The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpo a Sherab Gyaltsen

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  • Book Name The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpo a Sherab Gyaltsen
  • Author Cyrus Stearns
  • Language, Pages English, 327 Pgs.
  • Last Updated 2022 / 08 / 01
  • ISBN 9788120819368, 8120819365
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The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpo a Sherab Gyaltsen
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The Buddha from Dolpo examines the life and thoughts of the Tibetan Buddhist master, Dolpopa Sherba Gyaltsen (1292-1361). known as "The Buddha from Dolpo," he was one of the most important and original thinkers in Tibetan history, and perhaps the greatest expert on the Tantric teachings of the Kalachakra or "Wheel of Time".based largely upon esoteric Buddhist knowledge believed to be preserved in the legendary land of Shambhala, Dolpopa's theories continue to excite controversy in Tibetan Buddhism after almost 700 years.

Dolpopa's theories continue to excite controversy in Tibetan Buddhism after almost 700 years.

Dolpopa emphasized two contrasting definitions of the Buddhist teachings of emptiness: "emptiness of self-nature," which applies only to the level of relative truth, and "emptiness of other," which applies only to the level of absolute truth. Dolpopa identified ultimate reality as the Buddha-nature inherent in all living beings. This view of an "emptiness of other," known in Tibetan as Zhentong, is Dolpopa's main spiritual legacy.

This book contains the first translations into any language of major works by Dolpopa. A General Commentary on the Doctrine is one of the earliest texts in which he systematically presented his view of the entire Buddhist path to enlightenment. The fourth Council, written at the end of his life may be viewed as a final summation of his ideas.

Cyrus Stearns's book describes both Dolpopa's life and his ideas. Earlier Tibetan precedents for the Zhentong view are also discussed, as well as Dolpopa's own unique use of language and the major influences on the development of his controversial theories. The fate of his tradition, which was censured by the Tibetan government in the seventeenth century, is examined, and several of the most important adherents of the Zhentong theory are also discussed.

About the Author

Cyrus Stearns is a longtime student of the Tibetan language and religion and has served as a translator for Tibetan teachers of all traditions. For many years he has studied with and translated for Chogye Trichen Rinpoche and the late Dezhung Tulku Rinpoche.

Cyrus has a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from the University of Washington in Seattle and is the author of several articles on Buddhism.

Preface and Acknowledgement

“This book is the product of a lingering fascination with several topics that have remained largely unexplored by Western students of Tibetan religion and history. When I first began my own study of Tibetan literature in the earl)’ In the 1970s I occasionally came across brief cases of an intriguing fourteenth-century figure known as Dolpopa, r the Buddha from Dolpo, and usually hostile descriptions of his que vision of the nature of reality. The fact that his tradition had been effectively censured by the Tibetan government in the seventeenth century only served to pique my curiosity. My teacher, the late Dezhung Tulku Rinpoche, was at first somewhat reticent to speak about Dolpopa’s theories, no doubt in large part due to my obvious a of the necessary skills to engage in such a discussion. Rinpoche is a peerless example of the nonsectarian approach to realization, as the years passed I was fortunate to learn from him an approach to the wide range of views contained in all the ancient traditions of Tibet, including that of Dolpopa’s Zhentong lineage. I am deeply grateful for Dezhung Rinpoche’s inspiring example.

While living in Nepal in the 1980s I found a large volume of Dolpopa’s miscellaneous writings for sale in the monastery of my teacher the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who had recently published it in Bhutan. This collection contained both of the texts that were re-translated in the present work. I am particularly thankful to Khyentse Rinpoche for personally encouraging me to read Dolpopa’s writings.

During the following years in Nepal, I continued to be nagged with curiosity about Dolpopa and his ideas and returned periodically to the volume of his writings. Then in 1988 my teacher Chogye Trichen Rinpoche begin teaching the Kalacakra Six-branch Yoga of Dolpopa’s tradition according to the instruction manual written by Jonang Taranatha. During the next two years, Rinpoche taught the Six- branches of Yoga in Nepal, Borneo, and the United States, and as his interpreter, I had the unique opportunity to study these teachings and have many conversations with him about their practice. I then began to delve more deeply into Taranatha’s other writings, which led me back to Dolpopa, his great predecessor. I am extremely indebted to Chogye Rinpoche for his exceptional a’ kindness, and for sharing his profound insight into the practice of Buddhist Tantra.

