Dolpopa on Emptiness

The following post is titled, Emptiness of Self-nature and Emptiness of Other by Cyrus Stearns, a contributing author to the Jonangpa blog. It is an excerpt from the reprint of The Buddha from Dolpo (Snow Lion Publications, 2010). Posted here with permission from the author. [1]

The key in Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen’s approach is to link his view of the absolute as empty only of other relative phenomena (gzhan stong) to the teachings of the Kṛtayuga, as opposed to the teachings of the Tretāyuga and later eons that emphasize even absolute reality is empty of self-nature (rang stong). This he makes clear early in the Fourth Council:

Fully understanding each of those divisions, I wish to purge the doctrine, and wishing for myself and others to enter the fine path, I honor the sublime Kṛtayuga Dharma as the witness.

The Tretāyuga and later eons are flawed, and their treatises that have been diluted like milk in the market are in every case unfit to act as witnesses.

The higher refute the lower, as the higher philosophical tenets refute the lower.

The Kṛtayuga Dharma is the stainless words of the Conqueror, and what is carefully taught by the lords on the tenth level and by the great system founders, flawless and endowed with sublime qualities.

In that tradition all is not empty of self-nature.

Carefully distinguishing empty of self-nature and empty of other, what is relative is all taught to be empty of self-nature, and what is absolute is taught to be precisely empty of other.

Dölpopa speaks of two modes of emptiness that correspond to the two truths and to phenomena and the true nature of reality. He emphasizes that absolute truth is not empty of itself, but is the basis or ground empty of all other relative phenomena, described as the profound emptiness of other. This is the mode of emptiness for the true nature of reality. Absolute truth is uncreated and indestructible, unconditioned and beyond the chain of dependent origination. Relative truth and ordinary phenomena are empty of self-nature and completely unestablished. The relative is the created and destructible phenomena that are conditioned and dependent on causes and conditions.

One of the central themes of Dölpopa’s work is to correctly distinguish the meaning of the term emptiness when referring to the incidental stains that veil the buddha nature, or sugata essence, and when referring to the buddha nature itself. Both are empty, but not in the same way. Dölpopa clarifies this point in a text addressed to one of the rulers of Jang:

Because all that is present as the two modes of emptiness are equal in being emptiness, there are statements with the single term, “All is emptiness,” but there are also statements that distinguish between empty of self-nature and empty of other. So their intent should also be precisely presented.

Concerning that, because relative and incidental entities are completely nonexistent in their true mode of existence, they are empty of own-essence. That is being empty of self-nature.

Because the original absolute that is empty of those relative phenomena is never nonexistent, it is empty of other.

Dölpopa considers the buddha nature, or sugata essence, to be natural luminosity (which is synonymous with the dharmakāya) and a primordial, indestructible, eternal great bliss inherently present in every living being. On the other hand, the incidental stains or impurities that veil the buddha nature are the various states of mind associated with the infinite experiences of mundane existence. While the veils of temporary affliction are empty of self-nature, the buddha nature is empty only of phenomena other than itself.

When discussing these topics, Dölpopa often employs the threefold paradigm of the basis or ground, the path, and the result or fruit of enlightenment. Using this approach, he would first say the buddha nature is a primordial awareness that is the universal ground or basis (kun gzhi ye shes) for all phenomenona experienced in saṃsāra and nirvāṇa. He is careful to emphasize that this luminous enlightened space inherent in the mindstream of each living being is not the cause of saṃsāra, but that even saṃsāra would be impossible without it, and from this point of view only is it referred to as the ground of saṃsāra. It is the basis from which all imperfections and faults are cleansed, and the ground in which all qualities are actualized.

Second, the path is the process of erasing all imperfections or faults from that ground or basis, and thus allowing the qualities to actualize or become evident. This path is composed of two aspects. The first is the accumulation of primordial awareness, which burns away all the veils obscuring the qualities of the dharmakāya that is eternally, spontaneously present in each living being. The second aspect of the path is the accumulation of merit, which gradually creates the previously absent qualities of the form kāyas.

Third, the result of this process is buddhahood, the optimum condition in which the greatest good can be achieved for both yourself and others. This is accomplished by the attainment of the “separated result” (bral ’bras) of the dharmakāya, the absolute state of authentic being from which the obscurations of the afflictions and of knowledge have been separated. This is also accomplished by the attainment of the form kāyas, the “produced result” (bskyed ’bras), which is the relative symbolic manifestations of a buddha.

