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Rangtong (Wylie: rang stong "empty of self-nature") is a philosophical term in Tibetan Buddhism that is used to distinguish the majority teaching on the nature of śūnyatā or "emptiness", namely that all things are characterised by emptiness in both the relative and absolute sense.[1] This position is the mainstream Tibetan interpretation of Madhyamaka, one of the main Mahayana schools, which dominates Vajrayana Buddhism.

The contrasting minority position is called shentong (and it has often been incorrectly associated with the Cittamātra (Yogacara) position, but is in fact also Madhyamaka[2]) and is present primarily as the main philosophical theory of the Jonang school although it is also taught by the Sakya[3] and Kagyu schools.[4][5] In 1658, the Gelug authorities banned the Jonang school for political reasons, forcibly converting its monks and monasteries to the Gelug school, as well as banning shentong philosophy and books, thus making the rangtong position the overwhelmingly majority one in Tibetan Buddhism.[1]

Jamgong Kongtrul worked to bring the two together by establishing a common ground, see Rangtong and Shentong - Rime Approach


The term rangtong is not an autonym but rather arose from the shentong theorist Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, who coined the term "shentong" to characterise his own teachings and "rangtong" to refer to the teachings he opposed.[1]

Prasangika and the rejection of essentialism

Je Tsongkhapa was a proponent of the Prasaṅgika interpretation of the Madhyamaka teachings on Śūnyatā (emptiness).[6] He rejected the Svatantrikas because they state that the conventional reality is "established by virtue of particular characteristics" (Wylie: rang gi mtshan nyid kyis grub pa) and only accepted the Prāsaṅgika approach within Madhyamaka.[7]

The opponents of Candrakirti's Prasanna-padā[note 1] are both (a) the essentialists, who accept that things ultimately have intrinsic nature, and (b) the Svātantrikas, who refute that, but accept that things conventionally have intrinsic character or intrinsic nature.[8]

Tsongkhapa's rejection of Svatantrika has been severely criticised within the Tibetan tradition, qualifying it as Tsongkhapa's own invention, and therefore "unwarranted and unprecedented within the greater Madhyamaka tradition."[7]


Tsongkhapa saw emptiness as a consequence of pratītyasamutpāda (dependent arising),[6] the teaching that no dharma ("thing") has an existence of its own, but always comes into existence in dependence on other dharmas.

Tsongkhapa's view on "ultimate reality" is condensed in the sort text In Praise of Dependent Arising[9] c.q. In Praise of Relativity[10][11] c.q. The Essence of Eloquency.[11] It states that "things" do exist conventionally, but ultimately everything is dependently arisen, and therefore void of inherent existence:[11]

Whatever depends on causes and conditions
Is empty of intrinsic reality
What excellent instruction could there be
More marvellous than this discovery?[11]

This means that conventionally things do exist, and that there is no use in denying that. But it also means that ultimately those things have no 'existence of their own', and that cognizing then as such results from cognitive operations, not from some unchangeable essence.[12] Tsongkhapa:

Since objects do not exist through their own nature, they are established as existing through the force of convention.[12]

It also means that there is no "transcendental ground," and that "ultimate reality" has no existence of its own, but is the negation of such a transecendental reality, and the impossibility of any statement on such an ultimately existing transcendental reality: it is no more than a fabrication of the mind.[11] Susan Kahn further explains:

Ultimate truth does not point to a transcendent reality, but to the transcendence of deception. It is critical to emphasize that the ultimate truth of emptiness is a negational truth. In looking for inherently existent phenomena it is revealed that it cannot be found. This absence is not findable because it is not an entity, just as a room without an elephant in it does not contain an elephantless substance. Even conventionally, elephantlessness does not exist. Ultimate truth or emptiness does not point to an essence or nature, however subtle, that everything is made of.[12]

See also


  1. A seminal text regarding the Prāsaṅgika/Svātantrika distinction


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Stearns, Cyrus (2010). The Buddha from Dölpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (Rev. and enl. ed.). Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 9781559393430. Retrieved 2 May 2015. 
  2. p. 72
  3. p. 61
  4. Pema Tönyö Nyinje, 12th Tai Situpa. Ground, Path and Fruition. Zhyisil Chokyi Ghatsal Charitable Trust. p. 2005. ISBN 978-1877294358. 
  5. Hookham, S.K. (1991). The Buddha within : Tathagatagarbha doctrine according to the Shentong interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-0791403587. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Cabezón 2005, p. 9387.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Thomas Doctor, Exploring the Stuff that Madhyamaka Hermeneutics are Made of: A Note on a Clear Predecessor to Tsongkhapa’s Prasangika/Svatantrika Distinction
  8. Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Volume Three); ISBN 1-55939-166-9, pp225-275 after a very lengthy and well-referenced debate, strongly relying upon Candrakirti's (a Prasaṅgika) analysis of Bhāvaviveka (a Svātantrika) in the Prasanna-padā ('Clear Words' La Vallée Poussin (1970) 28.4-29; sDe dGe Kanjur (Kanakura 1956) 3796: Ha 9a7-b3)
  9. Alexander Berzin, In Praise of Dependent Arising
  10. Robert Thurman, Praise of Buddha Shakyamuni for his teaching of Relativity. The Short Essence of Eloquence
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 Patrick Jennings, Tsongkhapa: In Praise of Relativity; The Essence of Eloquence
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Susan Kahn, The Two Truths of Buddhism and The Emptiness of Emptiness

Works cited

  • Cabezón, José Ignacio (2005), "Tsong Kha Pa", in Jones, Lindsay, MacMillan Encyclopedia of Religion, MacMillan 
  • Cabezón, José Ignacio; Dargyay, Geshe (2007). Freedom from Extremes: Gorampa's "Distinguishing the Views" and the Polemics of Emptiness. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 9780861715237. 

Further reading

  • Hookham, S.K. (1991). The Buddha within : Tathagatagarbha doctrine according to the Shentong interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 978-0791403587. 

External links

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