The Jonang Lineage
When I was 15 years old and still living in Howell, New Jersey, I found out that H.H. the Dalai Lama would be visiting Wisconsin to give the first ever Kalachakra initiation in the West. I was so excited! Many Kalmyks who lived in my town had booked buses and hotels to attend the initiation. I wanted to go for the initiation so badly too! But, even though my parents had initially agreed to let me go as long as I earned my own money for the bus fees and all, which I did by working part time for about three months, they broke their promise and in the end, forbade me from attending the initiation.
So, I never had the fortune to receive Kalachakra from His Holiness, but I have deep trust and faith in this practice. I was inspired to share a little about the Jonang Lineage with all my readers, because it is where the roots and the lineage of the Kalachakra practice come. One of the prized practices and systems to enlightenment within the Jonangpa lineage is Kalacakra. I wanted to therefore share more about this profound lineage to all of you. The current head of the Jonangpa lineage is His Holiness Kalka Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche who is the supreme lama of the Buddhism of Mongolia. It is good to have more knowledge of other lineages and practices.
Origins of the Jonang Lineage
The Jonang Lineage can be traced back to the early 12th-century master Yumo Mikyo Dorje, a lineage holder of the Kalachakra Tantra. He was a disciple of Somanatha, the Kalachakra master from Kashmir who had also translated the Vimalaprabha – the great Kalachakra commentary into Tibetan with Dro Lotsawa. The master Yumo was also said to have received the Zhentong Madhyamaka teachings in a vision while practicing the Kalachakra Six-limbed Yoga in the region of Mt. Kailash. However, he would only propagate Zhentong as a “secret doctrine” to his closest disciples.
The Jonang name was derived from its mother monastery, Jomonang Monastery, which was situated in South Central Tibet. The master Kunpang Tukje Tsondru (1243-1313) founded this monastery in 1294. The layout of the monastery was based on the traditional way the Kingdom of Shambhala was depicted. In his lifetime, the master Kunpang Tukje managed to gather and compile the six yogas of Kalachakra at that time.
In general, the Jonang tradition is the primary lineage holder of the Dro transmission of the Kalachakra Tantra, the six yogas of the Kalachakra completion stage and the Zhentong Madhyamaka teachings.
Kalachakra literally means the ‘Wheel of Time’ in Sanskrit. The Kalachakra Tantric system is one of the most advanced Tantric systems within Tibetan Buddhism. It was one of the last Tantric systems to be brought over from India to Tibet via the last transmission of the teachings before Buddhism was wiped out in India by successive Muslim invasions.
Although this Tantric system is very advanced and esoteric, there is a tradition of offering it to large public audiences. It is the practice to give such public initiations to plant as many powerful seeds or causes as possible for those in the audience to be reborn in Shambhala. Shambhala is a place on earth that is described in the commentaries to be a hidden land ruled by enlightened kings and that the Kalachakra Tantra is the primary practice of the populace of this kingdom. The king of Shambhala is both the ruler and the one to bestow initiation and commentary of the Kalachakra Tantra.
In fact, the Kalachakra Tantra states that Suchandra, an earlier King of Shambhala, requested Buddha Shakyamuni to teach a method to practice the Dharma without renouncing worldly responsibilities. In response to his request, the Buddha taught the first teachings on Kalachakra in Dharanikota, which is near modern Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh in Southeastern India. This was done miraculously simultaneously with another teaching given by the Buddha on Vulture’s Peak, in the state of Bihar.
Along with the king, ninety-six minor kings and emissaries from Shambhala who were amongst the retinue of the king also received the teachings. In this manner, the Kalachakra Tantra was first transmitted directly to Shambhala, where it was kept and practiced for hundreds of years. Successive kings of Shambhala, Manjushrikirti and Pundarika, were said to have composed the condensed Shri Kalachakra Laghutantra and its main commentary, the Vimalaprabha that is at the heart of the Kalachakra texts.
