Shentong is a philosophical sub-school found in Tibetan Buddhism whose adherents generally hold that the nature of mind, the substratum of the mindstream, is 'empty' (Wylie: "sTong") of 'other' (Wylie: "gzhen") (i.e., empty of all qualities other than an inherent, ineffable nature), in contrast to the “Rangtong” view of the followers of Prasangika Madhyamaka, who hold that all phenomena are unequivocally empty of self-nature, without positing anything beyond that. According to Shentongpas, the emptiness of ultimate reality should not be characterized in the same way as the emptiness of apparent phenomena because it is "prabhasvarachitta", or "clear light mind/heart," endowed with limitless Buddha qualities. [http://www.ahs.org.uk/default.asp?action=article&ID=1847] . It is empty of all that is false, not empty of the limitless Buddha qualities that are its innate nature.

Nomenclature, orthography and etymology

Shentong (also, zhentong; bo|t=གཞེན་སྟོང་|w=gzhen-stong), also sometimes orthographically rendered as “Yogacara Madhyamaka” or "Great Madhyamaka".

Great Madhyamaka: a qualification and disambiguation

Pettit (1999: p.113) qualifies and disambiguates 'Great Madhyamaka' and mentions Mipham, Longchenpa, Prasangika Madhyamaka, Tsongkhapa and :

Extrinsic emptiness is also referred to as "Great Madhyamaka" ("dbu ma chen po"), a term that appears frequently in Mipham's works. This term can also be misleading, because "dbu ma chen po" does not refer exclusively to extrinsic emptiness. Klong chen pa and Mipham use it to refer to Prāsangika Madhyamaka, because it emphasizes the nonconceptual ultimate, which they understand as the principle of coalescence. Tsongkhapa also uses this term in passing, for example, in the colophon of his "dBu ma dgongs pa rab gsal". [Pettit, John Whitney (1999). "Mipham's Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection". Boston: Wisdom Publications (1999). ISBN 0861711572. p.113]

Zhentong: a heterogenous tradition

Burchardi (2007: p.1) opens her foray with a sound introduction, cited herewith, that promises of a future richness and texture in Zhentong dialectical discourse in English:

Descriptions of "gzhan stong" are frequently encountered in the context of polemical discourse, where it stands in contradistinction to "rang stong". Some scholarly attention has been paid to the historical context of the controversies involving prominent "gzhan stong" masters and their writings. But so far the attention given to the actual differences of interpretation of the term "gzhan stong" in its various hermeneutical and philosophical contexts has been quite limited in non-Tibetan publications – limited, that is, when we consider the extent of primary sources available in Tibetan. [Burchardi, Anne (2007). "A Look at the Diversity of the Gzhan stong Tradition". JIATS, no. 3 (December 2007), THDL #T3128, 24 pp. © 2007 by Anne Burchardi, IATS, and THDL. Source: [http://www.thdl.org/collections/journal/jiats/index.php?doc=jiats03burchardi.xml&s=d0e287] (accessed: Sunday August 17, 2008) p.1]


The earliest Shentong views are usually asserted to have been presented initially in a group of treatises variously attributed to Asanga or Maitreya, especially in the treatise known as the "Uttara Tantra Shastra" ("Unsurpassed Continuum"), and in a body of Madhyamaka treatises attributed to Nagarjuna.

The first exposition of a Shentong view is sometimes attributed to Shantarakshita, but most scholars argue that his presentation of Madhyamaka thought is more accurately labeled “Yogachara-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka.” It is generally agreed that a true Shentong view was first systematized and articulated under that name by Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltsen, an originally Sakya-trained lama who joined the Jonang school with which Shentong is strongly associated. However, the 11th century Tibetan master Yumo Mikyo Dorje, student of Kashmiri scholar Somanatha was possibly the first Tibetan master who articulated a Shentong view after his experiences during a Kalachakra retreat.

The Seventh Karmapa Chodrak Gyamtso (1454-1506), and the Sakya scholar, Sakya Chokden (gser-mdog-pan-chen Sakya mchog-ldan, 1428-1507) were also important proponents of a Shentong view. [Stearns 1999 p.60-63]

In the Jonang tradition itself "Tāranātha [1575-1635] is second in importance only to Dolpopa himself. He was responsible for the short-lived renaissance of the school as a whole in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and of the widespread revitalization of the Zhentong theory in particular." [Stearns 1999 p.68 ]

After the suppression of the Jonang school and its texts and the texts of Sakya Chokden by the Tibetan government in the 1600s, various Shentong views were propagated mainly by Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lamas. In particular, the 8th Tai Situ Rinpoche (Situ Paṇchen Chökyi Jungné (si tu paṇ chen chos kyi 'byung gnas) (1700-1774)) and Katok Tsewang Norbu (kaḥ thog tshe dbang nor bu) (1698-1755), close colleagues and Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lamas respectively, were very instrumental in reviving Shentong among their sects. This revival was continued by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, a 19th century Rime (ecumenical) scholar and forceful exponent of Shentong, and were also advanced recently by the eminent Kagyu Lamas Kalu Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche.


