The Theosophy of Tsongkhapa

Tsongkhapa is an extremely significant figure in Tibetan Buddhism. His impact has been compared to that of Thomas Aquinas in the west (Dargyay 55) and his philosophy has been credited with initiating a “Copernican revolution” in his tradition (Reigle 1999). He is also particularly revered in the Theosophical tradition. David Reigle writes in Tsongkhapa and the Wisdom Tradition that, in addition to being a Buddha incarnation, he is "seen in Theosophical writings as being not only the reformer of exoteric Buddhism and the founder of the Gelugpa order, but also as the reformer of the esoteric teachings that we may call the Wisdom Tradition, and the founder, or at least re-organizer, of the secret school or Brotherhood in Tibet that the Mahatma/Bodhisattva teachers behind the Theosophical movement belonged to." With the translation of a great many of Tsongkhapa's writings into English, students of Theosophy have been made aware of some apparent discrepancies between his teachings and those of Theosophy. These are laid out by David Reigle in the above cited essay. As we will soon see these issues are merely illusory.

The First Fundamental Proposition of the Secret Doctrine

The first fundamental proposition of the Secret Doctrine teaches that there is an Absolute that is an "Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless, and Immutable PRINCIPLE...which antecedes all manifested, conditioned, being" (Blavatsky 2014, 14). Reigle finds that this principle agrees very well with the “Great Madhyamaka” conception of the Jonang school that there is an inherently existent ultimate reality that is “other-empty” compared to the ever changing world of appearances, which is self-empty. The ultimate reality is empty of everything that is not itself, everything other (1999). Tsongkhapa refutes this and asserts that there is no ultimate nature to anything, only emptiness which is itself empty of any inherent being. Thus it is “self-empty.” The contrast appears very stark.[1]

This tension begins to resolve itself, however, in a footnote in David's paper Theosophy in Tibet. Referring to the current Dalai Lama's book The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, he writes “the 14th Dalai Lama states and provides considerable evidence that Tsongkhapa may in fact have held that there are two different correct views of reality, one of which is equivalent to a particular ‘empty of other’ (gzhan stong) view.”

In this volume the Dalai Lama writes:

Tsongkhapa… had received numerous mahamudra teachings[2], for example from Lama Umapa, one of his Karma Kagyu teachers, following the tradition of the latter's Drugpa Kagyu master, Barawa Gyeltsen-zangpo, disciple of the Third Karmapa, Rangjung-dorjey. Yongdzin Yeshey-gyelten had mentioned, as recorded by Gungtangzang, that Tsongkhapa had told another of his teachers, Rendawa, that he had an uncommon guideline teaching based on the mahamudra explanations of maha-madhyamaka, or great madhyamaka, but it was not yet time to propagate them widely (1997, 230).

Tsongkhapa’s Sakya teacher Rendawa was himself a vehement opponent of the Jonang view of ultimate reality. However even he asserted other-emptiness in his later writings. He writes:

All the phenomena of luminosity, the nature of original mind, are absolute truth. And not because it has been proven able to withstand reasoned analysis... It is the absolute because it is a nonconceptual field of experience. Because the incidental stains are absent, it is empty of other, and because it is experienced through a discriminating self-awareness, it is not a nihilistic emptiness and an inanimate emptiness (Stearns 59).

The Dalai Lama writes that “Kaydrubjey, in his Miscellaneous Writings, has asserted that although Rendawa's and Tsongkhapa's writings on the topic have different manners of expression, they come down to the same thing” (1997, 235). The Dalai Lama ties all this in with a “restricted” Mahamudra teaching that Tsongkhapa had delivered “to Gungru Gyeltsen-zangpo and some others at Gaden Jangtsey Monastery” (230). He reinforces this further with evidence from many individuals who received Tsongkhapa’s unique Mahamudra lineage. This may be further supplemented by evidence from Michael Sheehy, who demonstrates that Gungru Gyeltsen and another direct disciple of Tsongkhapa, Khunkhyen Lodro Rinchen Senge, write positively of other-emptiness in their recently rediscovered writings.

The Dalai Lama explicates Tsongkhapa's other-empty in terms of what is known in Vajryana as primordially pure light mind. The Dalai Lama writes that

…we can present primordial, simultaneously arising clear light mind as "other-voidness" – it is devoid of everything other, namely it is devoid of all fabricating levels of mind and their mental fabrications, from the three unconscious, most subtle, conceptual appearance-making minds of threshold, light-diffusion and appearance-congealment onwards. Primordial, simultaneously arising clear light mind of deep awareness, the foundation responsible for the appearance-making and appearance of everything of samsara or nirvana, is devoid in the sense of not being any of the coarser, fleeting levels, starting from the three most subtle conceptual minds (1997, 235).

So the light mind is other empty in that it is empty of being conceptual and of all fleeting adventitious defilements. In this sense, it is immutable and eternal. As the simultaneously arisen basis of samsara and nirvana, it is omnipresent and boundless. The Dalai Lama continues:

When we speak of clear light mind as primally pure, we are referring to its devoid nature – its nature of being devoid of all fantasized and impossible ways of existing. Something's being devoid, from the depths, of any fantasized and impossible manner of existence as its nature fulfills the definition of being a self-voidness – a voidness of a self-nature. When we go on to speak of clear light mind as also spontaneously establishing the appearance-making and appearance of all phenomena, we understand a type of other-voidness that is based on this (1997, 235-236).

In addition to being other-empty (or other-void), the light mind is self-empty. It is void of "impossible ways of existing" i.e. it does not exist inherently; it is not ultimately established by rational analysis. It is a self-emptiness and this is primarily what distinguishes it from the Jonang tradition.

The Madhyamaka doctrine of self-emptiness is intimately connected with the doctrine of dependent origination, with which it is ultimately identical. Self-emptiness is the lack of intrinsic essence in all things, thus all things arise in dependence. Since all things arise in dependent origination (pratityasamutpada), they are essenceless, or empty. In one sense, dependent origination is the dependence of an object on its parts. Tsongkhapa gives as examples “persons, pots, and so forth.” All of these exist “without inherent establishment because of being imputed in dependence on their own collection [of parts]” (Hopkins 2008, 336). The constituent parts of these objects may be further broken down into parts, and so on, ad infinitum. In addition to this there is "dependence on a basis of imputation and in dependence upon conceptuality that imputes it" (356). This dependent origination applies even in the case of permanent and “uncompounded phenomena” like the noumenon, space, thusness, and analytical and non-analytical cessations (334-5). Examples of bases of imputation include “presentations of definiendum and definition, separative cause and separative effect, comprehension by such-and-such valid cognition, and so forth.” If ultimate and uncompounded objects could exist without being dependently originated in this respect then any phenomena whatsoever could. Further, since uncompounded phenomena can exist just fine without doing so inherently, there is no good reason to posit inherent existence in these cases (334-5).

There is also another sense of dependent origination, though. This is dependent origination as the doctrine of causality as seen in the relation between fuel and fire, seed and sprout, etc. Lal Mani Joshi writes:

Causality, reality, efficiency and momentariness are interchangeable terms… Existence means efficiency. This efficiency is nothing but the capacity to produce or cause something. This something is nothing but the point-instant, the efficient moment, caused by the preceding efficient moment. The universe is a moving show of these momentary entities that are the causes themselves. “Whatsoever exists is a cause; cause and existence are synonymous…” Causation is kinetic. What exists is always acting, always moving; it is an illusion that a thing exists placidly, that it exists without acting; what does not act, does not exist; action is motion, this motion itself is causation (201).

This ties in with the second fundamental proposition of the Secret Doctrine, i.e. the "absolute universality of that law of periodicity, of flux and reflux, ebb and flow" (Blavatsky 2014, 17). H.P.B. writes: “That which is motionless cannot be Divine. But then there is nothing in fact and reality absolutely motionless within the universal soul” (2) and “Consciousness is inconceivable to us apart from change, and motion best symbolizes change, its essential characteristic” (14).

This change, motion, and “ebb and flow” that emptiness brings about has enormous implications on the level of the individual. Because of our dependently originated nature, or rather lack of inherent nature, there is no limit to how much we can change. “We can think of emptiness as like the clear, blue sky—a transparent space that is wide open. We are not blocked, obstructed, or tied down,” writes Guy Newland, explicating the role of emptiness in Tsongkhapa’s thought (7).

Further, because all things are empty they depend on everything else; they are interconnected. The Dalai Lama writes that the more we understand dependent origination, the more we may “begin to see that the whole universe we inhabit can be understood as a living organism where each cell works in balanced cooperation with every other cell to sustain the whole.” Because things exist in this way, they exist without duality and this interconnection implies a moral duty towards others. “If then, just one of these cells is harmed, as when disease strikes, that balance is harmed and there is danger to the whole. This, in turn, suggests that our individual well-being is intimately connected with that of all others and with the environment within which we live,” he writes. “It also becomes apparent that our every action, our every deed, word, and thought, no matter how slight or inconsequential it may seem, has an implication not only for ourselves but all others, too” (1999a, 40-1).

Fortunately, there are no built-in limitations to how compassionate we can grow. “Right now, our powers to help others may be limited, but emptiness is the lack of chains preventing us from becoming more wise and loving,” Newland writes. “It is the absence of bars on the door, the freedom from any built-in limit on what we can be. How wise can we become? How loving? When we wonder about this, let’s not impose limitations that are not part of reality...” (7).

Returning to a more macroscopic perspective, the Tantric traditions which Tsongkhapa and the Gelug tradition have commented on and regard as authoritative speak of the world arising from the nature of mind, luminous clear light. Nagarjuna’s disciple Aryadeva writes, “The entire world is dependent [on a cause], for something independent can never arise. Its [the world’s] cause is luminosity (prabhasvara); luminosity is the universal void (sarva-sunya)” (Reigle 2013b). The Kalachakra Tantra calls this level of mind “the space vajra pervasive with space” (Berzin 2003). It is called the space vajra because it is “the space-like exalted wisdom of clear light, which is of an undifferentiable entity with the space-like reality of the emptiness of inherent existence” (Dalai Lama 1999b, 258). It may thus be correlated with the “absolute abstract Space” of the Theosophical Absolute which represents “bare subjectivity” (Blavatsky 2014, 14). McCagney writes that “the image of space,” which is understood to be luminous, “is the root metaphor for Nagarjuna’s conception of sunyata [emptiness or voidness]” (xi).[3] In Nagarjuna’s understanding, “all events, and most importantly, samsara and nirvana, are not distinct because they are all like the sky, like [luminous] space (akasa), without limits or boundaries which separate and distinguish them” (xx). To lack a distinct existence while appearing to have one is to exist like an illusion. Thus in Theosophy, space (or voidness) is “our objective universe in the sense of its unreality and illusiveness” (Blavatsky 1930, 200). The emptiness of all dharmas is limitless and boundless like space while these dharmas at the same time inhabit a boundless and infinite space. This “space” is the dharmadhatu (Reigle 2013d) and the dharmadhatu is identical with the space vajra (Vesna Wallace 153). Theosophical Space is also “the field for the operation of the eternal Forces and natural Law, the basis… upon which take place the eternal intercorrelations of Akasa-Prakriti [space-substance], guided by the unconscious regular pulsations of Sakti [energy]…” (Blavatsky 1968, 423).

The account of luminosity bringing about the world may be complimented with the sutra account of the world arising from the collective karma of sentient beings in the form of primordial wind (Reigle 2013a). Reigle writes: “According to Buddhism, karma is not just action per se but rather is volitional action, and there can be no volitional action without mind. So the nature of mind, luminosity, must be there for karma to occur” (Reigle 2013b). This primordial wind can be correlated with prana and the unmanifested “great breath,” or maha-prana, of the Stainless Light Commentary on the Kalachakra Tantra (Reigle 2013d). The ultimate reality “is a life-principle, or a sublime prana (mahaprana), which pervades the entire universe, manifesting itself in different forms. As such, it is said to be present within the heart of every sentient being. As a sublime prana, it is recognized as the source of all utterances, even though it is unutterable itself.” (Vesna Wallace 152-3). The Secret Doctrine likewise informs us that “absolute abstract Motion,” another aspect of the Absolute, may also be called “The Great Breath,” which represents “the perpetual motion of the universe” (Blavatsky 2014, 2).

Luminosity and wind are like a rider and its mount. The Dalai Lama writes that “Tsongkhapa has mentioned that the inanimate environment and the animate beings within it are all the play or emanation of subtlest consciousness and subtlest energy-wind—in other words, simultaneously arising primordial clear light mind and the subtlest level of energy-wind upon which it rides.” The Jnanavajra-samuccaya-tantra likewise says that the “very consciousness that is arisen from luminosity is mind (citta), thought (manas). All dharmas, having the nature of defilement and purification, have that [luminosity] as their root. From that [luminosity] come the two [false] conceptions, self and other. That consciousness has wind as its vehicle.” The Book of Dzyan as translated in the Secret Doctrine likewise says that “Fohat [cosmic prana] is the steed and the thought is the rider.”[4] Aptly summing this esoteric tradition up, the Dalai Lama writes: “This is the Buddhist explanation for what is called the creator in other traditions” (Reigle 2015a).

These two, simultaneously arising clear light mind and its pranic energy wind, are seen to be a single element in the final analysis. The Dalai Lama writes that from the perspective of Vajrayana "at the most fundamental level, no absolute division can be made between mind and matter. Matter in its subtlest form is prana, a vital energy which is inseparable from consciousness. These two are different aspects of an indivisible reality. Prana is the aspect of mobility, dynamism, and cohesion, while consciousness is the aspect of cognition and the capacity for reflective thinking" (2005, 110). Tsongkhapa understood that these two, mind and matter, are mutually entailed. Douglas Duckworth writes that “by unrelentingly affirming the duality of external objects and internal minds, Tsongkhapa implicitly collapses this duality… as an ultimate structure of the world. He does so by showing that internality cannot exist without externality, and thus that the notions of an internal mind and external matter are both co-constituting, conceptual constructions” (2015b, 213). This takes us right to Theosophy’s primordial plastic element that is not yet differentiated into either mind or matter. William Judge writes that “the whole universe is made of spirit [or mind] and matter, both constituting together the Absolute. What is not in matter is spirit, and what is not in spirit is matter; but there is no particle of matter without spirit, and no particle of spirit without matter” (70).

Primordially pure luminosity (and energy wind) is universal; it gives rise to the “macrocosmic evolution/emanation of the known universe.” According to Tsongkhapa it is “mother luminosity” (Sparham 21). It may be identified with the Theosophical Alaya (or alayavijnana) i.e. the Over-Soul of the third fundamental proposition (“Alaya”). Many Tibetan Buddhist traditions also identify light mind with alayavijnana but the Gelugpas avoid this terminology (Berzin 2002) for reasons we shall discuss in the next section. However they do acknowledge that “alayavijnana” such as it used by Nagarjuna and the tantras refers broadly to cognition (Dargyay 63) and “the mental consciousness that takes rebirth” (Hopkins 1996, 388), while “clear light subtlest level of consciousness underlies every moment of cognition” (Berzin 2012) as well as being the basis of rebirth for sentient beings (Jinpa 141). So this terminology is not entirely inappropriate even from a Gelug perspective.

This leads us into the next point: we may say that each sentient being has its own individual pure light mind which exists latently, covered by numerous adventitious defilements (Preece 280-2); our mindstreams have been impure from beginingless time but have the potential to be purified (Jinpa 139). For Tsongkhapa, the light mind as it is cultivated in the process of individual meditation is “child luminosity” which may come to mingle with “mother luminosity,” or Dharmakaya, thus becoming aware of ultimate reality (Sparham 21). Likewise in the modern Theosophical tradition Manas must be purified so the latent potential light of Buddhi, a ray of Alaya or Atman, may shine forth (“Alaya”). So we may say that the realization of the individuated primordially pure light mind is in Theosophical parlance the union of higher Manas with Buddhi.

So what is this ultimate reality that the light mind looks upon? For Tsongkhapa, ultimate reality is not ultimate in the sense that it inherently exists: “It can be said that the ultimate is other-empty in that the ultimate is not the conventional, but it is empty of inherent existence, and thus the ultimate is a self-emptiness and thus an empty emptiness” (Hopkins 2008, 355). Rather, it is ultimate truth because it appears as true to “a [rational] consciousness of meditative equipoise directly realizing emptiness” (332). So for Tsongkhapa, ultimate reality is emptiness itself. Aryadeva writes that “he who sees one sees all; for voidness of one thing is the voidness of all things, voidness is the nature of all things” (Joshi 205). Commenting on this, Tsongkhapa's famous disciple Gyel-tsap writes:

Whoever sees one thing's fundamental mode of existence which is its emptiness of inherent existence is said to see the reality of all things... It is like the following analogy: By drinking one drop of sea-water you know the rest is salty. 'That which is the emptiness of one thing is the emptiness of all' means this very emptiness of true existence is the fundamental mode of existence of all phenomena. It does not appear in different ways as do blue and yellow (Aryadeva and Gyel-tsap 104).[5]

Jeffrey Hopkins clarifies that “the extraordinary mode of the direct [nondual] cognition of emptiness—in which the object, emptiness, and the subject, the wisdom consciousness, are undifferentiable like fresh water poured into fresh water—allows for cognition of the emptiness of all objects” (1996, 193-4).

Emptiness is undifferentiable because it is in nondual union with its dependently arisen appearances (Jinpa 182). Dependently originated appearances “do exist, but they do not at all exist on their own; they are ascribed, imputed, designated.” They are conceptually “sliced out” (Newland 2011, 64) of nondual reality as it is actually is; in actuality everything arises in dependence on everything else and nothing exists in isolation. Dependently originated appearances are nondual because they lack inherent existence; they are empty. The Stainless Light says that “conventional reality has the form of emptiness and emptiness has the form of conventional reality” (Vesna Wallace 154). Tsongkhapa likewise writes: “Appearance dispels absolutist extremism and emptiness dispels nihilism; when emptiness dawns as cause and effects, you will not be deprived by any extremist views” (Thurman 1984, 170). For Tsongkhapa “it is in Nirvana that samsara is embraced completely. In the ultimate reality, there is no duality of any sort, and samsara and Nirvana are the same actuality” (159). Along these lines, we have seen previously that mind and matter are fundamentally isolates of the same element. It is also the case, however, that this element is identical with its emptiness. As we read in the Vimalakirti Sutra:

Matter itself is void. Voidness does not result from the destruction of matter, but the nature of matter is itself voidness. Therefore, to speak of voidness on the one hand, and of matter, or of sensation, or of intellect, or of motivation, or of consciousness on the otheris entirely dualistic. Consciousness itself is voidness. Voidness does not result from the destruction of consciousness, but the nature of consciousness is itself voidness (Thurman 2000, 74-5).

