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in Buddhadharma

Dzogchen or Mahâsandhi

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"A direct introduction into the nature of mind is the first imperative.
Absolute conviction in the practice is the second imperative.
Gain confidence in release is the third imperative."

Garab Dorje : The Three Incisive Precepts.

"The mind is not engaged in seeking nor is it directed toward anything. One is free from knowing and not knowing. There is neither picking out nor attending to (aids to meditation). Delight in acceptance and rejection are alike in not existing. Not objectifying (anything) and remaining with the (understanding of) this alikeness, there is no creation of duality ; one is beyond the realm of speech ; there is neither activity nor inactivity ; there is no accumulation (of merit) or diminution (of faults), etc." -
Mañjuśrîmîtra : Gold Refined from Ore, verses 117-119.

Dzogchen (Tib. "rdzogs-chen"), in Sanskrit  "Mahâsandhi" or "Great Perfection", was preserved in Tibet by the "Old Translation School" (Nyingma - Padmasambhava) and by Bön.

It has a lineage beginning with Prahevajra (Tib. "Garab Dorje") in the first century CE. I
nitiated by Buddha Vajrasattva, he summarized the "6.4 million verses" of "Dzogpa Chenpo" in "The Three Incisive Precepts" (Tib. "Tsiksum Nedek"). Mañjuśrîmîtra was his student.

In Bön legend, these teachings began thousands of years earlier, if not in another world-system or were taught by the Buddha to the deities only ...

Brought to Tibet by Padmasambhava (8th century) & Vimilamitra (an 8th-century Indian monk), Dzogchen was unified as a "system" by Longchenpa in the 14th century and then condensed by Jigme Lingpa (1730 - 1798).

Outer, Sutric Refuge calls for Buddha, Dharma & Sangha. Inner, Tantric Refuge invokes Guru, Yidam & Dharma Protector. Secret Refuge aims at Emptiness ("
gzhi"), Clear Light mind ("rigpa") & Energy Display ("lîlâ").

1. History

It is said these teachings find their point of origin in Samantabhadra, the Buddha of the Essence of the Wisdom of the "Dharmakâya". Transmitted to Vajrasattva, the Buddha of the Purity of all the Buddhas, an aspect of the "Sambhogakâya" of Samantabhadra, these teachings materialized with Garab Dorje, the "Nirmânakâya", who, for the first time, wrote this teaching down in "6.4 million verses", and left these to his disciple Mañjuśrîmîtra, who classified them in "semde" (mind class - introduction), "longde" (space class - convinction) and "mengagde" (oral instruction class - confidence).

"Through not understanding what the grasping of experience through thought ultimately is, one is deceived by this grasping. The stream of thought continues, and so there is no (opportunity) to turn away from deluded thought later one."
Mañjuśrîmîtra : Primordial Experience, 142-151 (
Norbu & Lipman, p.67).

Śrîsimha, Mañjuśrîmîtra's disciple, reedited the "mengagde" and in this form it was passed down to Jñânasûtra & Vimilamitra. Via the latter it reached Tibet. Another lineage began with Padmasambhava, who received Dzogchen directly from the "dâkinîs" or "sky travellers" (the Tibetan angels). This lineage was initiated during the first dissemination of the Buddhadharma in Tibet, the one founding the Old Translation School ("Nyingma"). It still exists today.

In Nyingma, Dzogchen is called "Ati-yoga" ("supreme, extraordinary yoga"), and considered the definitive and most secret teaching of the Buddha. It is "Great" (Tib. "chen") because there is nothing higher or more sublime, and "Perfection" (Tib. "rdzogs") because no further methods or means to attain awakening are necessary. Translated as "Great Completion", this yoga points to the all-encompassing, absolute ground spread throughout all what exists, be it nirvanic or, defined by limitations, samsaric.

" ... the way of acting (symbolized) by Samantabhadra becomes the activity of the Lord of limitations - in which case it will reach its limit and be exhausted. On the path that possesses this (primordial state of pure and total presence), even the activity of the Lord of limitations is said to be the activity of this pure and total presence." - Mañjuśrîmîtra : Ibidem, 128-131 (
Norbu & Lipman, p.66).