After my return to the United States in 1991 I gradually began to concentrate on the study of Dolpopa’s life and teachings. This became much more feasible with the 1992 publication of Dolpopa’s voluminous Collected Works, which had been recovered from eastern Tibet by Professor Matthew Kapstein. In addition, Prof. Leonard van der Kuijp graciously made available to me copies of a number of extremely important rare manuscripts from his own collection, and carefully read through an earlier version of this book. Without access to the works recovered by Professors Kapstein and van der Kuijp a study of this type would have been impossible. I should also like to thank Dr. Jeffrey Schoening for his thoughtful reading of this work, and his many helpful comments and suggestions. The insightful suggestions and references from Mr. Hubert Decleer are also very much appreciated. I am likewise grateful to Professor Collett Cox, Professor Richard Salomon, and Dr. Dan Martin for their helpful readings of an earlier manuscript. Professor John Newman, Professor David Germano, and Dr. Franz-Karl Ehrhard were also very generous with their comments and references would also like to thank Khenpo Apey, Guru Lama, Mr. Kurtis Schaeffer, Ms. Marilyn Kennell, Mr. Jerome Edou, and Mr. Jan Ulrich Sobisch for providing copies of rare texts, directing me to references, or making editorial suggestions. I am also grateful to Professor David Jackson for his helpful comments and for locating photographs of an old image and painting of Dolpopa. Mr. Michael Henss, Mr. Ulrich von Schroeder, and Mr. Andy Quintman all deserve my thanks for kindly allowing their photographs to be used in this book. And finally, I must acknowledge that much of this work was written under the influence of the divine music of Franz List Frant Zappa Ludwig van Beethoven Miles Davis and Johann Sebastian Bach.




One of the major sources of tension in the interpretation of late Indian Buddhism, as it was received in Tibet, was the apparently contradictory descriptions of emptiness (áUnyata, stong pa nyid) Thund in scriptures and commentaries identified with different phases of the tradition) The notion of an enlightened eternal essence, or Buddha-nature (tathagatagarbha, bde bzhin gshegs pa’i ‘ving po), present within every living being, was in marked contrast to the earlier traditional Buddhist emphasis on the lack of any enduring essence in sentient beings. For followers of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet, the interpretation and reconciliation of these two themes in the doctrinal materials they had inherited from India, and elsewhere, was of crucial importance.

In fourteenth-century Tibet the concern with these issues seems to have finally reached a point of critical mass. There was a burst of scholarly works dealing in particular with the question of Buddha nature and the attendant implications for the Buddhist traditions of practice and explication. What forces were primarily responsible for the intense interest surrounding these issues at specific points in Tibetan history is not yet clearly understood. can be seen is that many of the prominent masters of this period who produced the most influential works on these subjects were both intimately involved in the practice and teaching of the Kulacakra tantra, and either personally knew each other or had many of the same teachers and disciples. Among the most important of these masters were the third Karmapa hierarch Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339) Budion Richen Drup (1290-1364) Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361), Longchen Rabjampa (1308—1364), Lama Dampa Sonam Gyaltsen (1312-1375), and Barawa Gyaltsen Baizang (1310-1391).

Without question, the teachings and writings of Dolpopa, who was also known as “The Buddha from Dolpo” (Dol po sangs Rgyas), and “The Omniscient One from Dolpo Who Embodies the Buddha’s of the Three Times” (Dus gsum sangs rgyas kun mkhyen Dol po pa), contain the most controversial and stunning ideas ever presented by a great Tibetan Buddhist master. The controversies that stemmed from his teachings are still very much alive today among Tibetan Buddhists, more than six hundred years after Dolpopa’s death.

When attempting to grasp the nature and significance of Dolpopa’s ideas and their impact on Tibetan religious history, it is important to recognize that he was one of the towering figures of fourteenth-century Tibet. He was not a minor figure whose strange notions influenced only the members of his own Jonang tradition, and whose maverick line of hermeneutic thought died out when that tradition was violently suppressed by the central Tibetan government in the middle of the seventeenth century. Although this is perhaps the orthodox version of events, there is, on the other hand, abundant evidence that Dolpopa’s legacy spread widely, and had a profound impact on the development of Tibetan Buddhism from the fourteenth century to the present day.

