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Analysis of rangtong and shentong based on Tsongkapa's Legs shad snying po and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso's Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness.

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I separated rangtong from Tsongkapa's view because he considered it to be the view of rNgog and not his own. I also kept referring to Tsongkapa because I wanted to separate his view from possible interpretations made by his spiritual descendants.

Rang sTong Tsong Ka Pa gZhan sTong Absolute Truth Absolute Truth Absolute Truth is not a proper object of knowledge and cannot ever be established. Hence 'No Thesis'. Conceptual thought is destroyed. Sees the path and so on in a similar way to Tsong Ka Pa but does not attempt to validate it.

What is established is a non-affirming negation that negates inherent existence. It is the very lack of inherent existence that makes cause and effect etc. possible. Thus the noble truths etc. are established, not as inherently existent but as dependent arisings. Sees concepts as useful because they lead to realization, although they do not capture it. Sees the form body etc. of the Buddha as a result of virtue. Considers Tantra Mahamudra as the most subtle mind(subjective clear light) cognizing emptiness(objective clear light), although in experience they are indistinguishable.

Emptiness is redefined as the utter lack of conventional truth. Absolute truth is the perfected nature of Buddhahood, together with its qualities which are absolutely established, eternal, permanent, not the result of virtue and beyond concepts. Sees rang stong as a step that destroys concepts that obscure this perfect nature. Sees the path as essentially false, but necessary to remove obscurations to what always was. Considers Mahamudra/Dzogchen as the wisdom mind/clear light as Buddhahood equivalents and considers distinctions into subjective and objective as false. Below, Tsultrim Gyatso's comments are in bold. Mine are in italics.

"Shentong masters criticize the Prasangika Madhyamika for their claim not to hold any views"

Shentong admits that this can apply only to early rangtong and not to Tsongkapa. Tsongkapa criticized rNgog and others for this position and then demonstrated how Candrakirti was misinterpreted.

"Some Shentong masters argue that Rangtong Madhyamika teaches only the first kind of emptiness, in other words , the emptiness of the imaginary nature, which is simply its complete non-existence. They argue that if this kind of emptiness were the absolute reality, or if mere absence of conceptual contrivance were absolute reality, it would be a mere nothingness, empty space. How can mere nothingness account for the manifestations of samsara and nirvana?"

rJe Rinpoche had the same criticism of Rangtong. Tsongkapa however addressed the issues differently than Shentong. To Tsongkapa, emptiness is not the mere lack of conceptual contrivance it is the simple lack of inherent existence. Emptiness as lack of inherent existence is the same as dependent arising. To put it simply: Dependent arising when mistaken for independent arisings accounts for samsara. Dependent arising when seen for what it is accounts for nirvana. One need only remove a mistaken view to realize nirvana.

Tsongkapa sought to clarify several points about Candrakirti. Samsara has validity such as it is, i.e. as convention. The only problem is that beings consider events as having inherent existence. This gives rise to the mistaken views concerning the self and objects which in turn creates actions generated from the three poisons. When the mistake has been corrected actions generated from the three poisons cease and the root of suffering is extinguished.

This extinguishment is nirvana. When the mistake is uprooted events are seen for what they actually are and have been all along. This is why Nagarjuna said the boundaries of samsara were the same as the boundaries of nirvana. Candrakirti says that Nagarjuna's karikas did not intend to disprove cause and effect and the rest. They only intended to disprove inherent existence. In fact, it is only because of the lack of inherent existence that cause and effect and the rest can happen at all. This is one reason why Candrakirti says that inherent existence didn't exist even conventionally.

"Their(Shentong) system involves not only recognizing freedom from all conceptual contrivance, but also the realization of the Wisdom Mind(jnana) that is free from all conceptual contrivance.

This non-conceptual Wisdom Mind is not the object of the conceptualizing process and so is not negated by Madhyamika reasoning. Therefore it can be said to be the only thing that has absolute and true existence."

This would be true is what is negated by Madhyamika reasoning is the conceptualizing process, however that is not what is negated by Madhyamika reasoning. What is negated is inherent existence. Since Shentong claims that the Wisdom Mind has " absolute and true existence" and since such words are the usual equivalent of inherent existence, this is negated.

It is important to understand that Tsongkapa does not seek to negate the Wisdom Mind. In fact, he claims that the realization of the Wisdom Mind cognizing emptiness is the point of Vajrayana and why it is necessary. He only claims that to assert inherent existence for this is not very good philosophy. In practice, it may result to a swing to the extreme of eternalism which would defeat the purpose of the yogi.

