Showing posts with label Taranatha. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Taranatha. Show all posts

Monday, September 13, 2021

Tibet | Great Stupa of Jonang | Dölpopa

I recently added The Buddha from Dölpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen to the Scriptorium and have just finished reading it. The book was of special interest to me because Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen was one of the most famous residents of Jonang Monastery in Tibet, which I had the pleasure of visiting when I was doing research on Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia. Taranatha (1575–1634), the Previous Incarnation of Zanabazar, founded the monastery of Takten Damchö Ling not from Dölpopa’s Jonang Monastery and Zanabazar almost certainly visited both sites during his Visits to Tibet

Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (དོལ་པོ་པ་ཤེས་རབ་རྒྱལ་མཚན་; Döl-po-pa Shes-rab Rgyal-mtshan) was born in 1292 in the Dölpo region of what is now Nepal. He is more commonly known simply as Dölpopa, the “Man from Dölpo”. He was the founder of the Jonang Sect, later suppressed by the more politically powerful Gelug Sect to which the Dalai Lamas have belonged. He was also the first major proponent of the so-called Shentong View, an important stream of Tibetan philosophical thought which continues to have staunch adherents down to the Present Day:
"Zhentong," (gzhan stong, "shentong") "extrinsic emptiness" or "other-emptiness" is a view of how the ultimate nature of reality is free from or empty of everything "other" than its absolute nature. In other words, a zhentong view understands how one's own enlightened essence is empty of everything false in superficial relative reality. Zhentong as a view for meditation practice regards relative reality as empty of its own intrinsic existence. This emptiness of inherent substance or "rangtong" is considered to be solely the nature of relative reality while ultimate reality is understood to be empty of everything other than itself. Accordingly, transient tangible experiences remain devoid of inherent substance as the boundless luminous nucleus of Buddhahood within all beings remains intangible and invariant.
The meditation caves in the cliffs above Jonang Monastery were reportedly used by Padmasambhava, the 8th century Nyingma master who introduced tantric Buddhism from India into Tibet. A monastery was flourishing on the site by the time Dölpopa arrived there for the first time in 1321. In 1326 he was officially installed as the head of the monastery, taking the place of Yönton Gyatso, who had also been Dölpopa’s 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. 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. More on the Great Stupa

The design of the stupa was based on descriptions of the Glorious Stupa of the Planets given in the Stainless Light, a commentary on the Kalachakra Tantra, which according to legend had first been expounded by the Buddha himself. (As you may know the current Dalai Lama is giving a Kalachakra Initiation in Washington, DC, July 6–16, 2011.) According to tradition, the Stainless Light had been written by Pundarika, the Second Kalkin King of Shambhala. Dölpopa apparently believed that he was a reincarnation of Pundarika and claimed to have visited Shambhala by visionary means.
The Jonang Stupa today
The fourth floor of the stupa reportedly once held statues of the 25 Kalkin Kings of Shambhala. I could find no trace of them when I was there. 
Another view of the Jonang Stupa
On the hillside above the stupa can be seen Dölpopa’s personal residence, known as Dewachen. Above Dewachen can be seen meditation huts and openings to caves, perhaps the meditation caves used by Padmasambhava.
Dewachen, red building, lower center
When Tsarchen Losel Gyatso, one of the great Sakya sect tantric masters of the sixteenth century and also a follower of various Jonang tenets, visited Jonang in 1539, he noted:
The next morning we visited the great Stupa That Liberates on Sight, the temple of the lineage of the Six-branch Yoga, and so forth. When I gazed from afar at the hermitages, my mind went out to them and I was enthralled. A distinctly vivid pure vision dawned in the center of my heart and I thought, “The early excellent masters established a continuous meditation center on a site such as this. Placing many people on the path of liberation, their way of life was so amazing and incredible. When will we also practice for enlightenment in an isolated site such as this?” 
Also see a transcript of a talk, The Legacy of the Jonangpa by Michael Sheehy at the Great Stupa of Jonang in Tibet on July 17, 2009.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

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:

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)

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Tibet | Takten Damcho Ling | Taranatha

I posted previously on The Great Stupa of Jonang and Dölpopa. A couple of miles down the side valley in which the stupa is located, fronting on the main valley of the Tsangpo River, is the monastery of Takten Damcho Ling, founded by the famous historian and Kalachakra practitioner Taranatha, the previous incarnation of Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia. 
The lower section of the Takten Damcho Ling complex, with the Tsangpo River in the distance
Another view of the lower part of the complex. 

