The First Dalai Lama, Gendun Drub

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The First Dalai Lama, Gendun Drub b.1391 - d.1474

Name Variants: Gendun Drub; Gendun Drubpa; Nartangpa Gendun Drubpa; Pema Dorje

Gendun Drub was born to a family of nomadic farmers in 1391 near Sakya in Tsang. His father was named Gonpo Dorje (mgon po rdo rje) and his mother Jomo Namkyi (jo mo nam mkha' skyid). His birth name was Pema Dorje (padma rdo rje). His family belonged to the Drom ('brom) clan.

According to legend, on the night he was born, the family’s camp was attacked by bandits, and his mother, fearing for the life of her newborn child, wrapped him in blankets and hid him among the rocks before she fled for her life. The next morning, upon her return, she found her son resting peacefully among the stones, with a large black raven standing guard before him, protecting him from the flocks of crows and wild vultures that had gathered to attack him. The raven is said to have been an emanation of Mahākāla, who would become Gendun Drub’s personal deity.

As a young child Gendun Drub is said to have demonstrated an extraordinary inclination for religious practice, spending hours outside carving sacred syllables and prayers into stones in the Tibetan tradition.

Gendun Drub’s father died when he was seven, and his mother sent him to Nartang (snar thang) monastery to begin his education. When he entered the monastery he was given the name Pema Dorje (pad+ma rdo rje) and upāsaka lay vows from the fourteenth abbot, Drubpa Sherab (grub pa shes rab, 1357-1423). At fifteen he took novice vows, receiving the name Gendun Drubpa Pel (dge 'dun grub pa dpal), and at twenty became a fully ordained monk. At Nartang Gendun Drub earned the title “omniscient” (thams cad mkhyen pa) as a result of his accomplishment in studies, particularly in Vinaya and logic.

When he was twenty-five, in 1415, Gendun Drub traveled to U where he met Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa, 1357-1419), remaining at Ganden for roughly twelve years, although Tsongkhapa passed away only four years after their meeting. Gendun Drub was profoundly affected by Tsongkhapa’s teachings. It is said that Tsongkhapa gave Gendun Drub a piece of his own monastic robes upon their meeting, and that this auspicious act predicted the later benefit that Gendun Drub would bring to the practice of monasticism in Tibet. Indeed, among his extensive and greatest works are three commentaries on the Vinaya, that are considered among the most influential in the lineage.

Gendrun Drub studied with Sherab Sengge (shes rab seng ge, 1383-1445), the heir to Tsonkhapa's tantric teachings. For twelve years they traveled together, visiting Sakya and Kadam monasteries in Tsang and spreading Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim teachings. Because he taught widely for fifty years, from age thirty-five to eighty-five, he trained abbots of most Kadam and Geluk monasteries across Tibet and Kham, and even those of some Sakya monasteries.

In 1432 Gendun Drub became the abbot of the Sakya monastery Tanak Riku (rta nag ri khud), transforming it into a Geluk monastery. He also built a residence at Jangchen monastery (byang chen), attracting a larger and larger number of students there.

He founded Tashilhunpo (bkra shis lhun po) in 1447 in Shigatse, Tsang, as an outpost of Geluk teachings in a region that was then largely dominated by Sakya and Kagyu monasteries. It is said that the Sakya master Tangtong Gyelpo (thang stong rgyal po, 1361-1485) attempted to prevent him from establishing the new monastery. Gendun Drub established three religious colleges (mtshan nyid) there, divided into twenty-six houses (mi tsan).

Taking as his model the Lhasa Monlam Chenmo that had been founded by Tsongkhapa in 1409, Gendun Drub established a great prayer festival at Tashilhunpo, first in 1463 and then again in 1474, when one thousand six hunded monks and ten thousand laypeople attended, firmly establishing the Geluk presence in Tsang.

In 1474, at the age of eighty-four Gendun Drub passed away at Tashilhunpo Monastery.




Anon. 1977. Rje dge 'dun grub ngo mtshar mdzad pa bcu gnyis. In 'Phags pa 'jig rten dbang phyug gi rnam sprul rim byon gyi 'khrungs rabs deb ther nor bu'i 'phreng ba, vol. 1, pp. 301-340. Dharamsala: Sku sger yig tshang, 1977. TBRC W22095.

Anon. 1977. Rje dge 'dun grub kyi rnam thar ngo mtshar rmad byung. In 'Phags pa 'jig rten dbang phyug gi rnam sprul rim byon gyi 'khrungs rabs deb ther nor bu'i 'phreng ba, vol. 1, pp. 207-300. Dharamsala: Sku sger yig tshang, 1977. TBRC W22095.

Tshe mchog gling yongs ’dzin ye shes rgyal mtshan. 1970 (1787). Biographies of Eminent Gurus in the Transmission Lineages of the teachings of the Graduated Path, being the text of:  Byang chub Lam gyi Rim pa’i Bla ma Brgyud pa’i Rnam par Thar pa Rgyal mtshan Mdzes pa’i Rgyan Mchog Phul byung Nor bu’i Phreng ba. New Delhi: Ngawang Gelek Demo, vol 2, pp. 608‑651.

Mullin, Glenn. 1985. “Kun-ga Gyal-tsen’s ‘Life of the Dalai Lama I, the twelve wonderous deeds of omniscient Gen-dun Brub’.” Tibet Journal vol 11, no 4, pp. 3-42.

Rockhill, William Woodville. 1910. "The Dalai Lamas of Lhasa and their relations with the Manchu emperors of China, 1644-1908." T'oung Pao 11, pp. 1-104.

Shen Weirong, Janice Becker, trans. 2005. "The First Dalai Lama Gendun Drup." In Brauen, Martin, ed. The Dalai Lamas: A Visual History. London: Serindia, pp. 33-41.

Yon tan rgya mtsho. 1994. Dge ldan chos ’byung gser gyi mchod sdong ’bar ba. Paris: Yon tan rgya mtsho, pp. 218-222.


Miranda Adams
September 2008