This is actually for a student of Professor Ulrike Rösler (from Oxford). The last time I met Ulrike in SOAS, she asked me if I know of any source that explains why dGe-lugs school of Tibetan Buddhism is called thus. One of her students, whose name I do not know, wanted to know. I had no concrete source at hand and so I said I did not know. Just the other day when I met Ulrike in Hamburg, I said I came across an explanation and that I would send her the reference. But today, I tried to trace the source back but did not find it. Not being able to relocate a lost reference and not being able to keep a promise gnaw one from within. But fortunately we have the TBRC (now BDRC) to turn to. A single search for the word dga’ lugs turns out to be fruitful. But to keep tract of my own findings which may eventually also benefit scholars such as Ulrike’s student, I thought I should record my thoughts and references in my blog.
In general it goes without saying that various Tibetan Buddhist schools and sub-schools came to be known on the basis of various criteria such as period, founder, doctrine, color of hats, place, and so on. The name “dGe-lugs” is derived from dGa’-ldan, the name of the monastic seat where Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang-grags-pa (1357–1419) mainly resided during the latter part of his life. By the way, the Tibetan dga’ ldan renders the Sanskrit tuṣita, a word that has been explained in the sGra sbyor bam po gnyis pa or Madhyavyutpatti (no. 370). What I learnt recently, however, from my Buddhologist friend Dr. Martin Delhey and Sanskritist friend Professor Harunaga Isaacson is that in Sanskrit tuṣita refers primarily to a class of celestial beings and not to the celestial realm in which they reside. In fact we did not find any Indian Buddhist sources that use tuṣita in the sense of a celestial realm. By contrast in Tibetan, one often tends to understand tuṣita primarily in the sense of a heavenly realm in the “sphere of [sexual] desire” (kāmadhātu: ’dod pa’i khams) where the future Buddha Maitreya is said to reside now. Note what Mi-pham rNam-rgyal-rgya-mtsho (1846–1912), mKhas ’jug (B, p. 231.14–15) states to this effect: dga’ ldan na byams pa bzhugs la | gzhan ’phrul dbang byed na bdud sdig can gnas pa’o ||. Of course, we can reconcile the primary usages of the word tuṣita in Sanskrit and Tibetan. We often notice in Sanskrit sources that the one and the same name can be used to refer to both a place and its people.
Let us return to the actual topic. Why dGe-lugs and not dGa’-lugs or dGa’-ldan-lugs? There seem to be plenty of sources on this. But perhaps it would suffice here to mention just one. See the following passage (rGyal-rong-ba Brag-bar-dpal-ldan, Bod rgyal mo rong gi lo rgyus rab gsal me long. [Markham]: Krung-go-mi-dmangs-chab-srid-gros-mol-tshogs-’du ’Bar-khams- rdzong-u-yon-lhan-khang, 2002, pp. 448.4–8): de yang dge lugs pa’am dga’ ldan pa zhes pa ni gdan sa’i ming gis btags pa ste | rje rin po ches ’brog ri bo dga’ ldan rnam par rgyal ba’i gling btab nas sku tshad smad der stan chags par bzhugs pa la brten nas | rje’i ring lugs la chos rje dga’ ldan pa’i lugs zhes ’bod pa byung | de tshig sna bsdus nas brjod pa’i tshe dga’ lugs pa zhes zer ba ma bde bas | dge lugs pa zhes ’bod pa rgyun chags pa yin no ||. Tsong-kha-pa founded a hermitage called the dGa’-ldan-rnam-par-rgyal-ba’i-gling and during his later part of his life, it was his main or permanent seat. His tradition came to be known as Chos-rje-dga’-ldan-pa’i-lugs. But the abbreviated form of the name (which one normally uses), that is, “dGa’-lugs-pa,” was felt (phonetically) inconvenient, and hence the name of the school came to known as “dGe-lugs-pa.” By the way, some dGe-lugs-pas in the West do not seem to like the name “Yellow-Hat” school somehow assuming that it is pejorative. But there is nothing pejorative in the name and the Tibetan tradition proudly characterizes the teaching of the dGe-lugs school as “the Doctrine of the Yellow-Hat Ones” (zhwa ser gyi bstan pa).