Taranatha (1575–1634) was, at least within the Jonang tradition, thought be an incarnation of Kunga Drölchok, who like Dölpopa had been born in what is now Nepal. Also like Dôlpopa,  Kunga Drölchok was first a follower of the Sakya sect. He eventually received the Jonang transmission of the Kalachakra Tantra and other Jonang teachings. Later he was asked to head the Jonang sect. After he died, Taranatha become leader of the Jonangpa. In the words of Cyrus Stearns, author of The Buddha from Dölpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen:
In the history of the Jonang tradition, Taranatha is second in importance to Dölpopa himself. He is responsible for the short-lived Jonang renaissance in Tsang and Central Tibet during the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries, and the widespread revitalization of the shentong theory in particular. 
He was one of the last great translators of Sanskrit tantric texts into Tibetan and was an incredibly prolific writer himself. His History of Buddhism in India and The Origin of Tara Tantra are still in print today. 

Takten Damcho Ling was established by Taranatha in 1615 with funds provided by the Tsang ruler Desi Puntsok Nyamgyal (the monastery is also known as Puntsok Ling). When it was finally completed in 1628 it was the largest Jonang monastery in Tibet, boasting of a large college, sixteen temples, and a printing press. Some 10,000 monks were said to live in the monastery and the surrounding area. According to monks there today many of the temples were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Currently eight of the temples are in use. The monastery also has a small guesthouse where I stayed when I visited. There are no other tourist facilities in the area.
Lower part of Takten Damcho Ling looking up toward the upper ruins
Ruins of upper part of Takten Damcho Ling
Upper part of Takten Damcho Ling
Upper part of Takten Damcho Ling

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mongolia | Incarnations of Javsandamba 16 – 25

Earlier I posted about the statues of  the first  First Sixteen Incarnations of Javzandamba on display in the Larivan Temple at Erdene Zuu, in Kharkhorin, Övörkhangai Aimag. The sixteenth incarnation was of course Taranatha, who was born in Tibet and died in Mongolia. 
16. Жонан Дарната
Jonan Darnata (Taranatha) statue at Erdene Zuu
Tibetan thangka of Taranatha
This spectacular late nineteenth century thangka of Yamantaka (it measures over seven feet in length) was just recently unearthed in the archives of the Bogd Khaan Winter Palace Museum, a vast repository of materials many of which have never been put on public display before or even catalogued. The first twenty-four incarnations of Javzandamba are depicted at the top of the thangka. 
Taranatha on the Yamantaka thangka above
The next nine incarnations (17 through 25) served as the Bogd Gegeens of Mongolia. The first was of course Zanabazar
17. 1 Богд Занабазар (1635-1723)
Zanabazar  (Enlargement)
Statue of Zanabazar in the Bogd Khan Winter Palace Museum 
18. II Богд Лувсандамбийдонмэ (1624-1557)
19. lll Богд Ишдамбийням (1758-1773)
20. IV Богд Лувсантүвдэнванчуг (1775-1813)
21.  V Богд Лувсанчүлтэм Жигмэддамбийжанцан (1815-1841)
Luvsanchültem Jigmeddambiijantsan 
22.  Vl Богд Лувсанбалдандамбийжанцан (1643-1648)
23. VII Богд Агваанчойживанчүгпринлайжамц (1849-1868)
24.  VIIl Богд Агваанлувсанчойжинямданзанванчүг (1869-1924)
Eighth Bogd Gegeen Agvaanluvsanchoijinyamdanzanvanchüg 
25. IX Богд Жамбалнамдолчойжижанцан (1932 – )
The Ninth Bogd Gegeen lives in Ulaanbaatar but reportedly is in very bad health. Speculation has already begun on where the 10th Bogd Gegeen will be born. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Mongolia | Ulaanbaatar | Bogd Khan Winter Palace | Taranantha

Last weekend I wandered out to Erdene Zuu for the Celebration of Zanabazar’s 376 Birthday and to take photos of the First Sixteen Incarnations of Javsandamba. This weekend I wandered over to the Bogd Khan Winter Palace Museum, not far from my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi to see the statue of Taranatha, the sixteenth incarnation of Javsandamba. As you know, Taranatha, the founder of Takten Damcho Ling Monastery in Tibet, eventually moved to Mongolia and died here in 1634. What is less known is that at least part of his bodily remains (his head according to some versions of the story) are inside the statue in the Lavrin Temple of the Bogd Khan Palace Complex.
 The Lavrin Temple of the Bogd Khan Palace Complex three weeks ago, before the last big snowfall
 Taranatha (1575–1634)
Well-known scholar Nyamochir paying his respects to Taranatha
Ruins of Takten Damcho Ling, monastery in Tibet founded by Taranatha
The Twenty-fifth incarnation of Javsandamba and the Ninth Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia, currently living in Ulaanbaatar. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