H.P.B. likewise writes that the Absolute is both “limitless void” and “conditioned fullness.” But it is only voidness insofar as it concerns the “finite minds” of sentient beings and only fullness according to “mayavic [illusory] perception” (2014, 8). In and of itself the Theosophical Absolute is impossible to speculate on “since it transcends the power of human conception and could only be dwarfed by any human expression or similitude. It is beyond the range and reach of thought - in the words of Mandukya [Upanishad], ‘unthinkable and unspeakable’” (14). H.P.B. writes that “absolute existence” can’t be pictured to “our imagination as any form of existence that we can distinguish from Non-existence” (43). This may be supplemented with the recent finding of John Abramson who cuts the Gordian knot of Absolutist and non-Absolutist scholarly accounts of emptiness.[6] He maintains that emptiness is indeed empty of itself in the realm of conventional discourse but from the ultimate perspective nothing can be asserted about it. These two levels of discourse are thus seen to be mutually supportive.

This is true also for Tsongkhapa. For him, conventional knowledge is crucial to realizing ultimate reality. Guy Newland asks: “Without reliable information from our senses, how could we even infer that appearances even to those very senses are deceptive? In Tsongkhapa's system the foundation for the bridge between benighted ordinary existence and the awakening of buddhahood is the aspect of reliability in ordinary, healthy minds” (2011, 69). Tsongkhapa “has the audacity to argue that the Absolute, the Ultimate Truth, Reality, can be proven, expressed, and experienced, and that human reason can thus serve as the solid ground for ethical, creative, and liberative action in the world” (Thurman 1984, 150-1). He maintains that from the perspective of dualistic wisdom, the realization of ultimate reality (which is other-empty in that it is empty of being the conventional) is an object which is experienced by a subject, clear light mind of transcendent wisdom (which is other-empty in that it is empty of being a conceptual layer of mind) although from the perspective of one in meditative equipoise it is “fresh water poured into fresh water”; there is no distinction. Nondual wisdom is thus supported by the dual wisdom of conventional, empirical reality. “Just as nondual wisdom requires dual empirical wisdom as its grounding, so dual empirical wisdom requires nondual wisdom to validate its epistemic authority” (Thakchoe 2007, 126). However this duality of dual and nondual wisdom too is just another example of the interdependence of all things, and thus the lack of duality in all things; dual wisdom is based on concepts and “allows us to distinguish suffering from happiness, persons from rocks, virtue from nonvirtue” whereas nondual wisdom is simply things as they actually exist (Newland 2011, 59-60).

From the perspective of dualistic wisdom, the nondual experience of ultimate reality is indeed the union of emptiness and appearance. This, however, is only a “concordant ultimate.” That is to say, it is concordant with the ultimate as it is actually experienced but is not itself that ultimate (Vose 102-4). On the level of the conventional, nothing is free of conceptual designation, not even nirvana (B. Wallace 69), but the ultimate as it is actually experienced by the meditator is beyond conceptual thought (Vose 102-4).[7] Tsongkhapa writes that if “there is anything expressible from the ultimate standpoint it should be expressed. From the ultimate standpoint, however, what is to be expressed has ceased, and thus it appears to be nonexistent.” This non-conceptual experience is nothing other than the experience of nirvana (Thakchoe 2007, 88). Thurman sums up Tsongkhapa’s Absolute and its relation to the conventional well: “Everything disappears in ultimacy-seeking experience; ultimate reality is by definition transcendent and undifferentiated. And yet the world is not destroyed. It is there on the surface, when not subjected to absolutist standards. In a sense it is the surface of the ultimate, which is ultimately one inconceivably multifaceted surface” (1984, 168).

 

The Third Fundamental Proposition of the Secret Doctrine

 

As we saw in the previous section the individuated primordial mind of pure light may be identified with the Over-Soul of the third proposition. This terminology derives from the Yogacara school where it is understood as the "storehouse consciousness" of karmic impressions. All of material existence is understood to be derivative of these karmic traces stored in the alayavijnana consciousness. Thus it is an idealist view where everything is merely a mode of consciousness. Tsongkhapa rejects this. So where does this leave Theosophy? To find out we must examine the Prasangika Madhyamaka tradition to which Tsongkhapa adhered and which H.P.B. judges superior to Yogacara and to hold the “views… of the most secret Schools” (Blavatsky 1985, 439).

Jan Westerhoff, in a piece entitled Nagarjuna's Yogacara, addresses Nagarjuna's views on Yogacara and the alayavijnana. Westerhoff cites Nagarjuna's Bodhicittavivarana to demonstrate “a circular dependence structure” between mind and matter. He writes:

[M]atter existentially depends on consciousness in the way the Yogacarin [indicates], but it's also the case that consciousness depends on matter (and, more specifically, on the body), since without matter there would be no manifestation of consciousness. As such the mind is also a mere name, an empty superimposition on a material basis. This leads to the rejection of the well-known ontological distinction between objects deemed ontologically fundamental (such as subatomic particles, property-instances, sense data) and those considered derivable and definable in terms of them (such as macroscopic objects and composite mental events) (174).

The same is also true for Nagarjuna's authoritative interpreter Candrakirti. C.W. Huntington writes:

For Candrakirti, as for classical Samkhya, consciousness is ultimately defined only in the context of its relationship with a subjective (mental) and objective (material) 'other.' But for Candrakirti it is equally true that this other, the observed, is defined exclusively as it appears to the observer. He is explicit—and adamant—about this point. Not only is consciousness an unavoidable 'nothingness' in our experience of self and world; mental and physical objects are as well a similarly unavoidable 'nothingness' in consciousness. It is in the nature of both the observer and the observed to appear as what they are not, for neither exists outside of their relationship with the other. They are unreifiable, unlocatable, 'empty' of intrinsic being, and entirely dependent on each other for both their existence and for any meaning they might (or might not) possess (311).[8]

With this groundwork laid we can determine the nature of the alayavijnana that Tsongkhapa rejects. In his final written views on alayavijnana he repudiates the alayavijnana as having undue ontological weight relative to external objects, basically reiterating what Nagarjuna said. He writes that the alayavijna would make “shapes, sounds, etc... mere appearances without objective content” whereas in actuality “the ontological status of a knowable and knowing are equated. If one were not to exist the other would not either” (Sparham 21-2). Tsongkhapa's celebrated disciple Kaydrubjey says the same thing in his rejection of the alayavijnana in his Stong Thun Chen Mo. He writes that if one accepted the alayavijnana “it would be necessary to accept that everything that appears, both in the external world and internally within the bodies of sentient beings, is the mere appearance of the evolution... of the latent potentialities of the foundation consciousness” (Dge-legs-dpal-bzan-po 317-8). Since as we have seen earlier Theosophy also rejects the notion that consciousness has more ontological primacy than substance there is no contradiction here.

We saw earlier that the Over-Soul is identical with the pre-individuated primordial mind of pure light. That being the case, where do the karmic impressions reside? For Tsongkhapa the “mere I, which is the object of our instinctual I-consciousness, is the basis upon which karmic imprints are said to be carried from successive stages of an individual's personal life history” (Jinpa 129). In line with the Madhyamaka tradition that preceded him (Arnold 2010), Tsongkhapa asserts that the self or the “mere apprehension of I and mine is [conventionally] valid” (Hopkins 1996, 194). He writes: “There are two senses of ‘self’: (1) one that is conceived with a nature that is essentially real and (2) one that is held in mind with the mere thought ‘I am’. The former is an object of negation by reasoning and the latter is not negated, for it is maintained to be conventionally real” (Duckworth 2015b, 211). Evan Thompson helpfully clarifies this conventionally real self from the perspective of phenomenology. He writes:

…there is no need to suppose that ‘I’ or ‘me’ corresponds to an enduring entity with an existence separate or somehow distinct from the stream of mind–body events. Rather, the ‘I’ picks out the stream from its own self-individuating phenomenal perspective. To use an Indian turn of phrase, we could say that the stream is fundamentally I-making (ahamkara) (179).

When we realize the primordial mind of pure light this “expand[s] the horizon of an individual's basis of designation for his or her own self. In other words, it broadens the scope of a person's natural, intuitive I-consciousness” (Jinpa 141). Thus karmic impressions are “imputed on the conventional ‘me’ that can be imputed on the continuum of clear light subtlest mind” (Berzin 2012).[9] The light mind “also gives greater explanatory power to the pan-Buddhist theory of rebirth. For Buddhists can now argue that continuity through successive lives is ensured through the uninterrupted continuum of this subtle mind of clear light” (Jinpa 141).

There is still more to say about the karmic impressions, however. As we learned in the previous section, “subtlest mind and energy-wind are forever inseparable. In fact, all levels of mind operate on the basis of some form of energy-wind, from which they are indivisible.” In tantric traditions revered by the Gelugpas such as the Guhyasamaja Tantra, “[k]armic ‘seeds’ or tendencies, as well as karmic potentials, come along with the stream of continuity of our subtlest mind and energy-wind. They are not an integral part of the package, however. Like karma itself, they are subtle forms that merely give a temporary shape to the flow of our subtlest energy-wind” (Berzin 2010, 56-7). Complementing this, B. Alan Wallace writes of theKalachakra tradition that “karmic imprints (vasana), memories, and so on are carried from one life to the next by way of the jiva, a continuum, or field, of prana that accompanies the continuum of subtle consciousness that carries from lifetime to lifetime” (Vimal). Likewise in Theosophy the karmic traces are stored in a field of subtle prana called the auric egg (Hesselink).[10]

 

Self-Reflexive Awareness

 

David Reigle brought a third issue to the attention of Theosophists in a post on the Theosophy Nexus forum: svasamvedana, “self-reflexive awareness” or simply “self-awareness.” In the Buddhist tradition, self-reflexivity is identified with luminosity (Williams 20). Along with the alayavijnana, Tsongkhapa rejects svasamvedana in his “eight difficult points.” Conversely, HPB accepts it (2013b) and identifies it as paramartha, which may be translated “the highest or whole truth, spiritual knowledge.” This is the opposite of samvriti, which is merely relative truth (“Paramartha”).

Before we begin, it will be useful to define a couple of key terms: “intentionality” and “foundationalism.” Intentionality is the quality of mental states that is directed towards their objects; it is a defining mark of consciousness and subjective experience. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy sums it up: "If I think about a piano, something in my thought picks out a piano. If I talk about cigars, something in my speech refers to cigars. This feature of thoughts and words, whereby they pick out, refer to, or are about things, is intentionality. In a word, intentionality is aboutness" (O’Madagain).

Epistemological foundationalism, on the other hand, is the view that “there exist some foundational cognitions or beliefs (1) which are either self-evident or self-justifying or, at the least, not evident or justified by reference to any other cognitions or beliefs and (2) upon which all other cognitions or beliefs are founded insofar as they can be derived therefrom by an acceptable method” (Drummond 52). Examples of this include Descartes cogito argument and, in the Indian context, the Nyaya school’s assertion of foundational epistemic instruments (pramanas). Foundationalist accounts are supposedly able to withstand analysis into the ultimate nature of things (Bernier). The Madhyamaka alternative to this view is a variety of coherentism in which the epistemic instruments are justified by their epistemic objects (prameyas) and vice versa. “We are entitled to rely on epistemic instruments… just because they deliver epistemic objects; we are entitled in turn to confidence in our judgments about our epistemic objects just because they are delivered by these epistemic instruments” (Garfield 2010, 344). In other words pramanas and prameyas are dependently originated.

There are several conceptions of svasamvedana that are posited in the Indian Buddhist tradition and modern philosophy of the mind. The first is the nondual idealistic self-awareness of the Yogacara school. It is associated with Dignaga and Dharmakirti, exists on an ultimate level of discourse, and is considered the “foundation… and pinnacle of knowledge” (Duckworth 2015b, 207). Dan Arnold writes that it “seems to denote a special kind of (intentional) cognition—that kind, specifically, whose object is other cognitions.” Any cognition must be an object of svasamvedana in order to simply be a cognition on this account (2005, 77). Svasamvedana is “not only the means by which experience arises but also its content: everything, subjects and objects, arise in and as awareness. In this interpretation, experiential reality is nothing but awareness; the world is irreducibly singular (or rather, nondual) even though it presents itself as a duality of subjects and objects” (Duckworth 2015b, 208).

Tsongkhapa and other Prasangika Madhyamikas reject this conception because it is presented as a foundational source of knowledge and privileges consciousness over matter in much the same way as the Yogacara alayavijana (209). As we have seen previously Theosophy rejects the notion that consciousness has primacy over matter so this can’t be the Theosophical svasamvedana. The Prasangikas refute this conception by noting that “if consciousness is self-conscious and that if the two (consciousness and self-consciousness) exist in a non-dual relationship with one another, then that which is consciousness must be self-conscious, and that self-consciousness must be a consciousness which is also self-conscious, and so on” (Blumenthal 223). Thus, an infinite regress. It is also claimed that memory can only exist on account of this sort of self-awareness; since we remember being conscious there must have been a previous cognition of that conscious cognition. But Tsongkhapa notes that memory is only the case of a cognition of a previous object. He writes that “the previous state of consciousness perceives a previous object, and this is the cause of the effect, which is the later memory” (Garfield 2006, 220). It is not the cognition of a cognition of a previous object. If this is taken to be the case once again an infinite regress ensues (Blumenthal 224).

Closely related to the Yogacara account is the reflective self-awareness defended by modern philosophers David Armstrong and David Rosenthal. This self-awareness is a transitive cognition and “is the object of another cognition, a higher-order thought or perception.” It is a “second-order awareness or introspective cognition” (Duckworth 2015b, 209). Like the Yogacara account, this understanding also falls victim to an infinite regress (Caston 754).

The third sense is pre-reflective self-awareness. It is associated with Plato, Aristotle (Caston), Plotinus (Gerson 1997), the Buddhist thinkers Santaraksita and Mipham, and more recently with Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, and David Zahavi. This self-awareness, which is merely conventional, is “part in parcel with awareness [or intentionality] itself” and “is held to be an intransitive cognition without a direct object, not an awareness of something. Thus self-awareness is not known like any other cognized object” (Duckworth 2015b, 209). Dan Arnold writes that it is simply "whatever it is... that is constitutive of subjectivity” (2005, 77-8). This svasamvedana can’t take itself as its own object. Santaraksita’s disciple Kamalasila writes that self-awareness “does not mean that it is the cogniser of itself, what is meant is that it shines, becomes manifest by itself, by its very nature, just like the light diffused in the atmosphere” (Joshi 204-5). It infallibly delivers our conscious state even if we may misunderstand or incorrectly describe that state (Gerson 1997, 161). Although sometimes presented as foundationalist, this is true neither for the Buddhist (Bernier) nor the Continental formulation (Hopp).

Pre-reflective self-awareness also necessarily presupposes a witness-consciousness (saksin) such as may be found in Advaita Vedanta (Albahari 2009, Gupta 145-68). This “luminous” witness merely observes phenomena, not being the agent of any of them (Albahari 2009, 65). In Advaita, cognitions “are not present to themselves, as in the Yogacara view. Rather, conscious states are immediately present to the self as pure witnessing subjectivity. The Atman, as pure consciousness, is the source of illumination for any phenomenon whatsoever, ʻinternalʼ or ʻexternalʼ, and cannot itself become an object of cognition” (Mackenzie 183). Miri Albahari has recently made a strong philosophical case for its reality as a datum of experience (2009). Since H.P.B. writes that the highest level of consciousness can’t observe itself (1985, 439) she belongs to the pre-reflective, witness-consciousness tradition.

Paul Williams wrote a book (The Reflexive Nature of Awareness) in which he delineates the main senses of svasamvedana outlined above and defends the second one. This was followed by a study and translation of Santaraksita's Ornament of the Middle Way by James Blumenthal in which he noted that the arguments of Tsongkhapa and other Gelug thinkers are directed at the Yogacara conception rather than Santaraksita's formulation.

In response to these authors Jay Garfield wrote a paper titled The Conventional Status of Reflexive Awareness. In this paper Garfield defends the thesis that Tsongkhapa's arguments are directed at both senses of svasamvedana. This paper is very valuable for its translation and study of the classic Indian Prasangika Madhyamaka treatments of this issue. That said, it is also fatally flawed in its acceptance of an eliminativist, materialist account of the mind ala Paul and Patricia Churchland. Tom Tillemans has lately demonstrated that this understanding is incompatible with Madhyamaka. In addition to going against the Madhyamaka analysis of mind and matter as dependently originated it also runs afoul of the man in the street’s conventional understanding of reality, something philosophers of the Madhyamaka are very concerned to protect (2015). Garfield also takes himself to be defending public and conventional concepts along Madhyamaka lines but as Christian Coseru points out:

[T]he “public” and “conventional” character of concepts presupposes an intentional identification and application of those concepts, and that in turn necessitates reflexivity, which applies to consciousness as a whole: indeed, one recognizes and learns to apply publicly available concepts because one is capable of discerning them as such, that is, as categories that extend the intentional arc of conscious awareness (240).

Following on his eliminativist understanding of consciousness, Garfield posits that we do not have privileged access to our own minds. We know our own minds only inferentially like other people know our minds and often know it less well than they do. Although agreeing with Garfield’s reductionist enterprise Raziel Abelson considers this claim to be “unwarranted” and “dubious” and notes that the psychological study Garfield cites for this is “philosophically confused” and “deals only with intentions, not with… perceptual experiences” (342). Further, Tsongkhapa did in fact hold that individuals do have privileged access to their own minds except in exceptional circumstances such as those involving psychic activity (B. Wallace 67-9).

A linchpin of Garfield’s presentation is Paul Williams' association of svasamvedana with Descartes' foundationalist cogito argument. Paul Bernier wrote what is really a rebuttal to both Garfield and Williams by demonstrating that Descartes' cogito is contrary to Santaraksita and Mipham's svasamvedana, being as it is a supposedly ultimately established foundation for knowledge whereas svasamvedana is not presented or understood as such by either; it is conventional and therefore is obvious even to cowherds. Linking this controversy with current philosophical debates on “first person authority” and demonstrates that while the conventional assertion of the cogito argument inevitably results in assertion of it on the ultimate level this is not the case for svasamvedana.

