Gelug Monks 'Yellow Hats'
Gelug Monks 'Yellow Hats'

1. Gelug

The Gelug (virtuous) is the newest and currently most dominant school of Tibetan Buddhism. It was founded by Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), a Tibetan philosopher, tantric yogi and lama.

The Gelug school is alternatively known as New Kadam, since it sees itself as a continuation of the Kadam tradition of Atiśa (c. 11th century).

Furthermore, it is also called the Ganden school, after the 1st monastery established by Tsongkhapa.

The Ganden Tripa is the nominal head of the school, though its most influential figure is the Dalai Lama.

Allying themselves with the Mongol Khans, the Gelug school emerged as the pre-eminent Buddhist school in Tibet and Mongolia since the end of the 16th century.

Another alternative name for this tradition is the Yellow Hat school.

Doctrinally, the Gelug school promotes a unique form of Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamika based on the works of Tsongkhapa.

2. Etymology

Ganden is the Tibetan rendition of the Sanskrit name Tuṣita, the Pure land associated with Maitreya Buddha.

At first, Tsongkhapa's school was called Ganden Choluk meaning the Spiritual Lineage of Ganden:

By taking the first syllable of 'Ganden' and the second of 'Choluk', this was abbreviated to Galuk and then modified to the more easily pronounced Gelug.

The Gelug school was also called the New Kadam, because it saw itself a revival of the Kadam school founded by Atiśa.

3. Origins and development

The Kadam school was a monastic tradition in Tibet, founded by Atiśa’s chief disciple Dromtön in 1056 C.E. with the establishment of Reting Monastery.

The school itself was based upon the Lamrim or Graded Path, approach synthesized by Atiśa.

While it had died out as an independent tradition by the 14th century, this lineage became the inspiration for the foundation of the Gelug-pa.


Ganden Monastery, Tibet

The Gelug school was founded by Je Tsongkhapa, an eclectic Buddhist monk who travelled Tibet studying under Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma teachers, such as the Sakya Master Rendawa (1349–1412) and the Dzogchen master Drupchen Lekyi Dorje.

A great admirer of the Kadam school, Tsongkhapa merged the Kadam teachings of Lojong (mind training) and Lamrim (stages of the path) with the Sakya Tantric teachings.

He also emphasized monasticism and a strict adherence to Vinaya (monastic discipline).

He combined this with extensive and unique writings on Mādhyamika, the Svātantrika-Prasaṅgika distinction, and Nāgārjuna’s philosophy of Śūnyatā (emptiness) that, in many ways, marked a turning point in the history of philosophy in Tibet.

Tsongkhapa's Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path (Tib. Lam Rim Chenmo), is an exposition of his synthesis and one of the great works of the Gelug school.

Tsongkhapa and his disciples founded Ganden monastery in 1409, which was followed by Drepung (1416) and Sera (1419), which became the great three Gelug monasteries.

After the death of Tsongkhapa the order grew quickly, as it developed a reputation for strict adherence to monastic discipline and scholarship as well as tantric practice.

Tsongkhapa had 2 principal disciples, Gyaltsab Je (1364—1432) and Khedrup Gelek Pelzang, 1st Panchen Lama (1385—1438).

Establishment of the Dalai Lamas

In 1577 Sonam Gyatso, who was considered to be the 3rd incarnation of Gyalwa Gendün Drup, formed an alliance with the then most powerful Mongol leader, Altan Khan.

As a result, Sonam Gyatso was designated as the 3rd Dalai Lama; Dalai is a translation into Mongolian of the name Gyatso ocean.

Gyalwa Gendün Drup and Gendun Gyatso were posthumously recognized as the 1st and 2nd Dalai Lamas respectively.

Sonam Gyatso was very active in proselytizing among the Mongols, and the Gelug tradition was to become the main spiritual orientations of the Mongols in the ensuing centuries.

This brought the Gelugpas powerful patrons who were to propel them to pre-eminence in Tibet.

