“Empty does not mean completely empty but primordial awareness empty of dualistic appearances.”

“[The Heart Sutra] teaches that the ultimate perfectly established [nature] is empty of apparent samsara and nirvana. The primordial awareness of the perfectly established ultimate nature pervades all of samsara and nirvana but is not contaminated by either samsara or nirvana. Since it is not contaminated by them and there is no transition or change, it is taught to be ‘permanent’.

“The dharmakāya is without deception, so it is not false, and since its nature is unchanging and permanent, it is established  as reality. Since the mantra is the same nature as that dharmakāya, it is undeceiving and not false, so it should be known as [ultimate] reality.”

–excerpts from Tāranātha’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra (tr. Adele Tomlin)

For mother’s day today (and Tārā day tomorrow), here is an introductory overview of Mother Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Transcendent Insight) and primordial awareness (yeshe) according to Jetsun Tāranātha in his Word-for-Word Commentary on the Heart Sutra.
This is followed by an overview of other research and translations published on the website about the empty-of-other (Zhentong) or Buddha Nature view of ultimate reality, by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, 14th Dalai Lama, the 17th Karmapa and others.

May all mothers experience health, happiness and respect and may we all realised the mother’s mind of love and wisdom! Om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha!

Music? Prajnaparamita mantra by Deval Premal and Gyuto Monks. For ’empty-of-self’,  Just an Illusion by Imagination and entering the ’empty-of-other’ bliss Dharmakaya of Nothing Even Matters by Lauren Hill.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 8th May 2022.

What is Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Transcendent Insight)?
IMAGE: Mother Prajnaparamita, stained glass-painted window, at Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery temple, created by Ani Thubten Jamyang Dronma (see: Photo: DGL nunnery/Felipe Zabala.

The opening verse of Dignāga’s Prajñāpāramitārthasaṃgraha describes prajñāpāramitā as follows:[i]

Prajñāpāramitā is nondual wisdom,
Which is the Tathāgata.      
By virtue of being connected to this actuality to be accomplished,
It is [also] the term for both the [related] scriptures and the path.

The commentaries on the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras (and the Abhisamayālaṅkāra) usually classify prajñāpāramitā as:

  • Natural prajñāpāramitā
  • Scriptural prajñāpāramitā
  • Path prajñāpāramitā
  • Fruitional prajñāpāramitā

The ‘natural’ or ‘actual’ prajñāpāramitā is considered to be the ‘non-dual wisdom of a Buddha’, the other distinctions are ‘nominal’.[ii]  In terms of the ‘scriptural prajñāpāramitā’, the Buddhist Mahāyāna tradition maintains that the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras were directly taught by Buddha Śākyamuni. The most commonly known Prajñāpāramitā sūtras in the human realm[iii] are called ‘the six mothers’ and ‘the eleven sons’.[iv]

The Heart Sūtra,[v]which belongs to the Prajñāpāramitā category of Mahāyāna Buddhist literature, is perhaps the most prominent representative of the Prajñāpāramitā genre. Edward Conze calls it:

…one of the sublimest spiritual documents of mankind, it is a re-statement of the four Holy Truths, re-interpreted in the light of the dominant idea of emptiness.[vi]

Conze estimates the sūtra’s date of origin to be 350 C.E, others consider it to be two centuries older than that. There is also some debate about the origin of the Heart Sūtra, and whether or not it is Indian or Chinese.[vii]

Tāranātha’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra  – an ’empty-of-other’ teaching
Jetsun Tāranātha(1575-1634) – holder of Jonang and Shangpa Kagyu lineage and proponent of the Empty of Other view.

In 2017, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives published my detailed study, translation and commentary on the Word for Word Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Sher phyin snying po’i tshig ‘grel) written by Tāranātha (1575–1634), with extensive annotations from his longer commentary on the Sutra, The Previously Non-Existent Explanation of the Heart Sutra (shes rab snying po’i ‘grel ba sngon med legs bshad). Tāranātha is widely considered to be one of the most remarkable Buddhist scholars, translators and practitioners from Tibet.

