Sublime Continuum and Its Explanatory Commentary

1. Introduction to The Sublime Continuum and Its Commentary

– +



Introduction to The Sublime Continuum and Its Commentaries

1. Introduction to The Sublime Continuum and Its Commentary

The Sublime Continuum appeared in India around the fourth century CE, a time when tathāgata essence theory-related sutras seem to have been popular. Hence, this text can be viewed as an authoritative treatise that adopts a systematic approach to the content and purpose of these sutras. Regarding the authorship of the work, we have the account of the Tibetan tradition,2 which maintains that it was first taught by the celestial bodhisattva Maitreya in the Tuṣhita heaven, then brought down to earth by Asaṅga, who authored a commentary on the root text. This root treatise and four other works (Analysis of Phenomena and Reality, Analysis of the Middle and Extremes, Ornament of the Universal Vehicle Sutras, and Ornament of Clear Realization) are collectively referred to as the “Five Books of Maitreya.” In general, both Maitreya and Asaṅga are viewed as the founders of the Experientialist (yogācāra) school represented by some of these texts.3 Whoever the actual author was, it is clear from analysis of the works as a whole that they must have been well versed in the philosophy of the Experientialist school.

In terms of the writing style and formal elements of all the works, there are numerous similarities. In addition to The Sublime Continuum (subtitled Analysis of the Precious Spiritual Potential), two more of the five are styled 4as “analytical” (vibhāga) commentaries. In The Sublime Continuum, as well, the author follows a scheme of six topics—nature (svabhāva), cause (hetu), fruition (phala), actions (karma), endowment (yoga), and engagement (vṛtti)—in his presentations of the tathāgata essence theory and of enlightenment (bodhi). This is a strategy similar to the one seen in the narrative systems of both Maitreya’s Ornament of the Universal Vehicle Sutras and Asaṅga’s Mahāyāna Abhidharma Compendium.

Regarding theories of buddha bodies (buddhakāya), The Sublime Continuum adopts a threefold buddha-body theory that includes a twofold truth body—a feature that appears to be exclusive to the Experientialist school—whereas Nāgārjuna seems to assert a twofold buddha-body theory, consisting of a truth body (dharmakāya) and a material body (rūpakāya). In contrast, the Ornament of the Universal Vehicle Sutras and Asaṅga’s Universal Vehicle Compendium advocate a threefold buddha-body theory: nature body (svabhāvikakāya), beatific body (saṃbhogakāya), and emanation body (nirmāṇakāya). The Sublime Continuum presents a twofold model of the truth body: instructional and realizational. In addition, The Sublime Continuum accepts the concept of the “thorough transformation of the basis” (āśrayaparāvṛtti) and a theory of two spiritual potentials—ideas generally exclusive to the Experientialist school and seen in texts that pre-date The Sublime Continuum.

The Sublime Continuum nonetheless argues against the idea of three final vehicles as found in sutras such as the Elucidation of the Intention Sutra, and instead advocates the single vehicle (ekayāna) doctrine espoused in the Lotus Sutra. With regard to passages found in the Ornament of the Universal Vehicle Sutras that disparage the idea of spiritual potentials, The Sublime Continuum presents its reasons against such a view:

[The Ornament of the Light of Wisdom Sutra] states as follows:4


After this, the intuitive wisdom light rays of the Tathāgata sun disc fall upon the bodies of even those people who are confirmed in error, thus benefiting them and producing a proper cause of their future [liberation], thus causing their virtuous qualities to increase.

And Asaṅga’s Sublime Continuum Commentary continues:

As for the statement that “the wrong-desiring ones5 have no chance for nirvana forever,” it is so declared because feeling enmity toward the universal vehicle teaching is the cause of being a wrong-desiring one. With the intention that this [“forever” really] means “for a certain period of time,” it is so stated in order to avert such enmity.

None could be impure forever because of the existence of a naturally pure potential.