The Great Completion is the view on top of the mountain.

Dzogchen is contested by those who, like Sakya Pandita, consider it to fall outside the Buddhadharma. This opinion reemerged in Gelug circles, even today. The main points of contention are the suddenist (presentist) approach, its mode of transmission (with the Guru introducing to the student the Clear Light directly), as well as the strong focus on the clarity-aspect of the mind (its natural state of "rigpa" with its enlightened properties).

According to the XIVth Dalai Lama, Dzogchen became controversial because some Dzogchen masters of the past willingly broke with conventional morality, even relinquishing their vows (cf. the story of the VIth Dalai Lama). By exhibiting "crazy wisdom", denying meditation-practices to be of any fundamental importance, these exceptions cast a shadow on the special view of Dzogchen, reserved to superior practitioners only.

Some Dzogchenpas say Dzogchen is not a tradition, lineage or teaching at all, but refers to the state of consciousness defined as "Great Perfection" or "Great Completion". Insofar as this state of Clear Light or direct awareness of presence can be attained by all sentient beings, Dzogchen is not bound to nationality, social class, race, culture or any other mode of differentiation between sentient beings. To consider it a teaching is reducing it to a mental category or mere designation, while Dzogchen is the ever-present, enduring and inseparable union between the primordial base (which is self-empty) and the natural mind (which is luminous) as can be directly prehended in the actual moment.

In Tibetan, "dzogpa" means (a) something completed, finished, exhausted, and (b) everything is full, perfect & complete. Dzogchen or "mahâsandhi" in Sanskrit, considers itself the "highest truth", a view superior to Mâdhyamaka and therefore in the same mindset as the Great Middle Way School (and its Other Emptiness).

For many Mâdhyamikas, Dzogchen is a sort of Chinese Dharma like Ch'an or coming from Advaita Vedânta, Kashmiri Shaivism, or even Persian religion. This discussion is ongoing. Parties do not seem willing to really listen to one another and strike non-partisan compromise. All Ati-Yogas focus on the object of the Third Turning : Buddha-nature. They all consider this most natural, subtle and fundamental layer of mind to possess enlightened properties in actuality (not potentiality). This can easily be misconstrued as a return to self-existence, inherent existence or substance-obsession. This is not the case. This Buddha Within lacks inherent existence, but beyond that lacks all other things which it is not, namely a wealthy treasury of fully unfolded enlightened properties, or pure conditionalities, uncontaminated dependent-arisings ...

Although Dzogchenpas claim to agree with Mâdhyamaka regarding self-emptiness, identifying the primordial base of all phenomena with the self-empty "Dharmakâya", the teachings do affirm the natural state of the mind to be of the nature of clarity, to be "from the very beginning" inseparable from this base.

2. Basic Axiom

Common to all Dzogchen teachings is the axiom stating the original mind, at the root of consciousness, is by nature pure & undefiled. This mind is self-liberated, meaning all manifestations of mind (thoughts, feelings, volitions and states of consciousness) arise, abide and cease by themselves. Nothing needs to be done to change these displays or "sport", no purification (Lesser Vehicle), no renunciation (Great Perfection Vehicle) & no transformation (Diamond Vehicle).

Because this nature of mind ("rigpa"), this self-reflexive awareness cognizing Buddha-nature, was, is and always will be inseparable from the primordial base ("gzhi"), the only thing necessary is to recognize this clear & luminous nature of mind. Once constantly recognized in every moment of consciousness, enlightenment is a fact. It is that simple ! Rigpa is pristine awareness. Its two aspects are : primordial purity and spontaneous presence.

Dzogchen does not busy itself with morality (as in the Lesser Vehicle, the Great Perfection Vehicle or Tantra), nor does it preach any transformation of impure into pure, for the distinction is never made. As unbounded wholeness is always a given, the mind only needs to turn to this, recognize it and (re)establish itself in this recognition. This is done by constantly returning to the awareness of what is at hand, what is present here and now.

