Are there Geluk zhentongpas? This is a question that I’ve been asking for some time. Fortunately, a set of rare texts that were recently recovered from Tibet may shed some light on this. Made available in late 2007, there are four published books by two authors of the Geluk tradition that deserve particular attention. These manuscripts were collected from library archives in Tibet and reproduced via computer input as part of the longer Mes po’i shul bzhag series published by China’s Tibetology Publishing House (Beijing, 2007). This set of works includes the three volume Collected Works of Gungru Gyaltsen Zangpo (1383-1450), and one volume from the writings of Kunkhyen Lodrö Rinchen Sengé (15th cent.).
What makes these works so interesting, and merits them scholarly attention, is that they present us with writings from two major Geluk authors from the formative period of the tradition who were both considered radical, if not heretical, for the philosophical views that they articulated. Their writings were banned from being read within Geluk educational institutions or studied as part of the standardized curriculum, and editions were sealed away for centuries. After only a cursory read over these four volumes, I’d like to highlight a few aspects of these reproductions with the hope of pointing to possible avenues for future scholarship in the areas of early Geluk and Jonang intellectual history, the polemics and politics of zhentong / rangtong, and the legacies of these two formidable authors.
Gungru Gyaltsen Zangpo was a student of Tsongkhapa Lozang Drakpa (1357-1419) and his two primary disciples, Khay Drubjè Gelek Palzang (1385-1438) and Gyaltsab Jè Darma Rinchen (1364-1432). His Collected Works includes a fascinating piece in volume one titled, “The Ornament of Maitreya’s Intent” (Byams pa’i dgongs rgyan) on the intention of the five treatises of Maitreya that draws largely from the Abhisamayālaṁkāra and Uttaratantraśāstra (vol. 36); the second volume includes his abbreviated commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, his commentary on Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakavatāra, and a synthetic work on the “ambrosial instructions” from his teacher that explains select Madhyamaka philosophical themes (vol. 37); the third volume includes a commentary on Āryadeva’s Madhyamaka text the Catuḥśatakaśāstrakārikā, a work on philosophical systems (grub mtha’), and his commentary on the Abhisamayālaṁkāra (vol. 38). Though these collected works are a major compilation of Gungru’s writings, and are certainly representative of his thought, it is worth noting that his commentary on the Uttaratantraśāstra along with his explanation of view (lta khrid) remain undiscovered.
The “The Ornament of Maitreya’s Intent” covers a range of topics related to the middle and final turnings including the nature of the triple gem, the path of meditation, and interpretations of definitive and provisional meaning. A particularly interesting section of this text is his discussion of the host of antidotes (gnyen po’i tshogs) where Gungru employs the peculiar technical terms “internal emptiness” (nang stong pa nyid) and “external emptiness” (phyi stong pa nyid), then intrinsically essential emptiness (rang gi ngo bo stong pa nyid) and extrinsically essential emptiness (gzhan gyi ngo bo stong pa nyid), in discussing the sphere of gnosis (ye shes) (233-235). Both his synthetic and philosophical works present typical models of Madhyamaka, dividing the philosophical tradition into the Prāsaṅgika and Svātantrika systems, as opposed to making the Zhentong Madhyamaka distinction. Three chapters that are especially interesting in his synthetic work on advice are (cha.1) on refuting the object of negation (dgag bya) where he again makes explicit reference to the technical terms zhentong and rangtong, (cha.2) on the nature of the two truths, and (cha.3) on crucial points of discourse where he discusses the ālayavijñāna.
Our other author, Kunkhyen Lodrö Rinchen Sengé studied under both Tsongkhapa and his disciple Khay Drubjè, and was a close disciple of Jamyang Chöjè Tashi Palden (1379-1449) who was another one of Tsongkhapa’s major disciples. He was also a disciple of the First Dalai Lama Gedun Dubpa (1391-1474) who established Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. He undertook his monastic and academic studies at both Drepung and Sera Monastery, and his works were part of the scholastic curriculum (yig cha) at Sera Monastery until Sera Jetsun Chökyi Gyaltsen (1469-1544/46) displaced the curriculum sometime after the year 1511. Several of his works remain uncovered including a main work on Madhyamaka.