The Gelug-Mongol alliance was further strengthened as after Sonam Gyatso's death, his incarnation was found to be Altan Khan's great-grandson, the 4th Dalai Lama.

Emergence as dominant school

Potala Palace, Tibet
former Dalai-lama residence

Following violent strife among the sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelug school emerged as the dominant one, with the military help of the Mongol Gushri Khan in 1642.

It is believed Sonam Chöpel (1595–1657), treasurer of the Ganden Palace, was the prime architect of the Gelug's rise to political power. Later he received the title Desi (meaning Regent), which he would earn through his efforts to establish Gelugpa power.

The 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, was the 1st in his line to hold full political and spiritual power in Tibet:

He established diplomatic relations with Qing Dynasty China, built the Potala Palace in Lhasa, institutionalized the Tibetan state Nechung Oracle and welcomed Western missionaries.

From the period of the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century, the Dalai Lamas held political control over central Tibet. The core leadership of this government was also referred to as the Ganden Phodrang.

After the Incorporation of Tibet into the People's Republic of China, thousands of Tibetan monasteries were destroyed or damaged, and many Gelug monks, including the 14th Dalai Lama fled the country to India.

The 3 major Gelug monastic colleges (Sera, Drepung and Ganden) were re-created in India.

The Dalai Lama's current seat is Namgyal Monastery at Dharamsala; this monastery also maintains a branch monastery in Ithaca, New York.

4. Teachings

Graded Path (lam rim)

The central teachings of the Gelug School are the Lamrim (Graded Path) teachings, which is found in various texts such as Tsongkhapa's:

  1. the Great Exposition of the Graded Path (Lam rim chen mo),
  2. the Middling Graded Path (Lam rim ‘bring ba),
  3. the Small Graded Path (Lam rim chung ngu).

Other related works include:

  1. The 3 Principles of the Path,
  2. The Foundation of All Good Qualities.

There are also various other expositions of the Lamrim by other figures such as the 3rd Dalai Lama (The Essence of Refined Gold) and Panchen Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen.

These Lamrim teachings are based on the teachings of the Indian master Atiśa (c. 11th century) in A Lamp for the Path to Awakening as well on the works of Śāntideva.

The presentation of śamatha and vipaśyanā in Tsongkhapa's Lamrim is also based on 8th-century Indian teacher Kamalaśīla's Bhāvanākrama (Stages of Meditation).

Another important text in Gelug is the Book of Kadam also known as the Kadam Emanation Scripture which includes teachings from Kadam masters like Atiśa and Dromtön.

As the name indicates, this is a gradual path model in which the practitioner accomplishes varying stages of contemplation and training based on classical Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism.

The Lamrim teachings are commonly organized based on 3 main graduated scopes of motivation:

a) The lowest scope suitable for those who delight in cyclic existence (saṁsāra) and desire to seek a good rebirth in higher realms.

Spiritual practices that are taught for this motivation include:

  1. contemplating the preciousness of our human rebirth,
  2. turning away from the 8 worldly concerns,
  3. contemplating the suffering of lower rebirths,
  4. contemplation of death and impermanence,
  5. taking refuge in the 3 jewels
  6. contemplating the karmic law of cause and effect.

Another important element for this level is the practice of ethical self-discipline (śīla) by avoiding the 10 harmful actions and cultivating the 10 wholesome actions.

b) The middle scope of those who are seeking liberation from the round of rebirths for themselves (the Śrāvaka or Hīnayāna motivation).

The focus of this middle scope is cultivating renunciation and a desire for true freedom.

This comes from contemplating how all forms of rebirth (even the highest forms) are unsatisfactory (duḥkha) as well as practicing the trainings of ethics (śīla), meditative stabilization (samādhi) and insight (vipaśyanā).

This level also includes contemplating the 6 root delusions (kleśa) that give rise to saṁsāra (attachment, anger, pride, ignorance, wrong views, and doubt) as well as the analysis of saṁsāra contained in the 12 links of Dependent Origination.

