Let’s talk texts. As much as contemplative practice, ritual, or even personal oral instructions are essential to esoteric transmission, it is texts and the transference of texts through time that largely acts to define the livelihood of Tibetan Buddhist lineages.
Within the Jonang, the Mahāyāna commentarial literature that is most frequently cited is the Five Treatises of Maitreya. Of these five treatises, it is the Ratnagotravibhāga — “Elucidating the Jeweled Matrix” — otherwise known as the Uttaratantra-śastra that has had the most profound impact on the articulation of the zhentong philosophical discourse in Tibet.
It is here, within this seminal text that we find an extensive discussion on an infinite and invariant radiant nucleus — an illimitable jeweled matrix — that is said to pervade and suffuse the heart of every living being.
Attributed to the master Maitreyanātha and his Indian disciple Asaṅga (ca. 4th/5th cent.), these five treatises comprise a range of doctrinal formulations that are usually considered to be situated against the highly apaphatic discourse found within the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtras.
These five works are,
(1) Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra (“The Ornament of Mahāyāna Scriptures”)
(2) Madhyāntavibhaṇga (“Differentiating the Middle from Extremes”)
(3) Dharmadharmatāvibhaṇga (“Differentiating Phenomena from Reality”)
(4) Abhisamayālaṃkāra (“The Ornament of Clear Realizations”)
(5) Ratnagotravibhāga [Uttaratantra-śāstra] (“Elucidating the Jeweled Matrix”)
Generally speaking, the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra, Madhyāntavibhaṇga, and the Dharmadharmatāvibhaṇga are works that explicitly refer to philosophical thought that was developed by the Yogācāra. The Abhisamayālaṃkāra exposes less obvious meanings embedded within the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtras by systematically uncovering the degrees of realization actualized along the successive paths (mārga, lam) and levels (bhūmi, sa) towards Buddhahood. Perhaps the most radical, and certainly the most cited of the five within the zhentong literature, the Ratnagotravibhāga proposes the idea of tathāgatagarbha — an enlightened essence that underlies existence and serves as the basis for spiritual transformation. Together these treatises did much to re-catalyze Indian Buddhist philosophy by offering systematized topographies of yogic experience, further elaborating the Prajñāpāramitā literature and by laying the philosophical foundation for the tantric traditions.
While the Dharmadharmatāvibhaṇga and Ratnagotravibhāga are thought to have occurred rather late, these texts are accepted together as primary source literature for the Great Madhyamaka by the Jonang; in contrast to their standard classification as Yogācāra / Cittamātra texts.
With the transmission of these texts, we have two systems of Tibetan Madhyamaka thought originating in India and taking two distinct sets of texts as their doctrinal basis. These are most simply divided into the system of Nāgārjuna according to his Collection on Reasoning (Rigs tshogs), and the system of Asaṅga and the Five Treatises of Maitreya.
More specifically, these two exegetical traditions derived from two different Tibetan transmissions and interpretations of the Ratnagotravibhāga as it was translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan during the late 10th to early 11th centuries. With the scholar Brahma Sajña, a central figure in the transmission of the Five Treatises of Maitreya from Kashmir into Tibet, we find an early division in the methods employed for interpreting these five texts, and the Ratnagotravibhāga in particular.
The differences of interpretation lay with two of Brahma Sajña’s primary disciples, (1) Lotsāwa Loden Sherab otherwise known as Ngog Lotsāwa (1059-1109) and (2) Tsen Khawoche (b. 1021). Within early Tibetan doxographical literature, this latter system of Tsen Khawoche is referred to as a “meditative tradition” (sgom lugs) while Ngog Lotsāwa’s system is known as the “analytic tradition” (thos bsam gyi lugs). This textual tradition and its methods of interpretation was received by Dolpopa several generations later, becoming the centerpiece for the zhentong contemplative view.
1. In Tibetan, (1) Theg pa chen po’i mdo sde rgyan gyi tshig le’ur byas ba; (2) Dbus dang mtha’ rnam par ‘byed pa; (3) Mngon par rtogs pa’i rgyan; (4) Chos dang chos nyid rnam par ‘byed pa; (5) Theg pa chen po’i rgyan bla ma’i bstan bchos.
3. Nāgārjuna’s Collection on Reasoning are six logical works on Madhyamaka: (1) “A Precious Garland of Advice for a King” (Rājaparikarthār-ratnāvalī); (2) “Reversing Objections” (Vigrahavyāvartanīkārikā); (3) “Seventy Verses on Emptiness” (Śūnyatāsaptatikārikā); (4) “Sixty Stanzas on Reasoning” (Yuktiṣaṣtikākārikā); (5) “The Elegantly Woven Scripture” (Vaidalyasūtranāma); (6) “The Root Verses on the Madhyamaka” (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā). These six works on logic are contrasted to Nāgārjuna’s Collection of Hymns that includes the Dharmadhātustava.
4. See van der Kuijp, L. W. J. 1983. Contributions to the Development of Tibetan Buddhist Epistemology: From the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Century. Alt-und Neu-indische Studien, 39-40. Wiesbaden: F. Steiner.