On the meaning and translation of ‘Shentong’ – a modern debate or dismissal of a woman’s voice?

A modern, scholarly debate?

I was recently involved in an online ‘debate’ with two renowned white, male scholars of Tibetan Buddhism,  Dr. Michael Sheehy and Prof. Klaus-Dieter Mathes, regarding their translation of the philosophical term, shentong (gzhan stong) as ‘the other-emptiness’, see here and here. This translation is given as the title of their new edited collection on this topic.  Sheehy had asked people to comment on the cover of the book before publication and so I decided to comment (Facebook name: ‘Adele Zangmo’) on the title of it as being a an unsuitable translation. This led to a FB message exchange between myself and Mathes, in which he defended the translation.  Mathes informed me that:

“I have never seen something better. You seem to miss the profundity of translation. Stong can be sometimes short for stong nyid, which is the case when you conceive of gzhan stong as a noun. The boundary between adjective and noun are more fluent in agglutinating ergative languages than in Indo European languages. Moreover there is a tendency to shorten groups of four syllables to groups of two in Tibetan.  In his Bden gnyis gsal ba’i nyi ma, Dol po pa distinguishes rang stong and gzhan stong with reference to MAV I.20 (Nagao 1964:26): “The non-existence of a person and phenomena is emptiness with regard [to the first 14 types of emptiness]. The true existence of their non-existence is another emptiness.” (pudgalasyātha dharmāṇām abhāvaḥ śūnyatātra hi / tadabhāvasya sadbhāvas tasmin sā śūnyatā parā).  So here you have your “other emptiness” (śūnyatā parā).”

Even though I don’t agree that settles the matter, it is nonetheless a clear, reasoned defence of ‘other emptiness’ (not THE other-emptiness) as a direct translation. However, a couple of days later, the co-editor, Sheehy told me (unaware it seems of Mathes’ thoughts about the title), and everyone else on his FB post, that the title was a ‘play on words’ and that it was not intended to be a direct translation of shentong, he said:

“It is a play on words. Kinda cheeky. A reference to it being other than the normative presentations, i.e. rangtong.”

Which is all well and good, but that directly contradicts what Mathes (his co-editor) said about it.   When I then responded that Mathes had defended it as a direct translation, and never even mentioned it as a ‘play on words’, Mathes told me to check his messages again and that he had not said it was a direct translation.  As a result of my then publicly sharing his defence of the translation, I was subsequently unfriended by Mathes. Nice debating style!

The translation of shentong as ‘the other emptiness’ was also used as the title by Lama Tony Duff in his 2014 book, see here. [Duff once called me ‘disgusting’ as his response on FB to a query over the thoroughness of his translations/work. Rather than this being met with responses of support or admonishment of Duff for resorting to personal insults, several other men ‘weighed in’ supporting his comments.}

Shentong as meaning ‘empty-of-other’ not ‘the other-emptiness”

Although I am no great scholar at all, and I respect much scholarly work that has been done on this topic (in particular that of Mathes), as I have done in-depth research on the meaning of shentong (which is now published in a book, Tāranātha’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra)  I wanted to write a short note, as to why I think the  translation ‘the other-emptiness’ is not suitable as a direct translation of shentong.  I will base my explanations on the studies I have done on the subject since 2014, which culminated in the publication of Master’s thesis ‘Tāranātha’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra (2017), a shentong commentary.  Generally speaking, my Tibetan sources are Jonang (Tāranātha and Dolopopa) or Kagyu (the Karmapas and Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye).

The Tibetan word Shentong (ghzan stong) is composed of two terms shen (gzhan) meaning ‘other’ and tong (stong) meaning empty. The word ‘emptiness’ in Tibetan is tongpa nyi (stong pa nyid), the nyi adding the ‘ness’ or ‘itself’ onto the adjective.   In terms of the explanations of shentong by  great shentong masters, such as Dolpopa, Tāranātha and Jamgon Kongtrul, the meaning is clear. ‘Other’ means ‘all dualistic, conditioned, impermanent phenomena of the five aggregates’; as in all the phenomena that are considered to be empty-of-self (rang tong: rang stong).  ‘Self’ there means ‘inherent identity/existence’.