India | Nalanda University

A tremendous burst of creative adaptation is increasingly evident across Asia. The Western world went through a similar phase as it emerged out of the medieval ages. Hence the word “renaissance” has come to be applied to Asia’s reemergence today. As part of this renaissance, the Indian parliament recently passed a bill reestablishing Nalanda University as an international university. Nalanda was the world’s oldest university by far, flourishing for centuries before it was destroyed by Afghan invaders in the 12th century.
I visited Nalanda a few years ago:

After leaving Vulture’s Peak we drive through the narrow gap between Vaibhara Hill and Vipula Hill and back out onto the plain. Seven or eight miles past the new city of Rajgir a narrow road cuts off to Nalanda. In front of the entrance is a hubbub of tea stalls, souvenir stands, and particularly voracious beggars, but once past the front gate and into the large walled compound (unlike Vulture’s Peak, a ticket is required here)—the expansive grounds are immaculately maintained, with mowed lawns, paved paths lined with flower beds, neat and informative signposts, convenient placed benches for the weary, and not so much as a gum wrapper of trash visible anywhere.
Spotless grounds of Nalanda
Present are well-dressed, affluent-looking Indian families on outings (it’s a Sunday), a smattering of Tibetan pilgrims, and bunches of monks and nuns in burgundy, orange, and ochre scattered about the landscape like bouquets of tulips.
Tibetan Pilgrims
Nalanda and its environs have a hallowed place in the history of religion and learning in India. Even before the establishment of the monastery and university the area was famous for its pleasure parks and rest houses. According to one legend the Buddha in a previous life had lived here as a king and due to his kindness to his subjects both he the capital of his kingdom became known as “Kindness without Remission,” the rough meaning of the nalanda according to one interpretation of the word. . The Buddha himself gave teachings here, including the Brahmajala Sutra, the first discourse of the Tripitaka, and the Ambalatthika Rahulovasda Sutra, and his two main disciples, Sariputra and Mahamaudgalyayana, were born nearby. In addition to the Buddhist associations, Mahavira (the honorary title of a teacher by the name of Vardhamana), a contemporary of the Buddha who is regarded by followers of Jainism as the greatest of all their teachers, spend as many as fourteen rainy seasons in the area. (Ironically, Mahamaudgalyayana was later beaten to death by assassins said to be in the pay of local Jains.)

Although the area was famous, the origins of what became the Nalanda monastery and university are uncertain. Taranatha (who as you know was a Previous Incarnation of Zanabazar), in his monumental History of Buddhism in India claims that in the 3rd B. C. century King Ashoka came here on a pilgrimage to visit a stupa dedicated to Sariputra and that he subsequently built another stupa nearby in honor of the Buddha.

Taranatha further intimates that the construction of this stupa marks the very beginning of Nalanda’s development into a monastery. The very existence of this stupa has been questioned, and there are no other indications that any kind of monastic establishment had been founded this early. Some sources state that Nalanda as we know it was in fact founded in the second century A.D. by King Sakraditya of Magadha. The earliest archeological findings at the site, however, date from the early Gupta Dynasty ((350 a.d – 650 a.d.) Also, our pilgrim friend Fa Hien, who visited the area early in the fifth century, took note of a stupa marking the spot where Sariputra’s body was cremated but refers only in passing to a nearby monastery, leading some to conclude that no significant monastic establishment or university existed at the time of his visits. We do know that by the late fifth century and early sixth century, under the Guptas, the monastic university was firmly established. Some of the archeological remains at the site today date from this period. From then on Nalanda continued to grow.

One of its greatest patrons was Harsha (606-647), one of the last Gupta kings. The peripatetic pilgrim Xuanzang visited here during Harsa’s reign and spoke of his munificence: “The king of the country respects and honours the priests, and has remitted the revenues of about 100 villages for the endowment of this convent. Two hundred householders in these villages, day-by-day, contribute several hundred piculs [one picul equals 133.3 lbs.] of ordinary rice, and several hundred catties [one catty equals 160 lbs.] in weight of butter and milk. Hence the students here, being so abundantly supplied, do not require to ask for the four requisites [clothes, food, bedding and medicine]. This is the source of their perfection of their studies . . .”

The Gupta Dynasty fell in 650, eventually to be replaced by the Pala Dynasty, famous for its patronage of Buddhism. Although the Pala emperors established numerous other monasteries, including Vikramasila, Somapura, and Odantapuri, they continued to support Nalanda. There was one burst of building activity during the Pala period in the ninth century, perhaps following a devastating fire, and much of the statuary from Nalanda which has survived dates from this period. The end of the Pala Dynasty, brought about by the incursions of Islam, would also spell the end of Nalanda.

