The Quintessence of Zhentong

Thinking about this well structured collection of 108 instructions, I thought to pick a few and post them. Feeling predictable, I wanted to start with what you may expect to find on this blog, the instructions on zhentong (#25). However, as we read through this instruction, its presentation is perhaps less obvious than expected (or maybe not).

What makes this particular instruction so interesting is that it seems to be the only surviving fragment of the writings attributed to the Tibetan master Tsen Khawoché (b. 1021), a major figure in the transmission of zhentong and the Five Treatises of Maitreya.”[1] Again, we have to thank Kunga Drolchok (1507-1566) for that. Hopefully more of his writings will turn up.

What follows is my translation of a brief elucidation on the three natures (trisvabhāva, rang bzhin gsum) by Tsen Khawoché. This short text consolidates these three natures in a manner that was later identified as being in harmony with zhentong, as made explicit within the writings of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1363) and later Jonangpa authors. Though it appears under the title Instructions of the Zhentong View, its important to keep in mind that this was the name given to this short piece by Kunga Drolchok when he included it in the larger compilation.”[2] I have also given it the simple title, Tsen Khawoche’s Condensation of the Three Natures.

As it reads in translation,

Here is essential guidance on the view of zhentong [Drolchok's preface]:

Having gone to refuge and generated the mind of awakening,

Seizing onto delusional projections as true is the imaginary nature (parikalpita, kun brtags). Seizing onto objects of fixation, and the one who fixates as real is the nature of inaccurate conceptual elaborations. This is like deceptively perceiving a rope as a snake. From material form all the way up to omniscience — to the fullest extent of what is possible — there are that many imaginative imputations to fixate on.

What depends upon causes and conditions is the relational nature (paratantra, gzhan dbang). Although these appear in multiplicity, they are all merely inaccurate conceptual elaborations. Similarly, delusional projections are like the rope that is the premise for deceptively perceiving the snake. From form up to omniscience, karma and disturbing emotions generate conceptual elaborations.

The unerring perfect nature (pariniṣpanna, yongs grub) is the naturally manifest ultimate actuality of phenomena that timelessly pervades the relational nature — like space pervading the rope-snake. This invariable perfect nature encompasses the two form dimensions of buddhahood, the factors of enlightenment, what is true along the path, and everything from the ultimate actuality of phenomenal form up to omniscience. On the relative level, this is devoid of the qualifying attributes imputed by the imaginary nature.

Although classified as three natures without an inherent essence, if you analyze — since there are no fixations and there is nothing to fixate on besides the mind, only the phenomenal quality of the relational nature and the phenomenal actuality of the perfect nature are free from defilement. They are the identical ultimate actuality of phenomena that is spontaneous presence.

In this way, the imaginary nature is devoid of an intrinsic essence, like a hare’s horns. The relational nature is devoid of the imaginary nature, like an illusion. The perfected nature is devoid of both the imaginary nature and the relational nature, like space.

Distinctions between the imaginary and the relational are relative, not ultimate. The perfect actuality of phenomena is ultimate. This is the Great Madhyamaka: free from extremes without being in any way either identical of different in essence from the phenomenal quality of relative reality.”[3]

So what does it mean? Looking to your comments.



1. For more on the transmission lineage of the Five Treatises of Maitreya see the post, Elucidating the Jeweled Matrix.

2. In Tibetan, “Gzhan stong lta khrid.” See the post, 108 Quintessential Instructions as well as the related post, Whose Svabhāva is It?.

3. The colophon reads, “From a condensation of the threefold nature of reality. This is a teaching that un-taints the rust of dualistic perceptions. It is a lucid writing and a supreme instruction on splendid natural freedom.” In'Jam mgon Kong sprul, Gdams ngag mdzod, 18 vols. Grol mchog, Zab khrid brgya dang brgyad kyi yi ge, 18, 170-171. Edited from the Dpal spungs prints and published by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Lama Ngodrup and Sherab Drimey (eds.). Paro, 1979-1981. For an alternative translation, see Stearns, C. The Buddha from Dolpo, 88-89. Albany: SUNY, 1999.


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Mind without object fascinating/permutating

A perceiver, a model of how relational perception works and a matrix here posited. An object in perception is going to permutate. We can recognize it's relational nature, apply the model, We are still going to sensorially apprehend the rope, and probably see that it could be sensed as a snake or something other than rope. Our model informs us that the rope is temporary; it was constructed from something else and will become something else that is not a rope.
The "space" of the rope/snake contains all possible elaborations and perceptions; which exhausts all possibilities. Myriad objects rise up, draw our attention, fade into the matrix again.

Perceptual play starts with scary, bright loud, sharp, and is refined by development into detailed objects of fetish, art, protocol, mathematica, harmonia, microcircuitry, crystaline. Order from Chaos, what was terrifying becomes choreographed, push button, dances upon a stage, it's tiny imperfections always more noticeable. This malleability of even Order points at it's nature as mind construct, still unsatisfying.