The Gelugpa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, despite being the youngest, is the largest and most important school of thought. Having emerged in the 15th Century through the reforming efforts of Tsongkhapa, adherance to the Gelugpa sect is considered to be purest form of Tibetan Buddhism. The sect achieved its peak in the 17th Century with huge support from Mongols and Tibetans inspired by the enigmatic 5th Dalai Lama. The Gelugpa Sect remained in power in the Central Tibetan Plateau until Chinese invasions of Tibet in the 1950s.
Creation of the Gelugpa Sect
The Gelugpa (Gelug) Sect was founded by Tsongkhapa, a reformist monk and a great Tibetan scholar, and headed by the Dalai Lama. Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) began studying with a local Sakya lama at a very young age. He travelled to central Tibet and studied in all the major monasteries acquiring knowledge about philosophy, Tibetan medicine, Mahamurda practices, and Atisha’s tantric yoga.
Tsongkhapa was particularly inspired by Madhyamika teachings of Nagarjuna. He preached monastic discipline and encouraged return to the conservative doctrines of Buddhism. Regarded as the manifestation of Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Jampelyan (Manjushri), Tsongkhapa’s followers built him the Ganden Monastery in Netang near Lhasa in 1409. After his death, Tsongkhapa’s students built a new school of Tibetan Buddhism based on his teachings and named it ‘Gelug’ which means virtuous tradition.
Among his known disciples were Gyaltsab (1364-1431), Jamchen Chojey (1355-1435), Khedrub (1385-1438), and Gendun Drupa (1391-1474). His disciples founded the great monasteries of the Gelug Sect such as Sera monastery of Lhasa, Drepung and Tashillhunpo monasteries, and introduced the tradition of wearing yellow hats to differentiate between sects.
Introduction of Dalai Lama and Boom of Gelug Sect
During the 16th century, the then powerful Mongol leader, Altan Khan, gave the title of Dalai Lama to Gendun Gyatso, the first tulku or reincarnation of Tsongkhapa’s last major disciple, Gendun Drupa. Down the line, the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617- 1682,) became instrumental in forming a favorable alliance with the Mongol leaders. He thus became the spiritual and political leader of the entire Tibetan region and the Gelugpa Sect reached its highest peak during the 17th century.
Teachings of Gelugpa (Yellow Hats)
Gelugpa practices revolve around Lamrim, from the teachings of Atisha, which focuses on the journey to enlightenment as taught by Buddha. Concentration can be achieved by meditation and sparking the bodhisattva within. The Gelug School of Buddhism is based on the Kadam tradition which was established by Atisha in the 11th Century. It teaches following the traditional monastic code as a means of achieving the state of nirvana.