Dolpopa's Great Stupa at Jomonang, Tibet

The Jonang (Tibetan: ཇོ་ནང་, Wylie: Jo-nang) is a school of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Its origins in Tibet can be traced to the early 12th century master Yumo Mikyo Dorje. It became widely known through the work of the popular 14th century figure Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. The Jonang school’s main practice is the Kālacakra tantra, and they are widely known for their defense of the philosophy known as shentong ("empty of other").

After a period of influence, the Jonang tradition suffered a series of reversals, partly due to its suppression by the politically dominant Gelug school under the Fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century. Eventually, Jonang re-established themselves in Golok, Nakhi and the Mongol areas of Kham and Amdo, with the school's seat at Dzamtang Tsangwa dzong. They have continued practicing uninterrupted to this day.[1] An estimated 5,000 monks and nuns of the Jonang tradition practice today in these areas. However, their teachings were limited to these regions until the Rimé movement of the 19th century encouraged the study of non-Gelug traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.[2][3]

The Jonang shentong view was influential on various figures in other Tibetan Buddhist schools, including the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284–1339), the eighth Tai Situpa (1700–1774), Katok Tsewang Norbu (1698–1755), Situ Panchen (1700–1774), Jamgön Kongtrül (1813–1899), Kalu Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso.


Thangkha of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen


The monk Künpang Tukjé Tsöndrü (Wylie: kun spangs thugs rje brtson 'grus, 1243–1313) established a kumbum or stupa-vihara in the Jomonang Valley about 160 kilometres (99 mi) northwest of the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Ü-Tsang (modern Shigatse). The Jonang tradition took its name from this monastery ("Jomonang"), which was significantly expanded by later figures, including Dolpopa.[4]

The Jonang tradition combines two specific teachings, what has come to be known as the philosophy of shentong ("empty of other") madhyamaka, and the Dro lineage of the Kalachakra Tantra. The origin of this combination in Tibet is traced to the master Yumo Mikyö Dorjé, an 11th/12th century pupil of the Kashmiri master Somanatha.[5]

The shentong view holds that the non-dual nature of the mind (the buddha-nature) is real (and not empty of inherent existence), while all other phenomena are empty in this way. The buddha-nature can be described empty, but not of its own-nature, rather it is empty of all defiled and illusory phenomena. Thus, in Jonang, the emptiness of ultimate reality should not be characterized in the same way as the emptiness of relative phenomena. This is because ultimate reality is a stream of luminosity (prabhāsvara-saṃtāna), endowed with limitless Buddha qualities.[6] It is empty of all that is false, not empty of the limitless Buddha qualities that are its innate nature.

The key figure in Jonang is Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361), a great yogi and scholar who widely promoted the philosophy of shentong. He was initially educated at Sakya monastery, and he also studied Kagyu and Nyingma lineages.[7] He was very impressed by the yogis of Jonang Monastery and eventually studied there under Khetsun Yonten Gyatso (1260-1327), receiving a complete transmission of the Jonang Kālacakra tradition.[7] After some years in meditative retreat, Dolpopa assumed the leadership of Jonang monastery.[7] Over the years, Dolpopa became extremely popular and was invited to teach throughout Tibet.[7] He wrote various influential works on the shentong philosophy.

Post-Dolpopa era and suppression

After Dolpopa's time, the Jonang school generated a number of renowned Buddhist scholars, its most famous being Lama Tāranātha (1575–1634), who placed great emphasis on the Kālacakra Tantra, Sanskrit study and the history of Indian Buddhism. Tāranātha studied under various figures, such as Je Draktopa, Yeshe Wangpo, Kunga Tashi and Jampa Lhundrup, but his main teacher was the Kālacakra mahasiddha Buddhaguptanatha.

In the 17th century, the Gelug school became the dominant political force in Tibet, which was now ruled by the Dalai Lamas. The Gelug school worked to suppress the Jonang school and its distinct philosophy of shentong. Modern historians have identified two other reasons which more likely led the Gelugpa to suppress the Jonangpa. First, the Jonangpa had political ties that were very vexing to the Gelugpa. The Jonang school, along with the Kagyu, were historical allies with the powerful house of Tsangpa, which was vying with the 5th Dalai Lama and the Gelug school for control of Central Tibet. This was bad enough, but soon after the death of Taranatha, an even more ominous event occurred. Taranatha's tulku was discovered to be a young boy named Zanabazar, the son of Tüsheet Khan, Prince of Central Khalkha. Tüsheet Khan and his son were of Borjigin lineage (the imperial clan of Genghis Khan and his successors), meaning they had the birth authority to become khagan. When the young boy was declared the spiritual leader of all of Mongolia, suddenly the Gelugpa were faced with the possibility of war with the former military superpower of Asia. While the Mongol Empire was long past its zenith, this was nonetheless a frightening prospect and the Dalai Lama sought the first possible moment of Mongol distraction to take control of the Jonang monasteries.[8]

As a result of the suppression of Jonang, the writings of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen and even those of Sakya proponents of shentong (like Sakya Chokden) were sealed and banned from publication and study and that Jonang monastics were forcibly converted to the Gelug lineage.[9]

The 14th Dalai Lama has also said that the main reason for the suppression of Jonang was political, not religious sectarianism (since the 5th Dalai Lama was himself a student of numerous lineages, including Bon).[10]


Dzamthang Tsangwa Monastery in Sichuan. The major monastic seat of the Jonang tradition today in Amdo.

