Saturday, November 3, 2012

Mongolia | Autobiography of Taranatha

Another book we recently published: the Autobiography of Taranatha. As you probably know, Taranatha was the 16th incarnation of Javzandamba and the previous incarnation of Zanabazar, The First Bogd Gegeen Of Mongolia.
Cover of book: See Enlargement
The text, originally in Tibetan, was translated into Mongolian by G. Nyam-Ochir. I was asked to write the Foreword in English:

Foreword
In 1995, on the very first day I was ever in Mongolia, I wandered quite by chance into the Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum a couple of blocks west of Sükhbaatar Square. I was vaguely aware that Zanabazar was an important religious figure in Mongolia and also that he was a famous artist, but at the time I knew very little about his life or artistic works. In the museum I soon found myself standing in front of Zanabazar’s statue of White Tara. I have to say I was stunned. It had to be one of the most impressive works of Buddhist art—or for that matter, any art—that I had ever seen. Nearby were statues of four of the five Meditation Buddhas—Amoghasidda, Amitabha, Akshobya, and Vairocana (I soon located the fifth, Ratnasambhava, in the Choijin Lama Museum)—a statue of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, a large bronze stupa, and other works attributed to either Zanabazar or his school. By the time I left the museum I was determined to find out more about this man who was not only a preternaturally talented artist but also the first of the eight Bogd Gegeens, themselves incarnations of Javzandamba, who from from 1639 to 1924 served much the same role in Mongolia as the Dalai Lamas did in Tibet. The next summer I returned to Mongolia and traveled to Erdene Zuu, the monastery (now museum), founded in 1585 by Zanabazar’s great-grandfather, the Tüsheet Khan Avtai, who had reintroduced Buddhism into Mongolia after it had largely died out after the fall of the Yüan Dynasty. I also visited Zanabazar’s birthplace at Yesön Zuil, in what is now Övörkhangai Aimag; Shireet Tsagann Nuur, where in 1639 Zanabazar, at the age of four, was enthroned as the first Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia; Shankh Monastery, founded by Zanabazar in 1647 not far from Erdene Zuu; Zanabazar’s workshop of Tövkhon, in the mountains not far from Shankh, where Zanabazar created many of his most famous works; and Amarbayasgalant Monastery, where Zanabazar’s remains where kept after he died in 1723. All of these places I described in my book Travels in Northern Mongolia, first published in 1997.

In the following years I visited many more places connected with the life of Zanabazar, including Khögno Taryn Khiid in Bulgan Aimag; Zayain Khüree in Arkhangai Aimag; Saridgiin Khiid, a monastery founded by Zanbazar in a remote part of the Khentii Mountains; various hot springs he had frequented, including Yestiin Rashaan in Töv Aimag and Onon Rashaan in Khentii Aimag; Günjiin Süm, the temple dedicated to the Manchu wife of Dondovdorj, the father of Zanabazar’s successor, the second Bogd Gegeen Luvsandandbidonme; and others.  Descriptions of these places were eventually included into my book Illustrated Guidebook to Locales Connected with the Life of Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia.

But the story of Zanabazar is not limited to just Mongolia. From my researches into the life of Zanabazar I was well aware that he was considered the seventeenth incarnation of Javzandamba, an illustrious line of incarnations which began before the time of the Buddha, appearing first in India and later Tibet. The twelfth incarnation, Jamyan Dorj, was a disciple of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug sect, and founded Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, among many other monasteries and hermitages throughout Tibet. The next incarnations of Javzandamba appeared in Ceylon, Tibet, and then India. Taranatha, the sixteenth incarnation and Zanabazar’s immediate predecessor, was born in Tibet in 1575. In 1615 he founded Damcho Takten Ling Monastery (also known as Dagdandamchoilin, or in Mongolian, Batmönkh Khiid). Zanabazar traveled twice to Tibet,  in 1649–50 and 1655–56, and on the first of t=hese trips he reportedly visited Damcho Takten Ling. Since these trips were quite important events in the life of Zanabazar I decided that I too should visit Tibet and Damcho Takten Ling.

