Dzogchen & Zhentong

Reading through the miscellaneous guidance texts ( khrid yig ) of Khenpo Lodrö Drakpa , I came across a brief instruction that he gave on clarifying the distinctions between the 4 predominant Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna views: (1) zhentong, (2) rangtong, (3) mahāmudrā, and (4) dzogchen. [1]

Of particular interest to me is the question, "What are the differences between the zhentong and dzogchen views?" This is a question of recurring interest in learned Buddhist circles. Not only have several friends in New York and elsewhere asked me this question, but I remember that while living in the monastery, monks would occasionally come to see my Tibetan teacher and ask him this very same question. Rinpoche would smile and assure the monks by saying, "There are slight differences."

Since Khenpo Lodrak makes such clear distinctions between these 4 views ― and since his instructions are so short and sweet, I thought to translate the excerpt here,

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...