As it is within, so it is outside. —Kālacakra Tantra
Not seeing ultimate existence is seeing reality;
Not seeing water in a mirage is not a case of being endowed
with ignorance. As it is said: ‘Not seeing form is seeing form.’
And the Samādhirāja says, ‘Not seeing anything is seeing all phenomena.’
—Vimalamitra, Vast Explanation of the Noble Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Insight
Since the apparent does not ultimately exist it is empty-of-self.
It appears to consciousness but does not appear to primordial awareness.
Since the ultimate exists, it is empty of other.
It appears to primordial awareness but not to consciousness.
—Kunkhyen Dolpopa, The Sun that Illuminates the Two Realities (bden ngyis gsal ba’i nyi ma)
For many, the distinction between ’empty-of-other’ (gzhan stong, pronounced shentong) and ’empty of self (rang stong, pronounced rang tong) is an intellectual debate only that they need not concern themselves with in terms of practice, or one which is simply too high-level philosophically to engage with. However, this would be a misunderstanding of the view of ’empty-of-other’ and why it is important in both Sutra and Tantra teachings and practices.
In fact, ‘the correct view’ as it is called, is an essential part of any meditation or tantric practice. Without the ‘correct view’ of wisdom (shes rab) then all methods (thabs) are like a bird with only one wing, one cannot really get off the ground. So, here is my humble attempt at a short, and accessible, introductory essay and reader of what the view of Shentong is and isn’t, and why it is important even in terms of practice. I write this for a non-academic and online audience, so please excuse my lack of extensive footnotes here…..although for some that may be a relief ha ha ha.
THE TWO VIEWS OF EMPTINESS – RANGTONG AND SHENTONG
Je Tāranātha with Kunkhyen Dolpopa above his head.
First, a simple explanation of the ‘view’ of ‘Empty-of-Other’. It is the understanding that even though all relative and composite phenomena, that come together as a result of karma, causes and conditions are empty of self (inherent existence), the primordial nature or ultimate reality, the primordial awareness (jnana in Sanskrit) that realises all phenomena are empty of inherent nature/Self, is not empty of itself. As Tāranātha points out in his Commentary on the Heart Sutra, if that were so, then what would the Heart Sutra possibly be referring to when it states ‘one sees the five aggregates as empty of inherent existence’? Who or what would ‘see’ that? A proponent of the ‘Empty-of-Other view would answer, ‘primordial awareness sees that’. Sounds obvious right?
Well, not for some who assert that such a view is like a ‘Mind-Only’ view that posits some kind of fundamental consciousness (which would also be conditioned and composite, if a ‘consciousness’) behind everything. Alexander Berzin eloquently summarises the debate about this here [note he refers to ‘Empty-of-Other’ emptiness as ‘other-voidness’]:
Now when you refute true existence, then you have no such thing as true existence. Well, no such thing as true existence, this also is known conceptually. And so that also is a mental fabrication. Same thing with both truly existent and nonexistent, or neither of the two – you know, the four possibilities. Therefore, you need to go beyond these four fabricated categories – truly existent, non-truly existent, both, or neither – to voidness, which is beyond words and beyond concepts. This is how you get to nonconceptual cognition of voidness. This is what they call this self-realizing deep awareness (rang-rig ye-shes). Gelugpa would say the equivalent of that is the voidness of voidness. And when we talk about – in Gelugpa, when Tsongkhapa says – when we talk about voidness of true existence, what’s included in there is the voidness of the four extremes: truly existent, totally nonexistent, both, or neither. So we can see that the real issue here is how do you go beyond the conceptual cognition of voidness. You can also get (and here it becomes a problem) if you say that voidness is not a non-implicative negation – non-implicative would be no such thing as true existence – and it’s beyond that, well, then, what is it? And if you say it’s a consciousness that is beyond concepts and words – that’s an implicative negation, according to Gelugpa. So that’s what they accuse this whole view of; this is its fault. Gelugpa says that you can have both a conceptual and a nonconceptual cognition of a nonimplicative negation phenomenon. You could understand voidness – no such thing as true existence – both conceptually and non-conceptually. Non-Gelugpa says you could only have that conceptually. Right?
Right. According to a Shentongpa, this conflation of the ultimate nature primordial awareness with the ‘Mind-Only’ view is a mistaken understanding. Ultimate nature primordial awareness (the union of great bliss and emptiness endowed with all aspects) abides outside of any dualistic appearances or conventional labels. It is the Buddha Nature (Tathagatagarbha) itself, and has been such since beginningless time and thus is ‘permanent’ and is not ‘consciousness’ in terms of being an impermanent and composite phenomena, and it does not appear to dualistic consciousness either. It is the source of great bliss, wisdom, love and compassion within one’s (currently obscured) aggregates that appears to primordial awareness.
