Tārāyogīni Tantra & Practice

This post is titled, The Transmission of the Tantra and Practices of Tārāyogīni (Sgrol ma rnal ‘byor ma): A Little-Known Jonang Specialty. By Thomas Roth, a contributing author to the Jonangpa blog.

The Jonang tradition was and is well-known for holding and continuing to propagate several unique transmissions, such as various strands of Kālachakra transmissions and various traditions of its six-limbed vajrayoga; the Mahāsṃavāra Kālachakra, the view of emptiness based upon the insights and explications of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361) known as zhentong (gzhan stong) and others. Among these unique transmissions is one that is almost completely unknown outside of the Jonang tradition, and apparently not very widely practiced within it either, despite the fact that it seemingly was of rather great importance to the great Tāranātha (1575-1635) and that the great 19th century Rimé master Jamgon Kongtrul (1813-1899) regarded it highly, and he wrote about it and practiced it himself.

Admittedly, Jamgon Kongtrul was not a Jonangpa, but he was at the very heart of the non-sectarian Rimé movement and as such very interested in the Jonang tradition. In his personal practice of the six-limbed vajrayoga of the Kālachakra, he followed the instructions of Dolpopa and Tāranātha to the letter, and he was a major propagator of the zhentong view in 19th century Eastern Tibet. Whenever commemorating great masters of the past with offering rituals etc., Tāranātha was honored with three days of ceremonies, an honor that Kongtrul accorded no other master. Kongtrul also was an important teacher to the great Jonang master Bamda Thubten Gelek Gyatso (1844-1904).

This particular transmission has found its way into the Kamtshang Kagyu school via Kathog Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu (1698-1755), and the 8th Tai Situ Chökyi Jungne (1700-1774), and has eventually become part of one of Kongtrul’s famous “Five Treasuries.” But apart from the ongoing transmission of its empowerments and practice texts, there seems to be precious little practice going on of this unique cycle of teachings, at least within the Kagyu schools that is.

The subject at hand is the transmission of a very special practice of Tārā, along with its own tantra, practice manuals and secret oral instructions. This particular form of Tārā is known under the name of Tārāyogīni or “Drolma Naljorma” in Tibetan. It is probably one of the last unique traditions that made its appearance in Tibet via India, only centuries after all else was already well established there.

Tārāyogīni is a very wrathful form of Tārā that appears eight-armed and in a 25 deity maṇḍala, including herself. Her tantra etc. were introduced into Tibet by none other but the great Indian mahāsiddha Buddhaguptanātha, who was probably one of the last known Indian siddhas of his kind.[1] He journeyed to Tibet in his mid-seventies and met there with the not yet twenty year old young Tāranātha. They met around the year 1594 near Narthang in Central Tibet.[2] Relating his encounters with Buddhaguptanātha, Tāranātha later wrote in his biography of the siddha,

Among the items requested that previously had never made their appearance in the Land of Snows, there was the empowerment of Tārāyogīni, the oral instructions on her generation and perfection process meditations, together with the blessings and a commentary on her tantra.[3]

A passage contained in one of Tāranātha’s secret autobiographies tells us of the importance that this transmission was to have for himself,

The night before the Tārāyogīni empowerment was given … I dreamed of my skin becoming the parchment upon which to write down the instructions, my ribs became the quills and my blood became the ink. My bones and sinews became the materials with which to bind the volumes.[4]

The Dzamthang edition of Tāranātha’s Collected Works contains no less than seven texts devoted to Tārāyogīni exclusively. The root and subsequent tantras, a summary of the meaning of those tantras, the maṇḍala ritual practice, a ritual text for self-empowerment, an even more elaborate maṇḍala ritual that also serves as an empowerment text and an instruction manual.[5]

When looking at the two tantras of Tārāyogīni, the root tantra and the subsequent tantra, both translated from the Sanskrit into Tibetan by Tāranātha and included in his Collected Works, one can’t help to think that these must have been among the materials that Dromton Gyalwe Junge (1005-1064) asked Jowo Jé Palden Atisha (982-1054) not to teach in Tibet, at least not publicly. And also Tāranātha himself seems to have passed this material on to only a few of his students. Nowadays only those who actually passed on these teachings are known to us. At least one of Tāranātha’s two regents, Gyaltsab Kunga Rinchen Gyamtso, received it from Tāranātha himself and passed it on to Khedrub Lodrö Namgyal (1618-1683) who received it both from the Gyaltsab and Tāranātha.

