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Kalacakra Tantra

The Buddha from Dölpo, Revised and Expanded: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen  by Cyrus Stearns (Tsadra Foundation: Snow Lion)The Buddha from Dölpo is a revised and enlarged edition of the only book about the most controversial Buddhist master in the history of Tibet, Dölpopa Sherab Gyalt-sen (1292-1361), who became perhaps the greatest Tibetan expert of the Kalacakra, or Wheel of Time, a vast system of tantric teachings. Based largely on esoteric Buddhist knowledge from the legendary land of Shambhala, Dölpopa's insights have profoundly influenced the development of Tibetan Buddhism for more than 650 years.

Dölpopa emphasized two contrasting definitions of the Buddhist theory of emptiness. He described relative phenomena as "empty of self-nature," but absolute reality as only "empty of other,'' i.e., relative phenomena. He further identified absolute reality as the buddha nature, or eternal essence, present in all living beings. This view of an "emptiness of other," known in Tibetan as shentong, is Dölpopa's enduring legacy.

The Buddha from Dölpo contains the only English translations of three of Dölpopa's crucial works. A General Commentary on the Doctrine is one of the earliest texts in which he systematically presented his view of the entire Buddhist path to enlightenment. The Fourth Council and its Autocommentary (which was not in the first edition of this book) were written at the end of his life and represent a final summation of his teachings. These translations are preceded by a detailed discussion of Dölpopa's life, his revolutionary ideas, earlier precedents for the shentong view, his unique use of language, and the influence of his theories. The fate of his Jonang tradition, which was censored by the central Tibetan government in the seventeenth century but still survives is also examined.

The Buddha from Dölpo is the most significant contribution to the study of the life and revelation of one of the most enigmatic personalities in Tibetan intellectual history, the Jonang master Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292—1361). Narrating Dölpopa's life story and evolution of thought, Cyrus Stearns lucidly describes how this foremost exponent of shentong philosophical thinking and Kalachakra tantric practice served as the catalyst figure for the Jonang Buddhist tradition during its formative period in fourteenth-century Tibet. A decade after its first publication, this revised and enlarged edition includes several significant refinements and additions, including a translation of Dölpopa's own commentary on his masterful work concerning the calculations of cosmic time according to shentong literature known as the Fourth Council. With this revision, Stearns secures The Buddha from Dölpo its place within the Western-language canon of scholarship on Tibetan Buddhism, making it an essential read for understanding Dölpopa's presentation of shentong, the Kalachakra Tantra in Tibet, and the early Jonang Buddhist tradition."
 -MICHAEL R. SHEEHY, Ph.D., Senior Editor of Tibetan Literary Research at the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center and Executive Director of Jonang Foundation

CYRUS STEARNS has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for over thirty-five years. His main Tibetan teachers were Dezhung Rinpoche, Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. He received a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from the University of Washington and is the author of several books, including Taking the Result As the Path and King of the Empty Plain. He is currently a fellow at the Tsadra Foundation and lives in the woods on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, Washington.

Indian Buddhism as received in Tibet was the apparently contradictory descriptions of emptiness (sunyata, stong pa nyid) found in scriptures and commentaries identified with different phases of the tradition.' The notion of an enlightened eternal essence, or buddha nature, present in every living being was in marked contrast to the earlier traditional Buddhist emphasis on the lack of any enduring essence. For followers of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet, the reconciliation of these two themes in the doctrinal materials they had inherited from India and elsewhere was of crucial importance.

In fourteenth-century Tibet the concern with these issues seems to have finally reached a critical point. There was a burst of scholarly works deal-ing in particular with the question of the buddha nature and the attendant implications for Buddhist traditions of practice and explication. The forces primarily responsible for the intense interest surrounding these issues at this specific point in Tibetan history are not yet clearly understood. But it is clear that many of the prominent masters of this period who produced the most influential works On these topics were dedicated practitioners Of the teachings of the Kalacakra Tantra, and either personally knew each other or had many of the same teachers and disciples. Some of the most important masters were Karmapa Rangjung Dorjé (1284-1339), Butön Rinchen Drup (1290—1364), Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361), Longchen Rabjampa (1308-64), Lama Dampa Sarum Gyaltsen (1312-75), and Barawa Gyaltsen Palsang (1310-91).

Without question, the writings of Dölpo, who was also known as "The Buddha from Dölpo" (Dol po Sangs rgyas) and "The Omniscient One from Dölpo Who Embodies the Buddhas of the Three Times" (Dus gsum sangs rgyas Kun mkhyen Dol po pa), contain the most controversial and stunning ideas ever presented by a great Tibetan Buddhist master. The contr0versies that stemmed from his teachings are still very much alive today, 650 years after Dölpopa's death.

