With the sustaining of a tradition, there is the multi-generational task of repeatedly defining and describing what is understood to be most real (or unreal).
Then, every once in a while, a great commentator comes along and creatively re-describes what their tradition has deemed of utmost importance. This interplay between a doctrine and its history ― a source and the interpretation of it ― has had a tremendous impact on defining philosophical discourse in Tibet.
Within Mahāyāna literature, the teachings of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni are categorized according to three distinct sets of sūtra discourses. These sets of teachings are not determined by location or by the timing of their delivery but rather by their content and their intended audience. Utilizing the early Buddhist metaphor of a “dharma wheel,” each set is described as a “turning,” “cycle,” or perhaps more accurately as a “revolution.”
As a schema for classifying the sūtras, these three turnings provide a conceptual framework for understanding the progressive unfolding of Buddhist philosophical schools of thought in India as well as for interpreting the vast body of literature attributed to the Buddha. Summarizing these three turnings, Tāranātha writes,
Nevertheless, the initial Wheel of Dharma comprises the set of sūtra discourses on the ordinary śrāvaka that teach about phenomena within relative reality. The middle Wheel of Dharma comprises the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtras that teach how the intrinsic essence of all phenomena from form up through omniscience cannot be established, and how existence is said to be not even slightly existent. The final Wheel of Dharma teaches how one’s own nature is regarded as exalted pristine awareness, the ultimate truth that is space and awareness indivisible.
This ultimate nature of the 3rd revolution is often referred to as, “buddhanature” or tathāgatagarbha. Its understood to be an enlightened essence that is everlasting, stable, constant and insubstantial. It is said to encompass all of the tangibles, that which are known to the ordinary sense faculties and by the states of mind. Finally, it is explained as an expression of ultimate emptiness, a nature which has not arisen from the beginning of time and that appears “like reflected forms in a mirror.”
In brief, those within the Tibetan philosophical discourse who have been labeled (or been self-identified) as being “Rangtongpas” are those who assert that the middle turning or 2nd revolution teachings were the true intent of the Buddha Śākyamuni. Those identified as “Zhentongpas” assert that the final turning or 3rd revolution was the definitive intent of the Buddha’s discourses. This discrepancy in interpretation has launched a debate about the definitive and provisional meaning of what the Buddha taught, a topic that we can continue to unpack and discuss.
1. This is explained in the Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra.
2. Tāranātha. Tshul gnyis rnam par ‘byed pa nges pa’i don gyi ‘jug ngogs zhes bya ba nyung ngu rnam gsal dag cing tshang ba. In Rje btsun tA ra nA tha’i Gsung ‘bum, 18, 197.