Zhentong isn’t Cittamātra

For some reason, those unfamiliar with the zhentong presentation tend to associate it with the Cittamāra (“Mind Only” or “Mentalist”) system, as if Madhyamaka was only divided into Svātantrika and Prasaṇgika. According to the Jonangpa, this is a case of mistaken identity.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing developments in the historical narrative on the Tibetan zhentong tradition is the Jonangpa categorical situating of the Cittamātra system in relation to the other major philosophical “schools” of Indian Buddhism.

While the Cittamātra is generally associated with the final turning set of sūtra discourses and the śastra literature attributed to Maitreya, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, the Jonangpa challenge this assumption as a conflation of Cittamātra doctrines with the Great Madhyamaka. To begin, they make the common distinction between (a) the Cittamātra system that asserts sensible phenomena to be real (rnam bden pa’i sems tsam) and (b) the Cittamātra system that asserts sensible phenomena to be artificial (rnam rdzun pa’i sems tsam).[1] They consider the former to have been the earlier system historically, while the latter arrived in conjunction with the Madhyamaka tradition in India.

Although the Great Madhyamaka system is considered to have arose much later, it was confused with the Cittamātra in India and later in Tibet. The Jonangpa describe this as a whispered lineage (nyan brgyud) that was transmitted from ear-to-ear from Indians to Tibetans. That is to say, it was an esoteric line of transmission that emphasized contemplative insights in contrast to analytical investigation. Its said that this line continued through the Kashmiri scholar Sajña on to the Tibetan figure Tsen Khawoche up to Dolpopa.

Doctrinally, the zhentong tradition is in alignment with the Cittamātra system that asserts sensible phenomena to be artificial, asserting that the perfected nature (pariniṣpanna, yongs grub) and nondual pristine awareness are truly established (giving reason for conflation).[2] In contrast, the Cittamātra system that asserts sensible phenomena to be real (rnam bden pa) also asserts the momentary awareness to be real in absolute terms, and that the relational nature (paratantra, gzhan dbang) is truly established.

To take this emphasis on the three natures a step further, the Jonangpa make the case that since the three natures are found within many of the core sūtras including the Chapter Requested by Maitreya in the Prajñāpāramitā, the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra, and the Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra, they makeup a central doctrine of the Zhentong Madhyamaka. In order to reassert this point, Dolpopa writes with this argument in mind,

If for instance someone were to say, ‘Because the middle turning is Madhyamaka and the final turning is Cittamātra, the middle turning is definitive in meaning and the final turning is provisional in meaning; this invalidates your position.’ This is extremely irrational because (a) there is no scripture or reasoning whatsoever that suggests that the final turning follow the core texts of the Cittamātra and because (b) [the final turning] teaches what is beyond the Cittamātra, teaches the meaning of the consummate Great Madhyamaka, and teaches in accord with the meaning of the consummate Vajrayāna.[3]

In sum, the Jonangpa do not equate the core doctrine or the seminal sūtras associated with the final turning with the Cittamātra, and in fact include works from the Prajñāpārmitā genre in this grouping based on the logic that these texts contain discussions on the three natures.[4]

As you might expect, there is much more to say about this. Your comments are most welcome.


1. An interesting division here is between those considered to be of the Cittamāra system that asserts actual existence (dngos smra ba’i sems tsam) and those who explicate discerning cognition (rnam rig smra ba). The former is associated with Rangtongpas while the latter is associated with Zhentongpas.

2. See the post, Whose Svabhāva is It?.

3. This is quoted in Ngag dbang Blo gros grags pa. Rgyu dang ‘bras bu’i theg pa mchog gi gnas lugs zab mo’i don rnam par nges pa rje jo nang pa chen po’i ring lugs ‘jigs med dgong lnga’i nga ro, 1, 60. In Blo gros grags pa’i Gsung ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang.

4. On the “Three Turnings” see the post, Śākyamuni’s 3 Revolutions.

Blog Category: Research Articles


  1. Michael R. Sheehy on October 14, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Cittamatra & Yogacara
    It is very important what you say on your site: “Zhentong isn’t Cittamatra”. Congratulations!

    But, also it is very important to affirm: “Cittamatra isn’t Yogacara” (Maitreya, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Sthiramati, Gumanati, Darika).

    The use of the terms “Vijnaptimatra” and “Cittamatra” in the Yogacarabhumi and Mahayanasamgraha (Asanga) is an interpretation Yogacara and not ‘mind-only’.

    “Cittamatra” is after Dharmapala and the interpretation of Hsuan-Tsang (ch’an) and of the Nyingmapas. In Tibet, Cittamatra is the erroneous Nyingma interpretation! Bhavaviveka with Svatantrika is a serious critique of the Cittramata point of view (that the exterior world does not exist).

    Attention: the Lankavatara-sutra is a text after Vasubandhu/Sthiramati — probably a compilation of Dharmapala. Suzuki’s translation affirms that the Lankavatara is a Cittamatra text, and not a Yogacara text (and it speaks about “alaya-vijanana” in this text — and there is a great difference of the Samdhinirmocana-sutra and of the Yogacarabhumi (Maitreya-Asanga). The original and true meaning of “alaya-vijnana” is in the Yogacaragumi (pravrtti and nivrtti portions of the Viniscayasamgrahani).

    Alberto Brum

    • Anonymous on November 3, 2008 at 6:56 pm

      One should be very careful with phrases such as, ‘…the erroneous Nyingma interpretation!…’ as there is no qualitative difference between any Buddhist philosophical viewpoint. “Lord Buddha did not teach an inferior vehicle.”

