The Teachings of Buddha entered Mongolia long before they influenced Tibet. Travelling along the silk and trade routes through Kashmir and Afghanistan, crossing the great northern deserts and following the sea lanes of Southeast Asia into China and then westward, a rich variety of Buddhist views vitalized Mongolian culture. During the period of Tibetan unity under Buddhist kings, however, the foundations of Tibetan Buddhist orders were firmly established, and the resurgence of Buddhadharma inspired by the succession of remarkable teachers from Shantarakshita to Tsong-Kha-Pa gradually gave the orders temporal responsibility to match their spiritual authority. From the thirteenth century the Mongol political rule in Tibet grew, whilst the Tibetan Buddhist orders undertook the spiritual guidance of Mongolia. The great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, who founded the Yüan Dynasty as China's first Mongol emperor, gave the rulership of Tibet to the Sakyapa Order.
Tsong-Kha-Pa, the founder of the Gelukpa or 'School of the Virtuous' Order in Tibet, reformed Buddhist practice and purified the Teachings from centuries of superstitious dross and diverse accretions. Having established Ganden Monastery near Lhasa in A.D. 1408, over the next fifty years his disciples founded Drepung and Sera monasteries, also in the Lhasa region, and mysterious Tashilhumpo in Tsang. Tashilhumpo's first spiritual head would come to be known as the First Dalai Lama. After the death of Bu-ston in 1364, Sakyapa influence was eroded by internal difficulties, and even as the Mongolians withdrew their favour, Gelukpa monks extended their teaching missions into Mongolia and secured the confidence of its rulers. Altan Khan, King of Thumed Mongolia, met the Third Dalai Lama and immediately became convinced that the spiritual head of the Gelukpas was a reincarnation of Phagpa, the remarkable Sakya head who had instructed Kublai Khan two centuries earlier. Since Altan Khan saw himself as Kublai reborn, he readily declared the Gelukpa abbot as Talé (Dalai) – one whose wisdom is as vast as the ocean – and placed the government of Tibet in his hands.
Although the Gelukpas enjoyed the patronage and protection of the most important Mongolian ruler, different orders sought protection from various clans that constituted a ceaselessly changing Mongol confederacy. Early in the fourteenth century, a Tibetan with the Sanskrit name of Digvijayi broke with Sakyapa tradition and founded a new order in Jonan, about a hundred miles northwest of Tashilhumpo. These Jonanpas, close to the Sakyapas in doctrine but equally close to the Gelukpas in spiritual practice, eventually allied themselves with the Chogthu Mongols of Kokonor, established a great monastery known as the Perfect and Eternally Firm Island and built a printing press. They produced a number of excellent scholars, the greatest of whom was Taranatha. Shortly after Taranatha's death, however, the Chogthu patron was assassinated by Gushri Khan, a Qoshot Mongol, in 1642. The Fifth Dalai Lama, known to history as the 'Great Fifth', was profoundly aware of the necessity of uniting Tibet politically and spiritually if its integrity was to prove a bastion for the Buddhist tradition. He was distressed by the divisiveness inherent in Chogthu patronage of the Jonanpas, and though he did not act so long as Taranatha lived, he subsequently took the occasion of Chogthu reversals to absorb the Jonan monasteries into the Gelukpa Order. Thus the Jonanpas disappeared as a distinct order, but the historical writings of Taranatha were preserved and venerated under Gelukpa auspices.
Almost nothing is known about the life of Taranatha. Although he wrote a spiritual autobiography which has survived, it is so rich in metaphorical and symbolic language that no scholar has yet felt competent to render it in a foreign tongue. For Taranatha, the so-called empirical facts of everyday life are nothing more than a veil cast across noumenal realities and arcane causality. Though they might provide sufficient hints and intimations for one with some spiritual insight to read them aright, they mislead the ignorant and unwary. Life as ordinarily lived and understood is a diversion and delusion, for the workings of karma and the significance of events can be understood only on the plane of the purified mind illumined by bodhichitta, the seed of Enlightenment. Born in 1575, Taranatha entered the Jonanpa monastic community at Jonan, where he emerged as a lama of exceptional insight and brilliance whose interests covered every aspect of Buddhist tradition. His unconditional love of Buddha effortlessly overflowed as unqualified reverence for the Dharma and deep respect for the Sangha. For Taranatha, the Three Jewels constituted a noumenal unity, every aspect of which deserved the fullest attention. Though he became the most famous scholar of his day and the beacon light of the Jonanpa Order, he was also Tibet's greatest historian and one of its chief exponents of esoteric wisdom.
