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The Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism: Distinctions and Its Spread in Mongolia

by Aaron Isaacs 0 Comments

Among the rich tapestry of schools within Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelug school, founded in the early 15th century by the great scholar and saint Tsongkhapa, stands out for its emphasis on monastic discipline, scholarly rigor, and the practice of bodhicitta (the mind of enlightenment). This blog post explores the distinctive features of the Gelug school in comparison to other Tibetan Buddhist traditions and examines its profound influence in Mongolia.

Distinctive Features of the Gelug School

The Gelug school, also known as the "Way of Virtue" or the "Yellow Hat" sect due to the color of their monks' hats, emphasizes the monastic life, moral discipline, and extensive scholarly study of Buddhist texts. It is particularly known for its systematic approach to teaching and practice, which is based on the gradual path (lamrim) to enlightenment, a methodical progression through stages of spiritual development outlined by Tsongkhapa.

One of the defining characteristics of the Gelug school is its focus on the vinaya, the code of monastic discipline, which is stricter than in some other Tibetan Buddhist schools. The Gelug tradition also places a significant emphasis on the philosophical study of emptiness (shunyata) and the practice of deity yoga, particularly the figure of Avalokiteshvara, embodying compassion.

Compared to other schools like the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya, which also incorporate tantric practices and teachings, the Gelug school is distinguished by its structured curriculum and the central role of academic study in its monasteries. The Gelug tradition has produced many of Tibet's most renowned scholars and practitioners, including the lineage of the Dalai Lamas, which has become the most visible face of Tibetan Buddhism worldwide.

The Gelug School's Spread in Mongolia

The Gelug school's influence in Mongolia began in the late 16th century when Altan Khan, a Mongolian ruler, formed an alliance with the 3rd Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso. This historic meeting led to the official introduction of the Gelug tradition into Mongolia, marking a significant turning point in the spread of Buddhism in the region.

Under the patronage of Altan Khan and subsequent Mongolian leaders, the Gelug school flourished in Mongolia, leading to the establishment of numerous monasteries and the conversion of many Mongolians to Buddhism. The school's emphasis on moral discipline, scholarly study, and the veneration of the Dalai Lama resonated deeply with the Mongolian people, solidifying the Gelug tradition's presence and influence.

Today, the Gelug school remains a dominant force in Mongolian Buddhism, with Gandantegchinlen Monastery in Ulaanbaatar serving as a prominent center of Gelug practice and study. The school's teachings and traditions have become an integral part of Mongolian religious and cultural life, contributing to the revival of Buddhism in Mongolia following decades of religious suppression in the 20th century.


The Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, with its unique emphasis on monastic discipline, scholarly learning, and the practice of compassion, has played a pivotal role in the spiritual landscape of Tibet and Mongolia. Its structured approach to spiritual development and its distinguished lineage of scholars and practitioners have contributed to its distinction among the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism. In Mongolia, the Gelug tradition has left a lasting legacy, shaping the country's Buddhist practice and cultural heritage, and continuing to guide the spiritual lives of countless individuals on the path to enlightenment.

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