Monday, January 26, 2004

Zanabazar came by his interest in Tara honestly. His previous incarnation, the Tibetan lama Taranatha, was deeply involved in the Cult of Tara, as it is sometimes called. Taranatha was born in 1575 in Drong, Tibet, on the same birth-day as Padmasambhava, the founder of Buddhism in Tibet. 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 would have been able to inculcate in Taranatha a thorough knowledge of Buddhism as practiced outside of Tibet., Taranatha probably learned much about the history of cult of Tara, which originated in India, from Buddhagupta


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 the legendary realm Shambhala. 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 many 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.

Taranatha was also a chief spokesman for the so-called Jonang 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 Jonang 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 teachings, the Jonangpa had an special interest in the Kalachakra, the doctrine which supposedly first flourished in Shambhala. Numerous Jonang 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, which became the seat of the Jonang Sect, about three miles up a small side valley of the Tsangpo River. 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 the Puntsokling Monastery three miles down the side valley from the Jonang Monastery, 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 Puntsokling 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 Puntsokling 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 Dzingi temple.”


The Puntsokling Monastery and Jonang sect in general fell on hard times in the early 1640s. One of the most prominent opponents of the shen-teng view espoused by the Jonangpa was Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug sect, and the Gelug continued in later years to take exception to the Jonang teachings. But while it is easy to imagine Jonang and Gelug monks engaging in fierce courtyard debates over these teachings it is difficult to believe that philosophical differences alone were behind the forceful takeover of the Puntsokling Monastery in 1642 by the Dalai Lama-led Gelug sect and the subsequent suppression of the Jonan school. It would appear instead that the Jonang, along with the Karma Kargyu sect, had made the political miscalculation of siding with the King of Tsang against the Fifth Dalai Lama in the civil war which broke out in Tibet in the early 1640s

According to the monks there today, the monastery was heavily damaged in 1642 by forces loyal to the Dalai Lama. Many of the printing blocks at the printing establishment were destroyed, including those of Taranatha’s own books. The monastery thereafter became a Gelug establishment with the new name of Ganden Puntsokling, and presumably the monks were converted to the Gelug sect. While the Jonang sect itself was suppressed, it should be pointed out that many of Taranatha’s writing later became fully incorporated into the teaching of the Gelug sect.


Zanabazar made the first of his two trips to Tibet in 1649, when he was fourteen years old. In 1650, after meetings with the Panchen and Dalai lamas, he set out to visit places in Tibet connected with the lives of his previous incarnations. The monastery of Ganden Puntsokling was one of the stops on this pilgrimage. By then it was a Gelug establishment, and no doubt the damage from the turmoils of 1642 had been repaired. 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. This book he took back with him to Mongolia. 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, the Dalai Lama’s palace in Lhasa, 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 he climbed the hillside east of the Kumbum and sat in the cave which Taranatha himself had used as a meditation retreat. At Ganden Puntsokling and other monasteries on his itinerary he also collected statues of Tara, Chenresig (the Tibetan name for Avalokiteshvara), and Maitreya. These statues were taken back to Mongolia and may have served as models for his own works.


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 the monks were kind enough to let us use a guestroom and give us tea and dinner.


The ruins of Taranatha's monastery


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 leads to 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 Kalkin 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 almost totally in ruins. On the hillside can still be seen 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.

See More photos of Jonang

The Golden Rosary Illuminating the Origins of the Tantra of Tara, Volume 12 of Taranatha’s Collected Works, is one of the famous works about the Tara mythologem. According to Taranatha’s account, Tara was first a sentient being named Jnanachandra, the Moon of Wisdom, who lived an unfathomable number of eons before our present day, perhaps in a universe that existed before the Big Bang that produced current universe in which we now live. For countless eons Jnanachandra made offerings to a Buddha named Tathagata Dundhbhishvara and prayed for enlightenment. At long last she was able to achieve what Taranatha calls the “Thought of Enlightenment,” or bodhicitta, the desire to attain Buddhahood for the sake of all other living beings. “At that time some monks said to her, ‘It is as a result of these, your roots of virtuous actions, that you have come into being in this female form. If you pray that your deeds accord with the Teaching, then surely you will change your form to that of a man, as is befitting.’”

Jnanachandra replied,

Here there is no man, there is no woman,
No self, no person, and no consciousness.
Labeling ‘male’ or ‘female’ has no essence
But deceives the evil-minded world . . .

She continued: “There are many who desire Enlightenment in a man‘s body, but none who work for the benefits of sentient beings in the body of a woman. Therefore, until samsara is empty, I shall work for the benefit of sentient beings in a woman’s body.”

