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The Quintessence of Zhentong

Thinking about this well structured collection of 108 instructions, I thought to pick a few and post them. Feeling predictable, I wanted to start with what you may expect to find on this blog, the instructions on zhentong (#25). However, as we read through this instruction, its presentation is perhaps less obvious than expected (or maybe not).

What makes this particular instruction so interesting is that it seems to be the only surviving fragment of the writings attributed to the Tibetan master Tsen Khawoché (b. 1021), a major figure in the transmission of zhentong and the Five Treatises of Maitreya .” [1] Again, we...

108 Quintessential Instructions

IMG_0011_3.JPG Kunga Drolchok Master Image

As I've recently been reading through the collection of 108 Quintessential Instructions that was arranged by the Jonang master Kunga Drolchok (1507-1566), I've been thinking through the seemingly simple question, "What is the purpose of scholarship?" [1]

Though people tend to think of the conventional notion of scholarship as being based on a model of a relatively narrow-minded insistence on reiterating a specific doctrine or set of principles for the sake of furthering erudition, there are alternative models. In the case of Drolchok, as well as numerous other representatives in the Tibetan scholastic tradition, the role of scholarship was primarily that of preservation. More specifically, scholarship was seen as a mode of operating in a way that would further conserve those ideas and practices that in one way or another were considered to be efficacious in promoting the spiritual optimization of individuals. It is on this model that the 108 Quintessential Instructions were compiled.

Tibetan Zhentong Discourse II

Kongtrul also lists Rangjung Dorje’s and Dolpopa’s contemporary, the celebrated Nyingma master Kunkhyen Drimé Odzer or Longchen Rabjam (1308-1363). Longchenpa does use similar terminology but in a context and with an implication different from that of Dolpopa. However, Longchenpa’s view on the tathāgatagarbha does closely resemble that of Dolpopa’s, and his elaborations on the multi-stratum universal ground are remarkably similar to Dolpopa’s understanding of pristine awareness as the universal ground ( kun gzhi ye shes ). [1]

Serdok Paṇchen otherwise known as Śākya Chokden (1428-1507) is probably the most well-known non-Jonangpa author of zhentong. Fortunately, the views of this Sakya exponent of zhentong gained the attention of Tāranātha, and were compared with the views of Dolpopa in Tāranātha’s text on the Twenty One Profound Points [ Differentiating the views of Śākya Chokden and Dolpopa ],

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,

Elucidating the Jeweled Matrix

Let's talk texts. As much as contemplative practice, ritual, or even personal oral instructions are essential to esoteric transmission, it is texts and the transference of texts through time that largely acts to define the livelihood of Tibetan Buddhist lineages.

Within the Jonang, the Mahāyāna commentarial literature that is most frequently cited is the Five Treatises of Maitreya . Of these five treatises, it is the Ratnagotravibhāga — "Elucidating the Jeweled Matrix" — otherwise known as the Uttaratantra-śastra that has had the most profound impact on the articulation of the zhentong philosophical discourse in Tibet.

It is here, within this seminal text that we find an extensive discussion on an infinite and invariant radiant nucleus — an illimitable jeweled matrix — that is said to pervade and suffuse the heart of every living being.

Tārāyogīni Tantra & Practice

This post is titled, The Transmission of the Tantra and Practices of Tārāyogīni ( Sgrol ma rnal 'byor ma ): A Little-Known Jonang Specialty . By Thomas Roth, a contributing author to the Jonangpa blog.

jf_tarayogini_01.jpg Tarayogini Tarayogini

The Jonang tradition was and is well-known for holding and continuing to propagate several unique transmissions, such as various strands of Kālachakra transmissions and various traditions of its six-limbed vajrayoga; the Mahāsṃavāra Kālachakra, the view of emptiness based upon the insights and explications of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361) known as zhentong ( gzhan stong ) and others. Among these unique transmissions is one that is almost completely unknown outside of the Jonang tradition, and apparently not very widely practiced within it either, despite the fact that it seemingly was of rather great importance to the great Tāranātha (1575-1635) and that the great 19th century Rimé master Jamgon Kongtrul (1813-1899) regarded it highly, and he wrote about it and practiced it himself.

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.

Tradition of the Perfect Eon

The "now" is important for any tradition. For it is in the process of bringing the past into the present wherein a tradition is brought to life. However, the past, and in particular the excavation of knowledge from the past, is arguably just as important for the life of a tradition.

As we discussed in the "Wheel of Time" series, this excavation process is a true concern for Dolpopa and later Jonangpa thinkers. [1] For them, this is the hermeneutical act of retrieving the pure teaching from the pure time: the dharma of the Kṛtayuga or Perfect Eon.

However, there is more to this. There is then the act of transferring meaning ― lived meaning ― into the present. This is a careful process. A surgical deliberation that involves the transference of language, culture, and history ― or what I like to call, "ancestry."

What Is / Isn't Rangtong?

Dolpopa, like many great Tibetan scholars, was interested in making distinctions. Within his writings, we find several terse compositions that employ rich Buddhist lingo in order to succinctly and deliberately analyze critical subjects such as emptiness, existence, consciousness, and the wholeness of buddhahood.

What strikes me about these writings is that they are so unambiguous. Its as if Dolpopa knew there would be speculation, and he didn't want to leave his words too open to interpretation from others.

Having mentioned rangtong in contrast with zhentong in an earlier post, I wanted to step aside and let a work by Dolpopa speak for itself. [1] What follows is my translation of an excerpt from a short text by Dolpopa that defines rangtong ― denoting what it is and what it isn't in mutually exclusive terms ― called, Seizing the Crucial Point ,

Embodying the Kalachakra

Marveling at how the ultimate is described as expressions, and thinking about how to relate this ongoing theme to Kālachakra practice, I happened upon a short piece by the late Lama Ngawang Kalden from Dzamthang that strikes at the heart of this matter.

In a compilation of his writings and talks, there is a short text within his Cycle of Instructions for Visualizing the Profound that has a passage on how the ultimate manifests as contemplative experience through the vajrayana process of embodying the Kālachakra deity.