Dölpopa’s Great Stūpa at Jomonang, Tibet
Dölpopa’s Great Stūpa at Jomonang, Tibet

1. Jonang

The Jonang is one of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Its origins in Tibet can be traced to early 12th century master Yumo Mikyö Dorje, but became much wider known with the help of Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361), a monk originally trained in the Sakya School.

Jonang is particularly important in that it has preserved this complete Kālacakra system (which is now also practiced in other schools like Gelug, Kagyu and Nyingma).

The Jonang School was widely thought to have become extinct in the late 17th century at the hands of the 5th Dalai Lama, who forcibly annexed the Jonang Gompas (Tibetan-style monasteries) to his Gelug School, declaring them heretical.

The Jonang re-established their religio-political centre in Golok, Nakhi and Mongol areas of Kham and Amdo with the school's seat at Dzamthang Tsangwa Monastery and have continued practicing uninterrupted to this day.

An estimated 5 000 monks and nuns of the Jonang tradition practice today in these areas and at the edges of historic Gelug influence.

However, their teachings were limited to these regions until the Rimé movement of the 19th century encouraged the study of non-Gelug schools of thought and practice.

2. The Early Jonangpa

One of the Kashmiri scholar Somanātha’s disciples, the 11th century Kālacakra yogi Yumo Mikyö Dorje (b. 1027) is regarded as one of the earliest Tibetan teachers of a Shentong View - an understanding of the absolute radiant nature of reality.

Emphasized within the Kālacakra Tantra and the Buddha's 3rd turning teachings on Buddha-nature, this view would later become emblematic of the Jonangpa.

From Yumo Mikyö Dorje onwards, the Dro lineage of the Kālacakra passed on through the lineage-holders Dharmeshvara, Namkha Odzer, Machig Tulku Jobum, Drubtob Sechen, Choje Jamyang Sarma and Choku Odzer.

In the year 1294, Choku Odzer's disciple, Künpang Thukje Tsondru (1243-1313) settled in the meditation caves on the mountains in the place called "Jomonang" in U-Tsang, South Central Tibet.

From that time onwards, the spiritual tradition associated with that place has been referred to as "Jonang,", and those who adhere to the practices that were preserved and transmitted at Jomonang have been known as the "Jonangpa."

The Jonang lineage continued on through the great masters Changsem Gyalwa Yeshe (1257-1320) and Yontan Gyatso (1260-1327).

Then in 1321, a 29 year old charismatic scholar from the Dölpo region of present-day Nepal arrived in Jomonang.

Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen

A year later, after having travelled throughout Central Tibet, he returned to the Great Mountain Retreat at Jomonang

where he requested the complete empowerment and transmission of the Dro lineage of the Kālacakra Tantra and its completion stage 6-fold Vajra Yoga from Yontan Gyatso, the throne-holder at Jonang.

After spending several years in meditation retreat, this young master from Dölpo - Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, was requested to succeed Yontan Gyatso and assume leadership as heir to the Jonang.

From 1330 - 1333, while constructing Tibet's largest embodiment of Enlightenment, the Great Stūpa of Jonang, Dölpopa began formulating and codifying his meditative realizations.

In 1334, Dölpopa instructed his disciples, the translator Lotsawa Lodro Pal (1299-1353) and Lotsawa Sazang Mati Panchen (1294-1376) to prepare a new Tibetan translation of the Kālacakra Tantra and its commentary, Stainless Light.

These Jonang translations were undertaken to most profoundly explicate the hidden definitive meaning within the tantra and its commentary, serving as the textual basis for Dölpopa's innovative and syncretic teachings.

Systematizing his teachings within the cosmological schema derived from the Stainless Light commentary on the tantra,

Dölpopa formulated his realizations of Extrinsic Emptiness or Shentong

the contemplative understanding that one's Enlightened Essence is empty of everything other than the absolute nature of clear light reality.

Contextualizing his elucidations within the history of Buddhism and the Four Cosmic Eons, Dölpopa emphasized how the Kālacakra and Buddha-nature teachings mark the Kṛta Yuga or Perfect Age.

Crystallizing in his masterpieces, Mountain Dharma: An Ocean of Definitive Meaning and The Fourth Council, Dölpopa clarified how his realizations are in alignment with the Buddha's enlightened intent:

These teachings are understood to be definitive in meaning in contrast to teachings of the Degenerative Age that remain interpretive in meaning.

While Dölpopa was alive, his formulations remained secretive instructions that were circulated within intimate circles of his closest disciples.

