Images of Emptiness in a Prognostic Mirror: Tantric Zhentong Visions of Tathāgatagarbha in Early Jonang Kālacakra Yoga Manuals

In Buddha Nature Across Asia
Edited by Klaus-Dieter Mathes and Casey Kemp
University of Vienna Press, 2022

This chapter investigates the concept of “empty images” (śūnyatā-biṃba, stong gzugs), expressions of emptiness in the Kālacakra Tantra, and gives attention to how this phenomenon was interpreted by the Tibetan Kālacakra master Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361) and his immediate disciples to be direct expressions of buddhanature (tathāgatagarbha). The focus is the tantric epistemology of these “empty images,” textual connections to tathāgatagarbha, and correlative contemplative experiences that are described within Tibetan meditation manuals on the Kālacakra sixfold vajrayoga. As we find in Dölpopa’s writings, as well as by later Jonang authors, these expressions of tathāgatagarbha are observable and experiential, and come about through the careful execution of the yogic procedures explicated in the vajrayoga practice of the Kālacakra. These expressions are said to be experienced through the precise process of withdrawing one’s sense faculties from mundane stimuli, hence rescinding one’s involvement with objectification through a threefold practice of isolating the body, voice, and mind (dben pa gsum), resulting in the philosophical and contemplative visions of tantric zhentong (sngags gi gzhan stong). To contextualize Dölpopa’s claims, we analyze passages from early meditation procedural manuals on the sixfold vajrayoga practices composed by two of his closest disciples, Chokle Namgyal (1306-1386) and Lotsāwa Lodro Pel (1313-1391). To better understand the phenomenon of these expressions of tathāgatagarbha and their categorical construction as contemplative experience within Tibetan literature, we analyze Buddhist doctrinal relationships of emptiness and tathāgatagarbha, and probe the epistemological nature of these expressions to be nature-born experiences, external referents, visionary “images of buddhas,” and/or intentional objects of meditation.