Old Booze in a New Bottle: Tsongkhapa’s Superficial Religious Reform - A Critique of Tsongkhapa’s “The Exposition of the Fourteen Tantric Root Infractions” (Part 3)

Published:2014/10/10     08:00

(Reported by the True Heart News interviewing team in Taipei) Repudiating the Jonang sect, the real Buddhist tradition of Tibet, was not the only reason that motivated Tsongkhapa to compose an exegesis of the fourteen tantric root infractions. While his exegesis of the root infractions as well as his two major treatises (Lamrim Chenmo and sNgags rim chen mo) were all meant to counter the Jonang sect’s accusation that the theory of attaining the Dual Operation of Bliss and Emptiness through the Couple-Practice is heterodox, they were also part of Tsongkhapa’s religious reform that aimed to win over the populace at a time when the degenerate Couple-Practice had swamped the four major sects of Tibetan “Buddhism” and was widely practiced in lamaseries everywhere. It was in this backdrop that Tsongkhapa initiated his famous reform movements, which in practice restricted the Couple-Practice to advanced practitioners only. Having just founded the Gelug sect, reform was a critical strategic move that Tsongkhapa deployed to actualize his religious ambition and hegemony.

The original preface reads:

The contents of Fruit Clusters of Siddhis include the exposition of each of the fourteen injunctions, the ordination procedure of the precepts, as well as his criticism that Dolpopa’s revision of the precepts in the Kalachakra Tantra disagrees with the essence of the Highest Yoga Tantra [Anuttara-yoga-tantra], which is unique to the Tantric School.”

This article focuses on Tsongkhapa’s exposition of each of the fourteen root infractions, including the exceptions he elaborated with respect to these precepts and his definitions of their adherence and violation. Fruit Clusters of Siddhis was a book written by Tsongkhapa, whereas The Exposition of the Fourteen Tantric Root Infractions translated by Tshangyang Dorje is only a chapter of this book. Much of the aforementioned contents, such as the explanation of the ordination rites and the criticism of Dolpopa’s views, are not included in this translated chapter, nor are they relevant to this article. Nevertheless, Tsongkhapa’s criticism that “Dolpopa’s revision of the precepts in the Kalachakra Tantra disagrees with the essence of the Highest Yoga Tantra, which is unique to the Tantric School” indirectly highlights the fact that “the Great Middle Way view of Other-Emptiness” advocated by the Jonang sect was distinctly different from the Highest Yoga Tantra transmitted by the four major sects in terms of lineage, tenets, and essence of enlightenment.

The original preface reads:

Tsongkhapa lived at the end of the Ming Dynasty, a time when Tibet was in a state of chaos in terms of both politics and Buddhist precepts, characterized by disunity and infighting. Tsongkhapa was most credited for his initiation of a reform of the debauched tantric Couple-Practice and his tightening of precepts. He was indeed the first person to lay down the foundation of the tantric root infractions and compiled a complete and systematic exposition of them.”

As far as historicity is concerned, Tsongkhapa was born in 1357 AD and died in 1419 AD, which means that his life roughly spanned the inauguration of the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (1368) to the death of the Yongle Emperor Zhu Li (1424). Therefore, contrary to the information given in this preface, his timeline paralleled the prosperous early period of the Ming Dynasty instead of late Ming.

Powerful religious and secular leaders were bestowed honorable titles during the Ming Dynasty. (1)In the 12th year of Emperor Yongle, the emperor Zhu Li sent envoys to Dbus (anterior Tibet) to extend an invitation to Tsongkhapa, the leader of the new founded Gelug sect. In response, Tsongkhapa dispatched his disciples Shakya Yesh on his behalf for the capital. The preface is correct that Tibet was politically divided during Tsongkhapa’s time, during which leadership passed from one overlord to another. This article focuses on the degeneration of moral codes within the four sects of Tibetan “Buddhism” during this period as well as Tsongkhapa’s hollow reform to right these wrongs.

According to the description of Tibetan “Buddhism” in an article on the “Chinese Ethnic and Religion Web,” it states that during the 14th and 15th century, the Sakya and the Kagyu sects clashed in power strife. Compounded with unending warfare, it was a time of extreme turmoil. In such a turbulent era, people had no care for religion or Buddhism at all. Monasteries were highly disorganized and monastics were unrestrained. The monks did not chant sutras or cultivate dharma, but married and had children, and indulged themselves in wanton debauchery.