This is why naturally we seek these qualities, and feel healthier and happier when they are present around us and others. However, it is not a case of those qualities being ‘outside’ oneself, but of those qualities being an ‘inherent’ part of our ultimate nature, which we mistakenly seek to replicate ‘outside’. However, it is only when such innate qualities are ‘revealed’ and allowed to ‘shine’ by eliminating the obscuring afflictive emotions and mind states, that the external appearances themselves will automatically begin to reflect that inner state. As the Kālacakra Tantra famously says: ‘As it is within, so it is without.’
However, even Berzin (a Gelug proponent) admits that such an idea is not ‘alien’ to Gelugpa but that it is termed differently:
Then also, of course, in Gelugpa anuttarayoga tantra, we speak about the clear light as being deepest truth, which is both in terms of its way of existing as well as the subtlest mind. So it’s not totally alien in Gelugpa. But it certainly isn’t in the sutra presentation, and they certainly don’t call it other-voidness.
In terms of the origin of the ‘Empty-of-Other’ view in India and Tibet, see my excerpt from the Introduction to Tāranātha‘s Commentary on the Heart Sutra, which I have reproduced here (and also STEARNS 2010: Chapter Two). In brief, its origin is Indian, even if they did not use the term Shentong, but it appears that the Jonang master, Kunkhyen Dolpopa, is generally considered to be the first to originate the use of the term Shentong in a systematic way in Tibet. For more on the lineage of the Kālacakra Tantric Shentong, see the article by Michael Sheehy listed below. The Shentong view is said to have arisen in Dolpopa’s mindstream while he was practising the Six Yogas of Kālacakra in a hermitage retreat (see STEARNS 2010: 16-18).
According to one of the greatest living Tibetan Buddhist Masters (of the Karma Kagyu lineage who are proponents of the Shentong view) Thrangu Rinpoche, (who wrote the excellent Shentong and Rangtong: the Two Views of Emptiness‘ (see below)), Shentong can be explained like this:
We think of the nature of the minds of the people we are associated with – our friends, our enemies, and all sentient beings. We know that every single sentient being’s nature of mind is clear light, the enlightened heart that is the Buddha nature. Since everyone has Buddha nature, we can be sure that we will benefit others immensely. Just as the nature of our own mind is clear light, the nature of our parent’s minds is also clear light. Likewise, the nature of mind of all our friends and enemies is clear light. The nature of mind of every single sentient being is luminosity, clear light.
In the nature of the mind there is no stain. There is not the slightest conceptual fabrication in the mind’s true nature, and that is why mind is known as “empty of other,” gzhan-stong. Since the ineffable nature of mind of every single sentient being is clear light and since the essence of this clear light is free of the slightest stain that arises due to dualistic fixations and mental constructs, one can develop the vast understanding that the one who apprehends (the subject) and what is apprehended (objects) have the same essence. Knowing this enables practitioners to develop inconceivable compassion and a pure vision of reality. Knowing that relative apprehensions are “self-empty,” rang-stong, and knowing that mind’s true nature is “empty of other,” gzhan-stong, a sincere practitioner no longer slips into garments that are extreme views about creation or cessation. Seeing that all phenomena that can be apprehended are empty of an own essence, one no longer clings to the extreme of permanence. Seeing that mind’s true nature is replete with many invaluable qualities that manifest spontaneously and naturally, one no longer clings to the extreme of nihilism or cessation. Since all relative phenomena that appear are empty of a self, it is conclusive that the mind that apprehends and conceives relative appearances is also empty of a self. Since mind’s true nature transcends what can be accomplished, affirmed, or refuted, then what one thinks must be accomplished and what one thinks must be abandoned are always and already pure and free.
For more from this teaching see here.
DEFINITIVE OR PROVISIONAL MEANING?
Second, many consider that the distinction between the two views of emptiness is that Shentong is a definitive meaning teaching (nges don) focused on the Third Wheel Turning teachings on Buddha Nature (Tathagatagarbha Sutras), whereas Rangtong is a provisional meaning teaching (drang don) focused on the Second Wheel Turning of teachings, such as the Perfection of Insight (Prajnapramita Sutras). Definitive meaning, generally means a teaching that requires no interpretation and teaches the ultimate view, whereas a provisional meaning teaching is one that requires interpretation and is not teaching the ultimate view. Generally speaking, there is some truth in this dual categorisation, but it is also a little more complicated than that (of course).
For centuries, Indian and Tibetan scholars had been concerned with resolving the apparently conflicting notions about the meaning of emptiness, in particular, its relationship or identity with the Buddhist teachings on the ultimate or (Buddha) nature.