Taranatha became the student of Buddhagupta, an Indian teacher who travelled extensively in the subcontinent before coming to Tibet. Taranatha seized every opportunity to assimilate Buddhagupta's knowledge of the history of the Buddhist tradition in India and to learn many stories of particular teachers and monastic centres. Taranatha studied the Buddhist scriptures and all the major commentaries on them and then wrote commentaries of his own which demonstrated a thorough grasp of diverse points of view, including the distinctive Jonan standpoint. He was drawn to the mysterious Kalachakra philosophy, upon which Tsong-Kha-Pa had based much of his own teaching, because it intimates the secret causality and continuity behind the play of events and succession of states of consciousness. The exceptional care Taranatha took in distinguishing and tracing the various lineages associated with the siddhas – men of knowledge, insight and power who transmitted the spiritual heart of Buddhadharma in the form of tantra – revealed a remarkable sensitivity to the delicate refinement and unbreached secrecy required to assure an unsullied continuity of oral teaching. His histories sought to demonstrate the spiritual vitality and essential unity of Buddhist tradition within various currents distinguished by philosophical perspectives, ritual modes and organizational structures.
Even without knowing the details of Taranatha's life, it is clear that he was much more than a scholar. The quality of his insights into philosophical and historical issues shows that he practised the system he described. At the same time, he was active in the affairs of his order, personally seeing to the renovation of at least two temples in his district. Late in life he journeyed to Mongolia, where he taught and worked. He remained in Urga, the region of ancient Mongolia known for its mysterious manuscripts and centres, where tradition holds that he died sometime before the middle of the seventeenth century. His remains were eventually interred in a silver chorten in a temple at Dzingji, east of Lhasa, where they remained at least until 1949. Taranatha so deeply influenced the Mongolian Buddhist community that he is believed to reincarnate in Jetsun Dampa, the reincarnating lama of Urga.
The Jonan Order to which Taranatha belonged was similar to the Kagyupas and the Gelukpas but was known for its distinctive view of shunyata, the Void. All the orders agreed that shunyata refers to the voidness of all phenomena, the fact that no phenomenon has any independent reality or existence. This standpoint is the natural complement of Buddha's doctrine of dependent origination, in which each individual, thing, quality and event is seen as dependent upon something else for its existence. In the fourteenth century the venerable founder of the Jonanpa tradition, Digvijayi, enunciated a doctrine of a second shunyata, He argued that in addition to what might be called ordinary shunyata, which is merely the absence of qualities and inherent nature, there is an absolute voidness, utterly unqualified and indescribable, which is reality in itself. This view, akin to that suggested in The Voice of the Silence in the phrase "the fullness of the seeming void", could be traced through antecedents to Nagarjuna and beyond. But it was generally shunned in Tibet because it seemed close to Tirthika perspectives, especially as found amongst some philosophical Hindus. Nonetheless, Tibetan schools recognized that the Jonan teaching, though unorthodox, was defensible and could not be declared outright heretical. Tsong-Kha-Pa, who had studied under a renowned Jonan teacher, understood the Jonan standpoint completely. Intriguingly, despite his myriad refutations of biased, partial and inadequate views, he never once raised his voice against the Jonan view of shunyata. Rather, he remained completely silent regarding it. The speculation of some later scholars that the Fifth Dalai Lama absorbed the Jonan Order into the Gelukpa school in order to abolish its supposedly heretical doctrines seems unlikely. Political turmoil and the need to unify Tibet under a strong spiritual and temporal authority more likely dictated the decision. Taranatha, the last distinguished Jonanpa, was honoured by the Gelukpa Order and his works were carefully saved for posterity after the close of the Jonan press. Thus, his name was entered in the roll of illustrious Tibetans who sought to uphold Buddhadharma in trans-Himalayan Asia.
Taranatha did not compose histories out of curiosity about the past. He thought that historiography was a mode of meditation upon the inner meanings of events and the Teachings of Buddha. Just as an individual, if he intends to understand his own life, must examine himself dispassionately from the standpoint of the soul, so too the history of the Dharma and the Sangha could illumine the essential core of Buddha's Enlightenment, the path to it and the pitfalls along the way, revealing the secret of its vitality in all circumstances. Thus, he recorded Buddhist history straightforwardly without presuming to sort out actual events from hagiographical embellishments. Where the account of some event seemed impossible under the circumstances, he noted the difficulty, and where different accounts conflicted, he pointed out the problems involved and occasionally suggested solutions. In general, however, he let tradition speak for itself, since even legendary happenings can reveal profound meanings to those who are able to meditate wisely upon them.
He wrote The Origin of the Tara Tantra in 1604 almost as a prelude to his monumental History of Buddhism in India. Tara is the active compassionate aspect of Avalokiteshvara Tradition teaches that when Avalokiteshvara shed a tear over the plight of humanity, it fell to earth and formed a crystalline lake. A lotus rose from its shimmering surface and opened to reveal Tara in its heart. The Chinese and Nepali wives of the first king of Tibet are believed to have been incarnations of Tara. The Chinese princess embodied Sitatara, the White Tara, who holds the opened lotus of purity eternal. When she is depicted with the Third Eye on her forehead and with eyes on her palms and feet, she is the Tara of the Seven Eyes. The Nepali princess was an incarnation of Syamatara, the Green Tara, the consort of Avalokiteshvara and holder of the closed blue lotus. Together they represent ceaseless divine compassion working by day and night to mitigate suffering and eventually to bring it to an end.
