Jinpa, Thupten. Tsongkhapa: A Buddha in the Land of Snows. Shambhala Publications, 2019.
Summary by Nicholas Lillis
Tsongkhapa: A Buddha in the Land of Snows details the entire life of Je Tsongkhapa, one of the greatest Buddhist teachers in Tibetan history. Born in 1357 in Amdo, northeastern Tibet, Tsongkhapa led a life that exemplified the importance of study, teaching, and meditative practice. During his life, he made important philosophical contributions to the understanding of emptiness and dependent origination. He also went on to synthesize his approach to enlightenment through the creation of two works: Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment and Great Exposition of Tantra. These compositions continue to be influential in modern Buddhism. The biography reveals some interesting points of controversy in Tsongkhapa’s life such as his mystical connection to Manjusri, the Buddha of wisdom. Overall, the book presents a narrative balanced between an academic explanation of Tsongkhapa’s ideas and a view of Tsongkhapa’s inner personal life. A Buddha in the Land of Snows is a nice entry into Buddhist history and biography for a curious western reader.
Tsongkhapa was born in 1357 in the land of Amdo. His birth is said to have “occurred when the Morning Star was shining bright and clear in the sky as the crisp fall night was giving way to the dawning of the new day” (19). Throughout his early life, the nearby monks brought gifts to Tsongkhapa’s family. At the age of 3, the family decided that Tsongkhapa would go and study to become a monk at the monastery under the tutelage of Choje Dhondrup Rinchen. Choje and Tsongkhapa would develop a strong relationship throughout their years as master and student. However, understanding that his pupil needed greater instruction, at the age of 16 Tsongkhapa was sent to central Tibet to pursue higher learning. Still, this period of Tsongkhapa’s life would be incredibly impactful on his development. Tsongkhapa cherished his relationship with Choje and never forgot about his first teacher. Even after his teacher died, Tsongkhapa would “unfailingly observe the annual commemoration of his teacher’s passing” (26).
In the year 1371 Tsongkhapa finally arrived in central Tibet. Tsongkhapa first traveled between several different monasteries studying texts such as Maitreya’s Ornament of Realization. While studying under various masters at different monasteries, Tsongkhapa went to ask for instruction on Vasabandu’s Treasury from a master named Nyawon. Old and tired, Nyawon refused Tsongkhapa’s inquiry and directed him to one of his students, Rendawa, for instruction. Rendawa would become the foremost teacher of Tsongkhapa. Rendawa was a master of explanation. When expounding on a text, he was also able to relate the explanation of every specific point in the work to the overall understanding of the text. During his previous wandering between monasteries, Tsongkhapa had been searching for a great teacher—in Rendawa he had found such an instructor. This relationship would become a defining feature of Tsongkhapa’s life. With only an 8-year age gap, eventually, their relationship would become more collegial with Rendawa even taking some instructions from Tsongkhapa. While they did not always have the same views, the pair’s disagreements never stained the beautiful friendship.
A recurring alignment in Tsongkhapa’s life that would begin at this age was his chronic back pain. It is unknown what was his exact condition, but it is surmised to have likely been a connective tissue disorder. Tsongkhapa would undergo several types of treatments to relieve this pain, but most would prove unsuccessful.
After continuing his training under Rendawa, at age 23 Tsongkhapa finished his last formal debate and received full ordination as a bhiksu. At this time, Tsongkhapa would go on to meet the Phagdru ruler of Tibet and create a close correspondence with the family. This relationship would prove beneficial in his career as the Phagdru family would become one of his largest benefactors of Tsongkhapa’s monastery and the Geluk school of thought that would emerge from Tsongkhapa’s legacy.
Following these events, another crucial character would enter Tsongkhapa’s life during this period: Tokden Jampel Gyatso. Tokden would become one of Tsongkhapa’s first disciples and he would play a crucial role in the more mystical side of Tsongkhapa’s life. In 1387, Tsongkhapa completed his first great writing project, The Golden Rosary, an extensive two-volume exposition of Maitreya’s Ornament of Realization. The work was met with a warm reception and attracted many Tibetan scholars to Tsongkhapa. The text increased Tsongkhapa’s reputation as a great scholar.
Around this time Tsongkhapa would meet Umapa Pawo Dorje, a mystic who would serve as a medium for Tsongkhapa’s lifelong and controversial connection to Manjusri, the buddha of wisdom. Tsongkhapa would first use Umapa to speak with Manjusri about specific teachings until later Tsongkhapa was able to speak to Manjusri through vision without this medium. This special connection with Manjusri was recognized by many of Tsongkhapa’s disciples as evidence of their teacher’s uniqueness. For some critics, however, this connection would cause suspicion of the validity of Tsongkhapa’s claims. In these first encounters using Umapa as a medium, Tsongkhapa states that Manjusri urged him to leave his studying and teaching to go on a long retreat. Thus, in 1392, Tsongkhapa took his followers on a long retreat into the Wolkha Valley Region. This retreat would give time for Tsongkhapa to conduct lots of personal reflection and think upon many of the ideas in his mind regarding emptiness and dependent origination. While the retreat was filled with mostly meditation and reflection, Tsongkhapa did gain renown for his restoration of a nearby decrepit Buddhist statue at Dzinchi.
