The Life of Zanabazar — The First Bogd Gegen of Mongolia

Don Croner, Explorer at Large
Author of Travels In Northern Mongolia
(Unedited: Work in Progress. Last Updated September 10, 2005)

Chapter 4 - Zanabazar's First Trip to Tibet

Puntsokling Monastery in Tibet, founded by Tarnatha, Zanabazar's previous reincarnation

In late 1649, the Earth Female Buffalo Year of the 11th Rabjung according to the Kalachakra calendar, Zanabazar would have been fourteen years old, his childhood over and his adolescence about to begin. Since the age of four, when he had been named the Bogd Gegen at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, he had been taught by the very best religious teachers available in Mongolia, but he must have been aware that if he wished to proceed further on the religious path and aspire to be a leader of Buddhism in Mongolia he would have to continue his studies in Tibet, the wellspring of Buddhism as practiced in Mongolia and the home of the Dalai Lama, the acknowledged leader of the Faith. Thus the decision was made that he should travel to Tibet and meet with the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso.,

Since Zanabazar had overseen the founding of Baruun Khuree-or Shankh, as it later became known-just two years before it is possible that he was in residence there just before he began his sojourn to Tibet. If so he had a considerable journey ahead of him. From the gateway of current-day Shankh Monastery to the gateway of the Jokhang Dratsag, the oldest and most venerated temple in Lhasa, is a distance of 1394.4 miles as the crow flies. Since Zanabazar and his party planned to stop at the Kumbum Monastery, near Khökh Nuur (Qinghai Lake), the traditional half-way point and rest stop on the Mongolia-Tibet caravan route, the distance would have been greater-761.4 miles to Kumbum, and 747.2 miles from here to Lhasa, for a total of 1508.6 miles. Of course these are straight line distances. The actual caravan route, with all its twists, turns, and detours to notable monasteries and other pilgrimage sites might well have been 2000 miles or more. All this distance would have to be covered by horse or camel. The fastest trip on record on the traditional caravan between Mongolia and Lhasa was completed by the famous Buryat lama Agvan Dorzhiev in 1900-1901. Leaving Ulaan Baatar (then Urga) on December 5, 1900 on an urgent diplomatic mission to the 13th Dalai Lama, Dorzhiev and his party had traveled day and night and arrived in Lhasa seventy-two days later. Normal caravans took four or five months, however, and Zanabazar's trip, with his no-doubt sizable and cumbersome entourage and requisite visits to Mongol princes and Buddhist notables along the way may have taken six months or more.

Zanabazar left Mongolia late in 1649, the exact day and month unknown. Nor do we know the exact route he took. There were several caravan tracks to Tibet, but if he took the traditional Shar Zam (Yellow Road) to Tibet he would have veered slightly west from Shankh through what is now Bayankhongor Aimag. Perhaps he stopped at the oasis of Ekhin Gol, then as now one of the main watering holes in south Bayankhongor, before crossing the last ridges of the Gobi-Altai Range just west of 8,755 foot Segs Saikhan Bogd Uul and starting across the dreaded Black Gobi, the most difficult part-mainly because of the lack of water-of the whole journey. From Ekhin Gol to Anhsi, the first sizable Chinese town on the southern edge of the Gobi usually took about twenty days by camel. Then the party would have turned southeast, crossing the Tulai Nan Shan and Datong Shan mountains and skirting the northern shore of Khökh Nuur before arriving at Kumbum Monastery, located in a narrow valley seventeen miles southwest of the present-day city of Xining. Here the party took a lengthy break.

Even then Kumbum (also know as Ta'er Monastery) was regarded as one of the six most important monasteries of the Gelugpa sect to which the Dalai Lama belonged. It was on the site of Kumbum that Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa sect, was born in 1357. According to tradition, after Tsongkhapa's was born his father buried his afterbirth here, and soon a sandalwood tree grew on the spot. An alternative tradition states that the tree grew up where drops of blood from Tsongkhapa's umbilical cord had fallen on the ground. In any case, this tree became known as the "Tree of Great Merit." The leaves and the bark of this tree were reputed to bear impression of the Tibetan alphabet and various mystical syllables and its blossoms were said to give off a peculiarly pleasing scent. After Tsongkhapa had achieved great renown as a lama his mother apparently had a chorten built on the site of his birthplace, and a monastery grew up around this.