The single volume of his writings that has survived was reproduced (vol. 39), and it is his sub-commentary on Tsongkhapa’s famous commentary on the Madhyamakavatāra along with a condensed version of the text and a short supplement that addresses topics of importance found within the main body of the work. Being a commentary on Candrakīrti’s root text, his writings are primarily concerned with major themes of Mahāyāna thought and practice, especially the establishment of śūnyatā and the generation of bodhicitta in relation to the ten bhūmi. At first glance, knowing the Madhyamakavatāra to be a classic manifesto on rangtong, enunciated by Tsongkhapa’s commentary, it does not appear as though Rinchen Sengé’s commentary has exceptional philosophical import nor that it is particularly polemical. However, as we comb through the text, it becomes apparent that there are points where the author veers into territory where most Geluk exegetes would not venture.
One of the first clues that the author is at least well versed in the writings of Dolpopa (1292-1361), and perhaps even his contemporary zhentongpa Shākya Chokden (1428-1507), is found in the infamous chapter six where he describes the term “non-conceptual gnosis” (mi rtog pa’i ye shes) in a way that resembles exact wording used by Dolpopa. He phrases non-conceptual gnosis as being neither substantial (dngos po) nor insubstantial (dngos po med pa) while distinct from an essence (ngo bo nyid) that pervades the sphere of activity of nondual gnosis (107). Similar descriptions are found throughout the Jonang zhentong literature, the most often cited verses from Dolpopa’s Fourth Council.
After a deliberation over relative and ultimate, Rinchen Sengé begins to discuss the nature and realization of emptiness. He makes contrast with what is not empty (stong pa ma yin); explaining that what is not intrinsically empty (rang stong ma yin) is extrinsically empty (gzhan gyi stong pa) and is regarded as unattainable nirvāṇa (153). The text comes to the classical argument about the illusory nature of reality as compared to dreamtime, and our author steers the discussion into a presentation on emptiness within Madhyamaka and Cittamātra. Making it clear that a major point in the presentation of emptiness is the basis for negation (dgag gzhi), he states that one of the dangers in mis-understanding emptiness is the trap of nihilistic emptiness (chad stong), again making reference to zhentong as an antidote while carefully reminding his audience of his own tradition (206-207). Later in this work, Rinchen Sengé writes a condensed section on the two kinds of emptiness, and although he makes reference to rangtong throughout, he is concerned with deciphering “internal emptiness” (nang stong pa nyid) from “external emptiness” (phyi stong pa nyid) (394-408).
Though the labeling of views associated with these two authors will have to wait until these four volumes are more thoroughly studied, now that these rare works are available, it’s possible to gain a better sense of the tensions at play within fifteenth century Geluk exegetics. However much these authors remain far departures from the mainstream zhentong philosophical thinking that we find in the writings of Dolpopa, Tāranātha and later Jonangpa scholars, and however much they were anomalies within their own tradition, a superficial reading suggests that these two Gelukpas were wrestling with concerns regarding their own doctrinal proclivities at a crucial time in the formation of their tradition. Such issues may have related to the usage of positivistic rhetoric, zhentong vocabulary, and doxographic identity.
Among many, one question that these writings raise is, “To what extent were these two contemporary authors in conversation or exchanging ideas about their views?” It is particularly curious that they both employ the terms “internal emptiness” and “external emptiness” at some length, terms derived from the set of twenty types of emptiness found in the Abhisamayālaṁkāra. A closer look may reveal how much these terms were an attempt to re-articulate or flush-out preset technical jargon that was circulating in the inner circles of Tibetan philosophical discourse. Surely the works of Rinchen Sengé’s teacher, the controversial Jamyang Chöjè would give us telling insights into influences on these figures, though his works remain in the dark. As further research is pursued, my hope is that similar texts from this period will gradually come to light so that we can at once begin to make a better assessment about the history and polemics of zhentong, and so that the fantastic diversity of Tibetan scholarship can continue to dismantle hardened stereotypes.
This also appears on the TBRC Blog.
1. These are Gung ru rgyal mtshan bzang po’i gsung ‘bum. Mes po’i shul bzhang, 36-38. Beijing: Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2007.
and Kun mkhyen blo gros rin chen seng+ge’i gsung rtsom. Mes po’i shul bzhag, 39. Beijing: Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2007.
2. This Gung ru is not to be conflated with the Gung ru Rgyal mtshan bzang po (1497-1548) who was the eighteenth abbatial throne-holder at Dga’ ldan Monastery from 1546 until the year of his death.
3. Titled, Legs bshad bla ma’i man ngag bdud rtsi’i chu rgyun.
4. Titled, Dbu ma’i rnam bshad dgongs pa rab gsal
5. See Kun mkhyen Dol po pa’i Gsung ‘bum. ‘Dzam thang, 6, 174.