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.

Tradition of the Perfect Eon

The "now" is important for any tradition. For it is in the process of bringing the past into the present wherein a tradition is brought to life. However, the past, and in particular the excavation of knowledge from the past, is arguably just as important for the life of a tradition.

As we discussed in the "Wheel of Time" series, this excavation process is a true concern for Dolpopa and later Jonangpa thinkers.[1] For them, this is the hermeneutical act of retrieving the pure teaching from the pure time: the dharma of the Kṛtayuga or Perfect Eon.

However, there is more to this. There is then the act of transferring meaning ― lived meaning ― into the present. This is a careful process. A surgical deliberation that involves the transference of language, culture, and history ― or what I like to call, "ancestry."

Embodying the Kalachakra

Marveling at how the ultimate is described as expressions, and thinking about how to relate this ongoing theme to Kālachakra practice, I happened upon a short piece by the late Lama Ngawang Kalden from Dzamthang that strikes at the heart of this matter.

In a compilation of his writings and talks, there is a short text within his Cycle of Instructions for Visualizing the Profound that has a passage on how the ultimate manifests as contemplative experience through the vajrayana process of embodying the Kālachakra deity.

Dolpopa's Experience

With "expressions of emptiness" on my mind, I thought it might be nice to reflect on Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen's experience of this quintessential phenomena, and how this experience acted as a pivotal point in his understanding zhentong.

This of course raises larger ― more lingering ― questions, such as: How is zhentong understood by the Jonangpa?; What links the vajrayoga practices of the Kālachakra with zhentong?; What "evidence" do we have that expressions of emptiness are actual phenomena?[1]; etc.

Though these broad and overarching questions lie beyond the scope of this short post, these are issues that I'd like to gravitate towards in future posts. Here, I'd like to draw from the narrative of the Jonangpa, or at least one episode in the biographical account of Dolpopa's life that roots his experience of this phenomena within his realization of zhentong.

Expressions of Emptiness

When we think about emptiness, there is usually an intimation of absence. That is, a lack of presence is implied. However, in zhentong contemplative thinking, the recognition of the ultimate real implies an acknowledgment of presence, a constant luminous presence.

Perhaps one of the most interesting twists in this paradox of absence and presence is what I referred to in an earlier post as, "expressions of emptiness."[1] The technical term that I'm translating here is śūnyatā-biṃba in Sanskrit or stong pa nyid kyi gzugs brnyan in Tibetan (commonly abbreviated as, stong gzugs and translated, "empty form"). Since this is such a key term and prevalent notion in the vajrayoga process of the Kālachakra and tantric zhentong worldview, and since my earlier mentioning of it elicited such excitement, I thought to sketch a few notes on the idea here.

"Wheel of Time" III

Now that we have a rough sketch of Dolpopa's concept of time according to Kālachakra cosmology, we can begin to think about what Dolpopa and later Jonangpas refer to as the "Kṛtayuga dharma" or "Kṛtayuga tradition."[1] To clarify what this is, Dolpopa writes in his Fourth Council,

    The Tretayuga and subsequent eons are flawed; their treatises have been contaminated like milk in the marketplace. They are in every way unable to act as witness. The earlier [eons] displace the later, just as more advanced philosophical systems refute the lesser.

    The Kṛtayuga dharma is the untainted expression of the victorious ones, the explanations of the sovereigns on the tenth spiritual level, and the great founders of the chariot systems. It is flawless and imbued with supreme enlightened qualities.

    In this [Kṛtayuga] tradition, everything is not rangtong. By eloquently distinguishing rangtong from zhentong, that which is relative is taught to be rangtong while that which is ultimate is taught precisely to be zhentong.[2]

"Wheel of Time" II

Continuing to think about time, I'd like to consider the architecture of cosmic time according to the Kālachakra Tantra, and how this temporal schema was further codified by Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen.

First, we must look where Dolpopa tells us to look. There, in the Lokadhātupaṭala or Chapter on World Systems in the extensive Vimalaprabhā commentary on the Kālachakra we find a clear description of four cosmic eons (yuga): (1) Kṛtayuga, (2) Tretayuga, (3) Dvāparayuga, and the (4) Kaliyuga.

Paraphrasing the Vimalaprabhā, Dolpopa writes in the opening verses of his work titled, The Great Calculation of the Teachings that has the Significance of a Fourth Council,[1]

"Wheel of Time" I

Lately, I've been thinking about time. Time in the cliché sense of that which "does not stop for anyone." Historical time. Real time. Blinks and breathes and heart-beats. The wax and wane of moons, the expansion of universes, the radiant pulses of quasars. That basic conceptual structure that flows as the space-time continuum... The ticks and nanoticks that sequentially measure the magnitude and momentum of our lives.

More specifically, I've been thinking about how the Jonangpa master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen thought about time. How his concept of time has contributed to a re-visioning of Buddhist history, and from where his concept derived.[1]

Dolpopa was concerned with framing his realizations in accord with the Kālachakra Tantra, and the lineage of his realizations within the framework of the cosmological schema described by the tantra. In fact, I'd like to suggest that Dolpopa's understanding of time according to the Kālachakra was so central to his realizations that we must seek to understand this concept of time if we are to think seriously about the larger zhentong paradigm.

Story of Shambhala

Though the story of the mythic land Shambhala as related from the Kālachakra Tantra is well known, I thought to recount a portion of the legend here. What follows is an edited excerpt taken from my translation of the introduction to the Kālachakra empowerment, as it was conferred in Italy a few weeks ago.[1]

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Bestowal of the Kālachakra:

Kalachakra Practice I

In preparation for the upcoming Kālachakra retreat, I thought to revisit some of the central themes on Jonang Kālachakra practice that have inspired many of my conversations with friends and inquirers on the subject. Though much of this can be found in my outline of the practice curriculum, it may be helpful to discuss this again here.[1]