In addition, The Sublime Continuum gives a new meaning to the Experientialist concepts of “thorough transformation of the basis” (āśrayaparāvṛtti) and “spiritual potential” (gotra). As part of its theory of universal vehicle praxis, the Experientialist school regards salvation as the purification and transformation of the tainted “knowledge basis”—in other words, it regards salvation to be the so-called transformation of the eightfold consciousness into the four wisdoms. However, although The Sublime Continuum talks about “transformation of the basis” from the same viewpoint of praxis, it explains it in a different way: “the element . . . is termed the ‘tathāgata essence’ when unreleased from the sheath of addictions; however, it is in the nature of transformation when it is purified.” Indeed, Asaṅga would appear to be the first to introduce a theory of a twofold spiritual potential—natural (prakṛtistha) and cultivated or developmental (samudānīta). In the Bodhisattva Stages, he states:6

What is spiritual potential? [Answer:] In sum here are two kinds: one is called “natural,” the other “developmental.” “Natural” 6refers to the special quality associated with a bodhisattva’s six sense-media (āyatana), and is naturally inherited from the series of beginningless lifetimes. “Developmental” refers to that which is attained by means of previous cultivation of virtuous roots. The spiritual potential refers to these both. Moreover, this spiritual potential is also called “seed,” “element,” and “nature.” Furthermore, this spiritual potential is called “subtle,” when it has not yet reached its cultivated level, and “coarse” when it reaches its cultivated level, since it is associated with fruition at that time.

According to this theory, developmental spiritual potential is the fruition of the cultivation of natural spiritual potential. Therefore, natural spiritual potential is the spiritual gene with a compounded nature (1.151). The theory further evolves in the Ornament of the Universal Vehicle Sutras. Apparently, the author of The Sublime Continuum accepts this form of the spiritual potential theory but takes natural spiritual potential as the cause for attainment of the nature buddha body. Both natural spiritual potential and the nature body are viewed as uncompounded.

In short, in spite of the fact that the author of The Sublime Continuum is Experientialist, as he usually or deeply teaches by deploying Experientialist thought, when elucidating the purpose of tathāgata essence-related sutras he does not introduce at the same time the Experientialist ontology and its soteriologically defined spiritual potential theory.

The Titles of the Texts

The author of The Sublime Continuum and its Commentary did have a close relationship with the Experientialist school. The author uses the term “precious spiritual potential” (ratnagotra) to cover all of the tathāgata essence theory. This reflects the tendency of Experientialist scholars, who have attached great importance to the spiritual potential concept. In The Sublime Continuum and its Commentary, the term “element” (dhātu) refers to the tathāgata essence in a consistent manner. This indicates that “spiritual potential” and “element” can be used interchangeably, as seen in the Bodhisattva Stages and the Ornament of the Universal Vehicle Sutras.

The term “sublime continuum” (uttaratantra) appears only once, in verse 160 of the first chapter. From the context, it is clear that the text itself takes 7this term to refer to the corpus of tathāgata essence-related sutras. The Sanskrit word uttara has multiple connotations (later, superior, etc.). Thus, this corpus could have been called uttara (later) in reference to its appearance in India “later” than the “earlier” universal vehicle sutras such as the Transcendent Wisdom Sutras. However, the Indian and Tibetan translator teams chose a different equivalent to uttara when translating the title of the work, opting for “sublime” or “superlative” (bla ma) rather than “later” (phyi ma); so it is this “sublime” reading that we follow here.

In terms of content, The Sublime Continuum seems to maintain this distinction between so-called earlier and later universal vehicle sutras. Nonetheless, while there are statements in the text such as “so has it been arranged previously, and again in The Sublime Continuum” (I.160ab), such a distinction does not indicate a doctrinal discrepancy between the early and later universal vehicle sutras, but rather—as Asaṅga’s commentary indicates—the word “again” (punar) is taken to mean “furthermore,” “in addition,” etc., and is not to be taken as a contrastive connective. This suggests that the mass of later universal vehicle sutras on tathāgata essence is considered a doctrinal supplement—not a corrective—to the early universal vehicle sutras such as the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra.

In the Elucidation of the Intention Sutra category of the “sutras of the third turning of the Dharma wheel,” the avowed purpose is to correct five faults and to cultivate five virtues of interpretation. Among these five faults, not understanding the meaning of reality (bhūta) refers to the habitual thought of the unreal addictions as being real, and disparaging the excellence of reality refers to not considering the excellence of reality to be existent. As to the meaning of “reality,” The Sublime Continuum clearly states that it is identical to the so-called “thatness of all things, the pure universal excellences,” as taught in the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra. The Sublime Continuum says:7

It should be understood that [engagements with] the tathāgata element have been taught to bodhisattvas in the Transcendent Wisdom Sutras, etc., with reference to the nonconceptual intuitive wisdom. There are three different kinds of engagement with the general characteristic of the pure reality of all things—as 8taught [in the sutra]—those of alienated individuals who do not perceive reality, of noble ones who see reality, and of tathāgatas who have attained the ultimate purity in seeing reality.