Though this level also includes insight into Emptiness (śūnyatā), it is not as thoroughly explained as in the Mahāyāna.

c) The highest scope suitable for those who have great compassion and thus seek to attain full Buddhahood so as to aid the liberation of others (Mahāyāna motivation).

This begins with the generation of the mind of awakening (bodhicitta), and the cultivation of love (maitrī) and compassion (karuṇā),

and proceeds on to the cultivation of practices like the 7 point mind training, the Bodhisattva Vows and the 6 Pāramitās (including śamatha and vipaśyanā meditation), culminating with the direct realization of Emptiness.

The highest scope of Lamrim culminates in the Vajrayāna methods to aid in the speedy attainment of Buddhahood. Higher motivations are said to build on, but not to subvert the foundation of the earlier ones.

In his The 3 Principles of the Path, Tsongkhapa outlines the 3 main elements of the path to awakening as follows:

  1. The intention definitely to leave cyclic existence, i.e. renunciation (naiṣkramya)
  2. Generating the intention to attain awakening for the sake of all sentient beings (bodhicitta, the awakening mind)
  3. The correct view (samyak dṛṣṭi), i.e. a proper understanding of Emptiness (śūnyatā).

Reasoning and meditating on emptiness

Drepung Monastery, Tibet

In Gelug, the achievement of the perfection of wisdom (prajñā) requires a proper understanding of the view of Emptiness.

In the Lamrim chenmo, Tsongkhapa rejects the idea that all intellectual effort, concepts, and mental activity are obstacles to spiritual understanding.

He also rejects certain views of Emptiness, particularly the Shentong (other emptiness) view, which is seen as a kind of substantialism.

The proper view of Emptiness in the Gelug school is considered to be the Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamika philosophy of Je Tsongkhapa.

Tsongkhapa's view is said to be a synthesis of the epistemology and logic of Dharmakīrti with the metaphysics of Nāgārjuna.

The correct view of Emptiness is initially established through study and reasoning in order to ascertain if phenomena are the way they appear.

Gelug texts contain many explanations to help one obtain a conceptual understanding of Emptiness and to practice insight meditation (vipaśyanā).

Gelug meditation includes an analytical insight practice which is:

the point-by-point contemplation of the logical arguments of the teachings, culminating in those for the voidness of self and all phenomena.


The Gelug school focuses on ethics and monastic discipline of the Vinaya as the central plank of spiritual practice.

In particular, the need to pursue spiritual practice in a graded, sequential manner is emphasized.

Arguably, Gelug is the only school of Vajrayāna Buddhism that prescribes monastic ordination as a necessary qualification and basis in its teachers (lamas / gurus).

Lay people are usually not permitted to give initiations if there are teachers with monastic vows within close proximity.

Vajrayāna Practice

The tantric practices of the Gelug are also integrated into the stages of the path model by Tsongkhapa's The Great Exposition of Secret Mantra.

This is combined with the yogas of Anuttarayoga Tantra Iṣṭa-devatā such as the Guhyasamāja, Cakrasaṁvara, Yamāntaka and Kālacakra tantras, where the key focus is the direct experience of the indivisible union of bliss and emptiness.

The Guhyasamāja tantra is the principal one. As the Dalai Lama remarks,

There is a saying in the Gelug,

'If one is on the move it is Guhyasamāja.
If one is still, it is Guhyasamāja.
If one is meditating, it should be upon Guhyasamāja.'

Therefore, whether one is engaged in study or practice, Guhyasamāja should be one's focus.

Tsongkhapa also incorporated the tantric practice of the Six Yogas of Nāropa, and Mahāmudra, from the Dagpo Kagyu lineages:

This tradition was continued by the 1st Panchen Lama, who composed A Root Text for the Precious Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahāmudra.

The Gelug tradition also maintains Dzogchen teachings:

Lobsang Gyatso, 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682), Thubten Gyatso, 13th Dalai Lama ( 1876-1933), and Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama are some Gelug-pa Dzogchen masters. 

Likewise the practice of Chöd was taught by Gelug-pas such as Kyabje Zong Rinpoche.