For countless eons Jnanachandra practiced her devotions. “Behaving skillfully towards objects of the five sense,” Taranatha tells us, “she practiced concentration, and thereby attained the acceptance that all dharmas are unproduced . . . and realized the samadhi called ‘Saving all Sentient Beings.’ By the power of realization, every day in the morning she then freed a million million sentient beings from worldly thoughts, and would not eat until they were established in that acceptance. Every evening also she so established a similar number. The Tathagata Dundhbhishvara, observing her devotion and compassion toward all sentient being, declared, ‘As long as you manifest the unsurpassed Enlightenment, you will be known only be the name Goddess Tara.’” Ever since Moon of Wisdom-knowledge has been known as Tara.

Then for eon after eon Tara perfected her practices while continuing to aid countless sentient beings. In the eon of Vibudda she received the names Loving Mother, Swift One, and Heroine; in another she learned to protect sentient being from the Eight Fears, and finally in the of eon of Asanka she achieved the title, “Mother of all Buddhas.”


According to Taranatha, Tara made her appearance in our world, known in Buddhist texts as Jambudvipa, a few centuries after the birth of Buddha Sakyamuni. She was thought to be an emanation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Out of pity for human mired in samsara Avalokitesvara shed a tear which fell to earth and became a crystalline lake. According to legend, Tara was born out of a lotus flower that appeared on the surface of the lake. The Dalai Lamas of course are considered to be male emanations of Avalokitesvara.

In India a cult soon grew up around the idea of Tara the Protectress. Because of her compassion for sentient beings built up through countless eons she was thought to be ever ready to come to the aid of people in distress. She perhaps became most famous for protecting people from the Eight Fears, a talent she had learned, as noted earlier, in a far-distant eon before she appeared in our age. These eight objects of fear were: lions, elephants, fire, snakes, robbers, imprisonment, water, and man-eating demons. While most of these fears seem related to people of India and other southern Asian countries (fears of elephants and lions, for example), it should be pointed out that the Eight Fears also have an esoteric connotation. Each of them in order stand for pride, delusion, anger, envy, wrong views, avarice, attachment, and doubt. These are actually what Tara is supposed to protect us from.

Eventually a whole corpus of prayers, hymns, and praises evolved around Tara, Two of the most famous are called “Praise of Arya-Tara” and “The King of Praises Called the Fulfiller of All Aims, A Praise of the Arya Goddess Tara.” both attributed Matrceta, an Indian monk who allegedly lived in the second century, although considerable doubt has been raised about exactly when he lived and his authorship of the text. The first is nine verses long; a sample verse reads, the fourth, reads:

Your body, unmoved by defilements, is firm like a mountain.
Well-grown, since nourished by Your perfect virtues,
Full-breasted, since loving kindness moves your heart,
Venerable Tara—homage to You!

The second is forty-five verses long. Two verses read:

You have a body that’s green, for all activities.
On Your crown You’re adorned with Amitabha,
With the look of a universal ruler,
Tara, captain of beings, such is your body . . .

Your lovely locks are beautified with a crown,
Diadem, ribbons, crescent and double vajra.
Earrings, adornments of neck and shoulders, bracelets,
Girdle, anklets and lower-leg wrappings adorn you.

Zanabazar’s Green Tara is a perfect objectification of the Tara described in these three verses.

In India by the sixth century images of Tara—statues, reliefs and perhaps paintings—began to appear, first shown together with Avalokitesvara and finally by herself, and eventually she was depicted in famous Buddhist cave-temples of Ellora. Thus began the long tradition of Tara portrayed in art works which lead to Zanabazar’s Taras.

In the seventh century the King of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo, acquired wives from the neighboring countries of Nepal and China. Both of were Buddhas and both became instrumental in the spread of the Dharma in Tibet. The Chinese wife was thought to be an incarnation of White Tara, the Tara of the Seven Eyes, while the Nepali wife was considered to be an incarnation of Green Tara. Both brought numerous Buddhist statues with them when they came to Tibet and it is possible that images of Tara were introduced into Tibet at this time. The Jowo Buddha statute brought by the Chinese wife, by the way, can still be seen in the Jokhang Temple in the old section of Lhasa, although the crush of people who rush the shrine when it is opened to the public can be daunting to those not accustomed to Tibetan crowd scenes.

See Photo of Jokhang

Buddhism suffered a hiatus in Tibet after the persecutions of the apostate king Langdarma (838-42), a supporter of the Bön religion who destroyed many Buddhist temples and persecuted monks and lay believers. Within the space of the few years the Dharma all but disappeared. Not until the eleventh century, with the appearance of Atisha and other Indian masters did it finally recover.