In the 1583 the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, who had initiated Zanabazar's great grandfather into Buddhism, came to Kumbum and built a fence built around the "Tree of Great Merit" He also established a college of dialectics which greatly enhanced the already considerable reputation of the monastery. Subsequent Dalai Lamas, including the Seventh, the Thirteenth, and the present Fourteenth (who was born not far away) all spent time at Kumbum. It remains to this day one of chief pilgrimage and tourist attractions in Qinghai Province.

Zanabazar would certain have seen the Tree of Great Merit, which existed up until at least the 1840s, when it was observed by two to Catholic missionaries, Huc and Gabet. Devout Christians, they were fully prepared to debunk the Tree of Great Merit as just another fanciful legend. "We were filled with an absolute consternation of astonishment," Huc noted in his famous book Travels in Tartary, "at finding that, in point of fact, there were upon each of the leaves well-formed Tibetan characters . . . Our first impression was a suspicion of fraud on the part of the lamas; but after a minute examination of every detail, we could not discover the least deception." The tree later died but parts of it are now preserved in a large stupa in the Great Golden Temple, where thousands and thousand of prostrating pilgrims over the years have worn deep grooves in the wooden floor.

Unfortunately we know nothing more about Zanabazar's stay in Kumbum. Pozdneev, on the basis of traditional Mongolian sources, states only that they "wintered, according to custom" here. In early spring he and his party continued on their way. Did they stop just south of Khökh Nuur at Thegchen Chonkhor Ling, built by the 3rd Dalai Lama on the site where he converted the Altan Khan to Buddhism? Again we don't know. Nor do we know what route they took to Lhasa. Indeed, although most if not all routes would have taken them to Lhasa first, accounts of Zanabazar's Tibet trip pick up the story with his arrival in Shigatse, home of the Panchen Lama, 190 miles up the Tsango Valley from Lhasa.

Tashilhunpo Monastery had been founded in 1447 by one of the main disciples of Tsongkhapa, Gendun Drup, who had posthumously been given the title of First Dalai Lama. At the time of Zanabazar's arrival in Shigatse the head of Tashilhunpo was Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen (1570-1662). This distinguished lama had begun studying at Tashilhunpo when he was seventeen and became abbot of the monastery at the age of thirty-one. In 1604 he journeyed to Drepung Monastery in Lhasa and served as the tutor and ordinator of the 4th Dalai Lama Yönten Gyatso. After the 4th Dalai Lama passed away in 1616 Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen led the search for his reincarnation and was instrumental in choosing Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso as the 5th Dalai Lama. He gave the young Dalai Lama his novice ordination in 1625 and his full ordination in 1638, and became his principal teacher. Later, when the Fifth Dalai Lama achieved both spiritual and temporal control of Tibet he declared that Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen was a manifestation of the Buddha Amitabha. Since an abbot of Tashilhunpo was traditionally known as a Panchen ("great scholar") the Dalai Lama gave Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso the official title of Panchen Lama and also recognized as Panchen Lamas a line of three previous incarnations leading back to Khedrup Je, one of Tsongkhapa's two chief disciples. Thus Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso became the 4th Panchen Lama, according to some reckonings, but still considered the first by many..

By declaring that Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso was a manifestation of the Buddha Amitabha, while he himself was the manifestation of the bodhisattva Chenresig-a potential Buddha only-the Dalai Lama gave cause for some to consider that the Panchen Lama was in fact superior to the Dalai Lama. This idea would eventually cause considerable mischief in the political life of Tibet and continues to do so up to the present day, with the supposed superiority of the Panchen Lama still being exploited for overtly political purposes.

It is indicative of the Panchen Lama's importance even during the lifetime of Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso that Zanabazar immediately upon arrival in Tibet traveled to Shigatse to met him. Zanabazar made "a thousand-fold offering" to the Panchen Lama and presented tea and gifts of money to the monks of Tashilhunpo. Then the Panchen Lama gave him a Getshul ordination and numerous teachings and initiations, including apparently a Yamantaka Initiation. Then it was time to go back to Lhasa and met with the 5th Dalai Lama.