Until recently little was known about the survival of the Jonang sect and Tibetologists were astonished when fieldwork turned up several active Jonang monasteries, including the main monastery, Tsangwa, located in Zamtang County, Sichuan. Almost 40 monasteries, comprising about 5000 monks, have subsequently been found, including some in the Amdo Tibetan and rGyalgrong areas of Qinghai, Sichuan and Tibet.[2]

One of the primary supporters of the Jonang lineage in exile has been the 14th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama donated buildings in Himachal Pradesh state in Shimla, India for use as a Jonang monastery (now known as the Main Takten Phuntsok Choeling Monastery) and has visited during one of his recent teaching tours. The Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu lineage has also visited.

The Jonang tradition has recently officially registered with the Tibetan Government in exile to be recognized as the fifth living Buddhist tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The 14th Dalai Lama assigned Jebtsundamba Khutuktu of Mongolia (who is considered to be an incarnation of Taranatha) as the leader of the Jonang tradition.

Much of the literature of the Jonang has also survived, including the Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha-Matrix, a defense of shentong by Dolpopa, which has been published in English translation under the title Mountain Doctrine.[11]

Key texts

Mahayana sutras of definitive meaning

Tathagatagarbha sutras

According to Dolpopa, his main sources for the ultimate truth and definitive meaning (nītārtha) are the tathagatagarbha sutras, the most important of which are the following:[12][13]

Sutras of Definite Meaning

Another Jonang list of sutras of definitive meaning, i.e. which teach the ultimate truth, not the relative or provisional meaning (neyārtha) for the Jonang traditions is the following:[14]

Tantric sources

The most important Buddhist tantra in the Jonang tradition is the Kālacakra tantra.

Regarding tantric commentaries, Jonang relies on the The Bodhisattva Trilogy (sems 'grel skor gsum), which comprises the following three texts: The Vimalaprabhā (an 11th century Indian commentary on the Kalacakra tantra), the Hevajrapiṇḍārthaṭīkā (Toh 1180, a commentary on the Hevajra tantra in 6000 lines), and the Laksabhidhanaduddhrtalaghutantrapindarthavivarana (Toh 1402), a commentary on the Chakrasamvara tantra by Vajrapani.[15]

Key śāstras

The Jonang tradition also relies on several important Indian and Tibetan śāstras (treatises), including:[16]


  1. ^ Sheehy, Michael R. (2 February 2007). "Dzamthang Tsangwa Monastery". Jonang Foundation. Retrieved 22 February 2019.
  2. ^ a b Gruschke 2001, p.72
  3. ^ Gruschke, Andreas (2002). "Der Jonang-Orden: Gründe für seinen Niedergang, Voraussetzungen für das Überdauern und aktuelle Lage". In Blezer, Henk; Zadoks, A. (eds.). Tibet, Past and Present: Tibetan Studies 1. Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Leiden 2000. Brill. pp. 183–214. ISBN 978-90-04-12775-3.
  4. ^ Buswell, Robert E; Lopez, Donald S, eds. (2013). Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 401. ISBN 9780691157863.
  5. ^ Stearns, Cyrus (2002). The Buddha from Dolpo : a study of the life and thought of the Tibetan master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 978-8120818330., p. 19
  6. ^ Lama Shenpen, Emptiness Teachings. Buddhism Connect Archived 2011-09-03 at the Wayback Machine (accessed March, 2010)
  7. ^ a b c d "Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltsen". The Treasury of Lives. Retrieved 2023-05-13.
  8. ^ Stearns 2010, pp. 73–4.
  9. ^ stearns 2010, p. 76.
  10. ^ Mullins 2001, pp. 207–8.
  11. ^ Döl-b̄o-b̄a S̄hay-rap-gyel-tsen (2006). Mountain doctrine : Tibet's fundamental treatise on other-emptiness and the Buddha-matrix. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 978-1559392389.
  12. ^ Brunnholzl (2015), p. 4.
  13. ^ Stearns (2010), p. 316 (28).
  14. ^ Stearns (2010), p. 316 (29).
  15. ^ Stearns (2010): The Buddha from Dolpo, p. 316 (27)
  16. ^ Stearns (2010), pp. 316-317.