Rangtong and Shentong in the Madhyamaka by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
The foundation of understanding the Mahayana path is the study of emptiness. This was fully explored by the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism. When this school came to Tibet two distinct views, Rangtong (self-empty) and Shentong (empty of other), were highly debated by the great masters. This article is from a soon-to-be-published book by Thrangu Rinpoche on Shentong and Rangtong based on The Treasury of Knowledge by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye.
What is meant by emptiness? How does one identify the emptiness that the Madhyamaka teaches? What is it that is empty? What are phenomena empty of? This emptiness relates to the egolessness of the individual and the egolessness of phenomena. The self is the thought “I” and “me,” which is empty and called the egolessness or selflessness of self. The egolessness of phenomena is the belief that outside phenomena are also devoid of inherent existence. This is what is meant by emptiness. By going through extensive logical analysis the Rangtong view establishes the emptiness of an inherent self (or ego) of individual and the emptiness of any phenomena proving that both are devoid of any inherent nature of their own.
The way the Buddha taught emptiness in the sutras was by presenting sixteen different kinds of emptiness. The word “Rangtong” comes from rang which means “self,” and tong means “empty,” i.e., phenomena are empty or devoid of their own nature. Relative phenomena have no true reality; they have no established nature of their own. That is the teaching of emptiness taught by the Rangtong School.
In Rangtong one can examine the nature of phenomena and gain knowledge of the emptiness of phenomena using intellectual arguments. When it comes to meditation, one needs the Shentong view because the view of emptiness alone can lead to the obstacle of conceptual meditation. One can think, “Am I supposed to see everything as non-existent?” Then the meditation can become stilted. Meditation practice with the Shentong view is the union of the sutra and tantra and is therefore very important.