Introduction to the Jonang
Introduction to the Jonang
The Jonang Tradition: Zhentong & the Kalachakra
Established in Central Tibet during the late 13th century, the Jonang tradition of Tibetan Buddhism continues on in an unbroken lineage of successive transmissions from the time of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni.
Though the Jonang were considered by Western scholars to have been extinct since their 17th century demise in Central Tibet, and were thought to have assimilated into alternative Tibetan Buddhist traditions such as the Nyingma, Sakya, and Kagyu, the Jonang are now known to have survived as their own distinct tradition.
Isolated for almost four centuries within the remote regions of far eastern Tibet, the Jonang continue transmitting their vital views and practices from the Kalachakra Tantra or "Wheel of Time Continuum" while sustaining their unique understanding of mind and reality known as "zhentong" ("shentong").
As the exclusive holders of the 6-fold vajrayoga (six yogas) of the Kalachakra completion stage, and the distinctive zhentong meditative view, this little-known tradition undoubtedly offers a fuller perspective on the whole of Buddhism in Tibet.
Accordingly, transient tangible experiences are understood to remain devoid of any inherent substance as the ultimate boundless and luminous nucleus of buddhahood within all beings is regarded as intangible and invariant.
Vajrayoga: Jonang Kalachakra Practice
According to Buddhist tantric tradition, the entire Kalachakra Tantra including its generation and completion stage practices were taught by the historical Buddha, transmitted from the mythical land of Shambhala, and sustained in India before being brought to Tibet.
(1) the Rwa lineage and
(2) the Dro lineage.
Though there are minor branches to these two main lineages, the Dro lineage has been upheld by the Jonang tradition while the other traditions of Tibetan Buddhism have generally upheld the Rwa lineage.
As the Rwa lineage continues to transmit the empowerments and sustain the generation stage practices of the Kalachakra, the completion stage practices known as the 6-fold vajrayoga of the Kalachakra have been preserved within the Dro lineage of the Jonang tradition.
- Yoga of Withdrawal
- Yoga of Meditative Concentration
- Yoga of Harnessing one's Life-force
- Yoga of Retention
- Yoga of Recollection
- Yoga of Meditative Stabilization
According to tradition, the root text of the Kalachakra Tantra was first revealed by the Buddha Shakyamuni as the magical manifestation of the Kalachakra deity to King Suchandra of Shambhala who traveled to India in order to request and receive this tantra.
At the glorious Drepung stupa in South India, a year after his complete enlightenment, it is said that the Buddha displayed the Wondrous Lunar Mansion Mandala, performed the Kalachakra empowerment and taught the tantra to King Suchandra and countless other human and non-human beings.
King Yashas, an emanation of Manjushri then composed the Condensed Kalachakra Tantra while his son, Kalkin Pundarika composed the primary commentary on the Condensed Kalachakra Tantra titled, Vimalaprabha or Stainless Light.
Then, as the legend is told, one day in the 10th century while walking along a path in northern India, the master Jamyang Dorje had a vision of his meditation deity Manjushri who instructed him to follow the path northwards.
One of the Kashmiri scholar Somanatha's disciples, the 11th century Kalachakra yogi Yumo Mikyo Dorje (b. 1027) is regarded as one of the earliest Tibetan articulators of a zhentong ("shentong," gzhan stong) view -- an understanding of the absolute radiant nature of reality.
From Yumo Mikyo Dorje onwards, the Dro lineage of the Kalachakra 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, Kunpang Thukje Tsondru (1243-1313) settled in the meditation caves (sgrub phug) 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."
A year later, after having traveled 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 Kalachakra Tantra and its completion stage 6-fold vajrayoga from Yontan Gyatso, the throne-holder at Jonang.
In 1334, Dolpopa 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 Kalachakra 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 Dolpopa's innovative and syncretic teachings.
Systematizing his teachings within the cosmological schema derived from the Stainless Light commentary on the tantra, Dolpopa formulated his realizations of extrinsic emptiness or zhentong -- the contemplative understanding that one's enlightened essence is empty of everything other than the absolute nature of clear light reality.
Crystallizing in his masterpieces, Mountain Dharma: An Ocean of Definitive Meaning and The Fourth Council, Dolpopa clarified how his realizations are in alignment with the Buddha's enlightened intent.
During the 80 years that followed Dolpopa's death, his instructions became widely dispersed and popularized as "zhentong," allowing these teachings of the Jonangpa to flourish throughout the Land of Snows.
This is best represented in his collection of Tibet's essential spiritual advice titled, The One Hundred and Eight Essential Guidance Instructions of the Jonang.
As the 16th lineage-holder in the Jonang line of succession from the time of Kunpang Tukje Tsondru, Taranatha constructed Takten Damcho Ling Monastery, and played an enormous role in the religious life of 17th century Tibet.
Known for his historical works on Buddhism, Jetsun Taranatha was a foremost expert on the tantras of the Sarma or new translation period. He compiled and arranged the Kalachakra 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 Kalachakra.
The Living Tradition
With surmounting factional rivalries and divided allegiances amongst Jonang and Geluk patrons and the Mongol Army's solidifying of Geluk power, Jonang political and territorial influence began to wane.
Inspiring many of the great masters from Kham at this time such as Dza Patrul Rinpoche and Jamgon Mipham, the Jonang Kalachakra completion phase practices and distinctive zhentong 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 Geleg (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.