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Zhentong Explained

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Zhentong Explained

Shentong is a philosophical sub-school found in Tibetan Buddhism.

Its adherents generally hold that the nature of mind, the substratum of the mindstream, is "empty" (tong; Wylie: stong) of 'other' (shen or zhän; Wylie: gzhan), i.e., empty of all qualities other than an inherent, ineffable nature.

The contrasting Rangtong view of the followers of Prasaṅgika Mādhyamaka is that all phenomena are unequivocally empty of self-nature, without positing anything beyond that.

According to a Shentongpa (proponent of Shentong), the emptiness of ultimate reality should not be characterized in the same way as the emptiness of apparent phenomena because it is prabhāsvara-saṃtāna, or "clear light mental continuum," endowed with limitless Buddha qualities.

It is empty of all that is false, not empty of the limitless Buddha qualities that are its innate nature.

Shentong (also, zhäntong;), is literally "other-emptiness", i.e., emptiness of other.

Great Mādhyamaka: a qualification and disambiguation

Pettit (1999: p. 113) qualifies and disambiguates "Great Mādhyamaka" and mentions Ju Mipham, Longchenpa, Prasaṅgika Mādhyamaka, Tsongkhapa and coalescence:

    Extrinsic emptiness is also referred to as "Great Mādhyamaka" (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 Prasaṅgika Mādhyamaka, 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.[2]

Shentong: 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 Shentong 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.[3]


The earliest Shentong views are usually asserted to have been presented in a group of treatises variously attributed jointly to Asanga and Maitreya, especially in the treatise known as the "Unsurpassed Continuum" (Uttaratantra Śāstra), and in a body of Mādhyamaka treatises attributed to Nāgārjuna.

The first exposition of a Shentong view is sometimes attributed to Śāntarakṣita, but most scholars argue that his presentation of Mādhyamaka thought is more accurately labeled “Yogācāra-Svatantrika-Mādhyamaka".

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, a student of the Kashmiri scholar Somanatha, was possibly the first Tibetan master to articulate 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 Sa-kya mChog-ldan, 1428–1507) were also important proponents of a Shentong view.[4]

In the Jonang tradition, "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." [5]

After the suppression of the Jonang school and its texts and the texts of Sakya Chokden by the Tibetan government in the 17th century, 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.

Also instrumental was Situ Panchen (1700–1774), senior court chaplain in the Kingdom of Dêgê, a student of Norbu.

According to The Buddha from Dolpo of 2003, "[i]n the end it would be Situ more than anyone who would create the environment for the widespread acceptance of the Zhentong theories in the next century.[6]

This revival was continued by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, a 19th century ecumenical (rimé) scholar and forceful exponent of Shentong.

Shentong views were also advanced recently by the eminent Kagyu Lamas Kalu Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche.


Shentongpas (those who hold a Shentong view) consider their position to be the rarefied expression of Mādhyamika.

They hold that this 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.

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.

Shentong and Rangtong: a continuum, a coalescence

Fundamental Wisdom (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) by Nāgārjuna, 13.8 has:

    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.[7]

Shentongpas often present themselves as Rangtongpas as well, asserting they see the two views as a complementary unity, a continuum, a coalescence.

This coalescence of Shentong and Rangtong, praxis and ideology, fulfills and leavens the "middle way" of the Mādhyamika dialectic and counters extreme views that are anathema to the middle way.

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 nonetheless empty (Sanskrit: śūnya) though it has a positive value and ineffable signification that does not succumb to the extreme of nihilism: i.e.,

empty of emptiness; a fecund, fullness: the indivisible unity of emptiness and form as per Nāgārjuna.

H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, a celebrated Nyingma lama of the 20th century, asserts:

The Madhyamaka of the Prāsaṅgika and the Svātantrika 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 Mādhyamaka tend to be complex and difficult to understand, let alone to summarize pithily.

The terms of Mādhyamaka 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 Mahāyāna teaching of emptiness (śūnyatā) because Shentongpas posit an absolute.

They sometimes label Shentong Mādhyamaka "eternalistic Mādhyamaka".

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 positions,[8] as did the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje.

The contemporary western Kagyu scholar Karl Brunnhölzl argues that there is no such thing as “Shentong Mādhyamaka,” but rather that orthodox Yogācāra philosophy (when understood properly) is entirely compatible with Mādhyamaka, and therefore Shentong is not a novel position.

He argues that Yogācāra has often been mischaracterized and unfairly marginalized in Tibetan Buddhist curricula.
Notes Lama Shenpen, Emptiness Teachings. Buddhism Connect

    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

    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: (accessed: Sunday August 17, 2008) p.1

    Stearns 1999 p.60-63
    Stearns 1999 p.68

    Book: Stearns, Cyrus. The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. Motilal Banarsidass Publ.,. 2003. 8120818334. 76.

    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

    I.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 Mādhyamaka of Other-Emptiness" (gzhan-stong dbu-ma chen-po).


    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: (accessed: Sunday August 17, 2008)

    Roger Jackson.(2007) 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'. Jonang Foundation’s Digital Library: Ngedon Thartuk Translation Initiative. Source: (accessed: Sunday August 17, 2008)