What Is / Isn't Rangtong?

Dolpopa, like many great Tibetan scholars, was interested in making distinctions. Within his writings, we find several terse compositions that employ rich Buddhist lingo in order to succinctly and deliberately analyze critical subjects such as emptiness, existence, consciousness, and the wholeness of buddhahood.

What strikes me about these writings is that they are so unambiguous. Its as if Dolpopa knew there would be speculation, and he didn't want to leave his words too open to interpretation from others.

Having mentioned rangtong in contrast with zhentong in an earlier post, I wanted to step aside and let a work by Dolpopa speak for itself. [1] What follows is my translation of an excerpt from a short text by Dolpopa that defines rangtong ― denoting what it is and what it isn't in mutually exclusive terms ― called, Seizing the Crucial Point ,

Expressions of the Essence

Buddhist phenomenology tells us that one of the five fundamental constituents of the egoic complex is "form" ( rūpa , gzugs ), the configuration of tangible materiality that is so integral to ordinary sensible experience. [1] Most basically, this suggests that there must be an outside world for there to be an inside world.

With this interface, the self is at play within the familiar field of duality. However, what intrigues me more than the self in the world of form is the formless, and more specifically the question: What is it about the nature of the formless that can be known?

Dolpopa's Experience

IMG_1146_1.JPG Carving of Dolpopa, Jonang

With "expressions of emptiness" on my mind, I thought it might be nice to reflect on Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen's experience of this quintessential phenomena, and how this experience acted as a pivotal point in his understanding zhentong.

This of course raises larger ― more lingering ― questions, such as: How is zhentong understood by the Jonangpa?; What links the vajrayoga practices of the Kālachakra with zhentong?; What "evidence" do we have that expressions of emptiness are actual phenomena? [1] ; etc.

Though these broad and overarching questions lie beyond the scope of this short post, these are issues that I'd like to gravitate towards in future posts. Here, I'd like to draw from the narrative of the Jonangpa, or at least one episode in the biographical account of Dolpopa's life that roots his experience of this phenomena within his realization of zhentong.

"Wheel of Time" III

Now that we have a rough sketch of Dolpopa's concept of time according to Kālachakra cosmology, we can begin to think about what Dolpopa and later Jonangpas refer to as the "Kṛtayuga dharma" or "Kṛtayuga tradition." [1] To clarify what this is, Dolpopa writes in his Fourth Council ,

The Tretayuga and subsequent eons are flawed; their treatises have been contaminated like milk in the marketplace. They are in every way unable to act as witness. The earlier [eons] displace the later, just as more advanced philosophical systems refute the lesser.

The Kṛtayuga dharma is the untainted expression of the victorious ones, the explanations of the sovereigns on the tenth spiritual level, and the great founders of the chariot systems. It is flawless and imbued with supreme enlightened qualities.

In this [Kṛtayuga] tradition, everything is not rangtong. By eloquently distinguishing rangtong from zhentong, that which is relative is taught to be rangtong while that which is ultimate is taught precisely to be zhentong. [2]

"Wheel of Time" II

Continuing to think about time, I'd like to consider the architecture of cosmic time according to the Kālachakra Tantra , and how this temporal schema was further codified by Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen .

First, we must look where Dolpopa tells us to look. There, in the Lokadhātupaṭala or Chapter on World Systems in the extensive Vimalaprabhā commentary on the Kālachakra we find a clear description of four cosmic eons ( yuga ): (1) Kṛtayuga, (2) Tretayuga, (3) Dvāparayuga, and the (4) Kaliyuga.

Paraphrasing the Vimalaprabhā , Dolpopa writes in the opening verses of his work titled, The Great Calculation of the Teachings that has the Significance of a Fourth Council , [1]

"Wheel of Time" I

Kalachakra.mandala.1.jpg Jonang Kalachakra Mandala

Lately, I've been thinking about time. Time in the cliché sense of that which "does not stop for anyone." Historical time. Real time. Blinks and breathes and heart-beats. The wax and wane of moons, the expansion of universes, the radiant pulses of quasars. That basic conceptual structure that flows as the space-time continuum... The ticks and nanoticks that sequentially measure the magnitude and momentum of our lives.

More specifically, I've been thinking about how the Jonangpa master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen thought about time. How his concept of time has contributed to a re-visioning of Buddhist history, and from where his concept derived. [1]

Dolpopa was concerned with framing his realizations in accord with the Kālachakra Tantra , and the lineage of his realizations within the framework of the cosmological schema described by the tantra. In fact, I'd like to suggest that Dolpopa's understanding of time according to the Kālachakra was so central to his realizations that we must seek to understand this concept of time if we are to think seriously about the larger zhentong paradigm.

The "Other" Emptiness

The technical Tibetan term "zhentong" ( gzhan stong , often mis-phoneticized "shentong") suggests a particular view of reality, one that can be misconstrued due to the word itself. To give a simple gloss of the term, "zhentong" is: that which is empty ( stong ) of the other ( gzhan ). The word is often translated into English as "other-emptiness," begging the question: "Is there an 'other' emptiness?" That is, an emptiness other than the one we all know and love?

To begin, the term "zhentong" was coined by the 14th century Kālachakra master and Jonangpa scholar, Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen who employed it to contextualize his understanding...

The First Jonangpa

Throughout my readings on the Jonangpa in English, I've noticed the (all too) common attribution of either Yumo Mikyo Dorje or Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen as the "founder" of the Jonang tradition. [1] Though Yumowa was a major figure in the transmission of the Drö Kālachakra lineage as it was received by the Jonangpa, and was a prominent forefather of the tradition, its unlikely that he even heard the word "Jonangpa" in his lifetime.

jf_kunpangpa_1.jpg Kunpangpa

The term was coined during the time of Kungpang Thukjé Tsöndru (1243-1313), [2] the master who later inherited the Drö Kālachakra lineage as it was transmitted through Yumowa, and the first in the lineage to settle in the valley named " Jomonang ." He was the 1st Jonangpa.