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Early Studies in Central Tibet

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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So when he went to Central Tibet he studied with masters at the monasteries from all the traditions that were there in Tibet. A very interesting and very good point. He didn’t just join one tradition; he went around to all of them. First, he went to a Drigung Kagyu monastery. There he learnt the Drigung mahamudra system, and also medicine, and more about bodhichitta. Within one year—he was just seventeen and he’d already become a very skilled doctor. I mean, looking at everything else that he did, he was also a doctor on top of that. And then he studied there this text—I translate it as Filigree of Realizations, the Abhisamayalamkara—that’s probably the most central text that the Tibetans study, in terms of their monastic training. It deals with prajnaparamita, the stages of the path for understanding voidness. So he studied that there, at this Drigung Kagyu monastery. And the other texts of Maitreya. And he didn’t study this just at this Kagyu monastery; he went around to Nyingma, Sakya, and Kadam monasteries as well, to study these texts to see how each of the traditions explain them.

This was really his style, because he was very critical of the understanding that people had of these texts; he was never satisfied at that time. And so he really made quite an effort to find out what everybody—from all the different traditions—what they said about it; what they understood. This I find really quite an outstanding quality of Tsongkhapa. You find this throughout his education. He was never satisfied with the level of explanation that he received. Because very often we hear explanations and we just say, “Oh, okay,” and we accept it. But if it didn’t quite make sense to Tsongkhapa—okay, this teacher maybe doesn’t have the greatest understanding of this, and then we go to another, and another, and another, and look at all the different angles of it to try to really understand. And he was able to memorize all the texts in just a few days. By the age of nineteen, he was already recognized as a great scholar; he was very learned.

He continued to travel to the most famous monasteries throughout Central Tibet, from all the Tibetan traditions, and he studied what we now call the five major Geshe-training topics and the Indian tenet systems; he studied all of that. And what he always did everywhere was to debate—and he really enjoyed this—with the various masters and students there and let himself be examined. The way the Tibetan system works with debate: you’re the one who is challenging the people’s understanding, or you sit and other people challenge your understanding. And so Tsongkhapa did this a great, great deal, everywhere that he went. He always let himself—his understanding—be examined by the people there to see if they could find some fault in what he understood, and he always was challenging their understanding.

You have to picture this. I mean, Tsongkhapa was very, very brave. He was a nineteen-year-old kid. And he’s going and he’s challenging all the adult great masters of his day for them to try to find fault in his understanding and for him to challenge their understanding. Really quite something, if you think about it. Very courageous. And formidable. Everybody was overwhelmed at his intelligence and understanding; they would be very intimidated and shy.

Question: You said that he did what is now called the Geshe training. Isn't this something typical only for the Gelugpa tradition? Not at all. Everybody studied the major topics: Madhyamaka, prajnaparamita, pramana (logic, ways of knowing), vinaya monastic rules, abhidharma. Everybody studied that if you went through the monastic education. The title of the degree that you got at the end of that was different in different traditions; but it’s different in different monasteries as well, even within one tradition. But at the time of Tsongkhapa, monastic education did not confer degrees and "Geshe" was not used as a degree title. The word "geshe" just means a spiritual friend.

Tsongkhapa also received from the Kadam tradition the lam-rim teachings, and he got lots and lots of tantric empowerments and teachings. So in the Sakya tradition this lamdre (lam-’bras, path and its results); that’s the name. Tantric teachings from the Kagyu: The six teachings of Naropa (usually called the six yogas of Naropa). Also Kalachakra. So he was into all of that quite early. And he also studied poetic composition, astrology, and mandala construction as well. And he was a doctor. A very well-rounded education. And he only had to hear an explanation once and then he understood it and remembered it perfectly.

The old Serkong Rinpoche was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and he said His Holiness the Dalai Lama was exactly like that. He never had to explain something twice to His Holiness. He explained it once and he was like, “Oh, yeah, I remember that.” Sort of like refreshing his memory, then he understood it and remembered it. Tsongkhapa was like that. Sometimes the memories of these Tibetans are quite extraordinary. Serkong Rinpoche as an old man—the old Serkong Rinpoche—told me once that he remembered everything that he had ever studied in his life. He’s not going to boast or brag to me, or anything like that. But he really did. Their memories are really very, very well trained. I think that comes from constantly reviewing. They recite so many things all the time. If we think about that—as adults, if we are not working as scientists, how many of us can remember the algebra that we learned in high school? I certainly don’t.

Tsongkhapa always had very strong renunciation. He lived very humbly and kept his vows very purely. This is always the style that has been preferred in the Gelug tradition. Of course there are some exceptions, but this is this very humble Kadampa Geshe style. And Tsongkhapa was really like that. Serkong Rinpoche was like that as well. If he had his choice, he never would go on first class Indian trains; he always would go in the very lowest class, even if it meant sleeping next to the toilet, like Gandhi.

Tsongkhapa also very easily achieved shamatha and vipashyana—this perfect concentration and exceptionally perceptive state of mind—but was never satisfied with his learning and level of realization. He continued to travel and request teachings over and over again, even on the same texts. He went to the most learned masters of his day—he studied with them, he would challenge them, debated with them, let them really examine him very well. One of the main ones of these was Rendawa, a Sakya master. And Tsongkhapa wrote this verse Migtsema in praise to Rendawa. You’re basically Chenrezig and Manjushri and Vajrapani; this verse. And Rendawa said, “This doesn’t really suit me,” and he rededicated it back to Tsongkhapa. And this eventually became the verse that is used for Tsongkhapa guru-yoga.