Chapter Five: Dzogchen

Chapter Five: Dzogchen

Dzogchen, meaning the “Great Perfection” or the “Great Completion”, refers to the teaching and practice system that is regarded within both the oldest Tibetan school of Buddhism (Nyingma), and also the endogenous Tibetan Bon tradition (with roots in shamanism), as the “highest” spiritual tradition on this planet.

The traditional stories relating the origin of Dzgochen teachings on this planet differ within the Tibetan Buddhist line of expression and the Bon presentation of Dzogchen.

The lineage within Tibetan Buddhism is traced to an enlightened Buddha named Garab Dorje who reportedly lived 2 to 3 hundred years before the Common Era in a land called Urgyen, a kingdom likely somewhere between present day Pakistan and the Aral Sea north of Afghanistan. The Bon credit an even more distant Buddha figure for the introduction of these high teachings and practice. His name was Shenrab Miwok and was said to have lived thousands of years before the beginning of the Common Era, in Central Asian lands just west of Tibet.  (This would be apparently in the same general region, or nearby, to the kingdom Garab Dorje was born in, also a Central Asian location it seems.)

What can be discerned from the record that has been exposed to light show the first signs of Dzogchen in the northwest regions of India (“Oddiyana”) around 12 – 13 hundred years ago (7th-8th Century C.E.) or its emergence in that same region from an undercover status. The teachings and practices of Dzogchen were introduced in Tibet by teachers from the Oddiyana area in the 8th Century, due to the now iconic figure named Padmasambhava informing the King of Tibet of these esoteric teachings and practices emerging from the far northwest area of India.

In the early part of the 20th century, there was discovery of a sealed up cave near Dunhuang, China, and just beyond the eastern Tibetan border. The cave had been sealed in the early 11th Century and when discovered and opened up, there was exposed a treasure trove of secular and spiritual Tibetan texts dating from the 7th to early 11th Century.

In the 1980s, scholars noticed two Dzogchen texts among these recovered documents: (1) The Small Hidden Grain by Buddhagupta and (2) The Cuckoo of Awareness (“by Vairocana”) with a commentary on it. The Cuckoo of Awareness consists only of six lines and was already known as part of the early Dzogchen work called the Kunjed Gyalpo (which has been partially translated into English by Namkhai Norbu and Adriano Clemente, via their 1999 book The Supreme Source).

The Norbu/Clemente translation of The Cuckoo of Awareness (or “Presence”, as Norbu preferred to use in their version), from Chapter 31 of the Kunjed Gyalpo:

“The nature of the variety of phenomena is non-dual.
Yet each phenomenon is beyond the limits of the mind.
The authentic condition “as it is” does not become a concept
 Yet it manifests totally in form, always good.
All being already perfect, overcome the sickness of effort.
 And remain naturally in self-perfection: this is contemplation.”

A scholar, Sam van Schaik, who has been a part of the British Library team (International Dunhuang Project) studying the voluminous manuscripts from the discovered cave, describes (at his site ) the contents of the commentary found with the Cuckoo of Awareness manuscript in the cave:

“The root text here is a mere six lines (indeed an alternative title is “The Six Vajra Lines”). Again, the emphasis is on non-conceptualization and the uselessness of any practice based on striving toward a goal. The commentary expands on the basic lines without departing from these themes. In addition the commentary is concerned to reinterpret certain tantric concepts, like ‘great bliss’, and the samaya vows, in terms of nonconceptuality and spontaneous presence. The six lines of the root text appear in other Dzogchen texts, including the Kunjé Gyalpo.”

[Reference Note: Sam van Schaik’s article is “Early Dzogchen I: The Cuckoo and the Hidden Grain”, ]

It is not possible to really give a definitive and precise history of the origins for Dzogchen. That is, outside the traditional stories, which includes a cosmic and miraculous birth story for Garab Dorje, in the previously mentioned kingdom to the northwest of “Oddiyana” (or Pakistan’s “Swat Valley”).

The academic experts noted for their studies of Tibetan traditions report on the incomplete picture provided by the historical record:

David Germano, Religious Studies professor from the University of Virginia observed in his paper on Dzogchen, included in an anthology of academic articles published in 1997, a Princeton Readings in Religion book called “Religions of Tibet in
Practice” (page 293):

“Its inception was in the eighth century under largely unknown circumstances, though its subsequent development was clearly a Tibetan phenomenon drawing on diverse strands from such sources as Chinese Chan, Indian Buddhism, Taoism, tantric Shivaism, and indigenous religions.”

The editor of that volume, author and historian Donald Lopez (from the University of Michigan, Tibetan and Buddhist studies) noted in that same book (page 25):

“The Great Perfection doctrine does not seem to be directly derived from any of the Indian philosophical schools; its precise connections to the Indian Buddhist tradition have yet to be established. Some scholars have claimed a historical link and doctrinal affinity between the Great Perfection and the Chan tradition of Chinese Buddhism, but the precise relationship between the two remains to be fully investigated. It is noteworthy that certain of the earliest extant Great Perfection texts specifically contrast their own tradition with that of Chan.”

Buddhism was first introduced into Tibet when the Tibetan king Tri Songdetsen invited a Buddhist abbot named Santaraksita to establish a Buddhist monastery there in the 8th Century. This reportedly agitated the “local spirits” associated with the land, so the King invited a Tantric Buddhist Master, Padmasambhava, to subdue and pacify these disruptive spirits, who were resisting the establishment of the monastery. He did the job of pacifying the spirits utilizing the training in the energy Yoga practices of the popularly practiced Tantric systems of that era (affecting the Saivite movements as well as the Indian Buddhist movements). The first Buddhist monastery in Tibet was established at Samye in the year 779 C.E.

