Foundation of the Gelugpa Order

The founding of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat, Geluk-pa, or Dge-lugs-pa) order of Tibetan Buddhism created the basis for the development of lamaist rule across the central Tibetan plateau.

Summary of Event

At the start of the fourteenth century, the four major orders (or sects) of Tibetan Buddhism Buddhism;Tibet were the Nyingma Nyingma order , Kadam Kadam order , Kagyu Kagyu order , and Sakya Sakya order . Each of these had its origins in the florescence and reestablishment of Buddhism on the plateau at the end of the tenth century through the eleventh century. A fifth sect of Buddhism, Bon Bon , often thought to be an amalgam of pre-Buddhist Tibetan religious belief and Buddhism, was also important. Although broadly similar in their content, each order followed its own interpretations of Indian Buddhist thought and, consequently, emphasized different pathways to the achievement of enlightenment, or nirvana. [kw]Foundation of the Gelugpa Order (1392)
[kw]Gelugpa Order, Foundation of the (1392)
Gelugpa order
Tibet;1392: Foundation of the Gelugpa Order[3020]
Government and politics;1392: Foundation of the Gelugpa Order[3020]
Religion;1392: Foundation of the Gelugpa Order[3020]
Sakya Pandita
Sonam Gyatso

Each order owed its origins to a charismatic founder. The Nyingma, the earliest order, was founded by a mendicant yogi from India, Padmasambhava Padmasambhava , who emphasized the Tantric tradition of Indian Buddhist thought. Although followers of the Nyingma tradition founded the first Tibetan monastery at Samye Samye , most practitioners of this order were often laypeople or adepts, who practiced magic and incorporated shamanic elements into their religious practice. In contrast, the Kadam was founded on the ancient Indian Buddhist cornerstone of the monastic community. This order emphasized rigorous study within the confines of the monastery as the true means by which to achieve enlightenment, and its followers rejected Tantric practice. Because of its lack of appeal and demanding lifestyle, the Kadam order never rose to prominence on the plateau. Monasticism;Tibet

The Kagyu and Sakya orders dominated religious life on the plateau from the twelfth to mid-fourteenth centuries, achieving this through spiritual innovation and the formation of alliances with powerful secular patrons. The Kagyu combined asceticism with monastic organization. Hermit monks would travel to sacred caves and meditate, and in time, some of these locales became the seats of major monastic institutions. Five major suborders of Kagyu were founded, each with its primary monastery, and of these, Drigung, Shangpa, and Karma were the most prominent. Each was supported by a local clan or family. Drigung and Shangpa were located in Ü (central Tibet near Lhasa and the Kyichu River), and the Karma became particularly powerful in Kham (now eastern Tibet and western Sichuan) and southeastern Tibet through its alliances with the Chinese court, especially during the thirteenth century.

Sakya was the most powerful of the four orders. Its major center at Sakya was founded in 1073, and the order emphasized the teaching of the so-called New Tantras, to be distinguished from the Old Tantras taught by the Nyingma and Bon. The Sakya emphasized a clerical and monastic form of Buddhism focused on lineages of celibate monks. An influential clan, the K’ön (or Khön) from Tsang (the area west of the modern Tibetan town of Shigatse) were instrumental in the rise of the Sakya and provided them with land, serfs, and protection.

The appearance of the Mongols on the Tibetan plateau was the primary catalyst for the rise of Sakya power. Genghis Khan Genghis Khan made forays into the plateau by 1206 and, at the time, received submission from the leaders of both Shangpa and Sakya. The abbot of Sakya monastery was invited to Mongolia to teach Buddhism, and this provided a considerable boost to Sakya fortunes in Tibet. However, with the death of Genghis Khan in 1227 and the division of his domain between his sons and grandsons, other orders and suborders began to compete for political advantage. A period of uncertainty and conflict followed as orders and their patrons schemed for power.

In 1247, Sakya Pandit Sakya Pandit , a monk of Kön lineage and recognized as a brilliant scholar and synthesizer of Buddhist doctrine, was sent to the Mongol prince Godan Khan Godan Khan , a grandson of Genghis Khan and overlord of northeastern Tibet, to intercede on the behalf of a group of Tibetan nobles. Sakya Pandit offered Tibetan loyalty in exchange for Mongol protection and control, and although he died in 1251, one of his nephews, P’agpa P’agpa , became the ruler of Tibet under the sponsorship of Kublai Khan Kublai Khan in 1276. This event was of great importance to Tibetan political developments because it formalized the principle of the lama as a head of state. The head abbots of Sakya monastery were given the title of imperial preceptor and ruled for the Mongols through a series of lower level administrators, both clerical and secular. Despite Mongol support, Sakya was unable to maintain its dominance because of a long series of corrupt administrators. By 1354, political and clerical power had shifted eastward toward the Yarlung valley (in eastern Ü), which at the time was controlled by a suborder of Kagyu. This pattern of shifting power between Ü and Tsang was to last for the next three hundred years.

