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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong and Shentong Views

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The principal subject of the 2007 PSL Shedra was a famous text by Mipham Rinpoche entitled the Tongthun Senge Ngaro (Lion's Roar That Explains Tathagatagarbha). This treatise explores such topics as the provisional (drangdon) and definitive (ngedon) meaning of the teachings presented in the three turnings of the Wheel of Dharma; the distinguishing features of the Rangtong and Shentong views; and the differences between the Prasangikas and Svatantrikas in terms of the methods they use to approach and explain the ultimate nature. Of course the main focus of Mipham Rinpoche's work is tathagatagarbha or buddha-nature. Many Tibetan Buddhist masters have extensively debated the authentic nature of mind known as tathagatagarbha. Generally speaking Rangtongpas believe tathagatagarbha to be free from all dualities and extremes claiming that it is empty of intrinsic reality. Thus they assert buddha-nature to be "empty of itself." In contrast, Shentongpas claim that buddha-nature is actually full of the beautiful natural qualities of mind which shine forth unobstructedly after the temporary defilements and obscurations have been removed. Shentongpas therefore believe buddha-nature to be "empty of other;" or empty of the habitual negativities and obscurations that cloud the beauty of our inherent nature. As explained by the great Mipham Rinpoche in the Tongthun Senge Ngaro, the Nyingma school does not see any essential contradiction between these two positions. By uniting these views, Mipham clarifies how Buddha Shakyamuni's three turnings of the Wheel of Dharma are perfectly compatible and harmonious.
Rok:
2007
Wydanie:
2nd
Wydawnictwo:
Dharma Samudra
Język:
english
Strony:
138 / 142
ISBN 10:
0965933970
ISBN 13:
9780965933971
Plik:
PDF, 3.84 MB
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P

a d m a

S

a m y e

L

i n g

S

h e d r a

O pe n in g t h e W isd o m

S

e r i e s

D oor of the

Rangtong and
Shentong Views

A

B rief E x p la n a tio n o f t h e O n e T a ste
o f t h e S e c o n d a n d T h ird T u r n in g s
o f th e W heel o f D harm a

By Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
& Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche

O p e n i n g t h e W i s d o m D o o r of t h e

Rangtong & Shentong Views
A B r ie f E x p l a n a t io n of t h e O n e Ta ste of
the

Se c o n d a n d T h ir d T u r n in g s of
the

W h eel of D h a r m a

by

Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
and

Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche

O pening the W isdom

D o o r of t h e

Rangtong & Shentong Views
A Br ief E x pla n a t io n of t h e O ne T aste of
the

Second an d T h ird T u r n in g s of
the

W heel of D harm a

by

Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
and

Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche

Edited by Andrew Cook

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong and Shentong Views:
A Brief Explanation of the One Taste of the Second and Third
Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma

Copyright © 2007 Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo
Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche

All rights reserved. No part of material may be reproduced in any
form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including
photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval
system, without prior written permission from the authors.

Published by Dharma Samudra.

Padma Samye Ling
618 Buddha Highway
Sidney Center, NY 13839
(607) 865-8068
www.padmasambhava.org

ISBN: 0-9659339-7-0

Contents

Acknowledgements.................................................................................9
Introduction........................................................................................... 13
Beginning of the Main Text............................................................. 15
Buddha-nature and the Two T ru th s............................................... 16
Definitions of Rangtong and Shentong........................................... 19
; Rangtongpas Explain Tathagatagarbha..................................... 20
Shentongpas Respond to Rangtong Criticisms......................... 22
Provisional Versus Definitive...................................................
Valid Cognition, Prasangika and Svatantrika Madhyamaka

25
26

Questions and Answers.....................................................................31
Further Provisional and Definitive Teachings............................... 35
The Four Intentions of Provisional Meaning................................. 37
1. Thinking of Equanim ity........................................................37
2. Thinking of Other Times........................................................38
3. Thinking of Some Other M eaning........................................38
4. Thinking of the Individual’s Intentions................................39
The Four Junctions........................................................................... 39
L The Swinging-Meaning Teaching of Ushering....................... 40
2. The Swinging-Meaning Teaching of Characteristics

40

3. The Swinging-Meaning Teaching of Antidotes..................... 41
4. The Swinging-Meaning Teaching of Change......................... 41
The Four Reliances...........................................................................42
Three Reasonings That Establish Buddha-nature............................... 45
Other Schools and the Three P oints............................................... 45
Mipham Rinpoche Refutes the Other Schools............................... 47
Establishing the Nyingma View....................................................... 49

What is Buddha-nature?.......................................................................53
Three Turnings of the Wheel of D harm a....................................... 56
First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma....................................... 57
Second Turning of the Wheel of D h arm a ................................. 58
Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma..................................... 58
Sum m ary...........................................................................................62
Nine Metaphors That Describe Buddha-nature............................. 63
Questions and Answers..................................................................... 67
Mipham Establishes the Three Points of B uddha-nature................. 73
1. Mipham Explains the First Point................................................. 75
2. Mipham Explains the Second P o in t........................................... 79
3. Mipham’s Explanation of the Third P o in t................................. 79
Summary of the Three P o in ts......................................................... 80
Nagarjuna and Buddha-nature............................................................. 85
Two Kinds of Buddha-nature........................................................... 87
The Nyingma School and Buddha-nature..................................... 88
The Hidden Nature of M in d ........................................................... 89
Buddha-nature and Madhyamaka................................................... 90
Three Points That Establish Buddha-nature................................... 92
The Four Qualities of Tathagatagarbha........................................... 93
Three Mistakes Regarding B uddha-nature......................................... 97
1. Tathagatagarbha as Substantially E xistent................................. 98
2. Tathagatagarbha as Blank Em ptiness........................................100
3. Tathagatagarbha as Compounded..............................................101

The Four Baskets............................................................................. 105
1.TheVinay a............................................................................... 106
2. Sutra M ahayana..................................................................... 106
3. The Abhidharma..................................................................... 107
Purifying the O bscurations........................................................... 108
The Three Turnings as Provisional vs. Definitive..........................109
The Outer and Inner T antras............................................................. 113
1. The Outer Tantras....................................................................... 113
2. Mahayoga (The First Inner Tantra)........................................... 113
2. Anuyoga (The Second Inner Tantra)......................................... 114
3. Atiyoga (The Third Inner Tantra)............................................. 114
Questions and Answers................................................................... 116
Rangtong and Shentong M asters....................................................... 118
Conclusion...........................................................................................121
D edication........................................................................................... 123
About the Authors.........................

125

Other Publications by the A uthors............................................... 131
Endnotes............................................................................................... 133

Acknow ledgem ents
The Samye Translation Group would like to thank everyone who
was involved in helping bring this project to fruition. In particular, we
would like to thank Andrew Cook for his enthusiastic and thorough
efforts to complete this book by editing many hours of transcriptions.
Without his aspirations and hard work, this book could not have been
completed in such a short period of time. We would also like to thank
the many people who helped transcribe these teachings, including Ani
Joanie Andras, Mary Ann Doychak, Beba Febo, Cynthia Friend, Nancy
Lichtenstein, Annie Sanchez, and Pema Tara. We appreciate Ann Helm
for her work with the Tibetan and Sanskrit terms. Additional thanks
goes out to Rita Frizzell for her assistance in preparing the text and cover
for publishing, to Sujata Ghosh for her help with final editing, and to
Pema Dragpa for his work with editing and layout.
As always, we are deeply grateful to Ani Lorraine O’Rourke and
Pema Tsultrim for their steadfast administrative help with
Padmasambhava Buddhist Center.
We would also like to thank all the resident staff of Padma Samye
Ling whose work actively supports the Khenpo Rinpoches’ activities
locally and internationally. We also wish to extend our thanks to all
members and friends of the Padmasambhava Buddhist Center
worldwide for their constant support over many years.
Most importantly, we offer our heartfelt gratitude and devotion to
the Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches for blessing us with the opportunity
to receive and practice these profound teachings. We humbly request
that Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

Rinpoche continue to turn the wheel of Dharma, and we offer prayers
for their long and healthy lives.
We sincerely ask forgiveness from all wisdom beings, holders of the
teachings, and readers for all errors and misinterpretations of the
teachings present in this text. We welcome any suggestions on how to
improve the text.
May everyone who reads this book understand the value and
meaning of their precious human life. May their highest aspirations be
fulfilled for the benefit of all beings.

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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

S h e d r a Ye a r F o u r :
M ip h a m G y a t s o ’s T o n g t h u n S e n g e N g a r o :

A C o m m e n ta ry o n t h e U t t a r a t a n t r a

Teaching:

Mipham Rinpoche’s Tongthun Senge Ngaro, a
commentary on the Uttaratantra Shastra by Maitreya
and Asanga.

Teachers:

Venerable Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and
Venerable Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche.

Time:

August 26 to 31,2006.

Place:

Palden Padma Samye Ling Monastery and Retreat
Center, Upstate New York.

Retinue:

Approximately thirty students came from all over the
world to participate in six days of intensive study of
Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

11

In t r o d u c t io n

Let us begin our discussion of these teachings by cultivating
bodhichitta, which is the genuine intention to liberate all living beings
by leading them to complete enlightenment. In order to do this, we
should think the following: ‘I am going to contemplate and practice the
profound Mahayana teachings on tathagatagarbha,' o r‘buddha-nature,’
that explain the nature of emptiness.’
In this year’s shedra [bshad grva\> we are going to discuss the
Tibetan text entitled Tongthun Senge Ngaro [stong thun setigge nga ro]y
or the Lion's Roar That Explains Tathagatagarbha.2This particular work
was composed in the 19th century by the great Nyingma master
Mipham Rinpoche, who was renowned as an emanation of Manjushri.3
Mipham Rinpoche completely mastered all five major fields of
knowledge as well as the five minor knowledges.4Thus, he was an expert
on each of these subjects. Mipham composed this text with the purpose
of clearly expounding the Buddha’s teachings on buddha-nature, for
the benefit of students wishing to achieve enlightenment through the
practice of these beautiful teachings.
From beginning to end, the Tongthun Senge Ngaro is mostly an
explanation of tathagatagarbha. Generally speaking, these teachings on
buddha-nature represent the essence of Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhanature was clearly taught by the Future Buddha, Maitreya—the regent of
Buddha Shakyamuni—in the Uttaratantra, which is also known as Gyu
Lama [rgyud blama]. Mipham Rinpoche uses three reasonings also taught
by Maitreya to clarify buddha-nature in his Tongthun Senge Ngaro.
Many different views and ideas about buddha-nature arose with
Indian Mahayana Buddhism and were continued by practitioners of
Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetans, in particular, had different ways of
understanding buddha-nature. The great Mipham Rinpoche clarifies
exactly how we should understand tathagatagarbha, as well as how we
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

should analyze differing views on this subject. To do so, he refutes
several ideas about tathagatagarbha held by other Buddhist schools.
As you know, the general purpose of this shedra is to explore
buddha-nature, a subject that forms part of the essential teachings of
Mahayana Buddhism, which includes the Vajrayana. But why is
buddha-nature so important? In order to reach enlightenment, we must
know what we are looking for and what kind of nature we are trying to
develop. Therefore, we should recognize that we are cultivating our
innate, primordial buddha-nature, the essence of enlightenment. Thus,
every aspect of practice— from the teachings of Sutra Mahayana to the
Vajrayana—emphasizes the importance of understanding buddhanature. Truly, understanding buddha-nature is essential to our practice,
since its existence is the very reason why we practice and why the
teachings exist. So we are going to closely examine buddha-nature in
order to develop realization and eventually achieve enlightenment.
As we previously mentioned, the title of this teaching by Mipham
Rinpoche is known as Tongthun Senge Ngaro, and is roughly translated
as the Lion’s Roar That Explains Tathagatagarbha. Now, rig [rigs] is a
Tibetan word that is translated from the Sanskrit word ‘tathagatagarbha.’
It means ‘buddha-nature,’ or ‘essence of enlightenment.’ Tong is
‘thousand’ and tun means ‘explanation.’ Essentially, tongthun means that
Mipham Rinpoche is going to explain thousands of difficult points in a
very simple way, during a single session. Senge Ngaro is translated as
‘lion’s roar.’ This expression refers to the essential teachings of Buddha
Shakyamuni. However, this ‘lion’s roar’ is not a superficial or causual
explanation of the nature; instead, it uses logic, reasoning, and valid
cognition [tshad ma] to establish the truth. Once established in this way,
such a point cannot be refuted since it has been logically proven. It
therefore becomes like a lion’s roar of truth that cannot be scared off by
the statements or arguments of others.
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

