Empty or Full? An Ancient Master Reclaims Buddha’s Teachings

February 5, 2015    BY Linda Johnsen

Although it took place many years ago, I remember my first visit to a Buddhist temple as vividly as if it happened yesterday. When Reverend Kubose, the Japanese priest presiding there, asked what drew me to Buddhism, I enthusiastically responded, “I want to learn more about my higher Self.”

“There is no higher Self,” he explained.

Thinking I hadn’t been clear, I tried again. “I want to know the supreme reality.”

“There is no supreme reality,” he said patiently.

This was my introduction to the Buddhist doctrines of anatta and sunyata, the beliefs that we human beings have no inner Self, nor is there any universal consciousness at work in the cosmos—in essence, both we and the universe are simply sunyata, “empty.”

As a yoga student, I was quite surprised to hear this. I knew that according to Patanjali, the codifier of yoga science, buried deep beneath our thoughts and feelings lies purusha, our innermost being, pure consciousness itself. In deep states of meditation, when the thought-waves in our minds subside, we actually experience this level of pure being. And according to Shankaracharya, one of the greatest sages of the yoga tradition, this inner Self is one with the supreme consciousness of the universe.

It seemed that the Buddhists teach the exact opposite from the yogis of the Himalayas. Yet both the Buddhists and the Himalayan adepts were molded by the same great spiritual tradition of India, both acknowledge the reality of karma and reincarnation, and both use similar meditation techniques. How then can their teachings about the truths experienced in the highest meditative states be so different?

It seemed that the Buddhists teach the exact opposite from the yogis of the Himalayas.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one who was confused. From time to time controversies have erupted within Buddhism itself as practitioners struggled to come to terms with what Buddha really meant by his surprising and controversial teachings. And no one has reconciled Buddhist doctrine and traditional yogic views with as much brilliant insight and forceful clarity as Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, one of the greatest Tibetan masters of all time, who lived and wrote in the 14th century.

The Kalachakra Masters of Shambhala

Dolpopa was born in northwestern Nepal in the year 1292, not much more than 100 miles from Kapilavastu, where Buddha himself was born. His commitment to spiritual life showed itself early: at the age of 5 he received his first initiation, and at 12 he took the vows of a novitiate Buddhist monk. His parents were less than thrilled at Dolpopa’s spiritual aspirations, so at 17 he ran away to study with the noted Tibetan master Gyidon Jamyang in Mustang. In 1312 he was invited to study at one of the most prestigious universities in central Asia, the great Buddhist monastery at Sakya in Tibet.

He quickly became the favorite of his professors, who fawned on the precocious young monk and prophesied a great future for him.

Dolpopa immediately distinguished himself as one of the most gifted students his teachers had ever seen. Blessed with a phenomenal memory, he was able to memorize huge numbers of texts easily, mastering four fields of study in the time most students took to learn just one. He quickly became the favorite of his professors, who fawned on the precocious young monk and prophesied a great future for him.

Soon Dolpopa was being sent to other monasteries to teach, showing off his expertise in the sutras, the tantras, and the endless commentaries authored by Buddhist scholars in India and Tibet over the centuries. His brilliance earned the accolades of some of the most famous spiritual leaders of Tibet, including the heads of the Sakya and Kagyu lineages. The attention and success made his head swell; Dolpopa was very conscious of being a genius.

Then in 1321, at the age of 29, Dolpopa was sent to teach at the monastery at Jonang. The experience was shattering. “Up to that point, no matter how many scholars and lamas I faced, I always outshone them,” he reminisced later. “No one could defeat me in debate. Then I went to Jonang. There for the first time I met a group of men and women who were practicing meditation seriously. While I was an expert at speaking about the nature of reality, these people had actually realized the nature of reality through intensive spiritual practice. I was profoundly humbled.”

So as soon as his schedule would allow, he returned to Jonang for an extensive meditation retreat. Leaving aside his books, Dolpopa focused on mastering the six yogic techniques of Kalachakra, the tantra of the Great Wheel of Time: pratyahara (withdrawing one’s attention from the senses), dhyana (stabilizing the mind), pranayama (breath control), dharana (in Buddhism this means full restraint of the twin vectors of thought and breath), anusmriti (visualization), and samadhi (full meditative absorption). These techniques were the legacy of the legendary masters of Shambala). Dolpopa was determined to master the Buddha’s teachings not just intellectually like the learned monks in the college monasteries, but experientially like the yogis at Jonang.