The Gelugpa (translated as “those who follow virtuous works”) order was created during this political chaos, about 1392, by the great Tibetan scholar Tsong-khapa. Although often seen as a reforming figure, his great contribution to Tibetan Buddhism was in fact a masterful synthesis of scholarly insight and Tantric thinking. In the Lamrim Ch’enmo (fifteenth century; The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path of Enlightenment
Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path of Enlightenment, The (Tsongkhapa) , 2001) and other works, he argued that reliance on reason and philosophical education in Buddhism was the only real path to enlightenment and that Tantric practice toward that end could be employed only by true masters after long years of study and reflection. This was to be performed not in the hermitage or isolated retreat but instead within the confines of the monastery, where strict discipline and withdrawal from life could be achieved. In this sense, the Gelugpa order was first known as the New Kadam, and over time, many Kadam monasteries were absorbed into the Gelugpa tradition. Very few monks ever reached the highest levels of this rigorous study, although large numbers of monks received basic academic training in this philosophy. In practice, this system led to the creation of rigid hierarchy of power, with a small number of lamas and scholars at the top supported by very large numbers of academic and nonacademic monks. This stood in stark contrast to the much smaller monasteries of the other established orders.

Tsongkhapa founded Ganden monastery near Lhasa in 1409, and his disciples founded Sera (1419), Drepung (1416), and Tashilunpo (1447). These monasteries became the largest in all Tibet, attracting students from the entire plateau and from all orders. The leaders of the Gelugpa understood the potential political power of these large institutions, and began the systematic establishment of other monasteries across the plateau. Given their staffing requirements, they soon began to demand the compulsory recruitment of monks from the local area, a process generally supported by the local secular elites, who saw political advantage in alliance with the Gelugpa. However, resistance from the leaders of Tsang and the Karma suborder, among others, prevented the Gelugpa from exercising control over the entire plateau until the Gelugpa sought foreign patrons. In the mid-sixteenth century, the abbot of Drepung monastery and nominal head of the Gelugpa order, Sonam Gyatso Sonam Gyatso (later known as the Third Dalai Lama, a title bestowed on him by the Mongols), converted the Mongol overlord Altan Khan Altan Khan to Buddhism. This gave the Gelugpa a powerful foreign patron who eventually helped them gain political control of all of Tibet by 1642.


Although the roots of lamaist control over both religious and secular life on the Tibetan plateau can be traced to the mid-thirteenth century Sakya offer of political submission to the Mongols, it was not until the founding of the Gelugpa order that true political centralization in the hands of a religious elite occurred. Tsongkhapa’s reforms led to the creation of a powerful monastic system, and with Mongol support, the Gelugpa were able to crush resistance to their rule and establish what has become known as the lamaist state with its seat in Lhasa. The Mongols created the title Dalai Lama (ocean of wisdom) to refer to the head of the Gelugpa order, and thus the Dalai Lama became the nominal head of the lamaist state. A succession of Dalai Lamas ruled over Tibet until the overthrow of the state following the invasion of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China in 1950.

Further Reading

  • Mills, Martin A. Identity, Ritual and State in Tibetan Buddhism: The Foundations of Authority in Gelukpa Monasticism. Richmond, Va.: Curzon, 2001. A review and analysis of how authority is maintained within the Gelugpa order, with a useful historical overview.
  • Stein, R. A. Tibetan Civilization. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1972. Useful and accessible historical overview of Tibet’s history and culture.
  • Thurman, Robert. Tsongkhapa’s “Speech of Gold in the Essence of True Eloquence”: Reason and Enlightenment in the Central Philosophy of Tibet. Translated with an introduction by Robert Thurman. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. A discussion and analysis of Tsongkhapa’s thinking and synthesis of philosophy by one of the West’s leading scholars of Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Tucci, Giuseppe. The Religions of Tibet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. First published in 1970, this volume provides a masterful and very detailed overview of Tibetan religious thought from its origins to the modern era. It also describes important aspects of ritual practice and its interpretation.