Introduction to the Jonang Tradition

Introduction to the Jonang Tradition

While few outside academic circles have ever heard of the Jonang, it is not a new tradition. The Jonang trace their lineage back to India and the great Nalanda University. However, it did not become known by the name Jonang until its founder Kunpang Thukje Tsondru, settled in the Jomonang valley of Tibet during the 13th century.

One of the reasons that so few people are currently aware of the Jonang is due to the fact that they did not flee Tibet in 1959. So when the Tibetan Administration in Exile began registering traditions, the Jonang were absent. Therefore, very few foreigners were ever introduced to their authentic teachings.

It was not until 1990 that the first Jonang monks began to emerge from Tibet. Since then they have been requesting the Tibetan Administration to recognise their tradition as worthy of equal respect as the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Gelug and Bön traditions. While great advances have been made in respect to this, unfortunately this work is still not complete.

There are two reasons why the Jonang Tradition is so vitally important in the world today:

  1. Firstly, the Zhentong Madhyamaka philosophy is recognised as the highest view by many of the most realised Tibetan masters. The Jonang is the only one of the five major Tibetan Buddhist schools that emphasises this unique doctrine and upholds its lineage.
  2. Secondly, the Kalachakra Tantra is the most comprehensive and effective system within Tibetan Buddhism. The Jonang is the only tradition that holds the entire Kalachakra system, including the unique completion practice known as the “Six Vajra Yogas”.

It is because the Jonang are the core holders of these two important lineages that it is crucial that the Jonang Dharma flourish. Failure to do so will result in the loss of these irreplaceable spiritual systems.

The Sutra Lineage of Zhentong Madhyamaka

The definitive Zhentong view was first taught by Buddha Shakyamuni in the second and third turnings of the Wheel of Dharma, being transmitted only to devotees whose minds were considered ripe for these profound teachings. On the basis of these teachings, the Bodhisattva Maitreya, the regent of Buddha Shakyamuni, taught five great treatises:

  1. The Ornament of Clear Realization (Skt. Abhisamayalankara)
  2. The Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras (Skt. Mahayanasutralankara)
  3. Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes (Skt. Madhyantavibhaga)
  4. Distinguishing Dharma and Dharmata (Skt. Dharma-dharmata-vibhaga)
  5. The Sublime Continuum (Skt. Uttaratantra Shastra)

These texts were transmitted to Asanga, a monk who beheld a vision of Maitreya after meditating in a cave for 12 years. The lineage was later carried by great Indian masters such as Vasubandhu, Saraha and Gangamaitri and others. It came to Tibet in the 11th century through the translator Zi Lotsawa Gawé Dorje and Tsen Khawoche Drimé Sherab, and was transmitted in an unbroken line to the omniscient Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen in the 14th century.

The Tantric Lineage of Kalachakra Vajra Yoga

It is said that the Buddha first taught these secret tantra teachings in Drepung in South India (Amaravati). The main recipient of these teachings was King Suchandra of Shambhala. King Suchandra put the Tantra into writing and composed commentaries. The lineage was upheld by 7 Dharma Kings and 11 Kalki Kings before arriving in the land of India.

Before the 10th century, the Kalachakra teachings were not practised in India. However, the great Indian Mahasiddha Manjuvajra is said to have attained miraculous powers and traveled to Shambhala. Upon returning he transmitted the lineage to his disciple Shribhadra.

Shribhadra’s student, the great Pandita Dawa Gonpo, spent most of his life in Tibet working with Dro Lotsawa to translate the entire Kalachakra teachings. The lineage was then preserved through many Tibetan masters such as Lama Lhaje Gompa, Lama Droton Namsek and the great Yumo Mikyo Dorje, who shared the teachings widely.

In the 13th century, Kunpang Thukje Tsondru received over 17 different Kalachakra lineages from many different masters and spent many years in retreat practising the Six Vajra Yogas in a place known as Jomonang. This later became the site of the main Jonang monastery, also known as the Second Shambhala. Thukje Tsondru then combined these lineages into a single extraordinary practice lineage which has been the core of the Jonang curriculum to this day.