Padmasambhava informed the King of the esoteric Dzogchen teachings being shared in Oddiyana, so the King sent a translator named Vairocana to secure the teachings from a sage in the Dzogchen lineage named Sri Singha. Among the teachings brought back to Tibet were the six lines known as the Cuckoo of Awareness (so that likely explains why the manuscript from the cave was “by Vairocana”).

Later, the Tibetan king invited a disciple of Sri Singha named Vimalamitra to further pass on Dzogchen teachings inside Tibet.

The creative fashioning of Dzogchen as a discernibly recognized distinct “vehicle” for spiritual practice entailed recovering the “treasures” of past teachings that allegedly went underground, in some cases having been retrieved from hiding places in caves, rock crevices, etc. But, “Tertons”, or the revealers of past treasures in the form of teachings and practice instructions, would also in following centuries use alleged visionary means to bring forth teachings and instructions hidden in the “mind stream” of some of the great Realizers of the past (like Padmasambhava, or his disciples including his chief consort Yeshe Tosgyal).

In looking at all of this creative activity, some might feel that this delegitimizes Dzgochen as a useful system for practice. Yet, a senior Dzogchen master now alive, Namkhai Norbu, along with many others, point to a simple fact: Dzogchen is not really a tradition or a consumable product but simply the direct realization of our most basic nature.

In this case, we are also likely seeing a great creative interplay with the other developing schools at that time, especially (I suspect) the non-dual Shaivite practice systems developing in the Kashmir (not far from Oddiyana!) at the same time as Dzogchen was sprouting into apparent existence.

The Dzogchen practice system (in its earliest and most pristine form) is a radical reorientation from the systems offering a gradual and progressive (step by step) approach to realization of the enlightened condition. The framework was allegedly presented by Garab Dorje in a visionary fashion after his death to a surviving disciple, Manjusrimitra. It is “three statements that strike the essence”:

“(1) Directly discover your own state.
(2) Remain without any doubt.
(3) Achieve confidence in self-liberation.”

[Reference Note: Norbu/Clemente, The Supreme Source, page 57]

Dzogchen literature has been divided into three categories, each reflecting the historical development of this “tradition” or higher vehicle.

The earliest texts are called the “mind series” or “Semde”, of which there are about 20 identified. The Kunjed Gyalpo is a key text in this category. Sam van Shaick noted that the authors of these “pristine ritual-free discourse[s]” were “siddha-style yogic practitioners”. The “mind series texts are said to emphasize Garab Dorje’s first vital point, a direct introduction to one’s most essential nature.

[End Note: article by Sam van Schaik published in the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, page 167. His paper is 42 pages long and above reference on third page of that. Paper: “The Early Days of the Great Perfection”]

These writings are a break from the agenda or focus of Tantra practices, which are designed to serve the purification and transformation of the practitioner in preparation for the eventual realization of the enlightened condition. Instead, those with the capacity for it are introduced directly to their always existing, but obscured, enlightened condition, right at the beginning of practice!

A direct introduction is given by the Master. This can be done in a wide variety of possible ways with the Master discerning skillful means that serve to help the practitioner to “cut through” obscuring movements of the mind to a direct awareness of their native and primordial state. (i.e. non-dual Awareness) This is Garab Dorje’s’ first statement that “strikes the essence”.

Statement two references the practice after that. Now the practitioner of Dzogchen (“dzogchenpa”) engages in stabilizing the recognition of this Condition or essence.

The second category of texts, the Longde or “Space” Series, is said to focus on supporting the practice pointed to in statement two of Dorje’s three vital points. Yet, any of the texts in any of the three categories are said to be sufficient to instruct on all aspects of the Dzogchen practice.

Statement three describes a final phase of maturation and deepening of this realization to the point where there is no difference in abiding in the non dual Condition when one is “meditating” and not meditating. Practice comes to fruition as the realization remains amidst all possible circumstances and in the face of any type of unfolding experience.

The third category of texts, the Menngagde or Secret Instructions Series, is said to represent a focus on the third and final “fruition” aspect of practice identified in Garab Dorje’s third statement. Again, these texts (numbering about 20 also, like categories one and two), can serve to instruct for all phases of practice.

In this chapter, we’ll take a brief look at the key text from the earliest period, called the Kunjed Gyalpo.

After that, there will be examination of a chapter in the 14th Century “rediscovered” texts known in the west ( when in one volume) in as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  Karma Lingpa (in the 14th Century) reportedly was the “terton” who found this  “terma” (treasure in the form of teachings that had been hidden in previous centuries by the 8th Century figure Padmasambhava or later disciples of his).  This particular chapter of the Tibetan Book of the Dead serves as a profoundly clear “Direct Introduction” to “naked awareness” as does the Kunjed Gyalpo written several centuries (or more) before.  The two translations of this chapter that I’ve read have slight variations in the title:  in the 2005 Penguin Classics publication of the first complete translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, chapter 4 is entitled “The Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation through Naked Perception”;  John Reynold’s 2000 translation of this chapter (by Snow Lion Publications in a book assuming the same title) is “Self-Liberation Through Seeing with Naked Awareness”.

Also, in the 14th Century, lived the great Dzogchen master named Longchenpa, who wrote extensively and effectively “systemized” the teaching and practice system.  His works continue to serve as crucial instruction manuals, which in addition to providing a most immediate and direct introduction for those with the highest capacity to understand, he lays out practices that help those with low and medium capacities for realization.

