The Practice of Dzogchen

This talk was presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Saturday, June 14, 2o14.

If we know how to do so, then simply meditating on emptiness is completely sufficient unto itself

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

Origin and Provenance of Dzogchen

The Tibetan word “dzogchen” means “the great completeness.” Within Buddhism, Dzogchen is associated with the original, Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Dzogchen is also found in the older Bon tradition of Tibet, but the direction of influence is uncertain. We do know, however, that Dzogchen was introduced to Tibet by Padmasambhava, the Buddhist Tantric adept who is credited with the conversion of Tibet to the Buddhadharma in the late 8th century CE. Padmasambhava left Tibet in 774 CE, having transmitted only part of the Dzogchen tradition before his departure. Over the subsequent centuries many so-called “terma” (hidden treasure) texts were discovered by a variety of spiritual practitioners, including the famous Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo. All of these texts concerned Dzogchen and were attributed to Padmasambhava. The Dzogchen tradition was subsequently developed in Tibet by other Dzogchen masters, including Vairochana and Vimalamitra.  Padmasambhava himself received the Dzogchen transmission from Garab Dorje in what is now known as the Swat Valley, from which Padmasambhava himself also originated. This area is referred to as Oddiyana in Sanskrit and Orgyen in Tibetan. This region was associated with the development and dissemination of early Vajrayana Buddhism, and became the basis of the Shambhala mythos. Dzogchen texts were never included in the Kangyur, which therefore lie outside the sectarian organizational system of the Tibetan ecclesiastical establishment. Nevertheless, it is widely practised throughout Tibetan Buddhism by all sects and schools and in the Nyingma system Dzogchen is regarded as the highest yana (vehicle) of Buddhist teaching and practice.

The main Dzogchen system practised today is based on Longchenpa’s Heart Essence Teachings, revised by Jigmey Lingpa and amplified by the First Dodrubchen, but these are merely culturally and historically contingent interpretations. Dzogchen itself is not a system, nor is it subject to samsara by definition. It is also considered transcendent to both sutra and tantra, and indeed, universal. Dzogchen is the highest possible realization of Enlightenment itself, and therefore the holiest and most precious teaching.

Practice of Dzogchen

Dzogchen philosophy includes ontology, soteriology, and ethics. According to the Tibetan ecclesiastical system of the Nyingma, Dzogchen is the highest Buddhist yana (vehicle) and can only be practised properly after satisfying a number of conditions, which if interpreted strictly could be quite onerous. These prerequisites of Dzogchen practice, however, seem to contradict Dzogchen’s emphasis on the non-causal path, in which, according to the formula, “the goal of the practice is taken as the practice itself.” It appears rather that Dzogchen has been appropriated and incorporated into a causalist structure as its apex and crown, in which the essential preconditions of practice have been elaborated into a system the primary motive for which is to maintain the power and authority of an ecclesiastical hierarchy that sought to limit access to and therefore control the Vajrayana teachings.  Nevertheless, these elaborate preconditions are not universally observed.[1]

According to the orthodox approach, the practice of Dzogchen is preceded by the practice of ngondro, which is in turn preceded by the so-called “common preliminaries.” Ngondro, however, was invented during the 16th century. Dr. Alex Berzin has stated that no one can approach Dzogchen meditation who has not spent many years practising samatha (Tib. Shyiné) “tranquility” meditation. Again, these requirements smack of causalism and an imposition of later times, both as a way to protect the teachings during a period of great ignorance but also as a way of establishing and maintaining the power and authority of the religious elites. When one analyzes these preliminaries, one discovers that they are all essentially identical with Dzogchen itself. Indeed, this is true of all practices, for Dzogchen, as the highest, is also the universally inherent spiritual practice that incorporates all other spiritual practices into itself and of which all other spiritual practices are aspects. Therefore, there is no theoretical objection to pursuing Dzogchen directly rather than through an historically and culturally contingent program.  A single example will suffice. Much is made of the fact that one must experience rigpa before one can practice Dzogchen in a satisfactory way, but Dzogchen and rigpa are really the same thing, so what is being said here (sure, scholastic philosophers will split hairs here. but we know these too from our own, Western traditions)? Moreover, in the next breath it is stated that rigpa is the natural state of the mind and therefore universally inherent in all living beings, including human beings, yet somehow obscured from itself by involvement in samsara. This is true. This is the essential paradox of the trans-dual. Nevertheless, as the natural state of the mind where else can we look for rigpa other than to the mind itself, which, as stated, is our universal endowment. Therefore, it does not take years of meditation to experience rigpa. Anyone can see it instantly, simply by choosing to look at it. You do not not even need to close your eyes. It is right here! This is really the most radical “pointing out” instruction. Making things seem more difficult than they really are is an old ploy of those who wish to control access to knowledge.