The Jonang Monastic Community

Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, was an incredibly influential master. Among his many achievements, he was responsible for developing a unified system of practice which combined the Zhentong Sutric View with the Kalachakra Tantric Practices. Through this system, practitioners would develop their view by meditating on the meaning of Maitreya’s “Five Treatises”. Then they would apply their direct realisations to the practice of Kalachakra. Later, Kunga Drolchok and Taranatha expanded on this system by further clarifying many of Dolpopa’s extraordinary teachings.



While the earlier Jonang masters were very active academically, due to political obstacles which arose in the 17th century, most Jonang practitioners began to focus increasingly on their spiritual practice. As a result, the Jonang Tradition developed an enormous depth of realisation which allows it to offer the most complete understanding of the Kalachakra system.

With presently more than seventy monasteries and retreat centers in Tibet, especially in Kham and Amdo, the Jonang Tradition continues to flourish. In Dzamthang Monastery alone, more than 5000 monks are currently studying Zhentong Madhyamaka as well as the five major subjects of Buddhist philosophy, following texts by Dolpopa and other revered Jonang masters. A three-year Kalachakra retreat has become a traditional part of training in the monasteries of the Jonang tradition and there are many yogis today engaged in lifetime retreat, practising the Six Vajra Yogas.

Due to the kindness of masters such as Khentrul Rinpoché, the modern world is slowly gaining access to the ancient wisdom of this profound tradition.


Over the course of his life, Khentrul Rinpoche has had the honour to study in more than 11 monasteries from each of the main traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Of those, he holds a particularly strong connection to four prominent Jonang monasteries in the Golok/Amdo region of Eastern Tibet. These monasteries form the primary source of the Kalachakra tradition that Rinpoche upholds in the West:



Taranatha on having "Confidence in a Teacher"

Tāranātha on having ‘Confidence in a Teacher’

In his Introduction of the major text on the Kalachakra Six Yoga’s, the One Hundred Blazing Lights, a Supplementary Commentary on Seeing the Meaningful, Tāranātha states one must have ‘three confidences’ on the path. These are ‘confidence in the tantras’; ‘confidence in the teacher’ and ‘confidence in oneself’. So why is confidence in the teacher important?

Tāranātha uses the word ‘yid ches’ in Tibetan, which means ‘belief’ or ‘confidence’. It is different from ‘faith’ which is ‘dad pa’ in Tibetan. It is a confidence based on reasoning and experience.


The second point is confidence in the teacher. [The teacher] must be from a lineage, whose direct source begins with the Shakyamuni Buddha, that has been transmitted directly from one teacher to another up until one’s own root lama. Also, it must be [a teacher] in which the blessings have not deteriorated and the experiential realizations are continual without interruption. There are [teachers] who are ‘words-only’, have degenerated vows and samaya commitments, and carry, or are mixed, with bad spirits and demons. If someone is an actual lineage lama, yet has entered into the obstacles of a demon or is carrying a negative spirit, even though one practices all the Dharma from this lineage, a large number of obstacles will arise. If the source is a famous lineage lama who has broken samayas, even if one practices the Dharma of that lineage, no excellent qualities will arrive. Afflictive emotions will rise up and overflow. Everything connected to [the teacher and the practice] will be inauspicious, bad luck and misfortune. Not only that but if the [teacher] has also lost even the ‘words-only’ transmission, after requesting and meditating on [their teachings], experiential realizations will never arise at any time. Whether one meditates or not, it will be the same [result].

So, the message is clear! Make sure you follow an authentic lama whose samaya with their lineage and root lamas is not broken and who does not have degenerated vows. Even though they may act and look like a lineage lama, with a big or small following, you will be wasting your time……….

My English translation of this magnificent text (up to the five common preliminaries) is almost finished. I will update here when it is published.


Necessary Qualities of a Vajrayana Teacher by Tarnatha


Often students and followers of Vajrayana get confused about what qualities are seen as essential requirements in a Vajrayana guru. They falsely believe that they should not examine a teacher and that they should take the first teacher they meet and feel intense devotion for. Fortunately, a great Vajrayana master and guru, Jetsun Tāranātha, explains clearly about what qualifications are necessary for a guru.

