Buddhism Jonang
Michael Sheehy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0097


Jonang (also known as jo nang, jo nang pa, or Jonangpa) is a distinct order of Buddhism in Tibet. Early forefathers of the Jonang include Tsen Kawoché (b. 1021) and the Kālacakra master Yumo Mikyo Dorje (b. 1027). The term Jonangpa first occurred in reference to those who settled in the surrounding caves in the Jomonang (jo mo nang) valley in south-central Tibet, starting with the arrival of Kunpang Tukjé Tsöndru (b. 1243–d. 1313) in the year 1294. By the early 14th century, with the presence of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (b. 1292–d. 1361) at the Jonang mountain hermitage, the Jonangpa community of hermits and yogis had grown to form a distinct identity with their own scholastic tradition and esoteric lineage transmissions. Dolpopa became renowned in Tibet for his innovative exegesis on Indian Buddhist philosophical literature, most notably on the Prajñāpāramitā and Kālacakra Tantra. Interpreting Buddhist sutras and tantras, Dolpopa’s works enunciate a view that qualifies relative reality to be empty of inherent existence, termed rangtong (self-empty, rang stong), juxtaposed to zhentong (other-empty, shentong, gzhan stong), that which is empty of everything other than the ultimate enlightened essence or tathāgata-garbha. These teachings on zhentong sparked historic controversy in Tibet and became a hallmark of the Jonang contemplative and philosophical tradition. By the 16th century, the Jonang order played an integral role in the religious, intellectual, and cultural life of Tibet, having established nearly thirty monasteries and formed institutional relations with the Sakya, Kagyü, and Kadampa Buddhist orders. Much of this was due to Kunga Drolchok (b. 1507–d. 1566), who assumed leadership at Jonang for nearly twenty years, and undertook the nonsectarian project of recording essential practice instructions from Tibet’s disparate Buddhist lineages. With Kunga Drolchok’s successor, the renaissance figure Tāranātha (b. 1575–d. 1635), the Jonangpa were at their historical apex, and the newly founded Takten Phuntsok Ling Monastery became the center for Jonangpa activity. Patronized by the governor of Tsang, Tāranātha’s power-seat became a political target during the rise of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the Mongol army. After Tāranātha’s death, Phuntsok Ling Monastery, along with each Jonang monastery in central Tibet, was forcefully confiscated by the Geluk order. Sequestered from their homeland, the Jonangpa made their way across the Tibetan plateau and resettled in the remote valley of Dzamthang. During the mid- to late-19th century, the Jonangpa underwent a revival with the emergence of several extraordinary Jonang masters and the Rimé eclecticism put forth by Jamgön Kongtrul and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. The Jonangpa continue to transmit their tradition and establish monasteries throughout far-eastern Tibet.

General Overviews

Though the field of Jonang studies is burgeoning, and there are limited sources, the following citations are the most notable contributions to date. The website of the Jonang Foundation is an extremely useful online resource because of its introductory material on Jonangpa history and thought, its database of lineage master biographies and interactive map of sites, and the Jonangpa.com blog. Ruegg 2010 is a reprint of the article that introduced the Jonangpa to English-language audiences, and it remains relevant as a legacy article. Stearns 2010 and Kapstein 1992 are the two most important sources for navigating Dolpopa’s thought and writings. Although Sheehy 2007 is a partial translation of a modern zhentong work with an informative historical introduction, Tāranātha 2005 is a translation of a key practice text for the Jonangpa. Shay-rap-gyel-tsen 2006 is a translation of the core text for understanding zhentong as presented by Dolpopa.

  • Jonang Foundation.

    The website of the international nonprofit support organization that preserves and promotes understanding of the Jonangpa as a distinct order of Tibetan Buddhism. Includes an interactive map of Jonang sites in Tibet, biographies of Jonang masters, a library of essays and translations, and the scholarly Jonangpa.com blog.

  • Kapstein, Matthew T. The ‘Dzam-thang Edition of the Collected Works of Kun-mkhyen Dol-po-pa Shes-rab rgyal-mtshan: Introduction and Catalogue. Delhi: Shedrup, 1992.

    Kapstein gives us a descriptive catalogue to the Collected Works (gsung ‘bum) of Dolpopa, printed at Dzamthang and reprinted by Shedrup Books in India. One of the first major contributions, it includes an introduction to Dolpopa’s life and thought, and a translation of Dolpopa’s letter to his disciples.

  • Ruegg, David Seyfort. “The Jo nang pas: A School of Buddhist Ontologists According to the Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems (Grub mtha’ shel gyi me long) [1963].” In The Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle: Essays on Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka. By David Seyfort Ruegg, 289–322. Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010.

    This was the first significant English-language publication on the Jonangpa. It introduced the Jonangpa and their zhentong view, though in a polemical light based on the account of a Gelukpa critic. Discusses major historical figures within Jonang history and gives extensive annotations referencing relevant source materials.

  • Shay-rap-gyel-tsen, Döl-bo-ba. Mountain Doctrine: Tibet’s Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha Matrix. Translated by Jeffrey Hopkins. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2006.

    The first English-language translation of Dolpopa’s syncretic masterpiece, the Ri chos nges don rgya mtsho. It is one of the seminal texts for understanding the mainstream zhentong view within the Jonang tradition.

  • Sheehy, Michael. “The Gzhan stong Chen mo: A Study of Emptiness According to the Modern Tibetan Buddhist Jo nang Scholar ’Dzam thang Mkhan po Ngag dbang Blo gros grags pa (1920–1975).” PhD diss., California Institute of Integral Studies, 2007.

    This is a translation and study of an important work on zhentong by one of the major Jonangpa authors of the modern period, the scholar Khenpo Lodro Drakpa from Dzamthang. Introduction includes a history of zhentong and the Jonangpa (see also Kapstein 1993, cited under the Contemporary Tradition).

  • Stearns, Cyrus. The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. Rev. ed. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2010.

    Includes a life account of Dolpopa, a survey of zhentong in Tibet, an examination of Dolpopa’s view, and translations of two of Dolpopa’s most important works, General Commentary on the Doctrine and the Fourth Council, with Dolpopa’s own commentary.

  • Tāranātha. Essence of Ambrosia: A Guide to Buddhist Contemplation. Translated by Willa Baker. Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 2005.

    This is a translation of an instruction manual by Tāranātha on the ngöndro, or preliminary practices in Tibetan Buddhism. However useful the translation is, historical information in the introduction should be checked against other sources.

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