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Shentong (Tibetan: གཞན་སྟོང་Wylie: gzhan stong, Lhasa dialect IPA: [ɕɛ̃̀tṍŋ], also transliterated zhäntong or zhentong) 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" (Wylie: stong) of "other" (Wylie: gzhan), i.e., empty of all qualities other than an inherent, ineffable nature, but not "empty" of its own existence. 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 Shentongpa (proponents of shentong), the emptiness of ultimate reality should not be characterized in the same way as the emptiness of apparent phenomena because it is prabhāśvara-saṃtāna, or "luminous mindstream" endowed with limitless Buddha qualities.[1] It is empty of all that is false, not empty of the limitless Buddha qualities that are its innate nature.


Shentong literally means "other-emptiness".

Great Mādhyamaka: a qualification and disambiguation[edit]

Pettit (1999: p. 113) qualifies and disambiguates "Great Mādhyamaka" and mentions Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso, Longchenpa, Prasaṅgika Madhyamaka, Je 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 Madhyamaka, 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.[2]

Shentong: a heterogeneous tradition[edit]

Burchardi (2007: p. 1) opens her foray with a sound introduction, cited herewith, that promises 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.[3]


Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, an early Tibetan exponent of the shentong view.

The earliest shentong views are usually asserted to have been presented in a group of treatises variously attributed jointly to Asanga and Maitreyanātha, especially in the treatise known as the Unsurpassed Continuum (Uttaratantraśāstra, also called the Ratnagotravibhāga), 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 Madhyamaka thought is more accurately labeled Yogācāra-Svātantrika-Madhyamaka. It is generally agreed that a true shentong view was first systematized and articulated under that name by Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, an originally Sakya-trained lama who joined the Jonang school with which shentong is strongly associated. However, the eleventh-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 Kālacakra retreat.

Chödrak Gyatso, 7th Karmapa Lama (1454–1506), and the Sakya scholar Sakya Chokden (Wylie: gSer mdog Pan chen Sa kya mChog ldan, 1428–1507) were also important proponents of a shentong view.[4]

In the Jonang tradition, Tāranātha [1575–1635] is second in importance only to Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen 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 shentong theory in particular.[5]

After the suppression of the Jonang school and its texts and the texts of Sakya Chokden by the Tibetan government in the seventeenth century, various shentong views were propagated mainly by Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lamas. In particular, the eighth Tai Situpa 1700–1774) and Katok Tsewang Norbu (1698–1755)—Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lamas, respectively, and close colleagues—were very instrumental in reviving shentong among their sects.

Also instrumental was Situ Panchen (1700–1774), senior court chaplain in the Kingdom of Derge, a student of Katok Tsewang Norbu. "In the end it would be Situ more than anyone who would create the environment for the widespread acceptance of the Shentong theories in the next century.[6] This revival was continued by Jamgon Kongtrul, a nineteenth-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 consider their position to be the rarefied expression of Madhyamaka. They hold that this view is the fruit of direct meditative experience and realised neither through the path of conceptual understanding nor of 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[edit]

In referencing the nonconceptual experientiality of mind's ultimate nature, shentong must rely on the language of deep metaphor: ösel (Wylie: 'od gsal; Sanskrit: prabhāsvara). Translated as "luminous clarity," "luminous awareness," "clear light mind", ösel is polysemic, nuanced, employed throughout Dzogchen and the Vajrayana as well.

Shentong and rangtong: a continuum, a coalescence[edit]

Fundamental Wisdom (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) by Nagarjuna, 13.8 has:

śūnyatā sarvadriṣṭīṇām proktā niḥsaraṇam jinaiḥ

yeṣām tu śūnyatādṛṣṭis tan asādhyan babhāṣire

rgyal ba kun gyi stong pa nyid

lta kun nges par 'byin par gsungs
gang dag stong pa nyid lta ba
de dag bsgrub tu med par gsungs

All the buddhas have said that emptiness

Definitely eliminates all viewpoints.
Those who have the view of emptiness
Are said to be incurable.[7]

Criticisms and controversies[edit]

Although many eminent Tibetan authorities are supportive of shentong, it has always been considered a polemical technique in terms of compatibility with traditional Buddhist doctrine.