Below are some first-published excerpts from Tāranātha’s famous text, ‘A Hundred Blazing Lights: A Supplementary Commentary on Meaningful to See.’ together with a list of questions a prospective follower might want to ask before taking empowerments from a teacher. All the great Buddhist masters and texts state that one should only follow a QUALIFIED Buddhist teacher when doing any Tantric or Vajrayana practise.


When Tāranātha explains what having ‘confidence in a teacher’ means in the context of having the ‘three confidences’ he states:

The second point is confidence in the teacher. [The teacher] must be from a lineage, whose direct source begins with the Shakyamuni Buddha, which has been transmitted directly from one teacher to another, up until one’s own root lama. Also it must be [a teacher] in which the blessings have not deteriorated and in which the experiential realisations are continual without interruption.

One needs [teachers] who are not ‘words-only’ [no lineage blessings or experience], and do not have degenerated vows and samaya, or are not carrying bad spirits and Maras. If someone is an authentic or lineage lama, yet is applying the obstacles of a Mara, or is carrying a negative spirit, even though one practises all the Dharma from this lineage, a large amount of obstacles will arise.  If the source is a famous lineage lama who has broken samayas, even if one practices the Dharma of that lineage, no excellent qualities will arise.  Afflictive emotions will rise up and overflow. Everything connected to [the teacher and the practice] will be inauspicious.  Not only that but if the [teacher] has also lost even the ‘words-only’ transmission, after requesting and meditating on [their teachings], experiential realizations will never arise at any time.  Whether one meditates or not, it will be the same.

If the lama only tells little lies [and is generally honest], they might say well it is included in this text but: ‘I don’t have any experience of it though.’  If some lamas are very deceitful, in order to greatly mislead the students, some will even speak like they have experiential realisations. Yet, even if [their students] do a little practice of their temporary oral instructions, they will be still be destitute.  Instructions [from the teacher] to ‘do this and that’, without reasons, will arise.  These are not conducive to  having confidence in the teacher.


Further along, in the same text, Tāranātha, states in his explanation on Guru Yoga the essential characteristics of master and student:

As it is said:

A disciple with intelligence should not accept as his Guru someone who lacks compassion[1] or who is angry [2], malicious[3],  arrogant [4], has desirous attachment [5], is undisciplined [6] or boastful of his knowledge [7].

(A Guru should be) stable (in his actions), cultivated (in his speech), wise, patient and honest. He should neither conceal his shortcomings, nor pretend to possess qualities he lacks. He should be an expert in the meanings (of tantra) and in its ritual procedures (of medicine and turning back obstacles). Also he should have loving compassion and a complete knowledge of the scriptures.

Thoroughly proficient in the ten principles, skilled in the drawing of mandalas, skilled in explaining the secret mantra, with supreme faith and his senses fully under control.

Even though this was is said in The Fifty Verses to the Guru[1], since it is cited in the scriptures on Stainless Light, it is clearly the same as the words of the tantra. From the Glorious Kalacakra Tantra:

First, the one to be followed, the pure lama. Endowed with samaya[1] and especially abiding in the vajra vehicle[2]. Meditates on ultimate reality[3]; completely pure without attachment [4] and free from stains[5]; a disposition that is patient and tolerant[6]. Entered the path and enabling students by giving the path and robbing them of the fears and dangers of the hell realms [7]. Observes chaste, pure conduct [8]. Regarding demons, one who holds the support of the vajra staff [9]and has accomplished Vajrasattva[10].

These are the excellent qualities of the master.

Endowed with pride[1], suppressing others with anger[2], shredded samayas[3], craving [4] and without having listened purely[5]. One who strives to seduce and deceive students[6], who does [not have] experience of abiding in the supreme bliss[7] nor the empowerments [8]. Craving all wealth and resources[9], immodest and careless and using harsh words[10], and with lust for sensual objects [11].Such experts in leading students to hell should be abandoned in order to attain the perfect bodhicitta.

This [above] is the presentation of the faults [of the teacher].