According to Taranatha, the Tathagata Dundubhishvara conferred the name Tara on the princess Jnanachandra before the world appeared in its present recognizable form. In the subsequent aeon, named after the Tathagata Vibuddha, she subdued all of Kamadeva's demons and received from the Tathagata Amoghasiddhi the names Saviouress, Mainstay, Swift One and Heroine. When in the era called All-Pervading a monk named Radiant Pure Light became Avalokiteshvara, Tara was born from his heart. They descended together to earth in the form of a monkey and a demoness and created the ancestors of the Tibetan people. In the aeon called Vastly Good, Tara was reborn from the sky, and in the Asanka era the Buddhas collectively transformed themselves into Tara as supreme Mother. All of this happened before time began.
In the aeon which includes the present, Avalokiteshvara stationed himself at the centre of the world on Potala Mountain, a secret mountain in South India, after which the palace of the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa is named. There Avalokiteshvara intoned the Tara tantra and mantra in a form appropriate for each of the four yugas or ages. In Kali Yuga that intonation takes the form of a thousand Tara verses. Thus Tara fills all space with light from "the space between her eyebrows" whilst abiding in the heart of bodhi. When she saw Buddha and the Tathagata Akshobhya become one, she taught her tantra to transcendental beings. Then, retiring to Potala Mountain, she gave this wisdom to the Bodhisattva Vajrapani, the guardian of Secret Teachings, who became King Indrabhuti of Oddiyana and created a Dharma Treasury of arcane wisdom. Tara tantra arose in the world, however, about three centuries after Buddha's Parinirvana. Out of South India there appeared to various celestial beings the volumes of the great Avatamsaka Sutra. In confirmation of its spontaneous appearance and divine source, eight Mahatmas and five hundred Yogachara adepts beheld Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri – the Bodhisattva of Wisdom – and Maitreya, the Buddha to be. From this celestial source all the divisions of the secret tantras arose.
Having given a tantalizingly enigmatic account of the transmission of wisdom, Taranatha then tells a series of stories which illustrate the multiple guises under which Tara protects humanity.
Taranatha reminded his readers that Tara had encouraged Nagarjuna to attain perfection, had protected Chandragomin on two occasions, and that she had told numerous others edifying tales and given assistance to many siddhas, including Tilopa and the disciples of Naropa. He refrained, however, from setting down the detailed teachings of the Tara tantra, for that belongs to the oral instruction passed from guru to chela. He nonetheless showed why a dedicated disciple should seek its eternal wisdom.
In 1608 Taranatha composed his History of Buddhism in India. He originally called it That Which Fulfils All Desires to indicate that it was no mere history but rather an auspicious undertaking. Taranatha attempted to speak about every notable figure in the history of Buddhist tradition, but rather than writing a chronicle exclusively in terms of divergent and sometimes conflicting schools, he chose to treat the whole history in phases delineated by the reigns of famous kings, such as Ajatashatru, Ashoka, Kashyapa and Shila. When representative kings could not be found, he marked the passage of the centuries by the greatest teachers of the times – Nagariuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Dharmakirti, among others. Whilst recognizing differing movements, he preferred to delineate the flavour of a period to suggest distinctive phases of development. He warned, however, that "even the learned chroniclers and historians, when they came to discuss India, exhibited with their best efforts merely their poverty, like petty traders exhibiting their meagre stock". Within this framework he deftly mingled putative fact with events which seemed miraculous. For Taranatha, the visible world of everyday life and the marvellous happenings associated with Arhats, Bodhisattvas, kings and abbots are mixed at every point. Since it is impossible to give out the true, secret history of spiritual events, the most useful alternative is to provide an account which can lead the contemplative aspirant towards real knowledge of the operation of eternal Truth in the ocean of Samsara.
Wherever Taranatha's sources can be examined or his work can be compared with other accounts, he has proven to be accurate. He seems to have had a carefully considered view of history which succumbed neither to a blind belief that Buddhadharma would prevail under some principle of historical inevitability, nor to a depressing conviction that the Good Law was doomed to be lost in the world of men, He knew that the deeds of men and women – at the levels of thought and meditation, will, feeling, word and act – released Buddha's Teaching in the world or obscured it. Yet he also recognized that there is an inner power to the Buddhavachana – the Word of Buddha – that no being in mortal form can stay. History is the vast field where the aspirant must struggle and come to terms with both forces, the one promising freedom and bliss beyond comprehension, the other degrading and destructive. For Taranatha, the history of humanity is not simply an account of events, nor even a resume of changing economic and social conditions overlaid with political motivation: true history is the story of inner heroism, the manifestation of that in humanity which is changeless, unfettered and ever striving to be spiritually free. Jonan Taranatha, the last great representative of one of the sparkling streams of wisdom from which Tsong-Kha-Pa drank, saw the voidness of the seeming full because he saw the fullness of the seeming void. For him, history is a magnificent tapestry woven of threads which shimmer with the noumenal light of bodhi, and embroidered with the lives of those who made heroic efforts to blazon forth that light for the world to behold.