Be g in n in g o f t h e M a in T ex t
Mipham Rinpoche begins his text by saying, ‘Homage to the
Gurus!’ By doing so, he is honoring his root teacher as well as the
Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, or the Gurus, Devas, and Dakinis.5 In
Sanskrit, this is ‘Namo Guru-beh.’ Of course, the school of Tibetan
Buddhism often talks about the lamas of the ‘three lineages.’ These
lineages include the Mind-to-mind transmission lineage, the Symbolic
transmission lineage, and the Oral transmission lineage. These three
are sometimes further subdivided into six or nine lineages. In any case,
Mipham Rinpoche is paying respect to all the great masters and lineage
holders of the past.
The first sentence of Mipham Rinpoche’s commentary describes
the nature of mind. The original nature of mind is free from all stains
and obscurations, and hence it is often described as ‘stainless.’ This
stainless nature of mind—also known as the absolute Manjushri—is
recognized and established with certainty through ‘true valid cognition,’
which is like Manjushri’s sword of wisdom that cuts through nets of
ignorant fabrication. When the nets of ignorance are cut, the continuity
of samsara collapses; in the very same instant we cut through the
various nets of ignorance, we gain enlightenment, nirvana, or great
natural realization. We need certainty wisdom, or knowledge, in order
to bring about this realization of the absolute nature of mind. Having
developed certainty regarding our inherent nature, we can improve and
develop the blossoming of this natural state by dispelling the dense nets
of ignorance that usually block ou r realization. In other words, we can
cut through samsara with certainty knowledge established through the
sword of valid cognition, slicing through our habitual fabrications to
reveal the stainless nature of mind—the absolute Manjushri.
The text continues by explaining that Buddha Shakyamuni gave
many different teachings, which are often referred to as the 84,000
teachings of the Buddha. These are the essential instructions based
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

upon all the teachings given by the buddhas of the past, present, and
future, comprising the essence of transcendent knowledge. The essential
point of both the sutra and tantra teachings is tathagatagarbha, and
Buddha Shakyamuni repeatedly taught about tathagatagarbha
throughout his Mahayana teachings, not just in one or two sutras.
Actually, in both the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings, the Buddha
explained that all living beings, without distinction or partiality, have
inherent buddha-nature. So when is comes to buddha-nature, there is
no difference or distinction between beings: all beings have identical
buddha-nature.
Buddha-nature is the very essence of the Mahayana and Vajrayana
teachings precisely because it is the original nature of every living being,
without exception. But, in reality, the teachings on tathagatagarbha are
so profound that even tenth-level bodhisattvas6 do not completely
understand the true meaning of buddha-nature; they don’t realize
tathagatagarbha exactly as it is with one hundred percent accuracy. It is
said that even these high-level bodhisattvas only perceive the truth of
tathagatagarbha as if glimpsing images or bodily forms in the darkness
of night. Buddha-nature is extremely profound. Who, then, completely
realizes this inherent nature? Only a Fully Awakened One, or perfectly,
fully-enlightened buddha understands the truth of tathagatagarbha
exactly as it is. And if even a tenth-level bodhisattva doesn’t fully grasp
buddha-nature, how much less do we sentient beings!
Bu d d h a -nature a n d t h e T w o T ru th s
Buddha spoke about buddha-nature to different beings in different
ways, according to their capabilities and readiness. The way he explained
buddha-nature was slightly different in each of the turnings of the
wheel of Dharma.7 In some teachings he simply said, ‘Everything is
empty.’ Here ‘everything’ refers to the fact that subject, object, action,
and all objects of knowledge are empty. When he said this, the Blessed
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

One was simply pointing out the emptiness aspect of the nature of
tathgatagarbha. In other teachings, such as the Prajnaparamita, the
Glorious Conquerer explained that samsara is empty, nirvana is empty,
the path is empty, and attainment—or liberation— is also empty. Once
again, these teachings bring up and focus on the empty aspect of
buddha-nature.
Whereas emptiness is one side of the nature, clarity is the other.
Thus, the Blessed One also taught specifically about enlightenment in
order to point out the clarity aspect of tathagatagarbha. There is no
mention of emptiness is many of these teachings. Rather, the Buddha
openly described the five wisdoms, the ten bhumis, the ten powers, and
the four fearless states of enlightenment. In this way, he proclaimed the
characteristics and benefits of enlightenment as existent, without
describing the inherent emptiness of phenomena.
By examining this situation, we discover two different aspects of
the Buddha’s teachings: in the first case, he taught that everything is
empty; in the second, he explained different phenomena (and
transcendent qualities) as existing. We must closely investigate these
two statements where, on the one hand, Buddha said, ‘Everything is
empty’ and on the other, ‘Qualities exist.’ Are these two statements
contradictory? Do they refute each other? Still more teachings of the
Buddha explain that the nature has the qualities of both emptiness and
appearance; that is, emptiness is not a blank state of negation.
Therefore, the true nature of reality does not fall into the categories of
either negation (i.e. nihilism) or eternalism.8So the nature is definitely
not a state of negation, nor does it fall into the extremes of eternalism
or (intrinsic) existence. In fact, the nature is both open and existing—
or emptiness and clarity. This is why the Buddha gave teachings on the
two truths: (1) absolute truth and (2) relative truth.
When we only analyze relative truth, it looks like emptiness
(absolute truth) is the opposite of conventional reality. Similarly, when
we look at absolute truth it looks like relative appearances are its direct
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

opposites. Yet these distinctions are merely the products of duality
mind. In truth, the nature of reality encompasses both relative and
absolute truths. All of us know this to be true, and we often read about
the union of relative and absolute in different teachings. We can safely
conclude that emptiness and appearance are not contradictory, since
they are two aspects of a single, indivisible nature.
In the same way, our relative day-to-day activities do not contradict
the truth of tathagatagarbha. Both relative activities and tathagatagarbha are part of the nature: They are the respective clarity and
emptiness aspects of reality. It is not as though the Buddha created or
made up these rules—this is simply the way things are. To rephrase, the
appearance aspect of the nature represents the conventional level, or
relative truth, while the emptiness of these same appearances represents
absolute truth. Looking at the whole of reality from the perspective of
these two truths, we begin to see the natural, complimentary nature of
reality. The two truths are inseparable—clarity and emptiness are
inseparable. Without this realization we will not recognize the profound
meaning of the nature as it is. Lacking this recognition, we will continue
to make artificial divisions and discriminations. For this reason it is
sometimes said that tathagatagarbha, or buddha-nature, is not just
emptiness. In one sense, it is permanent and substantially existent.
Narrow duality mind does not see the clarity aspect of the nature
as it is. Instead, duality tends to think that tathagatagarbha is completely
empty, since ‘everything is empty.’ This is known as holding on to blank
emptiness, or grasping to the absolute aspect of the nature. As a result
of perceiving reality in this way, or grasping to emptiness, the five
wisdoms, four kayas, ten powers of enlightenment, and four fearless
states almost seem to be false. A person attached to this blank view of
emptiness begins to avoid everything related to the clarity aspect of the
nature, including the kayas, wisdoms and so forth. Because one is
avoiding the clarity aspect of reality, these qualities then seem to be
provisional. From such a perspective, the clarity of the nature seems to
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

blend into the enlightened state.
All this misunderstanding happens because one makes a big
distinction between the emptiness and clarity aspects of the nature,
which are known as the two truths. Based upon this false distinction,
one perceives the nature as two completely separate entities and so
discriminates between them. One begins to refute the views of others,
debate, and attempt to establish one’s own discriminatory view. Thus,
one’s perspective becomes rough and choppy like the ocean, and one’s
view makes all sorts of noise, just like that famous beach in California.
What’s it called? Malibu! We once had the opportunity to spend the
night there, and everybody said, ‘How wonderful! How beautiful!’ But
it was very noisy!
Pith instructions always emphasize clarity (relative truth) and
wisdom (absolute truth) as united in an inseparable, indivisible state.
One cannot be separated from the other. Practitioners fortunate enough
to receive pith instructions from lineage masters who uphold authentic
traditions are truly blessed: They are not so troubled by extreme views
associated with the nature of tathagatagarbha, and so do not fall into the
extremes of either emptiness or appearance. Such practitioners should
absorb these blessings and nourishment into their hearts and fully
develop their realization by engaging in the pith instructions. Mipham
Rinpoche advises those who have received pith instructions to relax,
and remain untroubled by the relative and absolute aspects of the
nature. He directs his commentary to these fortunate beings.
D e f in it io n s o f R a n g t o n g a n d Sh e n t o n g
As many of you already know, Tibetan Buddhism has two
philosophical systems related with Madhyamaka:9 Rangtong and
Shentong. In a way, these two different schools of philosophy developed
based upon their understanding of tathagatagarbha, or buddha-nature.
Rangtong [rangstong] can be roughly translated as ‘self-emptiness.’Rang
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

means ‘self’ and tong means 'emptiness.’This school says that emptiness
is itself empty; therefore, the nature is ‘empty of self.’ From this
perspective, tathagatagarbha is seen to be self-empty. In contrast,
Shentong [gzhan sfong] can be roughly translated as ‘other-emptiness.’
Shen means ‘other’ and tong means ‘empty.’ So Shentong means ‘empty
of others.’ This school perceives tathagatagarbha as being there (i.e.
existent), but ‘emptied’ of the obscurations that cover the nature. Thus,
from the Shentong perspective, tathagatagarbha is not completely
empty—it exists, yet it is empty of the various obscurations.