Within Tibet, the Kalachakra Tantra has many lineages but amongst them, there are two main lineages, the Dro and Ra lineages. The Ra lineage descends from the Kashmiri master Samantashri and the translator Ra Lotsawa Dorje Drak. The Ra lineage eventually found a prominent place within the Sakya school, where great masters like Sakya Pandita, Drogon Chogyal Phagpa and so forth held the lineage. On the other hand, the Dro lineage descends from the Kashmiri scholar Somanatha, who traveled to Tibet in 1027 AD and his translator Dro Lotsawa Sherab Drak, whose name became synonymous with this transmission of the Kalachakra.
The Dro lineage of Kalachakra eventually became an integral part of the Jonang lineage through its founder Yumo Mikyo Dorje and Kunpang Tukje Tsondru. Then, the Jonang scholar Taranatha left his mark on the lineage by developing this Tantra with his commentaries and teachings. In the 17th century, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama suppressed the Jonang lineage for political reasons. Ironically, it was also during the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s forced conversion of Jonang monasteries that the Gelug school absorbed much of the Jonang Kalachakra tradition.
Today, the Kalachakra Tantra is disseminated within all schools of Tibetan Buddhism but it is featured prominently within the Gelug lineage. It is also the main practice of existing Jonangpas that survived in several monasteries in Kham, Qinghai and Sichuan.
According to the Jonang tradition, Zhentong literally means ‘other-emptiness’ or the view of extrinsic Emptiness. In other words, Zhentong is an interpretation of the Madhyamaka view of the nature of reality and the mind. The Madhyamaka system was derived from the Buddha’s Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, which forms the final set of discourses that the Buddha taught.
According to Zhentong teachings, the Madhyamaka view of Emptiness is an understanding of the mind and reality in order to reconcile the paradox of a lack of permanent essence (Sunyata/Emptiness) and the permanent enlightened nature of the enlightened mind (Tathagatagarbha/Buddha nature). Ultimately, Zhentong is a view of how the ultimate nature of reality is empty of inherent existence aside from one’s own enlightened Buddha nature.
Zhentong holds that the relative truth of reality is empty of its own intrinsic findable existence. This Emptiness of inherent existence or “rangtong” is considered to be solely the nature of relative reality while the ultimate reality is understood to be empty of everything aside from oneself. That is why transient tangible experiences remain devoid of inherent and findable existence while the boundless luminous nucleus of Buddha nature within all beings remains intangible and unchanging.
This enlightened Buddha nature is thus regarded as the permanently pure nature of awareness. It is this pure mind that is devoid of its distorted perceptions. This is likened to an embryo or a womb and this enlightened essence (Tathagatagarbha) provides the potentiality for living beings to be reborn into fully awakened Buddhas.
The Suppression of the Jonang Lineage
In the 17th century, the Fifth Dalai Lama was enthroned by Panchen Lobsang Chokyi Gyeltsen and came to power and was proclaimed the temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet with the backing of the Mongol army. This was done to counter the growing threat of the Kagyupas, who were backed by the King of Tsang.
The Kagyupas were not the only ones who posed a threat to the Gaden Podrang, the newly formed government of the Fifth Dalai Lama. The Jonang lineage came under the suppression of the Gaden Podrang. The apparent reason for the clampdown was the philosophical Zhentong view of Emptiness that was deemed heretical. Consequently, Jonang books were burned, its libraries and printing presses sealed and Jonang monasteries forcibly converted into Gelug.
However, the real reason was because the Jonang had supported the Tsangpa king before the uprising and may have posed a threat to the Gelug, thus committing treason. Therefore, the Fifth Dalai Lama believed that the Jonang monasteries had to be closed and converted in order to set a precedent and a warning to other monasteries not to engage in politics and endanger the stability of the nation.
