On the Shangpa & Jonangpa

Commentators on earlier posts have asked or made reference to relationships between the Shangpa lineage and the Jonangpa.[1] In response, I thought to sketch some of the overlapping threads among Shangpas and Jonangpas in order to draw a few historical connections.

The Shangpa lineage, as Tibetologist Matthew Kapstein has described, is like “some vine that adorns a whole forest without being able to stand by itself” so much so that it “may strike one who follows its twists and turns as being virtually an omnipresent element in Tibetan Buddhism.”[2] Being so, its fairly safe to say that transmissions from the Shangpa lineage have penetrated each of the mainstream Sarma (or “New School”) traditions of Buddhism in Tibet while no institutionalized representation of the contemporary Shangpa tradition is known to survive in Tibet today. With striking parallels, transmissions associated with the Jonangpa are also like an unbroken vine complexly intertwined within many of today’s mainstream traditions. However, despite the (still) common conception that the Jonangpa no longer endure as a living tradition, they maintain an institutional presence in contemporary Tibet.

As the Tibetan sources tell us, the Shangpa was initiated by the Tibetan master Khyungpo Naljor (978/990-1127) who ventured to India and Nepal to receive tantric initiations, and who through his visionary encounters with the wisdom dakinis Niguma and Sukhasiddhi received the essential teachings of Niguma and the mahāmudrā instructions that have become the hallmark of the tradition. The predominate teachings of the tradition are derived from the Indian adepts, Vajrāsana, Rāhula, Maitripa, as well as Niguma and Sukhasiddhi. In addition to an emphasis on a specific practice associated with the six-armed Mahākala, the Shangpa stress the practices consolidated into the Five Golden Teachings.[3]

Though Khyungpo Naljor is credited with establishing over a hundred sites in and around the area of Zhang zhong in the valley of Shang in central Tibet, and his immediate disciples are known to have established several each on their own, it seems that the only monastery of the Shangpa that persisted in Tibet up to the early part of the 20th century was Mokchok Monastery.[4] Instead, the Shangpa have passed on through numerous streams within the dominant currents of Buddhism in Tibet. While there are several minor lines that continue, the four main streams of the Shangpa transmission are: (1) the Samding lineage, (2) the Jagpa lineage, (3) the Thangton lineage, and (4) the Jonang lineage. The Jagpa lineage has succeeded from the master Jagchen Jampa Pal (1310-1391) through his disciple Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), becoming an integral aspect of the Geluk tradition up to the present day.

The Jonang lineage of the Shangpa is alive and well among the Jonangpa. The major figure to accumulate and synthesize the instructions of this lineage was Kunga Drolchok (1507-1566). However, the intersection between these lines occurred several generations prior to him. The lineage tree suggests that the 13th century master Khyungpo Tsultrim Gon received transmission from Khadrup Tsangma Shangton (1234-1309) who was four generations removed from Khyungpo Naljor. Kunga Drolchok then received the Samding, Jagpa, and Thangton lineages, as well as instructions in the visionary presence of the wisdom dakini Niguma. By the time of Kunga Drolchok’s disciples, such as the master Gyurmé Dechen (1540-1615), practices and instructions associated with the Shangpa were deeply embedded within the Jonang tradition. One question that needs further exploration is to what extent were these ties made or at least initiated during the lifetime of Thangtong Gyalpo (1361-1485)?

As inheritor of Kunga Drolchok’s legacy and throne at Jonang, Tāranātha (1575-1635) took a keen interest in the Shangpa, writing numerous commentaries and expanding the core practice texts of the tradition. Although the lineage continued uninterruptedly for the next several generations after Tāranātha, and was received by Jonang masters in Amdo, it was not until the Dzamthang master Bamda Gelek (1844-1904) came onto the scene that this practice lineage would be commented on within the Jonang tradition with any degree of erudition or creativity. Bamda Lama wrote several works related to the Shangpa, including an extensive explanation of the Six Teachings of Niguma that is considered the authoritative work for Jonangpas. This lineage then passed onto Jamgon Kongtrul (1813-1899), and in more recent times was represented by such great masters as the late Kalu Rinpoche and his disciple Bokar Rinpoche.


1. Earlier posts include, Expressions of Emptiness and 108 Quintessential Instructions. I’ve recently taken an interest with the Shangpa in general and I hope to write more on related topics in future posts as my research on the subject develops.

2. See Kapstein, M. “The Shangs-pa bKa’-brgyud: An Unknown Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.” In Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson. Aris and Suu Kyi (eds.), 140. Vikas Publishing House, 1980.

3. The Five Golden Teachings are: (1) six teachings of Niguma (ni gu chos drug), (2) precepts of mahāmudrā (phyag chen), (3) integrating experiences onto the path (lam khyer), (4) practices of the red and white khecarī (mkha’ spyod dkar dmar), (5) the deathless mind-body complex (lus sems ‘chi med).

4. See Smith, G. “The Shangs pa Bka’ brgyud Tradition.” In Among Tibetan Texts, 54. Wisdom, 2001.

Blog Category: Research Articles