When attempting to grasp the nature and significance of Dölpopa's ideas and their impact on Tibetan religious history, it is important to recognize that he was a towering figure. He was not a minor teacher whose strange notions influenced only his own Jonang tradition, and whose maverick line 0f hermeneutic thought died out when that tradition was suppressed by the central Tibetan government in the middle of the seventeenth century. This is perhaps the orthodox version of events, but there is abundant evidence that Dölpopa's legacy spread widely and had a profound impact on the development of Tibetan Buddhism from the fourteenth century to the present day.

Whenever Dölpopa's name comes up, whether in ancient polemic tracts Or in conversation with modem Tibetan teachers, it is Obvious that he is remembered first and foremost for the development of what is known as the shentong (gzhan stong) view. Until quite recently, this view was familiar to modern scholars largely via the intensely critical writings of later doctri-nal opponents of Dölpopa and the Jonang tradition. In the absence of the original voice for this view, that is, Dölpopa's extensive writings that have only been widely available since 199z, even Dölpopa's name and the words "Jonang" and " shentong" often ev0ked merely the image of an aberrant and heretical doctrine that thankfully was purged from the Tibetan Buddhist scene centuries ag0.' In this way a very significant segment of Tibetan religious history has been swept under the rug. One of the main aims of the present work is t0 allow Dölpopa's life and ideas to speak for themselves.

Dölpopa uses the Tibetan term shentong (gzhan stong), "empty of other," to describe absolute reality as empty only of other relative phenomena. This view is his primary legacy and usually elicits a strong reaction, whether positive or negative. Others bef0re Dölpopa held much the same opinions, in both India and Tibet, but he was the first to come out and directly say what he thought in writing, using terminology that was new and shocking for many of his contemp0raries. His new "Dharma language" (chos skad), which included the use of previously unknown terms such as shentong, will be discussed in chapter

According to Dölpopa, the absolute and the relative are both empty, as Buddhism has always taught, but they must be empty in different ways. Phe-nomena at the relative level are empty of self-nature (rang stong) and are no m0re real than the fictiti0us horn of a rabbit or the child of a barren woman. In contrast, the reality of absolute truth is empty only of 0ther (gzhan stong) relative phenomena. With the recent availability of a large number of writ-ings by Dölpopa, it is now clear that he was not simply setting up the view-points of an emptiness of self-nature and an emptiness of other as opposed theories located on the same level. He obviously viewed the pair as comple-mentary, while making the careful distinction that the view of an "emptiness of other" applied only to the absolute and an emptiness of self-nature only to the relative. Both approaches were essential for a correct understanding of the nature of samsara and nirvana. Dölpopa disagreed with people who viewed both the absolute and the relative as empty of self-nature, and who refused to recognize the existence of anything that was not empty of self-nature. From their point of view, the notion of an emptiness of other relative phenomena did not fit the definition of emptiness.

Dölpopa further identified the absolute with the buddha nature, or sugata essence, which was thus seen to be eternal and not empty of self-nature, but only empty of Other. The buddha nature is perfect and complete from the beginning, with all the characteristics of a buddha eternally present in every living being. It is only the impermanent and temporary afflictions veiling the buddha nature that are empty of self-nature and must be removed through the practice of the path to allow the ever-present buddha nature to manifest in its full splendor.

This view agreed with many Mahayana and Vajrayana scriptures, but most of the scholars in Tibet during Dölpopa's life disagreed with him. They viewed such scriptural statements to be provisional in meaning and in need of interpretation for the true intent to be correctly comprehended. This was the opinion of the mainstream Sakya tradition to which Dölpopa belonged before he moved to Jonang. For some time Dölpopa tried to keep his teachings secret, realizing they would be misunderstood and cause great turmoil and uncertainty for people who had closed minds and were accustomed to styles of interpretation that differed greatly from his own. He often remarked that the majority of buddhas and bodhisattvas agreed with him on these issues, but the majority of scholars in Tibet opposed him. For example, the general position of the Sakya tradition is that the buddha nature, or sugata essence, is present in living beings as a potential or seed. This seed can be caused to ripen through the various practices of the path and come to final fruition as perfect buddhahood. If a seed is left in a box without any water, light, warmth, soil, and so forth, it will never bear fruit. But if it is planted in the proper soil, receives the right amount of sunlight, water, and so on, it will grow into a healthy plant and finally bear its fruit. From this viewpoint, the buddha nature in every living being is a fertile seed that has the potential to expand and manifest as a result of practice, but is not complete and perfect already as Dölpopa accepted.