The Jonang Lamas and lineage fled beyond the Gelug sphere into faraway Kham and Amdo where they continued to flourish. Today, they still uphold their lineage and practice of the completion stage of Kalachakra along with the philosophical Madhyamaka Zhentong system in these areas.
Jonang Lineage Holders
Yumo Mikyo Dorje
Yumo Mikyo Dorje was the 11th Century student of the Kashmiri scholar Somanatha and became a great Kalachakra master. He became known as the earliest Tibetan proponent of the Zhentong view of ‘other-emptiness’, which was a philosophical system of understanding the absolute nature of reality. This was emphasized within the Kalachakra Tantra and also the Buddha’s teachings on the Buddha nature inherent in all sentient beings as expounded during the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.
It was believed that he received the Zhentong teachings while practicing the Kalachakra Six Yogas in the vicinity of Mount Kailash. He had formulated his view in much the same way as how Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltsen would do later on but without explicit terminology to define this view. Thus, many would come to view him as the originator of the Zhentong view instead of Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltsen.
From Yumo Mikyo Dorje onwards, the Dro lineage of Kalachakra was transmitted through the lineage-holders Dharmeshvara, Namkha Ozer, Machig Tulku Jobum, Drubtob Sechen, Choje Jamyang Sarma and Choku Ozer. Choku Ozer in turn became the teacher of Kunpang Tukje Tsondru who became the actual founding father of the Jomonang Monastery.
Kunpang Tukje Tsondru
The master Kunpang Tukje Tsondru was born in 1243 in the Dok region of Tsang. In the course of his life, he studied at several monasteries in U and Tsang, of which the most famous was the great Sakya Monastery.
While he was staying at Jamyang Sarma Monastery of Kyandur, the master Kunpang received the transmissions of all the major treatises and teachings possessed by the great Choku Ozer. Prior to this, he had received and studied the Ra tradition of Kalachakra and he now received from Choku Ozer the Kalachakra initiation, the explanation of the Kalachakra Tantra, the great Vimalaprabha commentary, and an experiential transmission of the Kalachakra completion-stage practices of the Six-Branch Yoga in the Dro tradition.
In the end, the master Kunpang received and practiced seventeen different lineages of the Six-Branch Yoga of Kalachakra. When he was meditating on stopping vitality, which is the third of the six branches, it is said that the vital winds of the five elements became so forceful that he gained a high level of clairvoyance. Consequently, he gained visions of countless deities, such as the eleven-faced form of Avalokitesvara.
After that, the master Kunpang became an itinerant renunciate, wandering from hermitage to hermitage. Henceforth, he became known as Kunpang, which means renunciate. While he was at the famous Se Kharchung Hermitage, a whole assembly of Kalki emperors of Shambhala appeared to him in a vision and bestowed their blessings for him to compose a commentary on the Kalachakra Tantra. While he was at Kacho Deden Hermitage, he composed a series of texts on the practice of the Six-Branch Yoga of Kalachakra. At this time, he also experienced a vision of Kalachakra, and received a divine prophecy. These texts would be the first Tibetan and extensive commentary for the Six-Branch Yoga of the Kalachakra.
He also beheld the face of Goddess Nakmen Gyalmo, who entreated him to reside at the very place where he would later establish Jonang Monastery. He would eventually settle there and Jonang Monastery was established in 1294. By then, he had many students and he taught them the old and new translations of Tantric teachings.
In his later years, the master Kunpang declared that Jangsem Gyelwa Yeshe would be his successor as the monastic head of Jonang Monastery. It is traditionally told that when Kunpang was about to pass away, Gyelwa Yeshe became ill, so Kunpang decided to extend his own life for several months. When he again manifested signs of passing away, his disciples pleaded for him to live longer. He lived for two more weeks before passing away peacefully.
Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltsen
Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltsen was born in 1292 in the Nepalese Dolpo region. He was ordained as a novice monk in 1304 and spent his formative years studying the Nyingma teachings.