A whole galaxy of notable Buddhist gurus and scholars studied or taught at Nalanda. As one commentator noted, “to study the history of Nalanda is to study the history of Mahayana Buddhism.” As we have seen Nagarjuna, who according to legend retrieved various Mahayana texts, including the Prajnaparamita, from the Nagas, is said by Taranatha and others to have taught at Nalanda. See two Prajnaparamita texts:

Admittedly the historical ground is a bit shaky here, since other sources place Nagarjuna in south India for much of his life, and there are questions of just how much of a monastic establishment existed at Nalanda in the second century A.D. when Najarjuna is said to have lived. Nevertheless, Najarjuna is inextricably connected, either by fact or legend, with Nalanda. “The legend goes,” we are told by the famous modern-day Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, “that Nagarjuna was approached by nagas (dragons) in human form after one of his lectures at the monastery of Nalanda. They invited him to their undersea kingdom to see some texts they thought would be of great interest to him. He went with them magically under the sea and discovered a vast treasure trove of the Mahayana Sutras, not only the Prajnaparamita, but also the Jewel Heap, the Lotus, and the Pure Land Sutras.” Having studied this sutras with the Nagas, Nagarjuna, according to legend, then returned to Nalanda and introduced them into human society. Whatever their origination, there is no doubt that Nalanda became a leading center for the dissemination of Mahayana doctrines. (Bardi-dzoboo, credited with being an earlier incarnation of Zanabazar, is said to have lived at Nalanda during the time of Nagarjuna.)

Taranatha further asserts that Aryadeva, the main disciple of Nagarjuna, a Madhyamaka master and author of the Catuhsataka, among numerous other works; Asanga, fourth century A.D. founder of the Yogacara school of Mahayana; and Vasubhandu, Asanga’s half-brother, who at Asanga’s urging—according to some accounts—converted to Mahayana and became an proponent of the Yogacara school, all spend considerable time at Nalanda and that the latter two served as abbots here. Again there are questions about the chronology here, and whether a significant monastic university actually existed at Nalanda during the lifetimes of these individuals.

On firmer historical ground, Dignaga (480-540 A.D.), a later student of Vasubhandu who wrote extensively on the Adhidharma, is known to have taught at Nalanda. This would have been about the time the monastic university began to flourish under the Guptas. Later luminaries include Dharmapala, a leading light of the Yogacara school and an influential teacher of Silabhadra (529-645 A.D.), who as we shall shortly see taught the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang; Dharmakirti (seventh century A.D.), an outstanding teacher of logic known as the Kant of India; and the immortal Shantideva, author of The Way of the Bodhisattva, which is still in print today in numerous additions (I have met people who have memorized large chunks of it).

Numerous figures connected with the spread of Buddhism to Tibet also studied at Nalanda. This in part explains why Nalanda remains to this day an important pilgrimage site for Tibetans. Among these notables must be included Thonpi Sambhota, inventor of the Tibetan script, although little more is known of his activities either at or after Nalanda. Most famous among the other Tibet-connected personages are Padmasambhava, also known as “the Lotus-Born,” Santarakshita, who received his monastic vows at Nalanda from the monk Jnanagarbha, and Kamalasila, a student of Santarakshita’s. All three of whom lived in the 8th century A.D. Padmasambhava and Santarakshita traveled to Tibet at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen, who visited to introduce Buddhism into his kingdom. Padmasambhava’s efforts at disseminating Buddhism in Tibet were so successful that is often referred to by Tibetans as “the Second Buddha.” In the 770s Padmasambhava and Santarakshita oversaw the construction of Samye Monastery, the very first monastic establishment in Tibet.

Padmasambhava and Santarakshita modeled Samye on the monastic complex at Odantapuri, which as mentioned had been patronized by the Pala Dynasty. Odantapuri was completely obliterated during the Moslems incursion of the 12th century and until just recently even its location was unknown. Now it is believed to have located at Bihar Sharif, just seven miles north-east of Nalanda. It is not surprising then that Padmasambhava and Santarakshita knew of Odanaturi and were able to model Samye after it. The design which they used is supposed to represent the Buddhist model of the universe. The three-story main temple represents Mount Sumeru, the mythical mountain at the center of the Universe. The four so-called Ling Temples at the corners of the main temple represent the four continents which according to traditional Buddhist cosmology surround Mount Sumeru. It was here at Samye that the first seven Tibetans were ordained by Shantarakshita, after the Indian teacher had closely examined them to see if they were fit to be monks. They are still known today as the Seven Examined Men.