The Kunjed Gyalpo means “All-Creating King” and is 84 chapters long.

Like the vast majority of the texts described in the other chapters discussing other traditions, the Kunjed Gyalpo records the instructive dialogue of a fictionalized teacher and student. The “teacher of teachers” here, AND the King referenced in the title, is named “Samantabhadia”. The student in this book is the same being from a subtle dimension who reportedly was the Teacher of the first Dzogchen human Buddha (Garab Dorje). The inquiring student throughout this text is “Vajrasattva” (but here, the two segments of his name are reversed to Sattvavajra).

The “Samantabhadia” character is a literary device used by the “siddha-styled yogic practitioners” writing this 1000 year plus old text. The character is the “voice” of “total and pure consciousness” (as Norbu/Clemente translate), which is the source and essence of the totality of existence. The essence is also “emptiness”, or the uncaused source of everything that can not be grasped by concepts and imagery, or objectified and pictured as a particular “something” to be experienced.

Yet, the essence and source of all that is (and our most essential nature) can be directly realized (or recognized and felt in awareness in the midst of all experiences), as the heart of our existence, complete and perfect!

“Sattvavajra” as the inquiring student represents the second basic aspect or dimension (along with the first one, “essence”, personified by Samantabhadia), which is the “nature” of the Base for all that is (referenced in western philosophical systems as the “ground of being” for all that exists).

(Third aspect of the essential nature of existence is “energy”. These three “dimensions” are a seamless singularity.)

The “essence” is “empty” naked awareness (uncaused or not a derivative, insubstantial, spacious, and silent—the very core or heart of our being). In Dzogchen writings, the mirror is used as a metaphor for “essence”. The “nature” of essence (as in mirrors!) is its ever present clarity and reflective capacity which allows all potentialities and qualities to manifest. And, “energy” is the never-ending process of manifestation, which in other words (to use the mirror metaphor) are the ever-shifting reflections in the “mirror”.

In Chapter two of this book, covering Advaita Vedanta, a series of verses from the Advahuta Gita, a text emerging several hundred years after the Kunjed Gyalpo (around 500 year ago), were noted for the references they made to teachings, imagery, and practices from Vajrayana Buddhism, Dzogchen, and Kashmir Shaivism. In verse 32 of Chapter 2 in the Advahuta Gita, it is asserted that in the realization of the heart and nature of reality, there is “neither a sphere” nor any needed presence of the other teaching imagery and practices mentioned (all coming from the above mentioned traditions).

The “Avadhut” of the late medieval period was a radically free person, often very social convention-busting in their ways. But, they were operating not from an “anything goes”, nihilistic state of mind, but from a basis of liberation from the trance of the mind. They pointed to a freedom and liberation dependent on no cause and beyond the grasp of any conceptualizaton.

As reported earlier in this chapter, the authors of early Dzogchen texts were noted (by scholar Sam van Shaik) to be “siddha-styled yogic practitioners”. The “Siddhas” (or “Completed Ones”) is a term used not only for the Gurus of Kashmir Shaivism but for radically liberated persons who awakened within the context of the Mahamudra and Dzogchen systems (in Buddhism) over a thousand years ago. (Mahamudra is a similar system to Dzogchen and is the basis for the lineages of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.)

The “Avadhuts” and the “Siddhas” are characters who are really on the “same page”.

The Kunjed Gyalpo begins (in its Chapter One) with the representative voice of our essence, “total and pure consciousness” (“Samantabhadia”), introducing to Sattvavajra the metaphor for the singular totality of all that is, the “sphere”.

The sphere, being of course without corners, represents the primordial and ever-present nature of everything and every being, which is without beginning or end or limits and beyond the grasp of any conceptualizations attempting to create an objectified picture of “it”.  It represents everything and nothing is apart from it, including the five elements of space, air, fire, water, and earth and the five wisdoms underlying the five common passions of attachment, anger, pride, ignorance, and jealousy.  (The passions are seen and realized as the five wisdoms when their true condition and nature is recognized.)

No path or program of corrective action is needed to realize one’s true and essential nature, as it is not somewhere else and not a “something” apart from oneself.  This is really what is meant by the term “emptiness” when it is noted that our nature is the inseparability of emptiness and naked awareness.

The Kunjed Gyalpo presents Dzogchen as a pathless practice of awakening to, and directly recognizing clearly, the uncaused heart of our being (i.e. non dual Awareness, which is termed “Rigpa”).  Practice further entails stabilizing and deepening that realization, where it remains effortlessly apparent in the midst of any possible experience and circumstance.  The process involves a naturally allowed “self-liberating” of thoughts, sensations, and whatever else is unfolding in our experience.  This is a simple allowing of what is arising in our experience to settle as it will in bare and clear awareness, while abiding in effortless (free of corrective strategy and self consciousness) contemplation of that underlying “Rigpa”.  This is in lieu of becoming, for example, fixated on a chain of thought and remaining entranced and conditioned by that.

In this work, the pathless, effortless and goal-free “vehicle” or way of Dzogcehn is placed at the apex of nine vehicles or basic ways of practice.  This is a classification system produced by the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingma.  Dzogchen is labeled as “Atiyoga” (meaning beyond yoga, or supreme yoga), a term always referring to Dzogchen.

The first three vehicles or paths are characterized as the ways of “renunciation”.  The first two of these represent modes existing in the first centuries of Buddhism’s development, in what is called the “first turning” of the Dharma wheel (and categorized as Hinayana Buddhism, the “lesser” vehicle”).

