The Life of Zanabazar: The First Bogd Gegen of Mongolia

Chapter 4

Zanabazar's First Trip to Tibet

(Unedited: Work in Progress. Last Updated September 13)

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The Great Fifth was near the height of his powers as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet when Zanabazar met him in 1650. In 1645 he had began in earnest the construction of the Potala, the immense palace on the so-called Red Hill overlooking the city of Lhasa. There had been a smaller palace or fortress on this same hill since at least the reign of King Songtsen Gampo in the seventh century. The Potala was named after a mountain in southern India originally venerated by Hindus as one of the dwelling places of the god Shiva and later by Buddhists, who dedicated it to Avalokiteshvara, of whom the Dalai Lamas are manifestations. The building is now of course one of the world's great architectural landmarks. Much of the so-called White Palace portion of the Potala was finished by 1648, but the Red Palace part of the Potala, where later Dalai Lamas would live, was not completed until 1694, twelve years after the death of the Great Fifth. So in all likelihood in 1650 the Dalai Lama was living in the Gandan Potrang, a palace within the confines of Drepung Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, where previous Dalai Lamas had lived. As we have seen, both Khalka and Oirat Mongols who came to study in Lhasa also concentrated at Drepung. Gomang College within Drepung would eventually became famous as a learning center for Mongolian monks, although it is not clear if this college already existed at the time of Zanabazar's visit. In any case, Zanabazar, like the sons of other Mongol nobility, probably studied at one of the colleges in Drepung while Lhasa.

According to traditional accounts Zanabazar was in Lhasa for a total of about six months. The Dalai Lama personally gave him numerous teachings and a Vajrapani Initiation. Both Altan Khan and Zanabazar's great-grandfather Avtai Khan, it will be remembered were considered manifestations of Vajrapani. For his part, Zanabazar made the rounds of the Lhasa monasteries, offered ceremonial teas to the monks and making offerings at the numerous temples.

At some point Dalai Lama also publicly proclaimed that Zanabazar was a reincarnation of the famous teacher and historian Taranatha. As reported earlier, during Avtai Khan's alleged second trip to Tibet he had supposedly met Taranatha and invited him to Mongolia, and Taranatha himself had intimated that he would be reborn in Mongolia. This story was possibly apocryphal, in any case little seems to have been made of Zanabazar's previous incarnations before his first trip to Tibet. As Zanabazar's biographer Pozdneev points out, "not one of the Khalkas even thought to see in Lobsang-vanbo-jaltsan [Zanabazar] a khubilgan [reincarnation] of any kind." Since Taranatha was considered the 15th reincarnation of a being known as Jebtsun Dampa, Zanabazar now became the 16th Jebtsun Dampa, a name and title which he would use for the rest of his life and pass on to his subsequent reincarnations. Thus was Zanabazar recognized as the latest in a long line of personages in the history of Buddhism going back to the time of Buddha himself.

According to the traditional chronology, the first incarnation of Jebtsun Dampa was Lodoi-shindu-namdak, who appeared in the Indian city Magadha and served as one of Buddha's original 500 disciples. The second was Bardi-dzoboo, the head of the 500 pundits who dwelt at Nalanda Monastery in India, during the time of the famous Indian sage Nagarjuna (probably in the first century AD ). The next two were born in India, but other than their birthplace biographical information is lacking. The fifth Jebtsun Dampa, Runsum-choi-san, was the first to appear in Tibet, during the lifetime of the famous Bengal-born sage Atisha (982-1054 AD), who moved to Tibet and died at the Tara Temple about 20 miles east of Lhasa. The next five incarnations were also born in Tibet, although little else is known about them. The eleventh was apparently Jamyang Chöje Tashi Pelden ("Dashi-baldan" in Mongolian accounts), born in Tibet near Samye Monastery, and a close disciple of Tsongkhapa. He went on to establish Drepung Monastery in 1416 and more than one hundred other monasteries and retreat hermitages all over Tibet. He was followed by Choi-gii-nin-jid, born in Ceylon during the latter part of the life of the First Dalai Lama, Gendun Drubpa (1391-1474), and Gunga-doltsok, born in the Tibetan province of "Nari" (Ngari?) during the time of the Second Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542). The fourteenth incarnation of Jebtsun Dampa appeared in India as the son of a Indian king. At the age of fourteen, while standing one day on the roof of his father's palace, a spirit, his so-called Dakini Mother, appeared in the sky and reclaimed him, i. e., he died. There followed the birth of Taranatha, Zanabazar's immediate predecessor as Jebtsun Dampa, in 1585.

