Can We Speak of Kadam Gzhan Stong? Tracing the Sources for Other-Emptiness in Early-Fourteenth-Century Tibet

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Can We Speak of Kadam Gzhan Stong? Tracing the Sources for Other-Emptiness in Early-Fourteenth-Century Tibet

Citation: Wangchuk, Tsering. "Can We Speak of Kadam Gzhan Stong? Tracing the Sources for Other-Emptiness in Early-Fourteenth-Century Tibet." Journal of Buddhist Philosophy 2 (2016): 9–22.

Article Summary

It has become the norm for scholars familiar with the self-emptiness (rang stong) and other-emptiness (gzhan stong)[1] in the history of Tibetan Buddhist scholastic tradition to associate the latter doctrine with Dolpopa (dol po pa shes rab rgyal mtshan, 1292–1361), the foremost synthesizer of the Jonang (jo nang) School of Tibetan Buddhism. He developed a systematic, distinctive view of ultimate truth (don dam bden pa; paramārthasatya) and propagated this view widely and earned much scorn for it, leading to one of the most controversial doctrinal-sectarian disputes in Tibetan Buddhist history. His explication of other-emptiness, which he equates with the ultimate truth, is deemed radical and wholly unacceptable by many of his contemporaries and later Tibetan scholars because it stands in sharp contrast to the mainstream fourteenth-century and early-fifteenth-century Tibetan interpretations of self-emptiness, the notion that all phenomena including ultimate truth do not exist inherently. The self-emptiness interpretations are based primarily on Indie sources such as the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras, Nāgārjuna's (c. 200) Madhyamakakārikā, and Candrakīrti's (c. 570-640) Madhyamakāvatāra. In contrast, Dolpopa generally does not claim that middle wheel treatises (’khor lo bar pa’i gzhung) such as the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras are the fundamental sources for his presentation of an other-emptiness view. Rather, he bases his formulation of other-emptiness on tantric sources such as the Kālacakra,[2] last wheel sūtras {'khor lo tha ma’i mdo) such as Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra,[3] and Indic commentarial sources[4] traditionally credited to figures such as Maitreya, Asaṅga (c. 300), and Vasubandhu (c. 300).
      As a prominent fourteenth-century Tibetan doxographer, Dolpopa, however, does not repudiate self-emptiness per se; rather, he speaks of two types of emptiness[5] that have separate referent points. For him, self-emptiness refers only to conventional phenomena such as tables, chairs, and negative defilements that do not inherently exist[6] or that are empty of their own entities. Dolpopa argues that since conventional phenomena cannot withstand analysis, in that their individual entities are essentially empty or deconstructed, as the existence of their nature is thoroughly investigated, they are empty of inherent existence. Therefore, he claims that self-emptiness is not ultimate truth.[7]
      On the other hand, he passionately demonstrates that other-emptiness exists inherently and ultimately. Furthermore, it is identified with the tathāgata-essence (de bzhin gshegs pa’i snying po, tathāgatagarbha or buddha-nature (sangs rgyas kyi rigs; buddhagotra) endowed with enlightened qualities that exists in all beings. Dolpopa argues that this form of emptiness is not empty of its own entity, since it ultimately and permanently exists. Also, ultimate truth is empty of all conventional phenomena that are antithetical to ultimately existent other-emptiness. So, while self-emptiness, which he refers to as "empty-emptiness" (stong pa’i stong pa), is primarily taught in the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras of the middle wheel teachings, it is not ultimate truth, as it is empty of its own entity and it is not free from conceptual thought. On the other hand, other-emptiness, which he dubs "non-empty-emptiness" (mi stong pa’i stong pa), while not primarily taught in the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras, is delineated in last wheel teachings of the Buddha, such as Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, Śrīmālādevīsūtra, and others to refer to the naturally enlightened buddha-nature that is empty of all conventional phenomena. This is Dolpopa’s position on the two types of emptiness and the hierarchy of Mahāyāna literature in a nutshell and much of the discourse that follows on other-emptiness in the history of Tibetan Buddhist scholasticism has its roots in Dolpopa’s doctrinal formulation of other-emptiness vis-à-vis self-emptiness.
      While Dolpopa certainly gets the well-deserved credit for making other-emptiness "a place of fundamental importance in the expression of his philosophy"[8] in Tibet, his controversial interpretation of Mahāyāna texts and the relative early availability of his writings to international scholars has perhaps led some to assume that Dolpopa’s thought is more original than it really was. Fortunately, the recent release of dozens of Kadam (bka’ gdams) volumes of previously unknown philosophical texts that predate Dolpopa allows us to reconsider this issue. Among the new texts that might be pertinent to a reconstruction of the early history of other-emptiness discourse in Tibet is the writing of Rinchen (rin chen ye shes, 13th-14th c.) in conjunction with the previously available Buton’s (bu ston rin chen grub, 1290-1364) Precious Garland of Rebuttals (’phrin yig gi lan rin po che’i phreng ba).[9] I argue that Dolpopa’s unique doctrinal views with respect to ultimate truth and their related Indie sources are found in Rinchen’s doctrinal formulation of Mahāyāna literature. Furthermore, there is a good reason to argue that Dolpopa’s unique views were directly influenced by the Kadam scholar.[10] Therefore, in this article, I analyze their points of convergence and divergence on the issues of buddha-nature, textual authority, and doxographical strategy, and suggest that Kadam influence on Dolpopa needs to be recognized more than we do in modern scholarship on Dolpopa’s works. (Wangchuk, introduction, 9–11)
  1. I agree with Cyrus Stearns that Dolpopa was not the first Tibetan thinker to coin the term other-emptiness; rather, as Stearns succinctly states, "The evidence shows that the terms gzhan stong had been used in Tibet before the time of Dolpopa, albeit only in isolated instances. The tradition itself certainly considers him as the one who coined the terms, but it is perhaps more accurate to say Dolpopa made use of an obscure term that had very limited use before him, and gave it a place of fundamental importance in the expression of his philosophy." See Cyrus Stearns, The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2010), 52.
  2. Tantric texts such as Hevajra and Cakrasaṃvāra are included here. See ibid., 46.
  3. Many sūtras on buddha-nature such as Śrīmālādevīsūtra, Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, and so forth are included here.
  4. Treatises such as Uttaratantra, Sūtrālaṃkara, Triṃśikā, etc. are included here
  5. See Jeffrey Hopkins, Mountain Doctrine: Tibet's Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha-Matrix (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2006), 12-18.
  6. Stearns, Buddha from Dolpo, 88-89.
  7. Hopkins states, "The equation of ordinary forms with self-emptiness requires that they are not the ultimate, and the corresponding equation of the ultimate with other-emptiness requires that the matrix-of-one-gone-thus and all the ultimate buddha qualities of body, speech, and mind inhering in it are ultimate and are other-emptiness." See Hopkins, Mountain Doctrine, 14.
  8. Stearns, Buddha from Dolpo, 52.
  9. See Buton Rinchen Drup, 'phrin yig gi lan rin po che'i phreng ba (Precious Garland of Rebuttals), in The Collected Works of Bu-ston, vol. 26 (Lhasa: Zhol par khang, 2000). The letter appears in Buton's miscellaneous writings called "gsung thor bu" in the collected works. Although it does not begin with the title given here, it ends with the title mentioned above. It was completed in 1326–27 (me pho stag gi lo). See Buton, Precious Garland of Rebuttals, 220.
  10. For a brief discussion on some early influences on Dolpopa, see Stearns, Buddha from Dolpo, 42-46.