5. Study

The Gelug school developed a highly structured system of scholastic study which was based on the memorization and study of key texts as well as formal debate.

The primary topics and texts used in study are:

  1. Monastic discipline (Vinaya): Vinaya-Sūtra by Guṇaprabha
  2. Abhidharma: Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa
  3. Epistemology (pramāṇa): which is based on Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavarttika, a Commentary on Dignāga’s ‘Compendium of Valid Cognition’,
  4. Mādhyamika: Candrakīrti’s Mādhyamikāvatāra.
  5. Prajñāpāramitā: Maitreya’s Abhisamayālaṅkāra.

6 commentaries by Tsongkhapa are also a prime source for the studies of the Gelug tradition, as follows:

  1. The Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path (Lam-rim chen-mo)
  2. The Great Exposition of Secret Mantra
  3. The Essence of Eloquence on the Interpretive and Definitive Teachings
  4. The Praise of Relativity
  5. The Clear Exposition of the 5 Stages of Guhyasamāja
  6. The Golden Rosary

For each topic studied, the procedure is similar:

The process starts with the heuristic memorization of the root text and sometimes of its commentaries. It continues with the interpretation of the root text through commentaries, and culminates in dialectical debate.

After the study of the exoteric texts, a monk may then enter the esoteric study and practice of tantric texts, particularly the Guhyasamāja, Yamāntaka, and Cakrasaṁvara tantras.

A monk who has completed all his studies may then attempt a Geshe (Yeshe) degree, a title rare and difficult to obtain which can take 15 to 25 years to complete.

Each Gelug monastery uses its own set of commentarial texts by different authors, known as monastic manuals (Tib. yigcha).

The teachings of Tsongkhapa are seen as a protection against developing misconceptions in understanding and practice of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism.

It is said that his true followers take The Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path as their heart teaching.

The Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path was completely translated into English in a 3 volume set in 2004, under the title The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment.

The translation took 13 years to complete, and was undertaken by scholars at the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Centre, a non-sectarian Tibetan Buddhist educational centre in Washington, New Jersey.

A translation is also available in Vietnamese.

6. Monasteries and lineage holders


Sera Monastery, Tibet

Tsongkhapa founded the monastery of Ganden in 1409 as his main seat.

Drepung Monastery was founded by Jamyang Choje,

Sera Monastery was founded by Chöje Shakya Yeshe,

and Tashi Lhunpo Monastery was founded by Gyalwa Gendün Drup, the 1st Dalai Lama.

Before the Chinese occupation Ganden and Sera each had about 5 000 monks, while Drepung housed over 7 000.

Labrang Monastery, in Xiahe County in Gansu province (and in the traditional Tibetan province of Amdo), was founded in 1709 by the 1st Jamyang Zhepa, Ngawang Tsondru.

Many Gelug monasteries were built throughout Tibet as well as in China and Mongolia.

Main Lineage holders

Tsongkhapa had many students, his 2 main disciples being Gyaltsab Je (1364–1431) and Khedrup Gelek Pelzang, 1st Panchen Lama (1385–1438).

Other outstanding disciples were Togden Jampal Gyatso, Jamyang Choje, Jamchenpa Sherap Senge and Gendün Drup, 1st Dalai Lama (1391–1474).

After Tsongkhapa's passing, his teachings were held and spread by Gyaltsab Je and Khedrup Gelek Pelzang, who were his successors as abbots of Ganden Monastery.

The lineage is still held by the Ganden Tripa – the throne-holders of Ganden Monastery – among whom the present holder is Thubten Nyima Lungtok Tenzin Norbu, the 102nd Ganden Tripa (and not, as often misunderstood, by the Dalai Lama).

Among the main lineage holders of the Gelug are:

  1. The successive incarnations of the Dalai Lama (also commonly referred to as Gyalwa Rinpoche)
  2. The succession of the Panchen Lama
  3. Successive incarnations of Ling Rinpoche
  4. Successive incarnations of Trijang Rinpoche
  5. Several other High Rinpoches