Whose Svabhāva is It?

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).

This is more clearly explained in Tāranātha's "Essence of Zhentong" where it reads,[2]

  1. The imaginary nature is everything apprehended through mental reifications, including: All that is insubstantial, such as space and so forth. The apparent aspects of sensible objects, such as the images that arise within neurotic thought and so forth. The relationship of name and meaning, when names are attached to meanings and meanings are distorted as names. That which is internal and external, center and periphery, big and small, good and bad, superior, temporal, etc.
  2. The relational nature is merely ordinary awareness actually perceiving the subject-object complex. This occurs when perceptions become dependent upon the habitual propensities of ignorance.
  3. The perfected nature is naturally radiant, self-cognizant, and is free from all fabrications. Synonyms for it include: “the actual nature of phenomena,” “the expanse of phenomena,” “the actuality of existence,” “ultimate reality,” etc.

With this in mind, we can now turn to how svabhāva is real or unreal within each of the 3 Mahāyāna systems:


  • Cittamātra: The relational nature is understood to be established as real; the ordinary mind (citta, sems) is not understood to be devoid of svabhāva, but rather is considered to be the same nature as the pristine awareness (jñāna, ye shes) of a fully realized buddha.
  • Rangtong Madhyamaka: All 3 natures are understood to be not established as real (bden ma grub); the 3 natures are each understood to be devoid of svabhāva, and that very lacking of any intrinsic existence is referred to as "emptiness" (śūnyatā, stong pa nyid).
  • Zhentong Madhyamaka: The perfected nature is understood to be established as real; buddhanature (tathāgatagarbha, de bzhin gshegs pa'i snying po) or the enlightened essence that luminously pervades everything is emptiness while not being devoid of svabhāva. This is referred to as the "Great Emptiness" (*mahāśūnyatā, stong pa chen po).[3]


Here we see a stark contrast between these 3 systems in regard to what is svabhāva; a contrast that highlights their view of the relative and ultimate. Though we'll have to defer that discussion to another post, its interesting to think how emptiness could be intrinsically existent. That contemplation lies at the heart of zhentong.

☸This post is part of a series of reflections on select topics found in "The Essence of Zhentong" (Gzhan stong snying po) by Tāranātha.



1. It is noteworthy here that the technical Tibetan term "rang stong" is translated back into the Sanskrit as, "svabhāvaśūnya."

2. Tāranātha. The Essence of Zhentong. Translated by Michael R. Sheehy. In Jonang Foundation's Digital Library, www.jonangfoundation.org/translations, 2008.

3. See also the previous post, The "Other" Emptiness for a related discussion on this term.


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HI Michael, My Name is Todd. I was interested in your blog , very nice. I have been studying the Jonangpa since 2004 when I went over with Humboldt State University religious studies/geography department to Dokam for field research. We were one of the first big groups to get access to Pema, dzamtang and ngawa. I speak fluent mandarin, can read and write classic tibetan (translate very slowly), and understand a little lhasa dialect which is not much use in the areas of kham, amdo and gyalrong where I spend most my time. Do you have any information on the where abouts of Gyalrong Jonang gompas near Barkham? Last spring I was hunting morel mushrooms and yertsa gunbu (cordyceps sinensis) with friends from Sardzo, a village north of Barkham"maerkang" and west of the gelugpa Dhe-tsang. On the 13,000 ft mountian I spied a hermitage high in the next mountain. They told me it was Jonangpa and is recently building a brand new gonpa under the mountain yogi caves. DO you have a formal name for this, I am also interested in any other areas that are jonang... hope to hear from you, Todd Stagnaro

Hi Todd:

Thank you for your comment. Yes, I remember that group. I met your group leader in a small hotel in Dzamthang in 2004. Good to know that you continue to be interested in the Jonangpa. There are 16 Jonang monasteries throughout the Gyarong regions of Barkham and its surrounds. Most of these are rather small hermitages but a few have become rather active hotbeds. Not sure exactly which one you spotted. If you have not already, take a look at our Jonang Sites database on our main website. We need to start adding the sites in Gyarong, and hope to do that soon. I can also write a blog on the Gyarong monasteries, as there is much to say.



Yes, in zhentong madhyamaka the perfected nature is established as real. It is also established as real in dzogchen where we often encounter the phrase rang bzhin 'od gsal rdzogs pa chen po. The perfected nature is clear light. The Longchen Nyingtig of Jigme Lingpa makes much use of the three svabhavas in various contexts.

For the Jonang we have the following passage from Kunga Drolchok's exposition of Hevajra practice in the Jonang Trija:

The relational nature illumines the sixteen-armed, eight-faced Hevajra form. The imaginary nature imagines as one's own the one-headed, two-armed, ordinary form. The totally perfected nature is not clothed by the stain of good and evil nature.

Kunga Drolchok discusses this further, but this short passage is a good key to understanding tantric practice. Vasubandhu's Trisvabhava Nirdesha is a great source for a general understanding of the three svabhavas. The Sanskrit text and translation can be found in Seven Works of Vasubandu by Stefan Anacker. The important distinction between Chittamatra and Vasubandhu's Yogachara in this regard can be found in Dolpopa's Mountain Doctrine, Hopkins translation, pp.249-50).

James Rutke