Shentongpas (those who hold a Shentong view) consider a Shentong position to be the rarefied expression of Madhyamaka. Shentongpas hold that a Shentong view is the fruit of direct meditative experience and not realised through the path of conceptual understanding nor scholarship. In light of that, they posit that Rangtong is expedient for individuals who approach Dharma primarily through philosophical studies, whilst Shentong is a means of support for the meditation-oriented practitioner or trance adept.

Technical language: twilight language

When speaking of the emptiness of mind's ultimate nature, Shentongpas often use renderings of 'Ösel' (Wylie: "hod-gsal"; "'od gsal"; Sanskrit: "prabhāsvara") such as "luminous clarity," "luminous awareness," "the clear light nature of mind," and so forth to characterize their experiences. Such language is often employed in Dzogchen expositions as well.

hentong and Rangtong: a continuum, a coalescence

"Mūlamadhyamakakārikā" (English: "Fundamental Wisdom") by Nāgārjuna, 13.8:

śūnyatā sarvadriṣṭīṇām proktā niḥsaraṇam jinaiḥ
yeṣām tu śūnyatādṛṣṭtis tan asādhyan babhāṣire

All the buddhas have said that emptiness
Definitely eliminates all viewpoints.
Those who have the view of emptiness
Are said to be incurable. [Pettit, John Whitney (1999). "Mipham's Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection". Boston: Wisdom Publications (1999). ISBN 0861711572. p.164]

Shentongpas often present themselves as Rantongpas as well, asserting they see the two views as a complementary unity, a continuum, a coalescence. This coalescence of Shentong and Rangtong, praxis and idealogy, fulfills and leavens the 'middleway' of the Madhyamaka dialectic and counters extreme views that are anathema to the 'middleway'. This coalescence may fall into a fallacy of the reification of the middle and through a nomenclature, yielding to ideation and objectification. Hence, to robustly secede from this extreme philosophical fallacy and the lure of objectification, this coalescence is still 'void' (Sanskrit: "śūnyatā") though it has a positive value and ineffable signification that does not succumb to the extreme of nihilism: ie., empty of emptiness; a fecund, fullness: the indivisible unity of emptiness and form as per Nagarjuna.

H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, one of the most celebrated Nyingma Lamas of the 20th century, asserts:

:"The Madhyamaka of the Prasangika and the Svatantrika is the coarse, outer Madhyamaka. It should indeed be expressed by those who profess well-informed intelligence during debates with extremist outsiders, during the composition of great treatises, and while establishing texts which concern supreme reasoning. However, when the subtle, inner Madhyamaka is experientially cultivated, one should meditate on the nature of Yogacara-Madhyamaka."

Criticisms and controversies

Arguments concerning fine points of Madhyamaka tend to be complex and are often found difficult to understand, let alone summarize pithily. Its terms are understood differently by different schools, adding to the confusion. It is therefore beyond the scope of any general overview to present the technical dimension of the argument in detail. However, a historical context for the argument may be helpful.

Shentong views have often come under criticism by followers of all four of the main Tibetan Buddhist schools, but particularly by the Gelug. The “Shentong-Rangtong distinction” is a dichotomy that Gelugpas and some Sakyapas generally do not utilize. “Exclusive Rangtongpas,” as the contemporary western Kagyu scholar S.K. Hookham would call them, have claimed that Shentong views are inconsistent with the basic mahayana teaching of emptiness (shunyata) because Shentongpas hypostasize an absolute. They sometimes label Shentong Madhyamaka "Eternalistic Madhyamaka." Gyaltsab Je and Khedrub Je, two of Gelug founder Je Tsongkhapa’s primary disciples, were particularly critical of the Shentong views of their time. The great fourteenth century Sakya master Buton Rinchen (1290-1364) was also very critical of Shentong views.