In regard to the two truths, the absolute and the relative, Dölpopa saw no difference between speaking of the absolute as totally unestablished and saying that an absolute does not exist. He asked whether a relative is possible without an absolute, the incidental possible without the primordial, and phenomena possible without a true nature. If, he asked, their existence is possible without an absolute, then would these relative, incidental phenomena themselves not constitute an omnipresent reality or true nature? There would be, in such a situation, nothing else. This is an unacceptable conclusion. Dölpopa's doctrinal opponents might respond by saying that every-thing is not the relative, for there is, of course, an absolute truth. Dölpopa might then reply that if it is impossible for there to be no absolute, does that not contradict the notion of an absolute that is totally unestablished? Everything cannot be simply empty of self-nature, for then there would be no difference between the absolute and the relative. As Dölpopa says in his Autocommentary to the Youth Council:

Why is understanding all
as empty of self-nature
not equal to not understanding?

Why is explaining all
as empty of self-nature
not equal to not explaining?

Why is writing that
all is empty of self-nature
not equal to not writing?

Dölpopa saw the only solution to these sorts of problems to be the acceptance of the absolute as a true, eternal, and veridically established reality, empty merely of other relative phenomena.

Such descriptions of reality or the buddha nature are common in a num-ber of scriptures that the Tibetan tradition places in the third turning of the Dharma wheel and in the Buddhist tantras. Nevertheless, no one in Tibet before Dölpopa had simply said that absolute reality was not empty of self- nature. This was what caused all the trouble. In answer to the objections of his opponents, Dölpopa noted that his teachings and the Dharma language he was using were indeed new, but only in the sense that they were not well-known in Tibet. This was because they had come from the realm of Shambhala to the north, where they had been widespread from an early date. He explicitly linked his ideas to the Kalacakra Tantra and its great commentary, the Stainless Light, which was composed by the Shambhala emperor Kalki Pundarika. These works were not translated into Tibetan until the early eleventh century. Dölpopa clearly felt that previous interpreters of the Kalacakra literature had not fully comprehended its profound meaning. As will be discussed in chapter 1, he even ordered a new revised translation of the Kalacakra Tantra and the Stainless Light to make the definitive meaning more accessible to Tibetan scholars and practitioners. In this respect he was attempting to remove the results of accumulated mistaken presuppositions that had informed the earlier translations in Tibet and provided the basis for many erroneous opinions concerning the true meaning of the Kalacakra Tantra.

This book is divided into two parts. Part deals with Dölpopa's life and teachings. In chapter Dölpopa's life is discussed in some detail. This has been made possible by the publication of one full-length Tibetan biography of Dölpopa and the recovery of another unpublished manuscript biography, both by direct disciples who witnessed much of what they describe. Many other Tibetan sources have also been used for this discussion. The story of Dölpopa's life provides essential background for an appreciation of his character, spiritual and intellectual development, and tremendous influence in fourteenth-century Tibet.

Chapter 2 summarizes the historical development of the shentong tradition in Tibet. Some of the earlier Tibetan precedents for the view of ulti-mate reality as an emptiness only of other relative phenomena are briefly discussed. Dölpopa's unique use of language and the major influences on his development of the shentong theory are presented in some detail. The fate of the Jonang tradition after Dölpopa is described, as well as the significance of several of the most important adherents to the shentong view from the fourteenth through the twentieth centuries.

Chapter 3 is a discussion of Dölpopa's view of the nature of absolute reality as empty only of phenomena other than itself, and of the relative as empty of self-nature. In connection with these ideas, Dölpopa's attempt to redefine the views of Cittamatra and Madhyamaka in Tibet is described, and his own definition of what constitutes the tradition of Great Madhyamaka (dbu ma chen po) is summarized. Finally, there is a brief presentation of two opposing views of what actually brings about enlightenment. Dölpopa felt that enlightenment occurs only when the vital winds (vayu, rlung) normally circulating through many subtle channels in the body are drawn into the central channel (avadhati) through the practice of tantric yoga. He strongly objected to the view that enlightenment could be achieved merely by recognizing the nature of mind, without any need for the accumulation of the assemblies of merit and primordial awareness through the practice of the path. These topics are discussed to provide basic information for under-standing the following translations.