Ngondro is a system of practice widespread through India, and in its simplest basis consists of six moments:

1.    Taking refuge;

2.    Prostration;

3.    Bodhicitta;

4.    Mantra;

5.    Offering the mandala; and

6.    Guru yoga.

These practices are held to purify pride (2), jealousy (3), hatred (4), attachment (5), and delusion (6). Each of these practices must be repeated 100,000 times at least in order to be “recognized” as a “qualified” Dzogchen practitioner. Moreover, according to this theory they must be practised under the direct authority of a “qualified” lama, who one is also bound to regard as a living Buddha! However, this structure commits several essential errors, either directly or by implication. First, it implies the error of causalism. Second, it implies that enlightenment is obtainable mechanistically, by the following of rules. Third, it implies that quantity is superior to quality (the Buddha Himself stated that there is no correlation between attaining enlightenment and time. Awakening may be attained in as long a time as seven rebirths, or in as short a time as a single week. Therefore, duration is not the significant factor.). Fourth, it is historically and culturally contingent. Fifth, it is sectarian (which is a violation of the Bodhisvattva vow). In fact, there are many variations of ngondro. Sixth, it ignores the factor of karma. Seventh, it subordinates the individual to the authority, contrary to the Buddha’s final advice to seek the light within oneself.[2] Eighth, it is based on a falsehood, i.e., that the lama is a Buddha (except in the sense that we all are, or in some symbolic sense). And, finally, ninth, it is based on a metaphysical error, for what are pride, jealousy, hatred, attachment, and delusion in themselves? According to the view, the purpose of ngondro is to “purify” the “karmic obscurations.” This is the same thinking that underlies the path of asceticism that the Buddha rejected just prior to his enlightenment. However, there are no karmic obscurations in reality, samsara itself being essentially illusory. Since there are no karmic obscurations, there is no need to purify oneself of them. One has only to recognize the identity of nirvana and samsara, and this is done by Dzogchen. On the other hand, the Buddha identifies meditation with renunciation and karmic purification. Ethics as such are irrelevant. This is true emancipation.

The self-practitioner can satisfy these requirements by aspiring to the Absolute Guru, the Tathagatagarbha, calling upon Padmasambhava Himself as lama to witness his refuge in the Dharma and his correlative vow of aspiration (bodhicitta). By calling upon Guru Rinpoche the transmission occurs automatically. Dzogchen itself, as the universal and essential spiritual practice, subsumes prostration, mantra, mandala, and religion. None is necessary.

In the age of near universal ignorance (not so distant nor dissimilar from our own time) transmission was the essential means by which the spiritual integrity of understanding and practice was communicated from guru to disciple. As the repository and channel of spiritual teachings that teacher was held in highest esteem. Such transmission was always private, secret, and intimate – not involving crowds of hundreds or thousands or communicated at a distance through a vertical ecclesiastical hierarchy. This was the environment in which Dzogchen flourished. Nevertheless, the Buddha eschewed secrecy and condemned it amongst the Brahmans.

The common preliminaries all refer to Right View, the first step of the Aryan Eightfold Path, specifically, the preciousness of human rebirth, change (anicca), karma, and suffering (dukkha). In other words, the foundation of practice is wisdom. Wisdom and method. If one recognizes and accepts the truth of these doctrines, not merely as abstract theoretical concepts but as spiritual facts that one has personally realized experientially, one has already fulfilled the preliminary requirements without regard to any ritual that in itself is meaningless.

The Buddha said that a Brahman is not made by birth or caste or by wearing a robe, but by their personal and spiritual qualities. Similarly, the true spiritual practitioner cannot be restrained or inhibited by external social, political, or even ecclesiastical criteria but is established only in and by himself or herself. The Buddha himself was self-ordained and self-recognized. He warned his disciples against attachment to rules and based the hierarchy of the order purely on seniority, not claims of spiritual attainment, rejecting the efforts of Devadatta to impose an even more rigorous external discipline.