Following the retreat, one of the main questions still agonizing Tsongkhapa was the nature of the Buddhist concept of emptiness. After many consultations with the deity Manjusri, Tsongkhapa has a breakthrough. Tsongkhapa began to understand that the concepts of emptiness and dependent origination were equivalent ideas: “emptiness is dependent origination and dependent origination is emptiness” (168). This realization was incredibly profound in the community and was one of Tsongkhapa’s most important discoveries.
Around this time, Tsongkhapa would also meet another critical disciple, Gyaltsep Je. The endearing account of Tsongkhapa and his future successor meeting is an example of the personal elements that bring Tsongkhapa’s biography to life. Gyaltsep was a great debater and wanted to challenge Tsongkhapa. To make this challenge, Gyaltsep went to a lecture and decided to keep his hat on as a sign of disrespect. Tsongkhapa responded by leaving his throne from which he was lecturing to sit on the ground. Gyaltsep then went and sat on Tsongkhapa’s throne. Tsongkhapa, however, did not react. As Gyaltsep’s continued to listen to Tsongkhapa’s intelligent lecture, Gyaltsep’s demeanor changed. Realizing his mistake, Gyaltsep sat back down with the other students to respect and learn from this great master.
Following the breakthrough on emptiness, Tsongkhapa met with his old teacher and friend Rendawa in the year 1400 at Gadong Monastery. The two held a series of lectures and teachings that attracted great attention from monks throughout the region.
In the fall of 1401, Tsongkhapa began composing his second work The Great Treatises on the Stages of the Path. This would be Tsongkhapa’s most influential work. While at times he struggled with the writing, visions of Manjusri urged him to continue and persevere. The work itself can be thought of as “a systematic presentation of all the stages of the path to enlightenment, based specifically on instruction appropriate to the trainees of the three capacities—beginning, intermediate, and advanced” (199). Additionally, the treatise can be read as an independent synthesis of Buddhist ethical, religious and philosophical thought and practice. Today this text is still critical in understanding the path of enlightenment. Several years after The Great Treatises in 1404, Tsongkhapa had another vision from Manjusri urging him to write a treatise on the tantric Vajrayana path. Thus Tsongkhapa would write his second treatise, the Great Treatise on Tantra.
Tsongkhapa would follow these great treatises with other compositions on hermeneutics and philosophical analysis. After receiving visions from Manjusri telling him that he should write a commentary on two Mahayana schools, Cittamatra (Mind only) and Madhyamaka (Middle way), Tsongkhapa wrote the Essence of True Eloquence. The text would establish a new field of scholarship devoted to Tibetan hermeneutics, drang nge. The second hermeneutic text Tsongkhapa wrote was the Ocean of Reasoning, an extensive commentary on Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way.
In 1409 Tsongkhapa decided he needed to found a home monastery. The realization came as Tsongkhapa aged and the vagabond walking lifestyle took a greater toll on his body. Thus, Tsongkhapa founded the Ganden monastery on the slopes of Angkur Mountain. This monastery would later become home to the Geluk school of Buddhism. In these final years, Tsongkhapa would write his final works related to the completion stage of the Highest Yoga Tantra: Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages and A Practical Guide to the Five Stages in One Sitting.
In 1419, Tsongkhapa began to experience more significant pain in his legs. To relieve this pain he decided to make a trip to the Tolung hot springs near Lhasa. This short trip would be his time last away from the Ganden temple. After visiting the springs and the holy temple of Jokhang in Lhasa, Tsongkhapa returned to his monastery where his illness slowly got worse. On November 12, 1419, Tsongkhapa entered nirvana. For 13 days after his passing, the sky was clear of clouds. The wind ceased, and the sun had a special quality. The monks took this miracle as a sign from the master of the future success of 13 subsequent abbots of the temple (326). The remains of Tsongkhapa were embalmed in a stupa until they were later destroyed by monks fearful of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
The legacy of Tsongkhapa was profound immediately after his death and still is to this day. He stands out for his prioritization of original Indian Buddhist sources, his emphasis on insight gained through personal understanding, his realizations of emptiness, his strong advocacy of tantric practice, and the clarity of his instructions for following the Buddhist path. Jinpa’s biography of Tsongkhapa gains distinction for its ability to capture so many facets of Tsongkhapa’s personality and life 600 years after his death. It is great for both a reader well versed in Tibetan literature and a curious student wanting to learn more about the lives of great Buddhist monks.