In 1309, he travelled to Mustang in order to study the treatises on the Perfection of Wisdom teachings and Buddhist epistemology or Abhidharma at the feet of the great Sakya master Kyiton Jamyang Drakpa Gyeltsen. In 1312, the young Dolpopa would follow his master Kyiton Jamyang back to the great monastery of Sakya in Tsang, Tibet. While at Sakya, Dolpopa received innumerable teachings. Of these teachings, he would soon become an expert on the complex Kalachakra tradition and would serve as Kyiton Jamyang’s teaching assistant for several years.
Besides the master Kyiton, Dolpopa received teachings and initiations from other Sakya masters including the Sakya Throneholder Daknyi Chenpo Sangpo Pel. From the Jonang master Kunpang Drakpa Gyeltsen, he received the Vimalaprabha, the commentary on the Kalachakra Tantra. From the Sakya master Sengge Pel, he received further teachings on Abhidharma and from the master Kunga Sonam, he received teachings on Sakya Lamdre and the scriptural transmission of several texts on the Hevajra Tantra.
Dolpopa traveled to many of the great monasteries of Tsang and Central Tibet in 1314 and became known with the title Kunkhyen or ‘Omniscient’ because of his mastery of a great number of scriptures. He also received bhikshu or full monastic ordination from the abbot Sonam Drakpa of Cholung Monastery and vowed to be meatless for the rest of his life. During the same year, he visited Jonang Monastery and was deeply impressed by the tradition of intense meditation emphasized there. Then he traveled to U and had audience with the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339), at the great Karma Kagyu monastery of Tsurpu. The Karmapa significantly prophesied that Dolpopa would quickly develop deeper insight in the view and practice.
In 1322, while Dolpopa was at Jonang Monastery, he received from the master Khetsun Yonten Gyatso (1260-1327) the complete transmission of the Kalachakra Tantra, the Bodhisattva Trilogy, and the Kalachakra completion-stage practices of the Six-Branch Yoga. Then he entered a meditation retreat at the Jonang hermitage of Khacho Deden. After this retreat, Yonten Gyatso convinced Dolpopa to teach in the assembly at Jonang, and also taught him many more systems of esoteric knowledge on Tantra. Dolpopa then visited Sakya at the invitation of Tishri Kunga Gyeltsen (1310-1358) of the Khon family, and offered him the Kalachakra initiation.
On returning to Jonang, Dolpopa began a strict retreat at Khacho Deden, meditating on the Six-Branch Yoga for one year. During this time he achieved realization of the first four of the six branches, beholding immeasurable figures of the Buddhas and Pure Lands when practicing. During this retreat the realization of the Zhentong view first arose in Dolpopa’s mind, but he would not teach it to others until another five years had passed.
In 1325, Yonten Gyatso requested Dolpopa to be his successor and accept the monastic seat of Jonang Monastery. This was against Dolpopa’s own wish to enter into retreat but nevertheless, he finally agreed and ascended the monastic throne of Jonang in 1326. When Yonten Gyatso passed away the next year, Dolpopa decided to build a monumental stupa to repay his master’s kindness. During the construction, Dolpopa himself would sometimes work on the construction site amidst giving many teachings.
As the long central poles were placed in the stupa, he taught the Bodhisattva Trilogy to a huge assembly, explaining for the first time the distinction between the relative as empty of self-nature (Rangtong) and the absolute as empty only of other relative phenomena (Zhentong). The stupa was finally consecrated on October 30, 1333. In the following years, Dolpopa mostly stayed in meditation retreat and had many visions. In particular, he directly beheld the Pure Land of Shambhala, the source of the Kalachakra teachings, and once claimed to have actually gone there by visionary means.