Like water and wetness or fire and heat, the primordial base ("gzhi"), the state of total primordial purity ("ka-dag chen-po"), totally self-empty ("śûnyatâ") in terms of Prâsangika logic (absolutely lacking inherent existence) is nevertheless characterized by and inseparable from the natural state of mind ("rigpa") or awareness of what is presenting itself, maintaining presence in the moving state, looking into the mirror of the mind.

While Mâdhyamaka speaks of the objective side of things (self-emptiness of the objects of mind), and does so correctly, Dzogchen speaks of the subjective side of things, the clarity side, the awareness side, the experience of being present in actuality. It concedes the primordial base is indeed absolutely self-empty, but adds (as in Other Emptiness), the affirmation of the clarity-aspect of the mind, its natural, primordial clarity, born out of direct, non-conceptual, nondual, ongoing absolute experience of unsaying and therefore enlightened and fully endowed with Buddha qualities from beginningless time. It is called "permanent" in the sense of its continuity, ever existence and non-disintegration.

Although Dzogchen and the Great Middle Way share Other Emptiness, Dzogchen stresses the inseparableness of Bodhi-mind and the primordial base. In this lies the actual salvic power of the yoga.

As long as sentient beings do not recognize the clarity of their own mind (the surface of the mirror - "rigpa"), but continue to identify with contents of mind (the reflections on the surface of the mirror - "marigpa"), in particular those produced by conceptual activity ("sem"), duality abides and beings wander in the cycle of suffering existence ("samsâra").

Instead of focusing on the unobstructed space between things and in which things appear, they concentrate on the objects themselves. Instead of space, they go for horizon, inviting limitation & measurement. Doing so, they are dissatisfied. To get out of this, one needs to directly experience the "naked" mind, the basis of all conscious activity.

This recognition is not approached in a gradual, goal-oriented way, for such graduated efforts do nothing more than strengthen the duality of consciousness. One needs to move beyond conceptual activity. The introduction is a directly "pointing-out", a sudden revelation or unveiling of the natural mind. This instruction, given by the outer Guru, initiates the practice of no-practice of the Great Perfection.

3. Similitudes

Three states of matter accommodate the metaphors used to clarify this complex yet simple state of unbounded wholeness, completion & ultimate, self-liberating perfection : (1) the mirror, (2) the crystal ball and (3) the crystal prism.

A Buddha and a deluded pig take place before a mirror. The mirror reflects the Buddha as well as the deluded pig. The mirror does not "judge" the Buddha to be enlightened and the pig to be deluded. It does not accept the Buddha and reject the pig. Irrespective of their status in the order of things, it merely just reflects the image. Likewise, the natural clarity of the mind just reflects whatever is presented to it.

The instruction is not to focus on the objects before the mirror, nor on the appearances in the mirror, but on the mirror surface itself and the space between the appearances. An analogous instruction is given in the Great Seal ("mahâmudrâ") where it is said to focus on the way the mind is perceiving and not on its objects, nor on the mind itself. The same instruction is found for practicing the view of Other Emptiness, the Great Middle Way.

A crystal ball is placed on a red carpet and turns red. The red carpet is replaced by a blue carpet and the ball turns blue. Likewise, just like water takes the color of the glass, the mind identifies with its environment. This makes it reflect and conform to the features with which it has identified.

The instruction is not to focus on the carpet or the color of the glass, but on the crystal ball or the glass. They are the natural state of the mind, not the identified appearances, whatever these are. Likewise, the clouds obscuring the Sun do not remove the Sun. It is always there. By attending to the clouds they do not move away. By just leaving them be, they float away spontaneously & naturally. This is self-liberation, moving beyond all previous vehicles.

A crystal prism is white, but when turned in the proper way to a source of light, reflects a display having all the colors of the rainbow. Likewise, a mind identified with its contents is but one of the colors of the rainbow. Recognizing all the colors makes the mind return to the primodial whiteness in which its nature is rooted. The deluded mind is a single frequency, the enlightened mind all possible colors, reflecting all possible lights.

