About the Book
The Buddha from Dolpo examines the life and thought of the Tibetan Buddhist master. Dolpopa Sherab 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 Kalacakra 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 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 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.
“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)’ 1970s I occasionally came across brief cases to 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 a a peerless example of the nonsectarian approach to realization, as the years passed I was fortunate to learn from him an approach of the wide range of views contained in all the ancient traditions of Tibet, including that of Dolpopa’s Zhentong lineage. I am deeply arateful 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 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- branch 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 exception 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 reconcilia5on 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 have finally reached a point of critical mass. There was a burst scholarly works dealing in particular with the question of the 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 issue at specific point 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, “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, hut 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 contrast, 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 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 nirva. 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 an emptiness other relative phenomena (gzhan stong) did not fit the definition 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 other. The Buddha-nature 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 splendor.
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