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Posts tagged ‘Emptiness’


on bustin’ up sacred cows like piñatas and re-envisioning our frames of reference…

cow pinata

A participant and fellow traveler on the journey created by the new class on Buddhist Tantra which recently set sail from New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center suggested that I write a blog post to explore and refute the analysis of how the Madhyamaka view arose in India as presented by Ronald M. Davidson in his book, Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement.  Davidson essentially posits that the middle-way position demonstrated by the Madhyamaka was borne out of dialectical necessity in response to the intellectual climate of the time, a possible influence by Greek Skepticism, as well as an environment of competition for support and patronage of various Hindu and Buddhist schools of thought.  In all of its slippery middle-way dynamism the Madhyamaka won out for it’s virtually unknowable evenness, and for entering the realm of epistemology as a means of defending Buddhism from the attacks of Hindu philosophers.  Socially and historically, Davidson’s position seems to make sense- he paints the picture of a time in which it seems very possible that at the very least the social dynamics at play in that moment helped the Madhyamaka position gain the favor that it did.  Davidson’s book seeks to present the development of Indian Esoteric Buddhism through the lens of social history- as such it is not surprising that he would make this argument.  That said, Davidson’s argument does stand at odds with the prevailing description of the rise of the Madhyamaka as presented within the standard histories found within the various lineages of Himalayan Tantric Buddhism as well as larger Mahayana literature.  My friend’s discomfort and sense of irritation makes sense.  I still remember sitting opposite the Buddhist scholar Christian Wedemeyer eighteen years ago when I was an idealistic twenty year old one morning for breakfast at the YWCA in Delhi when he told me for the first time that there we probably many Nagarjunas. Oh, the strange and irrational discomfort that coursed through my being during that meal.

Yet, when we look more closely, this kind of reaction is not so surprising.  There appears to be a rich and wonderfully marbled lump of meat to be found between the bones of standard orthodoxy and those of deeper investigative analysis, meat that can sustain us, that we can offer up towards deeper practice, meat that we can offer to the yidams the dakas and dakinis as well as the dharmapalas and the members of their entourage.

The meat of fear, of anger and pride, made fatty and nutritious through the habits of wanting to be good, to succeed and not wanting to look at the inconsistencies that may exist within our own personal integration with our theology is delicious!  What delicacy!

Sherpa Butterfly Effect

This still warm flesh, smelling of iron and mineral sustenance, salty and thus not unlike the tears remaining after a possible breakdown related to examining our sacred cows, our idolized notions and our addictions to squeaky clean reductive perfection is a nutritious meal.  These salty tears and the wondrous tear-ducts that offer a seemingly endless supply are the source of vital ornamentation when we finally notice how much we have taken for granted our lineage, the patchwork of terms- the words and lines of thought- that we feel the need to project upon ourselves rather than looking to see if we can find them within ourselves.

Seldom do we take the time to dissect what we have within us as we explore the fantastic and wonderful structures that we seek to force upon everything around us.  It is rare that we can hold the skin of our identity-within-our-practice pinned back, open, revealing all of that which drives us to want to transcend, or transform things, including aspects of ourselves that we cannot accept.  Even more rare are the times when we can see how calcified our hearts have become by the thick hard fat of self-righteousness, how tired and inflamed our organs may have become through our stubborn dogmatism, our desire to make clouds solid, our attempts to etch history into titanium so as to make it last forever, or to try to crystallize the warm breath of the dakinis into objects we can own.


It isn’t often that we can remain in one place, to rest in being vulnerable and insecure, and to wonder about why it is that we believe what we do, or to even allow ourselves the room to wonder what it is that we believe.  What of the frequency of how often we can explore the deep dark color of our faith in relation to our belief, vital and essential, like the gelatinous marrow within the bones we often neglect?  What else do we neglect, or even worse, choose to neglect?  How often do we shut down our curiosity with the logic that coming to some kind of certainty within our own practice isn’t possible without first achieving realization?  What does the term realization really mean?  What shape, color, or size does realization take?

blood emptiness

What of the warm sticky blood of our own realization that courses through our vajra-body~ the essence of mantra, an ambrosial essence that is nothing but the bliss-heart of Vajrasattva, the stainless mind of expansive non-referential space?  Can we acknowledge it as we move through the appearance of time and the appearance of space, or will we banish it to some point-yet-undetermined that we call ‘the future’?

