Classics and Religious Studies


Date of this Version



Published in The Other Emptiness: Rethinking the Zhentong Buddhist Discourse in Tibet, edited by Michael R. Sheehy, and Klaus-Dieter Mathes, State University of New York Press, 2019. Pp 171–196.


Copyright © 2019 State University of New York Press.


As is well known to contemporary scholarship and demonstrated by the works contained in the present volume, the Tibetan term zhentong (gzhan stong, being empty of other) refers not to any one unanimous view or system of thought but to a wide variety of philosophical theories formed primarily in India and Tibet. Those theories are often contrasted with rival rangtong (rang stong, being empty of self)1 theories in their interpretations of reality, buddhahood, path, and other elements of the Buddhist worldiew. While many of those elements are equally open to the zhentong and rangtong interpretations, some suit one better than the other. According to the important but largely forgotten Tibetan thinker Shakya Chokden (1428–1507) whose views will be discussed in this chapter, the dharma-sphere (chos dbyings)—ultimate reality and source of all dharmas—is a concept that, similar to such related concepts as the buddha-nature (de bzhin gshegs pa’i snying po), tends to better fit the zhentong interpretations.

The dharma-sphere figures prominently in Shakya Chokden’s works, where its analysis is not limited to only those texts, such as Nāgārjuna’s Praise of the Dharma-Sphere,2 that explicitly explore this concept but extended to multiple writings, teachings, and traditions that do not necessarily address the dharma-sphere directly, but which in his opinion refer to it via cognate ideas and categories. Although

Shakya Chokden also provides accounts of the rangtong interpretations of the dharma-sphere, it is in the zhentong context that he delves into this topic in minute detail. His interpretation of the dharma-sphere, therefore, can serve as a window for exploring details of his broader position on zhentong.3

The dharma-sphere is given particular attention in texts written by Shakya Chokden during the period when he openly articulated and voiced support of the zhentong philosophy—a philosophy that he presented as an authentic Madhyamaka view shared by leading thinkers of the Yogācāra, Tantra, and even Niḥsvabhāvavāda systems.4 Providing complementary arguments and targeting diverse but related ideas, these texts present a broad, multifaceted, and shared vision of the dharma-sphere.5

An exhaustive study of Shakya Chokden’s position on the dharma-sphere would exceed the limitations of a single book chapter, even a long one. I will therefore limit myself to discussing only those elements essential to understanding his approach. First, I will briefly discuss the place Shakya Chokden assigns to the dharma-sphere in the Mahāyāna teachings. Second, I will address his claim that nothing exists apart from the dharma-sphere. Third, I will explain his approach to the nature and function of the dharma-sphere and its relationship to other dharmas. Fourth, I will outline his position on how the dharma-sphere is utilized and manifested on the path. Fifth, and finally, I will focus on his perspective on differences and similarities between the dharma-sphere and other closely related categories.