As a matter of fact, the Tārāyogīni empowerment must have been among the last few things that Tāranātha gave. In the history of the Jonangpa by Khenpo Lodrö Drakpa (1920-1975), we read how Lodrö Namgyal received it from Tāranātha himself, who placed his vajra and bell upon Lodrö Namgyal’s head and stressed the importance of thoroughly practicing these teachings.[6] Tāranātha then passed away on the 28th day of the same month.[7] Lodrö Namgyal later passed the transmission on to his nephew Ngawang Thinle (1657-1723), who passed it on to the great yogin Kunzang Wangpo.

Kunzang Wangpo was known as a mahāsiddha and famous for the many solitary retreats that he undertook. Among others, he passed the Jonangpa transmissions, those of Tārāyogīni among them, on to the famous Nyingmapa master Kathog Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu (1698-1755). Tsewang Norbu, since childhood, was very devoted to both Dolpopa and Tāranātha. He himself says so in his versified autobiography.[8] That fact seems easily explained when we read in Khenpo Lodro Draka’s Jonang history, that Kunsang Wangpo recognized Tsewang Norbu as an incarnation of Sazang Mati Panchen Lodrö Gyaltsen (1294-1376), one of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen’s main students.

Tsewang Norbu apparently passed the Jonang transmissions on to various masters, among them the 13th Karmapa Dudul Dorje (1733-1797), the 10th Shamar Mipham Chodrub Gyamtso (1742-1792), and the 7th Gyalwang Drugpa Thrinle Shingta (1718-1766). However, the most important among the various Kagyu masters who received these transmissions from Tsewang Norbu, was the 8th Tai Situ Chökyi Jungne. He and Tsewang Norbu had met for the first time around 1720 and had quickly become close friends. As we read both in Khenpo Lodrö Drakpa’s Jonang history as well as in Situ’s own diaries, the two met again in 1748 in Nepal.[9] It is there that Tsewang Norbu passed the transmission of the Tārāyogīni on to Situ and also impressed upon him the importance of upholding the zhentong tradition of Dolpopa in the clearest terms. Situ later became one of the most important promulgators of that tradition in Eastern Tibet.

The 10th Shamar Mipham Chödrub Gyamtso passed the Tārāyogīni transmission on to the 9th Tai Situ Pema Ninje (1775-1853), who transmitted it to Jamgon Kongtrul. Kongtrul also received the entire works of Tāranātha from a master whom he calls “the saintly lama Dorlob Ösal Gyurme” (18th/19th cent.) who was a student of Tsabtsa Tulku Karma Ratna (18th cent.) of Surmang monastery. He in turn was a student of Surmang’s Belo Tshewang Kunkyab (18th cent.) who was one of the 8th Tai Situ’s main students.[10]

Jamgon Kongtrul practised Tāranātha’s Tārāyogīni materials and eventually composed a briefer text more suitable for daily practice on her, as well as an offering ritual, based upon Tāranātha’s two rather elaborate maṇḍala rituals. He also composed a very elaborate empowerment ritual for Tārāyogīni, all of which is included in his so-called “Gyachen Kadzö”, one of Kongtrul’s famous “Five Treasuries”.[11] Some of these materials are also found in Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo’s (1820-1892) and Jamyang Loter Wangpo’s (1847-1914) “Drubthab Kuntus”, an extensive collection of sadhanas of the eight practice lineages of Tibet.[12]