A deep and vast mind; that really likes the teacher, who gives away things , and understands the excellent qualities; strives for liberation; has respect for the tantras/lineage, a mind that is not wavering and unstable, that keeps very well hidden their attainment; that does not associate with malicious/ cruel friends,……

These [above] are the excellent qualities of the student that are taught.

In terms of the master, there are two types: 1) the supreme type, who possesses all the characteristics of a master; and 2) one who, even though they have not completely perfected the excellent qualities and abandoned all the faults, does not possess any inappropriate qualities. Both these types are suitable.

Similarly, the characteristics of the student are divided into three: the best, the middling and the lowest. In terms of the characteristics of the teacher, having bestowed empowerments, they have received samaya commitments and understand the ten principles and so on. This is not only the defining characteristic of the Secret Mantrayana, generally, the characteristics of the lama is that they are generally the same as a spiritual friend of the Mahayana. There are no huge difference s in the characteristics of the teacher in the Sutra and Mantra [traditions].

From among the [characteristics] of the seven faults such as the absence of compassion and so on, these are faults of the master. If the master’s conduct is predominantly composed of those faults, one should not [rely on] such a teacher.  Even though the  best[teacher] is one who has only a small amount or who has abandoned them, these days, [such a teacher] is difficult to find. If they have abandoned five or six of these faults and only have one or two such faults, then it is indeed the case that such faults will not arise.  Among these faults, since the biggest fault is absence of compassion, this is the most important fault to abandon.

[1]Skt. Gurupanchashika, T 3721 – Fifty Verses of Devotion to the Guru, by Asvaghosha. Here Taranatha is reciting verses 7-10.

Within the Kalacakra tradition, a fully ordained monk is seen as the best teacher and superior to those without monastic vows. Check and ask if your teacher has the full monk vows or not. They may look like monks and wear even monk like robes and clothes but that does not mean they hold the vows. Ask them. A householder can teach but they should not generally teach fully ordained monks unless they are a highly realised practitioner.

That said the Kalacakra Tantra asserts the superiority of Anuttaras (yogis and yoginis) on the ground that there is no monk or celibate who can equal one who has taken the tantric vows and precepts and is self-empowered by means of mantras.’  Any teacher who does not demonstrate these qualities should not be followed in tantric practise as they will lead themselves and their disciples to the lower realms.

Conclusion and Ways to Examine

So that was the great Jetsun Tāranātha’s advice. Here is my conclusion and suggestions for questions to ask oneself. Please think and analyse carefully. As one master said: do not rush into picking a teacher you meet, like a dog rushes to eat some meat they’ve just discovered. You can take your time, up to twelve years. Analyse and investigate. Challenge the teacher. See how they react.

  • Do they react to your challenging or disagreeing with them with overwhelming anger and hostility or love and compassion?
  • How do they treat you and other students? do they treat you as beneath them and with contempt?
  • Do they avoid you if you challenge them? Do they indirectly, or directly, encourage and exacerbate criticism, conflict and division among other Lamas and students?
  • Do they respect ALL women and females, whoever and whatever they do? Do they make derogatory and disparaging generalised comments about women? Do they sexually objectify, seduce and chase after women?
  • Do they encourage friendship and harmony between vajra brothers and sisters?
  • Are they very secretive and lack transparency and accountability for their movements and actions?
  • Do they have lineage masters still living? Do they continually demonstrate respect and devotion to their own root lama and lineage masters? Do they have photos and pictures of them in their shrine rooms? Do they encourage friendship, support and respect for other lamas and students in the same lineage?

THINK FOR YOURSELF. Emotions and feelings and blind devotion are not reliable…….It does not matter if the lama has a big name, even a famous lineage, if they do not have unbroken samaya, three sets of pure vows (Individual Liberation, Bodhisattva and Vajrayana – for more on those see here) and love and compassion combined with a deep understanding of emptiness and/or they have anger, lust and craving for sensual pleasures and power, and lack of love and compassion they should not be followed.

