Jetsun Taranatha was born as Kunga Nyingpo at Kharag, in the hereditary line of the great Tibetan translator Ra Lotsawa Dorje Drak. He received his Sanskrit name, Taranatha, in a vision from a great Indian adept.
Despite the fact that when he was about one year old he declared, “I am Master Kunga Drolchok!” it was kept secret for several years. It was not until his fourth year that he was brought to Kunga Drolchok’s monastery of Cholung Changtse and formally recognised as his incarnation. He then began years of intense study and practice under the guidance of a series of great masters, many of whom had been major disciples of Kunga Drolchok.
With Kunga Drolchok’s disciple Jampa Lhündrup, Taranatha first studied and mastered various subjects of Sutra and Tantra. Then he received a vast number of tantric teachings and initiations, primarily of the Sakya tradition of Lamdre, from another of his predecessor’s disciples, Doring Kunga Gyaltsen. Kunga Drolchok’s disciple Dragtopa Lhawang Dragpa taught Taranatha many esoteric instructions, especially the Six Yogas and Mahamudra, which caused an exquisite realisation of primordial awareness to dawn in his being.
Kunga Palzang, Kunga Drolchok’s nephew and successor to the monastic seat of Jonang, transmitted to Taranatha the teachings of Kalachakra and the Dharma protector Mahakala that he had received from his uncle. From Kunga Drolchok’s disciple Lungrik Gyamtso, Taranatha received many transmissions, especially the Kalachakra initiation, the explanation of the Kalachakra Tantra and the collected writings of Dharma lord Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. Furthermore, through the instructions of the Six Yogas according to the Jonang tradition he gained special realisation.
When Taranatha was fourteen years old, the Indian adept Buddhagupta-natha arrived in Tibet. This master became one of Taranatha’s most important Lamas, passing to him countless transmissions of tantric initiations and instructions. Taranatha stated that his understanding of the Vajrayana teachings was due to the kindness of Buddhagupta-natha alone. Many other Indian yogis and scholars, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, came to Tibet during Taranatha’s lifetime, such as Balabhadra, Nirvanasri, Purnananda, Purnavajra, and Krsnabhadra. He received profound practice instructions and theoretical explanations from some of these masters; and several worked with him in translating Sanskrit manuscripts into Tibetan. A number of Taranatha’s translations are now included in the Tibetan canonical collections of the Kangyur and Tengyur.
In 1588 Kunga Palzang enthroned Taranatha at Jonang, although a formal ceremony was only held seven years later.
Having become alarmed by the fact that former holders of the Jonang seat had criticised and refuted Master Dolpopa’s Shentong views, Taranatha took upon himself the responsibility of causing the Dharma lord Dolpopa’s insights to be taught widely once again. He was determined to revive what he saw as a priceless transmission lineage in danger of being lost. Taranatha felt strongly that the Shentong view was the secret teaching of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Therefore he felt the need to defend it through refutation of wrong views, and to establish the correct interpretations according to Dolpopa’s lineage.
During this period, Taranatha’s Lama, Jampa Lhündrup, advised him to restore the Great Stupa of Jonang that Dolpopa had built there about 260 years earlier. Taranatha put all his energy into the project. One morning, just before the restoration work was finished, he had a marvellous vision. The earth and sky seemed filled with countless beings of all descriptions going in the same direction. He joined them and arrived in a red, triangular valley with an incredible crystal mountain in the centre. The mountain was totally filled with amazing stupas of different sizes, and in each stupa infinite buddhas and bodhisattvas were expounding and discussing back and forth about the dharma. Flowers fell from the sky like rain, and many other miraculous signs occurred. All present were making offerings to the crystal mountain filled with stupas, and chanting a series of verses in unison. Awestruck, Taranatha asked about the mountain and its stupa, and was told that it was the Dhanyakataka Stupa, where the Buddha had first taught the Kalachakra Tantra. Taranatha later felt that perhaps this vision had occurred because everyone had been working so intensely to complete the restorations of the Great Stupa at Jonang.
In 1604, after ten years of efforts to revive the original Jonang teachings, all of Taranatha’s work was threatened by serious political conflict between the regions of Yang and Tsang. Jonang itself was in immediate danger of being attacked by hostile armies. While meditating at Dolpopa’s great stupa, and with the imminent danger of having the whole tradition wiped out, he wished only to go into retreat far away from all the troubles created by deluded minds. At this time, Dolpopa appeared to him in a vision, encouraged him to continue as before, and assured him that his efforts would not be in vain. The next night Taranatha prayed to Dolpopa and experienced a vision of a bodhisattva who spoke a quatrain of verse. As a result of these events, Taranatha said he gained realisation of Dolpopa’s true intentions as expressed in his Shentong teachings, and all his uncertainties and doubts were completely eradicated. He felt that a great key had been placed in his hands to open the doors of all the Buddha’s doctrine. As an expression of his realisation he composed a text in verse entitled Ornament of the Shentong Madhyamaka, which is one of his most important works solely devoted to the explanation of the Shentong view. Taranatha reportedly received several prophecies from Dolpopa, and thereafter met him many times, both in actuality and in dreams. He further commented, “That is the reason I am now an expert in the great omniscient Dolpopa’s view and preserve his true intentions.”
Taranatha had countless such visions during his life. He felt that these visions were a result of his belief that the ultimate view of all Sutras and Tantras was Shentong Madhyamaka.
In 1628, Takten Damchö Ling became his main residence and monastery, thirteen years after the powerful Tsang ruler Desi Phüntsok Namgyal offered land and the necessary supplies and workers to begin the construction.
Shortly before his death, Taranatha appointed his disciple, Sangye Gyamtso, as his successor to the monastic seat of Takten Damcho Ling and made many prophecies about the Jonang tradition and the great political troubles that would soon befall Tibet. Unfortunately, Sangye Gyamtso passed away not long after Taranatha himself. Thus another of the great master’s disciples, Kunga Rinchen Gyamtso, was appointed to the monastic seat and led the Jonang tradition for the next fifteen years.