In the opinion of many Tibetan experts the teachings of emptiness found in the Middle Turning of the Dharma Wheel, for example in the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras, are definitive in meaning, while the teachings of Buddha-Nature found in the Final Turning of the Dharma Wheel, for example in the Uttaratantrashastra attributed to Maitreya, and a large number of Mahāyāna sūtras are of provisional meaning. There were, however, other traditions which maintained just the opposite, that the teachings of Buddha-Nature were definitive and only by means of them could the true meaning of emptiness be understood.
As the great Jonang masters, Tāranātha and Dolpopa both wrote extensively about, the Prajnaparamita Sutras and Second Wheel teachings are also teachings on the definitive meaning and Buddha Nature and thus, also teachings on the view of Empty-of Other. See this excerpt from Tāranātha‘s Commentary on the Heart Sutra:
Whatever is the dharmatā form is the primordial awareness of emptiness. Whatever is the primordial awareness of emptiness, appears as the dharmatā form.
Even if you understand merely that these two have a common locus, in order to refute any doubt that thinks it possible for there to be empty primordial awareness that is not the ultimate form (don dam gyi gzugs), and that it is possible for there to be ultimate form that is not empty primordial awareness [there are the lines]: “Emptiness is no other than form.”
Here ‘empty’ [does] not [mean] completely empty, but primordial awareness empty of dualism. The ultimate form aggregate (don dam pa’i gzug phungs) is not the form aggregate. The ultimate aspect of the form aggregate within the [endowed with] all supreme aspects dharmadhātu is the dharmatā form aggregate or the ultimate form aggregate.
Furthermore, according to Dolpopa (in KAPSTEIN 2001):
.…..his view of the prajñāpāramitā is developed in impressive detail in four major commentaries and several short commentarial notes devoted to the Prajñāpāramitā literature…..While a preliminary survey of this material suggests that Dol-po-pa generally restrained his inclination to read his philosophy of extrinsic emptiness [Empty-of-Other] into these texts, he nevertheless does not hesitate to articulate it when remarking on those passages in which the relative ‘unclarity’ of the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras seems to intimate the clarity of the sūtras of the Final Turning, or the exceeding clarity of the Tantras. Thus, in a note on the sixth fascicle of the Śatasāhasrikā [The Prajñāpāramitā in One Hundred Thousand Lines], he writes:
The absolute ground of emptiness is extrinsic emptiness [Empty-of-Other], self- emergent pristine cognition, the changeless absolute, sugatagarbha, the Great Madhyamaka, the real Prajñāpāramitā and the culminating Secret Mantra.
For more on this topic of Dolpopa’s interpretations of prajñāpāramitā, (see KAPSTEIN 2001: 110–15):
The Middle Turning is not taught to be of provisional meaning and surpassed etc. for the reason that it teaches Prajñāpāramitā but rather because it teaches that which is not intrinsically empty [empty of self] to be intrinsically empty, and for other such reasons. The Prajñāpāramitā that is unborn, unceasing, primordially pacific, etc. is taught in the Final Turning and in the Vajrayana. But it is taught [in these three respective divisions of the teaching] unclearly, clearly and exceedingly clearly…
Dolpopa in this way combines the formulation of a qualitative gradation of the teaching with a type of esotericism: The Kālacakra Tantra, for instance, is in many respects, held to be superior to the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā (The Eight Thousand Verses), but their essence is suffused with the same radiant light, which just shines more brightly in the former. And this he goes on to say,
…is the culminating emptiness-cum-compassion, means-cum-wisdom, that is the coalescent union of bliss and emptiness, the sole savor; and this is also the sole savor of the union of the expanse (dbyings, dhātu) and awareness, in which the culminating abiding nature of reality, as noesis and noetic object, is one. Such is the real (mtshan-nyid-pa) Prajñāpāramitā, the culmination of the Prajñāpāramitā of the ground and the Prajñāpāramitā of the result, the quiddity of [their] indivisible essence. The path whereby it is disclosed and the canon which teaches these [topics under discussion] are only conventionally designated (btags-pa-tsam) (111).
So why are there such differences between those who assert the view of Empty-of-Self and those of Empty-of-Other? Tāranātha states in his Twenty One Differences (see MATHES 2004) that these ‘minor’ differences arise during the ascertainment of the provisional, but not definitive view:
Do not think that there are contradictions in the intention among those who see the profound (reality). They speak differently to different disciples due to perceiving different trainees and needs. Here, the Lord of Dharma, the great omniscient Tonpa Shiden (’brTon-pa-bzhi-ldan) [Dol-po-pa], and the great paṇḍita, the victorious Śā-skya mChog-ldan, agree on the essential point of the view and meditation of Empty-of-Other Madhyamaka. However, when ascertaining their view provisionally there are many minor differences between their philosophical tenet systems.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR MEDITATION?
