Shentong is a philosophical sub-school found in Tibetan Buddhism. Its adherents generally hold that the nature of mind, the substratum of the Mindstream, is "empty" (tong; Wylie: stong) of 'other' (shen or zhän; Wylie: gzhan), i.e., empty of all qualities other than an inherent, ineffable nature.
The contrasting Rangtong view of the followers of Prasaṅgika Mādhyamaka is that all phenomena are unequivocally empty of self-nature, without positing anything beyond that.
According to a Shentongpa (proponent of Shentong), the emptiness of ultimate reality should not be characterized in the same way as the emptiness of apparent phenomena because it is prabhāsvara-Saṃtāna, or "clear light mental continuum," endowed with limitless Buddha qualities. It is empty of all that is false, not empty of the limitless Buddha qualities that are its innate nature.
There is no officially accepted view of Shentong in Bon and most apparently not in New Bon. Great Madhyamaka can mean many things according to the different schools.
When dealing with Great Madhyamaka, authors like Dechen Lingpa do not point to the Shentong view, they actually seem to point to a much Geluk-oriented view.
I have seen only one occurrence of Shentong in a work by Ratön Kelzang Tenpai Gyeltsen, but it's in a description of the natural state according to Tantras.
For him, Shentong applies best to the Tantric view of the natural state, whereas rangtong remains the standard view of Madhyamaka for Bönpos.
Interpretation of the Madhyamaka texts which emphasized that shunyata was not merely a negative concept, but should be understood as a positive non-dual awareness which could be directly perceived by yogic practitioners.
Closely linked with the yogic tradition and tantric practice.
The main Shentongpa tradition, the Jonangpa, was suppressed for some centuries by the Gelukpa regime in Central Tibet, who held the opposite (rangtongpa) view, but it was revived by the Rimé teachers in the 19th century.
gzhan stong - to put it very simply: whereas the view of rang stong asserts that relative phenomena and appearances are empty (stong) of a self-nature (rang), the gzhan stong view asserts that the ultimate is empty (stong) of any phenomena other (gzhan) than itself [TSD]
chos rje kun mkhyen dol po pa chen po - proponent of Shentong [RY]
jo nang - Jonangpa. The lineage of masters of the Shentong School who were known by their monastery at Jomo Nang. They include Yumo Mikyö Dorje, the founder of the school, Tukje Tsöndrü, Dölpowa Sherab Gyaltsen and Taranatha [RY]
'jigs med chos skyong zhabs - expounder of Shentong according to the rigs tshogs of Nagarjuna [RY]
gzhan stong - Shentong. An aspect of the Madhyamaka School in Tibet focusing on emptiness indivisible from luminosity, asserting that the kayas and wisdoms of buddhahood are naturally present within the sugata essence [RY]
gzhan stong dbu ma - the Shentong Madhyamaka School [RY]
gzhan stong smra ba - proponent of Shentong [RY]
rang stong - Rangtong. An aspect of the Madhyamaka school in Tibet focusing on emptiness devoid of inherent existence. Compare with Shentong [RY]
Shentong (also, zhäntong; ), is literally "other-emptiness", i.e., [[emptiness]of other]].
Great Mādhyamaka: a qualification and disambiguation
Pettit (1999: p. 113) qualifies and disambiguates "Great Mādhyamaka" and mentions Ju Mipham, Longchenpa, Prasaṅgika Mādhyamaka, Tsongkhapa and coalescence:
Extrinsic emptiness is also referred to as "Great Mādhyamaka" (dbu ma chen po), a term that appears frequently in Mipham's works.
This term can also be misleading, because dbu ma chen po does not refer exclusively to extrinsic emptiness.
Klong chen pa and Mipham use it to refer to Prasaṅgika Mādhyamaka, because it emphasizes the nonconceptual ultimate, which they understand as the principle of coalescence. Tsongkhapa also uses this term in passing, for example, in the colophon of his dBu-ma dgongs-pa rab-gsal.
Shentong: a heterogenous tradition
Burchardi (2007: p. 1) opens her foray with a sound introduction, cited herewith, that promises of a future richness and texture in Shentong dialectical discourse in English:
Descriptions of gzhan stong are frequently encountered in the context of polemical discourse, where it stands in contradistinction to rang stong.
Some scholarly attention has been paid to the historical context of the controversies involving prominent gzhan stong masters and their writings.
But so far the attention given to the actual differences of interpretation of the term gzhan stong in its various hermeneutical and philosophical contexts has been quite limited in non-Tibetan publications – limited, that is, when we consider the extent of primary sources available in Tibetan.