According to the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra, thatness is identical to the intrinsic emptiness of all things. Therefore, the opposite of reality is intrinsic existence. Moreover, The Sublime Continuum puts forth that intrinsic existence, since it is the opposite of reality, does not exist, while the unerring, true ultimate reality does exist:8

Furthermore, one should understand that no matter how much one investigates realistically, one can not see any sign or object whatsoever. When one does not see any causal sign or object, one sees truly. Thus, by means of such equanimity, a tathāgata attains completely perfect buddhahood in total equality.

Thus, since no object can be perceived as a result of its non-[intrinsic] existence, and since the ultimate reality can be perceived for its existence as real as it is, it is neither negated nor established. [Thus, the Tathāgata] has realized the equality of all things by his intuitive wisdom of equanimity. And this [wisdom of equanimity] should be recognized as the antidote for all kinds of obscurations such as experiencing only [either] a realization of nonexistence [or a situation] wherein if any one thing is produced, another is definitely lost.

Therefore, more specifically, not understanding the meaning of reality refers to habitually thinking of the addictions as being intrinsically existent; and disparaging the excellence of reality refers to considering the excellence of intrinsic realitylessness as existent even on a conventional level. Thus, here “intuitive wisdom” refers to the wisdom that perceives ultimate reality, while “wisdom” refers to the wisdom that perceives conventional reality. This presentation is perfectly compatible with the mādhyamika theory of the two truths. From this we can understand that the existence and nonexistence that are taught in The Sublime Continuum are the two aspects of the same reality. The Sublime Continuum, therefore, does not argue that the 9tathāgata essence theory, which puts emphasis on existence, is ontologically superior to the philosophy of emptiness, which places emphasis on nonexistence; indeed, the author of The Sublime Continuum argues that one needs to study the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra in order to master the nonfabricating intuitive wisdom—a necessity for the attainment of buddhahood:9

As for the details of the paths of insight and meditation where nonconceptual intuitive wisdom serves as the cause of attaining the truth body, they should be understood following the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra.

In addition, the praxis of great love and so on does not contradict the philosophy of emptiness as taught in the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra. Rather, for intelligent bodhisattvas, the proper understanding of emptiness is conducive to the development of loving compassion and the spirit of universal enlightenment, just as Nāgārjuna stated in his Precious Garland of Advice to the King. The purpose of tathāgata essence theory, therefore, is to assist universal vehicle Buddhists, who have understood the philosophy of emptiness as taught in the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra, in cultivating loving compassion, the spirit of universal enlightenment, to complement their wisdom and thereby achieve buddhahood quickly. Hence, the mass of tathāgata essence sutras are supposed to enhance the philosophy of emptiness of the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra in the praxis dimension, being called “sublime” (uttara), meaning “superior,” in this sense.

The Sublime Continuum explains this dual meaning of “sublime” by citing the preface chapter of the Questions of King Dhāraṇīshvara Sutra:10

O noble child, take for example a skillful jeweler who knows well how to cleanse a gem. Having picked out a precious jewel that has been thoroughly tainted from the mine, and having soaked it in a strong solution of sal-ammoniac, he then polishes it by rubbing it with a very refined ox-hair cloth. But his efforts in just this way are not yet finished. After that, having soaked the jewel in strong, fermented fruit juice, he polishes it with a cloth of wool. 10But his efforts in just this way are still not yet finished. After that, having soaked it in a great medicine essence, he polishes it with fine cotton cloth. Being thus completely purified, when it is free of all impurities, it is called “precious sapphire.”

O noble child, just so a tathāgata, knowing the scope of the sentient beings who are not purified, by means of disturbing descriptions of impermanence, suffering, selflessness, and impurity, makes those sentient beings who delight in the life cycle [instead] become averse to it, and so causes them to enter into the noble Dharma code of discipline.

With just these [acts], a tathāgata does not cease in his efforts. After that, he causes them to realize the way of the Tathāgata, by means of the instructions on emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness. With just these [acts], a tathāgata does not cease in his efforts. Next, he installs those sentient beings in the buddha realm by means of the teaching of irreversibility and the teaching of the total purification of the three sectors [of actions]. When they have entered and have realized the reality of a tathāgata, they are called “the unsurpassed worthies for offerings.”