      Furthermore, it’s not at all important what names have been given to various viewpoints at various times. There is only the so-called ‘enlightened perspective’ and the totally mistaken perspective. Labelling is only for the temporary and skillful benefit of those of us who fall into the second category.

      Those who subscribe to the view labelled ‘zhentong’ shouldn’t be led astray by the fact that these teachings are so beautiful and precious. The meaning of Dharma is ultimately ineffable so that even these rarefied teachings are provisional. Furthermore, they relate specifically to the most advanced Tantric practice, in other contexts, for example in philosophical debate, it might well be better to rely instead upon the interpretations of Tsongkhapa or Mipham.

  2. BT Tay on November 6, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    Is it true that Candrakirti in his autocommentary to his Madhyamakavatara criticized/did not accept the Alayavinana stuff saying something to the effect that it was similar to the atman/self of the Brahmans? And that Candrakirti’s comparison of the alaya and atman of the Brahmanical system CLEARLY exposes the flaws in Candrakirti’s system although Dolpopa says that in the tantric stuff Candrakirti was different.Candrakirti did not take the trouble to thoroughly delve into the intricacies/subtleties of the alayavijnana stuff! His superficial perspectives on the Alaya seems to be clearly exposed in his autocommentary. The cracks so to speak!

    The alayavijnana is very subtle — only fully comprehended by the Tathagata’s supreme wisdom gnosis (refer to the statement in the Sandinirmocana Sutra).

    I am indeed surprised that a scholar of the calibre of Candrakirti could take such a view/stance with regard to the alayavijnana — did Candrakirti actually read the Lankavatara,Srimaladevisimhada,Sandhinirmocana and Tathagatagarbha sutras for example? Or should the following question be asked then — could it be that the alayavijnana system was so deep and subtle that even Candrakirti’s freedom from manifoldness or elaborations/proliferations was NOT SUBTLE AND DEEP ENOUGH to understand and appreciate it; or even worse still misunderstand/mistake it for some atman of the Brahmanical system? This includes Bhavaviveka as well.

    This is certainly in stark contrast to Nagarjuna’s Choying Topa (Dharmadhatu Stotra)?

    It also unfortunate that scholars like Sakya Pandita thought that the Tathagatagarbha stuff was similar to the atman in the Brahmanical tradition.

    Rendawa was anti-Dolpopa as per Gorampa’s Tawai Shenjed (Freedom from Extremes English translation). Even illustrious scholars like Rongton Sheja Kunrig took texts like the Madhyanta Vibhaga and Mahayansamgraha to be sems tsam (and also that Dolpopa’s system of Gzhan Stong still had some kind of subtle grasping!!). And as Rendawa was Tsongkhapa’s teacher it is not difficult to understand why Tsongkhapa denigrated the gzhan stong philosophy(even as some kind of spittle!!!).

    That is why Dolpopa went to some length to explain in the Path section of his Ri Chos why the texts like Madhyantavibhaga etc. do not just teach the worldly Mind Only but also the Ultimate Mind Only(which by the way does NOT have the same meaning as Rongton’s drag shos description — it is well far beyond Rongton’s semantics!!!or the Sakya semantics — they like to label Dolpopa/certain texts Cittamatra this and that.)

    And Dolpopa seems to be SPOT ON because if one were to read the translations of the five works of Maitreya/Asanga for instance-nowhere are they as superficial as the above scholars paint them out to be!that is why Dolpopa says what he says in his Ri Chos (like “…because it would constitute a huge karma of abandoning the doctrine” refer to Hopkins translation).

    And by the way those Jonangpas who look down on the Cittamtra system should take heed of what Dolpopa says in his Ri Chos that the worldly mind only are doors to and methods for entering suchness. In addition the statement which sounds something like “the three spheres or dhatus or triple world system is Mind only” people who denigrate the worldly Mind Only should bear in mind that it is a dharma associated with the bodhisattva of the SIXTH BHUMI (refer to the Dasabhumika Sutra).

    That is the reason why, Dr. Michael Sheehy, I had e-mailed you about the importance of properly qualifying your statement — “Zhentong isn’t Cittamatra.”

    And also perhaps the term gzhan stong needs to be clarified as exhaustively as is possible — FROM DOLPOPA’S PERSPECTIVE because there are others who also claim to be Zhentongpas but actually hold views that differ from Dolpopas (the way the term is used etc.) You can refer to the JIATS article on the thdl.org website.

    Some even project their own interpretations onto Dolpopa’s gzhan stong without first attempting in an unbiased and unprejudiced way to understand the point(s) that Dolpopa was trying to put forth in his Ri Chos. Essentially they should read Dolpopa’s Ri Chos at first hand not through the eyes of someone else.

    I offer these statements to Khenpo Kunga Sherab and to those truly/genuinely learned and accomplished ones of the gzhan stong system.

    I more than welcome constructive criticism and/or rebuttals to what has been said above. But be forewarned this is not a time to be petty. There has been so much unfair criticisms that have been hurled at the gzhan stong of the Jonangpas (Dolpopa). The gzhan stong that Dolpopa talks about is something that is genuine and thoroughly profound — it is not a heretical system.

    So then — what does Khenpo Lodro Drakpa say about sems tsam? Also what does Taranatha say in his Uma Chenpo?

    I must say and confess that I am just an extremely extremely ignorant one. Please help me purify my ignorance with regard to the above statements.