The Jonangpas

Most Tibetan Buddhist universities taught a school of thought called Madhyamaka, which claims that the ultimate nature of all phenomena is “empty,” that the universe has no basis in any underlying permanent reality. Everything is impermanent, Madhyamaka maintains, and there is no divine source from which the world emanates and no “ultimate state” to be attained in meditation. This was not, however, what the monks and nuns at Jonang, who so impressed Dolpopa, experienced in their meditation. And it was not, according to Dolpopa, what the Kalachakra masters had taught. How did the Jonangpas come to disagree so radically with the beliefs accepted by the majority of Buddhists in Tibet?

To find the answer we must turn for a moment to the world’s holiest mountain, Mount Kailas in western Tibet, the most sacred place on Earth for the devotees of four great religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Bön. To this day, despite harsh communist rule in Tibet and treacherous travel conditions, each year thousands of pilgrims make the trek from northwestern India over the Himalayas to circumambulate this sacred site. Hindus believe the god Shiva and goddess Parvati live at the summit of the mountain. Buddhists believe flashes of light sometimes seen on its slopes are the ever-compassionate bodhisattvas manifesting in their subtle bodies.

One of the reasons yoga is often referred to as the Himalayan tradition is that in remote mountain areas like Mount Kailas, where religious bigotry could not be enforced, advanced spiritual practice and yogic experimentation were free to flourish.

Throughout history some of the world’s most advanced spiritual masters have congregated here from all over the Eastern world: India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Ladakh, China, Mongolia, and central Asia. The monks and nuns affiliated with religious institutions back home were often constrained in what they could teach or practice by the particular sect to which they belonged. But the sadhus or wandering yogis who camped near Kailas were under no such compulsion. There they could freely exchange ideas about their beliefs and compare notes about the results of their practices. Buddhist practitioners could sit down with Jain tantrics or Shaivite and Shakta ascetics to candidly discuss their spiritual experiences. One of the reasons yoga is often referred to as the Himalayan tradition is that in remote mountain areas like Mount Kailas, where religious bigotry could not be enforced, advanced spiritual practice and yogic experimentation were free to flourish.

It was in this region that Yumowa Migyo Dorje, the great 11th-century Jonangpa adept, mastered the demanding techniques of Kalachakra tantra. He passed on this sacred tradition to his students at Jonang, emphasizing the importance of genuine yogic attainment over mere intellectual knowledge. Having been nurtured in the free-thinking atmosphere of Mount Kailas, he emphasized the truths he directly experienced in meditation rather than subtle doctrines like Madhyamaka. Yumowa cautioned against accepting any doctrine that had been arrived at through logical analysis alone and that ignores what yogis actually experience in samadhi.

Two centuries later, when Dolpopa first arrived at Jonang, he found an enclave of monks and nuns diligently following the practices outlined by Yumowa. They went about their business quietly, careful not to antagonize the powerful Tibetan academic community. But Dolpopa was not the quiet type.

What Did Buddha Really Teach?

For Dolpopa, the Jonangpa teachings struck with the force of revelation. Following his meditation retreat, he returned to his studies with opened eyes. One of the things he had not allowed himself to see in the past was that many of the major Buddhist scriptures did not support the idea that reality is inherently “empty.” On the contrary, important texts from Shambhala like Kalkin Pundarika’sThe Unblemished Light, while admitting the insubstantiality of the world, spoke of a deeper unchanging reality behind appearances, an inner reality of permanent radiant awareness.

Madhyamaka scholars did not deny that numerous passages describing an eternal substratum—much like the Vedic concept of brahman, the supreme reality—appeared in Buddhist sutras and tantras; there were just too many such passages to dismiss. What they did claim was that these verses were “provisional,” that is, they were “oversimplified” expressions that needed additional explanation from learned scholars such as themselves. In other words, when Buddha said that the nature of the universe was unblemished awareness, the Madhyamaka scholars maintained that he didn’t mean this literally. What he really meant—according to them—was that the essence of things was without consciousness at all, devoid of any self-existence whatsoever.