Rangtongpas Explain Tathagatagarbha
Those who emphasize the Rangtong view explain that the Buddha’s
discourses on buddha-nature are provisional, or not absolutely true.
When asked why the Supreme Teacher mentioned buddha-nature at
all, the Rangtonpas reply that the Awakened One was actually referring
to the dharmadhatu,'0 or emptiness, when he used the word
‘tathagatagarbha.’ As such, from the Rangtong point of view
‘tathagatagarbha’ is just another word for ‘emptiness.’ If you then
question why the Buddha used the word ‘tathagatagarbha’ instead of
‘emptiness,’ the Rangtong school responds that he did so for five
different reasons, in order to help practitioners avoid five common
mistakes (errors) that would result from not knowing about
tathagatagarbha. We will briefly discuss these five reasons.
First,

the

Rangtonpas

explain,

the

Buddha

taught

on

tathagatagarbha to encourage practitioners to practice with joyful effort
and avoid becoming discouraged. With the belief that they were
inherently pure, students would think, ‘Oh, I have buddha-nature!
Therefore, I am going to work hard for my enlightenment.’ This inspired
individuals to continue along the path despite the hardships and
difficulties involved in spiritual practice.
Second, by explaining emptiness in terms of tathagatagarbha, the
Buddha was teaching practitioners to see each other as equals: Since
20

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

everyone has the same, inherent buddha-nature, all people are
absolutely equal, regardless of surface differences between them. This
kept students from harassing each other.
Third, the concept of tathagatagarbha is very beautiful—it explains
that all of us share this beautiful nature and possess many beautiful
qualities. So the Buddha used the word ‘tathagatagarbha’ as a synonym
for emptiness to demonstate that such beautiful qualities are not
permanent or inherently existent. That is, the Blessed One taught about
buddha-nature to demonstrate that all relative things—no matter how
beautiful or pleasing—are insubstantial and without essence. They are
empty appearances. In other words, the Buddha explained emptiness in
terms o f ‘tathagatagarbha’ to avoid negative emotions and
misunderstanding ^associated with clinging to pleasing illusory
phenomena as substantial).
Fourth, the Buddha taught about tathagatagarbha to help
practitioners respect and appreciate one another. According to this
Rangtong explanation, the

Glorious

Conquerer Shakyamuni

expounded upon buddha-nature to give his students a general
knowledge of goodness.
Finally, the Rangtongpas state that the Blessed one used the term
‘buddha-nature’ in place o f ‘emptiness’ so that his students would not
become jealous of one another. Because everyone shares the same
nature, there is no need for jealousy; everyone is absolutely equal and
everything is empty.
These are the five explanations offered by the Rangtong school to
rationalize why Buddha Shakyamuni taught about buddha-nature.
Actually, Maitreya himself compiled these five reasonings based on
different teachings of the Buddha, who often spoke about (the beautiful
qualities of buddha-nature). Maitreya simply put all these explanations
together in one place.
The Rangtong school states its criticism of the Shentong position in
the following way: ‘The way you view tathagatagarbha goes completely
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

against the Buddha’s doctrine! If you claim that buddha-nature
inherently exists, there is no difference between your position and the
Hindu conception of atman,1' which is also said to be solid and
permanent. According to your view, what is the difference between
tathagatagarbha and atman? Even though you call them by different
names, you are basically claiming that buddha-nature and atman are
the same thing.
‘Throughout his teachings, the Buddha never taught the true
existence of a self, or soul; therefore, your position contradicts the
teachings of the Blessed One. All the Buddha’s teachings on
tathagatagarbha are provisional. In contrast, the Rangtong view of self­
emptiness represents the definitive teachings (Tib. ngedon [nges don]) of
the Buddha. Thus, the Shentong position is not the ultimate view—it
is incorrect. You are holding on to a provisional teaching as though it
were absolute truth.’After saying this, the Rangtong school lists the five
different reasons we just mentioned. Briefly, the Rangtongpas teach that
tathagatagarbha is an authentic teaching of the Buddha, but it is not
the essential, definitive teaching, and therefore it is false.

Shentongpas Respond to Rangtong Criticisms
The Shentong school points out that the Buddha gave many
teachings on tathagatagarbha, and that— contrary to what the
Rangtong school argues— these teachings are actually definitive. From
the Shentong point of view, the Rangtong emphasis of self-emptiness is
itself provisional. To support their claim, the Shentongpas cite ten or
twenty Mahayana sutras in which the Buddha teaches that every
sentient being has inherent buddha-nature; Buddha Shakyamuni
explained buddha-nature in many different ways.
According to the Shentongpas, when the Buddha said that
‘Everything is emptiness,’ this was the real provisional teaching. In
response, the Rangtong school asks, ‘Then why did the Buddha teach
that everything is empty so many times?’The Shentong school answers
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

that the Supreme Teacher taught about emptiness so many times to
emphasize that the obscurations such as duality, grasping, hatred,
jealousy, and clinging are all empty and have no intrinsic existence. So,
the Tathagata repeatedly said ‘Everything is emptiness’ in order to
demonstate the emptiness of all dualistic fabrications and labels, (not
the emptiness of wisdom). The Buddha did not say there was no
tathagatagarbha.
In contrast to the Rangtong position that the nature is ‘self-empty,’
the Shentong school teaches that the clarity aspect of the nature is
perceived by a wisdom other than our present, dualistic minds.12
Although both Shentong and Rangtong schools acknowledge the five
wisdoms, four kayas, and various qualities related with realization,
Shentongpas emphasize these aspects—as well as the essence of
tathagatagarbha—a bit more. They ask the Rangtong school, ‘Who is
going to perceive these things (upon developing realization)? Our
present minds don’t recognize the nature of the five wisdoms and the
four kayas, so we currently understand them more theoretically than
experientially. But, on the ultimate level, who sees these things? It is
wisdom—enlightened wisdom—that perceives the various kayas,
wisdoms (and qualities of enlightenment).’
The Shentongpas continue: ‘If there were no buddha-nature, how
could beings become enlightened? If buddha-nature did not exist, no
amount of practice would lead to improvement and eventual
enlightenment.13Between ten and twenty sutras definitively state that all
living beings have innate buddha-nature. Also, it was not just the
Buddha who used many examples to show the truth of buddha-nature.
In his Collection of Praises, for instance, Arya Nagarjuna uses six
different metaphors to explain how all beings have inherent
tathagatagarbha.

Similarly,

Maitreya

and

Asanga14 express

tathagatagarbha using nine different examples. What these great
masters say proves that buddha-nature is a definitive teaching; it is not
provisional as you Rangtongpas claim.’ Once again, it is exactly because
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

we have buddha-nature that we can improve and develop, ultimately
reaching the enlightened state. This is why the Shentong school regards
the Buddha’s teachings on tathagatagarbha as definitive.
As you may already know, the two Buddhist philosophers
Nagarjuna and Asanga are great pillars of Mahayana Buddhism.
Nagarjuna explored the essence of Buddha Shakyamuni’s Mahayana
teachings with the guidance of Manjushri. Likewise, through the
guidance and pith instructions of Maitreya, Asanga also revealed the
essential teachings of the Mahayana. According to the general history of
Mahayana Buddhism, Nagarjuna and Asanga are supreme amongst all
Mahayana teachers who explored and brought forth the clarity of the
glorious Buddha’s teachings; no one is higher than these two great
masters.
Upon reading the different works and teachings of Nagarjuna and
Asanga, you will see that they have extracted the essence—including
every tenet—of the Sutra Mahayana teachings of the Awakened One. By
studying the texts of these supreme masters, you will clearly understand
the entire meaning of the Mahayana. Thus, the teachings of Nagarjuna
and Asanga are like keys that unlock the profound and essential
meaning of the Great Vehicle. This is why Nagarjuna and Asanga are so
renowned.

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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

P rovisional Versus D efinitive

The teachings given by the Buddha during his lifetime can be
divided into three groups of teachings, also known as the three turnings
of the wheel of Dharma. Among these turnings, some teachings are
provisional while others are definitive. Both the Rangtong and Shentong
schools agree that the first turning of the wheel of Dharma is
provisional—there is no disagreement there. However, both schools
disagree about the second and third turnings of the wheel of Dharma.
The Rangtongpas believe that only the second turning of the wheel of
Dharma is definitive; from their perspective, the and third turnings are
provisional. On the other hand, the Shentongpas believe that only the
third turning of the wheel of Dharma is definitive; from their
perspective, the first and second turnings are provisional.
Nyingmapas view the first turning of the wheel of Dharma as
provisional, which is in agreement with both the Rangtong and
Shentong positions. However, the Nyingma school also believes that
both the second and third turnings of the wheel of Dharma are equally
definitive. Why does the Nyingma school believe this? The answer
relates to what we mentioned earlier about Mipham Rinpoche’s
discussion of the emptiness and clarity aspects of the nature: For the
Nyingmas, the second turning of the wheel of Dharma emphasizes
emptiness, whereas the third turning emphasizes clarity. Since
emptiness and clarity are equal and inseparable aspects of the same
nature, they do not contradict each other, and so one cannot make big
distinctions between the two. For this reason, the Nyingma school
perceives both the second and third turnings of the wheel of Dharma
to be definitive, and thus does not consider the Rangtong and Shentong
views to be completely separate or mutually exclusive.
In this way, Rangtong and Shentong merge in the Nyingma school
without contradiction. On the one hand, Nyingmapas recognize the
25

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

truth of the Rangtong view, which explains the absolute nature as
emptiness. Hence they perceive the second turning of the wheel of
Dharma—the Prajnaparamita teachings that clarify the nature of
emptiness—as definitive. On the other hand, Nyingmapas also see the
third turning of the wheel of Dharma as definitive because it expounds
tathagatagarbha and the five wisdoms, four kayas, ten powers, and four
fearless states of enlightenment, otherwise known as the clarity aspect
of the nature. So clarity and emptiness are both the nature of mind, of
tathagatagarbha. This was pointed out and accepted by Mipham
Rinpoche as well as the great master Longchenpa.15In his Tegsum Dzo,
or Treasure of the Different Doctrines, Longchenpa explains that the
clarity and emptiness aspects of the nature are equally natural.

Valid Cognition, Prasangika and Svatantrika Madhyamaka
In order to bring forth the realization of both aspects of the nature,
the Nyingma school distinguishes between two true valid cognitions:
(1) valid cognition of relative truth and (2) valid cognition of absolute
truth. First, the valid cognition of relative truth is itself further
subdivided into ‘valid cognition of ordinary beings’ and ‘pure valid
cognition of realized beings.’ Ordinary valid cognition includes both
inference valid cognition and direct perception valid cognition; realized
beings do not rely on inference valid cognition, since they perceive
everything in the direct perception state. We will discuss these topics in
more detail below. Second, valid cognition of absolute truth can be
further classified in terms of ‘countable’ absolute truth and
‘uncountable’ absolute truth. Valid cognition of absolute truth ushers
forth the realization of the Rangtong view, or emptiness.16Both kinds
of absolute truth are included within ‘the valid cognition that clearly
and fully realizes emptiness,’ or the valid cognition of absolute truth.
Last year we discussed the dinstinction between Prasangika
Madhyamaka and Svatantrika Madhyamaka. Generally speaking,
however, there are no big differences between the two. While it is true
26

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

that both schools have different ways of explaining their positions, they
are not so different from each other. Followers of Svatantrika
Madhyamaka use the valid cognition of absolute truth that brings forth
realization of countable absolute truth, whereas followers of the
Prasangika Madhyamaka use the valid cognition of absolute truth that
brings forth realization of uncountable absolute truth. Rather than
explore ideas about absolute truth, the Prasangikas go directly to
uncountable

absolute

truth

itself.