These initial levels focus (as do all the other ones above them) on the empty nature of all unfolding experiences and happenings.  “Emptiness”, previously defined in greater detail in chapter three covering Vipassana, basicly points to the realization that all happenings, experiences, and “things” are not autonomous and separate “somethings and are without a fixed and intrinsic status in existence.  Realizing “emptiness” as an aspect of the nature of manifest existence goes hand in hand with realizing the aspects of “dependent origination” (the interdependence of everything) and “impermanence” (everything manifesting passes away).

Here are some basic notes related to the first three vehicles of practice:

Shravaka yana (“yana” = vehicle or path).  The practitioner is a “listener-hearer” of a Master in a monastic setting.  They commit to a conservative code of conduct where negative actions and ways are renounced and positive ones cultivated as a corrective antidote.

Pratyekabuddha yana is the path of the solitary practitioners who do not rely on a master,  and who awaken outside the context of a practice community and imparted teachings.  They also adopt a renunciatory form of discipline in action and bodily conduct, with the meditation practice (as is the case for all nine vehicles) the basic “calm abiding” and “clear seeing” mindfulness practices taught by the Buddha.

Mahayana is the next vehicle, and it represents a renunciation approach also, but now with a major shift in emphasis, from the focus on one’s own awakening to one of working for the awakening of all other suffering sentient beings.  This vehicle is said to be the second major turning of the Dharma Wheel, creating the so-called Greater Vehicle.

Mahayana writings (“sutras”) like the Heart Sutra develop a deeper, even more radically non-dualistic and subtler understanding of “emptiness”.  Here, even the teachings of the Buddha, the scriptures, karma, and the chain of cause and effect are noted to be empty of any intrinsic existence.

Across the Silk Road trade routes from Central Asia through China and then beyond that to Japan, Mahayana Buddhism was spreading and creatively interacting with other traditions (of all sorts, including the Eastern Syriac Christian Church mystics).  Included in all of this was the development of Chan Buddhism in China, which when spreading to Japan became known as Zen Buddhism.  Zen is often seen as expressing a similar spirit of spontaneity and going beyond conceptualization, radically cutting to the heart of things.  In fact, Chan Buddhism had a briefly notable presence in Tibet during the same 8th to early 9th Century time period when the Dzogchen teachings were first introduced there.  (In both cases, these teachings were brought only to the Royal Court and those included in its sphere, but when the Tibetan kingdom splintered in the mid-9th Century, these teachings were placed in the hands of the public lay practitioners during a long period known as the “Dark Ages” in Tibet.)

In Mahayana Buddhism, the imagery of deities and deified human buddhas (current and past), and the role of rituals, were adopted as part of the creative expression in practice, which takes us to the next sequence of practice vehicles, and the third turning of the Dharma wheel yielding the Diamond Way, or Vajrayana Buddhism.  This turning of the wheel is a byproduct of the Tantra movements developing from around 500 C.E. and on and impacting Buddhism and Hinduism.  This shift represents an increasing adoption of the subtle energy practices, described in some depth in the previous chapter on Kashmir Shaivism.

The ways and imagery of the next five vehicles are familiar to most people now, thanks to popular movies and the like featuring exotic Tibetan Buddhist scenes:  the ornately costumed Master sitting on a high throne, in a colorful scene, with deep and gutteral chanting and bells ringing and incense smoke bathing the atmosphere.

The fourth vehicle is categorized as the path of “purification”.  The literature of all the remaining six vehicles are called “tantras”.

Kriyatantra is a practice framework that focuses on a purifying of one’s personal tendencies in conduct.  The key meditation practice here uses visualization of an externalized (in front of oneself) deified image of one’s enlightened Master or of a past Master now on a subtler plane of existence.  In the Kriya visualization practice, the visualized image is regarded as superior to one’s own being.  Included in the purification practice are the familiar prostrations that practitioners do to a very high number (over a period of time), dietary regimen, yoga and breathing exercises.  All of this is for preparation to receive the higher wisdom traditions from one’s Master.

Initiatory empowerment rituals are used in this and the subsequent vehicles, where practices become focused and established on subtler levels and yielding maturer and deeper realizatons of the heart and nature of existence.

The remaining two outer tantra vehicles (numbers 5 and 6)  shift the focus from purification practices to transformation practices.  These practices still include disciplining of conduct and lifestyle but as secondary supports to a deepening and maturing of the visualization practice and one’s felt relationship to the diety or Guru seen as representing the enlightened and realized condition.  In the next vehicle, Charya Tantra, the visualized deity is more of an equal or friend, but remains still separate from the one meditating.  In Charya Tantra, there’s also a beginning adoption of inner energy yogic-meditation practices.  In the sixth vehicle–Yoga Tantra, realization of “emptiness” deepens with the visualized deity now seen and felt as dissolving into one’s own being.  This sets the stage for a maturing “non-conceptualizing” contemplative practice, where the activity of the mind is not  resorted to as tool to create mind pictures but instead one begins to realize the previously pictured deity as inseparable from one’s essential nature.

Work in transforming the disturbances of unsettling emotions includes practices like picturing oneself as a wrathful deity the instant anger arises, but before one gets lost in a chain of thought that fuels the anger, and directs it towards targets.

In the inner tantra vehicles (numbers 7 and 8) of mahayoga and anuyoga the visualization practices, and those involving the subtle energy movements, become more elaborate and further transform conditions for the practitioner and enable deeper realizations.