The "Great Fifth", as the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, was eventually called, was born in 1617. When Zanabazar arrived in Lhasa in 1650 the 5th Dalai Lama had been both the spiritual and temporal leader of the newly-unified country of Tibet for nine years. Although previous Dalai Lamas had exerted great spiritual influence over the people of Tibet they did not aspire to political power. This changed in 1642 when the 5th Dalai Lama became was placed on the throne of Tibet by the Mongol chieftain Gushri Khan, a member of the loose confederations of tribes known as the Oirat, or Western Mongols.

As mentioned earlier, in the early 1550s the Oirat had been driven out of what is now the country of Mongolia by Altan Khan and his grand-nephew Sechen Khongtaiji. They regrouped south of the Mongol-Altai Mountains in Zungaria, what is now the Chinese province of Xinjiang, and began to expand westward. In 1616 one branch of the Oirat, the Torguts, began a long migration westward which would eventually, by the 1630s, bring them to the lower Volga River in what is now Russia. (Although some later returned to Zungaria in the 1770s, others have remained to this day as a Buddhist-Mongol enclave in the Autonomous Republic of Kalmykia, part of the current Russian Federation.) Another branch of the Oirat, the Khoshot (or Qoshut), occupied the Lake Zaisan area in what is now Kazakhstan and the upper Irtysh River Basin in Xinjiang. In 1620, the leader of the Khoshot, Boibeghus, converted to Buddhism, and in his zeal he managed to convert several other of the Oirat chieftains and their followers. Soon the sons of the Oirat nobility were sent to study in the great Gelugpa monasteries of Tibet.

By the 1630s the brother of Boibeghus, Gushri Khan, had carved out his own khanate around Qinghai Lake (Khökh Nuur) and the Tsaidam region to the west. Like Boibeghus, he was a devout Buddhist, and in particular a follower of the Gelugpa sect of the Dalai Lama. Thus he could only look on with consternation at the conflict which had been brewing in Tibet between the Gelugpas and the older, so-called "Red Hat" sect for the last two decades. in 1618 the King of Tsang, the main secular ruler of what is now central Tibet and a supporter of the Karma Kargyupa sect, at that time opposed to the Gelugpas, had plundered several monasteries in the Lhasa area, including Drepung, where many Mongolians studied, and had forcibly converted many of the monks to his own sect. According to one account, the hills behind Drepung were red with the blood of Gelugpa monks who had tried to flee but were cut down by the King of Tsang's soldiers. Infuriated by these persecutions the Mongol descendants of Altan Khan sent an army to Tibet to smite the Tsang King and his Karma Kargyupa followers. The future Great Fifth was of course just a small boy at this time and unable to play a role in these events, but the First Panchen Lama-the one who Zanabazar later met-and the Gandan Tripa, the official head of the Gelugpa sect, stepped in as mediators and managed to avert a full scale war. The monastic property looted by the King of Tsang was returned to the Gelugpas and the forcibly converted monks were allowed to return to their own sect. For the moment there was peace, but the real trouble was just beginning.

The same year, 1621, the King of Tsang Karma Puntsok Namgyal died and was replaced son his son Karma Tenkyong Wangpo. The new king soon reinstituted his father's policy of persecuting the Gelugpa and eventually the peace brokered by the Panchen Lama and the Gandan Tripa broke down. In 1635 the King Karma Tenkyong Wangpo hired on army of mercenaries from among the so-called Chogthu Mongols, ruled by a khan the Rosary of White Lotuses calls "Chogthu the Dark Lord". This army of 10,000 mercenaries, led by his son Arsalang, was dispatched to Tibet "with a general mission to persecute the lamas [of the Gelugpa sect] and break up colleges and meditation centers," according to the Rosary

Faced with the advance of this horde, lamas from the important monasteries held a meeting and requested advice from the Oracle of Tibet (the medium who channeled the deity Dorje Dragten, and who was probably ensconced at this time at Samye Monastery, although later he lived at Nechung Monastery, not far from Drepung). The Oracle replied, "The chief of the North, who wears the snake belt around his waist will conquer the enemy." This, the lamas realized, was a reference to Gushri Khan.