Abusing their power and privileges, the higher ranking lamas used tantric cultivation as a pretext to demand women from civilians to satisfy their lust. Since the Yuan Dynasty, the lamas who practiced tantras committed all manners of evils. The Annals of Yuan, for instance, chronicles that Sakya monks transmitted the Unsurpassed Tantric Vehicle, the Hevajra, to Yuan emperors and conferred great empowerments. After receiving instructions of the tantric Couple-Practice from the lamas, the Yuan emperors rounded up lots of women for their licentious “cultivation.” Men and women hung around bare bodied, while ruler and courtiers engaged in orgies in court to reach “the state of no hindrance.” What was more outrageous was a heinous practice called “Couple and Slay.” “Coupling” referred to the ravaging of women whereas “slaying” was the harvesting of fresh organs from live people. The savageness and brutality were simply unheard of. (2)

In the year 1385, Tsongkhapa had taken the monastic precepts of Tantric “Buddhism” and had become an up-and-coming lama. Meanwhile, the previously described degeneration in Tibetan “Buddhism” had greatly disappointed its civilian followers. In order to rectify the dissolution of monastic discipline, corruption of monastics, as well as sexual abuse of women, Tsongkhapa implemented the desperately needed reform with fortuitous support from Pagmodru, the local regime in power.(3) In 1409, backed by political leader Gongma Drakpa Gyaltsen, Tsongkhapa further installed the Monlam Chenmo (Great Prayer Festival), and his disciples sequentially constructed the three largest monasteries of Lhasa: Ganden, Drepung, and Sera. The Gelug sect, one of the four leading sects of Tibetan “Buddhism,” was officially established.(4)

The original preface reads,

As the Gelug sect (yellow hats), Tsongkhapa’s lineage, took over the leadership in Tibetan theocracy, his exegesis of the fourteen tantric root infractions was deemed correct and naturally became the most authoritative guidelines for tantric practitioners. It has been devoutly and unquestioningly adhered to ever since.”

The word “gelug” means virtuous rules or deeds. Because Tsongkhapa promoted strict observance of precepts, his tradition was called the Gelug sect. The significance of the founding of the Gelug sect must be understood in terms of historical background. As mentioned earlier, Tsongkhapa lived in a time of religious and political turmoil. Conflicts among political factions were frequent. Influential monks of each sect were hoarding wealth and pursuing power and infighting was common among the religious sects. Monastic disciplines of Buddhism were unobserved and ignored. Many lamas violated the precepts of abstinence from alcohol and no food consumption past midday. Instead, they boozed, frolicked, and took pleasure in singing and dancing. Some lamas even openly married and had children. Such widespread demoralization prompted Tsongkhapa to reform Buddhism and advocate the observance of precepts. Additionally, he proposed that exoteric Buddhism should be the foundation of Buddhist cultivation and all practitioners should practice exoteric Buddhism before esoteric Buddhism. (5)

Tsongkhapa pushed forward his religious reform in two main ways: authorship and development of religious social activities. Authorship refers to the penning of aforementioned The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim Chenmo) and The Great Exposition of Tantras (sNgags rim chen mo). His development of religious social events includes the followings:


1. Setting up and codifying precepts, including the fourteen trantic root downfalls discussed in this series, and mandated strict disciplinary adherence.

2. Constructing a great number of temples and incorporating some Kadampa monasteries under the Gelug Sect.

3. Instituting the Monlam Chenmo (Great Prayer Festival) as an annual religious event to deliver sermons; advocating the cultivation of the esoteric tradition after the exoteric tradition; stipulating the study of the five sutras for all practitioners; and establishing the system of sutra debate, examination and the curriculum of the Geshe degree. (6)

In spite of the remedying effect of his reform measures, Tsongkhapa’s codification of precepts did not really forbid the cultivation of the tantric Couple-Practice - he only proscribed monastic lamas from openly marrying and having children. Instead, based upon the precepts, Tsongkhapa incorporated the Dual Operations of Bliss and Emptiness into the cultivation stages of the Highest Yoga Tantra, thereby successfully legitimizing and standardizing it. In plainer words, Tsongkhapa only reined in the Couple-Practice from the emperor’s palace and alleys and confined it to the temples and altars. Subsequently, the lecherous practice was in effect glorified and dignified as it became something that only authorized gurus, who are aggrandized as buddhas, are allowed to “instruct” behind the closed doors of monasteries. Tsongkhapa’s The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment contains the best proof of this fact, or one can refer to the discussion of this issue by Venerable Pings Xiao in the book, Behind the Façade of Tibetan Buddhism. For instance, in The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Tsongkhapa makes the claim in the later chapters on meditative serenity and insight that practitioners can directly practice the Dual Operations of Bliss and Emptiness of the Highest Yoga Tantra without cultivating the three levels of spiritual capacities of exoteric Buddhism. Taken together, what all this meant was that the lust-laden minds of lamas were hardly ameliorated.

