One of the Kashmiri scholar Somanatha’s disciples, the 11th century Kalachakra yogi Yumo Mikyo Dorje (b. 1027) is regarded as one of the earliest Tibetan articulators of a zhentong (“shentong,” gzhan stong) view — an understanding of the absolute radiant nature of reality. Emphasized within the Kalachakra Tantra and the Buddha’s 3rd turning teachings on Buddhanature, this view would later become emblematic of the Jonangpa. From Yumo Mikyo Dorje onwards, the Dro lineage of the Kalachakra passed on through the lineage-holders Dharmeshvara, Namkha Odzer, Machig Tulku Jobum, Drubtob Sechen, Choje Jamyang Sarma and Choku Odzer.
In the year 1294, Choku Odzer’s disciple, Kunpang Thukje Tsondru (1243-1313) settled in the meditation caves (sgrub phug) on the mountains in the place called “Jomonang” in U-Tsang, South Central Tibet. From that time onwards, the spiritual tradition associated with that place has been referred to as “Jonang,”, and those who adhere to the practices that were preserved and transmitted at Jomonang have been known as the “Jonangpa.”
The Jonang lineage continued on through the great masters Changsem Gyalwa Yeshe (1257-1320) and Yontan Gyatso (1260-1327). Then in 1321, a 29 year old charismatic scholar from the Dolpo region of present-day Nepal arrived in Jomonang. A year later, after having traveled throughout Central Tibet, he returned to the Great Mountain Retreat at Jomonang where he requested the complete empowerment and transmission of the Dro lineage of the Kalachakra Tantra and its completion stage 6-fold vajrayoga from Yontan Gyatso, the throne-holder at Jonang. After spending several years in meditation retreat, this young master from Dolpo — Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, was requested to succeed Yontan Gyatso and assume leadership as heir to the Jonang.
From 1330 to 1333, while constructing Tibet’s largest embodiment of enlightenment, the Great Stupa of Jonang, Dolpopa began formulating and codifying his meditative realizations. In 1334, Dolpopa instructed his disciples, the translator Lotsawa Lodro Pal (1299-1353) and Lotsawa Sazang Mati Panchen (1294-1376) to prepare a new Tibetan translation of the Kalachakra Tantra and its commentary, Stainless Light. These Jonang translations were undertaken to most profoundly explicate the hidden definitive meaning within the tantra and its commentary, serving as the textual basis for Dolpopa’s innovative and syncretic teachings.
Systematizing his teachings within the cosmological schema derived from the Stainless Light commentary on the tantra, Dolpopa formulated his realizations of extrinsic emptiness or zhentong — the contemplative understanding that one’s enlightened essence is empty of everything other than the absolute nature of clear light reality. Contextualizing his elucidations within the history of Buddhism and the Four Cosmic Eons, Dolpopa emphasized how the Kalachakra and Buddhanature teachings mark the Krtyuga or Perfect Age.
Crystallizing in his masterpieces, Mountain Dharma: An Ocean of Definitive Meaning and The Fourth Council, Dolpopa clarified how his realizations are in alignment with the Buddha’s enlightened intent. These teachings are understood to be definitive in meaning (nges don) in contrast to teachings of the degenerative age that remain interpretive in meaning (drang don).
While Dolpopa was alive, his formulations remained secretive instructions (lkog chos) that were circulated within intimate circles of his closest disciples. During the 80 years that followed Dolpopa’s death, his instructions became widely dispersed and popularized as “zhentong,” allowing these teachings of the Jonangpa to flourish throughout the Land of Snows.
Dolpopa’s successors Lotsawa Lodro Pal, Chogle Namgyal, Sazang Mati Panchen, and Nyawon Kunga Pal upheld the Jonang tradition after Dolpopa’s passing. Then in the 16th century, the enigmatic figure Kunga Dolchok (1507-1566) sparked a renaissance within the Jonang. This is best represented in his collection of Tibet’s essential spiritual advice titled, The One Hundred and Eight Essential Guidance Instructions of the Jonang.
This Jonang renaissance spirit carried on through Kunga Dolchok’s reincarnation Jetsun Taranatha (1575-1635). As the 16th lineage-holder in the Jonang line of succession from the time of Kunpang Tukje Tsondru, Taranatha constructed Takten Damcho Ling Monastery, and played an enormous role in the religious life of 17th century Tibet. Known for his historical works on Buddhism, Jetsun Taranatha was a foremost expert on the tantras of the Sarma or new translation period. He compiled and arranged the Kalachakra Tantra as well as other main tantras into easily accessible practice manuals and composed some of the most lucid expositions on the 6-fold Vajrayoga (“six yogas”) or completion stage practices of the Kalachakra.