I can’t say whether Davidson is right or wrong.  I can’t say that there was only one Nagarjuna who lived for hundreds of years or many Nagarjunas who penned works in a continuum of growth and inquiry inspired by a previous personage.  But I am coming to appreciate that somewhere between the truth of historical fact and the skillful means of magical story that inspires and kindles the flame of deep seated dharma practice, resides a powerful tension.  Within this place of tension the friction of building ourselves up and letting ourselves fall to pieces, over and over again leaves us naked, exposed within a curious intimacy with what arises around and within us.

What may be most important is the blissfulness of the songs of birds, the kind compassion of the lama who appears as the people we meet in our lives, the breath that fill our lungs and the appreciation that there isn’t really anything to learn, memorize or integrate.  Perhaps all we need to know is that Nagarjuna lives in us as much as he may have lived and breathed in the early days of Buddhist Tantra.

In an essay on Gods and Titans within the context of archetypal psychology, James Hillman wrote of the danger of the over interiorization that we have applied to the larger symbols that the Gods represent within the human psyche.  He urges us to respect these Gods as real forces that are a part of us, just as we are expressions of them; when we only look at them in an overly deep, individual, supremely personal manner we commit acts of violence towards them as well as to our larger function within the outer world- perhaps we could call that world the world of appearance- the display of phenomena around us.  His warning reminds us of the importance of simultaneously holding both the inner as well as the outer; the literal and the interpreted, the mythic and the ‘real’ (as in ordinary).  To fall into one or the other is to lose our balance and inadvertently kill a god, to kill our ordinary selves as well-springs of wisdom, or our histories and the way that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas arise within us.  It is a delicate dance, a dance of heart and mind, of wisdom and compassion, of inner flow and understanding.


It may very well be that the Madhyamaka arose as a revealed treasure through the wisdom and skill of Nagarjuna, and it arose in relation to competing view points.  In this manner, perhaps it arose interdependently within the frame of reference of Nagarjuna and his spiritual practice as well as the intellectual/political/cultural milieu of the day.  How can we separate the two, why do we need to, and when do suppress one at the expense of the other?  Sometimes we try to de-emphasize the ordinary in exchange for the mythic, other times we neglect the expansive essence-oriented vastness for what we may feel is more pragmatic.  Either way both views on their own miss the mark, both create terrible violence and suppression.  A powerful question may remain: how can we hold both?  How can we remain open to not knowing the answer, and rather remain as the answer?  How can we let the sacred cows go to pasture and do what they will while resting into arising as natural expressions of timeless Buddha-nature, perhaps the essential form of the cow-heard?

Within us is a powerful source of origin of all of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and dharmapalas, as well as all of the beings of the six realms of existence.  We are the simultaneity of the action and the doer, the very continuum that we think that we need to effect to make clearer, more pure, and more tantric.  I pray that we can know each one of these rich meaty bits within the context of a smiling awareness and settle into them in a way that reflects them in all of their vast perfect purity in the worlds that we find our-self passing through.  In this way, may we seek new heights as well as new depths and understand that there may not be much difference between the two other than the labels that we assign to them.




Rangjung Dorje, the 3rd Karmapa, on Ordinary Awareness and Pristine Awareness…

I find this treatise by the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, very clear and expressive in its description of the view as it relates to the nature of the qualities of our awareness.  It is also an excellent example of the depth of experience that Rangjung Dorje established and familiarized within himself.