During the 80 years that followed Dölpopa's death, his instructions became widely dispersed and popularized as "Shentong," allowing these teachings of the Jonangpa to flourish throughout the Land of Snows.

Dölpopa's successors Lotsawa Lodro Pal, Chogle Namgyal, Sazang Mati Panchen, and Nyawon Kunga Pal upheld the Jonang tradition after Dölpopa's passing.

Then in the 16th century, the enigmatic figure Kunga Dolchok (1507-1566) sparked a renaissance within the Jonang:

This is best represented in his collection of Tibet's essential spiritual advice titled, The 108 Essential Guidance Instructions of the Jonang.

This Jonang renaissance spirit carried on through Kunga Dolchok's reincarnation Jetsun Tāranātha (1575-1635):

As the 16th lineage-holder in the Jonang line of succession from the time of Künpang Tukje Tsondru, Tāranātha constructed Takten Damchö Ling Monastery, and played an enormous role in the religious life of 17th century Tibet.

Known for his historical works on Buddhism, Jetsun Tāranātha was a foremost expert on the tantras of the Sarma or New Translation period.

He compiled and arranged the Kālacakra Tantra as well as other main tantras into easily accessible practice manuals and composed some of the most lucid expositions on the 6-fold Vajrayoga ("six yogas") or completion stage practices of the Kālacakra.

3. The Living Tradition

After the passing away of Jetsun Tāranātha in the mid-17th century, the Jonangpa became a target for political and territorial power-struggles in U-Tsang, Central Tibet:

With surmounting factional rivalries and divided allegiances amongst Jonang and Gelug patrons and the Mongol Army's solidifying of Gelug power, Jonang political and territorial influence began to wane.

As Mongol military might enthroned and endorsed the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682), and the Gelug political administration ruled, the Jonang were forced out of Central Tibet.

In the year 1650, the 5th Dalai Lama sealed and banned the study of Shentong, prohibiting the printing of Jonang Shentong texts throughout Tibet.

Then in 1658, the 5th Dalai Lama forcibly converted Jonang Takten Damchö Ling Monastery into a Gelug Monastery — officially initiating the demise of the Jonangpa in U-Tsang.

Although the sphere of Gelug political and military influence reached to the borders of Central Tibet, it did not penetrate the far north-eastern domain of Amdo, Tibet:

Here, in the remote valleys and vast countryside of the Dzamthang, Golok and Ngawa regions, the Jonangpa took refuge and made their home.

Beginning in the year 1425 with the establishment of Choje Monastery by Chogle Namgyal's disciple Ratnashri (1350-1435), the Jonangpa have lived in the Dzamthang and surrounding counties of Amdo.

Under the imperial patronage of the Ming Court of China, the Jonangpa were able to thrive:

In fact, by the mid-16th century, the Jonangpa had consolidated their monastic complexes within the Dzamthang area in Amdo to the extent that they were the local imperial regents.

This is where the Jonangpa later gathered during their 17th century Gelug persecution.

Surviving outside the range of Gelug influence, the Jonangpa have been building monasteries and transmitting their vital teachings on Shentong and the Kālacakra Tantra ever since.

With the late 19th century the Rime or eclectic movement was born in Kham, Eastern Tibet:

Sparked by the writings and compilations of these figures, there was the occasion for a re-kindling of interest in the Jonang tradition and Shentong literature.

Inspiring many of the great masters from Kham at this period, the Jonang Kālacakra completion phase practices and distinctive Shentong view gained attention from other traditions as well.

Meanwhile this period continued to produce some of the greatest masters of contemporary Jonang thought up through the late 20th century, including Bamda Thubten Gelek Gyatso (1844-1904) and Khenpo Ngawang Lodro Drakpa (1920-1975).

In the 1960's, many of the great living exemplars of the Jonang were forced out of their monasteries, and they fled into the countryside of Amdo where they wandered as nomads or took shelter in caves as yogis.

Over the next two decades, the Jonangpa lived without homes in their homeland, gathering during the summer for their annual rains-retreat in order to continue to transmit their lineage.

After the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the Jonangpa began returning to their monasteries where they have been rebuilding monasteries and reviving their unique spiritual tradition up to today.

4. Philosophical reasons for suppression of the Jonangpa

Tāranātha’s influence on Gelug thinking continues even to this day in the teaching of the present 14th Dalai Lama, who actively promotes initiation into Kālacakra.

