The Jonang Lineage and Background

Excerpt from the Jonang Foundation website:

”Since the Tibetan yogi Kunpang Thukje Tsondru (1243-1313) synthesized 17 transmission lines of the Kalachakra in the mid-13th century, the Jonang tradition has specialized in this unique tantra, its philosophical and cosmological thought, and the ritual life associated with the tantra. According to tradition, in a simultaneous and parallel continuum from the historical Buddha and then on through Maitreyanatha and his disciples is the Great Madhyamaka (dbu ma chen po) meditative tradition and system of sutra shentong (gzhan stong).

Synthesizing sutra and tantra, the Jonang luminary Kunkhyen Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361) brought these seemingly disparate systems of Indian Buddhist thought together, intersecting the Kalachakra transmission lineages with the Zhentong Great Madhyamaka. Interpreting sutras by means of tantras and vice versa, Dolpopa’s interfusion of the technical tantric vocabulary found within the Kalachakra Tantra with the philosophical language and thinking of Great Madhyamaka consequently redefined the contemplative, intellectual, and literary heritage of the Jonang.

Diagram of the Lineage of the Shentong Great Madhyamaka and the Dro Kalacakra

Shentong Great Madhyamaka
               Dro Kalacakra
1. Shakyamuni Buddha 
       18. Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen 20b
       28. Taranatha 32b
       Present day lineage masters
Great Stupa of Jonang, Central Tibet

”Among the five main traditions of Tibetan Buddhism – Kagyu, Gelug, Sakya, Nyingma and Jonang – the Jonang have not been particularly well known outside of Tibet. After their persecution in the 17th century, the main Jonang monasteries have been located in the Golok and Amdo regions, far to the east of central Tibet, in what is now considered western Sichuan province. The damage inflicted by the cultural revolution was minor compared to that experienced in the rest of Tibet, and so very few refugees escaped to India from those eastern regions at that time; it would also have been more difficult from those areas.

However, gradually Jonang teachers have found their way to India and the rest of the world, and the main Jonang texts have become readily available during the last 15 years, mainly due to the efforts of Gene Smith. Western academics have also paid more attention to the Jonang tradition, particularly since Matthew Kapstein described the writings of Bamda Gelek 20 years ago (a turning point for this writer).

The Jonang tradition is considered to have been founded when Kunpang Thugje Tsondru (kun spang thugs rje brtson ‘grus, 1243-1313) established the original monastery at Jomonang in southern central Tibet. He is also particularly famous for having identified, among the numerous traditions of Kālacakra and the Six Yogas that passed into Tibet, seventeen distinct traditions of the Six Yogas. He combined these together, and the great strength of the Jonang Six Yoga tradition is that it preserves to the present day this great body of learning and experience in a single coherent system. This is the speciality of the Jonang tradition.

On this term extrinsic emptiness, it is often contrasted with intrinsic emptiness (rang stong), as if the two were opposing or contradictory philosophies. This is nonsense; they describe two different aspects of the nature of reality. They are both terms devised in Tibet and not translations of Sanskrit terms, although they describe concepts that are found in the Indian traditions. For example, in a Kālacakra context, a famous phrase in the Kālacakra commentary, the Vimalaprabhā, quoting the Mañjuśrī Nāmasaṃgīti, expresses both of these concepts together: “That which possesses all forms itself has no form”. This is a reference to the basic nature of mind, or buddha-nature, the basis of all things but which is itself devoid of any tangible characteristic. That it “has no form” expresses intrinsic emptiness, the fact that all things lack intrinsic existence and are brought about by causes and conditions; however, it “possesses all forms” indicates that it is the basis of all experience, and is itself existent but is not dependent on any other (extrinsic, sometimes other-, emptiness) cause or condition.The next most famous feature of Jonang teachings is the philosophical point of view known as extrinsic emptiness (gzhan stong). This was formulated by the great Jonang teacher Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (dol po pa shes rab rgyal mtshan, 1292-1361).

Dolpopa’s legacy is extensive. He constructed a famous stupa at Jonang, based on the descriptions given in the great Kālacakra Tantra commentary, the Vimalaprabhā; this still survives. He supervised a new translation of the tantra and the Vimalaprabhā and made extensive annotations to the commentary. He left a significant body of other written works, among which one stands out: “Mountain Dharma, Ocean of Certainty” (ri chos nges don rgya mtsho). Cyrus Stearns has written about the life and teachings of Dolpopa in “The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen”.

A few generations later came perhaps the greatest of all the Jonang teachers, Tāranātha (1575 – 1634). You may often see him referred to as the “historian Tāranātha”; this is because he first became known in the west for the translation of his “History of Buddhism in India”, translated by Lama Chimpa And Alaka Chattopadhyaya and first published in 1970. But he was much more than a historian. I cannot put it better than Matthew Kapstein, who wrote that Tāranātha “should be regarded as one of the greatest contributors to the study of tantrism and yoga, in any time, place or methodological tradition…” This is no exaggeration; Tāranātha’s writings are still considered definitive and are used by traditions other than the Jonang.

In the edition published at his own monastery, Takten Phuntsok Ling, his works comprise 17 volumes, but this edition did not include all of his writing. In particular, he wrote a comprehensive set of practice and instruction texts on Kālacakra and the Six Yogas. On the generation process he composed sādhanas for the nine-deity maṇḍala, mind maṇḍala and the full triple body, speech and mind maṇḍala. He also wrote offering rituals and extensive instruction texts on the triple maṇḍala practice and the main ritual. On the Six Yoga perfection process practices he wrote a major instruction text, a supplementary text to complement that and also a text on the background theory of the Six Yogas. He also composed many minor texts such as fire ritual, explanation of signs of success in practice, and so on. These are all still in use today, and have also been adopted by the Karma Kagyu tradition for that school’s practice of Kālacakra.

In 1995, Matthew Kapstein, in his paper entitled “From Kun-mkhyen Dol-po-pa to ‘Ba’-mda’ Dge-legs: Three Jo-nang-pa Masters on the Interpretation of the Prajñāpāramitā”, introduced the western world to another great Jonang teacher, Banda Gelek (1844 – 1904). Matthew had travelled to Dzamthang (see this web page for some photographs from Dzamthang) in Eastern Tibet (now part of Sichuan) and obtained a set of the collected works of Banda Gelek in 22 volumes. He did not write any practice texts regarding Kālacakra – those by Tāranātha are still considered definitive – but he did write extensive instruction texts on both the generation and perfection process meditations and on the theory of the Six Yogas. Reading his texts on Kālacakra one gets the impression that, unlike previous authors, he wrote down the oral instructions, perhaps out of some concern that the details might become lost.

One interesting feature of his writings is significant material on the Six Dharmas of Nāropa, a set of practices that he learned from no less than Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye. To this writer’s mind, his instruction text on the Six Dharmas is the most comprehensive written and his instruction text on the preliminary practices of the Six Dharmas is the only one to have been composed (at least, the only one that I have come across).

The teachings of the Jonang tradition that continues to flourish in the Golok and Amdo regions of eastern Tibet are mainly based on the works of these three great teachers, but also many others, particularly those that have lived since the time of Bamda Gelek. These include Tsoknyi Gyatso, Lodro Drakpa, and, the teacher of Choekyi Nangwa Rinpoche, Yonten Zangpo (1928 – 2002).”

Excerpted from Edward Henning’s website,, published in 2016.