Although not terribly remote by Tibetan standards—it is in the valley of the Tsangpo River, the main artery running west-east through Tibet—the monastery is off the beaten tourist path, and I far as I could determine there was no public transportation available. I was also warned that there were no hotels or guesthouses in the area. I hired an all-terrain vehicle in Lhasa, and after spending the night in Shigatse we continued on to the monastery. The monks were surprised to see us—it was winter and they received few visitors at this time of the year—but they quickly served us milk tea and offered us a room they maintained for guests. After stashing our gear, we headed first for the Jonang Monastery, located several miles up a side valley from Takten Damcho Ling.

Taranatha was a member of the Jonang Sect, founded by Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. Dölpopa (the “Man from Dölpo”) was born in 1292 in the Dölpo region of what is now Nepal. As a boy Dölpopa followed the teachings of the Nyingma sect. Later he moved to Sakya Monastery in Tibet where he studied under teachers of the Sakya sect. At the age of twenty-eight he became the head of Sakya Monastery and was recognized as one the leading teachers in the Sakya tradition. In 1321 he traveled to the monastery at Jonang for the first time. The caves in the cliffs above the Jonang area had been used for meditation retreats since at least the time of Padmasambhava in the eighth century. In the early 1290s the famous Kalachakra teacher Kunpang Thukje Tsondru (1243–1313) moved to Jonang and a monastery was established at the foot of the cliffs. In 1322 Dölpopa became a student of Yönton Gyatso, then the head of Jonang Monastery. In 1326 he himself was officially installed as the head of the monastery, taking the place of his teacher.

A year later Yönton Gyatso transmigrated. In his honor Dölpopa decided to built an enormous stupa. The first attempt in 1329  failed when the entire structure collapsed during construction. Undaunted, he began construction of an even bigger stupa on a different site nearby. As word of the project spread artisans and laborers from all parts of Tibet flocked to the site and soon donations of gold, silver, copper, tea, silk, and much else poured in from all over the Tibetan Buddhist world. The design of the stupa was based on descriptions of the Glorious Stupa of the Planets given in the Stainless Light Commentary, an exposition which according to tradition had been written by Pundarika, the Second Kalki King of Shambhala. Dölpopa apparently believed that he himself was a reincarnation of Pundarika and claimed to have visited Shambhala by visionary means. Reportedly statues of the twenty-five Kalki Kings of Shambhala were installed in the fourth floor of the stupa. They were no longer present when I visited the stupa.

It was during the construction of the Great Stupa of Jonang that Dölpopa began teaching for the first time the shengtong doctrine of “other-emptiness”. He alludes to this in a poem:
My intelligence has not been refined in three-fold wisdom but I think the raising of Mount Meru caused the Ocean to gush forth.
Mount Meru here refers to the Great Stupa and the Ocean to the shen-tong doctrine. The shen-tong doctrine which Dölpopa taught differs from the rang-tang doctrine of “self-emptiness expounded by Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, and other Indian teachers.” Shen-tong asserts that “emptiness, in dispelling the illusive relative truths of the world, reveals an ineffable transcendental reality with positive attributes.” The rang-tang view “claimed that emptiness is merely the elimination of falsely imagined projections upon the relative truths of the world and does not imply anything else.”  This shen-tong view, as outlined in Dölpopa’s most famous work, Mountain Dharma, An Ocean of Definitive Meaning, became the cornerstone of the Jonang Sect to which Taranatha belonged. Indeed, according to Dölpopa‘s recent biographer, “In the history of the Jonang tradition Taranatha is second in importance only to Dölpopa himself. He was responsible for the short-lived Jonang renaissance in Tsang and Central Asia during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and the widespread revitalization of the shen-tong theory in particular.”