In his commentary, Tāranātha succinctly distils his vast studies of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist thought on Prajñāpāramitā and Buddha-Nature with the philosophical view of ‘Empty-of-Other’.  He generally follows the view of Jonang Kunkhyen Dolpopa, who is considered to be the originator of the specific terminology of the empty-of-other (Zhentong) view. The leitmotif of the text is Tāranātha’s five-fold assertion that the Sūtra ‘clearly teaches the Empty-of-Other Great Madhyamaka’.  For Tāranātha, this confirms that ‘the intention of all three Turnings is the Empty-of-Other Great Madhyamaka’.

Tāranātha’s explanation is a valuable addition to the corpus of (Indian and Tibetan) translated commentaries on the Heart Sūtra.  As a concise distillation of the Jonang view of Empty-of-Other and its connection to prajñāpāramitā, it provides the reader with a reasoned analysis as to why prajñāpāramitā involves not only ‘seeing’ that all phenomena are empty of intrinsic existence, but also realizing, via primordial awareness, that the ultimate nature is ‘unchanging’ and ‘permanent’, going beyond ‘impermanent’ conditioning, duality and mental elaborations.

In his foreword to the book, Prof. Matthew Kapstein (University of Chicago, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris) states it is:

…a valuable service to Tibetan Buddhist Studies. Her work, originally written as her M.A thesis, is clear and precise throughout, well-exemplifying the distinguished tradition of research on Buddhism at the University of Hamburg…..Ms Tomlin’s study may be recommended as a particularly attractive and accessible introduction to the Jonangpa’s distinctive doctrinal perspective.

If you would like a copy of this book posted to you, please contact me or the LTWA. All proceeds go to the LTWA.

A public lecture on this book and text was given at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute in October 2018 and is available to listen on the RYI website here. There is a short introduction by Dr. Diane Denis who explains how the Zhentong view is often not represented, or misrepresented, in scholarly research, and the actual lecture starts at 01.14 mins.

Condensed Essence of Empty-of-Other by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo
Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) – proponent of the Empty of Other view (Zhentong)

Another translated commentary is the Condensed Essence of Empty-of-Other (click on this link for details and free download) an extremely precise, profound and clear explanation and presentation of the main points of the empty-of-other view by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892), which succinctly captures the central points that need to be understood. From this text, it is clear that Khyentse Wangpo also follows the view of the Jonang Dolpopa, opening the text with the lines:

‘Here is a little explanation of the tradition of the Empty-of-Other Madhyamaka of the great Jonangpa Omniscient One [Dolpopa].

Ultimate truth is indestructible, unconditioned and beyond interdependence. Conventional truth is phenomena that are born and decay, which gather together dependent on causes and conditions.”

14th Dalai Lama on the Empty-of-Other view and Jonang teachings
HH 14th Dalai Lama with Jonang master, Khenpo Kunga Sherab Rinpoche.

HH the 14th Dalai Lama has been a strong advocate and supporter of the Jonang teachings on Kālacakra and Shentong flourishing in exile. He was good friends with the late, 9th Jetsun Kalkha Dhampa. has also taught several times about the Zhentong view and composed an Aspiration Prayer for the Flourishing of the Zhentong and Jonangpa teachings (which is included in the book of Tāranātha ’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra. In 2018, I translated/transcribed the Dalai Lama’s teachings (see here), and received a letter from the Dalai Lama’s Office thanking me for the work (see here).

In his teachings, the 14th Dalai Lama mentions many times a stanza by Tāranātha that he finds especially inspiring. it is not an easy passage to understand nor to translate, but here is my humble effort, based on his explanations of it:

The naked state of illusory, self-manifesting appearances,
is luminous awareness without reference point;
left remaining the inexpressible sphere;
vividly flickering great bliss
སྒྱུ་མའི་རང་སྣང་རྗེན་ནེ་ནེ། །
གཏད་མེད་རིག་པ་གསལ་ལ་ལ། །
བརྗོད་མེད་དབྱིངས་སུ་ཐལ་ལ་ལ། །

HH 17th Karmapa on ‘Empty-of-Other’ view and Buddha Nature school
17th Karmapa with HE 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche. The Karmapa and the Tai Situs are well-known as proponents of the Empty of Other view (see here).

