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Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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A Brief History of the Jonang Tradition By Michael R. Sheehy
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In an attempt to classify his enormous body of teachings as they were recorded over his 45-year teaching career, the later Māhayāna Buddhist tradition arranged his discourses into 3 distinct sets of teachings or "turnings of the dharma wheel.
" Each of these 3 "turnings" is regarded by the living traditions to have been a complete cycle of explanation—unveiling varying degrees of reality that were sensitive to the timing, circumstance, and varying spiritual dispositions of individuals—corresponding to the infinite diversity of sentient beings.
In general, this and related teachings of the 1st turning are understood by the later tradition to have been intended for those who accept the relative existence of reality as ultimately true, and were eventually categorized largely by the body of texts on inner sciences and psychology known as the Abhidharma.
In order to liberate beings from their psychological and emotional fixations on even the subtlest aspects of reality, this "turning" elaborated on the mind’s capacity for discerning insight and became known as the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtras or the Transcendent Wisdom Scriptures.
This final "turning" is said to have been taught to free beings from their habitual patterns of clinging to reality as existent or nonexistent, and became known as the “tathāgatagarbha” or “Buddha-nature” teachings.
This 3rd cycle of the Buddha’s discourses identifies the boundless luminous nucleus of Buddhahood with the basicnature of all beings and serves as the philosophical foundation for the Buddhist tantric techniques of self-transmutation.
The root text of the Kālacakra-tantra is regarded by the tradition to have been first revealed by Śākyamuni as the magical manifestation of the Kālacakra deity to King Sucandra of the mystical land of Śambhala who traveled to India in order to request and receive this tantra.
According to tradition, at the glorious Śrī Dhānyakaṭaka Stūpa in South India, a year after his enlightenment, the Buddha displayed the "Wondrous Lunar Mansion" maṇḍala, performed the Kālacakra empowerment, and taught the tantra to King Sucandra and countless other beings.
Upon returning to Śambhala, this narrative tells us that King Sucandra began teaching and transmitting the Kālacakra-tantra and that it is this text that was passed down through the lineage of the kings and kalkī of Śambhala.
Later, Kalkī Yaśas—who was regarded as an emanation of Mañjuśrī—is attributed with the composition of the Condensed Kālacakra-tantra while his son, Kalkī Puṇḍarīka composed the primary commentary on the tantra titled, Vimalaprabhā or Stainless Light.
Then, as this legend is told, one day in the 10th century while walking along a path in India, the master Jamyang Dorje had a vision of his meditation deity Mañjuśrī who instructed him to follow the path northwards.
Along his way, Jamyang Dorje encountered an emanation of Kalkī Gyalka, the [[11th Kalkī] of Śambhala]] who performed the entire Kālacakra empowerment and transferred this tantric lineage of esoteric realization onto him.
Another one of Somanātha’s disciples, the Kālacakra master Yumo Mikyö Dorje (b. 1027) is regarded as one of the earliest Tibetan articulators of a zhentong view—a contemplative understanding of the absolute radiant nature of reality.
Then, in 1294, Kunpang Tukje Tsöndru (1243-1313) settled in the valley of Jomonang, South Central Tibet and from that time onwards, the spiritual tradition associated with that place was referred to as "Jonang," and those who adhere to the practices preserved and transmitted at that place were known as “Jonangpa.”
A year later, after having traveled throughout Central Tibet, he returned to Jomonang to request the complete empowerment and transmission of the Dro lineage of the Kālacakra-tantra and its 6-fold completion stage vajrayoga practices.
After spending several years in meditation retreat, this young man from Dolpo—Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361) was requested to succeed his master Yöntan Gyatso to assume leadership as heir to the Jonang mountain retreat.
These Jonang translations are considered by the tradition to most profoundly explicate the hidden meaning within this tantra and its commentary, and they served as the textual basis for Dolpopa’s innovative teachings.
Systematizing his teachings within the cosmological schema derived from the Stainless Light commentary, Dolpopa formulated his realizations of zhentong—the view that one's own enlightened essence is empty of everything other than the absolute nature of reality.
Crystallizing in his masterpiece, [[Mountain Dharma: An Ocean of Definitive Meaning Dolpopa clarified how his realizations are in alignment with the Buddha’s enlightened intent and are definitive in meaning (nītārtha, nges don) in contrast to teachings of the degenerative age that remain interpretive in meaning (neyārtha, drang don).
During the 80 years that followed Dolpopa’s passing, his instructions became widely dispersed and popularized as "zhentong," allowing these teachings of the Jonang to flourish throughout the Land of Snows.
In fact, he compiled and arranged the Kālacakra-tantra as well as several other primary tantras into easily accessible practice texts, and composed some of the most lucid expositions on the 6-fold vajrayoga practices of the Kālacakra.
With surmounting factional rivalries and divided allegiances amongst Jonang and Geluk patrons in Central Tibet, and with the Mongol Army’s solidifying of Geluk power, Jonangpa political and territorial influence began to wane during the early 17th century.
As the Mongol military might enthroned and endorsed the 5th Dalai Lama Ngawang Lozang Gyatso (1617-1682), and as the Geluk political administration ruled in the mid-17th century, the Jonangpa were lost to the vicissitudes of Tibetan politics.
Beginning in the 15th century with the founding of Chöjè Monastery in the year 1425 by Ratnaśrī (1350-1435) under the imperial patronage of the Ming Court of China, the Jonangpa had already made their home in the vast countryside of Amdo.
This isolated area is where the Jonangpa later centered themselves during their 17th century Geluk persecution; surviving outside the range of Geluk influence, building monasteries and transmitting their vital teachings on zhentong and the Kālacakra-tantra.
This period continued to produce and influence some of the greatest masters of contemporary Jonang thought up through the late 20th century including Bamda Gelek (1844-1904) and Khenpo Lodrö Drakpa (1920-75).
In the 1960’s and 70’s, many of the exemplars of the Jonang were forced out of their monasteries, and as they fled into the wide-open countryside of Amdo, they wandered as nomads or took shelter in caves as yogis.
Tibetan Language Sources
- Byang sems rgyal ba ye shes. Dpal ldan dus kyi ‘khor lo jo nang pa’i lugs kyi bla ma brgyud pa’i rnam thar. Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2004.
- Jo nang mdza’ mthun lo rgyus phyogs srig tshogs. Jo nang ba’i gdan rabs mdor bsdus drang srong rgan po’i zhal lung. Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2005.
- Tā ra nā tha. Dpal dus kyi ‘khor lo’i chos bskor gyi byung khungs nyer mkho. In Collected Works, 179-219. ‘Dzam thang.
- Fendell, R. P. "Tāranātha's Dpal dus khyi 'khor lo'i chos bskor gyi byung khungs nyer mkho and Its Relation to the Jo-nang-pa School of Tibetan Buddhism." M.A. Thesis. Indiana University: Department of Central Eurasian Studies, 1997.
- Gruschke, A. "The Jonangpa Order: Causes for the Downfall, Conditions of the Survival and Current Situation of a Presumably Extinct Tibetan Buddhist School." Article in German with English Abstract. Presented at The 9th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies. Leiden University, 2000.
- Hopkins, Jeffrey (trans). Mountain Doctrine: Tibet’s Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha-Matrix. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2006.
- Kapstein, M. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Newman, J. R. "A Brief History of the Kalachakra." In G. L. Sopa, R. Jackson and J.Newman (eds.) The Wheel of Time: The Kalachakra in Context. Madison: Deer Park Books, 1985.
- Stearns, C. The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.