From there onwards, this particular transmission lineage of Tārāyogīni continues within the Kamtshang Kagyu school via the 15th Karmapa Kakhyab Dorje (1871-1922), the 11th Tai Situ Pema Wangchog Gyalpo (1886-1952), the 2nd Jamgon Kongtrul Palden Khyentse Öser (1904-1953), the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1924-1981) to my own teacher, the Ven. Dorje Lobpon Tenga Rinpoche (b. 1932).[13]

Of course there must be parallel transmission lineages for Tārāyogīni among the Jonang masters of Amdo, at least since the time of Khedrub Lodrö Namgyal if not earlier, but I haven’t been able to research them yet. The little I have managed to find out so far is that the practice is indeed continued within the framework of Jonangpa practice in Amdo, but until now I haven’t met anyone particularly knowledgeable about it. One proof of its continuation among the Jonangpas of Amdo, for instance, is the description of how to draw the maṇḍala of Tārāyogīni in a work on maṇḍala construction and drawing by Tsoknyi Gyatso (1880-1940), a prominent student of Bamda Gelek’s.[14]{C}

The khenpos and lamas in the two small Jonang monasteries in exile, one in Shimla and one in Kathmandu, all know of the practice but unfortunately only know very little about it. Without having been in Amdo yet to research things “on site” so to speak, I can only assume that the ongoing practice of Tārāyogīni may be the specialty of the one or other Dratsang in several Jonang monasteries, probably performed as a Drubchö for several days once a year.

Thomas Roth [Sherab Drime], Kathmandu, Nepal


1. Tāranātha. Sgrol ma’i rgyud kyi byung khungs gsal bar byed pa’i lo rgyus gser gyi phreng ba. In Rje btsun tA ra nA tha’i Gsun ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang, 12, 523-570. And the Bka’ babs bdun ldan gyi brgyud pa’i rnam thar ngo mtshar rmad du byung ba rin po che’i khungs lta bu’i gtam. In Rje btsun tA ra nA tha’i Gsung ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang, 17, 5-161. The transmission lineage until then came through: Jñānaḍākinī, Telopa, Narotapa, Dombipa, Kusalipa, Asitaghana, Jñānamitra and Shantigupta to Buddhaguptanātha. In the Sgrol ma’i rgyud kyi byung khungs, Tāranātha relates the story how Telopa travelled to Oddiyana and received the empowerments for the Tārā tantra etc. from Tārā herself. Therefore I assume “Jñānaḍākinī” to refer to Tārā.

2. Tāranātha. Grub chen bud+dha gup+ta’i rnam thar rje btsun nyid kyi zhal lung las gzhan du rang rtog gi dri mas ma sbags pa’i yi ge yang dag pa. In Rje btsun tA ra nA tha’i Gsung ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang, 17, 311-316. Tāranātha relates how Buddhaguptanātha first visited various places in Tibet such as Samye and Lhasa etc., and they then met while Tāranātha stayed in the hermitage of Mahābodhi (bden gnas byang chub chen po).

3. Tāranātha. Grub chen bud+dha gup+ta’i rnam thar rje btsun nyid kyi zhal lung las gzhan du rang rtog gi dri mas ma sbags pa’i yi ge yang dag pa. In Rje btsun tA ra nA tha’i Gsung ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang, 17, 313.

4. Tāranātha. Gsang ba’i rnam thar. In Rje btsun tA ra nA tha’i Gsung ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang, 1, 708.

5. These are (1) ‘Phrin las thams cad ‘byung ba’i sgrol ma ‘dus pa don dam pa zhes bya ba rnal ‘byor ma’i rgyud kyi rgyal po; (2) ‘Phrin las thams cad ‘byung ba ‘dus pa don dam pa las phyi ma’i rgyud kyi rgyal po; (3) Sgrol ma ‘byung ba’i rgyud kyi bsdus don gsal ba’i sgron me; (4) Sgrol ma rnal ‘byor ma’i dkyil ‘khor gyi sgrub thabs ye shes ‘bar ba; (5) Bcom ldan ‘das ma sgrol ma rnal ‘byor ma’i bdag ‘jug gzhan la phan pa; (6) Rje btsun sgrol ma rnal ‘byor ma’i dkyil ‘khor gyi cho ga gzhan la phan pa zhes bya ba rgya gar mkhas pa’i zhal gyi gdams pa phyin ci ma log pa’i yi ge yang dag pa; (7) Sgrol ma rnal ‘byor ma’i ‘khrid yig bde chen myur gter all in Rje btsun tA ra nA tha’i Gsum ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang, 12.