The Karmapas, from the 3rd Karmapa onwards, have been advocates and proponents of the Empty-of-Other view, in particular the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje.  HH 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje recently suggested in his Winter teachings (see here) that due to the problem with the Jonangpa’s assertion that the Buddha Nature and Mind-Only Sutras are Madhyamaka (Middle Way) view, when in fact they are Mind-Only, perhaps we should call the ‘empty-of-other’ view, the Buddha Nature view instead and not refer to it as Great Madhyamaka Empty-of-Other (as used by the Jonangpa school). He explained:

“If the Zhentongpas were not so insistent on being Middle Way and instead they were a Buddha Nature school, if they accepted they were a third type of Mahayana school then it would be a different situation. The reason for this is that in China, there was a Buddha Nature school. Even though it was in China, international researchers from the beginning accepted the tradition and said the Mahayana was the two schools of the Middle Way and Mind-Only. However, l=later when they did more research, they then asserted that actually one cannot say there are only two schools in the Mahayana, there had to be a third school. The proof and source for this assertion, is the Sublime Continnuum. They found a Sanskrit manuscript of it and when they examined it, it is a little bit different from the Mind-Only and Middle Way. Therefore, it is Mahayana and so there must be a separate Mahayana school.
I think this idea is very good. Usually, we say there are only four Buddhist schools and that is why we could not say there is a third Mahayana school. However, in India there was a lot of freedom in the schools, they had eighteen fundamental schools. So there is no reason why we couldn’t have three schools. If we accept there is a Buddha Nature school there would be no problem with that. There would be no need for so much debate between the Rangtong and Zhentong, we would not have to insist on being Middle Way either and try and insist on fitting that with the Mind-Only texts; if we just say that we are the Buddha Nature school that is separate.” 
Tai Situpas and Zhentong view
Golden Stupa containing the relics of HE 8th Tai Situpa at Sherab Ling Monastery, India. Photo: Adele Tomlin (2019).

The Tai Situ incarnations began when the Sixth Karmapa recognized Tashi Namgyel as the reincarnation of his teacher Chokyi Gyeltsen, a lama of Karma Gon Monastery in Kham who had received the Chinese imperial title from a Ming envoy.   After the suppression of the Jonang school and its texts and the texts of Sakya Chokden by the Tibetan rulers in the seventeenth century, under the spiritual rule of the 5th Dalai Lama, various Zhentong views were propagated mainly by Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lamas. In particular, the eighth Tai Situpa (1700–1774) and Katok Tsewang Norbu (1698–1755)—Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lamas, respectively, and their close colleagues—were very instrumental in reviving Zhentong among their own lineages. For more on the 8th Tai Situpa and my visit to his golden relic stupa at Sherab Ling India, see here.

Jamgon Kongtrul incarnations and Zhentong view
Jamgon Kongtrul 4th at the cave beneath Vulture’s Peak, Rajgir, India in 2006. Photo: Adele Tomlin (2006).

Here is a photo I took of young 4th Jamgon Kongtrul tulku in 2006 at Vulture’s Peak, Rajgir, India where the Buddha is said to have taught the Heart Sutra.  By karmic coincidence and excellent fortune, I happened to arrive there at the same time as the young tulku, who was performing a small puja with a couple of attendants there (we all then went together to visit the  Nalanda University ruins nearby). The Kongtrul incarnations all followed the view of empty-of-other, in particular, that of Jetsun Tāranātha. Kongtrul was a major fan and admirer of Jetsun Tāranātha, in fact the words in some of his writings on Empty-of-Other and Kalacakra are exact copies of those by Tāranātha.

Reading/Sources on the website

NEW TRANSLATION: “Condensed Essence of Empty-of-Other” by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo

The 8th Tai Situpa, Tāranātha, Shentong and the Golden Stupa at Sherab Ling

New Translations in Remembrance of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche – Shentong yogi-scholar

HH the 14th Dalai Lama on the Jonang Kālacakra Six Yogas and Shentong – English translation

Letter of thanks from the Office of HH Dalai Lama regarding translation of his Shentong and Jonang teachings


The Shentong View of Emptiness – A Short Introduction and Reader

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

Other Reading/Sources

Karl Brunnhölzl 2010. Gone Beyond: The Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, The Ornament Of Clear Realization And Its Commentaries In The Tibetan Kagyu Tradition. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion.

