Shentong/Rangtong: A Both/And of Tibetan Buddhism

“One of the unique features of Buddhism has always been the acceptance that different paths are necessary for different types of people. Just as one medicine cannot cure all diseases, so one set of teachings cannot help all beings. This is the basic principal of Buddhism.” -Ringu Tulku[1]


The goal of this paper is to discuss the Rangtong and Shentong views of emptiness through the lens of Tibetan Buddhist history as well as through the lens of some of the general points of Buddhism. Through this discussion I hope to point out that when discussed in a political/historical setting the Rangtong/Shentong perspectives take on a different, less philosophically charged focus.


I will also emphasize that when seen through the Buddha’s teachings on the two truths, the three types of people and the two types of teachings, there might not be any distinction whatsoever between the goals of both views, and that the distinction between the two views equalize the both when experienced on an inner, experiential level.


Changing of the Guard; The Historical and Political Aspects of Shentong and Rangtong


It is quite possible that the Shentong/Rangtong distinction is a result of historical feudalism among the academics of rival Tibetan Monasteries before the “great reform” which took place during the reign of the “Great Fifth Dalai lama. We can find a wealth of information by delving into the life of Jonang Taranata, born in 1575. Taranatha was perhaps the last well-known proponent of the Shentong view. Taranatha studied at the seat of the Jonang sect, the Jo Mo Nang monastery in the Tsang district of Tibet. The Jonang Monastery was a strong proponent of the Shentong view. The Jonang-pas had a reputation of being an unorthodox sect of the Kagyupas. My guess here is this is because of cross-pollination between the Nyingma and Kagyu teachings that were taking place at the time in this region.


Shortly after Taranatha died, the Fifth Dalai Lama began his “Great Reform.” He shut all the Jonang monasteries down, later re-opening them as Geluk monasteries, rooted in the Rangtong view of the Prasangika Madhyamikas. In his book “The Origin of Tara Tantra” translator David Templeton[2] writes that this conversion took place due to both political and philosophical basis. The Shentong perspective was seen as anachronistic-a good debating point for monks, but somewhat obsolete and stuck in the past, coming very close to the Indian Vedanta philosophy. Even within the Shentong view there are distinctions.[3] Taranatha himself refuted the accusations that the Shentong view was Vedanta-oriented.[4]


Templeton theorizes that disputes based on philosophical differences are based on the fact that the great reformer and founder of the Geluk school Tsong Khapa(1357-1419) had studied with Bodong Chog-la Namgyal, another great Jonang-pa, and was well versed in the Shentong view, but didn’t feel it necessary to make a distinction.


Another solid reason the Jonang-pas and their Shentong view lost their clout has to do with the death of one of their political and possibly economical supporters Karma Tan Kyong, the ruler of the Tsang district of Tibet. Karma had resisted all the conversion efforts of the Fifth Dalai Lama. Karma Tan Kyong was killed by a Mongol warrior in 1612, leaving the Jonang sect without political support or protection against the conversion of the Great Fifth.


Though many of Taranatha’s writings have been disputed, his studies and dedication to the Kalachakra Tantra give us a clue to how and where the Shentong view has sustained itself in a heavy Rangtong environment. In one of the interviews I did for this paper[5], I was told that in Tibetan monasteries today the Shentong view is not taught at all. Each of the four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Geluk teach the Prasangika Madhyamika perspective of Rangtong. Only if the monks are studying the Kalachakra Tantra do they study anything about Shentong. The Kalachakra Tantra was taught by the Buddha. The monk I interviewed thought that though the Kalachakra is taught from a Shentong view, it largely relies on the visualization of oneself as deity, which in itself could be a fusion of the Shentong/Rangtong views. I have taken the Kalachakra initiation three times over the past 30 years and don’t recall any discussion about Rangtong/Shentong. Neither did I find reference to it in the texts I have on the tantra. This leads me to the conclusion that this distinction was not necessary for the goals of the initiation.


Back to Buddha’s ABC’s


By going back to some of Buddha’s foundational teachings, we can see that the Rangtong/Shentong views are not contradictions, and neither do they pose a dilemma. Rather, they serve to emphasize and prove what the Buddha taught in the first place. First we will look at the teachings of the Two Truths, Ultimate and Conventional. The Sakya/Geluk monk I interviewed said that the Shentong view is not emphasized because the Rangtong view held by the Prasangika Madhyamikas is superior in all the four main sects of Tibetan Buddhism. The Rangtong view deals with the ultimate truth or view and the Shentong deals with the conventional.[6]


In the classic text “Mind training Like Rays of the Sun” by Nam-kha Pel, great disciple and scribe of Je Tsongkhapa, cultivating the conventional awakening mind and cultivating the ultimate awakening mind are described in terms that place them, respectively, in a Shentong Rangtong distinction.[7] Note distinction, not dilemma. One must recognize the conventional view before being able to grasp the ultimate view. One does not oppose the other, as in a dilemma, one leads to the other, as in a gateway. In this way the Shentong Rangtong views support each other and are not causes for bias.


Sometimes You’re the Bug, Sometimes You’re the Windshield[8]


The second basic teaching we will look at is that of the three types of containers, or people. Buddha taught that of humans, there are three types, that of lower, middle and higher types. [9]Taking this into consideration it makes sense that some teachings could be interpreted from a Shentong view, because that viewpoint provides the correct inroad for that individual or group. In another case he might teach in a way that could be interpreted in a Rangtong view, for the same reason. This can also explain why some of Buddha’s teachings are seen as contradictory. Yes, Buddha taught there is a self, AND he taught there is no self. This was in response to the type of container or capacity his students were at the time. To teach “no self” to some people would not be useful to opening them to their Buddha Nature. For others it would. In this way, the Shentong Rangtong distinction points to different human capacities.