In 1336, Dolpopa was invited to teach to a large crowd of several thousand people at Sakya Monastery. Once again, he taught the distinctions between the Rangtong and Zhentong views of Emptiness while citing numerous scriptural references. In 1338, he passed the monastic seat of Jonang Monastery to his disciple Lotsawa Lodro Pel. In 1344, Mongolian imperial envoys arrived with decrees issued by the Yuan Emperor Toghon Temur inviting Dolpopa to China, but he retreated to isolated hermitages for the next four years to evade the request.
Dolpopa became extremely heavy in his later years and it was difficult for him to travel. But in 1358, when he was sixty-seven years old, he decided to make a pilgrimage to Central Tibet and traveled by boat down the Tsangpo River, stopping at different places along the banks to teach. He stayed for one year at the monasteries of Nesar and Cholung, where he gave many teachings. The great Sakya master of the Khon family, Lama Dampa Sonam Gyeltsen (1312-1375), came to meet Dolpopa at Cholung, received teachings, and made requests to compose a text that became one of his major works, the Fourth Council.
In 1359, Dolpopa was brought on a palanquin through U and Tsang, welcomed by throngs of people lining the roads and escorting him into the different monasteries. When he finally arrived in Lhasa, he stayed for about six months and gave the instructions of the Six-Branch Yoga of Kalachakra several times to large crowds. At the beginning of 1360, a party arrived to invite Dolpopa back to Jonang Monastery. As Dolpopa traveled back into the Tsang region he stopped to teach at various monasteries such as Ralung and Nenying.
In 1360, Dolpopa arrived back at the great hermitage of Jonang and again stayed in meditation at his residence of Dewachen.
At the tail end of 1361, Dolpopa told his assistants that he wanted to go to the stupa, but his attendants told him that the path was unsafe because snow had fallen and assisted him to his residence instead. So, tea was served and elder disciples were called for some lighthearted conversation and by some accounts, he was said to be pleased with his disciples. The next morning, the master seemed to be in deep meditation with staring eyes. By afternoon, he had closed his eyes and passed away while in deep meditation.
Dolpopa was cremated according to tradition accorded to a High Lama. Ashes from the cremation were gathered and placed with other relics into a statue of Dolpopa that was installed into the great stupa he had built.
Taranatha was born at Karak in 1575 and was a descendent of Ra Lotsawa Dorje Drak. His Tibetan name was Kunga Nyingpo but scholars and historians know him by the name Taranatha, which he received in a vision from a great Indian mahasiddha.
According to traditional accounts, when he was one year old he had self-declared, “I am master Kunga Drolchok!” But this self-recognition was kept a secret for several years, and it was not until he was about four years old that he was brought to the late Kunga Drolchok’s monastery of Cholung Jangtse and formally recognized and enthroned as his incarnation. Then began years of rigorous study and practice under the guidance of a series of great masters, many of whom had previously been major disciples of his previous life.
Kunga Drolchok’s disciple Jampa Lhundrub guided the newly recognized young lama. Under this lama, Taranatha began his first studies on the various subjects of Sutra and Tantra. Then he received a vast number of Tantric teachings and initiations, primarily of the Sakya tradition of Lamdre, from another of his predecessor’s disciples, Doring Kunga Gyeltsen. Kunga Drolchok’s disciple Draktopa Lhawang Drakpa taught Taranatha many esoteric instructions, especially the Six Yogas and Mahamudra.
Jedrung Kunga Pelzang (1513-1588), who was Kunga Drolchok’s nephew and the throne holder of Jonang Monastery, transmitted to Taranatha the teachings of Kalachakra Tantra and the dharma protector Mahakala that he had received from his previous life. From Kunga Drolchok’s disciple Lungrik Gyatso, Taranatha received many transmissions, especially the Kalachakra initiation, the explanation of the Kalachakra Tantra, the esoteric instructions of the Six-Branch Yoga according to the Jonang tradition, and the collected writings of Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltsen (1292-1361). He is said to have gained a special realization when he practiced the Six-Branch Yoga of the Kalachakra Tantra.