The supreme vehicle of Atiyoga (i.e. “dzogchen”) is a complete break from the cause and effect programming alogether, with its radical pointing to the “unborn”, beyond causality.  Instead of a program geared to renunciation, or purification, or transformation, AtiYoga is really beyond any programming of striving to achieve some ends.

The above categorization was established by the beginning of early 11th Century, when the documents in the Dunhuang cave were sealed up.  Atiyoga is referenced in texts there.  As a distinct vehicle of teachings and practices, Dzogchen or Atiyoga begins to be identified as such in the 9th Century and more so into the 10th Century. Initially, the term “dzogchen” in texts associated with the inner tantra vehicles referenced the always existing immediacy of the enlightened condition that is typically obscured in our awareness and feeling.  And, usually was associated with a spontaneous and natural approach to the completion of the sexual yoga and visualization practices in the inner tantra vehicles.  While the visualization practices eventually (in maha and anu yoga) are “completed” or “perfected” with the visualized enlightened deity or guru merging with oneself and then simply dissolving or disappearing, the atiyoga vehicle is not dependent on these types of practices (or any type of programmed path).  Instead, there’s an introduction directly to the enlightened, non-dual condition that is our reality and nature at the most essential level of our being.

The vehicles up to the outer and inner tantra paths (or through Mahayana) were the focus up to the 8th Century C.E. of the monastic students and practitioners in the monasteries and educational centers throughout India (such as the famous Nalanda center in north-eastern India and the newly established Samye center in Tibet).

The Vajrayana vehicles of the outer and inner tantras were creative products of countless lay practitioners outside the monastic system, beginning a few centuries into the Common Era and up through the 13th Century (which is when the Islamic conquest shut all these Buddhist developments down in India, thus shifting things to Tibet and beyond).

Many of these practitioners became awakened realizers and were known as “mahasiddhas” or the great completed ones.  Tantra involved not only a focus on liberation but also on the development of supernormal powers and capacities.  The contemporary reader is benefited by modern scholarship, such as shared by long time practitioner Keith Dowman in his book Legends of the Mahasiddhas, by getting a very clear picture of how ordinary people often attained liberation and created pathways of practice that survive to this day.

It is these figures who are the basis for the later schools and lineages that developed in Tibet, both the dzogchen oriented ones of the Nyingma school and the mahamudra ones of the Kagyu school.

It was only a few decades after the introduction of the sparse dzogchen expressions to the imperial court of the recently unified Tibet in the 8th Century that a political murder splintered the kingdom and sending it into a so-called Dark Ages that deprived monastic centers financial support.

With the eventual restoration of stability in the political order of Tibet, the monastic centers were restored, but this time with many of them now incorporating the “tools” for practice (beyond Mahayana) developed by the fresh creativity that likely was influenced by shamanism and other grass root factors in the cultures of the early to mid medieval times.

The Indian Tantric/Vajrayana Buddhist texts were being translated by Tibetans bringing the teachings and practices into Tibet.  Due to conservative cultural factors, many of the raw practices (including sexual yoga but also more shocking practices like animal sacrifices, etc) were abandoned.  The sexual yoga would become mostly (because not completely abandoned by all) a symbolic representation of inner energy processes stirred by yogic practices.  Along with some of the Indian imagery and iconic Indian figurers being adopted in the Tibetan spiritual milieu now, the Tibetans incorporated their own local spirits and shamanic influences from their own turf, as well as developing their own unique variations in practices focused on subtle energy yogas.

There’s a lot of further history to the development of the political order of Tibet and the rising of two further Tibetan Buddhist schools, in addition to Nyingma and Kagyu: Sakya and Gelupa.  The monastic centers, and the various practice and teaching lineages, grew and became central to Tibetan culture. Communities and retreat centers of lay practitioners also became important, with many of the Lamas guiding these lay disciples often living in long retreat in isolated hermitages.

In the 11th Century a key development in Dzogchen history was engineered by the creative process enabled by the Tertons revealing the discovered teachings of allegedly hidden teachings by figures like Padmasambhava and his consort Yeshe Tsogyel in the 8th Century.  The revealed texts were in fact written by the Tertons and gave birth to a unifying of the various Great Perfection streams in teaching via what became known as the Seminal Heart tradition.  It’s important to note that two Tibetan princesses are seen (in the myths behind the treasures revealed) as the original keepers of these teachings, one of them Padmasambhava’s spiritual consort Yeshe Tsogyel and the other a young princess initiated into esoteric teachings by Padmasambhava but dying prematurely.

In the “history” given to the texts of this tradition or strain of Dzogchen, the original compiler is identified as Vimalamitra, the 8th Century Indian disciple of Shri Singha who was sent from Oddiyana to Tibet to further share Dzogchen writings there. The texts called The Seventeen Tantras (a key core to Seminal Heart, which is aka “Nyingthi”) represent also the final ( third and last) category of the “Secret Instructions Series”. In the Secret Instruction Series are teachings on what are said to be the most mature and radical level of practice known as Togal or “Leaping Over”, which accompanies Treckcho, or “Cutting Through”, as the primary practice processes. (An attempt to describe or explain the basics will be made a little later.)

In the 14th century, the Seminal Heart strain was further developed and spread extensively by probably the second most important or iconic figure (next to Padmasambhava) in the work of passing on the teaching of the Great Perfection : Longchen Rabjam or Longchenpa (1308 to 1363).

Longchenpa was twelve when his education intensified at the famous Samye monastic center. Both of Longchenpa’s parents were offspring of masters and they exposed their son very early to reading and a full round of study, including all the aspects and practices of the various vehicles. His mom died when he was 9, and his dad’s death a couple of years after that set the stage for his entry into the famous Samye monastic and educational center.

