Talk at the Tathāgatagarbha Across Asia Symposium held at the University of Vienna, July 16-19, 2019: “Tantric Zhentong Visions of Tathāgatagarbha in Tibetan Kālacakra Yoga Manuals.” 

Talk Abstract: This paper investigates the concept of śūnyatā-biṃba (stong gzugs), “empty images” or expressions of emptiness in the Kālacakra Tantra, and gives attention to how this phenomenon was interpreted by the Tibetan Kālacakra master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361) and his immediate disciples to be direct expressions of tathāgatagarbha. We are interested in 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 Dolpopa’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. We explore the process of how 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), and how this results in the philosophical and contemplative visions of tantric zhentong (sngags gi gzhan stong). To contextualize Dolpopa’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), interlinear commentarial writings on the Kālacakra Tantra, prescriptive guidebooks about remedying blockages to meditative realization, and autobiographical accounts of yogins to better understand the phenomenon of these expressions of tathāgatagarbha and their categorical construction as contemplative experience within Tibetan literature. In so doing, 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.