This doctrine had profound implications. For if everything is empty of self-nature, then both samsara (the wheel of karma and reincarnation) and nirvana (the enlightened state) are “empty,” and therefore, for all practical purposes, identical. Enlightenment could then mean simply recognition of the emptiness of the world of appearances and of the activities of one’s own mind. Consequently, for some monks spiritual practice became merely an intellectual exercise for which advanced yogic techniques and perhaps even basic morality were not necessarily relevant.

Was this what Buddha really intended? Dolpopa didn’t think so. All Tibetans agreed that Buddha had given out his teachings in several stages, depending on the capacity of the disciples with him at the time. In his voluminous writings, drawing on centuries of authoritative Buddhist literature, Dolpopa argued that the Madhyamakas had missed a critical point related to the third level of Buddha’s teaching.

Buddha’s first transmission was the bare basics of his doctrine: the famous four noble truths concerning suffering and how to end it. As his students advanced in their practice, Buddha shifted the emphasis of his lectures to sunyata, to the fact that everything in the universe is impermanent and insubstantial, ultimately melting away into the void. The universe is not projected from spirit, according to sunyata, but is an endless flux of “dependent origination” in which every event is caused by the karmic impulses produced by numberless previous events, and has no inherent existence of its own. As the Buddhists say, it is “empty of self-nature.” But at the “third turning of the wheel,” when his disciples had finally reached an advanced level of practical understanding, the master explained the characteristics of the Buddha nature, the tathagatagarbha or ultimate beingness in which all Buddhas, and all of us, ultimately abide.

As advanced meditators of all traditions have reported, the highest state is not a blank void but a condition of ecstatic unified awareness.

According to Dolpopa, the Madhyamakas had grasped the second stage teaching, that there is no permanence in the universe, but had missed the all-important third stage doctrine that there is, at the same time, no impermanence in the transcendent Buddha nature. Transcendent being is “empty,” he claimed, in the sense that it is untouched by the comings and goings of the material universe, just as the Himalayan yogis have claimed from time immemorial. But it is not empty of itself; on the contrary, transcendent reality is filled with light and bliss. As advanced meditators of all traditions have reported, the highest state is not a blank void but a condition of ecstatic unified awareness. When Buddha taught the doctrine of anatta or “no soul,” Dolpopa wrote, he was denying that we are limited entities who will exist forever as individuated units of consciousness, but at the same time he was affirming that in our deepest essence we are the Buddha nature itself, supreme enlightened awareness. This was as different from the orthodox Madhyamaka view as could possibly be.

The Zhentong Tradition

Dolpopa wrote numerous volumes celebrating the self-existence of transcendent reality. “I bow before the enlightened masters who teach that just like a flame whose light is partially hidden by a screen, the radiant light of the Buddha nature exists beneath our conflicting emotions, as well as beneath the phenomena of nature. While the objects we perceive with our senses and the thoughts we sense with our minds have no enduring reality, the Buddha nature itself exists immutably outside time and space. Inside each of us lies the living experience of this absolute reality,” he stated in his influential General Commentary on the Doctrine, in which he outlined his views, which soon came to be known as the Zhentong tradition.

In another central text, The Fourth Council, Dolpopa challenged the Buddhist community to honestly address the logical inconsistencies in their philosophy, such as: If everything is essentially nonexistent, how does it happen that we’re sitting here talking about it? “With loving reverence,” he wrote, “I bow to Buddha, who is the supreme Self, perfect purity, and ever-abiding bliss. The ultimate refuge for beings suffering in this world is the supreme Self, the adamantine spiritual being. If this were not a reality, the spiritual path would be useless and enlightenment could not exist. The living experience of reality is joy beyond joy, limitless love, all-embracing compassion, intrinsic awareness, and omniscience.

“Joining my palms together in deepest respect, I appeal to you to consider that if there were no absolute reality, there could be no relative world. If there were no permanent, fully illumined state, consciousness could not exist at all. This is the state of the primordial Buddha, the Buddha who has always existed even before our human buddhas were born. This state is always fully present in each of us, but it is not available to those who argue philosophically; it is only available to the yoga practitioners who cleanse their minds in order to experience it directly.

