tathagatagarbha

Elucidating the Jeweled Matrix

Let's talk texts. As much as contemplative practice, ritual, or even personal oral instructions are essential to esoteric transmission, it is texts and the transference of texts through time that largely acts to define the livelihood of Tibetan Buddhist lineages.

Within the Jonang, the Mahāyāna commentarial literature that is most frequently cited is the Five Treatises of Maitreya . Of these five treatises, it is the Ratnagotravibhāga — "Elucidating the Jeweled Matrix" — otherwise known as the Uttaratantra-śastra that has had the most profound impact on the articulation of the zhentong philosophical discourse in Tibet.

It is here, within this seminal text that we find an extensive discussion on an infinite and invariant radiant nucleus — an illimitable jeweled matrix — that is said to pervade and suffuse the heart of every living being.

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."

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?

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...