Here, “codes of discipline” refers to the lower philosophical and practice systems, while the teachings on emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness refers to the “prior continuum” (pūrvatantra), i.e., the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra, and so on. The teachings of the wheel of irreversibility and the total purification of the triple sector (trimaṇḍalapariśuddhi) refers to the “later continuum,” i.e., tathāgata essence, and so on.11 The purification of the triple sector can be seen as a methodical application of emptiness philosophy in specific universal vehicle praxis such as generosity. Again, these teachings are not a doctrinal critique of the emptiness theory. “[Causing] sentient beings with various dispositions to engage with the sphere of a tathāgata” is clearly related to the “single vehicle” (ekayāna) doctrine. Consequently, the three stages theory taught in the Questions of King Dhāraṇīshvara Sutra is different from the “three turnings of the wheel of Dharma” theory.


In the extended title of the work, the term ratnagotra refers to the spiritual potential of the Three Jewels, and in particular, to the content of the texts of the so-called later universal vehicle sutras, i.e., the Tathāgata Essence Sutra. The word vibhāga—according to Analysis of the Middle and Extremes—has a dual meaning: to distinguish and to clarify. The Sublime Continuum thus distinguishes each of the seven subjects that constitute the theory of the spiritual potential of the Three Jewels. It also clarifies the purpose of this theory.

The Content of the Texts

The Sublime Continuum consists of five chapters. The first four explain the seven vajra subjects, or topics: Buddha, Dharma, Saṅgha, element, enlightenment, excellences, and enlightened activities. The first chapter consists of the first four subjects, while the subsequent three chapters cover the three subjects of enlightenment, excellences, and enlightened activities. Among these seven, Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha are together called the Three Jewels, while the final four are referred to collectively as the spiritual potential (gotra). According to The Sublime Continuum, the spiritual potential is in reality the cause and conditions (kāraṇa) of the Three Jewels. Specifically, the element is the cause, while enlightenment, excellences, and enlightened activities are the conditions. The Three Jewels are, of course, the effect of the causal element.

The Sublime Continuum explains the spiritual potential for attainment of the Three Jewels as having four characteristics that become the cause and conditions of the Three Jewels:12

In that regard, we should understand that the first of these four topics is the cause of the production of the Three Jewels, depending on its purification, because it is the seed of the transcendent excellences and the focus of an individual’s proper mentation, by which that [tainted reality] is purified. Thus, one single topic is the cause. How do the other three [topics] serve as conditions? These should be understood to be the conditions for the production of the Three Jewels in the way that the production of 12the Three Jewels depends on the purification of that [tainted ultimate reality element], and this purification is based upon the messages from others. This is because a tathāgata, having realized the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment, performs the thirty-two activities of a tathāgata with those qualities of a buddha such as the ten powers, and so on. Thus, these three serve as conditions.

Roughly speaking, the suchness reality mingled with the taints (samalatathatā), which is possessed by living beings, is the seed of transcendence, and when it is purified, it becomes the inner cause for the Three Jewels achieved in the future. Nevertheless, the proper mentation (yoniśomanasikāra) that purifies that suchness is actually the real seed, since suchness itself is uncompounded. A tathāgata, who possesses a purified essence, acts with enlightened activities by means of the excellences, such as the ten powers and so on. For example, the act of giving teachings embodies enlightened activity. Only by means of teaching others does it become possible for ordinary beings to develop the proper mentation to purify their own contaminated essence. Hence, the other three are the conducive conditions for the Three Jewels to be achieved by sentient beings in the future. This specific use of the terminology of seed, cause, condition, and element appears to be a unique feature exclusive to the Experientialist school in the way they are identified as the spiritual potential.

In conclusion, The Sublime Continuum’s structure and content can be arranged as in the table on page 13.

It should be noted that although the last three are the conducive conditions for actualizing such a goal, they are not qualities possessed by those who are not yet buddhas. Rather, they are the conditions provided by others who are buddhas already, and are just as necessary as the element to help a sentient being become a buddha. Therefore, these three factors collectively constitute an important dimension of tathāgata essence or the spiritual potential/gene of the Three Jewels.