6. Ngag dbang Blo gros grags pa. Dpal ldan jo nang pa’i chos ‘byung rgyal ba’i chos tshul gsal byed zla ba’i sgron me. In Blo gros grags pa’i Gsung ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang, 1, 140. Although the text itself reads “rnal ‘byor ma’i dbang skur zhu skabs … ,” it was the opinion of Khenpo Chonang (Shimla) that this refers to “sgrol ma rnal ‘byor ma”. He recalled his own teacher, Ngawang Yonten Zangpo having said so.

7. Ngag dbang Blo gros grags pa. Dpal ldan jo nang pa’i chos ‘byung rgyal ba’i chos tshul gsal byed zla ba’i sgron me. In Blo gros grags pa’i Gsung ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang, 1, 140.

8. Brag dkar rta so sprul sku chos kyi dbang phyug. Dpal rig ‘dzin chen po rdo rje tshe dbang nor bu’i zhabs kyis rnam par thar pa’i cha shas brjod pa ngo mtshar dad pa’i rol mtsho. In Ka thog rig ‘dzin tshe dbang nor bu’i Bka’ ‘bum, 1, 111-2.

9. Ngag dbang Blo gros grags pa. Jo nang chos ‘byung rgyal ba’i chos tshul gsal byed zla ba sgron me’i lhan thabs. Krun go’i bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang, 1992, 539. And Ta’i si tu. Ta’i si tur ‘bod pa karma bstan pa’i nyin byed kyi rang tshul drangs por brjod pa dri bral shel gyi me long ldeb. In Ta’i si tu pa kun mkhyen chos kyi ‘byung gnas bstan pa’i nyin byed kyi bka’ ‘bum, 14, 263.

10. ‘Jam mgon Kong sprul blo gros mtha’ yas. Phyogs med ris med kyi bstan pa la ‘dun shing dge sbyong gi gzugs brnyan ‘chang ba blo gros mtha’ yas kyi sde’i ‘byung ba brjod pa nor bu sna tshogs mdog can. In Rgya chen bka’ mdzod, 16, 150.

11. ‘Jam mgon Kong sprul blo gros mtha’ yas. Sgrol ma rnal ‘byor ma’i rgyun khyer dam tshig nges pa’i thig le. In Rgya chen bka’ mdzod, 6, 109-119. And Sgrol ma rnal ‘byor ma’i mchod chog mdor bsdus bde chen rol mo. In Rgya chen bka’ mdzod, 6, 121-140. And Bcom ldan ‘das ma sgrol ma rnal ‘byor ma’i rtsa ba’i dbang bskur gyi cho ga bklags chog tu bkod pa utpal ljon shing. In Rgya chen bka’ mdzod, 6, 141-283. And Dam tshig sgrol ma rnal ‘byor ma’i rig pa gtad pa’i cho ga ye shes sgo ‘byed. In Rgya chen bka’ mdzod, 6, 285-295.

12. ‘Jam mgon Kong sprul blo gros mtha’ yas. Sgrub thabs kun btus, 4, 575-589.

13. This information is based on oral communications from Ven. Tenga Rinpoche.

14. Tshog gnyis rgya mtsho. Dkyil chog rgya mtsho’i thig tshon gsal byed legs bshad nyi ma’i ‘od zer. ‘Dzam thang, 95.

Blog Category: Research Articles


  1. Michael R. Sheehy on October 28, 2008 at 12:57 am

    Unexcelled Yoga Tantra Tārā
    Thanks Thomas, its great to have your article on the blog.