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 because Shentongpas posit an absolute. They sometimes label shentong Madhyamaka "eternalistic Madhyamaka". Gyaltsab Je and Khedrup Gelek Pelzang, 1st Panchen Lama, 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 Drub (1290–1364) was also very critical of shentong views.

Among Kagyupas and Nyingmapas, the noted nineteenth-century Nyingma lama Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso wrote works both supportive and critical of shentong positions,[8] as did Mikyö Dorje, 8th Karmapa Lama.

The contemporary western Kagyu scholar Karl Brunnhölzl argues that there is no such thing as "shentong Madhyamaka," but rather that orthodox Yogācāra philosophy (when understood properly) is entirely compatible with Madhyamaka, and therefore shentong is not a novel position. He argues that Yogācāra has often been mischaracterized and unfairly marginalized in Tibetan Buddhist curricula.


  1. ^ Lama Shenpen, Emptiness Teachings. Buddhism Connect (accessed March, 2010)
  2. ^ Pettit, John Whitney (1999). Mipham's Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection. Boston: Wisdom Publications (1999). ISBN 0-86171-157-2. p.113
  3. ^ 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: [1] (accessed: Sunday August 17, 2008) p.1
  4. ^ Stearns 1999 p.60-63
  5. ^ Stearns 1999 p.68
  6. ^ Stearns, Cyrus (2003). The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. Motilal Banarsidass Publ.,. p. 76. ISBN 81-208-1833-4. 
  7. ^ Pettit, John Whitney (1999). Mipham's Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection. Boston: Wisdom Publications (1999). ISBN 0-86171-157-2. p. 164 (English) and p. 508, n. 585 (Sanskrit and Tibetan). Pettit is quoting a passage from Yon tan rin po che'i mdzod kyi 'grel pa zab don snang byed nyi ma'i 'od zer, by dge mang mkhan po yon tan rgya mtsho (b. nineteenth century), which includes the stanza from the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.
  8. ^ I.e., in his Lion's Roar of Extrinsic Emptiness (q.v. external link cited below) and in his Long Excursus on the Core of Thus-Arrivedness i.e., tathãgatagarbha (bde-gshegs snying-po stong-thun chen-mo seng-ge'i nga-ro. In the Long Excursus Mipham Rinpoche follows closely the gist of an historically much earlier discussion of the subject of "lineage" (Tib. rigs, Skt. gotra, synonymous with Buddha-nature)—that of Longchen Rabjam's Treasure of Philosophical Systems (grub mtha' mdzod). There Mipham identifies two general extremes of interpretation, the nihilistic identification of Buddha-nature with emptiness to the exclusion of form, and the identification of Buddha-nature as a substantially real entity that is "empty-of-other" (gzhan-gyis stong-pa). Thus it appears that Mipham Rinpoche wished to distance himself from both the Gelug/Sakya mainstream (e.g., rangtong or self-emptiness) interpretation as well as the shentong mainstream. However, what Mipham refers to in the Long Excursus as shentong is only vaguely defined as such, and to that extent, bears more resemblance to the stock misinterpretations of shentong as given by its ideological opponents, than with any actual position held by classical Shentongpas themselves. In the final analysis, both Longchenpa's and Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso's interpretations of Buddha-nature in the aforementioned texts are substantially identical with most (though not all) of the most important philosophical distinctions invoked by Dolpopa and others in propounding the superiority and definitude of shentong approaches. Where Longchenpa and Mipham differ most obviously from self-identified Shentongpa commentators is in not applying the shentong label to their positions, such as Great Madhyamaka of Other-Emptiness" (gzhan-stong dbu-ma chen-po).



  • 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: [2][dead link] (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: [3] (accessed: Sunday August 17, 2008)


  • Karl Brunnhölzl, 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 0-86171-157-2. 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 1-55939-273-8
  • Brunnholzl, Karl. Luminous Heart: The Third Karmapa on Consciousness, Wisdom, and Buddha Nature Snow Lion Publications 2009.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]