Consequently,

these

two

Madhyamaka schools developed and are distinguished according to the
way they usher practitioners into realization of the true nature; this is
the real difference between them. However, followers of both schools
ultimately achieve the same realization of absolute truth. There is no
difference in that regard.
Once more, the Nyingma school does not see the Svatantrika and
Prasangika Madhyamaka schools as opposed to each other. Never­
theless, some schools of Tibetan Buddhism perceive the Svatantrika
view as a hindrance to developing the realization of Prasangika
Madhyamaka. Nyingmapas do not believe this to be true, since the only
difference between both schools is the way they lead disciples to an
understanding of absolute truth; ultimately there is no difference
between the realization of Prasangikas and Svatantrikas.
Generally speaking, the Nyingma school teaches two kinds of valid
cognition: Valid cognition of ordinary beings' and ‘pure valid cognition
of buddhas and bodhisattvas.' Both types of cognition are referred to as
Valid' because they are undeluded. The first kind of valid cognition
represents undeluded cognition of the present mind, including
cognition of the present moment of (1) eye consciousness, (2) nose
consciousness, (3) tongue consciousness, (4) ear consciousness, (5)
mind consciousness, and (6) body consciousness, or whatever. The
present, undeluded cognition of these consciousnesses is called ‘direct
valid cognition' or ‘direct perception valid cognition [mngon sum]?
which is included within valid cognition of ordinary beings.
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

Another kind of valid cognition included within the category of
valid cognition of ordinary beings is known as ‘inference valid cognition
[rges dpag]! This type of cognition is related with something we do not
experience with direct perception in this very moment; instead, such
cognition is based on inference. That is, we observe signs through direct
perception and then deduce something from our experience. Buddhist
texts often use the example of smoke and fire to demonstrate inference
valid cognition: Upon seeing smoke in the distance, we can infer the
presence of fire. This is just one example of inference valid cognition.
As we just mentioned, both direct-perception valid cognition and
inference valid cognition are included within the ‘valid cognition of
ordinary beings,’ or ‘ordinary valid cognition.’Even so, they bring forth an
understanding of deeper truths that we don’t normally see, such as the
nature of impermanence and the permanent instant state.17Even though
we don’t physically see impermanence, we can use ordinary valid cognition
to develop knowledge about it. For instance, we can see that phenomena
are impermanent because they exist in the instant state that is changing
moment to moment. In other words, we can deduce the impermanent
nature of relative phenomena by observing that they change.
Although ordinary valid cognition is useful for arriving are certain
types of understanding, it cannot receive a clear picture of high wisdom,
or tathagatagarbha. Thus ordinary valid cognition does not function
according to enlightened vision, nor does it experience authentic pure
perception—of the purelands, for example— or fully understand the
nature. So, what type of valid cognition perceives the nature exactly as
it is? Only the ‘pure valid cognition’ of enlightened beings and
bodhisattvas fully realizes the nature, since buddhas and bodhisattvas
are able to perceive the nature exactly as it is, utterly free from
obscurations. Their valid cognition is very different from our own,
which currently lacks the sharpness and clarity of pure valid cognition.
Consider the following example that illustrates the difference
between ordinary and pure valid cognition: The Vajrayana teachings
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

describe the five aggregates as the five male buddhas and the five
elements as the five female buddhas; this is how the various aggregates
and elements appear to the pure valid cognition of enlightened beings.
In contrast, because we currently experience ordinary valid cognition,
we do not see reality this clearly and so perceive only the gross forms of
the aggregates and elements. This is due to not having purified and
cleansed our obscurations.
To summarize, the Nyingma school talks about two kinds of valid
cognition: (1) ordinary valid cognition of mundane individuals and (2)
pure valid cognition of enlightened beings. These valid cognitions
perceive things quite differently even while looking at the same objects.
The same kind of relationship applies to the valid cognition of ordinary
humans and animals; although humans and animals may look at the
same thing, they perceive objects in a very different way.
Our ordinary valid cognition is not due to errors in the objects of
perception; rather, it results from our errors of knowledge as perceiving
subjects. As we purify these errors, we begin to see things clearly and
with pure perception. Normally, we see ourselves in our ordinary forms.
After purifying our obscurations, however, we will see ourselves
differently, recognizing the body as the mandala of the deities. Thus,
pure valid cognition can also clearly, precisely, and comfortably
recognize the Shentong view (of tathagatagarbha).
Even as the Nyingma school views the nature as ‘full’ of wisdom
and beautiful qualities, it also perceives the nature of tathagatagarbha
to be empty, as taught by the Buddha in his Prajnaparamita teachings.
For this reason, Nyingmapas do not make big distinctions between the
Rangtong and Shentong schools; since emptiness and clarity were
equally taught by the Awakened One, both are recognized as definitive
teachings. This was explained by Buddha Shakyamuni in the Heart
Sutra, when he said, cForm is emptiness, emptiness is form.>Buddha did
not say that form contradicts emptiness or that emptiness contradicts
form. Emptiness and form are inseparable. Although we cannot see
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

emptiness directly, it is inseparable from form, or phenomena. If this
were not the case, the world would not function at all. So the
phenomenal world functions because it is open, free, and empty:
Without emptiness and space the world would not work! This is why
the Nyingma school does not see a contradiction between the Rangtong
and Shentong positions, which emphasize emptiness and clarity,
respectively.
The Prajnaparamita, or Perfection of Wisdom teachings are some of
the Buddha’s most beautiful teachings. They explain that if one wants
to clearly perceive form, one must clear the mind. If the mind is clear,
form will be seen with clarity. Similarly, seeing form clearly indicates
that the mind is free from obscurations. When the mind is purified,
form will be purified; conversely, without purifying the mind, form will
not appear with clarity. To give an example, someone with cataracts will
not see the world accurately, because they will see different patterns and
objects floating in space. Once again, this has nothing to do with errors
of form (objects), but rather with the misperceptions of the perceiver
(subject). When the cataracts are removed, form is perceived more
clearly. In other words, we must clean and purify the mind, not external
objects. Since obscurations can be purified, the situation is hopeful!
The great Mipham Rinpoche explains that tathagatagarbha is the
essence of the Buddha’s teachings, being essential to both the sutras and
tantras. Provisional and definitive teachings are distinguished according
to Buddha Shakyamuni’s different teachings on tathagatagarbha.
Similarly, all Dharma teachings included within and following the third
turning of the wheel of Dharma come from the teachings on
tathagatagarbha. For instance, the Rangtong and Shentong schools—as
well as the Mind-Only school and Madhyamaka—all began with the
Blessed One’s discourses on buddha-nature. For these reasons, all the
teachings on tathagatagarbha are so important.

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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

Q u e s t io n s a n d A n s w e r s
Question: Could you give us specific advice on how to meditate on
conceptual emptiness (i.e. countable absolute truth) and nonconceptual emptiness (i.e. uncountable absolute truth)?
Answer: According to Madhyamaka, we first need to establish a strong
realization of the insubstantiality of phenomena. When we develop this
understanding through logic and valid cognition, we must maintain it
intellectually until it becomes very strong and stable. The great teacher
Tsongkhapa once said that if we have a precise and clear understanding
of the non-existence of phenomena, we must then apply a second
meditation, in which even the thought of the non-existence of
phenomena does not truly exist. By meditating in this way, we cease to
hold on to the mere idea of the emptiness of phenomena, releasing all
conceptions. In this way, when we let go of the thought of the ‘lack of
inherent existence,’ our meditation becomes a direct experience of
uncountable absolute truth.
The great Shantarakshita spoke of countable absolute truth and the
idea of the absence of substantial, inherent existence. He asked, ‘If
countable absolute isn’t really absolute—since it is still an idea—why is
it called ‘absolute’ at all?’ The master then answered himself: ‘It is the
closest we can get to describing absolute truth. This is why we call it
‘absolute.” Again, the strong realization of emptiness, or even the
thought of the complete insubstantially and interdependence of
phenomena, can eventually lead us to the understanding that since birth
does not exist, cessation does not exist, either.
To maintain the thought of the lack of inherent, substantially solid
existence is very suitable, acceptable, and comfortable to intellectual
mind. But we must release even this notion to experience uncountable
absolute truth. The great Sakya master Gorampa explained that is very
difficult for beginning practitioners to understand uncountable
absolute truth, which is beyond the four extremes. He taught that such
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Ratigtong & Shentong Views

practitioners should begin with the notion of countable absolute truth
and progressively refine their understanding in order to arrive at a direct
realization of the true nature. This kind of practice is based upon a
more intellectual approach.
In contrast, the Vajrayana offers many powerful techniques to
quickly bring about realization, including Mahamudra and Dzogchen;
all we have to do is apply the pith instructions of the glorious Dzogchen
and Mahamudra teachings. Rather than examine the many subjects,
objects, and theories of meditative investigation, we immediately target
our own minds with meditation. We look to the mind and ask, ‘Where
is this mind? Does it exist? Does it not exist? Where is it going? From
where does it arise?’ When we really start to examine these topics, we
begin to perfectly reveal the essence of the Madhyamaka teachings
within the unique state of our own minds. Then we can comfortably
relax and meditate in the truth nature. This is when we instantly arrive
at the heart of Madhyamaka teachings on uncountable absolute truth.
In the higher Dzogchen teachings and in the practice of
Mahamudra, we don’t take any long detours; we connect directly with
the heart of practice and relax in that state. Mipham Rinpoche offers the
example of looking into the clear blue sky: We simply gaze directly into
the sky and there is nothing to see. Similarly, upon looking directly into
mind, even though mind may be moving, this movement itself instantly
dissolves. There is nothing substantial to find. Relax in this state with
full confidence and devotion, and the innate nature will be revealed,
exactly as it is. This is the rapid path to direct realization of uncountable
absolute truth.
Let us briefly discuss the Mind Only school of Buddhism, which is
a very high philosophical tradition. In general, there are no big
differences between Prasangika Madhyamaka and the Mind Only
school. However, Prasangikas criticize the Mind Only school for
focusing too intently on the notion of mind, claiming that adherents of
Mind Only cling to the idea of subtle mind as substantial and solid. But
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