By then not only many Khalkh, or Eastern Mongols, but also, as noted earlier, many Oirat Mongols were studying in the Gelugpa monasteries of TibetThus the advance of Chogthu the Dark Lord's mercenary army was seen by the Oirat rulers as a threat to themselves, their families, their followers, and their religious tenets. Gushri Khan was particularly incensed. He formed what the historian René Grousset calls a "Holy League" among the various Oirat princes and rode out to attack the army led by Arsalang.

Gushri Khan finally confronted Arsalang near Qinghai Lake. This meeting had a strange denouement. Instead of fighting, Arsalan agreed to accompanied Gushri Khan to Lhasa with only a small personal bodyguard. Granted an audience with the 5th Dalai, Arsalan prostrated before him and announced his intention to become a monk. His father, Chogthu the Dark Lord, was of course furious. "Kill my son Arsalang by any means," he bellowed, according to the Rosary of White Lotuses, and then set about organizing another army to send to Tibet. Alerted to this scheme, in 1637 Gushri Khan attacked and defeated the chieftain Chogthu and his army near Qinghai Lake. According to the Rosary, Chogthu himself was captured after being found hiding in a marmot hole.

Although Chogthu's mercenary army was eliminated its sponsor the King of Tsang remained. In 1638 Gushri Khan and his followers came to Lhasa ostensibly on a pilgrimage. Gushri Khan soon met with the Dalai Lama and offered led a military campaign again the King of Tsang, promising to deal with the problem once and for all. In the interests of preventing bloodshed, however, the Dalai Lama talked him out of this course of action. The king of Tsang used this brief reprieve to strike up an alliance with the King of Beri, a warlord from eastern Tibet. Together they would wage war on the Gelugpas. Gushri Khan wanted to attack the alliance but again the Dalai Lama strenuously objected on the grounds of preventing bloodshed. This time however, he was overruled by his powerful regent, or changdzo, Sonam Chopel, who had considerable say over secular affairs. In 1639 Gushri Khan attacked and defeated the King of Beri's army and in 1640 captured the king himself. ) He then turned his attentions on the King of Tsang. By 1642 army of Tsang had been defeated and the king himself imprisoned on charges of treason. He might have been allowed to live, but he had committed one unpardonable faux pas, as least in the eyes of Gushri Khan. Earlier he had built on a hill overlooking the Gelugpa monastery of Tashilhunpo, home of the Panchen Lama in Shigatse, a Karma Kargyu monastery which local people soon gave the irreverent name "Tashi's Defeat." This apparent slight against Tashilhunpo Monastery infuriated the ever-volatile Gushri Khan. According to the Rosary of White Lotuses he had the King of Tsang sewn into a bag leather and then either had him trampling to death with horses, the usual Mongol means of executing nobility, or thrown into a river and drowned, a more traditionally Tibetan technique.

Having eliminated all rivals, on the 15th day of the 3rd Month of 1642 the Gushri became the de facto ruler of the newly unified country of Tibet. "The white umbrella of his orderly reign reached up to Heaven," according to the Rosary of White Lotuses. It went on to add, "He then invited both the Royal Father and Son to Samdrubtse. Following the earlier pattern set up by king Hupali Sechen [Khubilai Khan] and Phagspa Lama, the king presented the Tsang province to Panchen Rimpoche, and the Thirteen Myriachies of Tibet to Gyalwa Rimpoche [the Dalai Lama]. That was also the beginning of Ganden Phodrang [name for the Tibetan government] or the heaven-appointed system of religious and state rule." From this point on the Great Fifth and subsequent Dalai Lamas became the both the spiritual and temporal leaders of Tibet. Not until 1959, when the current Dalai Lama went into exile, was the theocratic system established with the help of Gushri Khan interrupted.

