Tibetan Zhentong Discourse I

The wide variety of intricacies and nuances within the body of Tibetan thought that is termed “zhentong” is simply fantastic. The use of the word is so varied in fact that we could argue that there is no single zhentong view, but rather a kaleidoscopic view of multiple rotating hues that we give the label “zhentong.”

Its also important to keep in mind that what one may call “zhentong” may not in fact be considered bona fide by others. Of course this raises much larger questions about legitimacy, authority, and strategies for lineage-building.[1]

To begin, its worthwhile mentioning a few of the major Tibetan figures associated with this body of thought. In doing so, I’d like to turn to a passage by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé (1813-1899) where he identifies exponents of the larger zhentong tradition. Here, he gives tribute to a variety of Indian and Tibetan masters who he associates with the zhentong vein of discourse,

Relying upon the scriptural tradition of Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga and their heirs, this [tradition] was likewise upheld by both [Lotsāwa] Zu [Zi Gaway Dorje] and Tsen [Khawoché]. Even though here in the land of Tibet, there were many different kinds of traditions that arose, these are the expositions and scholastics known as “Zhentong Madhyamaka.”

The great charioteers of this tradition were: The omniscient Rangjung Dorje, Kunkhyen Dolpopa, Kunkhyen Drimé Ödzer, Jé Dunpa, Zi Lung Paṇchen, Tāranātha as well as others who lit the sunlight of these teachings.[2]

Though Kongtrul’s intent may largely have been to employ the term “zhentong” in his eclectic Rismé movement in order to further appropriate a wide variety of similar but not identical views into his enterprise, this raises a few questions at the onset: (1) What is considered “zhentong” (and by who)?; (2) Is a view that is understood to be “zhentong” determined by the usage of the technical term “zhentong” or is it determined by specific principles articulated by that view?

A subject of polemical dispute in Tibet throughout the ages, and perhaps in the case of Kongtrul, a means for unifying differences, “zhentong” is a term that is essentialized for a variety of purposes in manifold contexts. In fact, within the Jonang scholastic tradition today, there are variant versions of what is unilaterally referred to as “zhentong.”

One of the figures listed by Kongtrul, an early Tibetan forerunner of what has come to be known as “zhentong” was a mentor of Dolpopa, the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339). Although the term “zhentong” is not found within his works, and was most likely coined or at least popularized by his contemporary Dolpopa, his views particularly on the nature of the universal ground (ālaya, kun gzhi) resemble those of Dolpopa. More specifically, the technical phrase, “the universal ground as pristine awareness” (*ālayajñāna, kun gzhi ye shes) that was used frequently by Dolpopa shows up in Kontrul’s commentary on Rangjung Dorje’s famous work, the “Profound Inner Meaning.”[3]

☸This is the first part of a two part series. To be continued in a later post…


1. On the zhentong discourse in Tibet, see Stearns, C. The Buddha from Dolpo, 42-77. SUNY: New York, 1999. Sheehy, M. The Gzhan stong chen mo: A Study of Emptiness According to the Modern Tibetan Buddhist Jo nang Scholar ‘Dzam thang Mkhan po Ngag dbang Blos gros Grags pa (1920-1975). Ph.D. Dissertation. California Institute of Integral Studies: San Francisco, 2007. Burchardi, A. “A Look at the Diversity of the Gzhan stong Tradition.” In Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, 3, 2007. See also the post, “The “Other” Emptiness.

2. Kong sprul Blo gros mtha’ yas. Gzhan stong dbu ma chen po’i lta khrid rdo rje zla ba dri ma med pa’i ‘od zer, 584. In Rgya chen bka’ mdzod: A Collection of the Writings of ‘Jam-mgon Kong-sprul Blo-gros-mtha’-yas. vols. 20. L. Ngodub (ed.): Paro, 1976. On folio 585, Kong sprul goes on to explain the Yogācāra that teaches pristine awareness as devoid of a subject and object (rnal ‘byor spyod bas gnyis stong ye shes) and the General Madhyamaka (dbu ma thung mong ba).

3. This commentary on the Zab mo Nang gi don has caused a great deal of speculation although it is not certain if Rangjung Dorje actually used this term as it is not in his root verses or in an edition of his auto-commentary (rang ‘grel) that was recently printed in India. Rangjung Dorje’s works have recently been published and a study of them has not yet been done.

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