this refutation is incorrect—it is obvious that absolute truth is
countable and that mind is ultimately free of duality. Both Prasangika
Madhyamaka and the Mind Only school use solid logic and reasoning
to support their views. The Mind Only school identifies three
characteristics of knowledge: (1) exaggeration, or labeling (kuntag); (2)
powers of others (zhen wang); and absolute existence (yongdrup).
According to Mind Only, absolute existence is the original nature, free
from exaggeration. The way this is posited by the Mind Only school is
slightly different from that of Madhyamaka.
The term ‘exaggeration’ o r ‘labeling’ refer to all the names and titles
we impute upon externally existent, mentally fabricated objects. Why do
we refer to kuntag as exaggeration? Because if we were to look closely at
the things we label, we would find that such things are not substantially
existent. They have no independent, core existence. And who is it that
perceives this exaggeration? It is none other than mind itself. None of
the things we see or discuss exist outside of mind, since everything we
experience is labeled and reflected within mind.
The ‘other power’ of mind, or zhen wang, creates this exaggeration.
But whether we are talking about the exaggeration itself or the other
power of dualistic mind, upon close examination we will find that
neither is substantially existent. This lack of a core existence is not a
newly-developed concept, but is actually inherent as our original
nature. It is the way things originally are, the absolute nature, emptiness,
or yongdrup. According to Prasangika Madhyamaka school, this other
power of mind and exaggeration are relative truth, whereas the original
nature is absolute truth. Thus, the Mind Only school is one of the great
philosophical systems, very close in view to that of the Shentong School
of Tibetan Buddhism.
Of the four principal Buddhist philosophical schools—Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Mind Only, and Madhyamaka—Madhyamaka is
usually considered to be foremost. However, renowned masters such as
Chapa Chokyi Senge and Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen would reverse this
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

ranking, placing Mind Only as the foremost and ranking Madhyamaka
as the fourth and last school. These masters described the Mind Only
school as the ‘Yogachara school of absolute Madhyamaka.’ Truly,
Tibetan Buddhists consider Mind Only to be a very special school. As
Mipham Rinpoche and Shantarakshita explained, just as a chariot needs
two wheels to function properly, we cannot simply state which
philosophical system is more important than the other. Both
Madhyamaka and Mind-Only schools emphasize slightly different
concepts in order to explain the nature of existence. Still, when it comes
to applying the teachings in practice, both systems merge into one single
state. So it is impossible to say which school is greater, and neither
school contradicts the other. This is the principal Nyingma view, as
taught by Mipham Rinpoche and other great lineage masters.

Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

F u r t h e r P r o v is io n a l a n d D e f i n i t i v e T e a c h in g s
The title of the text we are currently discussing is the Tongthun
Senge Ngaro, the Lion’s Roar That Explains Tathagatagarbha. In this text
Mipham Rinpoche explains the difference between ‘definitive’ and
‘provisional’ (i.e. ‘interpretive’) meaning teachings, and Buddha
Shakyamuni taught about this important distinction many times. We
will nowr explore this subject in a bit more detail.
Once more, ‘provisional’ and ‘definitive’ are known as drangdon
[drang don] and ngedon [nges don] in Tibetan. I have sometimes seen
drangdon translated as ‘interpreted meaning,’ or ‘meaning that can be
interpreted.’ Drang means ‘leading’ or ‘inspiring,’ while don is ‘meaning.’
Hence drangdon can be translated as ‘meaning that inspires and leads
others.’ In Sanskrit, it is called neyartha. On the other hand, ngedon
means ‘definitive meaning,’ or ‘meaning that cannot be changed.’ It
refers to the flat, solid, direct meaning of something. I have sometimes
seen ngedon translated as‘definite meaning’ o r‘ultimate meaning.’This
is referred to as nitartha in Sanskrit.
The two terms ‘drangdon’ and ‘ngedon’ come from the Buddha’s
Mahayana teachings, including the Samadhi Raja Sutra, known in
English as the Noble King of Concentration Sutra [‘Phags pa ting nge ‘dzin
rgyal po’i mdo]. In this and other teachings, the Glorious Conqueror
Shakyamuni explained, ‘The teachings of tathagatagarbha should be
understood in terms of the Sutra That Explains the Definitive Meaning!
This means all teachings on emptiness are definitive, or ultimate,
teachings. To the contrary, teachings that speak about the lives of
individual beings, rebirths, and so forth should be known as provisional
teachings. So, teachings that explain wisdom, emptiness, and the kayas
are all definitive; those that explain the aggregates, consciousnesses,
dhatus, elements, and existence and nonexistence are all provisional.
Buddha Shakyamuni himself explained the difference between
provisional and definitive teachings in the Mahayana sutra known as
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shmtong Views

the Lodro Mizepe Sutra— ox Inexhaustible Knowledge Sutra [bio gros mi
zad pas (pa'i) zhus payi mdo]— named after the bodhisattva Lodro
Mizepe who requested it. In this sutra the Buddha asks himself, ‘Which
are definitive teachings and which are provisional teachings?’ He then
answers: ‘Sutras that inspire individuals to the path are provisional,
whereas sutras that explain the ultimate result, or fruit, are definitive.’
The Awakened One continues, saying, ‘Those sutras explaining
individuals, feelings, life-force, and so forth should be understood to
be provisional meaning teachings. Those sutras explaining unceasing
emptiness beyond characteristics, expectations, and birth should be
understood to be definitive teachings.’
These distinctions were summarized by the great master Nagarjuna
in his Collection of Praises, in the section known as Praise to the
Inconceivable Meaning. Nagarjuna said,‘Teachings that explain emptiness
are definitive and teachings that explain birth, death, and cessation are
provisional.’ Likewise, the Omniscient Longchenpa summarized the
difference between provisional and definitive teachings in the following
way: ‘Whatever teachings describe the authentic nature of the ultimate
truth are definitive meaning teachings. Whatever teachings inspire
individuals to realize this nature are provisional teachings.’ Finally,
Mipham Rinpoche concludes, ‘Teachings that appear to have
contradictions and can be refuted by valid cognition are provisional.’
Many other masters describe provisional and definitive teachings
according to the explanations of Maitreya and Asanga: In the
JJttaratantray these two great masters teach that whenever there are
several different ways to interpret the teachings, they should be known
as provisional. Actually, Buddha Shakyamuni actually predicted the
coming of Asanga, who he said would make the decisive, clear
distinction between provisional teachings and definitive teachings. So,
in a way, Asanga was appointed to clarify which teachings are definitive
and which are provisional. This is a general overview of the meaning of
drangdon and ngedon.
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

T h e F o u r I n t e n t io n s o f P r o v is io n a l M e a n in g
In the Sutra Alankara [theg chen mdo sde rgyan]ywritten down by
Asanga, Maitreya explains, ‘The Buddha had four different intentions
when he gave provisional teachings.’ Here I am translating the Tibetan
word gongpa chen as ‘intention,’ but it can also be translated as ‘four
different ways of thinking about’ or ‘four different thoughts.’ In any case,
provisional teachings of the Buddha were given according to four
intentions: first is ‘thinking of equanimity’; second, ‘thinking of some
other purpose or meaning’; third, ‘thinking of other times’; and four,
‘thinking of the individual’s intentions.’ But how are we to interpret
these ‘intentions’?

1. Thinking of Equanimity
Let us begin with the first intention called ‘thinking of equanimity.’
In one particular sutra, the Awakened One states, ‘Once upon a time,
countless aeons ago, when I was born as Buddha Namparzik [mam par
gzigs]...’ What is the meaning of this statement? Buddha Shakyamuni
supposedly reached enlightenment under the bodhi tree in Bodhgaya,
so why is he talking about his past life as Buddha Namparzik? Isn’t this
contradictory? According to Asanga and Maitreya, Buddha was thinking
about equanimity. Thus, he was describing his own absolute realization
and understanding as identical to that of Bu ddha Namparzik, since, on
the absolute level, there is no difference between the two. This is an
example of a provisional meaning teaching based upon the thought of
equanimity.
Throughout Mahayana Buddhism in India and Tibet, many great
masters have given wonderful instructions on the distinction between
provisional and definitive teachings. Today we are using the
commentary by the great translator Lochen Kawa Paltsek, who was one
of the twenty-five disciples of Guru Padmasambhava. Kawa Paltsek
lived in Tibet during the 8th century, along with other great translators
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Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views

such as Vairochana, Chokro Lui Gyaltsen, and Shang Yeshe De. All of
these beings were known as ‘emanated translators/ or great enlightened
beings who intentionally took birth in Tibet in order to bring forth the
Buddha’s teachings in the Land of Snows and translate the Dharma into
the Tibetan language. Kawa Paltsek wrote many famous books, but one
of his most famous is known as Cho kyi gyebsen [chos kyi brjed byang],
or Unforgettable Teachings of Dharma, In this book, he explains that
Buddha said, ‘Once upon a time, when I was Buddha Namparzik,’
because both buddhas share the same wisdom, realization, capabilities,
accumulation of merit, and absolute nature. For this reason, the Buddha
Shakyamuni’s statement is an example of the provisional ‘intention of
equanimity’ or ‘thought of equanimity.’

2. Thinking of Other Times
The second intention is called ‘thinking of other times.’ Several
Mahayana sutras claim that the ignorance and obscurations of a person
who hears or recites the name of a buddha will be dispelled. For
instance, many teachings explain that reciting the mantra of
Avalokiteshvara or Amitabha even a single time will completely purify
all obscurations. The teachings really say this. Nevertheless, all of us
know that reciting a mantra one time does not fully dispel our
obscurations! Of course we can accept that it is possible, but this doesn’t
usually happen from reciting a mantra one time, one hundred times, or
even one thousand times! [Laughter.] This example demonstrates
‘thinking of other times,’ since continually reciting and practicing on a
mantra will eventually purify the obscurations. In other words,
practicing in this way will ultimately lead to enlightenment. Therefore,
Buddha gave this teaching while thinking of other times in order to
encourage joyful effort and inspire individuals to practice.

3. Thinking of Some Other Meaning
The third intention is called ‘thinking of some other meaning.’
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Examples of this kind of intention include the statements call
phenomena are emptiness’ and ‘there is no form, no eye, no ear, no
nose, no tongue, no body, and no m in d ...’ But the Buddha was not
ignoring relative truth when he said these things. Rather, he was
describing phenomena according to absolute truth. Even though he was
talking about conventional reality, or phenomena, the Buddha gave
these teachings while thinking of another meaning—the absolute level
of reality. So these two examples show the third intention, which is
‘thinking of some other meaning.’

4. Thinking of the Individual’s Intentions
The fourth intention is called ‘thinking of the individual’s
intentions.’ In some teachings, for example, the Blessed One explained
that ‘Generosity is not so important; morality is (more) important.’And
why did Buddha say this? He said it because some individuals were
grasping to the practice of generosity while ignoring the other
paramitas. Or, conversely, Buddha Shakymuni would ignore the
paramita of morality and instead emphasize the other paramitas—such
as tolerance, patience, and generosity—explaining that these are the
most important. He did so in order to uproot extreme views and the
narrow intentions of individuals. Therefore, this fourth intention is
mainly directed to individuals, who often grasp on to one aspect of
practice and ignore others, thus becoming neurotic and extreme. In this
way, the Buddha sometimes emphasized certain practices over others to
reduce the strong ego-clinging and emotions of living beings.
T h e F o u r Ju n c t i o n s
Next, we will discuss the ‘four junctions,’ or the ‘four swingingmeaning’ teachings also given by Maitreya and Asanga in the Sutra
Alankara. These are known as dempor gongpa [Idem por dgongs pa] in
Tibetan. Dhenpor means ‘swinging’ in Tibetan. We will list these before
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exploring them in detail: first, jugpa demporgotigpa [gzhugpa Idem por
dgongspa]; second, tsenyi demporgongpa [mtshan nyid Idempordgongs
pa]; third, nyenpo demporgongpa [gnyen po Idem pordgongs pa]; fourth,
gyurwa dempor gongpa [bsgyur ba Idem por dgongs pa], Jugpa is
translated from Tibetan as ‘entering’ or ‘ushering,’ tsenyi as ‘character­
istics,’ nyenpo as ‘antidote,’ and gyurwa as ‘changing.’ The expression
‘dempor gongpa’ is added after these words.