Massive construction of temples was “infrastructure development” and a reasonable move for a new founded religious tradition. But his annexation of the Kadampa sect, of which he was originally a disciple, under his own Gelug tradition indicates internal sectarian struggle. On the other hand, the instituting of Monlam Chenmo and the curriculum, sutra debates, exams, and the Geshe degree were all “program development.” Empowered by this two-fold expansion, the Gelug sect grew stronger and influential and eventually snatched the helm of the Tibetan theocracy, primarily to the credit of Tsongkhapa’s undeniably accomplished strategic planning.

Tsongkhapa’s religious reform was echoed in other tantric sects and did ameliorate the widespread depravity in lamaseries to some extent. Nevertheless, the core essence of “fake Tibetan Buddhism” remained unchanged as he did nothing to eradicate its corrupted teachings and practices. According to Tuguan Zongpai Yuanliu (土觀宗派源流) by Thu’u kwan grub mtha, as late as 16th century, the Nyingma sect was still using its terma (lit. buried treasures; scriptures said to be hidden in Tibet by its founder Padmasambhāva) as an excuse to extort offerings of “nectar” (alcohol) and “Buddha mothers” (women) from civilians. Sybaritic monastics of other sects eagerly followed suit and debased pure monasteries into secular households. Today the vestige of this desertion of precepts still lingers in Japanese monasteries that permit monks to marry and raise children within temple grounds.(7)

In retrospect, while Tsongkhapa’s “religious reform” did serve to clean up the lechery that plagued Tibetan monasteries to a certain extent, it did nothing to put an end to the erroneous teachings of Tibetan “Buddhism.” Today, adherents of the Gelug sect, including the Dalai Lama and his followers, continue to mistake the conscious mind or the subtle consciousness for the permanent, neither-arising-nor-ceasing true Mind, thus falling for eternalism; at the same time, misapprehending the terminology of “dependent arising without intrinsic nature” as being true Reality, they continue to be trapped in nihilism just like their predecessors.

The concept of “dependent arising without intrinsic nature” and its dharma-characteristics are constructed vis-à-vis the aggregates [skandhas], sense-fields [ayatanās], and sense-realms [dhatu]. Insomuch that the notion of “dependent arising without intrinsic nature” is predicated on the existence of the aggregates, sense-fields, and sense-realms, it is not an independent, self-existing dharma. Thus, this concept and existence eventually falls into nihilism. In other words, the essence of Gelug sect’s tenets is indeed non-Buddhist heterodoxy.

The specter of the sexual tantric practices of Hindu Shaktism has been spread by “fake Tibetan Buddhism” to this day. The Couple-Practice of the Highest Yoga Tantra persists in Gelug as well as other tantric “Buddhist” sects. The 14th Dalai Lama, for one, has been zealously promoting it globally as well as in Taiwan in secrecy, mutilating the wisdom of Dharma life [dharmakaya] of his followers. To disciples of the true Buddha Dharma, Tsongkhapa’s acclaimed “religious reform” was merely old booze in a new bottle.

Note 1: http://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-hant/%E8%A5%BF%E8%97%8F%E6%AD%B7%E5%8F%B2

Note 2: http://www.mzb.com.cn/html/Home/report/224298-2.htm (Quote 2: The original cited article has been closed.)

Note 3: http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4c0f9bb2010007r4.html (Quote 3: The original cited article has been closed. Please refer to the backup screenshot of the original linked webpage as follows: Click here (a copy by using https://web.archive.org/))

Note 4: http://www.mzb.com.cn/html/node/111923-2.htm (Quote 4: The original cited article has been closed.)

Note 5: http://tw.knowledge.yahoo.com/question/question?qid=1105070713118 (Quote 5: The original cited article has been closed. Please refer to the backup screenshot of the original linked webpage as follows: Click here (a copy by using https://web.archive.org/))

Note 6: http://big5.huaxia.com/wh/zsc/2008/00793657.html (Quote 6: The original cited article has been closed. Please refer to the backup screenshot of the original linked webpage as follows: Click here (a copy by using https://web.archive.org/))

Note 7: http://www.mzb.com.cn/html/Home/report/224298-2.htm (Quote 7: The original cited article has been closed.)

Editor’s Note:

This article is an English version of the Chinese edition published on

May 9, 2014.