Are there Geluk Zhentongpas?

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.).[1]

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).[2] 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)[3]; 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.[4]

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.[5]

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.

Blog Category: Research Articles


  1. Suzanne on March 7, 2009 at 4:14 am

    Thanks for posting, Michael,
    Thanks for posting, Michael, in an area close to my heart as someone who must deal with the cognitive dissonance of having allegiance to the merit fields of both Tsongkhapa and Dolpopa. What’s most interesting about your two authors to me is their proxmity to the epicenter of the Gelug tradition – Je Tsongkhapa, Khedrub-je, Gyaltsab-je, the First Dalai Lama and so forth – which makes me wonder if they were reflecting a hidden strand in the thought of these masters. It could be that lamas in general are less personally hidebound to their traditions than they are able to allow publicly, in the interest of conveying the pristine teachings of the respective lineages and not confusing their students.

    I had heard that Gelug lamas sometimes referred to Dolpopa as “the Omniscient Dolpopa.” I don’t know how much significance one can assign to this, but Denma Locho Rinpoche recently used this phrase while responding to a question. I asked him about this, and he mostly just smiled…..


    • Michael R. Sheehy on March 7, 2009 at 1:50 pm

      Hi Suzanne:

      Thanks for commenting here. I just wanted to note that Dolpopa is usually referred to as Kunkhyen Dolpopa or “Omniscient Dolpopa.” Some figures in Tibetan history have gained this honorific title, Kunkhyen Longchenpa is another but there are several. Dolpopa is said to have received this title from his peers at a very young age.


      • Anonymous on March 7, 2009 at 7:16 pm

        Dear Michael
        Dear Michael,

        I’m having a Rosannadannadanna moment– no significance in the “Omniscient” epithet whatsoever with respect to the rangtong/zhentong seesaw!

        Maybe I can finally bow out and leave this quandary/inquiry in the capable hands of the scholars. After reading a transcript of teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama this morning on buddhanature which seemed to rather sternly put down Kunkhyen Dolpopa’s brand of zhentong, I threw my hands up and decided my own resolution would be to revere Lama Dolpopa’s teachings as an inspiration to my practice (such as it is). As my own very Gelug teacher Geshe Lobsang Tenzin told me, more or less – the validity of zhentong is from a subjective, experiential (practical) perspective, as opposed to the objective view of prasangika (he also said it’s a lama debate and don’t worry about it, but I didn’t take the hint!).

        On a final note – Dr. Dreyfuss came to Drepung Loseling at Geshe-la’s invitation and seemed to embrace the middle view of Shakya Chokden – whereas I’ve been blessed with the radical ends of the spectrum to deal with; and wouldn’t have it any other way!

        Thank you, Michael, for your continuing research and the lively variety of your blog postings.


  2. Paul G. Hackett on March 13, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    dge-lugs gzhan-stong
    Hi Michael,

    I was just reading your blog entry on the TBRC site — very interesting — and had a couple of questions.

    You state that the writings of these authors were “banned”. I’m curious how we know this? is it written down anywhere, or stated by someone in a rnam thar? (I’m assuming that this is probably just a jem from Gene’s ocean of knowledge, but am curious what the source is, Klong-rdol Bla-ma, perhaps?)



    • Michael R. Sheehy on March 14, 2009 at 7:34 pm

      Hi Paul:

      Thanks for reading & for your comment. As for sources related to a “banning” (& it’s a charged & ambiguous term), this is largely based on my understanding that Se ra rje btsun displaced the Se ra yig cha, including the works of Rin chen Seng+ge, as I mention in the blog piece. It seems as though a similar displacement occurred with the works of Gung ru (probably for similar reasons). I’ve not looked into what other author’s works were prohibited or edited out of the existing curriculums at that time. It seems as though there was an institutionalization process going on from the time of Mkhas grub rje through the early 16th cent in which similar works were intentionally put aside because they did not represent certain conventions. Much of this information is based on my conversations with Gene.



      • Paul G. Hackett on March 16, 2009 at 3:53 pm

        “banning” cont… 2
        Hi Michael,

        … “It seems as though there was an institutionalization process going on from the time of Mkhas grub rje through the early 16th cent in which similar works were intentionally put aside because they did not represent certain conventions.” [M.s.] …

        Sure, ok., but that’s a different thing from being “banned”, I mean that could just be another way of saying the texts sucked (i.e., were inconsistent & contained flawed reasoning). I just get wary every time I hear the tired trope of Ge-luk institutions “banning” books. I mean, if every Tibetan professor in every major university finally said, “Don’t read or cite Waddell as a source on Tib. Buddhism” and the book went out of print, you wouldn’t say it was “banned” by the professors or publisher, just supplanted ’cause it was wrong and a poor textbook. Also, what are “certain conventions”? I mean *we* have “certain conventions” for legitimate scholarship here. Look at a University by analogy. If a Tib. University (like Drepung or Sera) decides that Gshan-stong is the Tib. Buddh. equivalent of “creation science” or “flat-earth geography” or “holocaust denial” — by which I mean, based on faulty scholarship from that University’s perspective — then if that University says works advocating those positions have no place in a legitimate curriculum and that they’re not going to publish works making those claims, they’re well within their right to do so, and it’s not “banning” or “suppressing”; educational centers are not democratic institutions and it seems like sectarian pandering to make claims that imply otherwise. I guess that’s the point I’m making.

        “Banned” or “suppressed” just seem too loaded & unjustified in the absence of explicit testimony supporting a ban. It doesn’t mean you can own it or read it, just that it’s not on the curriculum or on the publications list. What do you think?.