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche
So, what about the idea that such debates have no real import or relevance outside the debate ground? On the one hand, there is some truth in this as well. However, the view is also an important part of practice. For example, according to Tāranātha, Kalacakra is Tantric Shentong. So without knowing what that correct view is, it will be almost impossible to practice Kalacakra completion stage, which requires both a correct conceptual, and non-conceptual understanding of emptiness. As Jonang Thubten Bamda Gelek says in his commentary on the Kālacakra practice, The Chariot that Transports One to the Kingdom of the Four Kayas (Tomlin, LTWA (2018)):
The primordial awareness realising emptiness, which is free of the mental elaborations of clinging to reality and things as inherently existing, is alone not the completion stage, as it is similar to the primordial awareness that arises from bringing the karmic winds into the central channel. In order to accomplish the actual completion stage one needs to realise the view for entering the completion stage. If one doesn’t realise it [the view], even if one practises the completion stage, the signs [of experience] will not arise in one’s mindstream.
The great yogi, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche also states in his book Progressive Stages on Meditative Emptiness that in terms of the view, the two are significantly different and that one needs to realise the ’empty-of-self’ view to realise the ’empty-of-other’ view. However, in terms of meditation practice, the view of ’empty-of other’ and ‘mind-only’ are very close and hard to distinguish. For completion and generation stage practices of Vajrayana, at the very least a conceptually correct view of both views of emptiness is essential.
So where does that leave the person who wants to understand a little better these two views, and the differences between them, without engaging in years of intensive debate and study? Well there are a few excellent books and online articles out there one can read, some of which I have already mentioned. I list them below for your reference. Of course, this is a simple introduction to the view of Shentong, and there are subtle differences between the different lineages in terms of their interpretation of it. Buchardi (2007) compares and contrasts some of the diversity of seven views in the tradition here:
These seven positions have been arranged here in a summary in order to broaden the intelligence of those with lucid minds.
If you summarize the seven, they can be condensed into three:  the main jonangpa [assertion that] pristine awareness is zhentong;  Shakya Chok[den’s assertion that] the sphere [of reality] is zhentong; and [the assertions of] the others [3-7] that both the sphere [of reality] and pristine [awareness] (ying yé nyika) are zhentong.
They can also be condensed into two: the first five [1-5] are mainly presentations of rangtong and zhentong as subjects to be determined, while the latter two [6-7] are mainly presentations of rangtong and zhentong as methods of ascertainment.
Happy reading folks and don’t hesitate to share or ask questions if you have any. May it be of benefit!
The Buddha Within by Shenphen Hookham (SUNY Press, 1991)
Progressive Stages on Meditative Emptiness by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, tr. Shenphen Hookham (CreateSpace, 2nd ed. 2016)
Two Views of Emptiness: Shentong and Rangtong by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche Namo Buddha Publications, 2009)
The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of Tibetan Buddhist Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen by Cyrus Stearns (Snow Lion Publications, revised edition, 2010)
‘The Essence of Other-Emptiness’ (and the ‘Twenty-One Differences’) by Taranatha, tr. by Jeffrey Hopkins (Snow Lion Publications, 2007)
When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge Between Sutra and Tantra, by Karl Brunnholzl (Snow Lion Publications, 2015)
Alexander Berzin’s article is good to read for an accessible explanation of the debate between Shentong and Rangtong (or as he too simplistically terms it Gelugpa and non-Gelugpa) although he does not take into consideration the Jonang texts on Shentong at all.
“Tāranātha’s ‘Twenty-One Differences with regard to the Profound Meaning’ – Comparing the Views of the Two gZhan stong Masters Dol po pa and Shakya mchog
ldan.” Klaus-Dieter Mathes, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 27.2 (2004) 285–328.
A Lineage History of Vajrayoga and Tantric Zhentong from the Jonang Kālacakra Practice Tradition, by Michael Sheehy
Taranatha’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra, Adele Tomlin (1st Edition: LTWA, 2017. 2nd Edition: Dakini Publications 2023)
 There is some debate as to whether or not Shentong is a ‘view’ based on an experiential perspective rather than as a tenet system (grub mtha’) based on logical arguments. Brambilla claims that Taranatha was the first to use the term Shentong Madhyamaka as both a view and a meditation (lta sgom) and uses the term interchangeably for a view, a tenet system, both (lta grub) or a view and meditation (see Filippo Brambilla ‘A Late Proponent of the Jo nang gZhan stong Doctrine: Ngag dbang tshogs gnyis rgya mtsho (1880-1940)’, Revue d’Etudes Tibetaines, no. 45 , April 2018: 6: n.5, download available here).
Written by Adele Tomlin, June 2018. All rights reserved.