Most Buddhist teachers in Tibet did not agree with Dölpopa’s ideas, and almost nothing is known of his earlier views before coming to Jonang. The following excerpt from his writings focuses on both the opinions of others and what Dölpopa himself had accepted earlier while still living at Sakya:

According to the opinions of some scholars in India who were not noble individuals, and also some spiritual friends in Tibet, other than the emptiness of a pillar or a pot and so forth, an emptiness of other does not fit the definition of emptiness. Therefore, only an emptiness of self-nature, in which all phenomena are each empty of own-essence, fits the definition of emptiness; there is absolutely no definition of emptiness beyond that. That being the case, as with the emptiness of the relative, the absolute is also empty of the absolute. As phenomena are empty of phenomena, the true nature is also empty of true nature. As saṃsāra is empty of saṃsāra, great nirvāṇa is also empty of great nirvāṇa. As the form kāyas are empty of the form kāyas, the dharmakāya is also empty of the dharmakāya, and so forth. In brief, there are many opinions in which everything is accepted as empty of self-nature, but in which it is impossible for anything whatsoever not to be empty of self-nature.

My mind was also accustomed for a long time to the habitual propensity for such a famous [view]. I did understand a tiny amount of Dharma, but as long as I had not beheld the great kingdom of the exceptional, profound, uncommon, and sublime Dharma, I also merely relied on the verbal regurgitation of others and said, “Only an emptiness of self-nature fits the definition of emptiness; there is no definition of emptiness beyond that,” and so forth, as mentioned above. So it is not the case that I do not also understand that tradition.

At a later time, due to the kindness of having come into contact with the Trilogy of Bodhisattva Commentaries, . . . [I understood] many profound and crucial points of Dharma that I had not understood well before. Now, if I think about the understanding I had at that time and the corresponding statements I made, I am simply mortified.

According to Dölpopa the process of enlightenment can be illuminated by some traditional examples. First, he accepts two types of “universal ground” (ālaya, kun gzhi). Of these, he considers the buddha nature, or sugata essence, to be the “universal-ground primordial awareness” (kun gzhi ye shes). While still veiled by the temporary obscurations of the afflictions and of knowledge, this is like the sky filled with clouds or a jewel covered with mud. In contrast, the “universal-ground consciousness” (ālayavijñāna, kun gzhi rnam shes) is the impurities or incidental stains that are to be removed, and the deeply imprinted habitual propensities associated with it. These are like the clouds in the sky or the mud covering the jewel. Second, the path is composed of the various techniques of practice that remove the impurities. This path can be likened to the wind that scatters the clouds or the stream of water that washes the mud from the jewel. Finally, the result is described as an attainment, but is really unified bliss and emptiness, a self-arisen primordial awareness that is eternally present, but now manifests or actualizes. This is like the appearance of the clear cloudless sky or the jewel separated from the mud. Dölpopa says the incidental stains must be understood as empty of self-nature and suitable to be removed through meditation practice, while the buddha nature itself is empty only of other extrinsic factors such as the incidental stains that veil its eternal and indestructible nature.


1. See, The Buddha from Dolpo.

Blog Category: Research Articles


  1. G.G. on September 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    On Distinguishing Alaya (kun gzhi)
    Indeed, that’s a very important topic, as the distinction of ālayavijñāna (kun gzhi rnam shes)and kun gzhi ye shes (ālaya-jñāna, or just ālaya) is essential in understanding why Dölpopa differentiates Great Madhyamika (early Yogacarin) authors, such as Asanga, from later Cittamatrins. He is stating that mind only is not reality, that reality is beyond vijnaptimatra and that the world is not simply a mind projection, as objects do exist (relatively and empty of sel nature, of course, but still exist). In this sense, Kritayuga Dharma equals kun ghzi ye shes with Tathagatagarbha, not equating the latter with mind, but with Advaita Vedanta’s Atman (which is not mind, but Absolute Oneness), being even possible to trace connections with Neoplatonists and some Christian and Islamic mystics. Therefore, it is nonsense and incoherent to mingle Jonang philosophy with Cittamatra-derived philosophies and practices, such as dzogchen, with the excuse of being non-sectarian.

  2. Byfiles on October 4, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Thank you very much for the
    Thank you very much for the post. I’d like to ask you a question. Is it true that he taught that emptiness of self-nature applied only to relative truth, while emptiness of other is characteristic of ultimate truth, i.e. ultimate Reality is not empty of its own uncreated and deathless Truth – the Eternal Buddha -, but only of what is impermanent and illusory? Thank you for any help in advance. Will be eagerly waiting for your profound answers.