The assertion of a non-conceptual realization of an absolute is really not very different than the direct perceptions of an Arya in the Sautrantika system. In that system, objects present themselves to sense consciousnesses directly for a moment. Cognition only comes about as a result of a judgment which is conceptual. Only via a

yogic direct realization is the object actually known in its fullness without benefit of an image (i.e. a concept). In this system conceptual objects are not absolute truth. That is, all concepts, necessarily generalities, are not absolute. The particular, that is, the object itself, is absolute. Hence a mere refuting of concepts as being absolute does not refute the absolute existence of the external particulars of the Sautrantika. The Prasangika, deny independence rather than just conceptuality which they see as just conventionality. A simple denial of conceptuality would not get beyond Sautrantika. The Cittamatra deny the independent external asserting that what one needs to realize is the

essential unity of an object aspect and a subject aspect of a consciousness produced by a predisposition caused by an action. The meaning of the phrase "non-conceptual truth" for a Prasangika and a Cittamatrin when used in the context of an ultimate knowing is "truth unobscured by a mistaken view". To both Nagarjuna and Asanga a blanket condemnation of conceptuality amounted to nihilism. To Nagarjuna concepts were useful conventionalities one just had not to view them as inherent. To Asanga, what was to be realized was the right relation between a designation and the designee.

The Shentong would seem to be like the Cittamatra in that they deny the externality of the particular. However, they say that the difference between themselves and Cittamatra is that they assert jnana as the absolute and the Cittamatra assert vijnana. To Shentong:

"Vijnana means a divided consciousness; in other words divided into a seeing and seen aspect. Shentong takes it as a fact that mind bounded by concepts of time and space must in some sense entertain the concepts of moments having duration and atoms with extension in space. Furthermore, it will always seem that for an instant of knowing to take place, a knowing and a known aspect of consciousness must arise, even if it is understood that they have no ultimate or real existence.

The Shentong regards the concept of a stream of consciousness consisting of moments having knowing and known aspects as a misunderstanding of reality....It is only relatively true in the sense that things seem to be that way to ordinary beings. Ultimately it is not true at all.

From the Shentong point of view, the luminous self-aware non-conceptual mind that is experienced in meditation, when the mind is completely free from concepts, is Absolute Reality, and not a vijnana; vijnana is always samvrti from the Shentong point of view and is not what is found by the supreme wisdom(prajna) that sees

Absolute Reality. When the luminous , self aware, non-conceptual mind that is the Wisdom Mind (Jnana) is realized by the supreme wisdom(prajna) there is no seeing and seen aspect, no realizing and realized aspect to the realization. ... It is none other than the non-conceptual Wisdom Mind (Jnana) itself. It is also called the non-dual Wisdom Mind (Jnana), the Clear Light (prabhasvara) Nature of Mind and Dhatu.... Elsewhere it is called Dhatu and awareness inseparable, clarity and emptiness inseparable, bliss and emptiness inseparable. It is also called the Dharmata and the Tathagatagarbha.

The Shentong contention is that the experience of complete freedom from conceptual contrivance (nisprapanca ) must also be the experience of the Clear Light Nature of Mind. In their opinion a Prasangika who denies this must still have some subtle concept which is obscuring or negating this Reality: in other words he has not truly realized complete freedom from conceptual contrivance. This happens because for a long time the meditator has been cutting through illusion and seeing emptiness as a kind of negation. This becomes such a strong habit that even when the experience of Absolute Reality, the Clear Light Nature of Mind, starts to break through like the sun from behind clouds, the meditator automatically turns his mind towards it to subtly negate it."

Tsongkapa takes little issue with any of the above except for the words 'Absolute Reality' if they refer to inherent existence. If it is agreed that they are just a phrase, i.e. a convention then there is no argument. As for the polemical phrases beginning 'a Prasangika who denies this', if certain followers of Tsongkapa actually do this, it is a fault with their practice, not with the view. Tsongkapa, for instance, expressly teaches that a critical part of the perfection of effort is knowing when to suspend efforts. One such expressed time would be when an effort has served its purpose and it became time to do something else. The antidote here would be a better understanding of rJe Rinpoche, particularly his teachings on the Union of Bliss and Void. It would not benefit to re-assert some inherently existent absolute.

"The Buddha qualities are the qualities of the non-conceptual Wisdom Mind, which when it is purified is, called the Dharmakaya. When the Wisdom Mind is not purified, the qualities are not manifest and it is called Tathagatagarbha.

These qualities are the essence of that Wisdom Mind. They are not divisible from its essence as if the mind's essence were one thing and the qualities were another. If they were like that they would have been shown to be empty of own nature by Madhyamika reasoning. The essence would have arisen dependent on the qualities and the qualities dependent on the essence... However, the Buddha qualities are not like this. They cannot be grasped by the conceptual mind and are not separable from the essence of the Wisdom Mind (which also cannot be grasped by the conceptual mind). Thus the Buddha qualities are not compounded or conditioned phenomena, which arise, stay and perish. They exist primordially."