While the Gelugpa embraced the Jonang teaching on the Kālacakra, they ultimately opposed the Jonangpa (followers of the Jonang) over a difference in philosophical view.

Yumo Mikyö Dorje, Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen and subsequent lamas maintained Shentong teachings, which hold that only the clear-light, non-dual nature of the mind is real and everything else is empty of inherent existence.

The Gelug school held the distinct but related Rangtong view that all phenomena are empty (of inherent existence)

and no thing or process (including Mind and its qualities) may be asserted as independent or inherently real (neither may phenomena be asserted as "unreal".

For the Jonangpa, the emptiness of ultimate reality should not be characterized in the same way as the emptiness of apparent phenomena because it is prabhāsvara-santāna, or "clear light mental continuum," endowed with limitless Buddha qualities:

It is empty of all that is false, not empty of the limitless Buddha qualities that are its innate nature.

5. Political reasons for suppression of the Jonangpa

Modern historians have identified two other reasons which more likely led the Gelugpa to suppress the Jonangpa:

First, the Jonangpa had political ties that were very vexing to the Gelugpa:

The Jonang School, along with the Kagyu, were historical allies with the powerful house of Tsangpa, which was vying with the Dalai Lama and the Gelug School for control of Central Tibet.

This was bad enough, but soon after the death of Tāranātha, an even more ominous event occurred:

Tāranātha’s Tulku was discovered to be a young boy named Zanabazar, the son of Tüsheet Khan, Prince of Central Khalkha.

Tüsheet Khan and his son were of Borjigin lineage (the imperial clan of Genghis Khan and his successors), meaning they had the birth authority to become Khan.

When the young boy was declared the spiritual leader of all of Mongolia, suddenly the Gelugpa were faced with the possibility of war with the former military superpower of Asia.

While the Mongol Empire was long past its zenith, this was nonetheless a frightening prospect and the Dalai Lama sought the first possible moment of Mongol distraction to take control of the Jonangpa monasteries.

The 14th Dalai Lama confirmed this view in the book The Fourteen Dalai Lamas:

After peace had been restored, the 5th Dalai Lama closed 13 monasteries that had actively supported the uprising, including the prestigious Jonangpa monastery.

The sects and institutions associated with these monasteries cried foul, and accused the Dalai Lama of sectarianism.

Tibetans have a long memory, and this accusation still stands within certain circles. I once asked the present Dalai Lama about this. He replied:

"These monasteries were closed for political reasons, not religious ones, and their closing had nothing to do with sectarianism. They had supported the Tsangpa king in the uprising, thus committing treason.

The Great Fifth believed that they should be closed in order to insure the future stability of the (Tibetan) nation, and to dissuade other monasteries from engaging in warfare. [...]

The fact is that the Great Fifth passed laws outlawing sectarian skirmishes, and passed laws ensuring the freedom of religion.

This freedom was extended to not only the Buddhist schools, but also to the non-Buddhist ones. For example, he kept a Bonpo lama in his entourage to speak for the interests of the Bon movement.

And on a personal level, he himself practiced so many non-Gelugpa lineages that the Gelugpas criticized him for straying from his roots."

The writings of Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen and even those of Sakya proponents of Shentong were sealed and banned from publication and study and that Jonangpa monastics were forcibly converted to the Gelug lineage.

6. Rediscovery

The Jonangpa were until recently thought to be an extinct heretical sect:

Thus, Tibetologists were astonished when fieldwork turned up several active Jonangpa monasteries, including the main monastery, Tsangwa, located in Dzamthang County, Sichuan.

Almost 40 monasteries, comprising about 5000 monks, have subsequently been found, including some in the Amdo Tibetan and Gyalrong areas of Qinghai, Sichuan and Tibet.

One of the supporters of the Jonang lineage in exile has been the 14th Dalai Lama of the Gelugpa lineage:

The Dalai Lama donated buildings in Himachal Pradesh state in Shimla, India for use as a Jonang monastery (now known as the Takten Phuntsok Choeling Monastery) and has visited during one of his recent teaching tours. The Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu lineage has also visited there.

The Jonang tradition has recently officially registered with the Tibetan Government in exile to be recognized as the 5th living Buddhist tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

The 14th Dalai Lama assigned Jebtsundamba Khutuktu of Mongolia (who is considered to be an incarnation of Tāranātha) as the leader of the Jonang tradition.

Much of the literature of the Jonang has also survived, including most works by Dölpopa, which have been published also in English.