“I beg you to reexamine your own scriptures, paying attention to what the words actually say rather than interpreting the words according to your own views. To truly meditate means to experience the supreme reality—all-pervading as the sky—as it really is, not as you think it is. Focus on love to calm your emotions, focus on inhaling and exhaling to calm your mind, and direct your vital energies into your sushumna [the central channel in the subtle body] so that you can directly experience the unblemished light beyond the reach of your intellect.”

This was radical stuff. Buddhism was ridden with sectarianism and in this climate scholars of each school wrote angry diatribes insisting that anyone who disagreed with the least of their opinions was doomed to spend eons in hell. Dolpopa, however, insisted that the Zhentong tradition was nonsectarian, and invited followers of all schools to join him in meditation to discover the inner truths for themselves.

Dolpopa’s words did not fall on deaf ears. During his lifetime he was extraordinarily popular, drawing large numbers of supporters relieved that a prominent monk was finally publicly expressing the reservations that many of them had secretly felt themselves. Dolpopa’s explanation of what Buddha actually meant by “no soul” and “emptiness” made sense in terms of meditative experience. Even the Karmapa, the head of the prestigious Kagyu lineage of lamas, expressed sympathy for Dolpopa’s views, as did some noted Sakya and Nyingma lamas.

Dolpopa was not only recognized as one of the greatest meditation masters of his era, he also came to be loved by the people of Tibet as a saint of the highest caliber. He was noted for performing extraordinary miracles, at one point healing a quadriplegic who went on to become a close disciple. When Dolpopa would leave his retreat to offer public initiations, such enormous crowds would gather that the sponsoring monasteries had difficulties accommodating them. When he would leave, wailing devotees would throw themselves in his path hoping to prevent him from going. The Chinese emperor Toghon Temur sent repeated emissaries pleading with Dolpopa to come and teach in China. And perhaps most tellingly, Dolpopa’s character was so stainless that in spite of the fact that his teachings were controversial, modern scholars have not discovered even one instance of any enemy criticizing Dolpopa personally during his lifetime.

Dolpopa was not only recognized as one of the greatest meditation masters of his era, he also came to be loved by the people of Tibet as a saint of the highest caliber.

By his later years many Tibetans believed Dolpopa was the reincarnation of Kalkin Pundarika, the Kalachakra master who had composed The Unblemished Light. They believed the king of Shambhala had returned to them as Dolpopa in order to correct the distortions that had entered Buddhism and restore the tradition to its primordial purity. Dolpopa may have believed this himself; he admitted he felt that he was being guided by the immortal masters of Shambhala.

Extinguishing the Light

In the centuries immediately following Dolpopa’s death in 1361, his tradition flourished. In fact Taranatha (1575–1638), one of the most beloved lamas in Tibetan history, was a successor to Dolpopa as head of the Jonangpa lineage and wrote a famous biography of the great master. Eventually, however, dark clouds began to gather.

The Katha Upanishad, one of the sacred texts of the Vedic tradition, states, “Beyond the senses is the mind, beyond the mind is the intuitive faculty, beyond the intuition is the cosmic mind, beyond the cosmic mind is the unmanifest reality, and beyond the unmanifest reality is the all-pervading supreme Self. The Self is revealed by purifying the intuition through constant meditation. Whoever knows the supreme Self goes beyond death.” Yogis have suggested that when some Buddhist practitioners claim they experience their inner world as empty or a void, they may have reached the level of the unmanifest reality in their meditation, but have not yet broken through to the fully illumined Self beyond it.

It is impossible to ignore the similarities between Dolpopa’s teachings about the light of the Self and the Vedic tradition. If Dolpopa is representing the Buddha authentically this shouldn’t be surprising, since after all Buddha was raised in the Vedic tradition and trained in yoga. Buddha rejected the authority of the priests and declined to worship deities, but almost everything he taught had obvious parallels in Vedic thought and practice. The Vedic tradition also taught that we are “no soul”—not a limited soul, but infinite spirit—and Buddhist yogic practices were for the most part identical to those of the greater Indian tradition.

Dolpopa’s teachings brought Buddhism close to Vedanta and to the tradition of the Himalayan yogis. This did not sit well with orthodox Buddhists in Tibet, particularly an arch-conservative sect called the Gelugpas that began to take shape shortly after Dolpopa’s death. And it didn’t help that the Jonang monastery flourished under the patronage of the king of Tsang, chief rival of the Gelugpas’ own Mongolian patrons. When the Mongols overran Tibet in 1642 they enthroned Ngawang Lozang Gyantso, the fifth Dalai Lama, as head of Tibet, and he quickly made the extermination of the Jonangpas one of his top priorities.