For the next 15 years while living at Samye and another key monastic center, he was deeply educated and initiated (in the “empowerments”) into all nine vehicles of practice. In his late 20s, he received extensive instruction in Atiyoga (Dzogchen) from the key holder and teacher of the Seminal Heart master of the time, Kumaraja. Longchenpa from that time on (at the mid point of his life) lived outside the monastic settings, from mostly his mountain hermitage where he stayed in retreat and periodically instructed large groups of disciples in the practices. Also, he would become one of the most prolific writers ever, writing around 200 texts (many now lost). His impact on Dzogchen is akin to the impact Abhinavagupta had on Kashmir Shaivism and Shankara on Advaita Vedanta.

Longchenpa incorporated and systemized the range of practice approaches from all nine vehicles.  For example, a deep feeling-contemplation of death, impermanence, dependent origination, and “emptiness”, emphasized in the vehicles of renunciation, purification, and transformation remain key practices serving most people, to help break through the illusory and deluded feelings and notions of invulnerability and immunity.  Also, if a person is not already of a “high capacity” to receive directly the Atiyoga or Dzogchen introduction to the “heart of things”, the practice of calm abiding (first with, and when maturing, without, the “support” of a concentrated one pointed focusing) will be helpful preparation for a fruitful “direct introduction” to the enlightened condition inherent (but typically obscured) in all sentient beings.  Additionally, the “clear seeing” mindfulness practice attending to the whole range of life experience in the four fields of body, mind, feelings, and perceptions is likewise included in the preparation “to receive the higher wisdom” (a phrase commonly used by the contemporary master Namkhai Norbu).

Dzogchen teachers and communities to this day offer a unique opportunity of “direct introductions” for those with the highest capacity to an immediate cutting through to the heart of things.  (Namkhai Norbu has three live international webcasts every year where he does this to any and all logging on.  I have done this twice.)

Longchenpa’s broadly impacting (to this day) works systemizing Dzogchen practice accounts for “low”, “medium”, and “high” capacities for practice and his detailed instructions are available in an edited anthology in the resource identified in the following reference note.

[Reference Note: The Practice of Dzogchen by Longchen Rabjam; Introduced, translated and annotated by Harold Talbott; Snow Lion Publications; copyright 1989 and 1996 by TT.]

The reader will likewise be invaluably informed on the creative maturation dynamics of Longchenpa maturing into the role of a teacher or guru in a paper published as a chapter in the book identified in the next reference note.  The explanation and the translated text describe the happenings of Longchenpa’s first retreat as Guru (with 8 male and female yogis and yoginis as disciples).  He was in his early thirties and had freshly finished the rigorous retreat under Kumaraja’s guidance.

[Reference Note: Tantra in Practice; Princeton Readings in Religion, Princeton University Press; David Gordon White, editor; copyright PUP 2000; chapter 14: “Longchenpa and the Possession of the Dakinis” by David Germano and Janet Gyatso.]

A clear voicing of an unprogrammed practice approach is found in the second Dzogchen text found in the Dunhuang caves (along with the Cuckoo of Awareness already described), named The Small Hidden Grain by an Indian Buddhist named Buddhagupta (who, along with Padmasambhava and Vairocana, brought the teachings to Tibet initially).

Barely a page long, the text (aka The Bindu of Space) begins by noting that “a profound non-conceptual state” does not “appear as an object of the intellect” but is raw experience.  Debate and thought based pondering doesn’t  “penetrate the Dharma”.  Additionally, the practices focusing on accumulating merit, developing wisdom, and meditation to purify and transform conditions and uproot “karmic traces” reinforce the sense of subject-object duality.  (Or, these practices create “pegs of fixation”.)

The few stanzas making up the last half of this sparse text points to the open, empty, and naturally ever-present sky as having no requirement for some effort to establish its actual presence, or to improve its inherent condition.  The sky = our essential and inherently enlightened nature.  There is no need, Buddhagupta reports, for us to sit in some prescribed posture.

The last point, made in the last line, is that enlightenment is not caused, being the ever-present “unborn” (or acausal) Condition of all sentient beings (which is usually obscured in feeling and awareness).

A few centuries later, in the same century (14th) of Longchenpa’s work, a treasure-revealer (“terton”) named Karma Lingpa expanded upon the teachings, imagery, and practice dynamics originally shared in a “tantra” associated with the 7th practice vehicle Mahayoga.  This text, along with others, was written by a 6th Century King from northwest India.  The King was said to have written the “Guhyagararbha Tantra” based on vision-imparted teachings from the subtle dimension being Vajrasattva (who reportedly also instructed the first Dzogchen Master Garab Dorje centuries before, or who also was the dialogue partner with the personification of “pure and total consciousness” in the Kunjed Gyalpo).

The key teaching imagery and points that Karma Lingpa would freshly “reincarnate” through a body of literature called the “Cycles of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities” emphasized the naturalness and inherent purity of the psychological states (when they are experienced in awakening to one’s essential nature).  The psychological states are represented in a mandala of 42 peaceful deities and 58 wrathful ones.

The Guhyagararbha Tantra and the mandala of deities framing the practices of Mahayoga (7th of the nine vehicles for practice) entail visualization of vivid imagery which is then “transformed”, dissolved, and resolved in our essential condition of non-dual Awareness. There is a “generation” and then a “completion” (or “perfection”) phase in this meditation practice.