1. The Swinging-Meaning Teaching of Ushering
We will start with an example of the first swinging-meaning
teaching, jugpa dempor gongpa, which ushers beings to the path. Long
ago, during the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, some Jain devotees visited
the Buddha. They were so impressed with him that they soon took
ordination, becoming as his disciples. However, the Jains had never
questioned the Buddha about his doctrine—they assumed he agreed
with what they learned in Jainism, believing that he taught the same
thing. One day the Jains asked the Supreme Teacher about atman, the
eternal soul. Although the Buddha taught ‘no-self,’ the Jains had never
doubted the doctrine of atman. So they started questioning him: ‘Is
atman permanent or impermanent? Is atman one with the aggregates
or separate from them?’ The Buddha’s new disciples only asked him
questions related with the notion of a permanent self. He responded,
‘There is atman which is inexpressible: It cannot be explained.’ Under
these circumstances, the Buddha taught the existence of atman. Had he
immediately taught ‘no-self,’ the former Jains would have become
terrified and reversed from the path. To avoid this, the Buddha taught
the existence of a self that cannot be explained.

2. The Swinging-Meaning Teaching of Characteristics
The second swinging-meaning teaching is called tsenyi dempor
gongpa, or the swinging-meaning teaching of characteristics. This is
similar to the third intention we just described, which is ‘thinking of
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some other meaning.’ For example, thinking about the absolute level
the Buddha said, ‘There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, etc.’ This
means all labels and signs are empty—they are without intrinsic
existence. On the other hand, when teaching from the relative
perspective, the Buddha taught that phenomena do exist.

3. The Swinging-Meaning Teaching of Antidotes
The third swinging-meaning teaching is called nyenpo dempor
gongpa, the swinging-meaning teaching of antidotes. Sometimes people
make distinctions between different noble beings, saying, ‘Oh, this
buddha is good’ or ‘That arhat is good.’ In order to avoid such
distinctions, the Buddha taught, ‘All buddhas are the same. All
bodhisattvas are the same. All arhats are the same. All phenomena are
the same.’The Blessed One gave these different teachings as an antidote
to the clinging and neurotic tendencies of sentient beings. This third
dempor gongpa is an antidote for beings who grasp to labels and
distinctions.

4. The Swinging-Meaning Teaching of Change
The fourth swinging-meaning teaching is called gyurwa dempor
gongpa, the swinging-meaning teaching of change. We can also
translate this as ‘teaching whose meaning changes.’ Again, sometimes
people cling to words, grasping on to labels and names. To cou nter this
tendency, the Buddha gave teachings whose meaning can change. For
example, in one sutra the Blessed One stated, ‘Father and mother should
be killed. The king, ministers, and kingdom should be destroyed.’ Here,
the Awakened One was using a metaphor that should not be taken
literally. He didn’t mean that we should actually kill our parents! This
teaching was also in the Dharmapada. Tibet has a work similar to the
Dharmapada called the Tsom [ched du brjod pa’i tshoms)ywhich is a
collection of basic Buddhist teachings.
But what is the meaning of these metaphors? ‘Father and mother
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should be killed’ refer to the fact that the root, or source, of taking birth
in samsara is attachment and clinging. Based upon these obscurations,
karmic activity continues to function. Thus, the habit patterns of
grasping and clinging are like parents that continually produce samsara.
In this case the Buddha is teaching us to destroy and remove our
attachment and clinging, since they result in karmic activities and the
subsequent accumulation of negative karma. This is the true meaning
of this quote.
When the One Thus Gone said, ‘The king, ministers, and kingdom
should be destroyed,’ he was obviously using another metaphor. In this
case, ‘king’ refers to the alaya,18 or subconscious storehouse, and
‘ministers’ or ‘subjects’ refer to the five or six senses, consciousnesses,
and mental events. Again, this means we have to remove the habit
patterns of grasping and clinging to subject and object. An individual
who succeeds in releasing and removing this grasping will be cleansed
and purified, no longer dominated by negative karmic tendencies. In
both of these examples, we must change the words to discover the
meaning of what has been said. Once more, this is known as gyurwa
dempor gongpa, or ‘changing swinging-meaning.’

The Four Reliances
As we mentioned earlier, Mipham Rinpoche explained that
teachings whose meaning and intention can be refuted by valid
cognition are provisional. Accordingly, if a teaching contradicts valid
cognition, its meaning is not ultimate. Buddha Shakyamuni himself
said that we should analyze his teachings as though carefully examining
gold to determine its quality. This is why we must study, contemplate,
and meditate upon his teachings in order to discover their deep
meaning. For this reason, he taught the ‘four reliances’ in the Sutra of
Inexhaustible Knowledge, or Lodro Mizepe Shupai Do, named after the
bodhisattva Lodro Mizepe who requested it. The Tibetan world for
‘trust’ or ‘rely’ is tonpa [rton pa]. In these sutras, Buddha Shakyamuni
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explained, ‘We should rely on the teachings in four different ways.’ First,
we should not trust or rely on individuals, but instead rely on the
teachings. Second, we should not rely on the words of Dharma
teachings, but instead rely on their meaning. Third, we should not rely
on the provisional meaning of the teachings, but instead rely on the
definitive meaning. The fourth reliance is based upon two types of
definitive meaning: definitive meaning as it is understood by conceptual
mind and definitive meaning as it is understood by wisdom mind. So,
fourth, we should rely on the definitive meaning with wisdom mind
rather than conceptual mind. These four reliances have been taught by
many different Buddhist masters throughout history.

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Three R easo ning s That Establish
Bu d d h a -nature

We will now return to the great Mipham Rinpoche’s Tongthun
Senge Ngaroy which mostly discusses buddha-nature. Mipham
Rinpoche continues his text by asking, ‘What proof do we have that
every living being has buddha-nature?’ He responds that there are two
kinds of proof: scriptural proof, or the spoken words of the Buddha,
and proof based upon valid cognition.
Regarding scriptural support, there are at least ten or twenty
Mahayana sutras in which Buddha Shakyamuni explains that every
living being has inherent buddha-nature, without distinction or
difference. The essence of these sutras was summarized in a condensed
form in the Gyu Lama— or Uttaratantra—by the Future Buddha,
Maitreya, and Asanga.
Regarding valid cognition support, three reasonings establish
innate buddha-nature in all living beings. First, all beings have innate
buddha-nature because ‘buddha-nature is emanating.’This can also be
translated as,‘It can be proven that buddha-nature, or the dharmakaya,
emanates.’ Put differently, all living beings have buddha-nature because
they can improve and actualize the teachings. Second, all beings have
innate buddha-nature because ‘the nature is equal to all beings.’ Third,
‘Every living being has inherent buddha-nature.’ Finally, ‘Therefore, all
living beings have buddha-nature.’ These three points are all based on
teachings given by the Buddha.19

Other Schools and the Three Points
To establish buddha-nature through valid cognition, Mipham
Rinpoche states, ‘I will now explain how the great masters of other
schools of Tibetan Buddhism interpret these three points. Afterwards,
I will explain how our system of Tibetan Buddhism perceives these
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reasonings/ When Mipham says ‘our system,’ he is referring to the
Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism—we are Nyingma, so it is our
school! [Laughter.]
We will begin by describing how others explain these statements.
The philosophers of Tibetan Buddhism can be divided into two groups:
the early philosophers and the later philosophers. The early
philosophers lived from around the 11th century to the 13th century.
During this time, Tibetan Buddhism had many great masters, including
those who attended Sangphu Monastic University.
Before explaining how others interpreted these statements, we will
explain their meaning in a bit more detail. In Tibetan, the first point in
the Uttaratantra that establishes buddha-nature is ‘Dzogsangkun ni trul
chir dang [rdzogs sngas sku ni (phrolphyir dang]! Dzogsang means samyaksamhuddha in Sanskrit, and is translated into English as ‘perfectly, fullyenlightened buddha.’This first point states that the samyak-sambuddha’s
body is emanating. I am translating the Tibetan as ‘emanating.’ So, ‘The
perfectly, fully-enlightened Buddha’s body is emanating.’
The second point that establishes buddha-nature is ‘Debzhin nyi
cher me chir tang \de bzhin nyid dbyer med phyir dang]! Debzhin nyid
means ‘suchness,’ though earlier I translated it as ‘true nature.’ The full
English translation of this point is ‘suchness has no distinctions,’ o r‘the
true nature has no distinctions.’
The third point that establishes buddha-nature iscRigyo chir na [rigs
yod phyir na]! The Sanskrit word for rig is gotra, which I am translating
as ‘buddha-nature.’ It can also mean ‘caste’ or ‘race.’ Hence, ‘Every living
being has inherent buddha-nature.’ These are the three principal
statements which establish that every living being has buddha-nature.
The fourth point is the conclusion: *Lu chen kun ten tu satigye
nyingpo chen [lus chen kun rtag tu sangs rgye snyingpo cen]! ‘Therefore,
all living beings always have buddha-nature.’
Mipham Rinpoche now explains how the early philosophers
understood these points. How did they interpret the first statement,
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‘The perfectly, fully-enlightened Buddha’s body is emanating’? They
interpreted ‘body’ to mean the ‘dharmakaya body’ or the ‘wisdom body’
of a fully-enlightened buddha, explaining that this wisdom body is
pervasive to all subjects and all objects. Therefore, ‘The wisdom body—
or dharmakaya body—of a fully-enlightened buddha emanates to all
beings.’ As for the second point, the early philosophers interpreted the
statement ‘suchness has no distinctions’ to mean ‘emptiness has no
difference’ (i.e. emptiness is undifferentiated). The third point states
that ‘Every living being has inherent buddha-nature.’ However, the early
philosophers of the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism translated this
as, ‘Every living being has the potential (to achieve enlightenment),’
meaning that buddhahood can develop from this ‘potential.’
In general, the early philosophers did not explain these specific
points in detail, whereas they elaborated quite a bit on other parts of the
Uttaratantra. This has been a brief summary of how Mipham Rinpoche
explains the interpretation of the early philosophers.