Roughly speaking, in The Sublime Continuum, the precious spiritual potential, the element, and the tathāgata essence are synonymous. More specifically, however, the “element” and the “tathāgata essence” have narrow and broad senses. In their narrow sense, both terms refer to reality mingled with the taints of the precious spiritual potential, while in their broad sense, the two terms are identical to the concept of the precious spiritual potential itself. This indicates that reality mingled with the taints, which is the foundation of the attainment of buddhahood, is the kernel of the tathāgata essence theory. In contrast to this, the terms “spiritual potential of a tathāgata” and “spiritual potential of a buddha” exclusively refer to the twofold spiritual potentials: “natural” (prakṛtistha) and “cultivated/developmental” (samudānīta).



The author of The Sublime Continuum asserts that the tathāgata essence as taught in the Tathāgata Essence Sutra has three meanings, or aspects: the truth body of a tathāgata that can diffuse itself in permeating all sentient beings (tathāgata-dharmakāya-parispharaṇārtha), meaning that all beings are receptive to a tathāgata’s liberative activities; the reality of the nondifferentiation of a tathāgata and a suchness-permeated sentient being (tathāgata-tathatāvyatireka-artha), since the suchness reality mingled with taints exists within all sentient beings; and the naturally existing spiritual potential that is fit for transforming into the truth body, as well as the developmental spiritual potential that is fit for transforming into the material body, exist within all sentient beings (tathāgata-gotra-sambhavārtha).

The Tathāgata Essence Sutra explains the tathāgata essence with the device of nine similes. The Sublime Continuum elucidates by further dividing each 14into two, giving nine showing what obscures and nine showing what is obscured. What obscures are the obscurations such as the instinctual predisposition for attachment, and so on. What is obscured is the tathāgata essence, or the element. This shows the tainted status of sentient beings’ suchness, the foundation of the attainment of buddhahood. Furthermore, according to The Sublime Continuum, the nine meanings of the nine similes showing the obscured can be condensed into the three aspects of the tathāgata essence. The correlation between the nine similes for the obscured and the three aspects of the tathāgata essence can be illustrated as follows:


Here it is worth noting that in spite of the fact that in the similes, the relation between what obscures and the obscured (for instance, bee and honey) is definite, the relation between the things represented by these similes (the instinctual predisposition for hatred and the instructional truth body, for example) is not definite. In other words, the instinct for hatred is not the 15only factor that obscures the instructional truth body, nor is the instructional truth body necessarily obscured by the instinct of hatred alone, since sentient beings’ tathāgata essence is enclosed by countless millions of addictions. In addition, a tathāgata’s realizational truth body, which is obscured by addictions for beings, is not yet possessed by them, because it has a nature that is free of taints and hence is only possessed by a buddha.

It seems that the author of The Sublime Continuum made a systematic arrangement of the doctrine of the tathāgata essence sutras that were prevalent at the time, in order to elucidate their purpose. Moreover, he enhanced the impact of the tathāgata essence theory by connecting it to the Experientialist theory of jewel spiritual potential. Nevertheless, it also seems clear that he upheld the meaning of the tathāgata essence revealed in the mass of tathāgata essence sutras as distinct from the Experientialist interpretation of the tathāgata essence. For instance, both Maitreya’s Ornament of the Universal Vehicle Sutras and Asaṅga’s Universal Vehicle Compendium teach the tathāgata essence from the perspective of all things’ being undifferentiated, or in terms of a universal general nature; thereby they assert that all things have tathāgata essence. This diminishes the key role of the tathāgata essence in the universal vehicle soteriology, wherein it serves as the cause of enlightenment and the foundation of practices leading to it. They use the tathāgata essence as a purely ontological concept. The Experientialist school takes such a stance in order to ameliorate the discrepancy between the sutras’ tathāgata essence theory and their three final vehicles theory. The author of The Sublime Continuum, however, has endeavored to maintain the role of the tathāgata essence in the universal vehicle soteriology, while associating it, but not equating it, with the Experientialist school’s own theory of jewel spiritual potential.