Since there were only fifteen incarnations of Jebtsun Dampa between the time of Buddha, generally recognized as about 2500 years ago, and the birth of Zanabazar, the first Bogd Gegen, in 1635, and given the average life time of human beings, there would appear to be long periods of time when there was no living representative of the line, and that it was in effect dormant. This is not precisely the case however. As learned lamas explained to the A, M. Pozdneev in the 1890s, "during the rest of the time he [Jebtsun Dampa] was reborn in diverse parts of the universe with the purpose of benefit not only to people but to beings of other worlds; these reincarnations of him are unknown to anyone beside the Gegeen himself [the then-current Jebtsun Dampa], and that is why there are no legends about them whatsoever."

Not only did the Dalai Lama recognize Zanabazar's lineage of incarnations, he also managed to convert Zanabazar to his own sect, the Gelugpas, an event which would have a considerable effect on the subsequent history of Buddhism in Mongolia. It will be remembered that Mongolians north of the Gobi had first encountered Tibetan Buddhism during the time of the Great Khans in the personages of Sakya Pandita and Sakya Pakpa, both member of the Sakya sect. Later, during the reintroduction of Buddhism, Zanabazar's great-grandfather Avtai Khan had invited Sakya monks to Erdene Zuu to help construct and consecrate the new temples there, and eventually Zanabazar would receive at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur his first ordinations and the title "The One Who Hold the Sakya Banner of the Great Mind" from Sakya monks. Thus when he made his first trip to Lhasa he was still a follower of the Sakya sect.

Indeed, the Sakya sect considered Taranatha, although he belonged to another sect, or sub-sect, the Jonangpa, one of their own, and when Zanabazar arrived in Lhasa in 1650 Sakya lamas were still looking for his reincarnation, although he had died back in 1634, a year before Zanabazar's birth. By inculcating Zanabazar with the tenets of the Gelugpa sect, eventually convincing him to quit the Sakya sect and became a Gelugpa himself, the Dalai Lama was able to both claim the Jebtsun Dampa lineage for the Gelugpas and put the sect in a position to become the dominant religious force in Mongolia, under the leadership of Zanabazar.

There is no indication that Zanabazar made any objections to this arrangement, and as a symbol of his new status he accepted from the Dalai Lama the gift of a yellow silk parasol. He also decided to visit monasteries and other places connected with his previous incarnations in Tibet. Of course, he was probably already staying at Drepung, which had been founded by the eleventh Jebtsun Dampa, Jamyang Chöje Tashi, in 1416. The next obvious place to visit was the monastery founded by his immediate predecessor as Jebtsun Dampa, Taranatha.


Taranatha was born in 1575 in Drong, Tibet, on the same birth-day as Guru Padmasambhava. Like Zanabazar, he was a childhood prodigy whose astounded everyone with his precociousness. "By the time he was only a year old, one biographical account claims, " . . . Taranatha could read and write, walk, and practice meditation without any imperfection. He also could name all the deities in any thangka, even those so worn and dirty that no one else alive could tell which deity was painted. He already could heal people from disease."