As is pointed out in the first footnote to the translation, this text presents the shengtong  view (emptiness of other) as it relates to the emptiness of mind/phenomena.  This view, while similar to aspects of the Yogachara approach as laid out by Asanga and Maitreya, is a Madhyamaka (middle way) view.  The central point of orientation of the shengtong view is that while the mind is empty of any inherent self-nature, there is a quality of luminosity, the infinite Bhuddha-nature quality that is innate to the mind.

Some claim that a view like this is eternalist, and therefore incorrect as it suggests that since there is some kind of quality that the mind has, it cannot therefore be empty of inherent self-nature. This is the rangtong view; it is a view in which the mind is found to lack any particular nature or inherent characteristics.

While there is currently, and has been in the past, a great deal of debate around this matter (to put it mildly), perhaps these two perspectives are two sides of the same coin.  The rangtong view, simple and bare bones, seems to suggest the general theory of the Madhyamaka school, for lack of a better word.  It might be posited that the shengtong view arose, and still has currency through and around the experience of meditation, especially buddhist tantric meditation.  Indeed, I wonder what Nagarjuna would have to say about this.  Perhaps they are appropriate, or more instructive at different times and in different ways.  These two brilliant experiences are rich and offer us a great deal.

While I am not very skilled in dialectical reasoning, I am happy to leave the debate as to who is correct, the shengtonpas or the rangtongpas, to others.  But, I would like to point out that I feel that it should be noted that while the shengtong view is of central primacy for the Jonang lineage, it is also of great importance within the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages.  In fact, there appears to be lot of symmetrical terminology between the shengtonpa view and the language that is used within the Kagyu tantric completion stage practices (Six yogas of Naropa/Niguma and Mahamudra) as well as that of the Nyingma lineage (as found in the practice of Dzogchen).  I think that there is something to this.  Perhaps this relates to the language of the shengtong position in relationship to the direct experience the mind’s essential nature.  It is a position of intimacy; a view that evokes the entirety of the range of the way that mind arises.  It is full, but not overly reductive, as the rangtong position sometimes feels.

Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye was instrumental in bringing much of the shengtong view back into the Kagyu lineage.  This continued through the previous Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, and especially the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, who was a holder of the Jonangpa Kalachakra lineage, an important source of the shengtong view that was exemplified by the great Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361), the great meditator and teacher who is credited with founding the Jonangpa Lineage.  In fact Dolpopa and Rangjung Dorje were contemporaries and spent time together.

This particular text was translated by Michael R. Sheehy, Director of the Jonang Foundation, Senior Editor at the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, and Lecturer of Buddhism and Tibetan Language at the New School here in New York.

As today is Saga Dawa, I wholeheartedly invite you to explore this text, and I pray that it adds clarity, depth, and confidence to our practice.

May it bring you benefit!  And may you bring the pacification of others’ suffering!

Ordinary Awareness & Pristine Awareness:

A Treatise on the Distinction

Composed by the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339)

To all of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, I pay homage!1

Having thoroughly relied upon learning and reflecting,

I’ve resided in secluded places in order to apply the methods of meditation. In accord with these means, I’ll now describe my experience to you.

Some people think that the triple world and all living beings arose from itself, from others, from both, or without any cause.

Others say that one’s own self and the world are generated from a creator god such as Cha, Śiva, Brahmā or Viṣṇu, from an external particle, or from a truly existing hidden substance.2


As the sole omniscient one taught, the three worlds are merely the mind.3

They are not derived from themselves, from something else, from both of these, or without a cause—all phenomena arise interdependently.

They are by their own essence empty, devoid of features that are distinct or unique, and
free from features of truth or falsity—like a magical illusion, the moon in water, and so

Knowing this, the Buddha taught to sentient beings.

In this way, from what source does so-called “delusion” and “non-delusion” arise?  Having relied upon the nature of interdependent co-origination, I have come to know this like my own image in a mirror, like fire from smoke. Here, I’ll clearly describe to you my realization.

Ordinary conscious awareness of the five sense entrances,4  

By having accepted and rejected forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures have generated emotional upset.

So, what are these so-called “sensible objects?”