Kamalasila, Santarakshita’s student at Nalanda, traveled to Tibet in his teacher’s footsteps and gained fame as a debater. At that time Ch’an Buddhism as practiced in China, which emphasized the concept of sudden enlightenment, was also being taught in Tibet, most famously by the Chinese Ch’an master Hvashang Mahayana. During the years 792-794, a debate was held between the Ch’an Buddhists and the Buddhists from Nalanda who represented the so-called “gradual enlightenment” school. The “gradual enlightenment” school led by Kamalasila won the debate, and the Nalanda-taught form of Buddhism gained ascendancy in Tibet, but he may have paid for it with his life. In 795 he was murdered, according to some accounts by a Chinese assassin dispatched by his debate opponent.

None of these worthies, regardless of how extensive their other writings may have been, left any detailed record of Nalanda itself. The best account we have comes from the Indefatigably Peripatetic Pilgrim Xuanzang, who made a dramatic entrance here in 636 A.D. At time of his arrival his fame had already proceeded him to such an extant that four distinguished members of the university came out to met him and led him to a house where it was said Maudgalyayana had been born. The party stopped here for refreshment. “Then,” his biographer tells us, “with two hundred priests and some thousand lay patrons, who surrounded him as he went, recounting his praises, and carrying standards, umbrellas, flowers, and perfumes, he entered Nalanda.” Xuanzang:
The sanghadaramas [monastic complexes] of India are counted by myriads, but this is the most remarkable for grandeur and height . . . The whole establishment is surrounded by a brick wall, which encloses the entire convent from without. One gate opens into the great college, from which are separated eight other halls, standing in the middle . . .
The entrance to the complex in now through a narrow gate and passageway on the eastern side of the walled complex. In Xuanzang’s there was a famous Northern Gate which served as the main entrance to the monastery. Those who sought to study at Nalanda were confronted here by a gate keeper who acted as a kind of Dean of Admissions. “If men of other quarters,” Xuanzang tells us, ”desire to enter and take part in the discussions, the keeper of the gate proposes some hard questions; many are unable to answer, and retire. One must have studied deeply both old and new books before gaining admission. Those students, therefore, who come here as strangers, have to show their ability by hard discussion; those who fail compared to those who succeed are as seven or eight to ten.” This Northern Gate no longer exists nor is its exact location known, although its ruins are thought to be somewhere under the villages to the north of the current walled compound.

Inside the gate the entire population of the monastery turned out to greet Xuanzang. After taking a seat right by the side of the residing priest, a proclamation was made: “‘Whist the Master of the Law [Xuanzang] dwells at the convent, all the commodities used by the priests and all the appliances of religion are for his convenience, in common with the rest.’”

Then he was led into the presence of the redoubtable Silabhadra, the leading master of the Yogacara school and the greatest scholar of the many at Nalanda. “The priests, belonging to the convent, or strangers residing therein,” according to Xuanzang, ”always reach the number of 10,000, who all study the Great Vehicle, and also the works belonging to the eighteen sects . . . There are 1000 men who can explain twenty collections of Sutras and Sastras; 500 who can explain thirty collections, and perhaps ten men . . . who can explain fifty collections. Silabhadra alone has studied and understood the whole number. His eminent virtue and advanced age have caused him to be regarded as the chief member of the community.” His renown was so great that no one at Nalanda called him but name but instead referred to him as “Treasure of the Good Law.”

Xuanzang approached this worthy on his knees, kissed his foot, and showered him with compliments. Asking Xuanzang to take a seat, Silabhadra then asked Xuanzang where he was from. “‘I am come from the country of China, desiring to learn from your instruction the principles of the Yoga-Sastra [Yogacara].’” Since Xuanzang’s fame had proceeded him to Nalanda, we must wonder why Silabhadra had to ask where he was from. Perhaps the great scholar was too absorbed in this studies to have heard in advance about the famous pilgrim-traveler.

Anyhow, upon hearing that Xuanzang was from China Silabhadra’s eyes filled with tears. He called to his nephew Buddhabhadra and asked him to recount to Xuanzang an event which had happened three years before. Silabhadra, it seems, had long been suffering from colic, but at that time the attacks had become so severe that he wished to end his life and had thus resolved to starve himself to death. In the middle of the night three devas, or spiritual beings, appeared to him in a dream. They asked, “‘Are you anxious to get free of this body of yours? The scriptures speak, saying, the body is born to suffering; they do not say we should hate it and cast away the body.’” The devas further explained to Silabhadra that in a previous life he had been the king who had mistreated his subjects and that his present illness was karmic retribution for these past misdeeds. Then revealing that they were the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara, Maitreya, and Manjushri, they advised Silabhadra that if he faithfully continued to teach the Yogacara doctrine for the benefit of those who had not yet heard it he would be cured of his illness. They added, “Do not overlook that there is a priest of the country of China who delights in examining the great Law and is desirous to study with you: you ought to instruct him most carefully.”