Visitors to the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa today can see on the wall of the inner courtyard a colorful mural of a avuncular-looking Gushri Khan conversing with Desi Sanngye Gyatso, who ruled as a regent after the 5th Dalai Lama's death. Visitors to Gandan Monastery about 25 miles east of Lhasa can see in entranceway to the temple housing Tsongkhapa's tomb a wall painting of a man in a Mongolian robe holding a tiger on a leash. The tiger, monks explain, is wild and unruly Tibet, finally brought under control by the Mongol khans.

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."

The Punksoling Monastery and Jonangpa sect in general fell on hard times in the early 1640s. One of the most outspoken opponents of the shen-teng view espoused by the Jonangpa was Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa sect, and the Gelugpa continued in later years to take exception to the Jonangpa teachings. But while it is easy to imagine Jonangpa and Gelugpa monks engaging in fierce courtyard debates over these teachings it is difficult to believe that philosophical differences only were behind the forceful takeover of the Phunksoling Monastery in 1642 by the Dalai Lama-led Gelugpa sect and the subsequent suppression of the Jonangpa school. It would appear instead that the Jonangpa, along with the Karma Kargyu sect, had made the political miscalculation of siding with the King of Tsang and thus had been the object of Gushri Khan's wrath during the civil war of the early 1640s

We do not know if Gushri Khan himself appeared at the walls of Phunksoling Monastery, which had the appearance of a fortified medieval castle, or whether the monks offered any organized resistance to the Mongol warriors from within their redoubt. In any case, according to the monks there today, the monastery was heavily damaged in 1642. Many of the printing blocks at the printing establishment were destroyed, including those of Taranatha's own books. The monastery thereafter became a Gelugpa establishment with the new name of Ganden Puntsokling, and presumably the monks were converted to the Gelugpa sect. While the Jonangpa sect itself was suppressed, it should be pointed out that many of Taranatha's writing later became fully incorporated into the teaching of the Gelugpa.

Thus it was the Gelugpa monastery of Ganden Puntsokling that Zanabazar visited in 1650 when he set out to visit places connected with the lives of his previous incarnations. No doubt the damage from the turmoils of 1642 had been repaired, and perhaps the printing press was even operating again. We know that while at Ganden Puntsokling Zanabazar was given a very valuable book, identified in Mongolian sources as the Jad-damba, which was printed in gold on leaves of sandalwood. He probably saw the enormous (forty feet in circumference) three-dimensional Kalachakra mandala fashioned from gold and copper which was one of the main attractions at Ganden Puntsokling. According to one source it remained here until 1680, when it was finally taken to the Potala, where it remains to this day as the stunning centerpiece of the Kalachakra Temple. No doubt he walked up the side valley the original Jonang Monastery and visited all seven stories and dozens of temple niches within the Jonang Kumbum. And maybe be climbed the hillside east of the Kumbum and sat in the cave which Taranatha himself had used as a meditation retreat. Either at Ganden Puntsokling or other monasteries on his itinerary he also collected statues of Tara, Chenresig, and Maitreya. On his way back from Ganden Puntsokling he stopped again at Tashilhunpo to visit the Panchen Lama, and then returned to Lhasa.

Ganden Puntsokling is off the heavily-beaten tourist path in Tibet, but monks in residence say that a fair amount of foreign tourists and pilgrims find their way there in the summertime. There were no other visitors in the wintertime when I was there. There are no tourist facilities anywhere in the area, but monks were kind enough to let us use a guestroom and give us tea and dinner.

Most of the monastery was heavily damaged during the Cultural Revolution. The castle-like building on the high knob overlooking the valley is still in ruins, but two of the temples at the base of the knob have been restored. In one of them, the Shambhala Temple, is a wooden replica, just recently constructed, of the huge three-dimensional Kalachakra mandala which had been removed from here at some point and placed in the Potala in 1680. An hour's walk up the side-valley is the Lingshar Nunnery where about a dozen nuns now live. They are in the charge of huge Jonang Kumbum and act as guides for visitors. The Kumbum was also heavily damaged by the Red Guards but the exterior of the structure and some of the temple niches on its seven floors have now been restored. The fourth-floor is dedicated to one of Taranatha's preoccupations, the Kalachakra, and the temples on this floor contain statues of some of the twenty-five Khalkin Kings of Shambhala, although most are now unrecognizable. From the top of the Kumbum is a good view of the environs of the old Jonang Monastery, supposedly modeled on Shambhala, but the buildings themselves are now totally in ruins. On the hillside can still be seen at the cave the nuns say Taranatha used as a meditation retreat. Unfortunately they have never heard of Zanabazar, and thus are unable to say for sure if he himself ever visited here.

