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 major Tibetan figures associated with this body of thought. In doing so, I'd like to turn to a passage by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé (1813-1899) where he identifies exponents of the larger zhentong tradition. Here, he gives tribute to a variety of Indian and Tibetan masters who he associates with the zhentong vein of discourse,

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.

"Wheel of Time" III

Now that we have a rough sketch of Dolpopa's concept of time according to Kālachakra cosmology, we can begin to think about what Dolpopa and later Jonangpas refer to as the "Kṛtayuga dharma" or "Kṛtayuga tradition." [1] To clarify what this is, Dolpopa writes in his Fourth Council ,

The Tretayuga and subsequent eons are flawed; their treatises have been contaminated like milk in the marketplace. They are in every way unable to act as witness. The earlier [eons] displace the later, just as more advanced philosophical systems refute the lesser.

The Kṛtayuga dharma is the untainted expression of the victorious ones, the explanations of the sovereigns on the tenth spiritual level, and the great founders of the chariot systems. It is flawless and imbued with supreme enlightened qualities.

In this [Kṛtayuga] tradition, everything is not rangtong. By eloquently distinguishing rangtong from zhentong, that which is relative is taught to be rangtong while that which is ultimate is taught precisely to be zhentong. [2]