Buddhism Tāranātha
Michael Sheehy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0099


Tāranātha (b. 1575–d. 1635), also known as Jetsun Tāranātha or Kunga Nyingpo, was one of the most consequential figures in the Jonang tradition of Buddhism, and one of the foremost scholars, historians, and statesmen of 17th-century Tibet. He was born into the patrilineal descendent of the famed 11th-century Buddhist translator Rwa Lotsawa Dorje Drak (b. 1016–d. 1128), and at the age of four, he was recognized as the re-embodiment of Kunga Drolchok (b. 1507–d. 1565), a former lineage-holder of the Jonangpa, Shangpa, and Sakyapa. Though his Tibetan name was Kunga Nyingpo, at a young age, he had a vision wherein an Indian adept bestowed on him the name “Tāranātha,” which he adopted as his personal name for the rest of his life. Tāranātha’s writings encompass a wide range of disciplines, including the Kālacakra Tantra and other major tantra systems of the Sarma or later transmissions, the zhentong view articulated by the Jonangpa master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (b. 1292–d. 1361), biography, ritual, and meditation instructions. Yet he is probably best known for his historical writings. Of these, his most famous work is his account of Buddhist India, inspired by his encounters with Indian yogins and scholars who traveled to Tibet, including his own guru Buddhagupta whom he met at the age of fourteen. Tāranātha spent much of his life reviving his Jonangpa tradition, building and refurnishing landmark monuments, commissioning world-class paintings and printings, and composing works that extended the literary heritage of the Jonangpa. By the end of his life however, Tāranātha became aware that much he had worked for throughout his life, including his monastic estate at Takten Phuntsok Ling and in fact much of the Jonang tradition, would become embroiled in local territorial struggles and fall under the siege of central Tibetan politics.

General Overviews

A few studies and online resources discuss the life and contributions of Tāranātha; however, the majority of materials currently related to Tāranātha are translations of his writings. Jonang Foundation and Treasury of Lives both provide short biographical introductions, while the Jonang Foundation links to a useful map and 3D replication of Tāranātha’s Takten Phuntsok Ling Monastery. Chimpa and Chattopadhyaya 1990, Tāranātha 2005, Tāranātha 2007, and Templeman 1983 are each translations of important writings by Tāranātha. Chimpa and Chattopadhyaya is outdated but continues to serve as an important source for understanding both Indian Buddhist history as well as Tāranātha’s interpretation of it. Tāranātha 2005 is a manual on the gradual approach of meditation while Tāranātha 2005 is on his philosophical presentation of zhentong, and Templeman 1983 is a translation of a historical work. Though not primarily concerned with Tāranātha, Stearns 2010 provides helpful information on Tāranātha as a central figure in Jonang history. Templeman 2008 is the only full-length study of Tāranātha, based on his autobiographical writings.

  • Chimpa, L., and A. Chattopadhyaya. Tāranātha’s History of Buddhism in India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990.

    This is a translation of Tāranātha’s historical account of Indian Buddhism. It details Tāranātha’s particular view on the rise and development of the different systems of Buddhist thought in India.

  • Jonang Foundation

    Site of the international nonprofit support organization that preserves and promotes understanding of the Jonangpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. Includes an interactive map and 3D replica of Tāranātha’s Takten Phuntsok Ling Monastery along with a short biography. The library includes several translations of Tāranātha’s writings on philosophy and liturgy, including a translation of his Essence of Zhentong. Several Jonangpa.com [class:webLink] blog articles are also dedicated to Tāranātha.

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

    Though this work is on the biography of the Jonangpa master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, it includes several helpful sections on Tāranātha. In particular, Stearns looks at Tāranātha as a central figure in Jonang history, Dolpopa’s influence on him as a writer, and the historical role that Tāranātha played. Numerous references are made to Tāranātha’s writings throughout.

  • 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. It is his standard text on the gradual path or lam rim progressive approach toward enlightenment. However useful the translation is, historical information in the introduction should be checked against other sources.

  • Tāranātha. The Essence of Other-Emptiness. Translated by Jeffrey Hopkins. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2007.

    This is a translation of Tāranātha’s Essence of Zhentong, a concise text comparing Indian Buddhist philosophical systems. The appendix translation is titled the Twenty-One Profound Points and is Tāranātha’s writing that compares the zhentong view of Shakya Chokden with that of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen.

  • Templeman, David. “Becoming Indian: A Study of the Life of the 16th–17th Century Tibetan Lama Tāranātha.” PhD diss., Monash University, 2008.

    Derived largely from the autobiographical writings of Tāranātha and his biographies of Indian Buddhist masters, as well as his encounters with them in Tibet. It is currently the only full-length study of Tāranātha’s life.

  • Templeman, David, ed. Tāranātha’s Bka’ babs bdun ldan: The Seven Instruction Lineages. Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1983.

    This is a translation of Tāranātha’s history of the successive Seven Instruction Lineages (Bka’ babs bdun ldan), detailing the transmission of Buddhist tantrism in India.

  • Treasury of Lives.

    An online encyclopedia of short biographies of Himalayan Buddhist masters. Includes a one-page biography with relevant Tibetan language biographical source listings and links to related biographies.

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