Tsoknyi Gyatso on Zhentong

Without jumping the gun (as we continue to set the text), I thought to write a post with the hope to help contextualize a forthcoming publication in the Tibetan language on the essential zhentong works by the Jonang master from Dzamthang, Ngawang Tsoknyi Gyatso (1880-1940). [1]

Zhentong — the contemplative view that the ultimate nature of reality is empty of all extraneous superficial characteristics while profusely full of the qualities that define enlightenment — has become a hallmark of the Jonang tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. From its early articulation by Tibetan forefathers of the Jonangpa in the eleventh century, up to Dolpopa Sherab...

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...

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...

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...

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]...

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.

Here in this passage, Lama Kalden gives us an extremely concise condensation of the vajrayoga path from the preliminary practices or "ngöndro"...

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? ...

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...

"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...