As Tāranātha states clearly in his Shentong commentary on the Heart Sutra, there are five passages in the Heart Sutra that clearly teach the shentong view.  According to Tāranātha, the famous passage : ‘form is empty, emptiness is form (gzugs stong pa’o/ stong pa nyid gzugs so/) ’ refers to the shentong view and shows how relative conditioned phenomena (ie form) are empty of any inherent existence (empty-of-self) yet the ultimate nature/tathagata garbha/emptiness is not empty of itself; and thus is [the origin of] ‘form’ but is not ‘form’ in its own essential identity/self. The ultimate nature is ‘empty of ‘other’ – that ‘other’ referring to all phenomena that are empty-of-self but is not empty of its essential nature itself, that ‘self’ being all the Buddha Nature qualities.

Of course, much more can be said and quoted about this, however, for this short post, I assert that to translate shentong as ‘the other-emptiness’ is misleading to say the least. I can understand why Sheehy wanted to defend it as a ‘play on words’ because it bears no relation to the actual meaning of the term.  The use of  ‘the’, turns ‘other-emptiness’ into a noun. Yet, in many texts on the subject, shentong is not used to describe atype of emptiness’ but as an adjective that describes what the subject (the conventional or ultimate nature) is empty of. In addition, the Tibetan term used is ‘empty’ (stong) not ‘emptiness’ (stong pa nyid).

There are other translations of this term (excuse the pun, ha ha), such as Petitt (1999), who translates it as ‘extrinsic emptiness’, or ‘other emptiness’, and am also puzzled as to how these translations accurately get across the stated meaning of the term. However, they are certainly better translations than making the term into a noun.


In any case, whether I am intellectually right or wrong, is actually not the main issue. The more important issue is one of having open and intelligent debate on the translation of such terms without being unfriended or blacklisted from activities and events for doing so. I had recently been invited by Mathes to attend and participate in a forthcoming Buddha Nature conference in Vienna, but did not hear back about it after the online discussion.  This may not have been the only issue. I also stated my concern to see that only two female contributors had been included in their forthcoming collection. In response to this,  Sheehy said that  ‘We need more women scholar philosophers & historians of shentong, for sure!’, incorrectly (and predictably) giving the impression that there aren’t any currently available. I have written a little about the denigration, and ignoring ,of good quality work by female scholars in this post here.

For example, one of the best (yet most overlooked and undervalued) works on Shentong is that of Lama Shenphen Hookham in the ‘Buddha Within’. While researching Taranatha’s view, I cam across Hookham’s work and was surprised that it was not referenced more often. Hookham herself told me that some male scholars had glibly (without substantive support or reasoning) dismissed her work, seemingly based on a ‘small mistake’ regarding the 3rd Karmapa and Dolpopa having met up. Yet, compared to the work of well-known scholars, like Sheehy on Shentong, Hookham’s work is by far more superior, original, profound and thorough.

Needless to say, such responses and reactions are hardly inspiring, or what one would expect, from two adult men, let alone from two ‘leading scholars’ in the field.  Nonetheless, as a mere ‘kinda cheeky’ , lone woman with only an MA and two books to my name, I stand by my assertion that shentong should NOT be translated as ‘the other emptiness’.  In fact, Mathes himself has previously translated the term as ‘empty-of-other’ in his 2016 article,‘The History of the Rang stong/Gzhan stong Distinction·from Its Beginning through the Ris-med Movement’. So, maybe he changed his mind since then. Even if it was meant to be a ‘play on words’, as Sheehy argued, it is still potentially misleading in relation to the generally accepted meaning of this important philosophical term. Debate on this is welcome!


  • Hookham, Shenphen (1991) , The Buddha Within (SUNY Press).
  • Mathes, Klaus-Dieter (2016) The History of the Rang stong/Gzhan stong Distinction·from Its Beginning through the Ris-med Movement’, Journal of Buddhist Philosophy, Volume 2, 2016.
  • Stearns, Cyrus (1999),The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, State University of New York Press.
  • Tāranātha(auth.), Jeffrey Hopkins, (2007, trans.) The Essence of Other-Emptiness. Wisdom Books.
  • Tāranātha, Jetsun (2008). The Essence of Zhentong. Translation based upon the ‘Dzam thang edition of the ‘Gzhan stong snying po’. Jonang Foundation’s Digital Library: Ngedon Thartuk Translation Initiative.
  • Tomlin, Adele (2017), Tāranātha’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, India.

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