From the Great Stupa of Jonang we walked down the valley to Damcho Takten Ling, the monastery founded by Taranatha in 1615. According to Mongolian accounts, at some point after the founding of Damcho Takten Ling Taranatha travelled to Mongolia, where he died in 1634. Before his death his Jonang disciples reportedly begged him to reincarnate in Tibet and continue to spread the Jonang doctrines. He replied:
Be satisfied with just this much expansion of our Jonangpa doctrine. Through the force of supplications by the Ganden protectors, and the force of previous prayers, I will now spread the the doctrine of Lord Tsongkhapa in a barbarian borderland.
Thus he announced that the next incarnation of Javzandamba would be reborn in Mongolia and would become not a Jonangpa but a follower of the Gelug sect founded by Tsongkhapa. Zanabazar, the seventeenth incarnation of Javzandamba and Taranatha’s successor was born in 1635 at Yesön Züil in what is now Övörkhangai Aimag. Initially, however, he was initiated into the Sakya sect in 1639 at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur.

Zanabazar made his First Trip To Tibet in 1649, when he was fourteen years old. According to both Mongolian and Tibetan accounts it was during his stay in Lhasa that the 5th Dalai Lama declared that he was the seventeenth Javzandamba, the incarnation of Taranatha. Most accounts maintain that he was also converted to the Gelug sect at this time. Thus he was fulfilling the prophesy made by Taranatha. While in Tibet he also made pilgrimages to places connected with his previous incarnations. According to some accounts he visited Takten Damcho Ling Monastery at this time. He almost certainly would have also visited nearby Jonang Monastery and the Great Stupa of Jonang. By that time the Jonang sect had been suppressed by the dominant Gelug sect headed by the Dalai Lama. One intriguing account suggests that it was the young Zanabazar himself who asked that Damcho Takten Ling be converted to a Gelug Monastery. In any case, the monastery became a Gelug institution in the eighth month of 1650.  The Dalai Lama was not convinced, however, that the monks in residence had actually changed their views, and in 1658 most were expelled and sent to other monasteries. The monastery was then renamed Ganden Puntsok Ling, and from this time on “the Jonang tradition ceased to exist as an independent entity in Tsang and Central Tibet.”

The written works of Taranatha, the last great spokesman of the Jonang tradition in Tibet, have survived, however. He was a staggeringly prolific writer whose collected works amounted to sixteen hefty volumes. Perhaps his most famous work was the History of Buddhism in India, completed in 1608. An “amazing intellectual performance.” according to its editor, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, the History is still in print in English translation today. He also wrote a volume of commentary on the Kalachakra Tantra and translated from Sanskrit a guidebook to the Kingdom of Shambhala entitled Kalapar Jugpa (“The Entrance to Kalapa”, Kalapa being the capital of Shambhala). This translation was later used as the basis of the most famous guidebook to Shambhala, Description of the Way to Shambhala, written by the Third Panchen Lama, Palden Yeshe, in 1775.

Another of Taranatha’s abiding interests was the Cult of Tara, on which he expounds in Origins of the Tantra of the Bodhisattva Tara, or as it is also called, The Golden Rosary. Tara was of course also one of Zanabazar’s major preoccupations and the subject of many of his most famous artworks.

Up until now Taranatha’s Autobiography has been one of his lesser known works. I first learned about the autobiography in 1980 from reading Edwin Bernbaum’s book The Way to Shambhala, in which a few sentences were paraphrased. My interest was piqued, however, and over the years I made numerous inquiries, but as far I could determine the autobiography had never been translated into English (to my knowledge, it has still not been published in English). In the fall of 2011 G. Nyamochir contacted me and asked if I would be interesting in publishing a Mongolian translation of the autobiography. Thus this current volume came to be. It is another step on the journey which began when I first stood in front of Zanabazar’s White Tara in 1995.

Statue of Taranatha at Erdene Zuu (Click on photo for Enlargement)

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