S. K. Hookham, 1988. (tr.), Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness. Oxford: Longchen Foundation.

S. K. Hookham, 1991. The Buddha Within. Tathāgatagarbha Doctrine According to the Shentong Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga.Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jeffrey Hopkins, 2006 .  (tr.) Mountain Doctrine. Tibet’s Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha-Matrix. By Dol-po-pa Shes-rab-rgyal-tsan. Ithaca NY: Snow Lion, 2006.

Jeffrey Hopkins, 2007. (tr.) The Essence of Other-Emptiness. By Tāranātha. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion.

Matthew Kapstein, 2001.  “From Kun-mkhyenDol-po-pa to ’Ba-mda’ Dge-legs: Three Jo-nang-pa Masters on the Interpretation of the Prajñāpāramitā.” In Reason’s Traces: Identity and Interpretation in Indian and Buddhist Thought. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Adele Tomlin, 2017. Taranatha’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra.  Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.


[i] Quote from Brunnhölzl 2010: 32. For more on the etymology and translation of the term prajñā (shesrab) see my English translation, n. 109.

[ii]For an introduction to these four classifications of prajñāpāramitā and the Eighth Karmapa, Mi-bskyod-rdo-rje’s commentary about them, see Brunnhölzl 2010: 32–34.  See also Apple 2008: 48, on the four meanings of prajñāpāramitā:

In its direct or primary (mukhyasense) it refers to the Buddha Bhagavān as represented in his dharmakāya aspect, the highest non-dual wisdom that is like an illusion. In its indirect or metaphorical sense (gauna), it means 2) the path leading to this highest wisdom, and 3) these texts containing the teaching on attaining this path and that non-dual wisdom (advayajñāna). A fourth meaning is added to the list of three, as the nature (svabhāva: rang bzhin) of prajñāpāramitā. In this case, the essential prajñāpāramitā is emptiness, the essence, or final nature of all phenomena.

[iii]For where and why the sūtras disappeared from the human realm for four centuries, see Brunnhölzl 2010: 34.

[iv]Regarding the criteria for classifying these as either ‘mother’ or ‘son’ scriptures, sūtras revealing the eight manifest realizations (aṣṭapadārtha:dngos po brgyad or mngonrtogsbrgyad) are termed ‘mother’ scriptures, whilst those revealing them only partially are termed ‘son’ (see Pearcey 2015).

The ‘six mothers’ are identified as the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras in: 1) one hundred thousand verses (Śatasāhasrikā), 2) twenty-five thousand verses (Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā), 3) eighteen thousand verses (Aṣṭadaśasāhasrikā), 4) ten thousand verses (Daśasāhasrikā), 5) eight thousand verses (Aṣṭasāhasrikā), 6) Condensed (Saṃcaya).

The ‘eleven sons’ are the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras in: Seven Hundred Verses(Saptaśatikā), in Five Hundred Verses(Pañcaśatikā),in Three Hundred Verses(Triśatikā) in One Hundred and Fifty Modes (Nayaśatapañcāśatikā),Kausikaprajñāpāramitāsūtra, the Twenty-Five Gates (Pañcaviṃśati), the Heart Sūtra, in a Few Words (Svalpākṣarā) and in One Syllable (Ekākṣarī).

In terms of there being a ‘flaw’ in categorizing the sūtras in this way, see the explanation of mKhan-po Thub-bstan-brtson-’grus(in Pearcey2015) who concludes that:

“There is absolutely no logical flaw in applying the convention of seventeen ‘mother’ and ‘son’ scriptures. If one applies the name ‘seventeen mother and son scriptures’ to group together seventeen Prajñāpāramitāsūtras taught together by the Buddha, this does not imply that he did not teach any other Prajñāpāramitāsūtras.”

For more on the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras and their contents, see Conze 1973, 1975 and 1978 and Brunnhölzl 2010: 34–35 and n. 72.

[v]Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya (Shes rab snying po).For more on the etymology and meaning of the Title, see Tomlin (2017: n.106).

[vi] See Conze 1955: 14.

[vii]In Nattier 1992, it is asserted that the Heart Sūtra is an apocryphal text composed in China from extracts of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā and other texts around the seventh century.  Furthermore, Nattier argues that there is no evidence (such as a commentary) of a Sanskrit version before the eighth century.  Red pine 2005, does not support Nattier’s argument and believes it to be of Indian origin.

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