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One of the major tripping points in Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy is identifying what is intrinsically existent ― what is referred to in Sanskrit as “svabhāva” (rang bzhin), and what is not (nisvabhāva, rang bzhin med).

Svabhāva is the central target of the Svātantrika and Prāsaṅgika Rangtong Madhyamaka enterprise, and is essential in understanding zhentong.[1] However, what is considered svabhāva is not the same within the major Mahāyāna philosophical systems. Since this is a source of possible confusion, I’d thought to make a few notes here in order to help clarify what is “svabhāva” or intrinsically existent.

To begin, we must first identify the contexts in which svabhāva is defined. According to Mahāyāna thought, there is what is established to be real or truly existent (bden grub), and what is not. In other words, there is the real and the unreal. What is real and what is unreal are further defined as being threefold in nature: (1) the imaginary nature (parikalpita, kun btags); (2) the relational nature (paratantra, gzhan dbang); (3) the perfected nature (pariniṣpanna, yongs grub).

This is more clearly explained in Tāranātha’s “Essence of Zhentong” where it reads,[2]

  1. The imaginary nature is everything apprehended through mental reifications, including: All that is insubstantial, such as space and so forth. The apparent aspects of sensible objects, such as the images that arise within neurotic thought and so forth. The relationship of name and meaning, when names are attached to meanings and meanings are distorted as names. That which is internal and external, center and periphery, big and small, good and bad, superior, temporal, etc.
  2. The relational nature is merely ordinary awareness actually perceiving the subject-object complex. This occurs when perceptions become dependent upon the habitual propensities of ignorance.
  3. The perfected nature is naturally radiant, self-cognizant, and is free from all fabrications. Synonyms for it include: “the actual nature of phenomena,” “the expanse of phenomena,” “the actuality of existence,” “ultimate reality,” etc.

With this in mind, we can now turn to how svabhāva is real or unreal within each of the 3 Mahāyāna systems:

  • Cittamātra: The relational nature is understood to be established as real; the ordinary mind (citta, sems) is not understood to be devoid of svabhāva, but rather is considered to be the same nature as the pristine awareness (jñāna, ye shes) of a fully realized buddha.
  • Rangtong Madhyamaka: All 3 natures are understood to be not established as real (bden ma grub); the 3 natures are each understood to be devoid of svabhāva, and that very lacking of any intrinsic existence is referred to as “emptiness” (śūnyatā, stong pa nyid).
  • Zhentong Madhyamaka: The perfected nature is understood to be established as real; buddhanature (tathāgatagarbha, de bzhin gshegs pa’i snying po) or the enlightened essence that luminously pervades everything is emptiness while not being devoid of svabhāva (rang bzhin med). This is referred to as the “Great Emptiness” (*mahāśūnyatā, stong pa chen po).

Here we see a stark contrast between these 3 systems in regard to what is svabhāva; a contrast that highlights their view of the relative and ultimate. Though we’ll have to defer that discussion to another post, its interesting to think how emptiness could be intrinsically existent. That contemplation lies at the heart of zhentong.

*This post is part of a series of reflections on select topics found in “The Essence of Zhentong” (Gzhan stong snying po) by Taranatha.


1. It is noteworthy here that the technical Tibetan term “rang stong” is translated back into the Sanskrit as, “svabhāvaśūnya.”

2. Tāranātha. The Essence of Zhentong. Translated by Michael R. Sheehy. In Jonang Foundation’s Digital Library,, 2008.