If the wise were to carefully examine, they would not be able to establish the existence of anything  external  such  as  atoms  and  so  forth,  as  other  than  one’s  own  discerning cognitive awareness.5


If  the  substances  of  sensible  objects  were  simultaneously  different  than  conscious awareness, then they would not have the same nature.

Because inert material substances do not arise from indivisible immaterial cognition, their arising is not related.

By accepting that sensible objects are different than awareness, it is illogical to think that sensible objects would appear from cognitive awareness.

Because of this, whatever appears is not a sensory object different than awareness.

The occurrence of these objects is similar to the experience of conscious self-reflection.6
In fact, even the appearances of minute indivisible particles and vast openness are mind.
Since their existence cannot be established externally or separately,
The realization is that creators such as Brahmā and other such creator gods do not exist.

Furthermore,  the  relationship  between  one’s  mental  awareness  and  phenomena  are similar to the experience of a dream.7

This is to say, this relationship is consumed by the mind fixating onto referents that have no true reality.

Likewise, the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness,8 the appearances of exterior referents  and  living  beings,  self-importance,  cognitive  discernment,  and  whatever manifestations appear,

Are not produced from anything else,

They are not produced from themselves,

They are not produced from both themselves and something else,

And they are not produced from the absence of themselves and something else.

In the same way, the victorious one taught that everything within saṃsāra and nirvāṇa is merely the mind.

Causes, conditions, and dependent co-origination were taught by the Buddha to be the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness, tainted mental awareness, and the universal ground as ordinary awareness.9


The six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness are reliant upon the objective conditions of the six sensible objects of form and so forth.

The predominant condition is the six sensory faculties. They are lucidity endowed with form.

Both sense faculties and their objects arise from the mind.

The total manifestation of sense faculties and their objects rely upon sense bases that are without an inception.

Although ordinary awareness perceives objective referents,

It is the conceptualizing mental factor that cognizes their distinctive qualities.10
Mental awareness relies upon both immediate and tainted mental awareness.11

Because immediate mental awareness is the condition for the generation and dissipation of the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness,

This is in congruence and accordance with the frequency of the instantaneous generation and dissipation of the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness.

This is known by a mind imbued with yoga, and through the teachings of the victor.

Within the mind itself, there is an aspect of this immediate mental awareness that is said to  be “mental  awareness  endowed  with  tainted  emotionality”  because,  due  to  the transitory nature of the constituents of embodied experience,

It fixates onto an egocentric attitude, conceitedness, and self-infatuation while infused with ignorance.

Immediate mental awareness dissipates the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness, and is the source from which consciousness arises.

Tainted mental awareness then becomes the source for emotional upset.

For these reasons, mental awareness has two facets: it possesses the capacity to both create and obscure.

To those with particularly refined intelligence, the Buddha taught the universal ground as ordinary awareness.

This is also referred to as the “foundation for ordinary awareness,” the  “source for ordinary awareness” and the “receptacle for ordinary awareness.”

Within  it,  all  of  the  latent  propensities  generated  by  the  seven  modes  of  ordinary
awareness are accumulated distinctively and neutrally—like rainwater flowing into the

This is why it is called, “ripening awareness.”

Because it generates everything, and is the ground from which all seeds emerge, it is referred to as the “causal condition.”

Nevertheless, since it is reversed when the seven modes of ordinary awareness are inverted, it is also known as “conditional ordinary awareness.”

This universal ground as ordinary awareness is the embodiment of everything external and internal, the source of all that is to be relinquished.

So, it is said that it can be subdued through “vajra-like meditative stabilization.”

When the universal ground as ordinary awareness along with its defilements is reversed, there is mirror-like pristine awareness.

Every mode of pristine awareness appears without identifying with a substantial self, they are continuous and utterly without interruption.

Because this realizes what can be known with a reference,

And because this is the reason for every type of pristine awareness,
This is referred to as the “ultimate dimension of phenomena.”12

The  emotionally  tainted  mental  awareness  is  totally  subjugated  by  the “meditative

stabilization of courageous movement.”