This argument states that the identity of qualities with their essence is an assertion untouchable by Madhyamika reasoning. This can only happen if qualities and essence were not svabhava, otherwise it is subject to Madhyamika reasoning. Why? Because if a quality were a svabhava, one would then have to account for how many svabhavas could co-exist in one essence which is also a svabhava and that situation has been dealt with over and over again by Madhyamika reasoning.

Further, the qualities are not all that ungraspable. They are namable. It fact, they are listed extensively and constantly in sutra after sutra. Sutras like the Avatamsaka that use very positive language in describing these qualities state they are inconceivable but that is because they are inexhaustible so that even after endless aeons they could not be described in full. It is not that any one at a given time could not be mentioned.

"The Shentong criticizes the view of the other Madhyamikas who say that the Buddha's qualities arise as a result of the good deeds, vows and connections made by Bodhisattvas on the path to enlightenment. If the qualities arose in this way then they would be compounded and impermanent phenomena, not beyond samsara and of no ultimate use to beings..."

If by 'compounded and impermanent' one means relative, then yes, the qualities are relative but as said above, that is the only way they could exist. Compassion, for instance arises in relation to suffering beings. As for being of 'no ultimate use', how is that? The compassion of the Buddhas, as long as suffering beings exist, aids them and guides them to Buddhahood. That surely is of ultimate use! When no sentient beings are left the compassionate activity will cease and how is that being uncompounded and not impermanent?

The phrase "not beyond samsara" is telling, for it leads to the heart of all the fuss. Shentong in essence, denies samsara, and reifies nirvana. This is done by their interpretation of the three natures by making parinispanna absolute and denying both paratantra and parikalpita. Cittamatra denies parikalpita and grants true existence to both paratantra and parinispanna by saying that the imaginary nature completely lacks truth, but has a true basis i.e.

paratantra which is the basis of the subjective and objective aspects of a consciousness. Parikalpita is the mistaken view that subject and object are unrelated. Parinispanna is simply the lack of the mistaken view. In Prasangika, reifying the absolute is considered completely wrong. Sunyata is itself empty. Inherent existence is not found even conventionally. Prasangika does not deny samsara, only inherent existence. By denying samsara, one denies conventional truth as having validity, and therefore, cause and effect does not exist nor does the path.

Shentong tries to get around this denial of samsaric validity by saying that as long as one is in samsara one must pay attention to karma etc. This is just self contradictory. What it means in practice however, is that samsara is not totally non-existent but it is ontologically weak. One has to put up with it until one discovers what is actually real. To Shentong, this is the Wisdom Mind which is pre-existent, but undiscovered, hidden beneath the dirt of samsara. To remove this dirt, the Buddhist path is necessary.

In Tsongkapa's system, the most subtle mind becomes the Wisdom Mind when it cognizes emptiness. Although the mind is empty by nature, it needs to realize it. Saying it already knows emptiness seems nonsensical. This is true of any mind, gross or subtle. We experience gross minds all the time and yet don't know emptiness. We experience the most subtle mind at death, orgasm, sleep, between thoughts etc. so why aren't we liberated when these events occur.

Shentong says our subtle mind really does know emptiness yet we don't recognize this knowing subtle mind. This is a confusing statement. What is the difference between not knowing and not recognizing? Are we not-recognizing with our gross mind while at the same time knowing with a subtle mind? This assertion would posit two minds operating at the same time. This would be quite a dualism in a system that brags about being non-dual. Perhaps we have to recognize the subtle mind itself. This however would make the subtle mind an object, so one would have to ask, what mind is recognizing the subtle mind knowing emptiness. That statement would lead to undesirable consequences.


Taking Shentong literally, leads to all the philosophical difficulties it claims to avoid. Taking Shentong metaphorically is admitting all Shentong speech to be conventional which is what Tsongkapa says it is. Tsongkapa has no problem with the primacy of experience, or non-dualism, or the wisdom mind etc. Tsongkapa criticized Dolpopa for offering an unworkable philosophical position

to contrast that of rNgog Lotsawa. That is all. Subsequent debate, when not fueled by sectarian feelings, should only focus on those issues for which are claimed philosophical truth status. Thus if Shentong sticks to being an expression of a yogi's experience, as Jamgon Kongtrul claims, there should be no debate. Debate in such a case would be like examining Saraha's dohas or Milarepa's poetry as if they were arguments made in Nalanda's courtyard, it could be done, but to what end? To Candrakirti, conventional speech is perfectly valid as far as it goes and every word in the dohas and the poetry is convention. It is only when Shentong enters the philosophical arena, claiming to have an analytically findable ultimate truth in the same sense and manner the philosophers, from Vaibhasika to Prasangika mean it that debate needs to occur.

By denying samsara, one denies conventional truth as having validity, and therefore, cause and effect does not exist nor does the path.