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.

To zone-in on this, it seems as though we are tampering with the confusion between external things and things of the mind. My earlier note was meant as a warning against misunderstanding the common translation of śūnyatā-biṃba as "empty form" or "empty image" to be something that is somehow suspended from deep visceral experience. The danger here is in thinking śūnyatā-biṃba to be external objects (bāhyārtha, phyi don), or things that are seen out there.

Of course, this danger has its history. In fact, its good to keep in mind that the internalization of objects of meditation has a long history in Buddhism. From the early Abhidharma discussions up to the most refined elaborations on the clear light mind found in the unexcelled yoga tantras, there are careful deliberations about what is a construed mental image or object of meditation (ālambana, dmigs pa), and what is naturally internal.

Part of the issue here seems to be situated in the boundaries between the inner and the outer. In fact, this exact interval may be blurred. Again, how we get at this subject / object tension has been a prevailing question through Buddhist discourse for millennia. On the ordinary perceptible level, there is the obvious, the observable, the constructible. This is the object of meditation, the conceptual point of reference that is initially perceived, and then through the power of memory and the imaginative faculty, it is visualized. With the process of visualization, there is the internalization of an impression of the image. This is the interval where the image itself disappears, and the mental image appears. It is in this space where the death of the thing occurs.

The term "image" in English, though arguably just as correct as "form" for a translation of the Tibetan term "gzugs," means something that is seen. An image is a representation of an external thing or "form," it is categorically a shape or configuration that is visible. As I stated in my earlier notes and comments, the actual term that is being condensed in Tibetan is "gzugs brnyan" (biṃba), a term with the semantic range of reflection, expression, or manifestation in addition to visible shape or image. This is important.

Playing with the words, and a few explanations that I've heard from lamas, the term is actually referring to an experience of emptiness that is visceral and somatic, not something that is solely suspended in the detached domain of the visible. Though the term often does carry the connotation of some kind of visual reference ― since visual experience is so dominant, that's not exactly the meaning being stressed in this context of the Kālachakra six-fold vajrayoga terminology. That is to say, however much I like the poetic "empty image," I think its misleading. This is not referring to pictures or posters of emptiness. I'm also not convinced that "expressions of emptiness" totally nails it. Maybe "reflections of emptiness" or "manifestations of emptiness" or "formations of emptiness" are more on the mark?

Putting semantics aside, the point here is that śūnyatā-biṃba is always there. It is not dependent on perception or memory, and is therefore not a product of imagination. This is a major point in defining the zhentong view, a point that Tārānatha emphasizes in his Essence of Zhentong where he writes that according to the Zhentong Madhyamaka, "material forms and so forth that are known to be external referents" are considered unreal.[2] So, terms like unchanging, immutable, timeless, primordial, etc. are used to describe it. In sum, śūnyatā-biṃba refers to manifestations of absolute emptiness sublimely endowed with all aspects of lucidity, bliss, etc.



1. See note #3 in the earlier post, "Wheel of Time" I.

2. Tāranātha writes in The Essence of Zhentong, "In this [zhentong] system, what is not considered to be real is: That which is immaterial, such as the three unconditioned [phenomena] and imputed unconditioned [phenomena] as asserted by the Cittamātra system discussed below, material forms and so forth that are known to be external referents, the eight types of ordinary awareness, the fifty-one operations of the mind, and in brief ― all phenomena of outwardly saṃsāra." See Tāranātha. The Essence of Zhentong, 9. Translated by Michael R. Sheehy. In Jonang Foundation's Digital Library,, 2008.

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I am a graduate of a three year retreat under Kalu Rinpoche, from 1982-85, two-thirds of the retreat was devoted to the Shangpa system which is primarily kept alive by the Jonangpa lineage, the main writer of commentaries on Shangpa practice is Taranatha.

Kunga Drolchok is also in the Shangpa lineage prayers. two of its main practices are the six yogas of Niguma, and is protector is the six armed Mahakala.

So, I'm just writing to see if you're doing translations relevant to both Jonang Shangpas and Jonang Kalachakra practitioners?

And I'm writing to mention this other side of Jonang teaching.

Lama Tsewang

Thank you for your comment & for contributing to the blog.

Yes, there has historically been a strong connection with the Shangpa Kagyu & the Jonang. Starting with Kunga Drolchok, the transmission of Niguma's 6 yogas has been integral to the Jonang lineage. We have commentaries from Tāranātha and from the Dzamthang master Bamda Lama.

Now that you have brought it to the blog, I'll make sure to include posts on the Shangpa connection. There is much to say about this.



The problem with the translation Expressions of Emptiness is this. It makes shunyata a metaphysical principle, something which expresses itself. Bimba (Tibetan gzugs brnyan) means reflection or image. Both these terms when applied to shunyata bimba, reflection of emptiness, image of emptiness, keep the translation within the realm of epistemology where all Buddhist thought wishes to remain. The Buddha said: I have no metaphysical teachings. Your attempt to bring in visceral, somatic reflections of emptiness is commendable and no doubt affirmed by many practitioners, but the reflective relationship to emptiness which can include such physical feelings remains epistemological and not metaphysical.

James Rutke

Hi Jim:

Not sure how that is metaphysical. I think of it at the epistemic/ontic edge. Where knowing & being divide. Expressions of emptiness are right there, & the trick is to "experience" it. Is that metaphysical? Probably not in the sense that its often defined.

By the way, what is the Sanskrit for "metaphysical" that you are referring to?