Early Teaching and Writing
So Tsongkhapa began to teach when he was in his 20s, and the first thing that he taught was abhidharma (mdzod, the special topics of knowledge). Everybody was astounded at his erudition. And he already started at that age to write some things and to do more retreats. And soon he had disciples of his own. Now some accounts say that he took the full monk vows at the age of 21, but it seems to be uncertain, the actual year that that took place. It was sometime in his 20s.
At some point, probably also in his late 20s, he studied and analyzed the entire Kangyur and Tengyur. That’s a hundred big thick volumes of Buddha’s teachings and two hundred thick volumes of the Indian commentaries. He went through all of that. And if you look at his writings, it seems as though he probably memorized them. And he analyzed them. I mean, you can see this in his later writings. He was very critical of the translations of some of these and he checked different translations of these various texts, and always was also challenging the Indian commentaries as to whether they had got the original texts correct. So after that, at the age of 32, he wrote his first big, big major text. This is called A Golden Rosary of Excellent Explanation (Legs-bshad gser-‘phreng), a commentary on prajnaparamita. He put together and discussed all twenty-one Indian commentaries to the text. And that’s very difficult, if you think about it. There are no computers, and you’re putting it together; he has to keep all twenty-one in his mind to do that.
In everything he wrote, what really is quite noteworthy is that he always supports all his criticism, and all his new interpretations, with quotations. Always saying, “I didn’t just make this up.” Giving quotations. And he quotes from the entire span of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist literature, and comparing different translations as well. There are other masters earlier than Tsongkhapa who wrote lots of commentaries to different texts and so on, but often what they did: the most difficult and obscure passages, they would just skip; they would just leave it and not comment on that, just comment on the easy parts. And Tsongkhapa never did that. The most difficult passages, the most obscure passages, that’s what he loved, and he would explain all of them. He never shied away. Very special feature of Tsongkhapa. It’s like the Tibetan saying: “When we study, we shouldn’t be like an old man who only chews the soft potatoes and spits out the tough meat.” Not spit them out.
As I mentioned, Tsongkhapa had a tremendous capacity to memorize. Normally, every day he would memorize seventeen double-sided big Tibetan pages. The great masters continue to memorize all the time; it’s not that they just do that as a child. Always memorizing more and more texts. If you listen to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, how much he’s memorized—it’s unbelievable what he can quote from memory. So Tsongkhapa normally did seventeen big pages a day in addition to everything else that he did. Once, they had a contest: So the scholars wanted to see who could memorize the most pages before the sun hit the banner on the roof of the monastery. I don’t know how many hours that was. Not too long. But probably some of the students wanted to test the teachers—who was the best at memorizing? And so Tsongkhapa won; he was able to do four double-sided big pages in that short time, which he was then able to recite fluently with no mistakes. I mean, they’re big pages. A lot of words on it. He was able to do in that short time—from when it started to get light, until the sun actually rose—he was able to do four double-side pages. He recited without any mistakes, just really fluently. And the closest runner-up could only do two and a half; and he recited it, staggered—he wasn’t so sure of himself. Tsongkhapa was the best. He won.
Soon Tsongkhapa started to give tantric empowerments and teachings as well. He especially often gave this jenang (rjes-snang), this subsequent permission of Sarasvati—this is the female counterpart or partner of Manjushri—for wisdom. That was his favorite, at this time, to give. And also he continued his study, especially of Kalachakra. Sarasvati is the one with the lute, and she’s especially known to have the wisdom for beautiful composition—to be able to write and explain clearly—and music. Not just poetic, but clear explanations.
His students were very impressed with Tsongkhapa and, like enthusiastic students, they always wanted to have contests to see what Tsongkhapa really could do. And so, at that time, there was one great lama who was able to teach eleven different texts at the same time. So the students asked Tsongkhapa to do the same. “Tsongkhapa, can you do that?” That type of thing. (His Holiness teaches now—basically, he does the same thing. He never just teaches one text anymore; he always teaches two or three at the same time, interweaving them. He teaches some from one text, and then supplementing it from another text, and then another text. Like that.) So Tsongkhapa, instead of doing eleven, he did seventeen major sutra texts. He taught them all from memory. He never actually used a book; he taught them all from memory. And he did one session on each text every day. He started all seventeen on the same day, and he finished them all on the same day three months later.
Can you imagine that? Never lost his place. Never got confused. Always knew how much to teach each day so that it would all finish on the same day. Seventeen sessions a day. Unbelievable. I mean, these are all the major texts that he taught all at the same time: Madhyamakavatara, Bodhicharyavatara, the abhidharma texts, Abhisamayalamkara. He taught all of them at the same time. And during the discourse, he refuted incorrect interpretations of each of them and established his own view. That’s astounding enough. But also during each day, during the discourse, he also did the self-initiation of Yamantaka with some of his disciples. It takes a long time to do; it is not a short thing to do. And all these other tantric practices. (Like His Holiness doing four hours of meditation in addition to everything else that he does, let’s say when he gives a Kalachakra initiation.)
If you look at his life—I mean, he only lived 62 years. If you consider how much he studied and how much he practiced—including making who knows how many of these little tsatsa clay statues, which really is very time-consuming—and if you look how much he wrote, and how much he taught, and how many retreats he did, it seems impossible that anybody could do even one of them in a lifetime. And he did all of them. How could he write all these things with no computer (most of the time in a cave, by candlelight). It’s unbelievable. He didn’t carry around all his reference books; he knew them all by memory.