Venerable Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche has been called an emanation of Milarepa, for like the famous Tibetan poet, he is renowned for his dohas, songs of realization. His best known work in print is Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, (trans. Shenpen Zangmo. Oxford: Longchen Foundation, 1986.)
Khenpo Tsultrim is one of the foremost proponents of the sometimes controversial shentong [other-empty] doctrine -- the view that all beings possess a fundamental Buddha-nature at their core. He resolves the Shentong/Rangtong question in Buddha Nature: Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Comments on Maitreya's Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra.
A review called Scaling the Heights of Buddha Nature by Victoria Huckenpahler appears in the Snowlion Publications Newsletter:
"... the Buddha's Second and Third Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma differ, yet do not contradict each other. [Khenpo] expanded on the text's principal points: the three reasons why all sentient beings possess the Buddha Nature, the ten aspects of the Buddha Nature's existence, and the nine examples of how Buddha Nature can be present within us, yet obscured from us.
"In the Second Turning of the Wheel," Khenpo Tsultrim explained, "the
Buddha proclaimed that all phenomena from the grossest form on up to the
mind of the Buddha are empty because they are not one or many, both or
neither. So nothing has any essence and nothing exists. All appearances
merely come about dependently through causes and conditions. Later,
Nagarjuna clarified this point in his Fundamental Treatise on
the Wisdom of the Middle Way in 25 chapters. People kept coming up
with new reasons why things exist, so he had to keep writing new chapters
refuting their belief in existence! But in the Third Turning the Buddha
stated that the Buddha Nature is the essence of all beings; however,
don't know that this nature pervades all equally, like butter existing in milk, we engage in faults, such as thinking we don't have the ability to attain enlightenment, or that some beings are superior to others.
Do the Buddha's two positions contradict each other? No. The Third
Turning was presented to counteract our tendency to these faults. Nor did
the Buddha posit the existence of Buddha Nature just to make us feel
good. He wasn't teaching that something that doesn't exist exists.
In reality, only because the Buddha Nature exists do faults represent
problems. The fact that we all long for peace is the sign that we have
enlightened mind, otherwise we would have no wish for peace and no
aversion to suffering."
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso's conviction of the fundamental perfection underlying defiled appearances momentarily transmitted itself even to minds dense with obscurations. Events which would dishearten others for him become markers pointing directly back to the ultimate reality which is their base. "Those hostile to the Dharma," he said, in a veiled reference to the Communist Chinese, "can ultimately become great disciples like Angulimala [a seeker who killed 999 men before embracing the Buddha's Path]. And the destruction of monasteries is not all bad. It allows a new generation to acquire the merit of rebuilding! Besides, enemies can act as your helpers because they strengthen your practice."
When asked how a practitioner could avoid the fault of seeing him/herself as superior to the non-practitioner, Khenpo Tsultrim replied, "Recognize that all the beings' flaws are unreal -- mere confused and impermanent appearances, because actually the Buddha Nature is originally perfect. It is empty of the separable, which are the fleeting stains, but not empty of the inseparable, which are the unsurpassable qualities.
How is this possible? Because the stains of confusion are not intrinsic
to the essence of mind, so they can be removed, whereas the qualities of
enlightenment are the nature of mind, so they cannot be removed. The Heart
of Wisdom Sutra said there are no stains and no freedom from stains. This
can be seen through the example of dreams: if you dream that you are dirty
and then take a bath, you later realize that because it was a dream, there
never were any stains; therefore there was no true removal of
Khenpo Rinpoche further transmitted a glimpse of primordial perfection when speaking of the ten aspects of Buddha Nature's existence, among which is fruition, encompassing the transcendent perfection of the qualities of purity, bliss, self, and permanence.
"Transcendent purity," he stated, "goes beyond pure and impure;
likewise, the transcendence of happiness and suffering is genuine bliss.
That which is beyond self and selflessness is the genuine self, which is
not to be confused with the Hindu notion of a permanent self, or atman.
And the transcendence of a notion of permanence and impermanence is
genuine permanence. It's like that."
A parallel theme was the inconceivability of a Buddha's qualities, beyond the grasp even of a tenth-level Bodhisattva. Continuing with the ten aspects of Buddha nature, Khenpo Tsultrim spoke of manifestation, which has three phases, or ways in which beings relate to their Buddha Nature: Ordinary beings relate mistakenly; Bodhisattvas relate unmistakenly; and Buddhas relate in a manner beyond conception.
Again using the dream analogy, Khenpo Tsultrim stated: "If someone
dreams and doesn't realize he is dreaming, he is relating to his dream
mistakenly; if he dreams and knows he is dreaming, he relates to his dream
unmistakenly; and if he realizes the ultimate nature of his dream, he
rests in the reality beyond conceptual fabrication. The Buddha is
inconceivable like the sky. We assign the sky a center and boundary
according to our range of vision, but in reality it is limitless. In fact,
all things are inconceivable; you really can't describe them. For example,
there is no agreement globally on what time it is. Different perceptions
of time are accurate according to where one is. And the fact that we can
see TV images broadcast miles away shows that near and far are also
relative. So everything is inconceivable, but the Buddha is
At this and many other junctures throughout the teachings, Khenpo Tsultrim called upon his unique translator, Ari Goldfield, to sing a Milarepa doha (song of realization). One cannot experience the full scope of Rinpoche's teaching without factoring in Ari, who not only renders Khenpo Tsultrim's commentaries masterfully, but appears to have memorized the entire compendium of Milarepa's songs! Belting them out like a Broadway pro -- to the amusement even of the Lama -- he shatters preconceptions of how Dharma "should be" presented. Gaining momentum from his own enthusiasm, he ran, indefatigably, through verse after verse, sometimes punctuating them with a resounding "yeah!"
Khenpo Tsultrim places considerable store in these songs. "The
tradition of singing is important in Vajrayana ritual," he remarked. "We
sing these profound words because they give us a chance to meditate on
their meaning. Some Westerners don't like to sing. It reminds them of
church." But in Tibet there is a saying, 'The Buddha and ordinary beings
both walk on two legs,' meaning: everything is a bit alike. So if they
sing beautiful songs in church, why can't we here? Milarepa himself
said, 'Singing is the extraordinary tradition of this lineage.' "