Tsongkhapa (Book Review)

Tsongkhapa, a Buddha in the Land of Snows by Thupten Jinpa

Reviewed by Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D. 

Tsongkhapa, a Buddha in the Land of Snows is Buddhist scholar Thupten Jinpa’s contribution to Shambhala Publications’ remarkable series, The Lives of the Masters, which seeks to memorialize the contributions of some of the most important thinkers in Buddhist philosophy. 

Tsongkhapa, who lived from 1357-1419, is considered to be one of the greatest Buddhist philosophers and teachers that ever lived. He is known for his many insights and accomplishments, not the least of which is his key role in what is called the Ganden Renaissance. The Ganden Renaissance created a ripple effect in inspiring new scholarship, new interpretations of traditional teachings and the establishment of new centers of study in Mahayana Buddhism. 

Interestingly, one of the sources of this upswelling in original thought and inspiration arose out of Tsongkhapa’s relationship with the Buddha of wisdom, Manjushri. Tsongkhapa established a relationship with Manjushri through the medium, Lama Umapa, who himself had encountered Manjushri in a visionary experience that changed the course of his life. Jinpa describes this relationship in depth in this book and provides important new insights on the way in which this collaboration provided new perspectives on classic texts, including Nagarjuna’s and Atisha’s teachings. Tsongkhapa would bring the finer points of these texts to Manjushri through Lama Umapa and request elucidation and teachings on them. Manjushri’s answers were then recorded and applied to the classic interpretations through Tsongkhapa’s clear analysis. 

The relationship between Manjushri and Tsongkhapa is well known in Buddhist philosophy. There are schools which accept the fruits of this relationship more readily than others. And indeed, there are Buddhist schools which reject these teachings as speculative and imaginary. An example that Jinpa offers in an exchange between Manjushri and Tsongkhapa makes this view hard to validate: ‘Tshongkhapa therefore asked Manjushri whether the view of emptiness he espoused at the time was that of the Prasangika Madhyamaka (of Candrakirti) or that of the Svatantnrika Madhyamaka (of Bhaviveka). To his surprise, Manjushri replied, “It is neither.” Speaking of the need for a fine balance in one’s understanding of the two truths, the ultimate truth and the conventional truth, the deity advised, “It is appropriate to be partial either to emptiness or to appearance. In particular, you need to take the appearance aspect seriously.”’  

What becomes clear through this book is that Tsongkhapa’s relationship with Manjushri was not the only source of wisdom that was feeding this renaissance in Buddhist thought. Jinpa describes meditation retreats of small groups of monks where Manjushri is also answering questions through the channel of other monks. And other deities make their appearance in providing teachings. He recounts a particularly compelling meeting between Tsongkhapa and Llodrak Drupchen, a monk 30 years his senior: “When Drupchen met Tsongkhapa he saw him in the form of Manjusri, while Tsongkhapa saw Drupchen as Vajrapani, [the Buddha of power]  wearing a spotted blue snake around his neck like a loose scarf. Later that evening Tsonkhapa received [a teaching and] an empowerment from Vajrapani through Drupchen.” 

In the west, the world beyond the conscious mind is often viewed with suspicion. But, as all of us who dream every night know, there is a depository of information that is not managed by the conscious mind. One of the enterprises of Buddhist meditation practices is to explore that world. These monks, having spent years in meditation, had discovered a realm of wisdom that was coherent and accessible. And they approached the different fields of intelligence in this realm with respect and diligence.  Jinpa demonstrates how their diligence brought forward the gifts of these fields of intelligence and provided a grounded, rigorous influx of inspiration into the foundational texts of the Buddhist canon.