The Jonangpas are still alive!

by on Tuesday, 09 February 2010 Comments
No more then 20 years ago the Jonang School was studied and described as "a now defunct Tibetan Buddhist school".

The lineage was born at the end of the 13th century, when Kun spangs Thugs rje Brtson ‘grus , a Kalacakra pratictioner, settled in the valley of Jomonang. Focusing on the Kalacakratantra teachings and with a particular vision of emptiness, this man and his further disciples were the first jonangpas.

The valley of Jomonang became their main centre, so that those who adhere to the practices that were preserved and transmitted in that place were later called Jonangpa.

The lineage continued in central Tibet until the second half of the 17th century, when the uler of central Tibet and of the Gelugpa school, the 5th Dalai Lama, substained by the Mongol Army began the reunification of the country. Taking control of the places under the Jonangpa influence, the 5Th Dalai Lama also converted their temples and monasteries into Gelugpa, sealing their texts and banning their teachings. However, since the end of the 14th century, the tradition began to spread into eastern Tibet: the areas of Kham and Amdo, corresponding today to big parts of Sichuan and Qinghai.

Thanks to the fact that Gelugpa political and military power did not reach also these places, too far from central Tibet, the Jonangpa temples and masters were safe, free to maintain the transmission of their teachings and tantric practices. Their tradition was strong enough to survive not only the 17th century persecution, but also the chinese cultural revolution. In that rough period the Jonangpa lineage was kept alive by masters and disciples gathering secretly and practicing as yogis in the countryside of Amdo and Kham.

Jonangpas_Filippo_Brambilla_010

This being the subject of my specialist degree, I spent the year in Chengdu doing some bibliographical research, then June and July travelling and interviewing in Sichuan and Qinghai, mainly around the areas of Ma’erkang, Rangtang, Aba, Banma and Jiuzhi. These places are wonderful, with a medium altitude of 3500 metres above the sea level the air is thin and the nature is stunning, the people are quite poor but friendly and happy to share with you what they have. However, travelling is not so easy, because the massive presence of Chinese police and the constant controls you are subject to. I came unprepared, unsure what I was going to do and how to reach them but as soon as I arrived in Dzamthang (壤塘), the biggest and most important Jonangpa monasteries are found today, I found the monks were interested in my presence as much as I was in their lives and traditions. Thus it wasn’t hard to find people willing to talk about themselves, especially when, chatting together, they became aware that I knew something about them and that this was the reason of my visit. Almost everywhere I’ve been, the monks have been happy to help with my research, always allowing me to visit their monasteries and meet their most relevant figures.

The Jonangpa areas in Sichuan are a little bit different, as are their inhabitants, from those in Qinghai. The people in this part of Sichuan generally live in houses built with rock and wood and grow barley. Although the area is quite poor, the government is actuating a Chinese-style modernisation: entering a town you can often see a sign illustrating the new urban plan, with huge white buildings mimicking the traditional Tibetan architecture. As you get nearer to Qinghai, the landscape changes, until you find yourself on the plateau, where there are more ‘black yak wool tents’ than mud houses and a big part of the population is still nomad, moving from a pasture to another with yak herds. Even if, with people mainly speaking Tibetan languages, my poor Chinese sometimes became useless, I’ve always found some milk tea, barely flour and an extreme quantity of butter ready to be mixed in my honour.

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Filippo Brambilla (菲力浦)

Fledgling Tibetanologist, Graduate in East Asian Studies and Languages at the University of Venice. Recently completed a his masters research searching out the Jonangpa's in Tibetan areas.

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