To make his case Garfield analyzes several quotations from Tsongkhapa. The first of these refutes the notion that memory proves self-reflexivity (2006, 220). As Evan Thompson shows, however, these arguments have no purchase against the understanding of memory found in writers of the pre-reflective tradition such as Husserl (2011). Next, Garfield presents a quote refuting the notion that introspection demonstrates reflexive awareness (ala the reflective self-awareness view) by pointing out that “the denial of reflexive awareness is consistent with the distinction between subject and object with respect to all cognitive states that are directed inwards” (2006, 220). From this Garfield concludes: “When we are aware of our own inner states, we are aware of them as states of a particular kind. And, in general, this kind of conceptually characterized perception is mediated and fallible. In that case, mundane introspective consciousness should be taken to be mediated and fallible in the first place, and hence to provide no ground for positing reflexivity” (221). In reply to notions like this, Lloyd Gerson notes that “[p]hilosophers who dismiss infallibility as an illusion are often relying on a confusion between introspection and self-reflexivity” (1997, 160). Introspection may be mistaken but “to mistake one’s own state A for B, one must first cognize A… Self-reflexivity is just the capacity for cognizing our own states without interpretation, so to speak” (161). Lastly, Garfield presents a passage to the effect that a consciousness that nondeceptively takes itself as an object would beg the question as to its own authority. But the pre-reflective self-awareness can’t take itself as an object and our introspective analysis of it is not guaranteed to be nondeceptive; this argument only works against the Yogacara conception. In fact this is the case for all of Tsongkhapa’s arguments presented by Garfield. So we are back to what Blumenthal stated: the arguments of Tsongkhapa and other prominent Gelugpas are not formulated against Santaraksita's version of svasamvedana.

Dan Arnold further reinforced Blumenthal’s point by demonstrating that Candrakirti's arguments (upon which Tsongkhapa's are based) are completely ineffective against Santaraksita's svasamvedana, which Arnold fruitfully compares to Kant’s “transcendental unity of apperception,” because it is in essence a different concept. He writes that “while Candrakirti’s critique targets the view on which svasamvitti [svasamvedana] is considered a particular kind of intentional cognition (considered, that is, to display intentionality), Santaraksita’s is more like the view that svasamvitti is itself ‘intentionality’” (2005, 78). It is simply a subject’s experience of an object.[11] That is, experience is necessarily subjective and at least admits of the potential for intentional description. In this view “there is no perceptual experience that is not someone's perceptual experience, no experience that is such that its subject could not attend to it, under any propositional attitude, as his experience” (2012, 90). Arnold would build on these findings in his later works, the most recent volume of which is Brains, Buddhas, and Believing. According to him, Madhyamaka from Nagarjuna onward is fundamentally anti-foundationalist and its defense of conventional truth (i.e. reality as it is perceived by ordinary beings and conveyed in their linguistic concepts) is a defense of an intentional description of reality and thus of intentionality itself and thus what Santaraksita is pleased to call svasamvedana.

Following on this, no one brought these themes of anti-foundationalism and defense of conventional reality out in the open as strongly as Tsongkhapa.[12] So we can say that insofar as intentionality is a core part of Candrakirti's project it is also a part of Tsongkhapa's. Tsongkhapa “claims that an unreflective stance on reality shares the same features with conventional truth” (Duckworth 2015b, 212). This unreflective stance satisfies without analysis (Eckel 188-90); it is an intentional description of reality that does not discriminate between whether things inherently exist or not. This stance is thus the awareness of mere selves, mere I’s, who posit conventional, conceptual reality “through the force of [that] awareness” (Newland 2011, 63). He writes: “We hold that what exists conventionally is: (1) renowned to a conventional cognition [i.e., consensus], (2) not invalidated by another conventional valid cognition knowing it to be that way, and (3) not invalidated by reason that correctly analyzes its [ontological] reality, that is, whether it intrinsically exists or not” (211). This is similar to Husserl’s “Principle of All Principles” which states that “every originary presentive intuition is a legitimizing source of cognition… everything originarily… offered us in ‘intuition’ is to be accepted simply as what it is presented as being…” (Hopp 208). Husserl, like Tsongkhapa and other Madhyamikas, is concerned with “protecting the sense of assertions made in the natural attitude from philosophical falsifications of them” (213).

Although Tsongkhapa did not speak of self-reflexive awareness (svasamvedana), he had an equivalent term: luminosity (prabhasvara). The current Dalai Lama, the most illustrious modern representative of Tsongkhapa’s tradition, gives the following definition:

As the primary feature of light is to illuminate, so consciousness is said to illuminate its objects. Just as in light there is no categorical distinction between the illumination and that which illuminates, so in consciousness there is no real difference between the process of knowing or cognition and that which knows or cognizes. In consciousness, as in light, there is a quality of illumination (2005, 125).

This agrees completely with Kamalasila’s definition of svasamvedana given above. Further, Jinpa writes that Tsongkhapa’s understanding of Tathagatagarbha (Buddha-nature) in terms of Vajrayana “is an understanding of garbha principally in the subjective terms of what is known in a genre of literature belonging to the Vajrayana school as 'inner radiance' or 'clear light'... In this view, all cognitive experiences are perceived to be permeated by an underlying nature of mere luminosity” (140). For Tsongkhapa, luminosity is paramartha (Sparham 21).

An additional feature of the mind is that it is aware. While luminosity is the mind’s nature, awareness is its function i.e. it has an intentional object as its content. Paul Williams writes that the “definition of consciousness as luminosity and awareness is common in [Gelug] texts” and also notes the identity between luminosity and Santaraksita’s conception of svasamvedana as that which distinguishes sentience from insentience (26-7).

Another indicator of the significance of intentionality for Tsongkhapa and his school is their account of universals. Candrakirti had argued against a view that would reduce universals to particulars, demonstrating that particulars and universals are mutually entailed. Thus, the intentional description of reality remains irreducible (Arnold 2010). Alone among Tibetan Buddhist schools, the Gelugpas follow Candrakirti in postulating universals. Tsongkhapa writes that “there are two [types of] universal: that which is a nonthing and that which is a universal [and] a thing that is concomitant with specifically characterized particulars” (173). Like Aristotle, the Gelugpas are “moderate realists” on the issue of universals; universals do not exist apart from particulars. As Dreyfus writes: “Particulars and universals are relative notions that derive from conceptual distinctions. Hence, even though these notions are grounded in reality, they do not directly reflect its structure” (173). Platonic Forms (which are favored by Theosophists), however, are often taken to be incompatible with this view. Aristotle’s “Neoplatonist” commentators reconciled his universals with the Forms by noting that these do not serve the same function; they are paradigms rather than something which particulars participate in. Thus they distinguish between universals as the explanandum and Forms as the explanans (Gerson 2005, 209-42). It may be possible to reconcile Platonism with Prasangika Madhyamaka universals in the same way, especially since “Forms are dependent on the Idea of the Good in Republic and the identity of intellect and Forms is cognitive identity: that is, the self-reflexive awareness of one's cognitive state” (216). The Forms are contingent and thus not inherently existent[13] and they are identical with the cognitive state of Plato’s Demiurge who is the intellect of the soul of the universe. The Forms themselves are the universal nature of intellect shared by all individual intellects (1994, 48-9). It should be noted that this is not the same as the Yogacara view; the Forms are not taken as direct intentional objects (1997, 160-1) nor are they conceptualizations (2005, 216); this is thus the kind of self-awareness signified by “luminosity.” Because of their identity with cognition, these Forms are not static; Plato argues against the static view in the Sophist. For him “motion, life, soul, and thought are present in the really real… The Demiurge, cognitively identical with Forms, imports a sort of motion into the really real world. That motion is what in Laws is called the ‘motion of intellect’” (216-7).

Additionally very relevant to our consideration of svasamvedana is that Tsongkhapa’s understanding of memory, which he bases his understanding of the conventional I-consciousness on (Jinpa 123-30), is extremely similar to that of the pre-reflective self-awareness understanding of the phenomenological tradition of Husserl which we discussed earlier and which is substantially similar to Santaraksita’s account. Both are based on the reflexive “I-making” (Thompson 179) of the mindstream “that appropriates [all] three temporal stages” of the past, present, and future. Tsongkhapa writes, “The individual stages are not mere distinct points of preceding and succeeding instances with no gaps in between; rather, they form parts of the whole.” (Jinpa 136). Likewise Husserl writes that time consciousness entails three intentional processes: primal impression (which corresponds to the present), retention (directed toward the past), and protention (directed toward the future), all of which are necessarily self-reflexive (Thompson 164). This structure constitutes a unity. Because of the nature of time consciousness past memories necessarily involve a subjective I-consciousness. Both Tsongkhapa and Husserl understand memory to be a “representation” of a past experience. It is not that the memory “‘really’ contain the past experience, but instead contains it only intentionally and in this way ‘intentionally implicates’ it” (Thompson 171). This is because “the memory experience and its antecedent, the perception itself, also share the same intentional object” (Jinpa 128). This finding is very significant in that the subject of memory was a large area of disagreement between the Prasangika Madhyamikas and the tradition of Dignaga and Dharmakirti.

We may close with the following instructive passage from the Secret Doctrine on this subject:

The three periods—the Present, the Past, and the Future—are in the esoteric philosophy a compound time; for the three are a composite number only in relation to the phenomenal plane, but in the realm of noumena have no abstract validity. As said in the Scriptures: “The Past time is the Present time, as also the Future, which, though it has not come into existence, still is”; according to a precept in the Prasanga Madhyamika teaching, whose dogmas have been known ever since it broke away from the purely esoteric schools. Our ideas, in short, on duration and time are all derived from our sensations according to the laws of Association. Inextricably bound up with the relativity of human knowledge, they nevertheless can have no existence except in the experience of the individual ego, and perish when its evolutionary march dispels the Maya of phenomenal existence. What is Time, for instance, but the panoramic succession of our states of consciousness? In the words of a Master, “I feel irritated at having to use these three clumsy words—Past, Present, and Future—miserable concepts of the objective phases of the subjective whole, they are about as ill-adapted for the purpose as an axe for fine carving.” One has to acquire Paramartha lest one should become too easy a prey to Samvriti—is a philosophical axiom (2014, 43-4).

Conclusion

 

We have seen that Tsongkhapa’s written teachings agree in every fundamental point with the teachings of Theosophy we have examined. Beyond simply defusing an incipient threat to the modern Theosophical tradition, however, I hope this essay has given a hint of what studying the philosophy of Tsongkhapa has to offer Theosophy. David Reigle has made a strong case that the centennial attempt of the Trans-Himalayan brotherhood to present eastern wisdom to the west came in the form of Tibetan Buddhism (2006). This being so, the translation of Tsongkhapa’s writings must surely be one of the most significant parts of this effort. He is a rich resource of wisdom that can benefit any sincere seeker of truth.

Appendix I: Jonang and Gelug Views in Comparison with Theosophy

Douglas Duckworth asserts that there are actually deep points of agreement beneath the surface of the Gelugpa and Jonangpa systems (and the Nyingmapa system besides). These points are as follows:

  1. “phenomena do not exist in the way they appear to an ordinary being (in which case appearances do not accord with reality)”
  2. “appearance and reality accord without conflict in the undistorted perception of a buddha”
  3. “the undistorted perception of ultimate truth is not the distorted appearance of relative truth (other-emptiness)”
  4. “relative phenomena are not found when their ultimate nature is analyzed (emptiness of true existence)”
  5. “emptiness in essence is inexpressible (the ultimate of Prasangika-Madhyamaka)”
  6. “in none of these traditions is emptiness the utter negation of everything – it is not utter nihilism because some type of presence remains” (Duckworth 2013, 103).

Both schools, then, assert some form of other-emptiness and self-emptiness, a non-conceptual Absolute, an appearance/reality disjunction that is not present for an enlightened being, and an abiding presence that is not negated by ultimate analysis. So what are the real differences in the Jonangpa and Gelugpa conceptions?

The Jonangpas say that although in meditative equipoise nothing can be asserted about the ultimate, in post-meditation it may be said to exist inherently. Thus it is empty of everything other and withstands ultimate rational analysis. To be empty of everything other is to be empty of everything conventional. Conventional appearances, however, do not exist at all since they are self-empty and can’t be found in the only reality that actually remains as the abiding presence, the Absolute. Conventional appearances seem to the unenlightened mind to exist as the abiding presence, but in reality they do not even exist in the abiding presence, just as the horns of a rabbit and the son of a barren women do not. Realized beings who know the Absolute do not see these unreal appearances. To assert that conventional appearances exist is eternalism and to deny that the Absolute really exists inherently is nihilism (Duckworth 2015a).

The Gelugpas also assert that there is nothing to be asserted about the ultimate in meditative equipoise. However, post-meditation it may be asserted that it is self-empty i.e. it does not have an inherent existence and does not withstand ultimate analysis. It may also be allowed that it is other-empty insofar as it is free of adventitious defilements and impossible ways of existing. Conventional appearances are conventionally real as they always have been i.e. they exist but they do not exist in the way they appear to the unenlightened mind. They are “illusion-like” but not completely non-existent. While they are not found by ultimate analysis they are also not nullified by that analysis like the horns of a rabbit or the son of a barren woman are (Garfield 2010). As dependently originated appearances they are identical with their emptiness and can be understood as an isolate of the concordant Absolute. Thus they exist as an abiding presence (Vose 102-4). To not exist inherently is to be freed from eternalism and nihilism.

Which school, then, corresponds most closely to Theosophy? David Reigle has interpreted Theosophy in terms of the Jonang system. He sees commonality because the Jonang doctrine, like Theosophy, says there is a something “beyond what can be postulated by the mind” (2004, 15) whereas the Gelugpas refute an Absolutist interpretation of Madhyamaka (14). He cites as an example the Absolutist interpretation of T.R.V. Murti. According to Robert Thurman’s study of Tsongkhapa’s Essence of True Eloquence, however, the problem with Murti’s interpretation from a Gelugpa perspective is not that it asserts an Absolute; the Gelugpas also assert this. Murti’s interpretation “may be partially correct” (1984, 150) but it is problematic because it asserts that Madhyamaka has “no thesis” and therefore denigrates the use of reason.[14]Further, the Absolutism that the Gelugpas refute is one that asserts an Absolute that is ultimately established and inherently existent; Murti’s Absolute is not of this nature. His Absolute is empty of itself on the level of conventional discourse (Abramson). For the Gelugpas, emptiness (which is identical with dependently originated form) is beyond conceptualization, thus “beyond what can be postulated by the mind” (Reigle 2014, 15). Indeed, this realization of emptiness is nothing other than nirvana. So the mere assertion of an Absolute is not enough to decide the issue.

H.P.B. frequently speaks of sunyata in its more antiquated translation of “space.” David Reigle writes in contradiction to this that emptiness in the Prasangika Madhyamaka school “is not the void in which things may exist” (2004, 12). This may be true, but the void in which things may exist and emptiness are closely related and mutually entailing; the former is certainly not negated by the later. In any case, Reigle takes H.P.B.’s “space” to signify a sort of substantial and inherently existent element. As demonstration of this, he cites a secret commentary presented by H.P.B.: “As its substance is of a different kind from that known on earth, the inhabitants of the latter, seeing THROUGH IT, believe in their illusion and ignorance that it is empty space. There is not one finger’s breadth (ANGULA) of void Space in the whole Boundless (Universe)” (14).

In analyzing this concept one should draw a distinction between Space as such and that with which it is filled. H.P.B. writes that “SPACE, which, in their ignorance and with their iconoclastic tendency to destroy every philosophic idea of old, the modern wiseacres have proclaimed ‘an abstract idea’ and a void, is, in reality, the container and the Body of the Universe in its Seven Principles. It is a Body of limitless extent...” (Blavatsky 2014, 342). As a boundless container, this Space may be “filled with whatsoever substance or no substance at all; i.e., with substance so imponderable as to be only metaphysically conceivable.” Ultimately space and form are one and she quotes the Heart Sutra to this effect: “That which we call form (rupa) is not different from that which we call space (Sunyata)... Space is not different from Form. Form is the same as Space; Space is the same as Form” (1968, 405-6). It is thus noteworthy that the Kalachakra Tantra, revered by the Gelugpas as it also is by the Jonangpas, “presents space not as a total nothingness, but as a medium of ‘empty particles’ or ‘space particles,’ which are thought of as extremely subtle ‘material’ particles. This space element is the basis for the evolution and dissolution of the four elements, which are generated from it and absorbed back into it” (Dalai Lama 2005, 85). So we have space as a container, the container’s contents, and the unity of both, none of which is objectionable to Prasangika Madhyamaka.

H.P.B. also has a definition of sunyata in terms of the lack of essence of things. In her Theosophical Glossaryshe defines sunyata as follows: “Void, space, nothingness. The name of our objective universe in the sense of its unreality and illusiveness” (1930, 200). For her the “two great enemies” on the path to Paranirvana are firstly the “error… [of] those unable to realize the emptiness and illusionary nature of all; who believe something to exist which does not—e.g., the Non-Ego” and secondly “that, whatever it is, which exists only through a dependent or causal connexion, and which has to disappear as soon as the cause from which it proceeds is removed—e.g., the light of a wick. Destroy or extinguish it, and light disappears” (2014, 48-9). But H.P.B. also asserts that even the Absolute experienced in Paranirvana is “Non Ego, Voidness, and Darkness.” These are “Three in One and alone Self-existent and perfect.” In other words, as far as our conceptual minds are concerned ultimate reality is utterly void and dark; it is anatman and lacking in the kind of impossible inherent existence postulated by such conceptual minds. Even Adi-Buddha, which is “absolute Wisdom” and “the primeval uncreated cause of all” (xix), is in manifested existence “in one sense an illusion, Maya, since all the gods, including Brahma, have to die at the end of the ‘Age of Brahma’; the abstraction called Parabrahm alone… being ‘the One Absolute’ Reality” (54). However even the experience of the Absolute in Paranirvana “is absolute… only in a relative sense, for it must give room to still further absolute perfection, according to a higher standard of excellence in the following period of activity” (42). Nothing then, no conception or experience, escapes relativity.

Positive language that is used by Theosophy to describe the Absolute (“Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless, and Immutable”) is in reality simply apophatic language and will have to be true of any Absolute; such language is also not alien to the Kalachakra Tantra, for instance (Vesna Wallace 150). To say it is omnipresent is to deny that it is present only in a specific place. To say that it is eternal is to deny that it is limited by time. To be boundless is to deny that it is limited by boundaries. To be immutable is to deny that it comes and goes. Albahari sums it up: “Thus without limiting... [the Absolute] by positive description, the ‘via negativa’ strategy uses solid terms of the familiar to help propel the mind to unfamiliar space” (2002, 9).