The earliest Shentong views are usually asserted to have been presented in a group of treatises variously attributed jointly to Asanga and Maitreya, especially in the treatise known as the "Unsurpassed Continuum" (Uttaratantra Śāstra), and in a body of Mādhyamaka treatises attributed to Nāgārjuna.
The first exposition of a Shentong view is sometimes attributed to Śāntarakṣita, but most scholars argue that his presentation of Mādhyamaka thought is more accurately labeled “Yogācāra-Svatantrika-Mādhyamaka".
It is generally agreed that a true Shentong view was first systematized and articulated under that name by Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltsen, an originally Sakya-trained Lama who joined the Jonang school with which Shentong is strongly associated.
However, the 11th century Tibetan master Yumo Mikyo Dorje, a student of the Kashmiri scholar Somanatha, was possibly the first Tibetan master to articulate a Shentong view, after his experiences during a Kalachakra retreat.
The Seventh Karmapa Chodrak Gyamtso (1454–1506), and the Sakya scholar, Sakya Chokden (gSer-mdog Pan-chen Sa-kya mChog-ldan, 1428–1507) were also important proponents of a Shentong view.
In the Jonang tradition, "Tāranātha [1575-1635] is second in importance only to Dolpopa himself.
He was responsible for the short-lived renaissance of the school as a whole in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and of the widespread revitalization of the Zhentong theory in particular."
After the suppression of the Jonang school and its texts and the texts of Sakya Chokden by the Tibetan government in the 17th century, various Shentong views were propagated mainly by Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lamas.
In particular, the 8th Tai Situ Rinpoche (Situ Paṇchen Chökyi Jungné (Si-tu Paṇ-chen Chos-kyi 'Byung-gnas) (1700–1774)) and Katok Tsewang Norbu (Kaḥ-thog Tshe-dbang Nor-bu) (1698–1755), close colleagues and Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lamas respectively, were very instrumental in reviving Shentong among their sects.
Also instrumental was Situ Panchen (1700–1774), senior court chaplain in the Kingdom of Dêgê, a student of Norbu.
According to The Buddha from Dolpo of 2003, "[i]n the end it would be Situ more than anyone who would create the environment for the widespread acceptance of the Zhentong theories in the next century.
This revival was continued by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, a 19th century ecumenical (rimé) scholar and forceful exponent of Shentong. Shentong views were also advanced recently by the eminent Kagyu Lamas Kalu Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche.
Shentongpas (those who hold a Shentong view) consider their position to be the rarefied expression of Mādhyamika.
They hold that this view is the fruit of direct meditative experience and not realised through the path of conceptual understanding nor scholarship.
In light of that, they posit that Rangtong is expedient for individuals who approach Dharma primarily through philosophical studies, whilst Shentong is a means of support for the meditation-oriented practitioner.
Technical language: twilight language
When speaking of the emptiness of mind's ultimate nature, Shentongpas often use renderings of ösel (Wylie: hod-gsal; od-gsal; Sanskrit: prabhāsvara) such as "luminous clarity," "luminous awareness," "the clear light nature of mind," and so forth to characterize their experiences. Such language is often employed in Dzogchen expositions as well.
Shentong and Rangtong: a continuum, a coalescence
Fundamental Wisdom (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) by Nāgārjuna, 13.8 has:
śūnyatā sarvadriṣṭīṇām proktā niḥsaraṇam jinaiḥ
yeṣām tu śūnyatādṛṣṭtis tan asādhyan babhāṣire
All the Buddhas have said that emptiness
Definitely eliminates all viewpoints.
Those who have the view of emptiness
Are said to be incurable.
Shentongpas often present themselves as Rangtongpas as well, asserting they see the two views as a complementary unity, a continuum, a coalescence.
This coalescence of Shentong and Rangtong, praxis and ideology, fulfills and leavens the "Middle Way" of the Mādhyamika dialectic and counters extreme views that are anathema to the Middle Way.
This coalescence may fall into a fallacy of the reification of the middle and through a nomenclature, yielding to ideation and objectification.
Hence, to robustly secede from this extreme philosophical fallacy and the lure of objectification, this coalescence is nonetheless empty (Sanskrit: śūnya) though it has a positive value and ineffable signification that does not succumb to the extreme of nihilism: i.e., empty of emptiness; a fecund, fullness: the indivisible unity of emptiness and form as per Nāgārjuna.
H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, a celebrated Nyingma Lama of the 20th century, asserts:
The Madhyamaka of the Prāsaṅgika and the Svātantrika is the coarse, outer Madhyamaka.
