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...

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.

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? [1] ; etc.

Though these broad and overarching questions lie beyond the scope of this short post, these are issues that I'd like to gravitate towards in future posts. Here, I'd like to draw from the narrative of the Jonangpa, or at least one episode in the biographical account of Dolpopa's life that roots his experience of this phenomena within his realization of zhentong.

"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 about time. How his concept of time has contributed to a re-visioning of Buddhist history, and from where his concept derived. [1]

Dolpopa was concerned with framing his realizations in accord with the Kālachakra Tantra , and the lineage of his realizations within the framework of the cosmological schema described by the tantra. In fact, I'd like to suggest that Dolpopa's understanding of time according to the Kālachakra was so central to his realizations that we must seek to understand this concept of time if we are to think seriously about the larger zhentong paradigm.

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,

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...