But what of this phrase, “Self-existent”? In some contexts it can be used to imply inherent existence. In the sense Blavatsky uses it, however, it ought to be understood only to signify that it is the ultimate mode of existence as, for instance, when Murti writes of the Madhyamaka Absolute that “Tattva or the Real is something in itself, self-evident and self-existent. Reason which understands things through distinction and relation is a principle of falsity as it distorts and thereby hides the real. Only the Absolute as the unconditioned is real, and for that very reason it cannot be conceived as existence (bhava) or non-existence (abhava) or both etc.” (139). Even though the Absolute is unconditioned, we should “not… consider Sunyata as another theory, the Dharmata [the Real] as other than the phenomenal world. The Absolute in one sense transcends phenomena as it is devoid of empiricality, and in a vital sense is immanent or identical with it as their reality” (86).[15]

Closely following on this understanding, H.P.B. says that “Non-being is ‘Absolute Being,’ in esoteric philosophy” (2014, 54). Although we may speak of the “absolute existence” we can’t picture it to “our imagination as any form of existence that we can distinguish from Non-existence” (43). In other words, when the phrase “absolute existence” is subjected to an ultimate analysis it is not found. Thus this agrees with what Tsongkhapa says of the Absolute: “From the ultimate standpoint... what is to be expressed has ceased, and thus it appears to be nonexistent” (Thakchoe 2007, 88). Elsewhere, H.P.B. says that the absolute abstract Space is “limitless void.” The “ever-incognizable Deity” is “void... to finite minds” (2014, 8). In other words, on the level of the conventional, or post-meditation as it were, it is self-empty and does not withstand ultimate analysis.

However, absolute abstract Space is also a “conditioned fullness,” but this is according to “mayavic perception” (2014, 8). What is the Theosophical maya?

Maya or illusion is an element which enters into all finite things, for everything that exists has only a relative, not an absolute, reality, since the appearance which the hidden noumenon assumes for any observer depends upon his power of cognition. To the untrained eye of the savage, a painting is at first an unmeaning confusion of streaks and daubs of colour, while an educated eye sees instantly a face or a landscape. Nothing is permanent except the one hidden absolute existence which contains in itself the noumena of all realities. The existences belonging to every plane of being, up to the highest Dhyan-Chohans, are, in degree, of the nature of shadows cast by a magic lantern on a colourless screen; but all things are relatively real, for the cogniser is also a reflection, and the things cognised are therefore as real to him as himself. Whatever reality things possess must be looked for in them before or after they have passed like a flash through the material world; but we cannot cognise any such existence directly, so long as we have sense-instruments which bring only material existence into the field of our consciousness. Whatever plane our consciousness may be acting in, both we and the things belonging to that plane are, for the time being, our only realities. As we rise in the scale of development we perceive that during the stages through which we have passed we mistook shadows for realities, and the upward progress of the Ego is a series of progressive awakenings, each advance bringing with it the idea that now, at last, we have reached “reality;” but only when we shall have reached the absolute Consciousness, and blended our own with it, shall we be free from the delusions produced by Maya (39-40).

Tsongkhapa makes a similar analysis based on traditional Tibetan concepts: A deity looks upon a bowl of water and sees ambrosia, a human looks upon the same bowl of water and sees only water, and a hungry ghost looks at the bowl of water and sees blood and pus. All of these conceptions are correct for the beings perceiving them and their epistemic instruments. They correspond to what actually exists in the external world but what actually exists is at the same time relative to the consciousness of the being who perceives it (Newland 2011, 65). So for both Tsongkhapa and H.P.B., the conventional, or “everything that exists,” has a relative sort of reality but it is deceptive because it does not exist inherently as it appears to. It is fleeting, ephemeral, and relative. Since phenomena are so relative, they are dependently originated with the frame of reference or “power of cognition” of the being perceiving them (Blavatsky 2014, 39).

To sum up, Theosophy asserts an Absolute that is void (or self-empty) and entirely relative in the conventional domain, as in the Gelugpa system. On the level of the ultimate it is “incognizable,” as it is for the Gelugpas. Also like the Gelugpa system, conventional reality is taken to have a relative but deceptive kind of existence i.e. not totally unreal; it is also taken by both systems to depend on the epistemic instruments of the beings perceiving it.

For her own part, H.P.B. writes that the Prasangika Madhyamaka school to which Tsongkhapa belongs holds the “most metaphysical and philosophical” esoteric doctrines (1985, 438). She points to its teachings of the lack of intrinsic reality in time divisions and the assertion of a nonconceptual Absolute as particularly significant in this respect (440). Prasangika Madhyamaka is “surely the Advaita Philosophy of [Tibet]” and “can never be contrasted for one moment with some of the nihilistic or materialistic schools of India, such as the Charvaka” (438).

 

Appendix II: Advaita, Atman, Brahman, and Maya

 

David Reigle wrote an extremely illuminating “New Introduction” to Kamaleswar Bhattacharya’s The Atman-Brahman in Ancient Buddhism in which he goes a long way towards dissolving the notion that the Atman as it is conceived by Advaita Vedanta was refuted by all the great historical Buddhist luminaries of India. While the Atman of Advaita is “beyond subject-object duality, and hence beyond the reach of thought or speech, and… beyond the pairs of opposites such as existence and non-existence, or eternal and non-eternal” (ix-x), the atman refuted by these figures is a kartr (doer or agent) and bhoktr (enjoyer or experiencer). Nagarjuna refutes a personal self that has the characteristics of I and mine and is the object of the I-conciousness. Candrakirti also refutes this personal self and adds to it a refutation of a universal self that is the kartr and bhoktr differentiated in individual bodies. Most significant is Bhavaviveka’s refutation of this sort of atman because it allows as a corollary that an atman that lacks these features but is “unborn (ajata), one (eka), all-pervasive (sarvaga), permanent (nitya), imperishable (acyuta), supreme (para), and beyond thought and speech” (xii) is acceptable. The Kalachakra tradition likewise refutes a universal self that is the experiencer of such sensations as love and pain (Vesna Wallace 14) but asserts that the space vajra primordial Buddha Kalachakra “is…‘the self (atman) of one's own body, speech, mind, and passion’ and… ‘the supreme, immutable bliss characterized by perfect awakening in a single moment’ (eka-ksanabhisambodhi)” (155). So it is no surprise that the atman Tsongkhapa refutes is also an intrinsically existent unitary self that is different from the aggregates and yet has such characteristics as “intelligence, pleasure, pain, desire, anger, effort, virtue and non-virtue, and the potency for action” (Jinpa 73) i.e. a kartr and bhoktr.

While these findings are extremely significant, they can be extended even further. For the Madhyamikas only refute the self as a kartr and bhoktr on the ultimate level. Conventionally, even a doing and enjoying self is taken to be real for Nagarjuna, Candrakirti (Arnold 2010), and Tsongkhapa. For Tsongkhapa the “self in the sense of the object of our simple, natural thought 'I am'... is accepted as conventionally real” (Jinpa 71). The “self to be negated” by Prasangika Madhyamaka “is the person's ‘intrinsic existence.’” Thus Buddhapalita, traditionally taken to be the “founder” of the Prasangika Madhyamaka school, writes: “The meaning of ‘absence of self’ that is referred to when it is taught [by the Buddha] that all things and events are devoid of self-existence is the emptiness of intrinsic being. For the word ‘self’ here is a term for intrinsic being” (Jinpa 79).

Further, for Tsongkhapa the light mind of primordial clarity is the final basis of imputation of the conventional self by the I-consciousness. This light mind can’t see itself (B. Wallace 67). It “is said to be pure awareness with no specific object of apprehension” (Jinpa 140). Likewise, Ram-Prasad writes of the Advaita witness-consciousness: “Just as onlookers do not engage in the events they are witnessing, so witnessing-consciousness does not engage with objects. It is present, but it is transparent to content, not itself intentionally directed towards (i.e. ‘engaged with’) objects” (Mackenzie 183). It can’t see itself and is luminous and aware (Albahari 2009, 65).

Mackenzie critiques the equation of the witness-consciousness with the luminous mind of Buddhism by noting that the latter is “inseparable from the ever-changing stream of phenomenal contents” (193) whereas by the Advaitin account, the ever-changing phenomenal contents are merely a superimposition (192). But this reflects a misunderstanding of the role played by superimposition; the phenomenal world is not unreal but it also does not exist as it appears to due to the imposition of distinction and limitation upon it. Reality as it is actually is beyond conceptuality and duality (Oldmeadow 138-9). This will have to be true of any nondual, absolutist account (132-3). Mackenzie’s second point is that “luminous non-dual awareness is not an 'I,' even in the rarified sense found in Advaita” (193). But on the contrary Shankaracarya writes that it is the mind, not the witness-consciousness, that “together with the organs of perception forms the ‘mental covering.’ It causes the sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’” (Albahari 2002, 7). Lastly, the Buddhist would object that the witness-consciousness is a reification of the luminous consciousness. But, as Albahari points out, the witness (which is the Atman) is not an unchanging, reified substance. She writes that “the Atman is not to be understood as a Cartesian thinking substance, or eternal soul, or individual agent of cognitive acts” (2002, 7).

Having examined the Atman, it will be useful at this point to take a closer look at the respective positions of Tsongkhapa and Shankaracarya on maya as this can also tell us a lot about the Absolute which they postulate.

According to Tsongkhapa, conventional reality is "illusion-like." It is like a magic trick (Jinpa 142) or a snake superimposed on a rope (163). It does exist, but not in the way it appears to. Ignorance, or avidya, imputes intrinsic existence on an object when in reality it lacks it; it is empty. Conventional appearances seem to be self-standing and separative but in reality they are dependently originated (177). To be dependently originated is the inverse of having independent identity. Seen by a Buddha, the nondual union of emptiness and dependently originated appearances, the "illusion-like" nature, is concordant with ultimate reality. Ultimate reality as it is actually experienced, however, is beyond the grasp of conceptuality and names (Vose 102-4).

According to Shankaracarya, the world is illusion. It is like a magic trick or a snake superimposed on a rope (Oldmeadow 140). It does not exist in the way it appears but it is also not ridiculous and nonexistent like a rabbit's horns. The world is not "real," but it does exist. It is an "objective" illusion shared by sentient beings. Ignorance, or avidya, superimposes a separative and conditioned existence on phenomena when in reality they are identical with nondual Brahman (138). Nondual Brahman is neither subtle nor gross. It is beyond the grasp of conceptuality and names (Albahari 2002, 9).

Since Advaita Vedanta has Madhyamaka in its historical lineage it is perhaps not so surprising that these accounts are extremely similar, even down to the use of the same similes. Both posit that the conventional world exists but not as it appears to and that ultimate reality is nondual and nonconceptual. Although a Gelugpa monk would doubtless resist the equivalency drawn here, H.P.B.'s statement that the Prasangika Madhyamaka system is the "Advaita philosophy" of Tibet (1985, 438) may be seen by a student of Theosophy to be very apt.

Notes

[1] See Appendix I for a comparison and contrast of Jonang and Gelug views in relation to Theosophy.

[2] Mahamudra, which means Great Seal, is an advanced Tantric meditation teaching.

[3] Nagarjuna is the founder of the Madhyamaka school.

[4] It is significant that these accounts agree so well with Theosophy although they were not publically known at the time.

[5] Gyel-tsap cautions that from the conceptual and conventional vantage point “one should not assert in relation to an inferential cognition that the awareness cognizing the pot's emptiness of true existence cognizes the woollen cloth's emptiness of true existence. It is like the space in different receptacles” (Aryadeva and Gyel-tsap 104).

[6] He highlights T.R.V. Murti as an exemplar of the Absolutist understanding and Jay Garfield as an exemplar of the non-Absolutist understanding.

[7] This is also true for nondual traditions such as Advaita Vedanta. See Appendix II for a reconciliation of Buddhist and Advaitin doctrines.

[8] It is very significant that Huntington compares the Madhyamaka view to Samkhya as these teachings are a significant offshoot of the primordial wisdom tradition represented by Theosophy. See Reigle 2015a.

[9] See Appendix II for more on the Atman.

[10] These Vajrayana teachings were not public knowledge in H.P.B.’s day.

[11] Recall that for Tsongkhapa even a clear light mind of transcendent wisdom is a subject looking upon an object, ultimate truth.

[12] See Eckel 2003, Tillemans 2003, Garfield 2010, and Thakchoe 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013.

[13] For that matter, not even the Platonic One is inherently existent. See Thomas Taylor (3-8) for a demonstration based on Damascius that the One is in a sense dependent on those things of which it is a principle.

[14] For a refutation of the “no thesis” view see Garfield 2008.

[15] In light of Thurman’s critique of Murti’s thesis it should be noted that his estimation of reason in this passage is not totally alien to the Gelugpas. They maintain that reasoning “can take as its terms real properties instantiated by real entities. In the process, these properties and entities acquire superimposed conceptual identities. This entails that reasoning contains a certain amount of distortion. Thought cannot understand reality exactly as it is. It does, however, get in touch with reality, not with some separate conceptual domain, as antirealists would have it. Hence, the distortions of thought do not undermine its validity” (Dreyfus 182).

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Thank you very much, Samantha - this is an excellent essay.  I admire the way that you have brought so many interesting facets and perspectives on the issue together in this one piece - all of them interesting and each of them food for further thought. It should be of interest to any serious student of Theosophy who wishes to explore and better understand the two notions of emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism ('emptiness of self nature' and 'emptiness of other') in relation to the theosophical teachings on phenomenon / noumenon and in particular the First Fundamental Proposition.

Your section on Self-reflexive awareness is particularly interesting. I like the phrase HPB uses for this i.e. 'the self analysing reflection'.  In the Voice of the Silence she links this with meditation and the path of pure knowledge, which suggests to me that we need to explore the nature of the consciousness that wells up in (or as) each of us if real Wisdom is to be attained. 

'Dhyan-Marga is the "Path of Dhyana," literally; or the Path of pure knowledge, of Paramartha or (Sanskrit) Svasamvedana "the self-evident or self-analysing reflection."'  (VOS note 18 to part III)

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Thanks Peter! I'm glad you appreciated it. One thing that I began to appreciate while writing it is that all of these subjects are actually intimately connected and entail each other.

The section on self-analyzing reflection was probably the most fun to write and research because of its intersection with phenomenology and philosophy of the mind.

I think your thoughts on this are right on target. And actually your post from a few years ago collating what H.P.B. has to say on this subject was very useful for my own study. A particularly relevant quote from her: "in the act of self-analysis, the Mind becomes in its turn an object to the spiritual consciousness. It is the overshadowing of the Mind by Buddhi which results in the ultimate realization of existence —i.e., self-consciousness in its purest form." In my understanding this applies to meditative introception. The mind presents itself before the immutable witness-consciousness. The mind dissects itself and finds that no aspect of it can be identical with the witness. Thus it is discovered that "on the level of mind you can be described in negative terms only" and "the very act of perception shows that you are not what you perceive," to quote Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. Eventually "one gets rid of personal exi
stence, merging into, becoming one with, the Absolute, and continuing in full possession of Paramartha" as H.P.B. writes.

And this brings me to one thing I only lightly touched on in my essay and which in retrospect I should have expanded on: the relationship between Tsongkhapa's teachings and those of Advaita Vedanta.

The Theosophical Alaya is identical with Atman, so Atman = Alaya = light mind. The light mind is free of identity with any adventitious fleeting defilements, i.e. thoughts, feelings, perceptions, conceptualizations. This is likewise true of the Atman of Advaita. The Atman is luminous, aware, and can not perceive itself. This is true also of the light mind.

Its also noteworthy that the Mahaparinirvana sutra identifies the Tathagatagarbha (Buddha-nature) with the Atman. As we saw in my essay, for Tsongkhapa the Tathagatagarbha is the light mind of primordial purity. It is also for him the final basis for the conventionally established self or I-consciousness. So for Tsongkhapa the light mind is... the atman. Conventionally speaking, of course.

I also think its not without significance that H.P.B. said of the Prasangika Madhyamaka school is "surely the Advaita Philosophy" of Tibet since a firm understanding of dependent origination does away with even the subtlest kind of dualistic thinking.

 

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Samantha - you're welcome.  I agree - all these subject are intimately connected and entail each other and it's really good to see how you've brought so many aspects of it together.  

I would probably be a bit more cautious than yourself in some of the conclusions I might draw from it, but that may just reflect my temperament on the one hand and my lack of understanding of the true depths and subtleties of this subject on the other.  While there is no doubt, for example, that the Dalai Lama affirms* there was a secret oral transmission from early Gelugpa teachers (notably the First Panchen Lama) of a form of mahamudra which was a blend of the Gelugpa and Kagyu traditions,  I’m never entirely sure that when the Dalai Lama refers to Clear Light Mind from the Gelug perspective that he means exactly the same thing as a Kagyu teacher who may talk in terms of Primordial Awareness or buddhadhatu.. Sometimes they appear to be saying the same thing, sometimes not. 

There does seem to be a strong connection between Alaya, Buddha-nature, the Atman & so on, but whether Tsong Khapa would agree that his clear light mind is none other than Atman, I’m not sure.  :-)

As you know, the three levels of mind in are sometime referred to as: course, subtle and clear light.  The course relates to sensory consciousness; the subtle refers to both conceptual and non-conceptual consciousness; the clear light level is devoid of the other two levels and is the primordial pure moment to moment consciousness which is beginingless and endless. But because it is beginingless and endless that doesn’t make of it a Self, or an Absolute of any kind.  It has a continuity only in its moment to moment arising.  However, while the adherents of Tsong Khapa’s school reject all notions of an inherent self or Atman in relation to this primordial consciousness, they do appear to propose that that this ‘stream of pure consciousness’ (so to speak) is ever that particular stream and never any other.  This reminds me of the definition of the Sutratman, which we find in The Key to Theosophy on the section title ‘On Individuality and Personality’.  Here HPB is quoting Olcott: 

"The successive appearances upon the earth, or 'descents into generation,' of the tanhaically coherent parts (Skandhas) of a certain being, are a succession of personalities. In each birth the PERSONALITY differs from that of a previous or next succeeding birth. Karma, the DEUS EX MACHINA, masks (or shall we say reflects?) itself now in the personality of a sage, again as an artisan, and so on throughout the string of births. But though personalities ever shift, the one line of life along which they are strung, like beads, runs unbroken; it is ever that particular line, never any other. It is therefore individual, an individual vital undulation, which began in Nirvana, or the subjective side of nature, as the light or heat undulation through aether began at its dynamic source; is careering through the objective side of nature under the impulse of Karma and the creative direction of Tanha (the unsatisfied desire for existence); and leads through many cyclic changes back to Nirvana…”   (Key to Theosophy, 134, original ed.)

We might also ask what is the connection between this primordial moment to moment consciousness of Buddhism and  ’The Great Breath’ (“unconditioned consciousness”) of the Secret Doctrine which is described as ‘Absolute Abstract Motion.’  (SD I 14)

Just a few thoughts.  Thanks again for your contribution.