Obviously Xuanzang was the Chinese priest prophesied in the dream, now come to receive the teachings from Silabhadra. “The company present hearing this history were all filled with wonder at the miraculous event,” we are told. “The Master of the Law [Xuanzang] having heard for himself this narrative was unable to control his feelings of sympathy and joy.” He was, in fact, so unable to control himself that when he was asked how long he had been traveling he blurted out, “three years,” even though by that time he had been on the road at least seven. Apparently in his eagerness to please he wanted the length of his travels to coincide with the prophecy.

Xuanzang ended up staying at Nalanda for a total of five years, studying with Silabhadra and other learned men, collecting sutras to take back to China, and perfecting his Sanskrit, knowledge of which he would need to translate these works into Chinese. During his stay he was royally treated, receiving considerable rations each day, including a peck of Mahasali rice. “This rice,” we are told, “is as large as a black bean and when cooked is aromatic and shining, like no other rice at all. It grows only In Magadha and nowhere else. It is offered only to the king or religious persons of great distinction . . .” He was also given an elephant to ride, a privilege usually reserved for royalty.

Xuanzang was effusive about the various temples and buildings of Nalanda “The richly adorned towers, and the fairy-like turrets, like pointed hill-tops, are congregated together,” he mentions. “The observatories seem to be lost in the vapors of the morning, and the upper rooms are above the clouds. From the windows one may see how the winds and clouds produce new forms, and above the soaring eves the conjunction of the sun and the moon may be observed.” One of the observatories was at least nine-stories high, and there were three libraries, Ratnasagara, Ratnadadhi, and Ratnaranjaka, containing thousands of book in numerous languages.

He also mentions a Tara Temple: “. . . in a vihara [temple] constructed of brick is a figure of Tara Bodhisattva (To-p’u-sa). This figure is of great height, and its spiritual appearance is very striking. Every fast-day large offerings are made to it. The kings and ministers and great people of the neighboring countries offer exquisite perfumes and flowers, holding gem covered flags and canopies, whilst instruments of metal and stone resound in turns, mingled with the harmony of flutes and harps. These religious assemblies last for seven days.” This is perhaps one of the clearest indications of just how strong the Cult of Tara was as far back as the seventh century A.D.

Xuanzang was also impressed by his follow monks at Nalanda [there is no mention of any nuns]:
The priests, to the number of several thousands, area men of the highest ability and rank. Their distinction is very great at the present time, and there are many hundreds whose fame has rapidly spread through distant regions. Their conduct is pure and unblamable. They follow in sincerity the precepts of the moral law. The rules of this convent are severe, and all the priests are bound to observe them. The countries of India respect and follow them. The day is not sufficient for asking and answering profound questions. From morning to night they engage in discussion; the old and young mutually help one another. Those who cannot discuss questions out of the Tripitaka are little esteemed, and are obliged to hide themselves for shame. Learned men from different cities, on this account, who desire to acquire quickly a renown in discussion, come here in their multitudes to settle their doubts, and then the streams of their wisdom spread far and wide. For this reason some persons usurp the name of Nalanda students, and in going to and fro receive honor in consequence.
As with all organic entities, however, no sooner had Nalanda ripening and flowered than decline decay and set in. The university became immensely wealthy from royal patronage, especially during the Pala era, and students soon forsook Buddhist studies and the religious life for careers in court and government. Also, Brahmanism made inroads in the curriculum, diluting Buddhist teachings until began to resemble Hinduism.

Thus Nalanda was already in steep decline, at least from a religious and intellectual point of view, when Islamic armies invaded India at the beginning of the 1190s. After the second battle of Tarain in 1192 when the forces of Islam were victorious there was nothing to keep them from invading the so-called Middle Land where Nalanda was located. In 1193 Mohammad Bakhtyar and his armies swept across the Gangetic Plain destroying all Buddhist temples and institutions he found and killing Buddhist monks who fell into his hands. Nalanda was almost completely plundered, but a few monks who had managed to survive the onslaught returned and attempted to revive the institution. A second attack by the Moslems followed and this time Nalanda was destroyed for good. The abandoned ruins of the once great monastery slowly sank into the plains of Bihar.