Finally, it is worth noting that despite the fact that the tathāgata essence theory played an important role in Chinese Buddhist history, few Chinese scholars showed interest in this important text. In contrast, the Tibetan Buddhist traditions paid significant attention to The Sublime Continuum and its Commentary from the period of its first translation into Tibetan. Beginning with Ngog Loden Sherab in the eleventh century, notable scholars from all the major traditions in Tibet—Kadam, Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Jonang, and Geluk—wrote commentaries on the text. As a result of the sometimes significant differences between their interpretations of the tathāgata essence theory, these commentaries contain a lot of information 16about the doctrinal debates among the different traditions—a fact that will prove indispensable in the study of the history of Tibetan Buddhist thought.

2. Introduction to Gyaltsap’s Supercommentary

The Author

Gyaltsap Darma Rinchen was born at Rinang in the Nyangtö area of Tsang in 1364. At a young age, he took novice ordination at Nenying Monastery13 from Khenchen Rinchen Gyaltsen and Draktokpa Shönnu Tsultrim and received the name Darma Rinchen. He went on to receive a variety of exoteric and esoteric teachings from several great masters. Especially under the Sakya scholar Rendawa Shönnu Lodrö (1349–1412), Gyaltsap studied both exoteric texts—on topics such as transcendent wisdom, epistemology and logic, the monastic disciplines, abhidharma, and Centrist philosophy—and esoteric texts, such as the Guhyasamāja Tantra. Along with Tsong Khapa Losang Drakpa (1357–1419), Gyaltsap became one of the seven closest disciples of Rendawa and earned the title “the best in serious debate.”

Following his studies with Rendawa, Gyaltsap went on a monastic debate tour of Buddhist learning centers, including Sakya, Sangpu and Tsetang, where he distinguished himself by debating on ten different philosophical texts. He thus became famous as a scholar, and after debating with many Sakya scholars received the formal title Kachupa (bka’ bcu pa; literally “[a master of] ten texts”)—the first such entitlement in Tibetan intellectual history.

At the age of twenty-five (1388), Gyaltsap took the vows of a fully ordained monk in Tsang from Kungapal, Rendawa, and others, then continued his debate tour in central Tibet. Having defeated two Sakya masters—Rongtön Shakya Gyaltsen (1367–1449) and Khenchen Yakpa—Gyaltsap decided to challenge the famed Tsong Khapa. Several of Gyaltsap’s biographies mention this fated meeting, which took place at Nyeltö Radrong, where Tsong Khapa was teaching. But the account in the 17Reservoir of Excellences (yon tan chu gter) gives the most detail, relating the encounter as follows:14

Intending to provoke Tsong Khapa into debate, Gyaltsap Rinpoche acted with pride and entered the monastery without removing his hat [in the customary way]. Master Tsong Khapa noticed him but continued to teach, while stepping down from the teacher’s throne. The precious teacher [Gyaltsap] proudly strode up [and seated himself on] the master’s throne, still wearing his hat. However, as he listened, Gyaltsap heard eloquent speech that he had never heard before from any other scholar, and the mountain of his arrogance began to collapse. First he removed his hat, then he got down from the throne and seated himself among the disciples. The desire to challenge Tsong Khapa had left him completely; instead he became his student. [In retrospect] it was said that Gyaltsap’s act of mounting the throne was an auspicious indication that later he would be the throne holder [of Ganden (dga’ ldan) Monastery].

Tsong Khapa gave Gyaltsap many essential teachings, explaining the most difficult points of sutras and treatises with stainless reasoning. This filled Gyaltsap with such faith and devotion that he requested permission to seek out no other teachers but to remain with Tsong Khapa for the rest of his life. His request was granted and he became the foremost disciple of Tsong Khapa,15 serving him for twelve years.

As a result of his excellence in monastic discipline and intellectual prowess, even during Tsong Khapa’s lifetime, many of the master’s students also studied with Gyaltsap. When Tsong Khapa was establishing Ganden Monastery, Gyaltsap, along with Dulzin Drakpa Gyaltsen (1374–1434), assumed personal responsibility and participated in building the monastery. The 18main construction was completed in 1410. Before Tsong Khapa passed away, he gave his paṇḍita’s hat and cloak to Gyaltsap as a sign that Gyaltsap was his successor. When Tsong Khapa died in 1419, Gyaltsap became the second holder of the Ganden throne at the age of fifty-six, by unanimous request from Tsong Khapa’s students, and he has been known as Gyaltsap (lit. regent) since then. He held the position for thirteen years, extensively engaging in teaching, debate, and writing. Following Tsong Khapa, Gyaltsap emphasized the importance of monastic vows and rules to preserve the Buddhist tradition, in addition to giving extensive discourses on philosophy and tantric practice. As a much loved and highly respected teacher, Gyaltsap was considered by his followers to be the same as Tsong Khapa himself and one of the founding fathers of the Gelukpa order.

