On the meaning and translation of Shentong – a modern debate?

A modern, scholarly debate?

I was recently involved in an online ‘debate’ with two renowned scholars of Tibetan Buddhism,  Michael Sheehy and Klaus-Dieter Mathes, regarding their translation of the philosophical term, shentong (gzhan stong) as ‘the other-emptiness’, see here and here. This translation is given as the title of their forthcoming collection on this topic.  Sheehy had asked people to comment on the cover of the book and so I decided to comment on the title of it as being a an unsuitable translation. This led to a message exchange between myself and Mathes, in which he defended the translation.  Mathes informed me that:

I have never seen something better. You seem to miss the profundity of translation. Stong can be sometimes short for Stong Nyid , which is the case when you conceive of gzhan stong as a noun. The boundary between adjective and noun are more fluent in agglutinating ergative languages than in Indo European languages. Moreover there is a tendency to shorten groups of four syllables to groups of two in Tibetan.  In his Bden gnyis gsal ba’i nyi ma, Dol po pa distinguishes rang stong and gzhan stong with reference to MAV I.20 (Nagao 1964:26): “The non-existence of a person and phenomena is emptiness with regard [to the first 14 types of emptiness]. The true existence of their non-existence is another emptiness.” (pudgalasyātha dharmāṇām abhāvaḥ śūnyatātra hi / tadabhāvasya sadbhāvas tasmin sā śūnyatā parā).  So here you have your “other emptiness” (śūnyatā parā).

Even though I don’t agree that settles the matter, it is a clear, reasoned defence of ‘the other emptiness’ as a direct translation. However, a couple of days later, the co-editor, Sheehy told me (unaware it seems of Mathes’ thoughts about the title) to tell me and everyone lese that the title was a ‘play on words’ and that it was not intended to be a direct translation of shentong:

It is a play on words. Kinda cheeky. A reference to it being other than the normative presentations, i.e. rangtong.

Which is all well and good but that directly contradicts what Mathes said about it.   When I then responded that Mathes had defended it as a direct translation, and never even mentioned it as a ‘play on words’, Mathes told me to check his messages again and that he had not said it was a direct translation.  As a result of my then sharing his defence of the translation, I was subsequently unfriended by Mathes.

The translation of shentong as ‘the other emptiness’ was also used as the title by Lama Tony Duff in his 2014 book, see here.

Shentong as meaning ‘empty-of-other’

Although I am no great scholar at all, and I respect much scholarly work that has been done on this topic (in particular that of Mathes), I wanted to write a short note, as to why I think the  translation ‘the other-emptiness’ is not suitable as a direct translation of shentong.  I will base my explanations on the studies I have done on the subject since 2014, which culminated in the publication ‘Tāranātha’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra (2017), a shentong commentary.  Generally speaking, my Tibetan sources are Jonang (Tāranātha and Dolopopa) or Kagyu (the Karmapas and Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye).

The Tibetan word Shentong (ghzan stong) is composed of two terms shen (gzhan) meaning ‘other’ and tong (stong) meaning empty. The word ‘emptiness’ in Tibetan is tongpa nyi (stong pa nyid), the nyi adding the ‘ness’ or ‘itself’ onto the adjective.   In terms of the explanations of shentong by  great shentong masters, such as Dolpopa, Tāranātha and Jamgon Kongtrul, the meaning is clear. ‘Other’ means ‘all dualistic, conditioned, impermanent phenomena of the five aggregates’; as in all the phenomena that are considered to be empty-of-self (rang tong: rang stong).  ‘Self’ there means ‘inherent identity/existence’.

As Tāranātha states clearly in his Shentong commentary on the Heart Sutra, there are five passages in the Heart Sutra that clearly teach the shentong view.  According to Tāranātha, the famous passage : ‘form is empty, emptiness is form (gzugs stong pa’o/ stong pa nyid gzugs so/) ’ refers to the shentong view and shows how relative conditioned phenomena (ie form) are empty of any inherent existence (empty-of-self) yet the ultimate nature/tathagata garbha/emptiness is not empty of itself; and thus is [the origin of] ‘form’ but is not ‘form’ in its own essential identity/self. The ultimate nature is ‘empty of ‘other’ – that ‘other’ referring to all phenomena that are empty-of-self but is not empty of its essential nature itself, that ‘self’ being all the Buddha Nature qualities.

Of course, much more can be said and quoted about this, however, for this short post, I assert that to translate shentong as ‘the other-emptiness’ is misleading to say the least. I can understand why Sheehy wanted to defend it as a ‘play on words’ because it bears no relation to the actual meaning of the term.  The use of  ‘the’ turns ‘other emptiness’ into a noun. Yet, in many texts on the subject, shentong is not used to describe a ‘type of emptiness’ but as an adjective that describes what the subject (the conventional or ultimate nature) is empty of. In addition, the Tibetan term used is ‘empty’ (stong) not ‘emptiness’ (stong pa nyid).

There are other translations of this term (excuse the pun, ha ha), such as Petitt (1999), who translates it as ‘extrinsic emptiness’, or ‘other emptiness’, and am also puzzled as to how these translations accurately get across the stated meaning of the term.

Conclusion

In any case, whether I am intellectually right or wrong, is actually not the main issue. The more important issue is one of having open and intelligent debate on the translation of such terms without being unfriended or blacklisted from activities and events for doing so. I had recently been invited by Mathes to attend and participate in a forthcoming Buddha Nature conference in Vienna, but have yet to hear back about it since this online discussion.  This may not have been the only issue. I also stated my concern to see that only two female contributors had been included in their forthcoming collection, and was told by Sheehy that  ‘We need more women scholar philosophers & historians of zhentong, for sure!’, incorrectly giving the impression that there aren’t any currently available. I have written a little about the denigration and ignoring of good quality work by female scholars in this post here. Needless to say such responses and reactions are hardly inspiring, or what one would expect, from two adult men, let alone from two ‘leading scholars’ in the field.

Nonetheless, as a mere ‘kinda cheeky’ woman with only an MA and book to my name, I stand by my assertion that shentong should not be translated as ‘the other emptiness’.  In fact, Mathes himself has previously translated the term as ‘empty of other’ in his 2016 article ‘The History of the Rang stong/Gzhan stong Distinction·from Its Beginning through the Ris-med Movement’. So, even if it was meant to be a ‘play on words’ it is still potentially misleading in relation to the generally accepted meaning of this important philosophical term. Debate on this is welcome!

 

SUGGESTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Mathes, Klaus-Dieter (2016) The History of the Rang stong/Gzhan stong Distinction·from Its Beginning through the Ris-med Movement’, Journal of Buddhist Philosophy, Volume 2, 2016.
  • Pettit, John Whitney (1999), Mipham’s Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, Boston: Wisdom Publications.
  • Stearns, Cyrus (1999),The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, State University of New York Press.
  • Tāranātha(auth.), Jeffrey Hopkins, (trans.) The Essence of Other-Emptiness. Wisdom Books (2007).
  • Tāranātha, Jetsun (2008). The Essence of Zhentong. Translation based upon the ‘Dzam thang edition of the ‘Gzhan stong snying po’. Jonang Foundation’s Digital Library: Ngedon Thartuk Translation Initiative.
  • Tomlin, Adele (2017), Tāranātha’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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