    I wanted to note that TārāyogÄ«ni is of the Anuttarayoga Tantra or “Unexcelled Yoga Tantra” class. That is, it falls in the category of the “highest” or most refined set of tantric practice cycles. This is very unusual for a form of Tārā (or any bodhisattva). In fact, its the only case that comes to mind that fits this description. However, there must be others… Just a footnote.


    • Thomas Roth on November 2, 2008 at 3:36 am

      Re: Unexelled Yoga Tantra Tara
      …there is one more I can think of right now, though none other comes to mind. The one I’m thinking of is Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo’s ” ‘chi med phags ma’i snying thig”, a quite extensive White Tara practice.



      • Boston Russell on January 21, 2009 at 2:15 am

        Highest Yoga Tantra Tara Traditions
        Dear Mr. Roth

        I greatly enjoyed reading your article on Tarayogini. I saw some of the materials to which you referred while flipping through Taranatha’s gsung ‘bum and the Rgya chen bka’ mdzod, but wasn’t sure what it was, so thank you for filling the gap.

        As for Chintamani Tara (cint, not citt), it was, according to Georges Dreyfus, revealed as a pure vision by Sta bu Padma Badzra, one of the root gurus of Pha bong kha (http://www.dalailama.com/page.149.htm), although I have heard that there is a secondary lineage of the practice stemming from a pure vision of Khri byang Rinpoche. The deity is green (often depicted with a system of cakras and nadis) and without consort. The initiation is given often by Dge lugs lamas, and it is said to contain a pithy version of the entire generation and completion stages in a single sadhana.

        You are probably already aware that there is also a popular highest yoga tantra (technically maha/anuyoga) Green Tara practice revealed by the gterma revealer Mchog ‘gyur gling pa. It is part of the Zab tig grol ma gterma cycle. The cycle contains – in addition to several other Tara-related materials such as retreat manuel, fire puja, self-initiation, sexual yogas etc. – three distinct levels of sadhana: outer inner and secret. The outer sadhana consists basically of an upa/charya style four mandala offering practice; the inner contains a mahayoga level coarse and subtle generation stage, and the secret is an anuyoga level completion stage for which one takes either Amoghasiddhi or Hayagriva (I have heard conflicting accounts) as the consort. Both Bokar Rinpoche’s “Tara: the Feminine Divine” and Tulku Urgyen’s “Skillfull Grace” comment extensively on the outer sadhana and make some mention of inner and secret sadhana yogas.

        I hope all of this has been helpful. Thank you for your work on behalf of all of us with Jonang interests.


        Boston Russell

        • Thomas Roth on February 1, 2009 at 4:35 pm

          zab tig sgrol ma etc.
          Hello Boston,

          Thanks for your post. Apparently there is indeed some interest in these matters. And I should really look at the blog more often…

          Now, as to the “zab tig sgrol ma” cycle of Chokgyur Lingpa, hmm — I’m not too sure whether it really qualifies as a “Highest Yoga Tantra” cycle. I seem to recall several of my teachers, one of whom is H.E. Tsike Chokling Rinpoche, as having said that at least the outer practice, the very popular 4-mandala ritual, corresponds to Kriya-tantra. But I will definitely check this out. I have the relevant text materials sitting right here. It’s all included in vol. 33 of the “mchog gling gter gsar”. Even though H.E. Tsike Chokling Rinpoche gave the whole set of empowerments here in 1996, I don’t recall having looked too closely at the “zab tig sgrol ma” cycle. Mea culpa!

          As to the cycle itself, even though it is included in the “Collected Revelations”, or “gter ma”, of Chokgyur Lingpa, it actually falls in the category of “Pure Vision”, or “dag snang”, and is thus not a “gter ma” proper, even though all of Chokgyur Lingpa’s revelations are often called summarily “gter ma” for simplicities sake. Chokgyur Lingpa and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo shared what is called the “Seven Transmissions”. These are 1) oral transmission, 2) earth treasure, 3) re-revealed treasure [meaning treasures that were found before but reconcealed again as the time was not deemed right for their propagation], 4) mind treasure, 5) hearing lineage, 6) pure vision and 7) recollection.