But the unprogrammed and non-seeking ways of Dzogchen offers “natural liberation” instead of “transformation” work as a most direct practice process. Here, there is not for example the programmed mental activity visualization, but instead a “direct introduction” first to one’s essential state and nature.

The Tibetan term for the essential conditionless Condition of all sentient beings is “rigpa”, and means a primary knowing or wisdom that’s beyond conceptualizations and objects of knowledge.  (It’s not accumulated “knowledge about things.)  As noted earlier in this chapter, the essential basis and nature of all sentient beings is the inseparability of “emptiness” and bare, non-dual Awareness.  Again, “emptiness” means (in this context) that Awareness is not a particular state or “something” but is the ever-present thread seamless interwoven with all unfolding experience.  Rigpa is not merely one experiential state among the many we experience, continuously unfolding in flux.  Completely insubstantial and ungraspable as an object of knowledge, it is our ever-present and essential nature.

The “direct introduction” is a pointing to “rigpa”, traditionally done in an initiatory guru/disciple relationship involving a mutuality in the process of recognizing “rigpa”.  It can be as simple as explaining rigpa in words.  Or otherwise concretely done with sound, deep chanting, and pranayama involved in the mutual deep relaxing of “body, speech [i.e. energy], and mind” and then, while guru and disciples abide in a deep state of quiet,  the guru out of the blue interrupts that abruptly with a penetrating sound.

If no clear recognition and realization dawns with that, then resorting to the various practices of the preceding 8 vehicles are needed to ready someone to “cut through” to a direct experiential realization of the true heart of things.

But, for those recognizing their native condition, the practice is to stabilize this realization through non-strategic contemplative abiding in “rigpa” ( “empty” non-dual awareness).  In the process, practices from the preceding vehicles may be used now and then as secondary supports.  For example, there developed over time various physical postures, ways of focusing the gaze of one’s eyes, and “sky-gazing” meditations that aid in deepening this realization. Finally, fruition of practice is seen as an effortless abiding in rigpa under any possible circumstance or in the midst of any unfolding experience.

The 14th century body of texts by Karma Lingpa known in the west as the Tibetan Book of the Dead (and, actually “The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States”) includes one text that is a Dzogchen (or Atiyoga) vehicle-based “direct introduction”.

[Reference Note: Chapter 4, “introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation through Naked Perception”; THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD, “first complete translation”, 2005 Penguin Books, copyrights by the various contemporary figures identified (i.e., minus Karma Lingpa and Padmasambhava); since these writings are supposedly based on initiations initially by the 8th Century figure Padmasambha, it is said to be “by Padmasambhava” and revealed by the “Terton” (i.e. treasure revealer) Karma Lingpa; translated by Gyurme Dorje; edited by Graham Coleman and Thupten Jinpa; introductory commentary by His Holiness The Dalai Lama.]

This text is simply an introduction to the actual nature of “intrinsic awareness”.

It opens up by noting that the intrinsic radiance, lucidity, luminous clarity, and bare awareness of our basic nature (or, as phrased here, “nature of mind”) is typically “not recognized” by most everyone even though it is continuously ever-present, seamlessly threaded with every unfolding experience and aspect of existence.

In the next short subsection of the “Introduction to Awareness….”, the point is made that “samsara” (illusion and entranced bondage to the round of birth, death, and rebirth) and “nirvana” (the condition of being awake and liberated) are “inseparable” in the full realization of our non-dual nature. So, the 8 vehicles preceding Dzogchen are described here, and all are noted to reinforce dualistic notions through their strategic efforts via the approaches of renunciation, purification, and transformation.

Then, the text identifies many of the “names” for the enlightened condition, just before offering the “three considerations” that serve as the method for directly recognizing the non-dual and enlightened base (for all!).

Rather than paraphrase the content of the “direct introduction”, I will quote the full short section that translator Gyurme Dorje entitled “Three Considerations”:

“The following is the introduction [to the means of experiencing] this [single] nature of mind

Through the application of three considerations:

[First recognize that] past thoughts are traceless, clear, and empty,

[Second recognize that] future thoughts are unproduced and fresh,

Abd [third, recognize that] the present moment abides naturally and unconstructed.

When this ordinary, momentary consciousness is examined nakedly (and directly) by oneself,

Upon examination, it is radiant awareness,

Which is from from the presence of an observer,

Manifestly stark and clear,

Completely empty and uncreated in all respects,

Lucid, without duality of radiance and emptiness,

Not permanent, for it is lacking inherent existence in all respects,

Not a mere nothingness, for it is radiant and clear,

Not a single entity, for it is clearly perceptible as a multiplicity,

Yet not existing inherently as a multiplicity, for it is indivisible and of a single savour [my note: savour = taste].

This intrinsic awareness, which is not extraneously derived,

Is itself the genuine introduction to the abiding nature of [all] things……”

[Reference Note: pages 41-42 The First Complete Translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Penguin Books, 2005]

Over time, a non-sectarian movement developed in Tibet which broadened the number of teaching and practice communities and opportunities for this radically direct “path”. All along, the teachings and practicing of Dzogchen have also continued through today in the communities of practice guided by the teachers from the Bon tradition.

In the late 1950s, Chinese oppression drove many Tibetan masters into exile and the Dzogchen teachings began taking initial roots in western cultures.