        • Michael R. Sheehy on March 16, 2009 at 4:20 pm

          “banning” cont… 3
          Hi Paul:

          Thanks for your email. I’m glad to see that you’re thinking about this. Before I go on, let me just say that the intent of my blog piece was not to drive sectarian divides, but in fact to soften stereotypes. That is to say, it was not (nor is any of my work) meant to be anti-Geluk etc.

          I agree that the word is charged. I also agree that the larger issue of making a distinction in regards to which works were not incorporated into the standard curriculum as opposed to which works were not published or made accessible is an issue that deserves attention. Could monks own or read these books? That is a crucial question. Having said that, in the case of these two authors, & in the case of Rin chen Seng+ge’s teacher ‘Jam dbyangs chos rje, it does appear that the works of these authors were not only not incorporated into the academic study programs, but were in fact not allowed to be published or read. That is why these reproductions are so rare. Please keep in mind that not even a dkar chag exists for the collected writings by ‘Jam dbyangs chos rje, everything seems to have been destroyed (i.e. “banned”). The story as to what exactly happened at that time with these writings remains to be told & it’s probably a fruitful area for future scholarship.

          All the best,


      • Paul G. Hackett on March 17, 2009 at 4:21 pm

        “banning” cont… 4
        Hi Michael,

        I totally agree, and just to be clear, I wasn’t accusing you of such either, just trying to question the underlying terms & cultural assumptions of this whole narrative of the evolution of Ge-luk scholasticism. As you say, “Could monks own or read these books? That is a crucial question.” I would also add to the questions, did a dkar-chag ever exist for these authors? Were their collected works ever redacted? If there was nothing to destroy in the first place (i.e. gsung-‘bum never redacted; no dkar-chag ever printed), that changes the issue. Also, how long were the texts in circulation for? If they were used for less than a generation, then I wouldn’t be surprised if few survived and they were rare now.

        As for the whole “banning” thing, again, if you throw out the printing blocks for a work, without additional knowledge of the situation, is it possible to make the distinction between a mere _de facto_ “banning” and a _de jure_ “banning”. The first I have no problem with thinking occurred, it’s the second that I think requires more justification. I guess I’d like to see something in the then-abbot’s rnam-thar saying “because they presented heretical perspectives, we had the blocks burnt and the books banned”. Without something like that, I think it could easily be the difference between flunking students on papers for citing “Wikipedia” (something we used to threaten students with at Columbia) and blocking the Wikipedia website from the campus system. Without such crucial “contextual” information, I think it treads the fine line of hypothesizing vs. making assumptions about what was going on.

        (enjoying the chance to hash out these issues with you)


        • Michael R. Sheehy on March 17, 2009 at 4:54 pm

          “banning” cont… 5
          Hi Paul:

          A quick response to your question about the catalogs (dkar chag) & redactions of these works. We do have catalogs for both of them. This is where I got my listing of some of the works that they wrote that we don’t currently have available to us. In fact, we have catalogs for many of the curricular books that were displaced (*banned*). That their works were used as textbooks in the curriculum at these monasteries suggests that they were redacted & that blocks did exist for their works at one point. Monasteries print the books they use in their curriculum. Based on the period that I note in the above post, they were probably in usage for less than a generation. Another point that I reference at the end is that the works of Jamyang Choje did exist & there was a catalog at one point, but these are totally gone.

          As for hypothesizing vs. making assumptions, yes it’s a fine line … one that we can either embolden or erase through further research into these issues.



  3. mike on March 25, 2009 at 4:37 am

    Hello Michael, Thank you
    Hello Michael,

    Thank you for your comments.

    Regarding you comments on Kunkhyen Lodrö Rinchen Sengé, you cite page 107 as “one of the first clues that the author is at least well versed in the writings of Dolpopa… where he describes the term “non-conceptual gnosis” (mi rtog pa’i ye shes) in a way that resembles exact wording used by Dolpopa.” However, as I have been looking at this chapter, Rinchen Sengé is merely giving a quote from the Bodhisattva-bhumi (byang sa) and hence is not his description and points rather to the use of, or wording of the Bodhisattva-bhumi employed by Dolpopa and others.


  4. Anonymous on June 16, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Thank you, Michael, for your
    Thank you, Michael, for your continuing research and the lively variety of your blog postings .

  5. tim hall on September 2, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Plain language please
    Thank you for your remarkable scholarship Michael.

    I think there is something in Suzanne’s remark, that Geshe Lobsang Tenzin said ‘it’s a lama debate’. Eastern mysticism is rife with these kinds of arguments – Krisna devotees constantly debate personalism versus impersonalism; advaitists frequently discuss the nature of nothing. Here I read about intrinsic emptiness versus extrinsic emptiness. These debates are often couched in what appears to be very dense intellectual jargon – in this case, if I read you correctly, in an attempt to demystify the intellectual jargon of a previous generation. My mind is weary of trying to keep up. I find authors like HH the Dalai Lama and Chogyam Trungpa very useful because they are able to translate teachings into an easily readable and comprehensible format. This is all part of the cloud of unknowingness is it not? The first stage is the realisation that all form is empty (nothing is ‘real’), then one may move on to accepting form as it is, knowing that it is ultimately empty. Is the essence of zhentong that there are certain forms present within the ground of being, as perceived by an enlightened mind, that are, in fact real? And would one of those forms be compassion? It seems to me that ‘duty of care’ has to be the corner-stone of enlightened thinking, for without it a Buddhist could commit murder or other atrocities on the grounds that their victim is not real.

    If a concept cannot be understood by the mind of a five-year old child, is it not also empty of meaning?
    I ask these questions with the deepest of respect.