A True Ri-Med master of all traditions - Jonang Bamda Thubten Gelek Gyatso


A True Ri-Med Master of All Traditions- Jonang Bamda Thubten Gelek Gyatso

Reading and translating Ngawang Lodro Gyatso’s biography of Jonang master, Bamda Gelek Gyatso (thub bstan ‘ba’ mda’ dge legs rgya mtsho), to include in the forthcoming publication of my translation of his major text ‘The Chariot that Transports One to the Four Kayas’,  is an awe-inspiring exercise and lesson in realising how many teachings and how many great masters he served and got teachings from. He literally was a master of all the traditions, not just in name but in knowledge and practise.

Bamda Gelek Gyatso was considered to be a tulku master, teacher and practitioner in all the Tibetan Buddhist lineages such as Kalacakra, the Six Yogas of Naropa (which he studied with the great non-sectarian master, Jamgon Kongtrul the First), Gelugpa philosophy and debate, Dzogchen (he studied with various Dzogchen masters) and more.

There are very few living masters who have the same kind of breadth of knowledge and mastery of all the Tibetan Buddhist traditions as Bamda Gelek.

Here is an excerpt from Jose Cazebon’s condensed biography of Bamda Gelek Gyatso, from Treasury of Lives:

Biographies tell us that throughout his life Bamda Gelek accumulated 1.3 billion mantra repetitions, including 600 million repetitions of the Mañjuśrīarapatsa mantras, and 100 million repetitions of the Kālacakra hakṣa mantra. As a result of these practices, he is said to have had dream visions of deities such as Mañjuśrī and Sarasvatī (both associated with learning and scholarship). Many individuals claim to have witnessed the powers he achieved through tantric practice. For example, his biographer Lodro Drakpa (blo gros grags pa, 1920-1975) reports that he could “clearly remember details of his past life at Labrang Monastery, could read the minds of his present disciples, know what they were up to, and accurately predict what happiness or suffering they would encounter in the future.” Several of the demonstrations of Bamda Gelek’s magical powers have to do with Ju Mipam Gyatso (‘ju mi pham rgya mtsho, 1846-1912). On one occasion, during a funerary ritual that he was performing with Mipam, the water in a ritual vase is said to have miraculously bubbled up and overflowed. On another occasion he supposedly engaged in a competition of magical powers with Mipam. Mipam caused powerful hail to fall, and Bamda Gelek caused the sun to shine and made it melt. Mipam then praised him. “I have met many scholars,” he said, “but in this day and age, to meet a scholar of the highest rank is rare. Dzamtangpa Gelek is such a scholar.”

Toward the end of his life, Bamda Gelek had a vision of Mañjuśrī who told him that, “Even though you have not been of extraordinary benefit to others in your own lifetime, you will be of great benefit in the next one, when you will be reborn in the northern kingdom Shambhala as one of its rikden (rigs ldan) kings.” It is noteworthy that Bamda Gelek should have been perceived (whether by Mañjuśrī or anyone else) as not having lived to his full potential in his own lifetime – noteworthy but not really surprising, for despite his great erudition and reputation as a tantric master, he never held a position of authority until the very end of his life, and then never in any of the institutions of his own Jonang tradition (never at Dzamtang, for example). Was this because of his affinity for the “emptiness of self” (rang stong) view found in the writings of Candrakīrti and the Geluk, in contrast to the Jonang position of “emptiness of other” (gzhan stong)? Did it have to do with his irascible temperament? Whatever the case, it is not surprising to find the claim in his biographies that he did not have the impact that he could have in his own lifetime.

So the lesson is? One can never have enough teachers or teachings when it comes to the Buddha Dharma, but most importantly of all one must do the practises!

May it be of benefit!


Situated in the heart of the Golok region, where Khentrul Rinpoche was born and raised, Longkya Monastery is the home to a thriving community of dedicated practitioners of the Kalachakra Six Vajra Yogas.

Longkya Mingyur Dechen Ling was originally a nomadic monastery that was known as Jonang Akyong Gongma Tsang Monastery. No more than a collection of tents, it would periodically move around the region. It wasn’t until Ngawang Chöjor Gyatso advised Ngawang Rinchen Sangpo to build facilities for the practice of the Kalachakra Nine Deities that this monastery took root in a single location. Rinchen Sangpo held both the Nyingma and Jonang lineages, teaching extensively both the Dzogchen and Kalachakra systems.