Disturbing emotions are entirely relinquished through insight and meditative cultivation.

Once upsetting emotions are absent, saṃsāric existence and nirvāṇic quiescence cease. This is the pristine awareness of equanimity.

Immediate mental awareness apprehends by seizing onto the six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness.

Its discursive thinking is produced by conceptualization,

And its perfect discernment subdues through “illusion-like meditative stabilization.”

When great patience is acquired though transforming apprehensions and their objective references, pure realms are revealed.

Ever-pervasive  pristine  awareness  and  unimpeded  pervasive  activities  thoroughly transform the source of thoughts into the pristine awareness of discernment.

In this way, these two types of pristine awareness—equanimity & discernment—through
pure meditation, do not abide within saṃsāric existence and nirvāṇic quiescence.
Imbued with tranquility, love, and compassion while encompassed within the surrounds
of retinues and multifarious dimensions of enlightenment, they express the utterances of

The melodious maṇḍala of the magnificent teachings resounds within the treasury of every profound meditative absorption and mystical formulation.

This is referred to as the “dimension of complete resplendence.”13

The five sense entrances and mental awareness are a single quality.

Through perfect analysis, there arises the way of the four truths endowed with their differing aspects, the sixteen wisdoms of knowing, acceptance, and so forth.
Sensible objects are perceived directly and their actuality is realized.

The five sense faculties are transformed when there is engagement with all of their corresponding sensible objects, and the qualitative attributes of everything is magnified twelve-hundred-fold through the power of magnetizing.

This is the final accomplishment, all-accomplishing pristine awareness.

That which through innumerable and inconceivable manifestations of every variety, at all times, within every realm of existence, will accomplish benefit for every being is known as the magnificent “emanatory dimension.”14

Mind, mental awareness, and ordinary perceptual awareness are transformed into the three enlightened dimensions imbued with their activities;

Complete within the uncontrived maṇḍala of the ultimate sphere of phenomena.

All things reside without saṃsāra or nirvāṇa or their inceptions—free from singularity of diversity.

This is referred to as the “essential dimension.”15


In other scriptures by the victorious one, this is taught to be the “ultimate dimension.”
The mirror-like pristine awareness is regarded as the embodied dimension of pristine awareness, and the other types of pristine awareness are said to be the two enlightened form dimensions.16


Buddhahood is actualizing the nature of the five types of pristine awareness and the four enlightened dimensions.

What is embellished by the distortions of the mind, mental awareness, and ordinary perceptual awareness is the universal ground as ordinary awareness.
What is free from distortion is described as, “the essence of the victorious ones.”

The Buddha taught that the truth of the spiritual journey is seizing onto the capacity of the discerning wisdom of the exalted ones that arises from sublime conceptualization, and that quells profane conceptualizations.

By not understanding this way of the ultimate,

The delusional stray about within the ocean of saṃsāra.

By not understanding this Mahāyāna vessel, and without transforming yourself, How could you ever cross to the far-off shore?

May everyone realize the meaning of this treatise!

“Ordinary Awareness and Pristine Awareness: A Treatise on the Distinction” was composed on the 1st day of the 10th lunar month of the year of the swine (1323) in the mountain hermitage called, “Dechen Teng” [“The Aperture of Bliss”] by Rangjung Dorje.

Translated by Michael R. Sheehy, Ph.D.


1 This work by the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje is included here in Jonang Foundation’s Digital Library because it reflects a view that has been characterized as ”zhentong” (gzhan stong) by later Tibetan authors, most notably Jamgön Kongtul (1813-99), see Mathes (2004), 288-94. Rangjung Dorje was a contemporary of Dolpopa and they met to discuss such views on at least one occasion, see Stearns (1999), 17.
2 Cha (phyva) literally means “luck” or “fortune.” Here it refers to an ancient pre-Buddhist Bönpo belief about the creator of the world. In this conception, “Cha” is the reason for all eventual prosperity. These are references to the theistic tendency to rely on an external force. For a closer study of this text with Jamgön Kongtul’s commentary, see Sheehy (2005).