The now restored ruins cover an area perhaps half a mile long and a little less than a quarter of a mile wide, and even this is thought to be only one-tenth of the original size of Nalanda.
Restored structures at Nalanda
Along one side of a walkway running lengthwise through the site are the brick remains of eight different monastic compounds. The compounds, arranged in a perfectly straight row, are all similar. Each is about one hundred and fifty feet square and consists of small monastic cells, ten or twelve on each of the four sides, opening onto a central courtyard.
Monks' Quarters
In the courtyard of some of them is a platform where a teacher lectured to the assembled monks and other students. Some of the cells contain beds and bookcases built into the brick walls.
On the other side of the central are the remains of four brick temples in various states of restoration. The most dramatic of these is the massive pyramidal structure at southern end of the museum complex.
Main Temple at Nalanda
One of the oldest remaining buildings at Nalanda, it was built in at least seven stages, one on top of another. The staircases leading to the top built during the fifth, sixth, and seventh phases of the construction can still be seen. Around the structure are dozens of stupas in varying states of repair, the best preserved containing original Pala statuary. I overhead a tour guide here saying that this temple was built on the site of the stupa originally built in the Nalanda area by Ashoka, although neither a nearby sign post describing the structure or any guidebooks I have say anything about this.

I spend two or three hours wandering around the monastic compounds and temples. Most of the Indian families have retreated to the shade of the snack shop just outside the entryway, but a few Tibetan pilgrims still dutifully plod among the ruins. Some of them pick up pebbles and pinches of dust and put them in small ziploc plastic bags, souvenirs of the hallowed ground where Padmasambhava, Santarakshita, and Kamalasila once trod. I stop briefly to listen to a group of Tibetan monks reading in unison a sutra in front of one of the temple ruins. They are from a monastery in south India, established by Tibetan refugees who fled after the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Thus by the vicissitudes of twentieth-century ideologies and politics has Tibetan Buddhism returned to India, from whence it originally had sprung.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Mongolia | Ulaan Baatar | Bogd Khan’s Winter Palace Museum

The Winter Palace 
The Bogd Khan Palace Winter Palace and Summer Prayer Temples complex was built by the 8th Bogd Gegeen (1870–1924), the last of the Bogd Gegeens to live in Mongolia. After the final expulsion of the Chinese from Mongolia in 1921 he assumed the title Bogd Khan and ruled as the nominal head of a theocracy much like the one that existed in Tibet under the Dalai Lamas until his death in 1924. 
The two-story wood-framed Winter Palace was constructed in 1905 according to the designs of a Russian architect working under direct orders of the Russian Czar Nicholas II, who was apparently trying to curry favor with the Bogd Gegeen at this time. The Qing Emperor, nominal ruler of Mongolia, took exception to the palace being built on European lines, since Europeans were Christians, not Buddhists, and to placate him lotus patterns were painted on the walls and Buddhist ornaments added to the roof (these latter are now no longer present.) The Bogd Gegeen and his consort Dondogdulam lived in the Palace for almost twenty winters.
Dondogdulam, Consort of the Eighth Bogd Gegeen
In 1925, after the Bogd Khan’s death, many of his personal possessions were auctioned off at a sale organized by Kh. Choibalsan, the future dictator of communist Mongolia, and the following year his Winter Palace was turned into a museum. Despite the dispersal of many of the his effects, the Winter Palace remains an overflowing cornucopia of material connected with the life and times of the 8th Bogd Gegeen; his sumptuous robes and hats; the elaborately decorated thrones of the Bogd Gegeen and his consort; the richly ornamented sleeping chambers where they spent their nights; the music box given to him by a Russian trade delegation in 1910 which played a variety of classical tunes; the silver vase and platter given to him as a token of their esteem by the newly founded Bolshevik government in Siberia (no doubt plundered from wealthy aristocrats); the bizarre collection of stuffed animals and fish, including aardvarks, anteaters, blowfish, tigers, monkeys and much else prepared for him in 1910 by taxidermists in Hamburg, Germany; the handsome trappings worn by the elephant he had imported to Mongolia for his amusement; an incredible ger covered with the skins of 150 snow leopards, a gift from one Sangilig Dorj, a man from the old Setsen Aimag who presented it to the Bogd Gegeen on the occasion of the latter’s birthday in 1893; and a plethora of associated ephemera. Also worth noting are striking portraits of both the Bogd and his consort by the noted artist B. Sharav (1869-1939).

