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zhentong

Expressions of the Essence

Buddhist phenomenology tells us that one of the five fundamental constituents of the egoic complex is "form" ( rūpa , gzugs ), the configuration of tangible materiality that is so integral to ordinary sensible experience. [1] Most basically, this suggests that there must be an outside world for there to be an inside world.

With this interface, the self is at play within the familiar field of duality. However, what intrigues me more than the self in the world of form is the formless, and more specifically the question: What is it about the nature of the formless that can be known?

Dolpopa's Experience

IMG_1146_1.JPG Carving of Dolpopa, Jonang

With "expressions of emptiness" on my mind, I thought it might be nice to reflect on Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen's experience of this quintessential phenomena, and how this experience acted as a pivotal point in his understanding zhentong.

This of course raises larger ― more lingering ― questions, such as: How is zhentong understood by the Jonangpa?; What links the vajrayoga practices of the Kālachakra with zhentong?; What "evidence" do we have that expressions of emptiness are actual phenomena? [1] ; etc.

Though these broad and overarching questions lie beyond the scope of this short post, these are issues that I'd like to gravitate towards in future posts. Here, I'd like to draw from the narrative of the Jonangpa, or at least one episode in the biographical account of Dolpopa's life that roots his experience of this phenomena within his realization of zhentong.

Expressions of Emptiness

When we think about emptiness, there is usually an intimation of absence. That is, a lack of presence is implied. However, in zhentong contemplative thinking, the recognition of the ultimate real implies an acknowledgment of presence, a constant luminous presence.

Perhaps one of the most interesting twists in this paradox of absence and presence is what I referred to in an earlier post as, "expressions of emptiness." [1] The technical term that I'm translating here is śūnyatā-biṃba in Sanskrit or stong pa nyid kyi gzugs brnyan in Tibetan (commonly abbreviated as, stong gzugs and translated, "empty form"). Since this is such a key term and prevalent notion in the vajrayoga process of the Kālachakra and tantric zhentong worldview, and since my earlier mentioning of it elicited such excitement, I thought to sketch a few notes on the idea here.

"Wheel of Time" III

Now that we have a rough sketch of Dolpopa's concept of time according to Kālachakra cosmology, we can begin to think about what Dolpopa and later Jonangpas refer to as the "Kṛtayuga dharma" or "Kṛtayuga tradition." [1] To clarify what this is, Dolpopa writes in his Fourth Council ,

The Tretayuga and subsequent eons are flawed; their treatises have been contaminated like milk in the marketplace. They are in every way unable to act as witness. The earlier [eons] displace the later, just as more advanced philosophical systems refute the lesser.

The Kṛtayuga dharma is the untainted expression of the victorious ones, the explanations of the sovereigns on the tenth spiritual level, and the great founders of the chariot systems. It is flawless and imbued with supreme enlightened qualities.

In this [Kṛtayuga] tradition, everything is not rangtong. By eloquently distinguishing rangtong from zhentong, that which is relative is taught to be rangtong while that which is ultimate is taught precisely to be zhentong. [2]

"Wheel of Time" I

Kalachakra.mandala.1.jpg Jonang Kalachakra Mandala

Lately, I've been thinking about time. Time in the cliché sense of that which "does not stop for anyone." Historical time. Real time. Blinks and breathes and heart-beats. The wax and wane of moons, the expansion of universes, the radiant pulses of quasars. That basic conceptual structure that flows as the space-time continuum... The ticks and nanoticks that sequentially measure the magnitude and momentum of our lives.

More specifically, I've been thinking about how the Jonangpa master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen thought about time. How his concept of time has contributed to a re-visioning of Buddhist history, and from where his concept derived. [1]

Dolpopa was concerned with framing his realizations in accord with the Kālachakra Tantra , and the lineage of his realizations within the framework of the cosmological schema described by the tantra. In fact, I'd like to suggest that Dolpopa's understanding of time according to the Kālachakra was so central to his realizations that we must seek to understand this concept of time if we are to think seriously about the larger zhentong paradigm.

Dzogchen & Zhentong

Reading through the miscellaneous guidance texts ( khrid yig ) of Khenpo Lodrö Drakpa , I came across a brief instruction that he gave on clarifying the distinctions between the 4 predominant Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna views: (1) zhentong, (2) rangtong, (3) mahāmudrā, and (4) dzogchen. [1]

Of particular interest to me is the question, "What are the differences between the zhentong and dzogchen views?" This is a question of recurring interest in learned Buddhist circles. Not only have several friends in New York and elsewhere asked me this question, but I remember that while living in the monastery, monks would occasionally come to see my Tibetan teacher and ask him this very same question. Rinpoche would smile and assure the monks by saying, "There are slight differences."

Since Khenpo Lodrak makes such clear distinctions between these 4 views ― and since his instructions are so short and sweet, I thought to translate the excerpt here,

Whose Svabhāva is It?

jf_taranatha_thangka_2.jpg Taranatha

One of the major tripping points in Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy is identifying what is intrinsically existent ― what is referred to in Sanskrit as "svabhāva" ( rang bzhin ), and what is not ( nisvabhāva , rang bzhin med ).

Svabhāva is the central target of the Svātantrika and Prāsaṅgika Rangtong Madhyamaka enterprise, and is essential in understanding zhentong. [1] However, what is considered svabhāva is not the same within the major Mahāyāna philosophical systems. Since this is a source of possible confusion, I thought to make a few notes here in order to help clarify what is "svabhāva" or intrinsically existent, according to who.

To begin, we must first identify the contexts in which svabhāva is defined. According to Mahāyāna thought, there is what is established to be real or truly existent ( bden grub ), and what is not. In other words, there is the real and the unreal. What is real and what is unreal are further defined as being threefold in nature: (1) the imaginary nature ( parikalpita , kun btags ); (2) the relational nature ( paratantra , gzhan dbang ); (3) the perfected nature ( pariniṣpanna , yongs grub ).

The "Other" Emptiness

The technical Tibetan term "zhentong" ( gzhan stong , often mis-phoneticized "shentong") suggests a particular view of reality, one that can be misconstrued due to the word itself. To give a simple gloss of the term, "zhentong" is: that which is empty ( stong ) of the other ( gzhan ). The word is often translated into English as "other-emptiness," begging the question: "Is there an 'other' emptiness?" That is, an emptiness other than the one we all know and love?

To begin, the term "zhentong" was coined by the 14th century Kālachakra master and Jonangpa scholar, Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen who employed it to contextualize his understanding...

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