The instruction is not to identify with one color, but with a neutrality encompassing (harboring) all colors.

4. Methods

Dzogchen has a particular way to initiate and two adjacent techniques to realize the dissolution of all possible displays (colors) into the natural luminosity, or "space" of the mind (whiteness). Doing so, at death the "rainbow body" is generated !

After long & hard preparations or "ngöndro" (establishing the necessary secondary causes), the disciple (one in a million) is suddenly & directly introduced to his or her "rigpa" by the Dzogchen master (cf. the "koan" technique in Zen). Without this introduction, initiation is impossible. The master points out the natural state of the disciple to the disciple, who recognizes this. The instruction is then to stabilize this recognition.

Then, he or she is given two ways to maintain this "coming home" of the "son" ("rigpa"), the natural state of mind, to his "mother" ("gzhi"), the primordial & ultimate base of all phenomena. Primordially united, emptiness ("mother") and clarity ("son") are not realized, but discovered, recognized, identified, ascertained as that what is, as the suchness of all things. The "coming home" is like the son recognizing his mother. Like a young child leaping up & embracing her.

The first technique is "cutting-through" (Tib. "trekchö"). This is like constantly returning to the recognition of the natural state, cutting through whatever obscures it and this beyond conceptual elaboration. When this re-initiation or rebooting has been mastered, "leaping-over" (Tib. "thögal") is practiced. Every possible event of which one is conscious of is treated as a display from the base, as an expression of energy, irrespective whether is it "samsaric" or "nirvanic", impure or pure, good or bad. Everything happening is but one of the "colors" emanated by the white prism of "rigpa". To directly experience unbounded wholeness, all judgments are postponed ; existence is "lhundrup" or "spontaneous presence".

5. The Series

"A direct introduction into the nature of mind is the first imperative.
Absolute conviction in the practice is the second imperative.
Gain confidence in release is the third imperative."
Garab Dorje : The Three Incisive Precepts.

Let us summarize Dzogchen by succinctly commenting on the Three Precepts of Garab Dorje, superbly condensing the crucial points :

• A direct introduction into the nature of mind is the first imperative.
"semde" (mind class - introduction)

Without a Dzogchen master introducing the natural state (like making one aware of a small voice singing in a crowded market), nothing can be realized. In the samsaric state, consciousness is flooded with objects with which one identifies. This cannot be ended without someone pointing out this natural state without identifications & measurements. Until the mind spontaneously establishes itself in its own natural clarity, this introduction must be repeated. Before such introduction is possible, the mind must be made supple & pliant enough (cf. the necessity of secundary causes created by the preliminaries : refuge, prosternations, offerings, mantra-recitations, mandala offerings, etc.).

• Absolute conviction in the practice is the second imperative.
"longde" (space class - convinction)

Not to fear is the attitude of allowing the possibility of the natural state to dawn in consciousness. Judgments and other conceptualizations may reject its presence. Free from conceptual chatter "silence" speaks. Every concept-based attempt to hear this is fundamentally flawed. Conviction can be established by focusing on the gaps between thoughts, or by asking oneself : Where do thoughts begin ? How do they abide ? And where do they go when they cease ? The answer is always the same : "rigpa", the natural state of the mind.

• Gain confidence in release is the third imperative.
"mengagde" (oral instruction class - confidence)

After having been introduced to the natural state, one practices self-liberation. Every content of consciousness will naturally end, nothing has to be done. But if one identifies with the objects of mind, or if one tries to eliminate (renounce) or change (transform) them, one adds confusion upon confusion and nothing can be achieved.

By practicing cutting-through as often as possible, one gains confidence all can be released. This leads to a profound experience of the natural luminosity & clarity of the mind, to the spontaneous presence of the display from the base, and eventually to Buddhahood.


© Wim van den Dungen
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.


initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 02 X 2014 - version n°1