Tsewang Norbu at Jonang

The one who Hugh Richardson referred to in his 1967 article as “a Tibetan antiquarian” in describing his efforts to jot down stone pillar inscriptions in Lhasa and at Samye that date from the 8th and 9th centuries, the Nyingma master Rigzin Tsewang Norbu was a lover of rare books.[1] In fact, it seems that he was a bit of a Buddhist bibliophile.

About a hundred years after Tāranātha’s death in the spring of 1635, and seventy-five years after the confiscation of Takten Damchö Phuntsok Ling Monastery, the Dzogchen master from Kathog Monastery in Kham, Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu (1698-1755), made a visit to Jonang to print the books that were sealed-up in the printery. Most likely spurred by a conversation with his friend and disciple Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne (1699/1700-1774), this particular trip was actually Tsewang Norbu’s third visit to Takten Ling.[2]

This visit came eleven years after Situ Panchen’s visit to Takten Ling Monastery when he so descriptively and hurriedly observed in his diary what he saw there. Situ’s diary entries detail each of the temples, the frescos and statues therein, his personal sentiments about the place in the wake of the historical transformations that took place, and his attempt to print the woodblocks at the printery. Though I’ve translated his entry elsewhere and won’t repeat it here, its safe to say that this remains one of the few written glimpses into the life of this fortress monastery on the lip of the Jonang valley where Tāranātha had lived.

Making a valiant tag-team endeavor, Tsewang Norbu and Situ Panchen paired to gain access to the printery at Takten Ling. Tsewang Norbu had first visited the area in the late 1720s while seeking-out Jonang transmissions from the Nyingma and Jonang master Kunzang Wangpo in Tsang. On this third occasion, Tsewang Norbu was armed with fresh political caché from his experience as a facilitator in the searches for the Karmapa and Sharmapa rebirths, and as a mediator of the border conflicts in Ladakh for the king of Tibet, Polhane (1689-1747). He hoped to capitalize on this with a diplomatic attempt to print the collected writings of Tāranātha that were sealed in the printery at Takten Ling since its confiscation.

As we read in Tsewang Norbu’s biography, he traveled to meet with and continue receiving instructions from Kunzang Wangpo.[3] Soon after, he traveled to “the Shambhala snow mountain hermitage, the magnificent hermitage at Jonang.” After being received, Tsewang Norbu ascended the throne where Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen and Tāranātha had sat. He taught to a rather large assembly and bestowed pith instructions, oral transmissions, empowerments, and explanations on various Jonang teachings. At both Takten Ling and the adjacent stupa, he made extensive offerings to everyone present. He also spent some time compiling an inventory of the paintings at Takten Ling, including those of the eighty-four mahasiddhas. However, despite this warm welcome and his diplomatic powers, Tsewang Norbu was unable to print. This episode does however inform us about the climate at that time, suggesting that the local authorities must not have been too uptight to allow Tsewang Norbu to transmit Jonang teachings from the throne.


1. See Richardson, Hugh. 1967. “A Tibetan Antiquarian in the 18th Century.” Bulletin of Tibetology IV, 3, 5-8. On Tsewang Norbu’s life, see the TBRC Person record, tshe dbang nor bu and Treasury of Lives bio entry, Rigzin Tsewang Norbu.

2. On the background history of the Jonangpa from the 17th century, see The Living Tradition page on Jonang Foundation and see also the post, Kongtrul’s Jonangpa Connections.

3. Chos kyi dbang phyug. Tshe dbang nor bu’i zhabs kyi rnam thar brjod pa ngo mtshar dad pa’i rol mtsho. In KaH thog rig ‘dzin tshe dbang nor bu’i bka’ ‘bum, 1.

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