Do and Don’t Believe What I Say


The third teaching we will look at is that of the Two Types of teachings, definitive and interpretable. A definitive teaching on the other hand is one that needs no further clarification. An interpretable teaching is one that needs more unpacking. Of the two types of teachings, it is the interpretable teachings that we westerners especially run the risk of running aground. Geshe Tsultrim Gyeltsen defines an interpretable teachings as “one that, if it were accepted as it is literally presented, would cause misunderstanding.”[10] He goes on to say that ‘when we don’t know how to differentiate between the definitive and interpretive teachings of the Buddha, we get really confused.” Jeffrey Hopkins devotes an entire chapter of his book Meditation on Emptiness to this point.[11] His Holiness the Dalai Lama commented on this as well, saying “The intended meaning of a text can differ greatly from the meaning conveyed by the words with which the text is written.”[12]





Taken in this way, why must we struggle with the Rangtong Shentong dilemma? There is nothing in the term Tatagatagharba that provokes us to explore a distinction of Rangtong/Shentong. Tatagata is a word for Buddha and garbha means heart, or essence.


Is it really a dilemma after all? If the desired result is the accumulation of causes and conditions that will help our Buddha Nature fruit, why must we concern ourselves with the different view of emptiness? I agree with S.K. Hookham on the point that the Rangtong/Shentong distinction brings these “subtle, unacknowledged concepts” into the foreground where the can be properly acknowledged and addressed.” Like the tension caused by two magnets held close to each other, the discussion of these issues forces our minds to stretch out of our conventional everyday thought patterns. This can be a good thing, especially when infused with a warm heart. It can lead us to contributing a greater compassion and understanding to our daily lives. In this way the third turning holds some viable antidotes to our troubled world, and the first vajra point, focusing on the Buddha we all can become is a good entry point to local and global change.


It is possible that we as westerners are making too big of a deal by positing the Rangtong/Shentong distinction as a dilemma. Rather we should focus on the concept of continuum, or essence of Buddha Nature. This has a very relevant meaning when viewed through the chaotic war-riddled condition of the world today, If more people could reconcile the idea of tatagatagarbha with the same meaning as the light of Christ or Allah or Oneness which resides in all of us, and recognize that we are all of the same family with the propensity to propagate the enlightened qualities of our lineage- we might have a chance at turning our world around.




Chandrakirti, trans. Padmakara Group. Introduction to the Middle Way; Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara. Boston: Shambhala, 2003


Gelek, Rinchen. Personal Interview.Fairfax, CA: April, 2011


Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998


Gyatso, Tenzin and Alexander Berzin, trans. Buddha-Nature; Day One of a Discourse on Uttaratantra. Bodh Gaya, India: 1982


Gyatso, Tenzin and Berzin, Alexander. The Geluk/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1997


Gyatso, Ven. Lobsang. The Harmony of Emptiness and Dependent-Arising. Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1992


Gyeltsen, Geshe Tsultrim. Mirror of Wisdom; Teachings on Emptiness. Long Beach, Ca: Thubten Dhargye Ling Publishers, 2000


Hopkins, Jeffrey. Meditation on Emptiness. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1983


Hookham, S. K. The Buddha Within; Tathagatagarbha Doctrine According to the Shentong Interpretation of the Ratnagatravivhaga. New York: State University of New York Press

Lekden, Kensur. trans. Jeffrey Hopkins. Meditations of a Tibetan Tantric Abbot. Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1974


Maitreya, Arya. Buddha-Nature; The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra with Commentary. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publishers, 2000


Pel, Nam-kha. Mind Training Like Rays of the Sun. . Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1992


Shannon, Susan. Exploring the Ri-Me Movement. 2010



Templeman, David, trans. The Origin of Tara Tantra. Dharamsala, India: . Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1981



Tulku, Ringu. The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. Boston: Shambhala Publishers, 2007


Wilson, Joe, trans. Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning:Meditation on the Selflessness of Persons. Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1980




[1] Ringu Tulku. The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (Boston:Shambhala. 2007)

[2] David Templeman, trns. The Origins of Tara Tantra (LTWA-India. 1981) viii

[3] Ringu Tulku. “The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great”(Boston:Shambhala. 2007) 216


[4] ibid. 224

[5] Rinchen Gelek, former Sakya and Geluk monk, translator. Personal interview 2011

[6] S.K. Hookham transposes these qualities in his article The Buddha Within

[7] Nam-kha Pel. Mind Training Like Rays of the Sun (India: LTWA) 42, 107

[8] Mark Knopfler, Dire Straits

[9] Kensur Lekden. Meditations of a Tibetan Tantric Abbot (India: LTWA 1974) 93.

[10] Geshe Tsultrim Gyeltsen.Mirror of Wisdom (California:TDLP. 2000) 74.

[11] Jeffrey Hopkins, trans., Mediation on Emptiness (Boston: Wisdom Publications. 1983) 595.

[12] Tenzin Gyatso. Buddha-Nature, Day One of a Discourse on Uttaratantra (Bodh Gaya.1982)

[powr-hit-counter id=d919c8b2_1483896551267]

Home is Where the Heart is