Atisha (982–1054) had been born Prince Candragarbha, the second son of King Kalyanasri, ruler of a small Indian kingdom in what is now Bangladesh. According to one account of his life, as a young man he had a vision of Tara in which she advised him to renounce his royal title and seek a guru in another country. After years of study in various part of India he sought out teachers in Sumatra, where he lived from 1013 to 1025. Upon his return to India he did stints at the monasteries of Nalanda, Odantapuri, Somapuri, and Vikramasila and soon became recognized as one of the greatest teachers of his age.

While at Vikramasila during the years 1036–1040 Atisha worked with a Tibetan named Nak-ts’o who had come to India to study the Dharma and translate Sanskrit Buddhist texts his own language. Atisha and Nak-ts’o worked together to translate into Tibetan “The Pearl Garland, A Praise of the Goddess Arya Tara”, a forty-three verse praise which had been was written by the Indian monk Candragomin in the seventh century. This later became one of the primary texts of the Tara cult in Tibet Verses four and six:

With magical body of space, unobstructed,
You cross with compassion samara’s great ocean,
And conduct migrators to the land
Of Liberation, great Captain—homage!

Subduing with mantras hostile gods,
Taking Your image upon one’s crown
Becomes a cause to achieve the four rites,
You of power unimpeded—homage!


In 1040. emissaries were sent from Tibet asking Atisha to come there and help re-establish Buddhism. At first Atisha hesitated, but in yet another vision Tara, his tutelary deity, advised him that although he would shorten his life by twenty years by doing so, going to Tibet would greatly aid the spread of the Dharma. He left Vikramashila later in 1040, the following year arrived in Nepal, and was in Tholing in Western Tibet by 1042. It is Atisha we are told, “who was to establish the Buddhist religion in Tibet once and for all . . .” Indeed, his fundamental lamrim text Lamp for the Way of Enlightenment is still in print and read today. The school which grew up around him, the Kadam sect, eventually developed into the so-called New Kadam, or Gelug sect, to which the Dalai Lamas and Zanabazar in his later life belonged. He was also instrumental in spreading the Tara cult in Tibet. Taraist Martin Willson points out, “. . . it would seem that her name was constantly on his lips and that She frequently helped him. There is hardly a significant event in this life that one or other of his biographers fails to connect with the Goddess. Thanks to his devotion, Tara became one of the two most popular deities of Tibet.”

Although not a prolific writer on Tara, Atisha did write at least one praise to Tara and three sadhanas (tantric rites devoted to a particular deity). The eleven verse praise read in part:

To those tired of circling long,
again and again, among the
Six Destinies, you grant the rest,
supremely pleasant, of Great Bliss

Goddess who works the weal of others!
Just to think of You dispels problems!
You, endowed with love and compassion,
liberate from samsara’s bonds . . .


Drolma Lhakhang (Tara Temple), where Atisha spent the last years of his life and where he died, is located about twenty miles from Lhasa on the main road to Shigatse Every visitor who arrives in Tibet via airplane passes by this temple on the way from the airport to Lhasa, but very few seem to stop, and it is not appear to be on the itinerary of guided tours. The first time I was there it was not even necessary to buy a ticket to visit the temple, a rarity in Tibet (two years a ticket was required.) It’s relative obscurity is puzzling, since it contains some of the oldest extant Buddhist statues in Tibet. Unlike almost all over temples in Tibet it was not damaged during the Cultural Revolution and most of its contents survived in tact. According to local monks the Bangladesh government made a direct please to the Communist authorities in Beijing to protect the temple of Atisha, who is considered a saint in his homeland, and as a result a unit of the PLO protected it against the rampages of the Red Guards. (I have never been able to confirm this story independently, but it’s clear the temple and its contents were not significantly damaged.) On the outside of the front wall, to the right of the entrance to the center temple, is a large painting of Tara, Atisha’s tutelary deity, and in the center temple itself is a large Tara surrounded by the other Twenty-One Taras.


White Tara on the front wall of Atisha’ Temple


These have a more than passing resemblance to the Twenty-One Taras made by Zanabazar and now on display in the Winter Palace. A statue of Tara which Atisha himself brought from India used to be here in this temple but it has since disappeared, no one knows how or where. The temple to the right, although not directly unconnected with Tara, contains huge statues of Amitayus, the past Buddhas Kashyapa and Dipamkara, and the Eight Great Bodhisattvas, all dating back to the eleventh century and untouched by Mao’s Little Generals. Here you can get an inkling of what temples in Tibet must have looked like before the iconoclastic upheavals of the late 1960s. Incidentally, sometime during that turbulent decade Atisha’s ashes, which were kept in an urn in the central temple, were returned for safekeeping to Bangladesh, where presumably they remain today.