Whenever Dolpopa’s name comes up, whether in ancient polemic tracts or in conversation with modern Tibetan teachers, it is obvious that he is remembered first and foremost for the development of what is known as the Zhentong (gzhan stong) view. Until quite recently this view has been familiar to modern scholars largely via the intensely critical writings of later doctrinal opponents of Dolpopa and the Jonang school.3 As such, in the absence of the original voice for this view—that is, Dolpopa’s extensive writings, which have only been widely available for the last few years—even Dolpopa’s name, and the words Jonahg and Zhentong, have come to often evoke merely the image of an aberrant and heretical doctrine, which thankfully was purged from the Tibetan Buddhist scene centuries ago.4 In this way an extremely significant segment of Tibetan religious history has been swept under the rug. One of the main aims of the present work is to allow Dolpopa’s life and ideas Dolpopa used the Tibetan term gzlian stong, “empty of other.” to describe absolute reality as empty only of other relative phenomena. This view is Dolpopa’s primary legacy. And there is always a strong reaction to it, whether positive or negative. Although there were no doubt others before him who held much the same opinion, in both India and Tibet, Dolpopa was the first to come out and directly state what he thought in writing, using terminology which was new and shocking for many of his contemporaries. His new Dharma language” (chos shad), which included the use of previously unknown terms such as gzhan stong, and “empty of other,” will be discussed in Chapter 2.

In Dolpopa’s view the absolute and the relative are both empty, as Buddhism has always proclaimed, but they must be empty in different ways. Phenomena at the relative level (surnvrti, hun rdzob) are empty of self-nature (svabhavasunya, rang stong), and are no more real than the fictitious horn of a rabbit, or the child of a contract, the reality of absolute truth (paramartha, don dam) is entry only of other parabhra-sunya gzhan stung) relative phenomena, and not itself empty. With the recent availability of a large number of writings by Dolpopa it is on becoming clear that he was not simply setting up the viewings of an emptiness of self-nature (rang .stong) and an emptiness of other (gzhan stung) as opposed to theories located on the same level.5 He obviously viewed the pair as complementary, while making the careful distinction that the view of an “emptiness of other” applied only to the absolute, order an “emptiness of self-nature” only to the relative. Both approaches were essential for a correct understanding of the nature of saipsara and nirvana. Dolpopa’s quarrel was with those who viewed both the absolute d the relative as empty of self-nature (rang stung), and who refaced to recognize the existence of anything which was not empty self-nature. From this point of view, the notion of emptiness and other relative phenomena (gzhan stong) did not fit the definition of emptiness.

Dolpopa further identified the absolute with the Buddha-na tathagatagarbha) which was thus seen to be eternal and not empty of self-nature, but only empty of others. The Buddha-nature is perfect and complete from the beginning, with all the characterized Buddha eternally present in every living being. It is only the impermanent and temporary defilements veiling the Buddha-nature that are empty of self-nature and that must be removed through the practice of a spiritual path in order to allow the ever-present Buddha nature to manifest in its full splendour.




  Preface and Acknowledgements vii
  Introduction 1
Part One The Life and Teaching of the Omniscient Dilpopa 9
Chapter One The life of the Buddha from Dolpo 11
1 Childhood and Early Education 12
2 Studies at the Great Monastery of Sakya 13
3 The move to Jonang 16
4 Raising Mt. Meru and Revealing the Zhentong View 19
5 The Initial Reception of the Zhentong Teachings 23
6 The New Jonang translation of the Kalacakra Tantra and the Vimalaprabha 24
7 Years of Retreat and teaching 27
8 Invitation to China by the Yuan Emperor Toghon Temur 28
9 Changes in the Jonang leadership and the Beginning of the Journey to Lhasa 30
10 Teachings in Central Tibet and the Return to Tsang 32
11 The Aborted Meeting with Budon Rinchen Drup 34
12 The Last Months at Jonany 36
Chapter Two A Historical Survey of the Zhentong Tradition in Tibet 41
1 The Zhentong tradition in Tibet before Dolpopa 42
2 Dolpopa and the Zhentong view 45
3 The Zhentong tradition after Dolpopa 55
Chapter Three The Doctrine of the Buddha from Dolpo 79
1 The emptiness of Self-nature and the Emptiness of other 81
2 A Redefinition of Cittamatra and Madhyamaka 86
3 Two Approaches to Enlightenment 98
Part Two Texts in Translation 107
  Introduction to the translation of a general commentary on the doctrine 109
  The Supplication Entitled A general commentary on the doctrine 113
  Introduction to the Translation of the fourth council 123
  The Great Calculation of the Doctrine which has the significance of a fourth council 127
  Notes 175
  Bibliography 273
  Index 293

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