As stated above, rigpa – our own natural sentience that is the universal ground of all living beings – is inherently devoid of reflexivity. This is the essential condition that underlies even ignorance, and is therefore more fundamental than the pratityasamutpada. It is ontologically given. This non-reflexivity of rigpa gives rise to the phantasmagoria of experience that we call samsara. Because rigpa is not aware of its own intrinsic nature (ignorance), it becomes attached to the objects of experience, to which it attributes its own qualities of permanence, self-identity, and satisfactoriness. This is the essential condition in which we find ourselves. We can speculate about “why” or “how is it” that this is so, but such discussion is ultimately futile. Therefore, the essential endeavour of Dzogchen is to establish the reflexive state. This is done by a simple act of the mind: recognizing the objects of experience, both gross or subtle, as essential voidness, and “redirecting,” as it were, the attention towards the simple, perfectly empty state of rigpa-sentience that is already present but non-reflexive. This is synonymous with enlightenment itself, and includes within itself both wisdom (i.e., the recognition of the true nature of things) and ethics (i.e., self-control). Indeed, Dzogchen, as the highest and most universal path, contains all paths, traditions, and practices within itself. Nothing else is required, but the Dzogchen practitioner may make use of all of them as he or she will. Therefore, Dzogchen alone is both fundamental and essential.

Meditation is to remain balanced, free of distraction, without particularly rejecting or accepting anything, at ease

Dza Patrul Rinpoche


1.    “As scholar David Jackson describes, the particular Kagyu tradition of pointing-out instruction outside of the tantras was popularized, if not originated, by Gampopa. ‘One of the special Great Seal (phyag rgya chen po: mahāmudrā) teachings for which sGam-po-pa was best known was his so-called ‘introduction to the [nature of] mind’ (sems kyi ngo sprod), by which the disciple was led to confront and directly recognize the nature of his or her mind. sGam-po-pa is said to have given such Great Seal instructions sometimes not as secret Vajrayana precepts in connection with initiation and special yogic practices, but rather as a Sūtra-based Great Seal instruction, or even as a doctrine going beyond both Sūtra and Tantra. Later critics such as Sa-skya Paṇḍita (or Sa-paṇ, as he was known for short) maintained, however, that all true Great Seal instructions were Mantrayana teachings that necessitated full, formal Tantric initiation into a maṇḍala. These masters denied in general the existence of any Sūtra-based or non-Tantric Great Seal, and in particular they considered the existence of any Mahāyāna doctrine outside of the classes of Pāramitāyāna and Mantrayāna to be impossible.'” (Wikipedia, s.v. Pointing-out instruction). See also “To Kiss and Tell or Not: Dzogchen Ponlop, Ngondro and More”; “Re: Dzogchen and Ngondro”; “Three Classifications of Mahamudra,” by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche; etc.

2.    “Therefore, rid yourself completely of close relationships of dependency on followers, friends, or relatives, and make a definite effort, from today on, to practise the hallowed Dharma, alone in isolation. Supreme hallowed beings of the past have said that from living in isolation, they found the nectar (of Dharma experience). Therefore, (resolve that) I too shall live alone in isolation in a forest in order to actualize a state of being stilled. Living in isolation has been praised by the Triumphant (Buddhas). With no one unruly (around you), you increase your absorbed concentration on what is profound. You naturally practise the Dharma and develop sombre thoughts of impermanence. You put material possessions aside and have no busy-work or distractions.” (Longchenpa, Klong-chen Rab-‘byams-pa Dri-med ‘od-zer (A Precious Garland of the Four Themes), tr. Alex Berzin)

See also: Progressive Meditation

Further Reading

Evans-Wentz, W.Y., ed. (1954; rpt. 1972). The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation:  Or the Method of Realizing Nirvana  through Knowing the Mind. Trans. Sardar Bahadur S.W. Laden La and Karma Sumdhon Paul Lobzang Mingyur Dorje and Kazi Dawa-Samdup. Book II: The Yoga of Knowing the Mind, the Seeing of Reality, Called Self-Liberation. London: Oxford University Press, pp. 193-240.

Gyurme Dorje, trans. (2005). The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States. Part 4: The Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation through Naked Perception. London: Penguin, pp. 35-57.


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