Among Kagyupas and Nyingmapas, the noted 19th century Nyingma lama Ju Mipham wrote works both supportive and critical of Shentong positionsI.e., in his "Lion's Roar of Extrinsic Emptiness" (q.v. external link cited below) and in his "Long Excursis on the Core of Thus-Arrivedness" e.g., "tathãgatagarbha" ("bde gshegs snying po stong thun chen mo seng ge'i nga ro". In the "Long Excursis" Mipham Rinpoche follows closely the gist of an historically much earlier discussion of the subject of 'lineage' (Tib. "rigs", Skt. "gotra", synonymous with Buddha-nature) -- that of Longchen Rabjam's "Treasure of Philosophical Systems" ("grub mtha' mdzod"). There Mipham identifies two general extremes of interpretation, the nihilistic identification of Buddha-nature with emptiness to the exclusion of form, and the identification of Buddha-nature as a substantially real entity that is "empty-of-other" ("gzhan gyis stong pa"). Thus it appears that Mipham Rinpoche wished to distance himself from both the Gelug/Sakya mainstream (e.g., rangtong or self-emptiness) interpretation as well as the Shentong mainstream. However, what Mipham refers to in the "Long Excursis" as Shentong is only vaguely defined as such, and to that extent, bears more resemblance to the stock misinterpretations of Shentong as given by its ideological opponents, than with any actual position held by classical Shentongpas themselves. In the final analysis, both Longchenpa's and Mipham's interpretations of Buddha-nature in the aforementioned texts are substantially identical with most (though not all) of the most important philosophical distinctions invoked by Dolpopa and others in propounding the superiority and definitude of Shentong approaches. Where Longchenpa and Mipham differ most obviously from self-identified Shentongpa commentators is in not applying the Shentong label to their positions, such as "Great Madhyamaka of Other-Emptiness" ("gzhan stong dbu ma chen po").] , as did the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje. The contemporary western Kagyu scholar Karl Brunnhölzl argues that there is no such thing as “Shentong Madhyamaka,” but rather that orthodox Yogacara philosophy (when understood properly) is entirely compatible with Madhyamaka, and therefore "Shentong" is not a novel position. He argues that Yogacara has often been mis-characterized and unfairly marginalized in Tibetan Buddhist curricula.




* Burchardi, Anne (2007). "A Look at the Diversity of the Gzhan stong Tradition". JIATS, no. 3 (December 2007), THDL #T3128, 24 pp. © 2007 by Anne Burchardi, IATS, and THDL. Source: [http://www.thdl.org/collections/journal/jiats/index.php?doc=jiats03burchardi.xml&s=d0e287] (accessed: Sunday August 17, 2008)
* Roger Jackson.(2007) [http://www.snowlionpub.com/samples/BuddhadharmaBookReview.pdf The Great Debate on Emptiness] : Review of "The Essence of Other-Emptiness" by Taranatha and "Mountain Doctrine:Tibet’s Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha Matrix" by Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen in Buddhadharma, Summer 2007 p. 75-76
* Tāranātha, Jetsun (2008). "The Essence of Zhentong". Translation based upon the ‘Dzam thang edition of the 'Gzhan stong snying po'. [http://www.jonangfoundation.org/library Jonang Foundation’s Digital Library] : Ngedon Thartuk Translation Initiative. Source: [http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&ct=res&cd=3&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.jonangfoundation.org%2Ffiles%2Fjf_snying%2520po_final.pdf&ei=ZxuoSIaBD4GGsQPKrfHPDg&usg=AFQjCNE85MC6JCXYN_Tgb6amHsYDOf5GdA&sig2=aVwW6VuJpWsiYUcEvYeJcA] (accessed: Sunday August 17, 2008)


* Karl Brunnhölzl, "The Center of the Sunlit Sky: Madhyamaka in the Kagyu Tradition", ISBN 1-55939-218-5
* Ven. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, Rimpoche. "Progressive Stages Of Meditation On Emptiness", ISBN 0-9511477-0-6
* S. K. Hookham "The Buddha Within", SUNY Press, ISBN 0-7914-0358-0
* Jeffrey Hopkins (translator); Kevin Vose (editor) : "Mountain Doctrine:Tibet’s Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha Matrix". Snow Lion, Ithaca (2006). - a translation of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen's "Ri chos nges don rgya mtsho".
*Pettit, John Whitney (1999). "Mipham's Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection". Boston: Wisdom Publications (1999). ISBN 0861711572. NB: contains a complete translation of Mipham's 'Lion's Roar Proclaiming Extrinsic Emptiness' (Wylie: "gZhan stong khas len seng ge'i nga ro")
* Cyrus Stearns. The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. State University of New York Press (1999). ISBN 0-7914-4191-1 (hc); ISBN 0-7914-4192-X (pbk)
* Taranatha (auth.), Jeffrey Hopkins, (trans.) "The Essence of Other-Emptiness". Wisdom Books (2007). ISBN 1559392738

External links

* [http://www.google.com/books?id=-IfPeuDr8gwC&pg=PA415&dq=lions+roar+of+extrinsic+emptiness&sig=yF8DP4N21q-yhqpbhCXt4L5LUKA Translation of "Lion's Roar of Extrinsic Emptiness" by Mipham Rinpoche, translated by John Whitney Pettit]
* [http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/need.htm Scholarly disquisition on "The Buddha Within"]
* [http://www.kagyu.org/buddhism/cul/cul03.html An exposition of the two truths by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rimpoche]
* [http://www.jonangfoundation.org Jonang Foundation]

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