Research Articles

Śākyamuni's 3 Revolutions

3.jpg Dharma Wheel

With the sustaining of a tradition, there is the multi-generational task of repeatedly defining and describing what is understood to be most real (or unreal).

Then, every once in a while, a great commentator comes along and creatively re-describes what their tradition has deemed of utmost importance. This interplay between a doctrine and its history ― a source and the interpretation of it ― has had a tremendous impact on defining philosophical discourse in Tibet.

Within Mahāyāna literature, the teachings of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni are categorized according to three distinct sets of sūtra discourses. [1] These sets of teachings are not determined by location or by the timing of their delivery but rather by their content and their intended audience. Utilizing the early Buddhist metaphor of a “dharma wheel,” each set is described as a "turning," "cycle," or perhaps more accurately as a "revolution."

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 ,


Shambhala Praise

Shambhala.1.jpg The Realm of Shambhala

We are delighted to make available in translation one of the most famous and recited prayers of the Jonang tradition, The Great Praise of Shambhala by Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen .

An excerpt from this praise reads,

Upon its beautiful, round,
and lofty peak, the sublime sage’s
residence known as Śambhala
contains more than ten million towns,
the chief of which is glorious Kalāpa,
with a vast breadth of twelve leagues,
decorated...

White Tara Trans.

We are pleased to have as the most recent addition to our online library, a translation of another one of the 108 essential guidance instructions that were preserved in written form by the great Jonang master Kunga Drolchok (1507-1566).

An excerpt from this short piece reads,

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.

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]

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