WSTB No. 74

Karl Brunnhölzl “Prajñāpāramitā, Indian “gzhan ston pas“, And the Beginning of Tibetan gzhan stong” (2011) 205p.

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In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there is an ongoing debate as to whether the gzhan stong (“empty-of-other”) system was “invented” by Tibetans or whether it has Indian precursors. This publication discusses evidence for a number of typical gzhan stong positions in several Indian texts and provides a sketch of the transmission of the five works of Maitreya from India to Tibet as well as the beginning of a Tibetan gzhan stong, tracing some classical gzhan stong assertions in three early Tibetan works before Dol po pa.

A number of Indian prajñāpāramitā commentaries equate the threefold division of all phenomena in the “Maitreya Chapter” in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikāṣṭāprajñāpāramitā with the trisvabhāva model (as do Vasubandhu’s and Sthiramati’s commentaries on the Madhyāntavibhāga). Among these texts, those that exhibit traits of the gzhan stong view are the Śatasāhasrikāpañcaviṃśatisāhasrikāṣṭādaśasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitābṛhaṭṭīkā (often attributed to Vasubandhu), the greatly related Bhagavatyāmnāyānusāriṇīnāmavyākhyā, and the Śatasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitābṛhaṭṭīkā. These works understand trisvabhāva as pariniṣpanna being ultimately existent and being empty of both parikalpita and paratantra, which are nonexistent ultimately. They also refer to the notion of tathāgatagarbha and employ the concept of āśrayaparivṛtti in the sense of pariniṣpanna (understood as mind’s natural luminosity) being completely changeless even when seemingly obscured by adventitious stains. Both the Śatasāhasrikāpañcaviṃśatisāhasrikāṣṭādaśasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitābṛhaṭṭīkā and the Bhagavatyāmnāyānusāriṇīnāmavyākhyā say that pariniṣpanna is the soteriologically decisive remainder after the other two svabhāvas have been relinquished. In this vein, the former text also takes emptiness – pariniṣpanna – to mean “being devoid of what is other” (gzhan dang bral ba; this expression is also found in Vinītadeva’s Triṃśikāṭīkā).

Further Indian texts that contain passages in accord with gzhan stong along these lines are Sajjana’s Mahāyānottaratantraśāstropadeśa and Ratnākaraśānti’s Prajñāpāramitopadeśa, Madhyamakālaṃkāropadeśā, Madhyamakālaṃkāravṛtti, and Sūtrasamuccayabhāṣya.

The first among the three early Tibetan texts related to gzhan stong is Guiding Instructions on the View of Other-Emptiness (Gzhan stong gi lta khrid) compiled by Kun dga grol mchog (1507–1565/66) from the notes of Btsan kha bo che (born 1021), who received teachings on the Maitreya works from Sajjana and is often portrayed as one of the earliest Tibetan proponents of gzhan stong. The second and third works are by Skyo ston Smon lam tshul khrims (1219–1299), the eighth abbot of Snar thang Monastery. His Repository of Wisdom (Ye shes kyi ’jog sa) represents his oral instructions for a student, which are based on “the meditative tradition of the Maitreya texts” (byams chos sgom lugs) and the Ratnagotravibhāga in particular. Skyo ston’s Instructions on the Mahāyānottaratantra (Theg chen rgyud bla ma’i gdams pa) contain Maitreya’s direct pointing-out instructions based on the appearances in a dream of Maitrīpa, through which Maitreya explains the inconceivability of the last four vajra points of the Ratnagotravibhāga. Maitreya’s instructions equate tathāgatagarbha with mind’s natural luminosity, self-arisen non-conceptual wisdom, and the dharmakāya, all of which exist already in sentient beings, but are merely obscured by imaginary adventitious stains.

Besides the assertions mentioned, a number of the above works also exhibit the gzhan stong positions that the ultimate is an implicative negation (and not a non-implicative negation), that the presentation of trisvabhāva represents Madhyamaka, and that emptiness or ultimate reality is beyond dependent origination.

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