Mipham Rinpoche Refutes the Other Schools
Now Mipham Rinpoche will establish his own view, which is that
of the Nyingma school. In a way, he is going to refute the ideas put forth
by the other schools.
First, he says, ‘Stating that ‘the wisdom body of the buddha is
pervasive to everyone’ does not really make a strong case that all beings
have inherent buddha-nature. Why? Because it does not prove that all
beings have innate buddha-nature. Overall, everyone agrees that the
Buddha’s enlightened wisdom is all-pervasive; but this does not mean
all beings to whom the Buddha’s wisdom emanates will become
enlightened as a result. Simply because a buddha knows something will
not result in instantaneous enlightenment for all sentient beings—this
is not really the case. If you say, ‘The Buddha’s wisdom body is pervasive
to everyone,’ you are talking about individual sentient beings and
asserting that they, too, have wisdom bodies. Yet, how can you say that
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unenlightened sentient beings have wisdom bodies? We are not sure
when all sentient beings will achieve fully-developed wisdom bodies.
Thus, since ordinary sentient beings have not yet actualized their
wisdom bodies, how can one logically assert that ‘wisdom bodies’ are
pervasive to everyone? Merely saying that the Buddha’s wisdom body
emanates to all beings does not prove that everyone will attain
enlightenment.’
In summary, the Buddha’s all-pervasive wisdom does not make
everyone attain enlightenment. Furthermore, ordinary sentient beings
do not yet have wisdom bodies, so how could their wisdom emanate to
other beings? Neither of these cases make much sense.
Once again, the second point in the Uttaratantra is that ‘suchness
has no distinctions,’ which the early philosophers interpreted as
‘emptiness has no differences; it is undifferentiated.’ Mipham Rinpoche
comments: ‘If you explain the second point in this way, you are thinking
about ‘countable emptiness,’ or blank, dull emptiness. But blank
emptiness does not prove perfect buddha-nature.’20
The third point in the Uttaratantra states, ‘Every living being has
inherent buddha-nature.’ This was interpreted by the other schools to
mean that ‘every living being has the potential (to achieve
enlightenment).’ Mipham Rinpoche refutes this interpretation in the
following way: ‘Perhaps you think buddha-nature is as a seed that
gradually sprouts, like a grain or plant. From this perspective, there is
nothing now (i.e. sentient beings do not presendy have buddha-nature),
but instead sentient beings gradually develop (buddha-nature) until
achieving buddhahood through practice. This does not make any
logical sense. If there is only‘potential’ right now, you are talking about
vague, blank emptiness. But how can anything develop from
uncompounded blank emptiness? Compounded things can change, but
uncompounded, blank emptiness is unchanging. Therefore, holding
such a view does not make sense and has little meaning.’
Mipham Rinpoche continues his refutation: ‘If others claim that
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‘because nothing exists substantially or solidly, therefore (buddhanature) can be developed,’ this also does not make much sense. It is true
to say that if mind were permanent it could not change or develop, since
something permanent cannot change. But stating that mind is not
substantially solid does not lead to certainty that everyone will develop
buddha-nature and thus achieve enlightenment. For example, all these
stones, mountains, and the earth are also empty; they do not exist
solidly and they are not permanent or intrinsically existent. Yet who
can establish that all these rocks will achieve enlightenment?
‘If you respond, ‘Oh, no, we don’t mean that! We mean if one
meditates and concentrates on emptiness, or dependent origination,
one will achieve enlightenment,’ this reasoning is also incorrect. By
focusing only on emptiness, or the interdependence of phenomenal
existence, one will not remove the knowledge obscurations.21 Everyone
agrees that in order to remove these knowledge obscurations, we need
to accumulate both wisdom merit and accumulation merit. The
knowledge obscuration can only be purified by combining the
accumulation of these two merits. For these reasons, vague and blank
emptiness is not tathagatagarbha. If this were the case, Shravakas and
Pratyekabuddhas would have become fully-enlightened buddhas based
upon their realization of emptiness.22The state of omniscience is only
realized by removing the knowledge obscurations. Blank emptiness has
no intelligence. Hence, even though one may discover blank emptiness;
it would not improve one’s wisdom because blank emptiness has no
wisdom, no intelligence (and no enlightened qualities).’

Establishing the Nyingma View
After refuting the interpretations given by the early philosophers of
the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Mipham Rinpoche establishes
the view of the Nyingmapas. Take the first statement, for example—that
the wisdom of a fully-enlightened buddha can emanate. Of course
Buddha Shakyamuni achieved enlightenment, but upon what basis did
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he do so? He achieved enlightenment on the basis of buddha-nature.
Mipham Rinpoche comments on this point: ‘Let us look at Buddha
Shakyamuni himself as an example. The fact he attained enlightenment
proves that we, too, can attain enlightenment.’ But where did the
Buddha’s enlightenment come from? It came from buddha-nature. In
this way, Buddha Shakyamuni is the ultimate result of buddha-nature;
put otherwise, buddha-nature is the cause of his enlightenment. Mipham
Rinpoche explains: ‘The fruit proves the cause. Thus, the fruit of
enlightenment comes from the cause, or seed, that is buddha-nature.’
This is how Mipham Rinpoche responds to the first topic.
Mipham’s reasoning is based on the fact that Buddha Shakyamuni
was an ordinary being, once upon a time. Through his practice and
meditation he realized buddhahood, which is the result that proves
every living being has tathagatagarbha. This reasoning is an example
o f ‘true inference valid cognition’: By observing the result, one brings
forth knowledge of its cause. We can use any fruit or flower to illustrate
this type of valid cognition. For instance, by examining the fruit (result),
we can judge the seed. Similarly, the seed of a fruit is the potential
(cause) that gives rise to the development and result of the fruit itself.
In the same way, the seed of a flower has the potential of the flower.
This inference valid cognition actually applies to everything we see
in front of us; all phenomenal appearances are results that were preceded
by causes. It is not as though the causes (of these phenomena) resulted
in the exact displays we see right now, but, rather, we can infer that causes
similar in nature came before. As we said earlier, through smoke we can
infer fire. Look at these paintings, for example. We can guess that they
were produced by an artist. To prove this true inference valid cognition
at the level of Tibetan Buddhist debate, Mipham Rinpoche says, ‘All
living beings have buddha-nature, just as past buddhas, bodhisattvas,
and arhats had the potential to achieve enlightenment.’ He continues,
‘This is the essential view of Asanga and Maitreya.’
Such is Mipham’s explanation of the first topic, that all beings have
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tathagatagarbha ‘because the wisdom bodies of the buddhas are
emanating.’ In other words, ‘The fact that all these enlightened beings
exist is proof that every living being has inherent tathagatagarbha.’ Since
this is the case, we all have to realize enlightenment just like Buddha
Shakyamuni and the others—this is what the Buddha taught!
There is an interesting story about Drukpa Kunley, the great crazy
wisdom yogi. One day Drukpa Kunley visited the cathedral of Jowo
Rinpoche— the famous statue of Buddha Shakyamuni—in central
Tibet. Upon seeing it, he said, ‘In the beginning, you and I were equal.
But through your joyful effort you achieved enlightenment. Due to my
own laziness, however, I am still wandering in samsara. So today I
prostrate and pay homage to those diligent individuals who achieved
enlightenment through their joyful effort.’

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W h a t is B u d d h a

N ature?