(*There are a number of clear references to this in his, ‘The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra’ see pp124, 164, along with the pages you mention in your essay.)

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Thanks very much for your critical engagement Peter. This is the sort of feedback I was hoping for. :)

Certainly the Kagyu explication wont agree in every detail with the Gelug understanding, which is why I was careful to use Gelug sources for this which are quite clear enough. The Dalai Lama is indeed explicating the Gelug/Kagyu tradition but he does so from the Gelug perspective and understanding and I think his definition is pretty clear (i.e. "deep awareness," foundation for Samsara and Nirvana etc). As noted in my paper, the understanding of consciousness in terms of luminosity and awareness is extremely common in Gelugpa writing. The primary distinguishing feature of the Gelug clear light mind is that it is explicitly self empty, i.e. it doesn't inherently exist, just as everything doesn't. Conceiving of it in terms of primordial awareness is simply a given and not the issue at all so far as I understand. As far as Tathagatagarbha and Buddhadhatu are concerned, this is also appropriate if understood correctly (i.e. as conventional and not ultimate).

For Tsongkhapa, the self (or atman) is a conventional reality just as much as a chariot or any other conventional reality. It does not have inherent existence but it does exist conventionally. It is based on the intuitive I-consciousness. Thupten Jinpa writes that the light mind "can be said to expand the horizon of an individual's basis of designation for his or her own self. In other words, it broadens the scope of a person's natural, intuitive I-consciousness" (pg. 141). So it is literally atman, or self. What Tsongkhapa does disagree with is any notion of an atman that exists inherently and can withstand an ultimate analysis (its debateable whether this accurately describes the Advaitan Atman, but that is certainly how its understood in Buddhism). What I think is noteworthy and interesting about all this, however, is that the light mind on one hand and the Atman on the other are both intimately connected with the I-consciousness.

I should probably also say before proceeding that when I'm using Atman I'm doing it primarily as Atman qua individuated witness (saksin), not Atman qua Brahman.

From my understanding, there are three subtle levels of mind which are conceptual (indeed, that's what the Dalai Lama says as I quote him in my paper) and the fourth subtle level after this is light mind, which is nonconceptual. If a mind is neither conceptual nor nonconceptual it would cease to be any sort of mind at all.

I also certainly agree that the light mind is not "the Absolute" as such and I think that's fairly explicit in my essay. The light mind is the nonconceptual level of mind that looks on nonconceptual ultimate reality (i.e. the Absolute) as its object. Nonconceptual ultimate reality is not an Absolute in that it exists inherently or is not self-empty; it is Absolute in that it is ultimate reality as such that is beyond all conceptualizations.

Conceiving of it in terms of the Sutratman is very helpful and this can be further complemented with the Kalacakra tradition of the energy field ("jiva") which accumulates the karmic traces.

You may or may not have read this, but I think David Reigle's explication of the great breath in terms of Kalacakra is really fascinating and provides solid evidence for the stanzas of Dzyan.

Hope this is helpful and thanks again for your feedback!

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Hi Samantha - apologies for the delay in responding.  Here are just a few comments and questions on your own response.

 You say, ‘The primary distinguishing feature of the Gelug clear light mind is that it is explicitly self empty, i.e. it doesn't inherently exist, just as everything doesn’t.’   To put it another way, according to the Gelugpas the nature of the mind is said to be clarity and knowing, which can also be described as luminosity or clear light.  This luminosity or knowing does exist but not as an independent, unitary entity called a self.

The question I was raising about primordial awareness and clear light mind was not whether they are identical but whether Kagyu and Gelugpa teachers are actually referring to the same thing when using terms that are very similar of even identical.  Is their understanding and use of these terms the same?  For example, both Gelugpas and Kagyus can use similar language when referring to the teachings on Buddha-nature in the third turning of the wheel of dharma, but the former take these to be provisional teachings of the Buddha while the latter may take them to be definitive teachings.  See, for example,the Kagyu master Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamto’s teaching on the true nature of “the non-conceptual Wisdom Mind…that is the ultimate absolute Reality.”  (Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, p76)  It is those kind of teaching statements and understanding of the Buddha’s words that link the Great Madhyamaka tradition (to which this teacher belongs) to the teachings on the Absolute as found in The Secret Doctrine.

You refer to Thubten Jinpa saying that the primordial mind of pure light expands our conventional I-consciousness, therefore it is literally atman. Do you have a reference for this? Are you referring to Jinpa’s explanation of how, according to Tsong Khapa, the I-consciousness generates a general sense of identify over time?

Yes, Tsong Khapa does refute the nature of Atman as found in Advaita. According to Advaita doctrine the Atman is Brahman and thus exists inherently.  However, the Atman of the advaitee could well be linked with the buddhist teaching on ‘empty of other’ (shentong) in that Atman is empty of all defilements and conditioning attributes, while the phenomenal world including the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep are all ultimately illusory and thus similar link to the buddhist teaching on all phenomena being empty of ‘self-nature’ (rantong). 

I agree with you when you say, what is noteworthy and interesting about all this, however, is that the light mind on one hand and the Atman on the other are both intimately connected with the I-consciousness.  Ramana Maharishi has some particularly interesting and helpful teachings on the I-consciousness in relation to the Self.

Yes, of course you are right, If a mind is neither conceptual nor nonconceptual it would cease to be any sort of mind at all.  There seem to be endless ways of categorising mind and mental states in buddhism.  I think that when people talk about levels of mind as in ‘course, subtle and clear light’ (with subtle referring to both conceptual and non-conceptual consciousness) they may well just be differentiating between the operations or functions of mind and the underlying nature of mind (clear light) as the foundation for these.  See Berzin, for example, in the book you quote from,  ‘The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra’, p89.

You say, “I also certainly agree that the light mind is not "the Absolute" as such and I think that's fairly explicit in my essay. The light mind is the nonconceptual level of mind that looks on nonconceptual ultimate reality (i.e. the Absolute) as its object.”

I’m not sure about that.  From Tsong Khapa’s view there is an ultimate truth, however, the ultimate truth is that there is no Absolute principle or essence.   In Theosophy and Advaita there is an Absolute Principle or Essence, however, the Absolute can never be an object of perception.  In the Great Madhyamaka teaching The Wisdom Mind does not become an object of non-conceptual awareness, rather, at that stage of investigation the mind is said to rest in its own nature, which is that very Wisdom Mind.

Something that may be worth considering - if Tsong Khapa does not accept an ultimate principle or Absolute, which you show very well in your essay, in what sense are the discrepancies between his teachings and the Secret Doctrine 'merely illusory' as you state at the beginning of your essay? You haven't yet developed this part of your essay, in my view.

Just a minor point - in your essay you quote or cite authors with date of publication and even page number but these aren’t always referenced in you Bibliography, so the interested reader/researcher has no way to look up and/or check your sources.

Thanks for the link to David Reigle's article, which I have now read.  I thought it was very good.

More later, when I catch up with the messages!

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Thanks again for your reply Peter. My comments follow.

You say, ‘The primary distinguishing feature of the Gelug clear light mind is that it is explicitly self empty, i.e. it doesn't inherently exist, just as everything doesn’t.’ To put it another way, according to the Gelugpas the nature of the mind is said to be clarity and knowing, which can also be described as luminosity or clear light. This luminosity or knowing does exist but not as an independent, unitary entity called a self.

Yes, except it may also be called "self" because it is the final basis of imputation of the conventional self.

The question I was raising about primordial awareness and clear light mind was not whether they are identical but whether Kagyu and Gelugpa teachers are actually referring to the same thing when using terms that are very similar of even identical. Is their understanding and use of these terms the same? For example, both Gelugpas and Kagyus can use similar language when referring to the teachings on Buddha-nature in the third turning of the wheel of dharma, but the former take these to be provisional teachings of the Buddha while the latter may take them to be definitive teachings. See, for example,the Kagyu master Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamto’s teaching on the true nature of “the non-conceptual Wisdom Mind…that is the ultimate absolute Reality.” (Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, p76) It is those kind of teaching statements and understanding of the Buddha’s words that link the Great Madhyamaka tradition (to which this teacher belongs) to the teachings on the Absolute as found in The Secret Doctrine.

The Gelugpas do say that third wheel is provisional and interpretable, i.e. that it ultimately refers to emptiness. There is also however another interpretation that they hold. As Jinpa says: "[t]here is, however, a further interpretation of tathagatagarbha to which Tsongkhapa subscribes as well. This is an understanding of garbha principally in the subjective terms of what is known in a genre of literature belonging to the Vajrayāna school as 'inner radiance' or 'clear light' ('od gsal, pronounced ösel). In this view, all cognitive experiences are perceived to be permeated by an underlying nature of mere luminosity. This is, if you like, the mind in its natural state of purity and clarity. Like waves in the ocean, all cognitive activities are said to come out of it and dissolve into it. In itself, it is said to be pure awareness with no specific object of apprehension. In fact, one could say that its cognitive content (if such a thing exists) is a mere absence" (140).

The Dalai Lama writes that an understanding that combines the second and third rounds in terms of primordially pure light mind that is self-empty and also other-empty "has no fault" (The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra 236).

The whole discussion about whether the second or third wheel is definitive is really a red herring, however. Either way, the Gelugpas do definitely understand clear light mind to be an entity that is primordially aware and free of adventitious defilements. To that extent, the Gelug and Kagyu definitions are the same, which was my entire point. I've also tried very hard in my research to get what is essentially the Gelug understanding of these issues which is why I do not rely on Kagyu authors in my essay.

You refer to Thubten Jinpa saying that the primordial mind of pure light expands our conventional I-consciousness, therefore it is literally atman. Do you have a reference for this? Are you referring to Jinpa’s explanation of how, according to Tsong Khapa, the I-consciousness generates a general sense of identify over time?

I provided the quote and page number for Jinpa's Self, Reality, and Reason in my response to you. He discusses the conventional self at length in this book. Particularly helpful is his section on "the chariot analogy." Also see the current revision of my essay, where I discuss this at length. I quote Tsongkhapa as saying: “There are two senses of ‘self’: (1) one that is conceived with a nature that is essentially real and (2) one that is held in mind with the mere thought ‘I am’. The former is an object of negation by reasoning and the latter is not negated, for it is maintained to be conventionally real” (Duckworth 211). The existence of the conventional self is not a controversial part of Tsongkhapa's teachings. That the conventional self may finally be imputed to the light mind is shown in the quote from Jinpa I gave earlier (i.e. the light mind "expand[s] the horizon of an individual's basis of designation for his or her own self"). Also see the quote in Berzin I gave in the current revision of my essay about the "conventional ‘me’ that can be imputed on the continuum of clear light subtlest mind.”

Yes, Tsong Khapa does refute the nature of Atman as found in Advaita. According to Advaita doctrine the Atman is Brahman and thus exists inherently. However, the Atman of the advaitee could well be linked with the buddhist teaching on ‘empty of other’ (shentong) in that Atman is empty of all defilements and conditioning attributes, while the phenomenal world including the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep are all ultimately illusory and thus similar link to the buddhist teaching on all phenomena being empty of ‘self-nature’ (rantong).

Yes, and as I discuss in my paper, and as the Dalai Lama goes to great lengths to demonstrate, Tsongkhapa also apparently had a shentong teaching i.e. an understanding of light mind in terms of it being "empty of all defilements and conditioning attributes." As we have discussed, this light mind may even be called a "self." This shentong light mind may also be understood as rantong, though, because it is not inherently existent.

I agree with you when you say, what is noteworthy and interesting about all this, however, is that the light mind on one hand and the Atman on the other are both intimately connected with the I-consciousness. Ramana Maharishi has some particularly interesting and helpful teachings on the I-consciousness in relation to the Self.

Yes, I had Ramana Maharshi in mind when I made that statement.

I’m not sure about that. From Tsong Khapa’s view there is an ultimate truth, however, the ultimate truth is that there is no Absolute principle or essence. In Theosophy and Advaita there is an Absolute Principle or Essence, however, the Absolute can never be an object of perception.

Tsongkhapa's light mind is also not an object of perception. B. Alan Wallace discusses this in his Balancing the Mind. Its also a major point of discussion in the third part of my essay (now also majorly revised). Since the light mind can not see itself, it can not be self-reflexive in Dignaga and Dharmakirti's sense.

In the Great Madhyamaka teaching The Wisdom Mind does not become an object of non-conceptual awareness, rather, at that stage of investigation the mind is said to rest in its own nature, which is that very Wisdom Mind.

Likewise for Tsongkhapa, "child clear light" comes to rest in "mother clear light." See my current essay revision for the reference. Also when we speak of the Absolute this does not necessarily refer to some sort of inherently existent essence. As I quoted Tsongkhapa's teacher Rendawa as saying in my essay, it is "not because it has been proven able to withstand reasoned analysis... It is the absolute because it is a nonconceptual field of experience." See also the essay from Abramson I cited on this.

Something that may be worth considering - if Tsong Khapa does not accept an ultimate principle or Absolute, which you show very well in your essay, in what sense are the discrepancies between his teachings and the Secret Doctrine 'merely illusory' as you state at the beginning of your essay? You haven't yet developed this part of your essay, in my view.

I don't accept that the Theosophical Absolute should by understood as inherently existent. I actually think the Jonangpa perspective is rather flawed in this regard, especially since it regards "self-empty" to mean utterly non-existent and thus makes all conventional appearances completely unreal as a corollary of its understanding of other-emptiness. This is definitely not the Theosophical understanding of maya.

Just a minor point - in your essay you quote or cite authors with date of publication and even page number but these aren’t always referenced in you Bibliography, so the interested reader/researcher has no way to look up and/or check your sources.

I am pretty certain, especially after revising my essay numerous times, that all of my citations are in place. But if you've caught something I've missed I'd love to hear about it so I can correct it. Thanks!

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I hope the following will clarify my views a bit more. :)

Douglas Duckworth asserts that there are actually deep points of agreement beneath the surface of the Gelugpa and Jonangpa systems (as well as the Nyingmapa system). These points are as follows:

1. "phenomena do not exist in the way they appear to an ordinary being (in which case appearances do not accord with reality)"
2. "appearance and reality accord without conflict in the undistorted perception of a buddha"
3. "the undistorted perception of ultimate truth is not the distorted appearance of relative truth (other-emptiness)"
4. "relative phenomena are not found when their ultimate nature is analyzed (emptiness of true existence)"
5. "emptiness in essence is inexpressible (the ultimate of Prasangika-Madhyamaka)"
6. “in none of these traditions is emptiness the utter negation of everything – it is not utter nihilism because some type of presence remains”

https://www.academia.edu/4058666/Tibetan_Mah%C4%81y%C4%81na_and_Vaj...

All systems then assert some form of other-emptiness and self-emptiness, a non-conceptual Absolute, an appearance/reality disjunction that is not present for an enlightened being, and an abiding presence that is not negated by ultimate analysis.

So what are the real differences in the Jonangpa and Gelugpa conceptions?

The Jonang say that although in meditational equipoise nothing can be asserted about the ultimate, in post-meditation it may be said to exist inherently, thus it is empty of everything other. To be empty of everything other is to be empty of everything conventional. Conventional appearances, however, do not exist at all since they are self-empty. They appear to the unenlightened mind to exist but in reality they do not, just as the horns of a rabbit and the son of a barren women do not. Only the Absolute remains as the abiding presence.

The Gelugs also assert that there is nothing to be asserted about the ultimate in meditational equipoise. However, post-meditation it may be asserted that it is self-empty i.e. it does not have an inherent existence. It may also be allowed that it is other-empty insofar as it is free of adventitious defilements and impossible ways of existing. Conventional appearances are conventionally real as they always have been i.e. they exist but they do not exist in the way they appear to the unenlightened mind. They are "illusion-like" but not completely non-existent. As dependently originated appearances they are identical with their emptiness and can be understood as an isolate of the Absolute. While they are not found by ultimate analysis they are also not nullified by that analysis like the horns of a rabbit or the son of a barren woman are.

The real difference between these two schools, then, appears to be in terms of conventional reality and conventional discourse.

So which is closest to Theosophy? H.P.B. says that the absolute abstract Space is "limitless void." The "ever-incognizable Deity" is "void... to finite minds" (2014, 8). In other words, on the level of the conventional, or post-meditation as it were, it is self-empty.

On the other hand, sometimes positive language is used. The Theosophical Absolute is referred to as "self-existent." This may, however, be understood to signify that it is the ultimate mode of existence and the first in the conventional causal chain. H.P.B. also says that although we may refer to the Absolute as "absolute existence" we can’t picture it to "our imagination as any form of existence that we can distinguish from Non-existence" (2014, 43). Thus this agrees with what Tsongkhapa says of the Absolute: "From the ultimate standpoint... what is to be expressed has ceased, and thus it appears to be nonexistent" (Thakchoe 2007, 88).

Absolute abstract Space is also, however, a "conditioned fullness," but this is according to "mayavic perception" (2014, 8). What is the Theosophical maya?

"Maya or illusion is an element which enters into all finite things, for everything that exists has only a relative, not an absolute, reality, since the appearance which the hidden noumenon assumes for any observer depends upon his power of cognition... The existences belonging to every plane of being, up to the highest Dhyan-Chohans, are, in degree, of the nature of shadows cast by a magic lantern on a colourless screen; but all things are relatively real, for the cogniser is also a reflection, and the things cognised are therefore as real to him as himself... Whatever plane our consciousness may be acting in, both we and the things belonging to that plane are, for the time being, our only realities. As we rise in the scale of development we perceive that during the stages through which we have passed we mistook shadows for realities, and the upward progress of the Ego is a series of progressive awakenings, each advance bringing with it the idea that now, at last, we have reached “reality;” but only when we shall have reached the absolute Consciousness, and blended our own with it, shall we be free from the delusions produced by Maya" (39-40).

For H.P.B., the conventional, or "everything that exists," has a relative sort of reality but it is deceptive because it does not exist inherently as it appears to.

So Theosophy asserts an Absolute that is void or self-empty in the conventional domain, as in the Gelugpa system. On the level of the ultimate it is "incognizable," as it is for the Gelugpas. Also like the Gelugpa system, conventional reality is taken to have a relative but deceptive kind of existence; i.e. not totally unreal.

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Nice work! Although the Tibetan Buddhist aspect of theosophy has been more explored than other aspects, I think there's plenty room for more work in that direction. I like the way it shows how certain authors are quite compatible with the distinctively esoteric theosophic version of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy - reminds me of Evans-Wentz' idealistic take on the short text - The Tibetan book of the Great liberation aka The Great Liberation through Naked Awareness. I do find Husserl's phenomenology strangely reminiscent of Hindu and Buddhist meditation philosophies...

