Short Biography of Je Tsong Khapa, Losang Drakpa

(1357 - 1419)


Tsong Khapa, popularly known as Je Rinpoche, was born in 1357, in the Tsong Kha region of Amdo, in eastern Tibet. During the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, Tsong Khapa, in a previous incarnation, was a young boy who offered the Buddha a clear crystal rosary and received a conch shell in return. The Buddha then called his disciple Ananda to him and prophesied that the boy would be born in Tibet, would found a great monastery between the areas of Dri and Den, present a crown to the statue of the Buddha in Lhasa, and be instrumental in the flourishing of the Doctrine in Tibet. The Buddha gave the young boy the future name of Sumati Kirti, or, in Tibetan, Losang Drakpa.

All this occurred exactly as the Buddha had prophesied. The conch shell that the Buddha had given the boy was unearthed during the building of Ganden and, in 1959, could still be seen in Drepung, the largest monastery in Tibet. The crown still rests on the head of the Buddha in Lhasa.

Over a thousand years after the passing of Shakyamuni Buddha, further prophesies relating to Je Rinpoche, were given by the Lotus-born Guru, Padma Sambhava. He predicted that a fully ordained Buddhist monk named Losang Drakpa would appear in the east near the land of China. He said that this monk would be regarded as being an emanation of a Bodhisattva of the greatest renown and would attain the Complete Enjoyment Body of a Buddha.

Early years

At three years old, Tsong Khapa took the layman's vows from the fourth Karmapa, Rolpay Dorje, and received the name Kunga Nyingpo. When the Choje Dondrub Rinchen visited the parents' home and requested the father to part with his son, the father was delighted at the prospect of his child being with such a great teacher and allowed him to leave with the Lama.

Before taking the novice vows, Tsong Khapa, received many tantric initiations and teachings, including the Heruka empowerment, and was given the secret name of Donyo Dorje. When he was seven, he fulfilled his yearning to take the novice vows; receiving them from his teacher. It is here that he was given the name of Losang Drakpa. Tsong Khapa attached greater importance to guarding his vows than his eyes or his own life. He had entered the mandalas of Heruka, Hevajra, Yamantaka an other deities before receiving ordination and was even performing self-initiation meditations upon Heruka when he was only seven.

His eminent teacher took care of him until he went to central Tibet at the age of sixteen. Traveling with Denma Rinchen Pel, Tsong Khapa arrived at Drikung where he met the head Lama of the Drikung Karguy monastery, Chennga Chokyi Gyalpo. This great lama was his first teacher after leaving his original Master, and tutored him on various topics such as the Altruistic Mind (bodhichitta), and five sections of the Great seal (Mahamudra) during his stay at the monastery. He also met the great doctor Konchog Kyab who taught him the major medical treatises and, by the time he was seventeen, he had become an excellent doctor. Thus his fame was already spreading even in the early years of his study.

Studies at Young Age for Scholarship

From Drikung, Tsong Khapa went to the Chodra Chenpo Dewachen monastery in Nyetang where he studied with Tashi Sengi and Densapa Gekong. Furthermore Yonten Gyatso taught him how to read the great treatises and continually helped him with the Ornament for the Realizations. Within eighteen days he had memorized and assimilated both the root text and all its commentaries and soon mastered all the works of Maitreya Buddha. He then gained a complete understanding of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) at great speed and with little effort. His teachers and fellow students with whom he debated were astonished at his knowledge and, after two years of studying the Perfection of Wisdom, he was recognized at the age of nineteen, as a great scholar.

That year Je Rinpoche debated at the two biggest monasteries of the day in Tibet: Chodra Chenpo Dewachen and Samye. He now became very famous in U-Tsang, the central providence of Tibet. He visited many other monasteries engaging in debate.

Meeting Rendawa

Tsong Khapa then went to visit Nyapon Kunga Pel at Tzechen requesting instructions on the Perfection of Wisdom. However, this master was unwell and referred him to his disciple, Venerable Rendawa. Je Rinpoche developed tremendous respect for Rendawa's method of teaching the Treasury of Knowledge and its auto-commentary. This master had innumerable spiritual qualities and Tsong Khapa later came to regard him as his principal teacher. Their relationship became such that simultaneously they were each other's Master and disciple. He also received teachings on the Middle Way (Madhyamika) philosophy from Rendawa.

Tsong Khapa composed a verse in honor of Rendawa and would often recite it. However, Rendawa replied that this was more applicable to Tsong Khapa than to himself and so adapted the verse as follows. This is now regarded as Tsong Khapa's Mantra (mig tse me)

Avalokiteshvara, mighty treasure of immaculate love,
Manjushri, Lord of stainless knowledge,
Vajrapani, destroyer of all demonic forces,
O Je Tsong Khapa, Losang Drakpa,
Crown jewel of the sages of the Land of Snow,
Humbly I request your blessing!

Further Studies and His First Teachings

During the autumn and winter he received many teachings on the Entrance to the Middle Way by Chandrakirti. He then returned to Nyetang to become the student of the great scholar of Monastic Discipline (Vinaya), abbot Kazhiwa Losal, at whose feet he studied the root texts of Discipline and of the Treasury of Knowledge. By the time he left, his depth of understanding surpassed that of his teacher. He memorized a commentary on the extensive root text of the Discipline at the daily rate of seventeen Tibetan folios which is thirty-four pages!

While reciting prayers with the other monks, he had complete and effortless single-pointed concentration on insight meditation. However, he remained dissatisfied and continued to search for further teachings and teachers. During that winter a troublesome back pain developed and he thought of returning to Rendawa but the bitterly cold weather forced him to stay at Nanying where he gave his first teachings. Scholars had asked for teachings on Knowledge (Abhidharma), and in particular Asanga's Compendium of Knowledge which composes the Mahayana Abhidharma. Tsong Khapa studied the higher tenets and even if it was his initial encounter with this text, he mastered it on first reading and gave perfect teachings.

From there he went to Rendawa, who was at Sakya, and for eleven months taught the Compendium of Knowledge. At this time he himself received teachings on Dharmakirti's Commentary on the Compendium of Valid Cognition, as well as various texts such as the Entrance to the Middle Way and the transmission of the Sutra on Disci

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