The Jonang monastery was confiscated and turned over to the Gelugpas. Jonang texts were destroyed or sealed, and Jonang practitioners driven out or forcibly converted. The stupa where Taranatha’s remains were preserved was desecrated and Taranatha’s ashes cast to the winds. The final blow was struck when the Gelugpas suddenly claimed that a 15-year-old boy, educated in their monasteries, was the “reincarnation” of Taranatha, who, since his last life, had “converted” to the Gelugpa school.

Some of the Jonangpas escaped to eastern Tibet; others fled as far as Mongolia. But putting out the light is not so easy. Some of the Zhentong practices were absorbed into the Kagyu tradition; others were quietly taken over by the Nyingmas. Modern Tibetan masters known to have been sympathetic to Jonangpa views include the famous Nyingma lamas Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910–1991) and Dudjom Rinpoche (1904–1987), as well as the highly venerated Kagyu master Kalu Rinpoche (1905–1989).

Some of the Jonangpas escaped to eastern Tibet; others fled as far as Mongolia. But putting out the light is not so easy.

While you may not have heard much about Dolpopa in the past, it’s possible you’ll be hearing more about him in the future. In 1990 a Western researcher named Matthew Kapstein managed to retrieve a complete set of Dolpopa’s collected works from the Dzamtang monastery in eastern Tibet, and brilliant Buddhist scholars like Cyrus Stearns have begun the work of translating this enormous body of texts. It appears that Dolpopa is free to teach us about the inner heart of Buddha’s doctrine once again.

My own teacher, Swami Rama of the Himalayas, often said that using the rational mind to understand the nature of reality is like trying to measure the universe with a ruler. If we really want to understand the teachings of great masters like the Buddha—whether they are from Dhanyakataka in south India, or from the foot of Mount Kailas, or even from the very halls of Shambhala—we must follow them into the radiant, unblemished light of meditation.

Further Reading

The Buddha from Dolpopa: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen by Cyrus Stearns. State University of New York Press, 1999.

Who were the mysterious adepts of Shambhala, whose advanced yogic practices Dolpopa embraced so passionately at Jonang? 

The actual location of Shambhala has been lost in the mists of history, though some scholars believe it may have existed along the Silk Route in China’s forbidding Tarim Basin, northwest of Tibet. The city was probably eventually swallowed by the encroaching sands of the Takla Makan Desert, yet it left an enduring legend that may, at least in part, be based on actual historical events.

According to Buddhist sacred history, King Suchandra of Shambhala traveled to Dhanyakataka in south India, where he was initiated in Kalachakra, the tantra of the Great Wheel of Time, by Buddha himself. The king then returned home, where he propagated this challenging system of practice. One of his royal successors, Kalkin Pundarika, composed the most famous text of this tradition, a tantric masterpiece called The Unblemished Light. To this day, many consider Kalachakra the crowning practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

However, readers familiar with Indian history will object that the Buddha never visited south India—so who really initiated the king of Shambhala in Kalachakra? In Sanskrit the term buddha can mean any enlightened sage, raising the possibility that Kalachakra was not originally a Buddhist teaching. Kala, the main deity worshipped in the Buddhist Kalachakra tradition, appears to be identical to Maha Kala, the Vedic god of time. In addition, scholars have pointed out that Kalachakra contains numerous elements from ancient texts called the Puranas, borrowing its cosmology from the Vedic tradition and endorsing the Puranic prophesy of the Kalki avatar, a pure-hearted warrior on a white horse destined to appear at the end of the present cycle to cleanse the world of unrighteousness. (The Christian Bible also adopts this prophecy. See Revelation 19:11–21.) Tibetan Buddhists believe this warrior will come from Shambhala.

Other scholars note that “the Wheel of Time” is just one level in a series of initiations offered by Sri Vidya adepts, devotees of the Great Goddess of the Vedic tradition. Sri Vidya was and still is a highly respected tradition in south India.

Linda Johnsen
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit her at ThousandSuns.org.