3 This is a reference to cittamātra (sems tsam).

4 The five sense entrances (sgo lnga) are: (1) eyes; (2) ears; (3) nose; (4) mouth; (5) body. 5 The term here is: rnam rig shes pa.

6 The term here is: rang rig. This is a term that denotes the capacity of awareness to know itself or be selfaware.

7 The term here is: yid (manas). This is referring to the conceptual or ideational operations of cognitive awareness.

8 The six modes of ordinary perceptual awareness (tshogs drug) are: (1) visual perceptual awareness; (2) auditory perceptual awareness; (3) olfactory perceptual awareness; (4) gustatory perceptual awareness; (5) tactile perceptual awareness.

9 The terms here are: nyon yid ki rnam shes and kun gzhi rnam shes

10 Here it reads, sems byung ‘du byed while an alternative reading is sems byung ‘du shes. See Rang byung (2002), n. 20.

11 The term here is: ma thag dang nyon yid. This refers to the four conditions (rkyen bzhi) that preserve the continuity (rang rgyud) of cognitive awareness through immediate subsequent experiential moments of conscious experience. The term: ‘jig tshogs here refers to a composite of many elements of the skandhas that is destroyed instant by instant. Skandhas are the psychophysical constituents that comprise ordinary embodied experience.

12 The term here is: dharmakāya, chos sku.

13 The term here is: sambhogakāya, longs spyod rdzogs sku. 14 The term here is: nirmāṇakāya, sprul sku.

15 The term here is: svabhāvakāya, ngo bo nyid sku

16 This is a reference to: nirmāṇakāya and sambhogakāya.

Tibetan Sources

Kong sprul Blo gros mtha’ yas, ‘Jam mgon. Rnam par shes pa dang ye shes ‘byed pa’i

bstan bcos kyi tshig don go gsal du ‘grel pa rang byung dgongs pa’i rgyan ces bya ba. Sikkim: Rum btegs, 1972.

Mkha’ khyab Rdo rje, The 15th Karmapa. Rnam par shes pa dang ye shes ‘byed pa’i

bstan bcos kyi mchan ‘grel rje btsun ‘jam pa’i dbyangs ki zhal lung nor bu ke ta ka dri ma med pa’i  ‘od. In Three Important Verse Treatises on Aspects of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism: By H.H. the 3rd Karma-pa Ran-byung-rdo-
rje, with Annotations Expanding the Text (mchan) by H.H. the 15th Karma-pa Mkha-khyab-rdo-rje. New Delhi: Delhi Karmapae Chodhey Gyalwae Sungrab Partun Khang, 1976.

Rang byung Rdo rje, The 3rd Karmapa. Rnam shes ye shes ‘byed pa’i bstan bcos. Sikkim:
Rum btegs, 1972.

__________. Rnam shes ye shes ‘byed pa dang de bzhin gshegs pa’i snying po bstan pai
bstan bcos zhes bya ba. Kathmandu, Boudha: Dharma Kara Publications, 2002.

Western Sources

Mathes, Klaus-Dieter. “Tāranātha’s ‘Twenty-one Differences with Regard to the

Profound Meaning’—Comparing the Views of the Two Gźan stoṅ Masters Dol po pa and Śākya Mchog ldan.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 27, 2, 285-328, 2004.

Sheehy, Michael R. “Rangjung Dorje’s Variegations of Mind: Ordinary Awareness and
Pristine  Awareness  in  Tibetan  Buddhist  Literature.”  In  D.K.  Nauriyal (ed.).

Routeledge Curzon’s Critical Series in Buddhism. Buddhist Thought & Applied
Psychological Research. London: Routledge Curzon Press, 2005.
Stearns, Cyrus R. The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the
Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsan. New York: State University of New
York Press, 1999.

© 2007 Michael R Sheehy.

Courtesy of the Ngedon Thartuk Translation Initiative