Zanabazar was so deeply impressed by what he had experienced during his travels around Tibet that he wanted to stay in the country indefinitely. During one of his visits to Tashilhunpo he had told the Panchen Lama, "I wish to settle in Tibet and undergo instruction." According to the Rosary White Lotuses, the Panchen Lama finally had to tell him, "It will be much more beneficial to the Teachings and sentient beings if you go back to the Sog country [Mongolia] and set up new monasteries there, rather than stay and study here.". At some point he also intimated to the Dalai that he would like to stay in Tibet, but the Great Fifth gave him the same answer as the Panchen Lama: he could do the most good for sentient beings in Mongolia.

So Zanabazar tried to make the most of his limited time in Tibet. As mentioned, the construction of the Potala was in progress while he was in Lhasa, and there were many artists from Nepal and other countries in the Tibetan capital to assist in the building and furnishing of the Dalai Lama's new palace. Although the Mongolian accounts say nothing of this, it is possible that Zanabazar, who had shown artistic inclinations from early childhood, used this opportunity to acquaint himself with the techniques employed by these various artisans. As we shall see, art historians would later detect a Nepalese influence in many of his most famous works. It's also possible that he became acquainted at this time with the theoretical canons of art contained in the Tengyur, the vast collection of commentaries on the Buddha's teachings.

Interesting as all these subjects may have been it was soon time to return to Mongolia. On the Dalai Lama's advice he took with him numerous Tibetan monks and fifty Tangut monks from the ancient land of Xi Xsia (roughly the modern-day province of Ningxia, China). All of them it would appear were members of the Gelugpa sect and were to assist Zanabazar in converting Mongolia to the Yellow Hat Faith. In addition to the monks were an assortment of artists, painters, and other craftsmen to help Zanabazar build and adorn new monasteries in Mongolia. In total over 600 people accompanied Zanabazar back in Mongolia, in addition to his own entourage. They arrived sometime in 1651, exact date unknown. Thus ended the first Bogd Gegen's first trip to Tibet.

Drepung Monastery, where Zanabazar probably stayed while in Lhasa is still one of the three big monasteries, along with Sera and Gandan, in the Lhasa area, and continues to be an important pilgrimage site for Tibetans, as well as a standard stop on all tourist excursions in Lhasa. I have visited Drepung several times. Once I was there in the winter when the courtyards and hallways were jammed with Tibetan pilgrims from the countryside. On this occasion I had the benefit of a guide and translator, a Tibetan woman in her thirties who spoke excellent English. I explained to her that I would like to ask someone at Drepung whether they knew anything about Zanabazar, the famous Mongolian lama who had visited here in the mid-seventeenth century. I had intended that she ask someone in a position of authority about this, but instead she immediately turned to an old toothless monk who happened to be shuffling by and put the question to him. He was hard of hearing and my translator ended up shouting at him while he cupped his hands to his ears in order to hear. He finally understand her question and after ruminating at length, all the while twirling the half-dozen or so white hairs which constituted his beard, said "Oh," you must mean the famous Mongolian lama whose 9th reincarnation now lives in India." Amazing, he was indeed referring to Zanabazar, whose current reincarnation is now headquartered at a monastery in Simla, India. I was startled to hear that he knew about Zanabazar, but even more so that he aware of Zanabazar's present reincarnation. "Ask him how he knows about the reincarnation in India," I told my translator. After another shouting match she replied, "He heard about this lama on BBC."

For more Art and Exploration in Mongolia, please visit "Don Croner's World Wide Wanders"

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