See Photos of Atisha’s Temple

The New Kadam, or Gelug sect, a continuation of the Kadam tradition initiated by Atisha, was founded by the great reformer Tsongkhapa (1357–1437) This is the sect to which Zanabazar would later belong. One of Tsongkhapa’s two main disciples was Gedün Drup (1391-1475), who was posthumously given the title of First Dalai Lama after the Tibetan lama Sonam Gyatso had been given the title of Dalai Lama by the Mongolian chieftain Altan Khan in 1578 (Sonam Gyatso became the Third Dalai Lama, the second, Gendun Gyatso, was also given the title posthumously.) Gendün Drup received extensive teachings on Tara from a number of celebrated gurus and went on to write a “A Praise of the Venerable Lady Khadiravani Tara Called the Crown Jewel of the Wise,” and various other Tara-related works. Also, Tara supposedly appeared before him while he was meditating. ”It is said he always consulted Her before undertaking anything,” avers Taraist Martin Willson.

Perhaps then Tara had a say when in 1447 Gendün Drup established Tashilhunpo Monastery in the city of Shigatse. This went on to become one of the largest and most influential monasteries in Tibet. In the mid-seventeenth century the head of Tashilhunpo was a lama named 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, after the Fifth Dalai Lama had 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.


When Zanabazar made his first trip to Tibet in 1649 at the age of fourteen he met with both the Panchen Lama Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen and Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama. He received numerous initiations and teachings from both, and although the record does not specifically say so we might assume that these included practices on Tara. As mentioned, he also traveled to the monastery of his previous incarnation Taranatha, author of The Golden Rosary Illuminating the Origins of the Tantra of Tara. Atisha’s Tara Temple is on the road from Lhasa to Shigatse and it’s tempting to think of Zanabazar stopping there to admire the Tara statute which Atisha had brought from India and the other Twenty-One Taras on display, but we have no proof that he did so. In any case, it might be averred that by the end of his first visit to Tibet he had acquired a thorough grounding in the whole Tara mythologem.

Just as important for Zanabazar’s immediate future, the Dalai Lama finally managed to convert him to his own Gelug sect and for the first time officially recognize him as an incarnation of Jebtsun Damba. For a fifteen year old to be told that he was the latest appearance in a spiritual lineage dating back to the time of Buddha must have been a heady experience. Indeed, Zanabazar was so deeply impressed by his experiences in 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 of 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. The construction of the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s great palace which to this day looms over Lhasa, was in progress while he was in Tibet, and there were many artists from Nepal and other countries in the Tibetan capital to assist in the construction of new building and to create new art work for its furnishing.


The Potala in Lhasa



Although the Mongolian accounts say nothing of this, it is possible that Zanabazar, who had shown marked artistic inclinations from early childhood, used this opportunity to acquaint himself with the techniques employed by these various artisans. In any case, art historians would later detect Nepalese influence in many of his most famous works. It’s also possible that at this time he became acquainted with the theoretical canons of art contained in the Tengyur, the vast collection of commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings.


While in Lhasa, Zanabazar stayed at Drepung Monastery, which as we have seen had been founded in 1416 by one of his previous incarnations, Jamyang Chöje Tashi. Pelden. The Gomang College at Drepung was traditionally where Mongolians monks who came Tibet to study stayed and it eventually became famous for its Mongolian scholars. Drepung 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. Immediately a crowd of pilgrims gathered around us to see what all the commotion was about. 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.”

“Come,” said the monk, “I’ll show you where Zanabazar lived.” He led us up some cobbled pathways to the back of the monastery and pointed to a mass of ruined walls and rubble covering the hillside. “Zanabazar lived in one of those buildings, but it were destroyed back during the troubles,” he said, referring to the Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately the monk could tell us nothing more about Zanabazar’s stay in Lhasa during his first trip to Tibet, but it seems significant that even the humblest of the monastery’s current inhabitants remember his presence at Drepung.


Ruins of the building Zanabazar lived in at Drepung


More Photos of Lhasa


Interesting as his stay in Tibet must 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 Xia (roughly the modern-day province of Ningxia, China). All of them were members of the Gelug sect and were to assist Zanabazar in converting Mongolia to the Yellow Hat Faith, as the Gelug were also known. 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. From the artists among them he may have acquired the skills needed to create his Taras and other works. They arrived sometime in 1651, exact date unknown. The seeds of Tara had no doubt been sown in his mind, and they would later flower as the Taras here in the 8th Bogd Khan‘s Winter Palace.