Dolpopa’s Experience

With “expressions of emptiness” on my mind, I thought it might be nice to reflect on Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen’s experience of this quintessential phenomena, and how this experience acted as a pivotal point in his understanding zhentong.

This of course raises larger ― more lingering ― questions, such as: How is zhentong understood by the Jonangpa?; What links the vajrayoga practices of the Kālachakra with zhentong?; What “evidence” do we have that expressions of emptiness are actual phenomena?[1]; etc.

Though these broad and overarching questions lie beyond the scope of this short post, these are issues that I’d like to gravitate towards in future posts. Here, I’d like to draw from the narrative of the Jonangpa, or at least one episode in the biographical account of Dolpopa’s life that roots his experience of this phenomena within his realization of zhentong.

As we discussed in the previous post, the term śūnyatā-biṃba (stong gzugs) refers to natural manifestations of absolute emptiness. This is most generally associated with the process of the 6-fold vajrayoga of the Kālachakra completion stage practices.

This term is not understood by the tradition to be referring to an objective reference nor is it a cerebral conjecture that occurs in some suspended sphere of the intellect, but is rather the name given to an experience. A deep contemplative experience, a personal experience that has been re-experienced over multiple generations, an experience that I would argue has had a far-reaching historical resonance. Fortunately, we find accounts of this experience recorded in the biographies and writings of Dolpopa as well as numerous other Jonangpa masters in this esoteric transmission lineage.

According to Dolpopa’s biographies, when Dolpopa was thirty years old, he entered into an intensive retreat in Khachö Dedan ― the “Bliss-Infused Enjoyment of Space” meditation cave ― at Jomonang. During this extended time it is said that Dolpopa progressed gradually through the first phases of the 6-fold vajrayoga process, integrating the guidance instructions that he had received into his personal experience.

The first of these yogic procedures involves detaching one’s sense faculties from objective references in an environment of total darkness. This is known as the yoga of withdrawal, the first yoga in the 6-fold vajrayoga completion stage process of the Kālachakra.[2] The signs that signify success for this yoga are none other than the intangible and elusive expressions of emptiness.

Tārānatha later recounts that Dolpopa’s experience in Khachö Dedan marked his realization of zhentong as a meditative view, and that his experience was so profound that he could not speak of it for years to come.[3]. Dolpopa did not begin to articulate his understanding of zhentong as a view and meditative experience for another five years.



1. See the post, Expressions of Emptiness.

2. For an overview of the 6-fold vajrayoga, see Sheehy, Michael R. Kālachakra Practice Outline. In Jonang Foundation’s Digital Library,

3. See Stearns, Cyrus. The Buddha from Dolpo, 18-19. Albany, SUNY Press, 1999.

Blog Category: Research Articles