Finding the Original Jonang Monastery

The Jonangpa have longstanding historical and cultural ties to locality.[1] So much so that their very identity is derived from and enmeshed within their place of origin. The term “Jonang” is an abbreviation of “Jomonang,” the name of the valley where the first Jonangpas settled.[2] 

Jonang historical texts as well as biographies of early Jonangpa masters reference this first settlement simply as, “Jonang Monastery” (jo nang dgon pa). These sources specify this as the founding site of the Jonang tradition.

Where Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361) lived and constructed the Great Stupa of Jonang during the early 14th century was largely a valley hermitage where yogis lived in meditation caves and mountainous crags. The monastic complex that exists there now was constructed during his lifetime, and was converted into a nunnery in 1992.

Knowing that where Dolpopa and his disciples settled was not the original Jonang Monastery, I began to wonder about the whereabouts of this place. Was the Tibetan phrase that meant “Jonang Monastery” simply a reference to a settlement at the time of Kunpang Thukjé Tsöndru (1243-1313) where his immediate disciples and the early generations of the Jonangpa setup, or was there an actual edifice?

This was a query that I began to discuss with fellow scholars who were familiar with these historical textual materials. The consensus at that point was that there was not an actual monastery structure as such, but that the term “Jonang Monastery” was being used in the Tibetan to denote an approximate space where Kunpangpa and the early Jonangpa had settled.

Then in 2005, during an extended stay in the Jomonang valley conducting field research, I thought to ask some of the locals about this place known as, “Jonang Monastery.” One of my local monk informants assured me that Jonang Monastery was a place and that it lied beyond the cusp of the adjacent mountain, upriver from the stupa. This would place the monastery in the valley, but on the other side. The monk told me that he had traveled there, but that the pathways to the monastery were treacherous and not easily traversed. The trip would take two days. Unfortunately, I was unable to make that journey at that time to where the monk had confirmed was the early monastery of the Jonangpa. Since then, travel to that region has become increasingly restricted. Suspended as an elusive scene in my imagination, I kept thinking about how to track down and determine the whereabouts of this original Jonang Monastery.

With such references in Tibetan texts as well as this claim from my monk informant in the valley, I was convinced that the Tibetan term “Jonang Monastery” was not merely a vague reference to an approximate space, as was earlier surmised, but that it was an actual location. Being precluded from making the journey to this place due to its remoteness and restrictions that were placed on traveling in rural Tibetan areas, we turned to digital tools in the hunt for Jonang Monastery.

At this point, we had made preliminary assessments of Jonang valley with Google Earth, and had pinned on the map both the Jonang Stupa as well as Takten Phuntsok Ling Monastery. We then began to search for more remote locations in adjacent valleys, hoping to locate some of the smaller Jonang monasteries in the region. Some of these places I had visited during my field research in 2005, such as Chulung Changtse Monastery, the home of the 16th century ecumenical master Kunga Drolchok (1507-1566).

In searching the region from a bird’s-eye view via this GIS technology on our browser, we scrolled over an area above where the stupa is located. As we viewed this area on the map, the rough contours of a manmade structure came into view against the blurry-sparse backdrop of the barren ground. As the lens passed over this edifice, my attention was immediately piqued. We scrolled back and zoomed-in. Sure enough there laid the ruins of an abandoned monastery. We had rediscovered the location of the original Jonang Monastery!

Telling the narrative of the Jonangpa migration down the Jomonang valley, we have prepared this Google Earth-based map that charts this narrative from its early settlement at the original Jonang Monastery to the mountain hermitage where Dolpopa constructed the Great Stupa, down to Tāranātha’s (1575-1635) fortress citadel of Takten Phuntsok Ling Monastery on the cusp of the valley’s edge.[3]


1. This post is derived from a presentation given by Michael Sheehy at the National Outreach Scholarship Conference at The University of Alabama titled, Mapping Scholarship on Tibet: Recent Findings of Jonang Monasteries.

2. See the post, The First Jonangpa.

3. This project is a collaboration between Dr. Michael Sheehy at the Jonang Foundation and Connor McCarty at the University of Alabama, with Dr. Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa supervising. Particular thanks to Connor McCarty for preparing this video. See related posts, Jonang Sites Interactive Map and Jonang Takten Monastery 3D Map.