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Tradition: Jonang Short Hstory

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Jonang Tradition:

The Jonang (jo nang) tradition takes its name from the hermitage of Jonang in the Tsang (gtsang) region of western Tibet. The mountain where the monastery is located was an ancient site for meditation practice, but the monastery itself was not established until the time of Kunpang Tugje Tsondru (kun spangs thugs rje brtson grus, 1243-1313). Kunpang was succeeded on the monastic throne of Jonang by his great students Jangsem Gyalwa Yeshe (byang sems rgyal ba ye shes, 1257-1320) and Khetsun Yonten Gyatso (mkhas btsun yon tan rgya mtsho, 1260-1327). However, it was not until the Dharma lord Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (dol po pa shes rab rgyal mtshan, 1292-1361) ascended to the throne in 1326 that Jonang began to be known as the seat of an independent tradition.

Dolpopa's controversial teachings, especially his emphasis on the view known as shentong (gzhan stong) or emptiness of other, set the Jonang tradition apart from other systems current in Tibet. According to this view, relative phenomena on the level of conventional truth are empty of self-nature (rangtong, rang stong), but absolute truth is empty only of relative phenomena other than itself. Dolpopa, like his predecessors at Jonang, particularly emphasized the teachings of the Kalachakra Tantra and its completion-stage practices known as the six-branch yoga (rnal 'byor yan lag drug pa), while also transmitting many other systems of Vajrayana and Mahayana Buddhism.

From the fourteenth century until the middle of the seventeenth century, the Jonang tradition was a vibrant presence in central, western, and eastern Tibet. Then disaster struck. As a result of complex political events, about fifteen years after the death of the great Jonang master Jetsun Taranata (rje btsun tA ra nA tha, 1575-1635), the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngagwang Lobsang Gyatso (ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, 1617-82), ordered the establishment of a Gelug teaching institute at Tagtan Damcho Ling (rtag brtan dam chos gling), the monastery Taranata had built near the original site of Jonang. The philosophical system of the monastery was forcibly converted from Jonang to Gelug in 1650 and, in 1658, the remaining followers of the Jonang tradition were expelled to other monasteries, harsh regulations were enacted, and the monastery was renamed Ganden Puntsog Ling (dga' ldan phun tshogs gling). From this time the Jonang tradition was suppressed in central and western Tibet.

From the middle of the seventeenth century into the twenty-first century the Jonang tradition has survived in the Amdo region of eastern Tibet, specifically at the main monastery of Dzamtang ('dzam thang) and in numerous other smaller Jonang monasteries and hermitages. The special Jonang teachings such as the shentong view and the six-branch yoga of Kalachakra have been primarily taught and practiced for the last 350 years in these locations, but have also spread into other traditions, where they continue to be transmitted to a lesser degree.

Cyrus Stearns, 2009

[Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. November 2009].