Gendun Drup – 1st Dalai Lama (1391 – 1474)

Gendun Drup was a close disciple of Tsongkhapa, after ordaining and training first in the great Kadam monastery of Nartang. He was posthumously identified as the First Dalai Lama, a previous incarnation of the third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, who first held the title. Gendun Drup founded the great Gelug monastery Tashi Lhunpo in 1447 and was its first abbot, until 1484. He was instrumental in spreading the new Gelug school in Tsang.

Gendun Drup was born to a family of nomadic farmers in the Iron Sheep Year (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). 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 Mahakala, who would become Gendun Drup’s personal deity.

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

Gendun Drup’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 upasaka lay vows from the 14th abbot, Drupa Sherab (grub pa shes rab). At fifteen he took novice vows, receiving the name Gendun Druppa Pal (dge ’dun grub pa dpal), and at twenty became a fully ordained monk.

At Nartang, Gendun Drup earned the title “omniscient” (thams cad mkhyen pa) as a result of his accomplishment in studies, particularly in Vinaya and logic. In addition to Drupa Sherab, Gendun Drup also studied with Sherab Sengge (shes rab seng ge) at Nartang.

In 1415, when he was twenty-five, Gendun Drup traveled to U where he met Tsongkhapa, remaining at Ganden for roughly twelve years, although Tsongkhapa passed away only four years after their meeting. Gendun Drup was profoundly affected by Tsongkhapa’s teachings. It is said that Tsongkhapa gave Gendun Drup a piece of his own monastic robes upon their meeting, and that this auspicious act predicted the later benefit that Gendun Drup 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.

For twelve years Gendun Drup and Sherab Sengge 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 Gelug monasteries across Tibet and Kham, and even those of some Sakya monasteries.

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

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

The Lhasa Monlam Chenmo was founded first by Tsongkhapa, in 1409, and Gendun Drup established a great prayer festival at Tashilhunpo, first in 1463 and then again in 1474, when one thousand six hundred monks and ten thousand laypeople attended, firmly establishing the Gelug presence in Tsang.

At the age of eighty-four Gendun Drup passed away at Tashilhunpo Monastery, under auspicious circumstances among his disciples. Among his greatest achievements were the founding of Tashilhunpo in Tibet, and the compilation of collected writings. He was particularly influenced by the lojong or mind-training teachings of the Kadampas of Tibet, and wrote extensively in their praise.

gendun drup


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 wondrous deeds of omniscient Gen-dun Brub’.” Tibet Journal vol 11, no 4, pp. 3-42.

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


grub pa shes rab
shes rab seng+ge
blo bzang grags pa
yon tan rgya mtsho
Bodong Panchen Chole Namgyal b.1376 – d.1451 (Name Variants: Chokyi Gyaltsen; Chole Namgyal; Jikme Drakpa; Yungdrung Sanggyenyi
rgya mtsho rin chen
nam mkha’ dpal ba
sangs rgyas rin chen rgyal mtshan
bsam ‘grub rdo rje
Gyaltsab Darma Rinchen b.1364 – d.1432 (Name Variants: Darma Rinchen; Gyaltsabje Darma Rinchen)


grags pa shes rab 2
blo bzang nyi ma
kun dga’ bde legs
dpal ldan bzang po
kun dga’ rgyal mtshan
chos kyi bshes gnyen
smon lam dpal ba
blo gros rin chen seng+ge
chos kyi rgyal mtshan
lung rig rgya mtsho
ye shes rtse mo
bzang po bkra shis
nor bzang rgya mtsho
zla ba bzang po
blo gros sbas pa
kun dga’ don grub




2 Responses to “Gendun Drup – 1st Dalai Lama (1391 – 1474)”
  1. Sarah says:

    In Glenn H. Mullin’s book “Mystical Verses of a Dalai Lama”, it is reported that when his mother returned in the morning to look for him, a large crow was standing over the baby, protecting him from a pack of wild dogs. (p.8)This is a slightly different version from the one given in the text above.

    In his lifetime, the First Dalai Lama had 50 gurus from many different schools of Tibetan Buddhism but he became more committed to the lineages of Lama Tsongkhapa and his principal disciples. (p.9)

    He was an enlightened being and demonstrated his accomplishment by remaining seated in tukdam for 49 days at the time of his passing. In Mullin’s book, there is an interesting story told by Yangpa Chojey in his account of the life and deeds of the Second Dalai Lama. It seems that Gendun Drup projected his consciousness to Tushita heaven and came before Maitreya Buddha, Atisha and Lama Tsongkhapa. He asked them for advice on where he should go in the universe in order to work for the enlightenment of living beings. Tsongkhapa took a white flower and tossed it down to earth stating he should reincarnate wherever the flower landed. It fell to earth in Tanak Dorjeden, in the Yolkar Hermitage of the yogi Kunga Gyaltsen. He then threw down 2 hailstones, one of which landed in central Tibet and the other in Kham. Tibetans believe that there were 3 reincarnations of the First Dalai Lama: one of the body, one of speech, and one of mind. Of these three, it is the body emanation that is most suited to take up the work of the previous incarnation. The flower indicated the body emanation…. The other two presumably carried on the First’s work incognito. (pp.10-11)

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