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Thanks Casady! My own interests are pretty varied but it seemed to me that Tsongkhapa had been unfortunately neglected despite being such a significant figure for Theosophy. As for Husserl, until he came up in my research for this essay, I had dismissed him as one of those boring continental philosophers that I would never get around to studying. My appreciation for his profundity is much greater now and my perspective is much enhanced thanks to him.

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It is always useful to get different perspectives on important subjects such as Tsongkhapa's views in relation to those of Theosophy. A student of Theosophy may approach these issues differently than would a Tibetan Gelugpa monk. It is good to see these different perspectives.

I have a question about a statement found in one of your replies above, Samantha. You wrote of "the Kalacakra tradition of the energy field ("jiva") which accumulates the karmic traces." I am not familiar with this Kalacakra tradition, and would like to have more information on it. Thanks.

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Thanks David!

I discuss this energy field in the last paragraph of the second section of my essay. My source is B. Alan Wallace, who is quoted in the paper I cite as saying:

According to the Kalacakra Tantra, karmic imprints (vasana), memories, and so on are carried from one life to the next by way of the jiva, a continuum, or field, of prana that accompanies the continuum of subtle consciousness that carries on from lifetime to lifetime. However, there is a real danger of reifying the manner in which such imprints are ‘stored.’Consider as an analogy how information is ‘stored’ in electromagnetic fields transmitted from laptop to another. The fields themselves are physical (i.e., they are physically measurable and have physical qualities) but immaterial (i.e., they are not composed of particles of matter), while the information that is ‘stored’ in those fields is neither physical nor material. Likewise, the consciousness and information that is transmitted from one body to the next is neither physical nor material, but the subtle continuum of prana that indivisibly accompanies that consciousness is physical but not material. I have discussed this in greater detail in my book (Wallace, 2009).

In the volume he refers to (Mind in the Balance), he discusses the jiva on pgs. 94, 100, 108, and 180-81. In footnote 14 of chapter 12, pg. 210, he states: "The nature and role of the jiva is explained by Pundarika in The Stainless Light (Vimalaprabha), the primary commentary to the Kalacakratantra."

As I noted in my essay, this seems to be equivalent to the Theosophical auric egg. Hope this is helpful! :)

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Thanks, Samantha, for this helpful additional information. The added context you quoted makes it clearer. I do not yet have this book by B. Alan Wallace, but I will save the references you gave to it.

I wish that he would have added a specific reference to the Vimalaprabha. This is a very big book. To say that the vasanas are carried by way of the jiva according to the Vimalaprabha is like saying that the monad is the jiva according to The Secret Doctrine. The Secret Doctrine does say this, but it is by no means common knowledge among Theosophists, or even among students of The Secret Doctrine. Specific references are needed. Moreover, the monad is the jiva in one sense, and is also defined in other ways in Theosophy. The jiva, as widely understood throughout Hinduism, is the individual soul, as distinguished from the universal soul or paramatman. This would be rejected by most Buddhists. They would need the references in the Vimalaprabha, in order to see how the jiva is there defined and used. There are many things in Kalacakra that are unique to it, and not found elsewhere in Buddhism.

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Samantha Province on March 27, 2016 at 10:43am
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I do agree that it would have been helpful if he had been more specific. In any case, I've done a bit more research on this and it seems like this is actually a relatively basic teaching of the tantras that derives from the unity of subtlest light mind and subtlest energy wind. Berzin writes,

According to... tantric systems such as Guhyasamaja... [k]armic "seeds" or tendencies, as well as karmic potentials, come along with the stream of continuity of our subtlest mind and energy-wind. They are not an integral part of the package, however. Like karma itself, they are subtle forms that merely give a temporary shape to the flow of our subtlest energy-wind. When enlightenment is attained, they are removed, like static disappearing from a perfectly tuned radio...

The Kalachakra system accepts and expands upon the Guhyasamaja presentation of these points, but uses its own distinctive terminology, such as winds of karma.

http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/e-books/published_boo...

So what we probably have here is a case of what Vesna Wallace in The Inner Kalacakratantra calls the Kalacakra system's "lexical syncretism." As an example of this she cites the Vimalaprabha commentary, which "glosses alaya-viinana as vijnana and jiva" (pg 41) to designate the mental continuum. I've gone ahead and taken the liberty to modify my essay further with some of this new material.

The tantras, and especially the Kalacakra, really fascinate me as they appear to have some of the strongest corroborating evidence for Theosophy.

Permalink Reply by David Reigle on March 30, 2016 at 3:35pm
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Many years ago I input the Sanskrit text of the Kālacakra-tantra, more than one thousand verses of eighty-four syllables each. According to an electronic search of my files, the word jīva occurs in the Kālacakra-tantra eighteen times. In seven occurrences (2.95, 2.100, 2.116, 4.171 first occurrence, 4.192, 5.142 twice), it refers to a living being; e.g., jīva-loka, the world of living beings (2.116, 4.192), or jīva-ghāta, killing living beings (2.100). In five occurrences (2.86, 4.171 second occurrence, 5.200, 5.203, 5.229), it refers to life, the fact that something is living, which can apply not only to a person but even to mercury in alchemy (5.229). In four occurrences (2.165 three times, 2.176), it refers to jīva as taught in Jainism, and is refuted. In one occurrence (2.6), it refers to the ālaya-vijñana according to theVimalaprabhā commentary. In one occurrence (3.30), it is used as a name of Bṛhaspati, i.e., Jupiter, according to the Vimalaprabhā commentary. The letters jīva also occur within the word putrajīva (3.20), i.e., putraṃjīva, which is the name of a plant whose seeds are used for a specific kind of rosary. Also not counted is the word jīvana, bringing about life, which is found at 4.139 and 4.157 in juxtaposition with māraṇa, bringing about death. Such is the data on jīva from the Kālacakra-tantra.

This data shows only two places where the Vimalaprabhā commentary brings in the ālaya-vijñana in relation to the jīva, although it could also do so in places where the term jīva does not occur in the verses of the Kālacakra-tantra. In 2.6 it glosses sa-jīva, “with life,” as ālaya-vijñana-sahitam, “with the ālaya-vijñana.” This is describing bodhi-bīja, the “seed of enlightenment,” which is glossed as śukra, “sperm.” It should be noted that the two printed Sanskrit editions of the Kālacakra-tantra, those by Lokesh Chandra and by Biswanath Banerjee, have sa-bīja here rather than sa-jīva. However, the Tibetan translations have srog dang bcas pa, showing that they read sa-jīvahere. In 2.95 the Vimalaprabhā commentary glosses jīva, a “living being,” asprāṇālaya-vijñana-dharmī, “having the attributes of prāṇa and ālaya-vijñana.” The previous verse uses the word jantu instead of jīva, also meaning a “living being,” and the Vimalaprabhā commentary also glossesjantu as ālaya-vijñana-dharmī, “having the attribute of ālaya-vijñana.” Thisjīva (or jantu) is bound (baddha) in saṃsāra, the cycle or round of rebirth, where it revolves or goes around (bhramati). It appears, then, that the comments by Alan Wallace are based on the gloss of jīva given in theVimalaprabhā commentary on verse 2.95, and possibly elsewhere.

Permalink Reply by Samantha Province on March 31, 2016 at 9:15am
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Thanks David! Excellent research... and very fascinating! :)

Permalink Reply by Peter on April 1, 2016 at 8:29am
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David, would you say a bit more about the Monad and the Jiva according to the Secret Doctrine.  Thanks in advance.

Permalink Reply by David Reigle on April 2, 2016 at 8:25pm
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In the translation of stanzas from the “Book of Dzyan” given in The Secret Doctrine, the word “monad” is found three times. Twice it glosses jīva, and once it glosses “the breath”:

12. The great chohans (Lords) called the Lords of the Moon, of the airy bodies (a). “Bring forth men, (they were told), men of your nature. Give them (i.e., the Jīvas or Monads) their forms within. . . .” (S.D. 2.75)

17. The breath (human Monad) needed a form; the Fathers gave it. The breath needed a gross body; the Earth moulded it. . . . (S.D. 2.105)

24. . . . Those who received but a spark remained destitute of (higher) knowledge. The spark burned low. The Third remained mind-less. Their Jīvas (Monads) were not ready. . . . (S.D. 2.161)

The word “monad” also glosses jīva in a commentary on one of the Books of Dzyan (S.D. 2.46):

“Preliminary evolution is described in one of the Books of Dzyan and the Commentaries thereon in this wise:

Archaic Scripture teaches that at the commencement of every local Kalpa, or Round, the earth is reborn; “as the human Jīva [monad], when passing into a new womb, gets re-covered with a new body, so does the Jīva of the Earth; it gets a more perfect and solid covering with each Round after re-emerging once more from the matrix of space into objectivity” (Commentary).”

The word “monad” is also glossed as jīva in the “Esoteric Catechism” (S.D. 1.619):

“The Monads (Jīvas) are the Souls of the Atoms, both are the fabric in which the Chohans (Dhyānis, gods) clothe themselves when a form is needed.” (Esoteric Catechism)

The monad or jīva is also part of a “spark,” as spark is used in stanza 7, verse 5, of the first series of stanzas from the Book of Dzyan, according to Blavatsky’s explanation (S.D. 1.238):

“(5) The spark hangs from the flame by the finest thread of Fohat. . . .

What is that “Spark” which “hangs from the flame”? It is Jīva, the monad in conjunction with manas, or rather its aroma—that which remains from each personality, when worthy, and hangs from Ātma-Buddhi, the Flame, by the thread of life.”

The relation of the spark to the flame, like the relation of the jīva to theparamātma as taught in Advaita Vedanta, is depicted in the esoteric Catechism (S.D. 1.120):

Lift thy head, oh Lanoo; dost thou see one, or countless lights above thee,burning in the dark midnight sky?

I sense one Flame, oh Gurudeva, I see countless undetached sparks shining in it.

The jīva-s that constitute the fourth creative hierarchy are called imperishable (S.D. 1.218):

“Turning back to the esoteric explanations in every cosmogony: . . .

(e) The Fourth are substantial Entities. This is the highest group among theRūpas (Atomic Forms). It is the nursery of the human, conscious, spiritual Souls. They are called the “Imperishable Jīvas,” and constitute, through the order below their own, the first group of the first septenary host—the great mystery of human conscious and intellectual Being.”

The jīva or jīvātma is distinguished from prāṇa (S.D. 1.226 fn.):

“Thus the author identifies “Spirit” (Ātman) simply with “the breath of life.” The Eastern Occultists will demur to this statement, for it is based on the erroneous conception that Prāṇa and Ātman or Jīvātman are one and the same thing.”

The monad or jīva per se is distinguished from “spirit” (S.D. 1.247):

“For the Monad or Jīva per se cannot be even called spirit; it is a ray, a breath of the Absolute, or the Absoluteness rather, and the Absolute Homogeneity, having no relations with the conditioned and relative finiteness, is unconscious on our plane.”

The term jīva appears to be used by Blavatsky much like it is understood in Advaita Vedānta. She twice quotes passages from the Viśiṣṭādvaita Catechism that speak of the jīva (S.D. 1.132, 1.522), regarding the former passage as too anthropomorphic, and contrasting the latter passage with the non-dualistic Advaita, which she clearly favors. She there comments:

“The followers of one of the greatest minds that ever appeared on Earth, theAdvaita Vedāntins are called Atheists, because they regard all save Parabrahman, the secondless, or Absolute Reality—as an illusion. Yet the wisest Initiates came from their ranks, as also the greatest Yogins.”

Permalink Reply by Peter on April 4, 2016 at 7:00am
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Thank you, David, for providing this list of passages from the SD.  My apologies for not putting my question more clearly.  I’m familiar with the passages you’ve provided.  As someone who feels there is still so much to understand with regards to the teachings on the Monad or Monads I was really asking if you would say something as to why you felt the reference to Monad as Jiva was particularly important and what it was about this you felt students of the SD might overlook.

The descriptions in the SD relating to the plurality of the monads has often seemed to me to resonate with the plurality of purushas found in the Sankhya doctrine and the plurality of jivas found in Viśiṣṭādvaita.  As you point out, HPB does refute the anthropomorphic nature of the Supreme in Viśiṣṭādvaita, which in turn raises logical contradictions in the Viśiṣṭādvaita definition of jiva. Even so, I think there are parallels with Theosophy, although HPB does make the stronger link between Theosophy and Advaita.  One of passages from HPB that has helped me the most, so far, when trying to understand the nature of the Monad, is below.  I’m sure you’re already familiar with it, but other members may not have come across it.  It may have nothing to do with what you have in mind, of course, but here it is:

“A sceptic in my early life, I had sought and obtained through the Masters the full assurance of the existence of a principle (not Personal God)—“a boundless and fathomless ocean” of which my “soul” was a drop. Like the Adwaitis, I made no difference between my Seventh Principle and the Universal Spirit, or Parabrahm; nor did, or do I believe in an individual, segregated spirit in me, as a something apart from the whole. . .  Whether it be orthodox Adwaita or not, I maintain as an occultist, on the authority of the Secret Doctrine, that though merged entirely into Parabrahm, man’s spirit while not individual per se, yet preserves its distinct individuality in Paranirvana, owing to the accumulation in it of the aggregates, or skandhas that have survived after each death, from the highest faculties of the Manas. The most spiritual—i.e., the highest and divinest aspirations of every personality follow Buddhi and the Seventh Principle into Devachan (Swarga) after the death of each personality along the line of rebirths, and become part and parcel of the Monad. The personality fades out, disappearing before the occurrence of the evolution of the new personality (rebirth) out of Devachan: but the individuality of the spirit-soul [dear, dear, what can be made out of this English!] is preserved to the end of the great cycle(Maha-Manwantara) when each Ego enters Paranirvana, or is merged in Parabrahm.  To our talpatic, or mole-like, comprehension the human spirit is then lost in the One Spirit, as the drop of water thrown into the sea can no longer be traced out and recovered. But de facto it is not so in the world of immaterial thought. This latter stands in relation to the human dynamic thought, as, say, the visual power through the strongest conceivable microscope would to the sight of a half-blind man: and yet even this is a most insufficient simile—the difference is “inexpressible in terms of footpounds.” That such Parabrahmic and Paranirvanic “spirits,” or units, have and must preserve their divine (not human) individualities, is shown in the fact that, however long the “night of Brahma” or even the Universal Pralaya (not the local Pralaya affecting some one group of worlds) yet, when it ends, the same individual Divine Monad resumes its majestic path of evolution, though on a higher, hundredfold perfected and more pure chain of earths than before, and brings with it all the essence of compound spiritualities from its previous countless rebirths.”

(CW VII 51-52,  ‘Isis Unveiled and Visishadvaita.’)

It appears there is a question with regards to the certainty of the authorship of this article, whether all of it was written by HPB or some by Olcott.  However the same teaching can also be found in the Secret Doctrine.

“To see in Nirvana annihilation amounts to saying of a man plunged in a sound dreamless sleep – one that leaves no impression on the physical memory and brain, because the sleeper's Higher Self is in its original state of absolute consciousness during those hours – that he, too, is annihilated. The latter sImile answers only to one side of the question – the most material; since re-absorption is by no means such a “ dreamless sleep,” but, on the contrary, absolute existence, an unconditioned unity, or a state, to describe which human language is absolutely and hopelessly inadequate. The only approach to anything like a comprehensive conception of it can be attempted solely in the panoramic visions of the soul, through spiritual ideations of the divine monad. Nor is the individuality – nor even the essence of the personality, if any be left behind – lost, because re-absorbed. For, however limitless – from a human standpoint – the paranirvanic state, it has yet a limit in Eternity. Once reached, the same monad will re-emerge therefrom, as a still higher being, on a far higher plane, to recommence its cycle of perfected activity. The human mind cannot in its present stage of development transcend, scarcely reach this plane of thought. It totters here, on the brink of incomprehensible Absoluteness and Eternity.”   ( SD I 266)

Permalink Reply by David Reigle on April 4, 2016 at 8:55pm
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Regarding my views on the monad and the jīva in The Secret Doctrine: To me, the first necessity is to ascertain beyond reasonable doubt what Blavatsky’s position on this question is; to be sure that she in fact purposely and consciously makes the equation of the monad with the jīva, and not just when writing casually or referring to it in passing. Hence, the quotations from the Book of Dzyan, from the secret commentaries on it, and from the esoteric Catechism. These show that, to her, whatever word is in these texts that she translated as monad, whether it be jīva or something else, she did consider it to be the jīva. The terminology used in the Book of Dzyan is a primary interest of mine, since I am seeking an original language text of it. I do not know of any Buddhist term that might be used for the monad.

The next question is: What did she mean by jīva; that is, how did she understand jīva? It is clear from her writings that she favored the Advaita Vedānta understanding of the jīva, such as the one you quoted: “Like the Adwaitis, I made no difference between my Seventh Principle and the Universal Spirit, or Parabrahm; nor did, or do I believe in an individual, segregated spirit in me, as a something apart from the whole.” This accords with the famous maxim of Advaita Vedānta: brahma satyaṃ jagan mithyā jīvo brahmaiva nāparaḥ, “brahman is true, the world is false; the jīva is only brahman, not other.”

This is very much like the position attributed to Dolpopa and the Jonangpas by their Gelugpa opponents. The Gelugpas reason: If the Jonangpas hold that “empty of other” (gzhan stong) is true, something that is empty of everything other than itself, then the world is false, so it does not exist at all. Therefore, since the world does not exist at all, the Jonangpas have no concern for the world, no bodhisattva aim of helping others. This is a position that I have heard from my respected Gelugpa friends, received from their Gelugpa lama teachers, from a time when the Jonangpas were all thought to have long ago disappeared. Then at the beginning of the 1990s reports emerged of the existence of still living Jonangpas and Jonang monasteries in far Eastern Tibet; and not long thereafter, some Jonangpa teachers left there and came into the outside world. After that, some of the primary Jonang texts that had only recently become available were translated into English and published.

We then learned that the Jonangpas taught and practiced the bodhisattva path of helping others, just as much as any other order of Tibetan Buddhism did. They even have their own textbook on lam-rim, or the graded path (English translation by Willa Baker,Essence of Ambrosia, by Taranatha, 2005), much like Tsongkhapa’s famous book, the Lam-rim chen-mo. In short, there was no evidence that they believed the world does not exist at all. Moreover, once their actual writings again became available, long banned in Tibet, we found no such statement in them. It was a position that they did not in fact hold, but was only deduced by the Gelugpas from their “empty of other” teaching, at a time where there were no longer any Jonangpas living in central Tibet to interact with. The situation with Advaita Vedānta is similar.