Part 2 contains translations of major works by Dölpopa, two of which were composed in verse. The first is the General Commentary on the Doctrine (Bstan pa spyi grel), one of the earliest texts Dölpopa composed to present his view of the entire structure of the Buddhist tradition. The introduc-tion to the translation describes the circumstances of its composition and the significance of the work. The translation of the General Commentary on the Doctrine is annotated from the detailed commentary by Nya On Kunga Pal, who was one of Dölpopa's most important disciples. This first short work is followed by translations of the Fourth Council (Bka' bsdu bzhi pa) and the Autocommentary to the Fourth Council" (Bka' bsdu bzhi pa'i rang 'grel). The circumstances surrounding the composition of these texts at the request of the Sakya hierarch Lama Dampa Sön Gyaltsen are discussed in the introduction to the translations. The Fourth Council and the Autocommentary were written in the last years of Dölpopa's life and serve as a final summation of the ideas that he considered most important. Virtually the entire text of his own summarizing cmmentary (bsdus don 'grel pa) to the works is also included in the translation of the Fourth Council.

The Inner Kalacakratantra: A Buddhist Tantric View of the Individual by Vesna Wallace (Oxford University Press) Solid research in the Indian tradition of this inportant Buddhist Tantra will appeal to specialists and serious lay inquiries, considering thousands of westerns have been initiated into the first stages of this Tantra by the Tibetans.

 The Kalacakratantra is an early eleventh-century esoteric treatise belonging to the class of unexcelled yoga-tantras (anuttara-yoga-tantra). To the best of our knowledge, it was the last anuttara-yoga-tantra to appear in India.

According to the Kalacakra tradition, the extant version of the Kalacakratantra is an abridged version of the larger original tantra, called the Paramadibuddha, that was taught by the Buddha Sakyamuni to Sucandra, the king of Sambhala and an emanation of Vajrapani, in the Dhanyakataka stupa, a notable center of Mahayana in the vicinity of the present-day village of Amaravat! in Andhra Pradesh. Upon receiving instruction on the Paramadibuddhatantra and returning to Sambhala, King Sucandra wrote it down and propagated it throughout his kingdom. His six succes­sors continued to maintain the inherited tradition, and the eighth king of Samb­hala, Manjusri Yasas, composed the abridged version of the Paramddibuddhatantra, which is handed down to us as the Sovereign Abridged Kdlacakratantra (Laghukala­cakratantraraja). It is traditionally taught that it is composed of 1,030 verses written in the sradghard meter.' However, various Sanskrit manuscripts and editions of the LaghuMlacakratantra contain a somewhat larger number of verses, ranging from 1,037 to 1,047 verses. The term an "abridged tantra" (laghu-tantra) has a specific meaning in Indian Buddhist tantric tradition. Its traditional interpretation is given in Nadapada's (Naropa) Sekoddesatika, which states that in every yoga, yogini, and other types of tantras, the concise, general explanations (uddesa) and specific explanations (nirdda) make up a tantric discourse (tantra-samgiti), and that discourse, which is an exposition (uddesana) there, is an entire abridged tantra.

The tradition tells us that Manjugri Ya'sas's successor Put darika, who was an em­anation of Avalokitesvara, composed a large commentary on the Kalacakratantra, called the Stainless Light (Vimalaprabha), which became the most authoritative commentary on the Kalacakratantra and served as the basis for all subsequent commen­tarial literature of that literary corpus. The place of the Vimalaprabha in the Kala­cakra literary corpus is of great importance, for in many instances, without the Vimalaprablha, it would be practically impossible to understand not only the broader implications of the Kalacakratantra's cryptic verses and often grammatically corrupt sentences but their basic meanings. It has been said that the Kalacakratantra is ex­plicit with regard to the tantric teachings that are often only implied in the other anuttara-yoga-tantras, but this explicitness is actually far more characteristic of the Vimalaprabha than of the Kalacakratantra itself.

According to Tibetan sources, the acarya Cilupa from Orissa, who lived in the second half of the tenth century, after reading the Kalacakratantra in the monastery in Ratnagiri, undertook a journey to Sambhala in order to receive oral teachings that would illuminate the text. After his return to southern India, he initially had three students, one of whom was the great pardita Pindo, who was originally from Bengal. The acarya Pindo became a teacher of Kalacakrapada the Senior, who was from northern Bengal (Varendra). After returning to eastern India, Kalacakrapada the Se­nior taught the Kalacakratantra to his disciples, the most famous of whom was Kala­cakrapada the Junior, who built the Kalacakra temple in Na1anda, believing that the propagation of the Kalacakratantra in Magadha would facilitate its propagation in all directions. I shall not discuss here all the variants in the accounts given by the Ti­betan Rwa and `Bro traditions of the history of the Kalacakratantra in India, for these accounts have already been narrated in other readily available works by other West­ern scholars and in English translations of the Tibetan sources.

