Reading the Jonang issue

Lobsang Wangyal

Lobsang Wangyal

By Lobsang Wangyal

MCLEOD GANJ, India, 9 October 2015

Followers of the Jonang tradition dominated the 10th session of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile in Dharamshala. From day one, about 120 members of the tradition staged a sit-in protest outside the Parliament building, as 42 representatives met in the House for administrative session. Their protest was to demand recognition of Jonang as a sect of Tibetan Buddhism, like Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug, and the native Tibetan Bon religion. With this recognition they enjoy certain privileges such as two representatives each in the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile, invitations to political and religious meetings, and membership in the Tibetan Buddhist scholars committee, which is under the Department of Religion and Culture of Central Tibetan Administration (CTA).

History of Jonang

Jonang’s origins in Tibet can be traced to 11th-century master Yumo Mikyo Dorje, but became more widely known through the work of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361), a monk originally trained in the Sakya school. The Jonang tradition took its name from the Jomonang Valley where the first monastery was established by the monk Künpang Tukjé Tsöndrü (1243-1313). The Jonang school was widely thought to have become extinct in the late 17th century during the time of the 5th Dalai Lama, when the Jonang monasteries were forcibly annexed to the Gelug school.

Equality for all

There are more and more voices being raised against having the religious sects represented in Parliament at all. But, if religious sects do have rights and privileges, then the issue arises that the people following the Jonang tradition should have them also.

In speaking about equality and justice, Jonang’s demands are justified. They have their own origin, history, and set of beliefs. The argument that Jonang is part of Sakya, and to deny them these rights based on that, doesn’t hold ground. If we say that Jonang is a part of Sakya and that Sakya is already represented in the Parliament, then all Tibetan sects could well be said to be part of Nyingma sect, the original sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and therefore they don’t need separate representation either.

Also, the founder of Gelug sect came from Sakya background, and therefore, applying the above logic, Gelugpa are already represented by Sakya. Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), who founded the Gelugpa lineage in the 15th century, began his studies with a Sakya lama, Rendawa Shyönnu Lodrö. He studied all aspects of Sutras and Tantras with teachers of various traditions. But with his strong background in Sakya, at the time of his death Tsongkhapa and his students were considered to be part of the Sakya school.

Anyway, didn’t they all come from Buddha?

This is a major change that is being requested. The Parliament consistently refused to grant Jonang their demands, without any good reason being given for the refusal. It remains undecided over the issue, saying the members of Jonang should approach the next 16th Parliament which is due to be formed in March next year.

This issue should not be decided only by the 45 members in the House, who anyway are not chosen on the basis of any known agenda. Since the Parliament doesn’t know what to do, it should be brought to the people and decided through a referendum. And maybe in future, referendums could be tied to the elections, to avoid the extra time and expense taken in deciding issues like this.

Politics in Parliament

It is an open secret that the Tibetan Parliament has two unofficial groups. One includes Amdo and the majority of the U-Tsang members, and the other comprises all of Kham, the religious sect representatives, and a few from U-Tsang. If a member of Parliament is not in either of these groups, any great ideas they might raise will not get any support in the Parliament.

Now the politics is that, the followers of Jonang tradition are from Amdo. Should their demands be accepted and they get their two seats in the Parliament, the equation of the groups changes — which the group that’s enjoying the upper hand doesn’t want to see.

Also an unfortunate confrontation outside the Parliament during the recent 10th session shows that personal emotions are involved in this issue, and logic is not being applied.

Under such a political scenario, Jonang’s demands are not likely to be addressed properly, let alone be approved.

The Parliament ended with an extra meeting on the issue, but Jonang’s core demands remained unsolved. They were asked to approach the new 16th Parliament, which will be formed in March of 2016. Four of their seven demands were agreed to be fulfilled: To be offered the same privileges as the other sects in political and religious events, their history be taught in Tibetan schools, and to receive equal seats in the Tibetan Buddhist scholars committee. The Jonang protesters pledged to continue with their agitation until all their demands are granted.

No more religious representatives

The Dalai Lama relinquishing his political powers has effectively ended the traditional strong connection of “Church and State”. Certain issues follow from this:

Dalai Lama being from Gelug school, there were feelings about Gelug dominance in the exile government, and that was the reason for the addition of seats for the different religious schools. This situation is no more relevant, and there is no longer a need for religious representatives.

There are more and more voices calling to end religious representation in the exile Parliament.

Religious representatives are only elected by monks and nuns, so they have an extra vote. This is not democratic.

The Jonang’s call for equal rights is legitimate. They are exercising their democratic rights, and as long as the other sects enjoy power and privileges, why should followers of Jonang be denied them?

A proper and realistic solution is required to solve this issue. It shouldn’t be about how 45 people in the Parliament feel. They are not elected on the basis of any agenda at the first place.

A referendum of the people should be conducted to decide if Jonang should be represented — or if there should be religious representatives in the Parliament at all.

About the author

Lobsang Wangyal lives in McLeod Ganj, and edits the Tibet Sun website.

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