There can be no doubt that Advaita Vedānta does indeed teach: brahma satyaṃ jagan mithyā jīvo brahmaiva nāparaḥ, “brahman is true, the world is false; the jīva is only brahman, not other.” This is the one maxim most often quoted by Advaita Vedāntins themselves. Yet, like Mahāyāna Buddhists, they also teach conventional truth,vyāvahārika satya. It is here that the jīva comes in, and in fact is sometimes called the vyāvahārika jīva, the conventional jīva. Even though ultimately it is only brahman, not other, it is conventionally an individual soul or individual self. As such, it does function in the world. The world, too, is ultimately false, only an illusory projection on the one true brahman, yet conventionally existent.

Regarding the very important Theosophical teaching you brought up that individuality remains, there is a question of whether this is true of the jīva taught in Advaita Vedānta: “Whether it be orthodox Adwaita or not, I maintain as an occultist, on the authority of the Secret Doctrine, that though merged entirely into Parabrahm, man’s spirit while not individual per se, yet preserves its distinct individuality in Paranirvana, . . .” As far as I know, this is not something that Advaita Vedānta now teaches. However, I did find it in a text that was apparently written by Śaṅkarācārya. This would take too long to write up here at present. We can say only that the teaching can be found in Advaita Vedānta, whether or not it is an orthodox teaching of Advaita Vedānta.

This teaching may also be the same as the teaching of the plurality of puruṣa-s found in the Sāṃkhya system, as you mentioned. We are here moving into esoteric territory. It may not be the case that Sāṃkhya is an ultimate dualism, as it has long been portrayed. There are clear references to early Sāṃkhya teaching the unity ofpuruṣa and prakṛti as brahman. Moreover, there is a very old text, the Pāramārthasāra of Ādi Śeṣa, that uses Sāṃkhya and Advaita Vedānta terms and teachings in an integrated manner. This would have preceded Śaṅkarācārya’s extensive critique of Sāṃkhya in hisBrahma-sūtra-bhāṣya, that has now become definitive for Advaita Vedānta.

Permalink Reply by Samantha Province on April 5, 2016 at 9:19am
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This is very much like the position attributed to Dolpopa and the Jonangpas by their Gelugpa opponents. The Gelugpas reason: If the Jonangpas hold that “empty of other” (gzhan stong) is true, something that is empty of everything other than itself, then the world is false, so it does not exist at all. Therefore, since the world does not exist at all, the Jonangpas have no concern for the world, no bodhisattva aim of helping others. This is a position that I have heard from my respected Gelugpa friends, received from their Gelugpa lama teachers, from a time when the Jonangpas were all thought to have long ago disappeared. Then at the beginning of the 1990s reports emerged of the existence of still living Jonangpas and Jonang monasteries in far Eastern Tibet; and not long thereafter, some Jonangpa teachers left there and came into the outside world. After that, some of the primary Jonang texts that had only recently become available were translated into English and published.

We then learned that the Jonangpas taught and practiced the bodhisattva path of helping others, just as much as any other order of Tibetan Buddhism did. They even have their own textbook on lam-rim, or the graded path (English translation by Willa Baker, Essence of Ambrosia, by Taranatha, 2005), much like Tsongkhapa’s famous book, the Lam-rim chen-mo. In short, there was no evidence that they believed the world does not exist at all. Moreover, once their actual writings again became available, long banned in Tibet, we found no such statement in them. It was a position that they did not in fact hold, but was only deduced by the Gelugpas from their “empty of other” teaching, at a time where there were no longer any Jonangpas living in central Tibet to interact with. The situation with Advaita Vedānta is similar.

I hope I'm not starting to sound too much like a Gelugpa sectarian at this point, but it seems to me that there are statements from Dolpopa that can be reasonably interpreted in this manner and that this is a natural corollary of his understanding of "other-emptiness." Jeffrey Hopkins, the translator of Dolpopa's Mountain Doctrine, writes that there are places where he says that conventional phenomena don't exist "in the mode of subsistence," thus "suggest[ing] that ordinary phenomena indeed exist but not ultimately." There are "other points," however, where he "seems to indicate that not existing in the mode of subsistence means that conventional phenomena only provisionally exist in a way that is equivalent to not existing" (Hopkins "Tsong-Kha-Pa's Final Exposition of Wisdom" 272). For instance, Dolpopa writes that "these mistaken karmic appearances of sentient beings are the private phenomena just of sentient beings; they utterly do not occur in the mode of subsistence, like the horns of a rabbit, the child of a barren woman, a space-flower, and so forth" (273).

The horns of a rabbit, the child of a barren women, and space-flowers, are extremely common Buddhist similes for things that are completely non-existent.

Matthew Kapstein selected the following passages to illustrate a "radical division between the two truths" in Dolpopa's understanding:

"The defining characteristic of relative truth is that it is an object of consciousness that in its fundamental nature is itself essentially empty of veridical being, while the defining characteristic of absolute truth is that it is an object of authentic, sublime gnosis that in its fundamental nature is itself essentially not empty of veridical being..."

So relative truth is, in reality, non-existent. It has no "veridical being" while absolute truth does have this.

"Because the relative does not exist in fact, it is intrisically empty, and appears to consciousness but not to gnosis. Because the absolute exists in fact, it is not intrinsically empty, but is extrinsically empty, and appears to gnosis but never at all to consciousness..."

Relative truth doesn't exist, so it doesn't appear to an enlightened being who sees only existent things.

"Thus, to those who are childish, according to their own dispositions, only inauthentical characteristics appear, but not the authentic suchness, and in the same way, to the bodhisattvas, according to their own dispositions, only the authentic appears, but not what is inauthentic." (Thakchoe "The Two Truths Debate," 25)

Once again, only unenlightened being percieve inauthentic relative truth. Bodhisattvas do not see this.

And Duckworth highlights the following statement from the Mountain Doctrine:

"Whereas relative phenomena do not at all exist within the abiding reality, the extreme of existence is the superimposition that they do. Whereas the irreducible, omnipresent wisdom of the expanse of phenomena (chos kyi dbyings, dharmadhātu) always abides pervading everywhere, the extreme of nonexistence is the denigration that it does not exist, is not established, and is empty of its own essence. That which is the middle free from those extremes is the ground free from all extremes such as existence and nonexistence, superimposition and denigration, permanence and annihilation, and so forth, due to which it is the consummate Great Middle Way."

https://www.academia.edu/14269579/Other-Emptiness_in_the_Jonang_Sch...

So the extreme of existence is to say that conventional reality exists and the extreme of nihilism is to assert that the absolute does not exist. The Absolute is the middle way because it is free from the extreme of "existence" (i.e. free from being nonexistent conventional reality) and the extreme of "non-existence" (i.e. not being inherently existent and truly established).

There may be an alternative way to read Dolpopa, but it seems to me that the Gelugpa reading is at least prima facie very strong and derivable from textual evidence, not merely consequentialist arguments.

I'm not doubting that the Jonangpa's can and do practice the Bodhisattva path and preserve many valuable and very interesting lineages as well as contributing a very important perspective to the understanding of Buddhist traditions and texts. This school certainly deserves our study. Nonetheless, it seems to me that their understanding of self-emptiness is extremely problematic. And this is not to single the Jonang school out; I think there are some problematic aspects of exoteric Advaita Vedanta as well.

One of those problematic aspects is the idea that individuality gets absorbed into Brahman upon death for the Jnani. So I'm very interested in reading more about this text from Sankaracarya whenever you do write it up. Ditto for the text of Adi Sesa.

Permalink Reply by David Reigle on April 5, 2016 at 9:08pm
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I have no wish to debate this issue here with students of Theosophy, having already debated it with students of Tibetan Buddhism for years. The results of my textual research are available in my articles. Other students of Theosophy may come to different conclusions, as is their prerogative.

There is, however, a translation issue that could be clarified. It pertains to the quotation from Dolpopa translated by Jeffrey Hopkins: "these mistaken karmic appearances of sentient beings are the private phenomena just of sentient beings; they utterly do not occur in the mode of subsistence, like the horns of a rabbit, the child of a barren woman, a space-flower, and so forth." It also pertains to the quotation from Dolpopa translated by Douglas Duckworth: "Whereas relative phenomena do not at all exist within the abiding reality, the extreme of existence is the superimposition that they do."

The word that Hopkins translated as "the mode of subsistence," is the same word that Duckworth translated as "the abiding reality": gnas lugs. It is a Tibetan technical term, that does not seem to have a Sanskrit equivalent. Hopkins has provided a literal translation of it, and Duckworth has provided more of a paraphrase, indicating what it refers to. It refers to ultimate truth, paramārtha-satya. Hopkins in another place (Kindness, Clarity, and Insight, pp. 208-209) has translated it as "final status," "final mode of being." Thupten Jinpa in the glossary to Mind Training translated it as "ultimate nature."

Dolpopa, then, is saying that in ultimate reality the world does not exist at all, "like the horns of a rabbit, the child of a barren woman, a space-flower, and so forth." He is here not talking about conventional reality. His position is the same as that of Advaita Vedānta stated by Śaṅkarācārya in the maxim: brahman is true, the world is false."

Whether or not this position is problematic, of course, depends on one's perspective. It was obviously not problematic toŚaṅkarācārya, and Śaṅkarācārya is regarded by Blavatsky quite as highly as Tsongkhapa. By refuting Dolpopa, Tsongkhapa in effect also refutes Śaṅkarācārya. Since their teachings are not the same, the question then becomes: Which teachings of Śaṅkarācāryaand/or of Tsongkhapa agree with those of the Secret Doctrine, and which of their teachings do not? That is part of what my textual research over the years has tried to determine, in order to ascertain as accurately as possible the teachings of the Book of Dzyan.

Permalink Reply by Samantha Province on April 5, 2016 at 9:48pm
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I definitely don't have a desire to debate this issue either; I just wanted to present this perspective for the consideration of the reader.

Although my research in Advaita Vedanta is not as extensive as my research into Tibetan Buddhism, I would tend to agree with David that Dolpopa's perspectives on conventional reality are not too far off from the perspective of Advaita. This is one of the "problematic aspects of exoteric Advaita Vedanta" that I referred to in my original post. If the conventional has no part in reality as it actually subsists this indicates to me that any "provisional" existence it may have is "equivalent to not existing," to quote Hopkins again.

Obviously on this issue I side with Tsongkhapa and think his perspective is closer to Theosophy but other students will differ in their conclusions, as David says. So I hope my essay and the conversation in this thread will be of some help to students working through these issues, whichever side of the fence they come down on.

Permalink Reply by Peter on April 6, 2016 at 4:37am
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David - thanks for sharing your thoughts on 'Monad as Jiva.' I admire your long term, patient and methodological approach to all these issues. Very helpful as well as interesting and I'm in agreement with what you write.  

I didn't know about Taranatha's Essence of Ambrosia so, thanks for that.  Gampopa's 'Gems of Dharma' seems to provide a similar 'lam rim chem no' role in the Kagyu Tradition, with it's own underlying view of emptiness / Buddha nature.

I don't know of any advaitees who would accept HPB's view on the continuing individuality of the jiva once enlightened. Interestingly, though, John Grimes does touch on this issue of further births of enlightened souls in vol. 6 of his source books on Sankara, ('Sankara on Enlightenment.' XVI. 2. 6). The explanation explored therein (prarabdha karma re Isvara) is quite weak, but the fact that such incarnations are acknowledged from an Advaita perspective might leave the door slightly open for a possible esoteric interpretation.

All in all, it's a truly fascinating and profound subject to be exploring. How fortunate we are to have the opportunity in this life to do so.

Permalink Reply by Peter on April 1, 2016 at 6:29am
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Hi Samantha - you have a great ability not only to pack a great deal of information and cited passages into your replies but to do so at a rapid rate.  I was still pondering what I thought to be the latest clarification of your views when I discovered you had deleted it and replaced it with another version.  Then this, in turn, was deleted and replaced with a further version.  I’m something of a slow coach by comparison. 

As I student of theosophy I am naturally predisposed to believe that there is a fundamental source teaching behind the various spiritual traditions even though their outward expressions may differ a great deal.  So, I don’t want to get drawn into opposing the harmony you are seeking to uncover between Tsongkhapa and Theosophy, or between Theosophy and the various turnings of the buddhist Wheel of Dharma.  At that same time, I think there are outstanding questions to be acknowledged and potential contradictions that should at least be noted as part of the study.

We learn from the Dalai Lama’s book, ‘The Gelug/Kagyu tradition of Mahamudra’, that he has no doubts that Tsongkhapa gave restricted teachings on Mahamudra which were a synthesis of the Gelug and Kagyu traditions.  Yet, it’s clear from other and later works of the Dalai Lama that he still insists that the Gelug teachings on emptiness and reality, as given by Tsongkhapa, reject the idea of an absolute principle which is the causal basis for the appearance and disappearance of the universe.  For example, he states:

‘It is important to clarify that we are not speaking of emptiness as some kind of absolute stratum of reality, akin, so to say, the ancient Indian concept of Brahman, which is conceived to be an underlying absolute reality from which our illusory world of multiplicity emerges. Emptiness is not a core reality, lying somehow at the heart of the universes, from which the diversity of phenomena arise. Emptiness can only be conceived of in relation to individual things and events. For example, when we speak of emptiness of form we are talking about the ultimate reality of that form, the fact that it is devoid of ‘intrinsic existence’.  That emptiness is the ultimate nature of that form. Emptiness exists only as a quality of a particular phenomena; emptiness does not exist separately and independently of particular phenomena.’ (Essence of the Heart Sutra, p118)

This suggests, that whatever else of profound interest might be derived from a synthesis of Gelug and Kagyu teachings on Mahamudra, it appears that there is nothing in it that has changed the Dalai Lama’s view as to the core teaching of Tsong Khapa on emptiness and ultimate reality.   If we accept the Dalai Lama’s view as correct, then there’s no obvious support in these teachings for the First Fundamental Proposition of the SD, though further exploration might reveal it.

One question that I particularly wonder about is as follows.  Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Tsong Khapa did have a private and restricted teaching on the ’other emptiness’ view of reality that was similar to that of Dolpopa and the Jonang tradition.  It’s one thing to restrict such a teaching to a select view, but if Tsong Khapa really believed it was a valid teaching and faithfully represented the view of the Buddha-dharma, why would he go to such lengths to refute it, even destroy it, as a valid teaching? 

Stearns ( in ‘The Buddha from Dolpo’) points out that at the end of his life, Rendawa (one of Tsong Khapa’s teachers), made statements on the absolute nature of ‘emptiness of other’ similar to Dolpopa and the Jonang traditions views.  Stearns also says this is a rather shocking surprise given Rendawa’s previous opposition to those same views.  Importantly, Stearns argues that much more study of Rendawa’s work would be needed to discover how he was able to accept the ‘empty of other’ (zhentong) view in relation to the Kalacakra teaching while rejecting other aspects of the view such as the eternal status of Buddha nature.   This may well be a pertinent question for us in relation to Tsong Khapa if it can be shown that he did accept the zhentong view of emptiness as taught by the Jonang tradition.  

You mention Jinpa stating that Tsongkhapa’s understanding of Tathagatagarbha (Buddha-nature) in terms of Vajrayana “is an understanding of garbha principally in the subjective terms of what is known in a genre of literature belonging to the Vajrayana school as 'inner radiance' or 'clear light'... In this view, all cognitive experiences are perceived to be permeated by an underlying nature of mere luminosity”  (Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy’, 140).

I have that work, but have not read it all, so thanks for the above.  The question is, how should we understand the above passage by Jinpa?  The preceding pages and next paragraph by Jinpa give us a clue.  Jinpa continues:

‘Does an acceptance of this theory of the mind’s inner radiance lead Tsongkhapa ultimately to posit an objective (or subjective) entity as the ‘real’ identity of the person? The answer is no. For Tsongkhapa the Vajrayana doctrine of inner radiance only enriches an already refined concept of mind.  There is no attempt here to resuscitate the ghost of a ‘real person’ or ’true self’ in the guise of an ever-present inner entity.’ (141)

Importantly, in the preceding paragraphs to the one you quoted above, Jinpa, explains Tsong Khapa’s core views on the tathagatagarbha - the pure, luminous mind. He state that Tsong Khapa sees a danger in taking literally scriptural teachings on Buddha-nature that describe buddha-nature as "a permanent, ever pure, indivisible absolute entity.  Tsongkhapa is extremely sensitive to any temptation to perceive buddha-nature…as some kind of absolute, primordial entity similar to an eternal soul…to subscribe to any notion of a substantial entity called an essence is equal to adhering to the non-Buddhist concept of atman." (140)

To the question, ‘How does Tsongkhapa understand the natural purity of mind?’, Jinpa explains: 

‘We can definitely say the following of Tsongkhapa’s understanding of the concept - that this purity should not be construed to suggest that in some remote past we were all pure and undefiled. For Tsongkhapa, the doctrine does not make any claim our mind or consciousness has ever been free of mental pollutants. It pertains more to a future possibility, a potential to be separated from the pollutants that obscures the mind’s basic nature… In fact, following the Prasangika-Madhymaka school, Tsongkhapa defines this luminous nature of mind in terms of the mind’s emptiness of intrinsic existence.’ (140)

This is quite a different view to the ‘emptiness of other’ view where the luminosity of Wisdom Mind or Buddha Nature is described as the eternal universal ground gnosis, something that might be linked to the Atman of Theosophy or Advaita Vedanta.  So, while the Varjrayana aspect of the inner radiance and light mentioned by Jinpa provides provides us with an important line of exploration, as you rightly say, to do so without knowing the context in which Jinpa places might lead to misunderstandings.

As I said earlier, the above is not to oppose your intent.  As students of theosophy or philosophy in general I don’t believe we have to resolve everything conclusively.  It’s good to put forward a view, to argue a strong case for it and also highlight where there are still questions that need further exploration.

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Samantha Province on April 1, 2016 at 10:06am
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Hi Samantha - you have a great ability not only to pack a great deal of information and cited passages into your replies but to do so at a rapid rate. I was still pondering what I thought to be the latest clarification of your views when I discovered you had deleted it and replaced it with another version. Then this, in turn, was deleted and replaced with a further version. I’m something of a slow coach by comparison.

Thanks for the compliment! Since I'm writing what are essentially small essays with each reply I feel that its important to get it right and reduce misunderstanding as much as possible, so sometimes I think its best to revise my material. Sorry if this causes any confusion!

