Sutra: Great Madhyamaka

It is understood that there were three “Great” systems of the Buddha’s teachings that were transmitted from Indian masters into Tibet. These three are:

1) Great Perfection or Dzogchen;
2) Great Seal or Mahamudra;
3) Great Madhyamaka or Zhentong.

The Great Madhyamaka or Great Middle Way zhentong (shentong) system of the Jonang is in contrast to the General Madhyamaka system known as “Rangtong Madhyamaka.” General Madhyamaka includes both Svatantrika and Prasangika Madhyamaka. Indian masters of this rangtong system include Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka, Chandrakirti, Shantarakshita, and their disciples. Early Great Madhyamaka figures include the Regent Maitreya, Arya Asanga and his brother Vasubandhu, Dignaga, Dharmakirti, and their disciples. Though Nagarjuna explicitly taught Rangtong General Madhyamaka in his Collections of Reasoning, he also clearly expressed Zhentong Great Madhyamaka in works such as his Praise to the Ultimate Dimension of Reality.

As Jetsun Taranatha writes in his text titled, An Ascertainment of the Two Systems,

Accordingly, those who adhere to rangtong take the first wheel of the Buddha’s teachings which is the Wheel of Dharma that teaches the Four Noble Truths to be provisional in meaning, the middle Wheel of Dharma that teaches the absence of characteristics as ultimately definitive in meaning, and the final excellently distinguished Wheel of Dharma as teaching the circumstantial definitive meaning, which is provisional in meaning. Those who uphold zhentong take the first Wheel of Dharma to be provisional, the middle Wheel of Dharma to teach the circumstantial definitive meaning, and the final Wheel of Dharma to teach to ultimate definitive meaning.

Taking the final wheel or third “turning” of the Buddha’s teachings as definitive, the Great Madhyamaka system emphasizes the yogic or meditative approach while General Madhyamaka emphasizes an analytic approach.