Today, within range of my own residency in rural northern California, there are at least three major centers for Dzogchen practice! Along the south fork of the Eel River and adjacent to the famed drive through Redwood Tree in northern Mendocino County, there is Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche’s center: . Near the northern Sonoma County coast (just beyond the southern Mendocino County border), Dzgochen Master Tarthang Tulku (the very first to establish roots back in the late 60s) resides and now teaches mature students in seclusion at his Odiyan Center: . And, in Berkeley, California there is a center associated with one of the most impactful Dzogchen masters now alive, Namkhai Norbu. The website for his American centers: .

Teaching retreats and shorter term classes are common and well attended at these centers.

Publishing works and translation projects are an important focus of both the Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and Tarthang Tulku teaching work.

Now, this is just in my immediate area! Just to give a clue about the breadth of practice settings and opportunities, there are some other resources to note (which doesn’t even come close to a full identification of what’s out there):

Lama Surya Das:

John Reynolds:

Keith Dowman:

I would like to conclude this overview with some notes from a resource that provides some “perfect clarity” on meditation practice. This work is a product of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche community of practitioners, including the key work of translator/practitioner Erik Pema Kunsang, and was published in 2012 by their Rangjung Yeshe Publications (

[Reference Note: Perfect Clarity…A Tibetan Buddhist Anthology of Mahamudra and Dzogchen translated by Erik Pema Kunsang, compiled by Marcia Schmidt and edited by Marcia Schmidt and Michael Tweed copyright 2012 by Rangjung Yeshe Publications]

(At the very end of this chapter, I will just briefly make mention of “Togel”, the very “advanced” refinement of the third and fruition phase of Dzogchen practice.)

First, this blurb on the back of Perfect Clarity, by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche’s father the late Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, explains the import of this book as a viable guide for today’s practitioners:

“In this dark age, the most effective style of teaching is not lengthy, scholarly explanations but rather direct guidance manuals. The dzogchen tantras themselves were written in a style that shrouds and conceals the meaning so only a master who is extremely well versed in oral instructions and treaties is able to clarify them. Conversely, based upon oral instructions a guidance manual is a short, comprehensive teaching written in a clear and simple manner. Such summaries contain all the teachings that a worthy practitioner requires to reach the state of primordial enlightenment in this very life.”

Before sharing a few notes from the above anthology, it’s important to emphasize a key point. The Dzogchen practice and teachings are based on the dynamics of effortlessness and spontaneity rather than a conditioned approach. YET: they are NOT nihilistic or anarchistic, encouraging an “anything goes” mindset and way of acting.

“Perfect Clarity” organizes the instructions from various Masters in four categories, “Supplications”, “Mahamudra”, “Dzogchen”, and “Unity”. There are 22 short and concise writings. I will briefly share notes from two of them. But, first this quote by Tsele Natsok Rangdrol, offered on the page preceding the table of contents:

“Mahamudra and dzogchen
Differ in words but not in meaning.
The only difference is that mahamudra stresses mindfulness,
While dzogchen relaxes within awareness.”

~Mipham Rinpoche (146-1912): “The Instruction on Stillness, Occurrence, and Awareness in Mahamudra”.

Stillness state of no thought.

Occurrence “when various kinds of thoughts arise”.

Awareness is being conscious of either of these states.

Being mindful of these two states, “you will come to understand the following vital point: Various feelings such as joy and sadness arise from your mind and dissolve back into your own mind….”

And, “by looking directly into the essence of your mind, whether it is still or thinking, you will understand that it is empty and, even though it perceives many things, it does not possess any entity whatsoever. This so-called emptiness is not a blank void like space….[It] is an emptiness endowed with all supreme aspects…[It has an unceasing clarity that is fully conscious and cognizant.

“When realizing this secret point, although there is no separate watcher or something watched, to experience the naturally luminous and innate mind-essence is known as recognizing awareness. This is what is pointed out in both mahamudra and dzogchen.”

“There is nothing easier than this, but it is essential to practice.”

~Chokgyur Lingpa (1829-1870) “The Instruction Manual for the Ground of Trekcho”.

Meditation instruction on the “ground of cutting through”, “the natural state” in accordance with the “secret practice” of dzogchen.

Preliminaries to instruction performed. Then Master instructs:

Assume “the sevenfold posture of Vairochana”. (My note: probably important just to emphasize a comfortable sitting position, conducive to being relaxed but alert, and keeping the back straight.)

“Let the non arising nature of your mind—-this empty and luminous awareness, this primordially pure and spontaneously present essence—remain in the state of fourfold resting of body, speech, and mind. Don’t pursue what has passed before, don’t invite what hasn’t occurred, and don’t construct present cognizance.”

Fourfold resting: rest the body; rest voice in state of stillness; rest eyes “without blinking, in a continuous, focused gaze”; rest the mind “quietly in the unfabricated and spontaneously present state of the empty and luminous nature of awareness”. Rest free from thought.

“…[To] rest in the state of empty and luminous awareness is known as the ground of cutting through”.

At this point, the instructions dovetail with the instructions given above by Mipham Rinpoche (in the first set of notes): “Now, as for the mingling stillness and thinking: stillness is to rest quietly in the state of empty and luminous mind-nature. From within that state a thought suddenly occurs. By looking directly into it, it completely disappears in the continuity of the mind-nature”.

As the Dzogchen tradition creatively developed from the earliest and simplest of expressions, the practice of Togel or Togal was presented (from perhaps a longer standing practice tradition hidden from view??) as a deepening refinement of realization of the enlightened condition. Here, energy yoga involving a circuitry of subtle energy channels connected with the eyes and heart play a role in what seems to be a practice dissolving all sense of physical solidity. And, any sense of separation from all that is. The famous representations of colored spheres, called thigles, are a product of the visions induced by the Togal practice.