When Taranatha was fourteen years old, the Indian adept Buddhaguptanatha arrived in Tibet. This master became one of Taranatha’s most important teachers, passing to him countless transmissions of Tantric initiations and esoteric instructions. Taranatha attributed his understanding of the Tantric teachings to the kindness of Buddhaguptanatha. There were other Indian yogins and scholars, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist who came to Tibet during Taranatha’s lifetime. They gave him instructions, taught scholarly aspects of the teachings and assisted him in translating Sanskrit texts into Tibetan. Several of Taranatha’s translations are now included in the Tibetan canonical collections of the Kangyur and Tangyur.
In 1588, Jedrung Kunga Pelzang appointed Taranatha as his successor on the throne of Jonang. Taranatha took it upon himself to proliferate Dolpopa’s insights to a larger audience. He decided that it was important to preserve Dolpopa’s teachings as they were deemed to be in danger of dying out. During the 1590s, the instruction manual witten by Dolpopa’s heir Chokle Namgyel (1306-1386) was still being used at Jonang to teach the Six-Branch Yoga, but very few people really understood the philosophical tenets of Dolpopa and his disciples.
During this period Taranatha’s teacher Jampa Lhundrub advised him to restore the great stupa that Dolpopa had built about 260 years before at Jonang. Taranatha poured his whole heart into this project. Just before the restoration work was finished, it is said that he had a marvelous vision of a mountain one morning. Apparently, the mountain was the Dhanyakataka Stupa, where the Buddha first taught the Kalachakra Tantra. Taranatha later felt that perhaps this vision was a culmination of the merits of everyone who had been working so intensely to complete the restoration works of the great stupa at Jonang.
In 1604, after a decade of tremendous work to revive the original Jonang teachings, serious political conflict ensued. Jonang Monastery itself was in immediate danger of being invaded by a hostile army. While meditating at Dolpopa’s great stupa, Taranatha became despondent as all his efforts were about to be destroyed and the tradition itself wiped out. At that time, he yearned to enter into retreat far away from all the troubles created by deluded and impassioned people.
At the darkest hour, Dolpopa appeared to him in a vision and encouraged him to continue on and assured him that all his efforts would not be in vain. The next night, Taranatha prayed to Dolpopa once more and experienced a vision of the master who gave a teaching in the form of a verse. As a result of this series of events, Taranatha was said to have gained realization of Dolpopa’s true intentions as expressed in his Zhentong teachings and all his fear and doubts melted away. In order to express his realization, he composed a text entitled Ornament of the Zhentong Middle Way, which is one of his most important works solely devoted to the explanation of the Zhentong view.
Taranatha would continue to have countless visions for the remainder of his life. During the years spanning 1618 to 1619, he experienced many visions of entering the Kalapa court of the Shambhala kings, beheld the divine rulers themselves, and heard their teachings. He felt that these visions were a result of his realization of the ultimate view of all Sutras and Tantras according to Zhentong Madhyamaka view. Probably not long after 1614, Taranatha went to Mongolia where he reportedly founded several monasteries.
In 1615, a piece of land was offered along with the necessary resources to build a monastery for Taranatha. The monastery would eventually be completed in 1628 and given the name Takten Damcho Ling. The monastery would serve as his residence until he entered clear light. Just before his passing, Taranatha appointed his disciple Sangye Gyatso as his successor on the monastic seat of Takten Damcho Ling. He also gave several prophecies concerning the future of the Jonang tradition and the upheaval that would soon sweep Tibet.
Sangye Gyatso passed away not long after Taranatha himself. Therefore, another of the great master’s disciples, Kunga Rinchen Gyatso was appointed to the monastic seat and led the Jonang tradition for the next fifteen years. His rebirth became known as Zanabazar, the 1st Bogd Gegeen and Jebtsundamba Khutuktu of Mongolia. His most recent reincarnation was the 9th Jebtsundamba Khutughtu, who entered clear light in 2012.
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