In general, we all have a basic understanding about what buddhanature is. Still, we should ask ourselves, ‘What is buddha-nature, reallyV
There is a story in ancient Tibet about a young monk who joined a
monastery and lived there for many years. One day he said, ‘I never
really figured out what lineage this monastery belongs to. What is our
lineage?’ [Laughter.] As we study and discuss tathagatagarbha, we
should make sure to investigate what it actually is.
Tathagatagarbha is the nature of our minds—in a way, we practice
because of it. As Mipham Rinpoche states at the beginning of the
Tongthun Senge Ngaro, ‘Tathagatagarbha is the essential meaning of both
sutra and tantra.’ The nature of mind is the union of emptiness and
compassion, and this emptiness is pervasive to all subjects and objects.
Emptiness encompasses everything. In contrast, compassion is very
personal and individual, as it is unique to each and every living being.
Yet, compassion is also connected with mind; the nature of compassion
is emptiness, since emptiness is pervasive to all subjects and objects.
Sometimes we hear the term ‘absolute bodhichitta,’ which is
another name for tathagatagarbha. There is no real difference between
the two. Absolute bodhichitta means compassion and emptiness are an
inseparable unity, without discrimination. Realizing and maintaining
this awareness is known as ‘absolute bodhichitta.’
And what is ‘relative bodhichitta?’ Once more, it is the compassion
aspect of buddha-nature. When we speak of ‘compassion,’ we are
emphasizing the relative quality of buddha-nature without focusing too
much on the emptiness quality. The teachings often speak of
compassion as ‘the clarity aspect of the nature of mind’ or the
‘outreaching aspect of the nature of the mind.’ This is the kindness that
radiates outward to others as well as ourselves.
Tathagatagarbha is known by many names. For example, in
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addition to ‘absolute bodhichitta,’ it is also called the ‘Mother of All the
Buddhas,’ or ‘Prajnaparamita/ This indicates that the nature of
tathagatagarbha is free from all complexities and categories. To bring
forth this clear realization, it is called ‘prajnaparamita,’ literally‘wisdom
that goes beyond/ Subject, object, and all categories are transcended in
prajnaparamita, Therfore, it is inconceivable. Tathagatagarbha is free
from existing and non-existing, as well as etemalism and nihilism. In
order to clearly express this quality of freedom from extremes, it is also
named ‘Madhyamaka’ [dbu ma\ or ‘Middle Way/ The Vajrayana
teachings sometimes refer to this as ‘Mahamudra’ [phyag rgya chertpo]y
which is literally translated as ‘Great Seal’ or ‘Great Gesture/ This
metaphor illustrates that everything is completely sealed by the nature
of great emptiness. Great emptiness saturates and encompasses all
subjects and objects, so nothing is beyond or outside this state. It is very
important for individuals to practice on emptiness and compassion in
union, because, again, tathagatagarbha is the inseparable state of great
emptiness and great compassion.
The Dzogchen teachings and the Higher Tantras use slightly
different terminology to explain buddha-nature. They call it the
‘inseparable union of pure from the beginning and spontaneously
inherent qualities/ The Tibetan names for these qualities— pure from
the beginning and spontaneously inherent richness—are Kadak Trekcho
and Lhundrup Togal, respectively. But where do Kadak Trekcho and
Lhundrup Togal meet? They meet in the single state of one’s own
awareness, which is known as ‘rigpa/ Consequently, ‘rigpa’ is another
term for tathagatagarbha. Finally, Dzogchen speaks of the ‘self­
luminosity of awareness,’ or the ‘self-born luminosity of awareness/ Ail
of these are different names for tathagatagarbha.
By whatever name, buddha-nature is inherent in all living beings
without partiality or difference. Regardless of what forms we take and
what challenges we undergo, all of us have inherent buddha-nature; at
this level, there is not even the slightest difference between the buddhas,
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ourselves, and all other sentient beings. Everyone has the same buddhanature. The reason why all of us can improve and develop through
practice is because we all have this beautiful nature. Practice makes
perfect, ushering forth the fully-perfected state according to the level
of our practice and our circumstances.
The Uttaratantra uses different names for beings at different levels
of development: there are ‘sentient beings,’ ‘bodhisattvas,’ and
‘buddhas.’But these titles do not indicate something permanently
existent. Instead, they point to the way individuals discover the beautiful
nature. Beings that have not yet discovered the nature are known as
regular ‘sentient beings’; beings that are in the process of discovering
this nature are known as ‘bodhisattvas’; and beings that have completely
discovered this nature are known as ‘buddhas.’
In the Vajrayana, one can practice on many different deities.
However, the practice of any deity will reveal, polish, and glorify the
wonderful buddha-nature we all have inherited. For example, the Sakya
school has the‘Three Appearances,’ or the ‘Three Continua.’Again, this
teaching describes how individuals begin to perceive external objects.
One of its categories is called the ‘time of impure perceptions’ and is
therefore known as ‘heavily obscured tathagatagarbha.’ When buddhanature is obscured, our perceptions are very dull and impure. As we
begin to purify and remove our obscurations, thereby revealing our
buddha-nature, our external perceptions— the way we perceive
objects—begin to change. The Sakya school describes three different
types of perception: (1) impure perception, (2) half-and-half
perception, and (3) very pure perception. As we mentioned earlier,
normal sentient beings have impure perceptions. Bodhisattvas and
practitioners on the path have mixed perceptions. And buddhas, those
who have completely purified all their obscurations and fully revealed
their buddha-nature, have completely pure perceptions. The way
buddhas and sentient beings perceive reality is completely different; one
is completely pure while the other is impure.
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The Vajrayana teachings use many different techniques to reveal
the nature of tathagatagarbha, including the three Outer Tantras and
the three Inner Tantras.23Each of these practices emphasizes the clarity
aspect of buddha-nature, and through this clarity we begin to reveal
the innate nature—the inseparable union of clarity and emptiness. One
such practice is meditating on the deity, which is actually a practice on
buddha-nature.
T h r e e T u r n in g s o f t h e W h e e l o f D h a r m a
When the Buddha first turned the wheel of Dharma, he began with
the foundation teachings of the Hinayana, gradually progressing
through the additional yanas (literally‘vehicles’) of the Mahayana and
Vajrayana. In these initial foundation teachings, the One Thus Gone
gave very brief teachings on tathagatagarbha, without explicitly
mentioning the word ‘tathagatagarbha.’ As he continued to turn the
wheel of Dharma, the teachings became more clear, more profound,
and more detailed. This is how the yanas progress. But what is the
difference between the various yanas? We have a saying in Tibetan: ‘sal
je dzog sum,’ which is a condensed form of the terms salwa [gsal ba],
jepa [rgyaspa]y and dzogpa [rdzogspa]. Salwa means ‘clarity,’ or ‘clear.’
]epa means ‘detailed’ or ‘more elaboration.’ And dzogpa means
‘completed.’ So each of the nine successive yanas is more clear, more
detailed (i.e. more elaborate), and more complete than the previous
yanas; the second yana is more elaborate and clear than the first, the
fourth is more elaborate and clear than the third, and so on, all the way
up to the teachings of Dzogpa Chenpo, the ‘Great Completion.’ These
are called ‘Great Completion’ teachings because they clearly and
completely reveal the clarity of the nature. Everything is elaborately and
fully mentioned. Therefore, Dzogchen fully describes the nature of
tathagatagarbha and all the Buddha’s teachings in a very clear and
detailed way.
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First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma
Examining the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma—the first,
second, and third—we see that the Buddha never mentions
‘tathagatagarbha' in the first turning. In these teachings, he mainly
explains causes, conditions, and their effects. Put differently, he explains
how things are in samsara. This turning emphasizes the nature of
samsara, the causes of samsara, and how to go beyond samsara and
avoid its troubles and difficulties by removing its causes. Still,
throughout his initial explanations of the different techniques to
overcome ignorance and achieve the awakened state, or liberation, the
Blessed One never mentioned ‘tathagatagarbha.' Rather, he explained
that the result of samsara is the ‘Truth of Suffering.' Then he showed
how this suffering does not come by itself, but is based upon causes and
conditions. The second foundation teaching is known as the ‘Truth of
the Cause of Suffering.' Suffering is rooted in karma and emotions. As
as result of these emotions (which are causes), we perform all kinds of
activities. These activities and their effects then reflect back to ourselves,
and the chain reaction continues.
In addition to teaching about suffering and the causes of suffering,
the Awakened One taught the path that leads to freedom from suffering.
He explained that in order to become free from suffering we should
practice the Dharma. The very foundation of Dharma practice is to stop
grasping to one’s own self as real—that is, to stop grasping to the ego
and the notion o f‘I.’ The many different emotions arise due to clinging
to ourselves. This is why Buddha Shakyamuni said, ‘There is no T and
no ego.' Briefly, the practice of selflessness along with the other teachings
is known as the ‘Truth of the Path.'
By continually practicing on the absence of a self, the absence of
an ‘I,' we naturally begin to reduce and dissolve the density of the
afflictive emotions such as anger, attachment, jealousy, and selfimportance. As these emotions dissolve, we are not so involved with
them and thus we begin to feel more expansive, calm, and peaceful.
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Eventually we achieve nirvana, which is the ‘Truth of the Result of
Following the Path.’ This has been a brief summary of the foundation
teachings, or the first turning of the wheel of Dharma.

Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma
The principal purpose of the second turning of the wheel of
Dharma is to remove and uproot the grasping and clinging of sentient
beings. Grasping and clinging are the main sources of the hindrances
and difficulties in samsara. In order to remove and uproot these
negative habits, the Buddha immediately and directly taught the nature
of emptiness. It is often said that the Buddha expounded emptiness
beginning with form (such as the body and objects) and leading all the
way up to the enlightened state. He said, ‘Everything is emptiness:
Samsara is empty, the path is empty, and nirvana is empty.’ By teaching
about emptiness, the Supreme Teacher reduced the grasping of sentient
beings and revealed the naked nature as it is; he explained the nature
of reality.
As you all know, this nature was not made up or created by the
Buddha. He was simply pointing out the natural state, introducing us
to the way things are. The nature itself is empty, and therefore emptiness
is behind every object of perception. Nothing exists in a substantial or
solid way. When the Buddha began to explain emptiness exactly, he
started with the Prajnaparamita teaching known as the ‘One hundred
and eight different ways that Buddha pointed out emptiness.’
Consequently, the emptiness aspect of buddha-nature, or tathagatagarbha, was explained in the second turning of the wheel of Dharma.

Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma
When the Glorious Conqueror Shakyamuni revealed the emptiness
quality of the true nature in the second turning, he did not give a
complete description. In the third turning of the wheel of Dharma,
however, Buddha distinctly mentioned tathagatagarbha—the clarity
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aspect of the true nature—which is love, compassion, and wisdom.
These teachings clearly describe the many unique qualities of clarity
inherent in the beautiful nature of the mind. Many different Mahayana
sutras from the third turning of the wheel of Dharma present extensive
details about tathagatagarbha. In fact, there are between ten and twenty
renowned sutras, or even more, that explain buddha-nature. We will
name a few here.
The first is known as Phagpa Dongpo Kodpai Thegpa Chenpoi Do
[Phags pa sdong po bkod pa'i thegs pa chen po’i mdo]. Thegpa chenpo
means ‘Mahayana.’Actually, all of these sutras are Mahayana teachings.
And do means ‘sutra’ in Tibetan. Phagpa—or arya in Sanskrt—is ‘noble.’
Dungpo means ‘trunk,’ like the trunk of a tree. And kodpa means
‘display’ or ‘formation.’ So we can translate this as the Mahayana Sutra
of the Display or Formation of the Noble Trunk of the Tree.
Second is Phagpa Dezhin Shegpai Nyingpoi Doy [Phags pa de bzhin
gshegs pa'i snyingpo'i mdo]. Again, phagpa is ‘noble’ and do is ‘sutra.’
You can add thegpa chenpo, or ‘Mahayana’ to the title, but you don’t
have to. Therefore, this title is translated as the Mahayana Sutra That
Explains the Noble Tathagatagarbhay or the Mahayana Sutra That
Explains the Essence of Buddha-nature.
Third is Paldring Senge Drayi Do [dPalphretig senge sgra yi mdo]. In
English, this is the Mahayana Sutra o f the Noble>Glorious Garland of
the Lion's Roaryand in Sanskrit it is Shri Mala Simhanada Sutra. This is
a very renowned, beautiful teaching. I saw an English translation of it
long time ago, maybe based on a Chinese version of the text.
Fourth is Sangye Phalpo Che Yi Do [Satigs rgyasphalpo cheyi mdo].
This is called the Noble Avatamsaka Sutra in English. It is a big text with
many chapters and sections. In ancient times, the Noble Avatamsaka
Sutra was called the Ornament of Ears.
Fifth is Nyangan Le Depai Do [Mya ngan las ‘das pa'i mdo]y or the
Noble Mahaparinirvana Sutra.
Sixth is Phagpa Sormoi Dringwai Do [cPhagspa sor mo'iphrengba'i
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mdo], the Noble Garland of Fingers Sutra. You have probably heard the
story of Angulimala, who was a very strong fighter. During the time of
the Buddha, Angulimala killed nearly one thousand people. Buddha
subdued him, preventing him from committing more negative activities
and accumulating more negative karma. As a result, the former killer
was ordained as a disciple of the Blessed One and eventually became
an arhat. This sutra was requested by him.
Seventh is Lhamo Palung Tenpai Do [Lha mo dpal lung bstan pa’i
mdo], the Predictions About the Lady Pal or Shri. The Awakened One
gave this teaching to a woman, or lhamo (literally ‘divine lady’)
predicting that she would become a buddha. He also gave teachings on
buddha-nature in this sutra.
Eighth is Phagpa Lankar Shegpai Do f'Phags pa lang kargshegspai
mdo], the Noble Lankavatara Sutra. This sutra is named after the
teachings given by the Buddha in Sri Lanka.
Ninth is Phagpa Tingnezin Gyalpoi Do ['Phags pa ting nge ‘dzin rgyal
po’i mdo], the Noble Samadhi Raja Sutra, or the Noble King of
Concentration Sutra.
Finally, the tenth sutra that explains buddha-nature is called Phagpa
Chenrezig Wangchuk Gyalpoi Shupai Do (‘Phagpa spyan ras gzigs dbang
phyug rgyal po’i zhuspa’i mdo], the Sutra Requested by Avalokiteshvara.
We have mentioned the names of just a few sutras that explain
buddha-nature, or the clarity aspect of the nature, but there are many
more. For instance, the Sutra Requested By Pumo Rinchen, or Pumo
Rinchen Gi Shupai Do [Bu mo rin chen gyis zhus pa’i mdo], also describes
buddha-nature. Pumo means ‘daughter’ or ‘girl’ in Tibetan, so she must
have been a young woman when she requested this teaching from the
Buddha. Finally, the two sutras called Jampal Nampar Rolpai Do ['Jam
dpal mam par rol pa’i mdo], the Sutra Requested By Manjushri, and the
famous Lotus Sutra both discuss tathagatagarbha. Actually, there two
lotus sutras: (1) the Holy, Unsurpassable Teaching on the White Lotus
[Dam pa’i chospad ma dkarpo’i mdo]; and (2) Compassion Teachings on
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the White Lotus [sNyingrjepad ma dkar po’i mdo\. The Precious Teacher
taught about buddha-nature in so many sutras; all these texts await you
on the second floor of the gonpa!24
Whereas the sutras we just discussed represent the Buddha’s
teachings on the clarity aspect of the beautiful nature of m