Dolpopa on svabhāva

By David Reigle on November 29, 2018 at 10:03 pm

Dolpopa, the major writer of the Jonang order of Tibetan Buddhism, taught that ultimate reality, referred to by him under various names, is “empty of other” (gzhan stong), meaning empty of everything other than itself. This is in contrast to the widely held view in Tibetan Buddhism that everything, including ultimate reality, is “empty of itself” (rang stong), meaning empty of svabhāva. The svabhāva of anything is its “self-nature” or “inherent nature,” which in Tibetan Buddhism is used to mean its inherent existence. Tibetan Buddhists agree that what makes up conventional reality is empty of svabhāva, meaning that it does not inherently exist. The majority view is that what makes up ultimate reality is also empty of svabhāva, meaning that it does not inherently exist any more than what makes up conventional reality. Dolpopa disagreed, saying that there can be no conventional reality without an ultimate reality behind it. Thus, what makes up ultimate reality must have a svabhāva, which ultimate reality is not empty of.

Dolpopa seems to have been the first Tibetan writer to say that ultimate reality has a svabhāva. He presented the “empty of other” (gzhan stong) teachings in his magnum opus, The Mountain Doctrine, a large book filled with quotations from the Buddhist scriptures. In this book he wrote, for example, that “an ultimate other-empty mind endowed with inherent nature (rang bzhin pa) [= svabhāva] always abides as the basis of the emptiness of a conventional self-empty mind” (translation by Jeffrey Hopkins, p. 389). Decades later, toward the end of his life, Dolpopa was asked by the great Sakya teacher, Lama Dampa Sonam Gyaltsen, to write a book that concisely states his views and the reasons for them. This book is The Fourth Council. He opens this book by saying that the original Buddhist teachings of the “Age of Perfection” (rdzogs ldan = Kṛta-yuga) had come to be misunderstood over time, and that his purpose was to restore their original meanings. After saying this, the first teaching that he deals with is the widely prevalent view that all is empty of self-nature, svabhāva. He writes, as translated by Cyrus Stearns in The Buddha from Dölpo, 2010 revised edition, p.137:

 

“The Kṛtayuga Dharma is the stainless words of the Conqueror, and what is carefully taught by the lords of the tenth level and by the great system founders, flawless and endowed with sublime qualities.

“In that tradition all is not empty of self-nature.

“Carefully distinguishing empty of self-nature and empty of other, what is relative is all taught to be empty of self-nature, and what is absolute is taught to be precisely empty of other.”

 

He then explains this in detail in the following few pages. Toward the end of The Fourth Council, Dolpopa puts this in terms of the widely prevalent view, which he cannot accept, p. 187:

 

“I cannot yield to those who, relying on the flawed [treatises of the] Tretāyuga and later eons, accept that all is precisely empty of self-nature, accept that emptiness of self-nature is the absolute, accept that the absolute is empty of self-nature, . . .”

 

Dolpopa called the teachings that he believed he restored, “Great Madhyamaka,” to distinguish them from the prevailing Madhyamaka or Middle Way teachings. The Great Madhyamaka teachings are also known as the “shentong” (gzhan stong) or “empty of other” teachings. As just seen, the Great Madhyamaka teaching that the absolute or ultimate reality is empty of everything other than itself, but is not empty of itself, means that it has a svabhāva.

 

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