Many important practitioners arose in this place, including masters such as Tra Galong, Makye Tulku, Lamku Khenpo and above all Tsangpa Monlam Sangpo. It was Monlam Sangpo’s disciples who went on to found all of the Jonang monasteries in the Golok region.

The monastery is currently home to around 200 monks who diligently practice the Six Vajra Yogas as taught in the Jonang Tradition. There is also a Vajrasattva practice centre and shedra, where Niguma’s Six Dharmas are studied along with other sublime teachings of the Buddha.

Longkya’s previous Vajra Master, Lama Ngawang Pema Namgyal was a great advocate of the Jonang tradition who had more than a thousand students around the world. He was originally born in Golok province and was recognised as the reincarnation of Getse Pema Tenzin who was student of the great yogi Tsamba Monlam Tsampo. Pema Tenzin was known to be a highly realised master who had undertaken the Kalachakra generation and completion stage practices.


H.H. Jamyang Zhinpa
H.H. Jamyang Zhinpa became a monk at a very early age. He dedicated his life to the study and practice of the Kalachakra Path and to meditation. He is well known for his gentle and relaxed demeanor, as well as for being very mindful and conscientious of others. While everyone knew that he was very talented, it came as a surprise that before Lama Pema Namgyal died, he chose Jamyang Zhinpa to become the Vajra Master of Longkya Monastery.

Since then, Jamyang Zhinpa has proven to be a powerful role model for his community. Drawing in 100 new practitioners each year. He has increasingly emphasised that his students focus on intensive practice of the Kalachakra Six Vajra Yogas. In so doing, he has truly become an authentic regent for the monastery.


H.H. Penam Rinpoche

Concerning Rinpoche's revered teacher : "Ngagwang Pedma Namgyal Palzangpo (His Holiness Penam Rinpoche) was born in 1925 between the Machu River and the Machen Pomra Mountain in Amdo, Tibet. He was identified and honored since childhood by many high lamas and tulkus as a highly enlightened being and the upholder of the Jonang doctrine and the Kalachakra Tantra.

At the age of 3, a high lama from the Nyingma lineage identified him as the incarnation of a supreme being. At the age of 5, Chempa Chozin, another high lama from the Nyingma lineage came to him to pay high respect as if greeting a great yogi who has many deep realizations. At the age of 7, Palyul Choktrul Rinpoche, the highest lama of the region, visited him with great reverence recognizing him as a highly enlightened being, and asked his parents for permission to take him to his monastery. His parents were reluctant to have their child leave, but two years later he was invited to Lama Tsenpa Monlam Sangpo's Monastery (a modern Milarepa Monastery).

H.H. Penam Rinpoche received numerous instructions and commentaries on the Sutras as well as numerous quintessential instructions, transmissions, and the empowerments and commentaries for the Four Tantras, especially the Completion Stage of the Kalachakra from Lama Monlam Sangpo.

Lama Monlam Sangpo said to him, "Son of good fortune! You have come into this world for the purpose of the doctrine and sentient beings. In particular you should hold the lineage of the Kalachakra Tantra. I have great hope that you will possess armor-like perseverance." Later Lama Monlam Sangpo enthroned Penam Rinpoche as his spiritual heir and successor.

As one of the unrivaled lineage holders, H.H. Penam Rinpoche studied under many great gurus from several schools and traditions, so that his training would be based on a non-sectarian approach.

H.H. Penam Rinpoche has been proclaimed to be the Lord of the Jonang Doctrine by numerous Lamas and Tulkus during the recent revival of spiritual life in Tibet. He is likened to a fully blossomed Lotus flower due to his work as an important spiritual founder and leader of Dharma. He has continued to be a great leader and inspiration to his people.

H.H. Penam Rinpoche is a great yogi actualizing the awareness of the illusory nature of phenomenal existence. It is simply not possible to express the full extent of his enlightened abilities". (