          The “zab tig sgrol ma” cycle falls into the 6th category. The vision of Tara, during which Chokgyur Lingpa took down all these teachings, was prompted by a very special Tara statue of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo’s, kept in his residence in Dzongsar monastery in Kham. She spoke to Chokgyur Lingpa, saying three times: “legs so, legs so, rigs kyi bu! – Excellent,excellent, noble son!” At least so it says in Chokgyur Lingpa’s biography. The story is told differently elsewhere…

          Now, as to further Tara materials from the Jonang tradition, I have just sent a whole lot of stuff to Michael, our good host here. That material will be published here, or on the main site, in several installments as soon as it is processed. Hope you enjoy reading some more of my ramblings…


    • suzanne on November 15, 2008 at 5:48 pm

      Hi Michael, It sounds like
      Hi Michael,

      It sounds like you’re not aware of Cittamani Tara, a highest yoga tantra of Green Tara practiced by many Gelugpas.

      By the way, a student at Dorje Ling discovered Tarayogini through your blog and has requested the empowerment and practice. Not sure it will happen, but there is some excitement.



      • Michael R. Sheehy on November 16, 2008 at 4:37 pm

        Cittamani Tara
        Hi Suzanne:

        Thanks for bringing that to my attention. It would be interesting to know about the transmission lineage for the Cittamanitara. At what point was that practice introduced?


        • Suzanne on December 25, 2008 at 5:21 am

          Cittamani Tara
          Dear Michael,

          I’m not in a position to research it, but here’s a quick link I googled which at least verifies that Cittamani Tara is Highest Yoga Tanta: “Offering Prayer of the Four Mandalas to the Cittamani Tara.”

          Jonang Khenpo Choejor mentioned not long ago, vaguely, that they practice 21 Taras as Highest Yoga Tantra. I think these things may be more elastic among lineage masters than among scholars, understandably. Another example — a Gelukpa lama once conferred the empowerment of Eleven-Armed Chenresig for Nyung Nye as a highest yoga tantra here in order to avoid the dietary restrictions; I forget what was going that necessitated that.



  2. Thomas Roth on December 5, 2008 at 4:25 am

    Hello there,

    It seems there is some confusion here about the names of various aspects of Tara. “Cittamanitara” or rather “Kalyani Cittamanitara” is the white, not green Tara. But indeed, there seem to be a few more Anuttara-yoga-tantra practices of Tara. One of them the White Tara revelation by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo that I mentioned before (‘chi med phags ma’i snying thig). Another possible candidate could be a 17-deity mandala practice that was handed down in the Sakya tradition. I’m presently researching this one as to connections with the Tarayogini transmission.

    As to the people requesting the Tarayogini empowerment etc. Check footnotes 5 and 11 to my original article for the whereabouts of the empowerment texts. It is a very elaborate empowerment that takes the master several hours to prepare and then it should ideally be given over two days. So this is a rather big thing to request.

    If you find a master who has received either the transmission of Taranatha’s works or Kongtrul’s “Rgya chen bka’ mdzod”, you might well get lucky.

    Once you got there, get in touch for translations of the daily practice manual, torma and tshog offerings. I’m presently working on a translation of a rather lengthy but beautiful praise to Tarayogini and her mandala of 25 deities…


    • Suzanne on April 28, 2009 at 6:02 am

      Dear Thomas, and Michael,

      Thank you so much, Thomas. I’m not sure of the progress of the request and response but will pass on your information. Khenpo did seem to think the empowerment would be possible. Wouldn’t that be fascinating, especially with all of the practice accoutrements you mention!?

      Michael, I was listening to CD’s of Khenpo Choejor’s teachings from months and years past, and he noted in passing that, in Jonang, Tara practice was highest yoga tantra. If that was an accurate translation, he may have been referring to a more serious practice of 21 Taras. I trust that this vague and casual comment and approach won’t cause too much consternation, and will be taken as the babble of a crazy woman.

      All the best,


  3. Daphne on December 30, 2009 at 12:40 am

    Hello there, I have been searching for some information on six armed wrathful green tara, but do you realize that the above picture here has eight arms??