciplinary rules for monks. Where self-mastery through self-restraint is ignored, attempts to deepen insight are rapidly inverted or distorted into psychic excesses. The growth of the whole being towards the Bodhisattva goal requires a dedication to self-control in thought, feeling, word and deed. When he completed this Exposition, Sarasvati approved it and Manjushri told him that he need not seek advice on the nature of reality, since his own powers of insight – prajna – were sufficient for any task. Shortly thereafter, Tsong-Kha-Pa entered into a full understanding of shunyata.
By the time he was forty Tsong-Kha-Pa was ready to devote all his time to teaching. He visited the monastic centres of various orders and taught every form of Buddhist practice. Having mastered all doctrines and practices, he was able to insert his reform into each of the orders without giving offence or generating resistance. Everyone wanted to claim him as their own because he was the unexcelled master of every discipline and he backed his words by his own conduct – the quintessence of the method of upaya, skilful means. In 1409 he realized one expression of his religious reform by inaugurating the Great Prayer Festival at Lhasa in which eight thousand monks participated. The twenty-one-day event, which draws all the orders together, continues even at present in Dharamsala under the auspices of the Dalai Lama. When the festival ended, Tsong-Kha-Pa decided to remain in one place and chose Dongri (Nomad Mountain) as the site for the monastery. Called Ganden, the Tibetan word for Tushita, the celestial abode of Maitreya, its construction was placed in the hands of Gendun Drub, who would posthumously become the First Dalai Lama.
During his last years Tsong-Kha-Pa composed many valuable commentaries on various texts while continuing his teaching. In 1419 he was invited to Drepung Monastery, where he taught the most advanced disciples. One day he halted his discourse halfway through a text, saying that he would continue another time. Everyone present knew the significance of this act: to stop midway through a cycle of teachings indicated the intention of resuming the discourse with those who were worthy in a future incarnation. He returned to Ganden and left it again only to consecrate the ground for Sera Monastery. At the age of sixty-two he gathered his chief disciples together, gave his last instructions, assumed the lotus posture, passed into high meditative states and ceased to breathe. After his funeral he appeared to various disciples a number of times. Even his closest disciples found it hard to believe that such a Great Teacher had lived in their midst. He seemed to have spent his whole life writing, so numerous were his treatises. But it also seemed that he devoted himself exclusively to meditation, so constant was his practice. Yet he spent his life in almost ceaseless discourse to monks and disciples. He had done the work of three exceptional men at one time, even if his most arcane activities are left out of account.
Unlike many other teachers, Tsong-Kha-Pa did not offer his own life as an example to be emulated, for no one could hope to do so. Nonetheless, he spoke of his life in terms of the various stages of study, practice and attainment he had experienced, thus showing others what can be done and enjoining them to take what they can use. Advising his disciples to "seek transcendence first of all", he wrote in The Three Principles of the Path:
Warning that efforts at transcendence can easily get off track because residues of ignorance, selfishness and preconception plague the aspirant at every stage, Tsong-Kha-Pa set forth the inner spirit of the Middle Way:
Tsong-Kha-Pa held that an individual was supremely privileged to have gained a human form, from which alone the path to Enlightenment can be entered. But that form has to be made ideally receptive to spiritual growth, and this requires the cultivation of a fundamental ethical sensitivity which is accurately translated into moral practice. In addition, one has to take a positive line of action regarding one's karmic inheritance through self-purification and the restoration of vows broken in this and in previous lives. One needs to meditate upon suffering as the universal human condition – but not in terms of one's own dissatisfactions and delusions – so that one can come to understand whatever happens to oneself in light of the whole of humanity.
All these disciplines, which are taken up together and deepened by stages, have as their pivot bodhichitta, the seed of Enlightenment manifest as altruism.
Cultivation of the paramitas and meditation conjoined with one-pointedness, when connected by a rigorous dialectical logic, can cut the grip of Samsara. The unpractised, however, will marvel at the possibility of a total fusion of complete mental tranquillity and unlimited spiritual insight, but nothing less will be successful.
Tsong-Kha-Pa was aware of the myriad ways in which one may drift away from balanced practice. In his Letter of Practical Advice on Sutra and Tantra, he warned a disciple and friend:
Tsong-Kha-Pa dared to see why the path to Enlightenment is trodden by so few, and he knew that even after the kaleidoscopic distractions and self-rationalizing temptations of the world have been firmly set aside, the difficulties of the path only begin to manifest themselves. He knew in exact detail every possible pitfall along the way, and yet he was not for an instant discouraged, either for himself or in respect to humanity. He was firm in his faith that any and every human being could attain Enlightenment if only motive, persistence and renunciation of expectation were combined. This indescribably noble and profound conviction was as natural to him as breathing, and it is why he is considered to be Tibet's greatest Bodhisattva.
When Tsong-Kha-Pa and Rendawa first met, they became at once intimate spiritual friends. Rendawa's pure response to Tsong-Kha-Pa has become the mantram by which his blessing is sought by the sincere aspirant and devotee: