Reflecting ‘The Crystal Mirror’

Maybe its the dark magnetism of impending all hallows’ eve, but I’m feeling a mischievous urge to rile up all the ghouls and goblins of unapologetic dogmatism and have them stare in unison — — into The Crystal Mirror. That is, The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems by Thuken Losang Chökyi Nyima (1737-1802). Fortunately, this classical Tibetan polemical text is now available to the English reading world due to the clear translation of Geshe Lhundup Sopa and the lucid editing of Roger Jackson under the umbrella of The Library of Tibetan Classics series (Wisdom Publications, ’09).[1]

Though the earliest attempt to translate this work into English was by Sarat Chandra Das in the 1880s, this text largely seeped into Euro-American consciousness through an academic article that appeared in the Journal of the American Oriental Society in 1963 by the Buddhologist David Ruegg detailing the history and view of none other than, the Jonangpas.[2] In this spirit, and because its now widely accessible, I’d like to briefly review this Jonang chapter and make a few reflections on The Crystal Mirror.

However before I do so, it should be noted that this is an ambitious work that encompasses the Nyingma, Kadam, Kagyu, Zhijé, Sakya, Geluk, and Bon Tibetan traditions, non-Buddhist traditions such as the classical schools of Hindu philosophy and Taoism, as well as other traditions of inner Asia from lands including India, China, Mongolia, Khotan, and even Shambhala. It falls into the genre of philosophical systems or the presentation of tenets and the rebuttal of their views, though it is more historical and comparative in nature than many such Tibetan writings.[3] As most works in this genre, it was written as a textbook for monks to study other traditions, and so it regularly employs polemical discourse as a literary device. However, as Roger Jackson notes in his introduction, “Thuken may have written with the intent to encourage an ecumenical spirit or to promote the Geluk, or both” (p. 8). In that vein, it should also be noted that I’m not interested in re-stimulating old Tibetan debates or stirring up biased doctrinal disputes, nor am I interested in attempting to defend a “Jonang view” against any other or interject myself into a longstanding discourse, but rather I’m interested in taking a look into The Crystal Mirror in order to draw attention to a representation of the Jonangpa for the sake of highlighting inherent tensions found in Thuken’s writing.

Of all of the traditions and views that Thuken tackles, his attack against the Jonang is the most severe. In fact, if you just read this section on the Jonang alone, you might think that his text lacks any kind of impartiality. That is not entirely the case. Nonetheless, this is why Roger Jackson observes, “Jonangpas … undoubtedly will feel that Thuken has merely caricatured their traditions and shown virtually no understanding of their subtleties” (p. 11).

Thuken’s chapter on the Jonang is well organized, starting with a historical introduction to the tradition which isn’t too bad except to neglect mention of the contemporary Jonang tradition of his time that existed outside Dzamthang. He then continues with a description of zhentong or extrinsic emptiness. After this introductory material, there is the heart of the chapter called, Proving that the Jonang View is Wrong. It begins with a section on Jonang Views and Hindu Views, declaring unequivocal proof that the zhentong view (synonoumous with the Jonangpa for him) is “wrong.” Thuken opens this section by claiming that Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen was “holy” yet like the historical Buddha, he presented views that were literally identical to those of extremist (p. 202). Curiously, he does not suggest that people reinterpret Dolpopa’s views as being less literal or more metaphoric (as the historical Buddha’s), but rather goes on to equate the Jonangpa with the proponents of Brahman as sound, the Sāṃkhya, the Mīmāṃsaka, and the Vedānta schools of classical Hindu thought.

Though Thuken cites different claims about zhentong, he is primarily concerned with attacking the permanent, suggesting that zhentong is a view that claims an eternal pervader and an eternal self. What is fascinating is that Tāranātha made this same claim against extremists a hundred years earlier in his condensed presentation of views, stating that the primary difference between Buddhist and extremist views is a fixation onto the self.[4] In writing on why buddhanature is thought to be fixed, Thuken does not account for Dolpopa’s description of relative reality as rangtong or intrinsically devoid of fixity except to claim that conventional entities are also seen as fixed (i.e. not so). This whole dimension of Dolpopa’s presentation is disregarded. Though Thuken quotes a paragraph from Dolpopa’s Mountain Dharma that states ordinary awareness as the substratum (kun gzhi rnam shes or translated here as “mind-basis-for-all”) to be bifurcated into pristine wisdom (ye shes or “gnosis”) and ordinary awareness (rnam shes), he then states that the Jonangpa consider the intrinsic nature of mind to be defiled. What he fails to mention is Dolpopa’s entire discourse on pristine awareness as the substratum (kun gzhi ye shes), the zhentong model for the clear light of mind that is devoid of intrinsic defilement.

The discussion then turns to the canonical sources cited within zhentong literature, and Thuken singles out the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra and Nāgārjuna’s Praise of the Dharmadhātu as texts to be interpreted as provisional in their meaning as opposed to definitive. He quotes a long passage from the Laṅkā and then notes that if this sūtra were definitive, then one major paradox that would ensue is that the major and minor marks of buddhahood would be identical to the soul of the extremist (p. 207). This however is a rehashed argument for those splicing the Laṅkā, and one that Tāranātha already responded to in his Essence of Zhentong where he wrote,

… it was explained [by the Buddha] that ‘These are not the same features because they are emptiness.’ So, it is said that this enlightened essence [buddhanature] does not exist as real, and if these major and minor marks were to exist, then they would be from the system of the extremist. It is also said that like space, what is not established whatsoever is known as the ‘enlightened essence.’

Before listing fellow critics of the Jonangpa, Thuken makes some callous remarks about the Jonang, insinuating that they are not even Buddhist. He then attacks Shakya Chokden (1428-1507) for someone who was “uncontrollably disturbed by the dön demons of partiality,” stating that he repented his view of zhentong on his deathbed (p. 211). Then later on in the text, in the conclusion of his section on his own Geluk tradition, Thuken writes,

Thus, of the various philosophical systems that arose in Tibet, the Jonang view involves the worst wrong view, being utterly irredeemable, and it is hard to admire faulty formulations like those of Taktsang Lotsawa and Shakya Chokden. Apart from these, however, there does not appear to be even a single system fit for consistent denigration, so those who desire their own welfare should see all of them as pervaded by pure appearance. (p. 318)

Of course both Takstang Lotsawa and Shakya Chokden were not Jonangpas but Sakya scholars. Regardless, this is the sentiment that Thuken leaves his readers with about the Jonang.

Interestingly enough (or at least I think its interesting), for better or worse, there was no written response by a Jonangpa author to the claims made by Thuken. I’ve read this in two ways, the first being that the so-called “rangtong vs. zhentong” debate in Tibetan Buddhism was not a fully engaged polemics in which you had opposite sides weighing in their views against each other as is sometimes advertised; and second, that despite this triumphalist exclusiveness, the Jonangpa curiously did not feel the need to engage in that kind of charged rhetorical exchange. In fact, the Jonang literature of this genre from the 18th and 19th centuries that endures into the study curriculum today does not even mention individual institutional traditions in Tibet, but is rather concerned with the actual classical presentation of views. At some point, I’ll unpack the polemical section of Tāranātha’s Ornament of Zhentong Madhyamaka where he addresses many of the typical attacks that were on the books in his day. Then, if we’re lucky, someday we will have access to two of the early Jonang polemical works: Chogle Namgyal’s Eradicating Delusion and Nyawon Kunga Pal’s Lucid Ornament of Philosophical Systems. These would be great resources for understanding early responses to claims similar to those made by Thuken hundreds of years later.


1. See, The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems: A Tibetan Study of Asian Religious Thought. by Thuken Losang Chökyi Nyima. Trans. Geshe Lhundup Sopa. Ed. Roger Jackson. The Library of Tibetan Classics, vol. 25. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009.

2. See Ruegg, D. S. 1963. “The Jo naṅ pas: A school of Buddhist Ontologists According to the Grub mtha’ śel gyi me loṅ.” In Journal of the American Oriental Society, 83: 73-91.

3. Other works in this genre of Tibetan Buddhist literature that have been translated into English include, Cutting Through Appearances which is a work by the Geluk exegesis Konchok Jigme Wangpo (1728-1791) [TBRC P169] and translated by the same Geshe who translated The Crystal Mirror; the monumental Maps of the Profound which is a work by the famous Gelluk scholar Jamyang Shepa (1648-1721/22) [TBRC P423] translated by Jeffrey Hopkins; and then there is Herbert Guenther’s classic, Buddhist Philosophy in Theory and Practice which includes both Konchok Jigme Wangpo’s text as well as the Nyingma master Mipham Gyatso’s (1846-1912) [TBRC P252] Wish-Fulfilling Jewel.

4. See Tāranātha. Essence of Zhentong. Translated by Michael Sheehy. In Jonang Foundation’s Digital Library,, 2008.

Blog Category: Books & Reviews

1 Comment

  1. Buddha Magic on January 5, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Academically and Masterfully written indeed
    Sir your literary style is both contundent and elegant, your structuring of your posts are both academically and grammatically close to the point of perfection, and capable of leaving even a Wikipedia entry envious
    Your ‘endnotes’ section is extremely orderly and contundent.

    Philosophically, the whole post (as most other posts), the conjecture over the views in question, are for ‘myself’ rather academic and unessential. The quintessence of the practice of the path to awakening, and the act of fully awakening, entails simply that one sees with ones own inner eye the three conditions within and without the 5 Khandas.
    If one sees the three conditions, of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and Non-Self for oneself through observation and contemplation whilst in various states of absorption, then the three causes of Awakening and Liberation will arise(Sila Samadhi and Panya).

    To discuss or debate what the true essence of emptiness or blah blah is is simply academic (head-stuff)
    It is not the experience of seeing.
    Seeing the world disintegrating ceaselessly like a sandglass before us the whole time. To know that everything is dissolving, in the process of becoming and ceasing, constantly.
    Seeing the unsatisfactory nature of such things, and developing the cases (inclinations) to attract more causes of auspicious things and awakenings and avoid creating causes of inauspicious things.

    This is the practice of self Enlightenment, Self Awakening.
    The rest is academic

    One of the finest written posts on a personal blog i have ever read
    No easy to see practical techniques about how to manifest the practice of self awakening included.

    A worthful tool that can take us far beyond any academic study;

    Make an intense effort to maintain mindfulness and awareness of every thought and action one performs
    (this is normally done by focusing on the sensation of breath at the tip of the nostrils and saying the Ghata ‘Buddho’ Bud [breathe in] dho [breathe out] – tjhis functions as an anchor to help the mind notice when it strays, and then you bring it back to the focus point).
    watch yourself constantly as you come to pass
    watch the heart as its moods and feelings arise and fade one by one each one giving way to the next
    notice the impermanent aspect of this as you watch
    notice how clinging to the pleasant ones brings dissatisfaction as the good ones fade away.
    notice how our inability to keep them from fading means that we do not own these things, even though they are ‘our own’ thoughts, feeliings, or belongings.
    notice the fact that, if we do not own these things, then they can not be self.
    if we don’t own them and they are beyond out control, then how can they be part of us?
    Practice watching your moods as they occur, sensations, physical and non-physical.
    Practice watching your thoughts
    Practice watching everything what happens within
    practice watching being watchful
    Be watchful, of how the mind is when it is watchful
    Be watchful of how the mind is when not watchful
    Be watchful of how the mind is when it has Samadhi
    Be watchful of how the mind is when it has no Samadhi
    Be Mindful
    Practice noticing how we are not Mindful
    Notice how the mind wanders from the center and gets lost
    Develop an inclination to wish to not wander
    This is creating a cause
    the cause for attaining more focus and less wandering.
    Samadhi will begin to come easier because of this cause.
    This is how we create causes. One after the other, step by step.
    Climbing up like a microbe evolving into multiple celled organism. Like a chrysalis breaking its shell.
    Only with diligent effort and continued persistence
    Does Baramee come to fruition, and the causes reach fruition, becoming effects.

    It is a great Magic and a Master Wicha to know how to create causes of ones inner change and self transformation
    Develop inclinations and tendencies which lead to auspicious and Enlightening factors.
    Do this by paying Mindful observance and investigation of the three conditions
    Fopcus mainly on the first of those three – Impermanence
    watch the foam on the waves of the ocean as they create themself make forms and then fizzle out. Notice mpermanence in things, look for its presence in everything you think of or encounter.

    As yourself if this is impermanent or not?
    Try to find something which is not impermanent – take it as a game.
    Learn to be Mindful of these factors always.
    A face never stays the same
    a car passing by on the motorway – its sound rises passes and fades… impermanence
    bubbles on the surface of the lake
    ideas arise and fade..
    giving way to the next
    None of this is real if we could see without dust in our eyes
    None of this has any substance
    it is empty