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date: 30 March 2023



  • James B. AppleJames B. AppleUniversity of Calgary


Gelukpa is the name of a Tibetan Buddhist school that gained political influence and control across the Tibetan cultural world after the 17th century. Gelukpa (dge lugs pa) in Tibetan literally means “Followers of the System of Virtue” and refers to a person associated with the Geluk (dge lugs) school of Tibetan Buddhism. Gelukpas are the latest among the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism to develop. There are no subschools within the tradition. The school has its beginnings among the disciples of Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) and was initially known as Gandenpa (dga’ ldan pa), “those of Ganden Monastery,” based on the founding of Riwo Ganden (ri bo dga’ ldan) monastery in 1409. Tsongkhapa advocated strict Buddhist monasticism enhanced by scholarly training among his followers. The charismatic Tsongkhapa also influenced the development of the school based on his institution-building skills in establishing networks of patronage and performance of public rituals. The tradition soon established the three monasteries of Ganden, Drepung (founded in 1416), and Sera (founded in 1419) that became known as the “three seats of learning” (gdan sa gsum) in central Tibet. A fourth monastic seat, Tashi Lhünpo (bkra shis lhun po), was founded in Tsang (gtsang) in western Tibet in 1447. These monastic institutions developed into intellectual and political centers of hegemonic power and influence within the later Geluk system of monasticism. The head of the Geluk monastic system is the Ganden Tripa (dga’ ldan khri pa), “Holder of the Ganden Throne,” regarded as the selected successors of Tsongkhapa. The Geluk system of monasticism, in part through its administrative organization and institution-building techniques, was able to establish influence throughout Tibet, constructing new monasteries and renewing old ones. Over time, the Gelukpas developed an elaborate institutional hierarchy and administrative bureaucratic apparatus that interconnected regional monasteries with the four Geluk monastic seats in central Tibet. The school gradually spread as a cultural force of Tibetan Buddhism from central Tibet across the Tibetan plateau and into Mongolia as well as regions of Inner and East Asia. The Geluk gained renown politically for its establishment of the Ganden Podrang (dga’ ldan pho brang) government in 1642 under the rulership of successive Dalai Lamas (dā la’i bla ma) until 1959. After the fourteenth and present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (bstan ‘dzin rgya mtsho, b. 1935), escaped from the Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet in 1959, communities of refugee Geluk members (as well as non-Geluk Tibetans) re-established monasteries, nunneries, and colleges primarily in India and Nepal. Smaller versions of the three main monastic universities have been re-established in South India with over 10,000 monks. Although Geluk monastic communities still exist in the traditional geographical areas of Tibet, they do not resemble the pre-1959 institutions.


  • Buddhism

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