It should indeed be expressed by those who profess well-informed intelligence during debates with extremist outsiders, during the composition of great treatises, and while establishing texts which concern supreme reasoning.
However, when the subtle, inner Madhyamaka is experientially cultivated, one should meditate on the nature of Yogacara-Madhyamaka.
Criticisms and controversies
Arguments concerning fine points of Mādhyamaka tend to be complex and difficult to understand, let alone to summarize pithily.
The terms of Mādhyamaka are understood differently by different schools, adding to the confusion.
It is therefore beyond the scope of any general overview to present the technical dimension of the argument in detail.
However, a historical context for the argument may be helpful.
Shentong views have often come under criticism by followers of all four of the main Tibetan Buddhist schools, but particularly by the Gelug.
The “Shentong-Rangtong distinction” is a dichotomy that Gelugpas and some Sakyapas generally do not utilize.
“Exclusive Rangtongpas", as the contemporary western Kagyu scholar S.K. Hookham would call them, have claimed that Shentong views are inconsistent with the basic Mahāyāna teaching of emptiness (śūnyatā) because Shentongpas posit an absolute.
They sometimes label Shentong Mādhyamaka "eternalistic Mādhyamaka".
Gyaltsab Je and Khedrub Je, two of Gelug founder Je Tsongkhapa’s primary disciples, were particularly critical of the Shentong views of their time.
The great fourteenth century Sakya master Buton Rinchen (1290-1364) was also very critical of Shentong views.
Among Kagyupas and Nyingmapas, the noted 19th century Nyingma Lama Ju Mipham wrote works both supportive and critical of Shentong positions, as did the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje.
The contemporary western Kagyu scholar Karl Brunnhölzl argues that there is no such thing as “Shentong Mādhyamaka,” but rather that orthodox Yogācāra philosophy (when understood properly) is entirely compatible with Mādhyamaka, and therefore Shentong is not a novel position.
He argues that Yogācāra has often been mischaracterized and unfairly marginalized in Tibetan Buddhist curricula.
Burchardi, Anne (2007). A Look at the Diversity of the Gzhan stong Tradition. JIATS, no. 3 (December 2007), THDL #T3128, 24 pp. © 2007 by Anne Burchardi, IATS, and THDL. Source: http://www.thdl.org/collections/journal/jiats/index.php?doc=jiats03burchardi.xml&s=d0e287 (accessed: Sunday August 17, 2008)
Roger Jackson.(2007) The Great Debate on Emptiness: Review of The Essence of Other-Emptiness by Taranatha and Mountain Doctrine:Tibet’s Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha Matrix by Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen in Buddhadharma, Summer 2007 p. 75-76
Tāranātha, Jetsun (2008). The Essence of Zhentong. Translation based upon the ‘Dzam thang edition of the 'Gzhan stong snying po'. Jonang Foundation’s Digital Library: Ngedon Thartuk Translation Initiative. Source: http://www.jonangfoundation.org/files/jf_snying%20po_final.pdf (accessed: Sunday August 17, 2008)
Karl Brunnholzl, The Center of the Sunlit Sky: Madhyamaka in the Kagyu Tradition, ISBN 1-55939-218-5
Ven. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, Rimpoche. Progressive Stages Of Meditation On Emptiness, ISBN 0-9511477-0-6
S. K. Hookham The Buddha Within, SUNY Press, ISBN 0-7914-0358-0
Jeffrey Hopkins (translator); Kevin Vose (editor) : Mountain Doctrine:Tibet’s Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha Matrix. Snow Lion, Ithaca (2006). - a translation of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen's Ri chos nges don rgya mtsho.
Pettit, John Whitney (1999). Mipham's Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection. Boston: Wisdom Publications (1999). ISBN 0861711572. NB: contains a complete translation of Mipham's 'Lion's Roar Proclaiming Extrinsic Emptiness' (Wylie: gZhan stong khas len seng ge'i nga ro)
Cyrus Stearns. The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. State University of New York Press (1999). ISBN 0-7914-4191-1 (hc); ISBN 0-7914-4192-X (pbk)
Taranatha (auth.), Jeffrey Hopkins, (trans.) The Essence of Other-Emptiness. Wisdom Books (2007). ISBN 1559392738
Brunnholzl, Karl. Luminous Heart: The Third Karmapa on Consciousness, Wisdom, and Buddha Nature Snow Lion Publications 2009.
Translation of Lion's Roar of Extrinsic Emptiness by Mipham Rinpoche, translated by John Whitney Pettit
The Buddha Within by S. K. Hookham
Scholarly disquisition on The Buddha Within
An exposition of the two truths by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rimpoche