As I student of theosophy I am naturally predisposed to believe that there is a fundamental source teaching behind the various spiritual traditions even though their outward expressions may differ a great deal. So, I don’t want to get drawn into opposing the harmony you are seeking to uncover between Tsongkhapa and Theosophy, or between Theosophy and the various turnings of the buddhist Wheel of Dharma. At that same time, I think there are outstanding questions to be acknowledged and potential contradictions that should at least be noted as part of the study.

As I said earlier, I do appreciate this as my project is going against the grain so I want to vet it as much as possible. That said, I think most of your concerns are already addressed within the essay itself and we are mostly going over the the same ground at this point.

This suggests, that whatever else of profound interest might be derived from a synthesis of Gelug and Kagyu teachings on Mahamudra, it appears that there is nothing in it that has changed the Dalai Lama’s view as to the core teaching of Tsong Khapa on emptiness and ultimate reality. If we accept the Dalai Lama’s view as correct, then there’s no obvious support in these teachings for the First Fundamental Proposition of the SD, though further exploration might reveal it.

This is a matter of levels of discourse. The Dalai Lama is speaking about emptiness in the context of conducting ultimate analysis. I'm talking about emptiness as it is discovered in nondual meditative equipoise. This emptiness is identical with its dependently arisen appearances. As such, this emptiness "does not exist separately and independently of particular phenomena." It is identical with all phenomena. Both luminosity and energy wind are dependently arisen, thus identical with emptiness, and bring about the “macrocosmic evolution/emanation of the known universe” (Sparham 21). As Aryadeva isquoted in my essay: "The entire world is dependent [on a cause], for something independent can never arise. Its [the world’s] cause is luminosity (prabhāsvara); luminosity is the universal void (sarva-śūnya)." See my essay for more on cosmogenesis and Tsongkhapa's views on meditative equipoise.

One question that I particularly wonder about is as follows. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Tsong Khapa did have a private and restricted teaching on the ’other emptiness’ view of reality that was similar to that of Dolpopa and the Jonang tradition. It’s one thing to restrict such a teaching to a select view, but if Tsong Khapa really believed it was a valid teaching and faithfully represented the view of the Buddha-dharma, why would he go to such lengths to refute it, even destroy it, as a valid teaching?

Stearns ( in ‘The Buddha from Dolpo’) points out that at the end of his life, Rendawa (one of Tsong Khapa’s teachers), made statements on the absolute nature of ‘emptiness of other’ similar to Dolpopa and the Jonang traditions views.  Stearns also says this is a rather shocking surprise given Rendawa’s previous opposition to those same views.  Importantly, Stearns argues that much more study of Rendawa’s work would be needed to discover how he was able to accept the ‘empty of other’ (zhentong) view in relation to the Kalacakra teaching while rejecting other aspects of the view such as the eternal status of Buddha nature.   This may well be a pertinent question for us in relation to Tsong Khapa if it can be shown that he did accept the zhentong view of emptiness as taught by the Jonang tradition.  

This is basically a straw man of my actual position. I do not at all hold that Tsongkhapa accepted the Jonang understanding of zhentong. Tsongkhapa's other-emptiness is not the same as the Jonang understanding of other-emptiness, at least as the Dalai Lama attempts to reconstruct it. Tsongkhapa's light mind is other-empty and also self-empty. In the book we are discussing he writes of the Jonang understanding (without explicitly naming the school) that it is an "extremely deficient and faulty assertion of other-voidness" (237). This is because it takes self-emptiness to mean utter non-existence and other-emptiness to mean truly established existence. I covered this in my other reply to you.

Likewise, Rendawa's other-emptiness is unable to "withstand reasoned analysis" i.e. it is not ultimately established like the Jonang other-emptiness is. Since this teaching is so easily misunderstood and confused with the (incorrect) Jonang teaching, I think its understandable why these teachers wouldn't advertise their other-emptiness teachings while at the same time publically refuting the Jonang understanding.

That said, I'm not sure its fair to accuse Tsongkhapa of attempting to "destroy" the Jonang school. This was the doing of later Gelugpas and the motivation may have been as much political as it was religious.

This is quite a different view to the ‘emptiness of other’ view where the luminosity of Wisdom Mind or Buddha Nature is described as the eternal universal ground gnosis, something that might be linked to the Atman of Theosophy or Advaita Vedanta. So, while the Varjrayana aspect of the inner radiance and light mentioned by Jinpa provides provides us with an important line of exploration, as you rightly say, to do so without knowing the context in which Jinpa places might lead to misunderstandings.

I didn't provide this additional context as I thought this context would be apparent from my essay: Tsongkhapa's light mind is both self-empty and other-empty. And while it may not be an inherently existent atman it is the final basis of designation for the conventional "atman."

The interpretation of Tsongkhapa of the luminous nature of mind as being "mind's emptiness of intrinsic existence" is one interpretation he holds. Right after that, Jinpa writes the line I quoted earlier: "There is, however, a further interpretation of tathagatagarbha to which Tsongkhapa subscribes as well. This is an understanding of garbha principally in the subjective terms of what is known in a genre of literature belonging to the Vajrayāna school as 'inner radiance' or 'clear light' ('od gsal, pronounced ösel). In this view, all cognitive experiences are perceived to be permeated by an underlying nature of mere luminosity. This is, if you like, the mind in its natural state of purity and clarity. [etc.]" (140). In other words, these are two separate understandings of the tathagatagarbha and they have two different points of departure; one is sutra and the other is tantra. They are not contradictory interpretations, but they are also not the same and shouldn't be confused.

As for all of us being pure in some primordial past, I don't believe Theosophy or Advaita Vedanta hold to that. These systems do assert that the "Atman" exists latently, and so does the light mind of Tsongkhapa.

In my opinion, if we let go of the dead weight of "inherent existence," which I don't think is a Theosophical teaching, all of these issues will seem much less significant.

Permalink Reply by Peter on April 1, 2016 at 12:25pm
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Hi Samantha - not to worry,  your revisions didn't confuse me (not that being confused isn't a possibility for me). They just led me to realise how slow I am.  

I'm not interested in creating straw man arguments re points in your essay, I'm just sharing thoughts and questions as they occur to me looking over the same material i.e. in that case as presented by Stearns. I thought what he said about Rendawa raised an interesting point that may also apply to Tsongkhapa. You didn't, which is fine.  BTW, i wasn't suggesting Tsongkhapa tried to destroy the Jonanga school, though later Gelugpas appeared to have attempted just that, but I do think he aimed to demolish the view.

it's obviously up to you what you make of anything I say, which isn't much. I'm just trying to show that I value what you are attempting by joining in from time to time.

I think you're misreading what I said about Theosophy and Advaita, but never mind. What leads you to say that for Theosophy and Advaita the 'Atman' exists latently?

Permalink Reply by Samantha Province on April 1, 2016 at 1:19pm
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Hey Peter!

No hard feelings! Your contributions are definitely appreciated. As I said, I think this kind of discussion is important, especially for this kind of material. I'm just interested in clearing up what I take to be misconceptions about my essay.

When I speak of "Atman" as being latent, I'm speaking of it in terms of how it concerns the individual: Atman as witness rather than Atman as Brahman. If it was not latent in this sense, we would all already be enlightened, as Tsongkhapa says.

This article has some good quotes from H.P.B. and the Mahatmas on Buddhi, Atman's vehicle:

“Buddhi per se, being so near the Absolute, is only latent consciousness” and does nothing of its own accord but is “a passive and latent principle, the spiritual vehicle of Atman, inseparable from the manifested Universal Soul.”

“Atma is said to have Buddhi for a vehicle, because Buddhi is already the first differentiation after the evolution of the universe. It is the first differentiation, and it is the Upadhi, so to say, of Atma. Then Buddhi is nothing, per se, but simply the first differentiation. And it is the consciousness in the universal consciousness, but it is non-consciousness in this world. On this plane of finite consciousness it is nothing, for it is infinite consciousness.”

“Atma and Buddhi cannot be predicated as having anything to do with a man, except that man is immersed in them. So long as he lives he is overshadowed by these two; but it is no more the property of that than of anything else.”

Permalink Reply by Kristan Stratos on April 1, 2016 at 1:48pm
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Pardon, 

Samantha, when you say, "Atman as witness rather than Atman as Brahman" what are you directly referring to?  The साक्षिन् -  the Sākṣin?




Permalink Reply by Samantha Province on April 1, 2016 at 2:22pm
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Yes, Atman as the Saksin. Although the Saksin is always present we don't notice it due to conceptual proliferation. Thus, its latent.

Permalink Reply by Samantha Province on April 17, 2016 at 5:11pm
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Tsongkhapa and Plato?

I've once again updated my essay (for the last time I swear!). Its now 48 pages in total; I had to remove the bibliography from the main post and add it as an attachment just to make it fit. The updates are extremely substantial (including two appendixes) and I won't bother listing all of them but I think two are of particular interest. I've attempted a reconciliation of Gelugpa universals and Platonic Forms which I don't think anyone has tried before. Here is the excerpt:

Another indicator of the significance of intentionality for Tsongkhapa and his school is their account of universals. Candrakirti had argued against a view that would reduce universals to particulars, demonstrating that particulars and universals are mutually entailed. Thus, the intentional description of reality remains irreducible (Arnold 2010). Alone among Tibetan Buddhist schools, the Gelugpas follow Candrakirti in postulating universals. Tsongkhapa writes that “there are two [types of] universal: that which is a nonthing and that which is a universal [and] a thing that is concomitant with specifically characterized particulars” (173). Like Aristotle, the Gelugpas are “moderate realists” on the issue of universals; universals do not exist apart from particulars. As Dreyfus writes: “Particulars and universals are relative notions that derive from conceptual distinctions. Hence, even though these notions are grounded in reality, they do not directly reflect its structure” (173). Platonic Forms (which are favored by Theosophists), however, are often taken to be incompatible with this view. Aristotle’s “Neoplatonist” commentators reconciled his universals with the Forms by noting that these do not serve the same function; they are paradigms rather than something which particulars participate in. Thus they distinguish between universals as the explanandum and Forms as the explanans (Gerson 2005, 209-42). It may be possible to reconcile Platonism with Prasangika Madhyamaka universals in the same way, especially since “Forms are dependent on the Idea of the Good in Republicand the identity of intellect and Forms is cognitive identity: that is, the self-reflexive awareness of one's cognitive state” (216) The Forms are contingent and thus not inherently existent[1] and they are identical with the cognitive state of Plato’s Demiurge who is the intellect of the soul of the universe. The Forms themselves are the universal nature of intellect shared by all individual intellects (1994, 48-9). It should be noted that this is not the same as the Yogacara view; the Forms are not taken as direct intentional objects (1997, 160-1) nor are they conceptualizations (2005, 216); this is thus the kind of self-awareness signified by “luminosity.” Because of their identity with cognition, these Forms are not static; Plato argues against the static view in the Sophist. For him “motion, life, soul, and thought are present in the really real… The Demiurge, cognitively identical with Forms, imports a sort of motion into the really real world. That motion is what in Laws is called the ‘motion of intellect’” (216-7).


[1] For that matter, not even the Platonic One is inherently existent. See Thomas Taylor (3-8) for a demonstration based on Damascius that the One is in a sense dependent on those things of which it is a principle.

I've also built on some of David's recent work on Buddhism and the Atman in my second appendix:

David Reigle wrote an extremely illuminating “New Introduction” to Kamaleswar Bhattacharya’s The Atman-Brahman in Ancient Buddhism in which he goes a long way towards dissolving the notion that the Atman as it is conceived by Advaita Vedanta was refuted by all the great historical Buddhist luminaries of India. While the Atman of Advaita is “beyond subject-object duality, and hence beyond the reach of thought or speech, and… beyond the pairs of opposites such as existence and non-existence, or eternal and non-eternal” (ix-x), the atman refuted by these figures is a kartr (doer or agent) and bhoktr (enjoyer or experiencer). Nagarjuna refutes a personal self that has the characteristics of I and mine and is the object of the I-conciousness. Chandrakirti also refutes this personal self and adds to it a refutation of a universal self that is the kartr and bhoktr differentiated in individual bodies. Most significant is Bhavaviveka’s refutation of this sort of atman because it allows as a corollary that an atman that lacks these features but is “unborn (ajata), one (eka), all-pervasive (sarvaga), permanent (nitya), imperishable (acyuta), supreme (para), and beyond thought and speech” (xii) is acceptable. The Kalachakratradition likewise refutes a universal self that is the experiencer of such sensations as love and pain (Vesna Wallace 14) but asserts that the space vajra primordial Buddha Kalachakra “is…‘the self (atman) of one's own body, speech, mind, and passion’ and… ‘the supreme, immutable bliss characterized by perfect awakening in a single moment’ (eka-ksanabhisambodhi)” (155). So it is no surprise that the atman Tsongkhapa refutes is also an intrinsically existent unitary self that is different from the aggregates and yet has such characteristics as “intelligence, pleasure, pain, desire, anger, effort, virtue and non-virtue, and the potency for action” (Jinpa 73) i.e. a kartr and bhoktr.

While these findings are extremely significant, they can be extended even further. For the Madhyamikas only refute the self as a kartr and bhoktr on the ultimate level. Conventionally, even a doing and enjoying self is taken to be real for Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti (Arnold 2010), and Tsongkhapa. For Tsongkhapa the “self in the sense of the object of our simple, natural thought 'I am'... is accepted as conventionally real” (Jinpa 71). The “self to be negated” by Prasangika Madhyamaka “is the person's ‘intrinsic existence.’” Thus Buddhapalita, traditionally taken to be the “founder” of the Prasangika Madhyamaka school, writes: “The meaning of ‘absence of self’ that is referred to when it is taught [by the Buddha] that all things and events are devoid of self-existence is the emptiness of intrinsic being. For the word ‘self’ here is a term for intrinsic being” (Jinpa 79).

Working on this essay has definitely been an experience and I hope other people are able to get as much out of it as I have. :)

P.S.: I've gone ahead and deleted my previous update posts. Hope no one misses them!

Permalink Reply by Peter on April 18, 2016 at 3:58am
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Well done for taking on such a huge task, Samantha.  I've no doubt that 'the motion of intellect' will lead to further exploration and revisions, whether or not you share them here.

Permalink Reply by Samantha Province on April 19, 2016 at 9:33am
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Thanks Peter! Doubtless you're right but I'm finished as far as this particular essay is concerned. Any new exploration will have to get its own post ;)

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on April 21, 2016 at 8:46am
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I had a chance to read through this.  Wow what an effort.  Congratulations my dear for some much solid thought. Thank you for sharing your work with us. Tsong Kha Pa is important to all serious theosophical students.  I wish I could push my mind as high as you can.

Permalink Reply by Samantha Province on April 21, 2016 at 9:27pm
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Thanks very much Grace! This essay is really the result of several years of thought about Tsongkhapa; it definitely didn't come to me all at once. So its very gratifying when I hear that others have benefited from it.

Permalink Reply by Samantha Province on April 24, 2016 at 4:13pm
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Tsongkhapa on Dhatu and Gotra

David Reigle links the Space and Germ of the Secret Doctrine with the dhatu and gotra of Maitreya'sRatnagotravibhaga (untranslated until 1931). His extremely fascinating and illuminating analysis may be read here. It can be supplemented with a paper Sonam Gyaltsen Gonta wrote called "Tsong kha pa's View on the Theory of Ekayana" detailing how these concepts are understood by Tsongkhapa and other prominent Gelugpas. I think it will be illuminating to share this information with the forum as this tells us a lot about the noumenon or Absolute of Tsongkhapa.

The dhatu (or dharmadhatu) is the "element" or "space" in which the dharmas may appear although it remains regardless of whether the dharmas do so or not. The gotra is the "seed," "germ," or "matrix" which allows sentient beings to become Buddhas. The gotra is understood to be innate in one sense and acquired by practice in another. Ultimately these two senses amount to the same thing and are identical with dhatu.

Tsongkhapa accepts all of this but he goes further. Dhatu and gotra are actually the nature of emptiness (sunyata). But this emptiness is not a mere nothingness; it is the uncompounded and undifferentiated noumenon of suchness (tattva) that is identical with all appearance. For Tsongkhapa since there is no differentiation in the reality apprehended by the empty mind, the mind that apprehends it is also undifferentiated.

For Tsongkhapa, the dhatu or gotra that is emptiness is the ultimate svabhava (nature). He writes: "Ultimate truth is established in this way as positing the nature of things (chos nyid) by svabhāva (rang bzhin du), but what establishes it as svabhāva is the fact that it is not fabricated and does not depend on other objects. It does not in the slightest exist by svabhāva which is established from its own side" (Westerhoff 43). In other words, the svabhava of emptiness is self-existent (or "not dependent on other objects") insofar as causality or dependence on parts is concerned but it is not free from being dependent on a conceptual basis of designation (i.e. not "established from its own side").

Nature Origination

The Chinese Hua-yen school developed the concepts of emptiness and dependent origination in very illuminating ways. Its famous simile for dependent origination is the Net of Indra. This net which belongs to the god Indra has a jewels fastened in each knot which reflect all of the other jewels (much as Leibniz's monads do). Such a conception is also not alien to the Gelug tradition (see the Dalai Lama's analysis of the universe as one large organism in my essay).

Indra's net is emptiness from the viewpoint of phenomenon but the Hua-yen school also has another viewpoint. This is the doctrine of "nature (svabhava) origination." David Reigle sees this to be a very close parallel to the svabhava of the Secret Doctrine. But this svabhava origination is really only a restatement of the doctrine of self-emptiness, or dependent origination, from the Absolute or noumenal perspective. Thus this svabhava origination agrees perfectly well with Tsongkhapa's analysis of the matrix ("gotra") that originates all phenomena in terms of the svabhava of emptiness.

Works Cited

Gonta, Sonam Gyaltsen. "Tsong kha pa's View on the Theory of Ekayana." Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 5th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, edited by Ihara Shoren, Miyasaka Yusho, Watanabe Shigeaki, and Matsumoto Shokei, 59-66. Vol. 1. Tokyo: Naritasan Shinshoji, 1992.

Reigle, David. “The Book of Dzyan: The Current State of the Evidence.” Supplement to Brahmavidya, The Adyar Library Bulletin (2013): 87-120. http://www.easterntradition.org/Book%20of%20Dzyan,%20The%20Current%....

Small, Ken. "The Doctrine of ‘Nature Origination’ in the Korean Ch’an Buddhism of Chinul and Li T’ung Hsuan’s ‘Hua-yen’." The Book of Dzyan: The Quest for an Original Text of the Book of Dzyan(blog), September 19, 2012 (09:05 p.m.),  http://prajnaquest.fr/blog/the-doctrine-of-nature-origination-in-th....

Westerhoff, Jan. Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2009.