Of more direct interest to Zanabazarophiles is the huge wooden chair in the middle room of the second floor. This throne-like seat, glazed with what looks like black enamel and decorated with floridly painted panels and semi-precious stones, which was given to Zanabazar by Kangxi, the Qing emperor, with whom he stayed during his years as an exile in Beijing. The mere fact that this elaborately rococo confection, which no doubt once hosted Zanabazar’s saintly posterior, had been conveyed all the way from Beijing, perhaps on the back of a camel, and then survived the wars, revolutions, and plunderings of the twentieth century is in itself remarkable. 
Zanabazar's Throne-chair 
Also on the second floor is Zanabazar’s immense fur cloak made of eighty black fox furs, also a gift from the Qing emperor Kangxi. Its wide collar is decorated with sixty-one coral flowers and 800 pearls. Zanabazar was reportedly a big man physically, and he would have had to have been to fill out this tent-like garment. 
Zanabazar's cloak 
The original Summer Palace burned down sometime in the late 1800s. The current complex of seven temples, located in a walled compound just to the west of the Winter Palace, was constructed between 1893 and 1906. In front of the complex is a wall of blue bricks known as the Yampai, or Spirit Shield, a standard feature of Tibeto-Mongolian temples which is supposed to deter malignant influences from entering the temple grounds. Just behind this wall is the Three Open Gates, three wooden gateways which remained permanently open in order to allow all good influences to enter the temple compound. The Bogd Gegen and his advisors always entered the compound via the central gate, nobles and foreign guests via the East Gate, and guards, musicians, and hoi-polloi through the West Gate. Just behind the Three Open Gates are two long cha-gan, or flag posts. In the Bogd Khan’s day the one on the west flew the blue state flag of Mongolia and the one on the east the yellow flag of Buddhism. 

Behind the flag poles is the Andimen, or Peace Gate. This elaborate wooden structure was built for the Bogd Gegen between 1912 and 1919 to commemorate his ascension to Monarch of Mongolia following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the declaration of Mongolian independence. The gate was designed by the famous Mongolian architect Baajar and built at a cost of over 385 pounds of silver donated by the Bogd Gegen’s followers. The wooden structure does not contain a single nail but was instead constructed with 108 different kinds of interlocking wooden joints. Topped by a seven-tiered canopy, the gate was lavishly decorated with depictions of Buddhist legends and scenes from the life of Gesar Khan, but these have faded with time. 

The walled Summer Prayer Temples compound is entered via the Makhranz Temple, which contains the traditional four temple guardians. The first two temples to the left and right after passing through the Makhranz were once used once used by the Bogd Khan’s staff and advisors and by artists engaged in making embroidered silk thangkas and clothes for the Bogd and his consort. They now contain a collection of embroidered silk thangkas and other artwork. 

Of special interest here is the visually intricate thangka ”Meditations of the Bogd Gegeens” in the temple to the right. In the center of this thangka is a depiction of dark blue thirty-four armed Yamataka in the yab-yum position with his consort. Just above Yamataka is depicted Zanabazar wearing a hat surmounted by a dorje, and just below is shown the 8th Bogd Gegeen. Just above Zanabazar’s shoulders are White Tara and Green Tara, and above them the Buddhas of the Three Times (Past, Present, and Future), Kashvapa, Shakyamuni, and Maitreya. Below the 8th and to the right the Bogd Gegeen (Zanabazar?) is shown making obeisance to Jamsran, the protector deity of Mongolia. Various events from the life of Zanabazar are also shown, including his meeting with the 5th Dalai Lama and his bestowal of blessings on Emperor Kangxi and his mother the Dowager Empress. Numerous other historical events are also portrayed, including the meeting of the 3rd Dalai Lama and the Mongolian Altan Khan. It was of course Altan Khan who first bestowed the title of “Dalai Lama” on the Tibetan monk Sonam Gyatso in 1578. In fact, this thangka may be viewed as a visual summary of both the exoteric and esoteric history of Buddhism in Mongolia. It is unfortunate that the museum has not provided an iconographic key to the thangka in either Mongolian or English. 

The Naidan Temple (Temple of Faith in Learning) forms an entranceway to the last courtyard. The two Jotkhan temples on the left and right in this courtyard contain, among many other items, some especially outstanding examples of the so-called Dolonnuur-Style of Buddhist art from Dolonnuur, in Inner Mongolia, including a silver Ayuush (Amitayus). It was at Dolonnuur that Zanabazar met with Emperor Kangxi in 1691 and accepted the suzerainty of the Qing Dynasty. Kangxi built the Yellow Temple for Zanabazar in Dolonnuur in honor of this event, and the during the nineteenth century the town became one of the leading centers for the creation of Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhist art works. 
Lavrin Temple 
The Green Lavrin Temple, the main temple of the complex, was used during the summer by the 8th Bogd Gegen as a meditation retreat. It now hosts Zanabazar’s thirty-inch high Green Tara, one of his great works, and twenty other manifestations of Tara, each about 16 inches high. 
This set of twenty-one Taras was originally made by Zanabazar for the monastery of Zayain Khüree,  in current day Arkhangai Aimag.  Each of the Tara embodies a different quality, as described in prayers like “Praises to the Twenty-one Taras”. 
Four of the 20 small Taras 
Small Tara 
Zanabazar’s previous incarnation, Taranatha, was a leading proponent of the Cult of Tara, and perhaps in recognition of this the Lavrin Temple contains a large, near life-sized statue of him. 
There is also a large statue of Zanabazar himself in his familiar bald-headed guise.