One of the references that seems significant for establishing the period of the propagation of the Kalacakratantra in India is the reference in the Kalacakratantra and the Vinlalaprabha to the end of the sexagenary cycle that comes 403 years after the Hijri, or Islamic era of 622 CE. Likewise, the same texts assert that the hundred and eighty-second year after the Hijri era is the period of the eleventh Kalki, the king Aja, which is corroborated by the Kala­cakranusdrigaruta, which states further that after the time of Kalki Aja, 221 years passed till the end of the sexagenary cycle. Thus, adding 221 years to 182, one arrives at the number of 403 years after the Hijri era. In light of this, I agree with G. Orofino in determining the year to be 1026 CE, relying on the Indian system of reckoning years, in which 623 CE is included in the span of 403 years. This is in contrast to G. Gronbold and D. Schuh, who assumed without substantial evidence that the Kalacakra tradition incorrectly calculated the Hijri era as beginning at 642 CE and thus determined the year to be 1027 CE by adding the span of 403 years to the year of 624 CE.

According to the Vimalaprabha commentary, the Paramadibuddhatantra was com­posed of twelve thousand verses, written in the anustubh meter? However, we can­not determine now with certainty whether the Paramadibuddhatantra ever existed as a single text or as a corpus of mutually related writings, since we know from the Vi­malaprabha8 that the Sekoddega, which circulated as an independent text in early eleventh-century India, has traditionally been considered to be a part of the Paramadibuddhatantra. Nearly two hundred and ten verses from the Adibuddhatantra are cited throughout the five chapters of the Vimalaprabha; and some verses attributed to the Paramadibuddhatantra are also scattered in other writings related to the Kalacakra literary corpus, such as the Sekoddegatippani and the Paramardasarngraha,  which cites the verse from the Paramadibuddhatantra that coincides with the opening verse of the Dakinivajrapanjaratantra. Likewise, some citations from the Paramadibuddhatantra are found in the commentarial literature on the Hevajratantra, specifically-in the Heva­jrapirddrthati and in the Vajrapaddsarasamgrahapanji.

In addition to these, there are other pieces of textual evidence found in the Abridged Kalacakratantra and in the Vimalaprabha, such as the repeated references to the Hevajratantra, the Guhyasamajatantra, the Cakrasamvaratantra, and to the Manjusrindmasamgiti, which the Vimalaprabha identifies as the sixteenth chapter of the Mayajalatantra. These suggest that the Paramadibuddhaantra must have been composed after these tantric traditions of the seventh and eighth centuries were al­ready well established.

The works of the eminent Indian Kalacakratantra adepts, such as those of Darika, Anupamaraksita, and Sadhuputra, which are preserved in the different versions of the Tibetan Bstan'gyur, can be dated to the beginning of the eleventh century. The writings of the Bengali author Abhayakaragupta, who was a contemporary of the Bengali king Ramapala, and the works of Ravigrijiiana from Kasmir, can be traced to the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Likewise, the writings of the Bengali author Vibhuticandra who studied in Magadha, and the works of the Kagmir author Sakyasribhadra can be dated to the second half of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth centuries. Some Tibetan authors indicate that although writing on the Kalacakratantra might have ceased in India with the Turkish invasions of Bihar and Bengal at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Kalacakra tradition did not completely die in India until the fifteenth century. In his History of Indian Bud­dhism, Taranatha mentions one of the last of the Indian Buddhist panditas, Va­naratna, from eastern Bengal, who in 1426 was the last Indian pandita to reach Tibet through Nepal. Having reached Tibet, he taught and co-translated several works of the Kalacakra corpus from Sanskrit into Tibetan. According to the Blue Annals, the best of the initiations and precepts of the Kalacakratantra came at that time from Va­naratna. Thus, it seems that the doctrine and practice of the Kalacakratantra were promulgated in India for almost five centuries.

It is difficult to determine with certainty the parts of India in which the first au­thors of the Kalacakra tradition resided. The Tibetan accounts, however, indicate that even though the Kalacakra tradition initially may have started in south India, the Kalacakratantra's sphere of influence in India was confined to Bengal, Magadha (Bihar), and Kashmir, wherefrom it was transmitted to Nepal, Tibet, and eventually to Mongolia, where Kalacakra was instituted as the protective deity of the Mongol nation.



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