Later Taranatha studied under numerous Tibetan gurus, including Jampa Lhundrup, Kunga Tashi, Je Draktopa, and Yeshe Wangpo. He also became a disciple of Buddhagupta, one of the very last prominent Buddhist monks in India, where Buddhism by that time had been largely supplanted by Islamic incursions and resurgent Hinduism. This peripatetic wanderer-monk had sojourned in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Ladakh, Sri Lanka, Java, East Africa, Bodhgaya in India (where Buddha had achieved Enlightenment), Assam, Burma, and northern Thailand, and was thus able inculcate in Taranatha a thorough knowledge of Buddhism as practiced outside of Tibet.. ,

Taranatha became 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, which according to tradition had been taught by Buddha to Suchandra, the first King of Shambhala. As noted early, Zanabazar's appearance as the 16th Jebtsun Dampa, according to the Rosary of White Lotuses, had been predicted in the Kalachakra Tantra. He also 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. Also, in his Autobiography, the first volume of his collected works, he relates that while in a dream state a small white boy led him to Shambhala. Alone among the sojourners who claim to have visited this storied kingdom, either in their physical bodies, in dreams, or in meditative states, Taranatha found Shambhala inhabited almost entirely by women.

Another of Taranatha's abiding interests was the Cult of Tara, on which he expounds in Volume 12 of his Collected Works, Origins of the Tantra of the Bodhisattva Tara, or as it is also called, The Golden Rosary. Taranatha probably learned much about the history of cult of Tara, which originated in India, from his India guru Buddhagupta. Since Tara also was to become a major preoccupation of Zanabazar's, and Tara herself the subject of many of his most famous artworks, we will examine Tara Cult in much more detail later.


Taranatha was also a chief spokesman for the so-called Jonangpa School, a small but vigorous sect which held doctrinal tenets in some cases decidedly different from some other schools of thought in Tibet. The basic teachings of the school had appeared early as the eleventh century, but it is Dolpopa Sherab Gyelten (1292-1361) who is credited with fully developing the Jonangpa belief-system. The sect is best known for its philosophical doctrine of ultimate truth called shen-tong, or "other emptiness." This is different 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." As Tibetologist Stephen Batchelor points out, "While such distinctions may strike us today as theological hairsplitting, in Tibet they became (and still are) crucial articles of faith."

In addition to the shen-teng doctrine, the Jonangpa had an special interest in the Kalachakra. Numerous Jonangpa monks besides Taranatha wrote on the Kalachakra, and a unique line of Kalachakra teachings has been passed down to this day by the Karma Kargyu school.

In the thirteen century Kunpang Tukje Tsötru (1243-1313) founded the original Jonang monastery about three miles up a small side valley of the Tsangpo. Reportedly this monastery was modeled on the traditional layout of the kingdom of Shambhala as shown on Shambhala thangkas. In 1327 Dolpopa Sherab Gyelten built nearby an enormous seven-story stupa, the Jonang Kumbum, similar in appearance but older than the much more famous kumbum in the city of Gyantse.

In 1614 Taranatha established in 1614 the Puntsokling Monastery three miles down the side valley, near the south bank of the Tsangpo. The main buildings of the monastery were built on a high knob overlooking the river and offering spectacular views up and down the valley. The Punksoling Monastery eventually became famous for its printing workshop which among many other items published the sixteen-volume collected works of Taranatha himself. According to some accounts Taranatha went to Mongolia not long after founding Phunksoling and established several monasteries there. Almost nothing is known about his years in Mongolia and it is unclear what monasteries he may have founded in those pre-Zanabazar days. In any case, he died in Mongolia in 1634 and his body was returned to Tibet.

According to venerated Italian Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci, Taranatha was buried at Dzingi, five miles northeast of Oka, "A large silver chorten is said to hold the mortal remains of Taranatha, a well-known Tibetan polymath . . . As tradition has it, Taranatha's relics were thrown into the river and carried by the stream to Katrag, midway between Zangrikangmar and Oka, where they were collected and transported into the Dzingji temple."

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