Gyaltsap visited Nenying Monastery for the last time at the age of sixty-eight (in 1431). The same year, he retired and installed Khedrup Gelek Palsangpo (1358–1438), Tsong Khapa’s other close disciple, as the next holder of the Ganden throne. Gyaltsap lived for one more year, primarily in meditation. He died in 1432 at the age of sixty-nine.

Gyaltsap’s chief disciples proved skilled and vigorous in continuing the widely recognized Tsong Khapa tradition of teaching and practice. To name a few: Tashi Palden (1379–1449), who founded Drepung Monastery near Lhasa in 1416; Dulzin Drakpa Gyaltsen (1374–1434), who founded Tsunmotsal Monastery; Gendundrup (1391–1474), retroactively the First Dalai Lama, who founded Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Tsang in 1447; Gungru Gyaltsen Sangpo (1383–1450), the third abbot of Sera Monastery; and Kyektön Kachupa Lodrö Denpa (1402–1478), who became the eighth abbot of Ganden in 1473.

Gyaltsap received the complete transmission and explanation of Tsong Khapa’s teachings on both exoteric and esoteric subjects. He listened to, memorized, and wrote down numerous discourses. Some of his writings are lecture notes and mnemonic notes, many of which are included in Tsong Khapa’s collected works. Gyaltsap’s independent works—including The Sublime Continuum Supercommentary (translated here)—are primarily based on the teachings he received from Rendawa and Tsong Khapa, especially the latter. All these works were written while he was the abbot of Ganden (ca. 1419–1431), and a number of his writings are considered indispensable for study. For instance, the oral tradition maintains the proverb: it is impossible to debate on Dharmakīrti’s Commentary on Validating 19Cognition if you have not memorized (Gyaltsap’s) Illuminator of the Path to Liberation (thar lam gsal byed); it is impossible to debate on Maitreya’s Ornament of Clear Realization if you have not memorized (Tsong Khapa’s) Golden Rosary of Eloquence (legs bshad gser phreng).

Historical Background

The year Gyaltsap was born was also the year Butön Rinchendrup (1290–1364) and Tai Situ Jangchup Gyaltsen (1302–1364) died. Both Butön and Jangchup Gyaltsen were important in the establishment of the Gelukpa school. Tsong Khapa received much intellectual heritage, especially the esoteric teachings, from Butön’s Shalu tradition, whereas Jangchup Gyaltsen created social-political conditions favorable for this newcomer into the Tibetan religious scene. The hundred-year period of Sakyapa hegemony over Tibet ended in 1349 with the military victory of Jangchup Gyaltsen, who founded the Pagmo Drupa (phag mo gru pa) religio-political establishment that would last for the next hundred years. Jangchup Gyaltsen was well aware that widespread corruption among high-ranking officers, laxity of monastic discipline, and political conflicts in the name of religion were the main causes of the collapse of Sakyapa rule. Correspondingly, in the Last Testament Annals (bka’ chems deb ther), Jangchup Gyaltsen issued decrees for the new government, placing great emphasis on the personal integrity of lay officials, on harmonious relationships between different orders, including Sakya, Tshalpa, Taglung, Drigung, Kadam, etc., and on monastic discipline and the education of monks. In fact, as a devoted monk, Jangchup Gyaltsen set an example to others in terms of keeping the vows of celibacy and abstinence. He was concerned that his tradition lacked exegetical education because of its strong orientation toward meditation; therefore, he founded Tsetang College in 1351 as a complement to his Densatil meditation center.

The Pagmo Drupa religio-political establishment reached the height of its power and splendor during the reign of Wang Drakpa Gyaltsen (1374–1432), who became the fifth Pagdru Regent in 1385 and was well versed in both religious and political affairs. During his reign, he undertook a series of administrative reforms and also endeavored to maintain the ancient traditions of Tibetan culture. The relationship between his government and the Chinese Ming government was cordial, and he supported all the monastic 20institutions without sectarian b

Join Wisdom

This content is only available to Plus, and All-Access members of the Wisdom Experience. Please log in, upgrade your membership, or join now.

Join Now
rotate left rotate right