Early Dzogchen IV: the role of Atiyoga

Working with the earliest surviving Tibetan documents, it’s impossible not to be aware of differences between the way things are presented in traditional Buddhist histories and what we see in the manuscripts. Having done my doctoral research on Dzogchen,  I’ve always been interested in the divergence between the traditional image of early Dzogchen and the picture that emerges from the manuscript sources.

My first attempt to deal with this divergence was an article called “The Early Days of the Great Perfection” back in 2004 (which you can download here). In the first half of that article I tried to follow the way the contexts and usage of the word Dzogchen itself developed over time. This approach showed Dzogchen first appearing as the culmination of the meditative practice of deity yoga (the visualization of a deity and recitation of his or her mantra) around the 8th century. And then in the 9th and 10th centuries, Dzogchen became a way of contextualizing deity yoga in terms of nonconceptuality, nonduality and the spontaneous presence of the enlightened state.

One of the objections to this view of the gradual evolution of Dzogchen is the ‘nine vehicle’ system of the Nyingma school. This Tibetan way of organizing the Buddha’s teachings builds on a ‘three vehicle’ system from India, which comprised the vehicles of the śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas and bodhisattvas. To this are added three vehicles of ‘outer’ yoga, and three vehicles of ‘inner’ yoga, making nine. The top three vehicles are Mahāyoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga. Dzogchen is located at the very top of this system, within the ninth vehicle of Atiyoga. If Dzogchen was always a separate vehicle, then the idea of its primary role ever having been as a mode of practising deity yoga seems far-fetched.

So, in that same article, I tried to trace the the evolution of the term Atiyoga as well. The earliest instance of the term that I found was in an 8th century tantra called Sarvabuddhasamāyoga, one of the earliest of the yoginī tantras. In one part of the tantra, the stages of ritual practice are laid out, starting with Yoga, and then proceeding to Anuyoga and Atiyoga:

Through Anuyoga the bliss of all yogas is practised,
And through Atiyoga the true nature is fully experienced.

In this tantra there seems to be an association of Anuyoga with yogic bliss, and Atiyoga with a realization of the nature of reality via that bliss. This ties in with the three stages of deity yoga described in a work attributed to Padmasambhava: development (kye), perfection (dzog) and great perfection (dzogchen).

In another tantra, the Krṣṇayamāri, we have four stages of yogic practice: Yoga, Anuyoga, Atiyoga and Mahāyoga.  Here Atiyoga is the penultimate stage, below Mahāyoga. In any case, in these Indic sources there is no sense that Atiyoga is anything like a vehicle. Instead it is a stage or aspect of yogic practice.

*  *  *

Even in Tibetan sources, we don’t see Atiyoga identifed as a separate vehicle before the 10th century. Instead it is characterized as a ‘mode’ (tshul) or a ‘view’ (lta ba) to be applied within deity yogaHere’s an example: in the 9th century treatise, The Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva we have the following explanation about the right way to practise deity yoga:

In the ultimate deity yoga no subject or object is perceived. Because there are no difficulties or effort, this is the highest deity yoga.

A note written underneath the second line says that this is “an explanation of the view of Atiyoga.” That is to say: Atiyoga is still at this point a way of practising deity yoga. (The manuscript, by the way, is IOL Tib J 470.)

IOL Tib J 470

*  *  *

So when did Atiyoga become a vehicle? Moving on to the 10th century, there are a couple of texts from Dunhuang which do set out early versions of the nine vehicle system. Yet even here, though we see the beginnings of the standard distinctions between Mahāyoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga, these three are not yet called ‘vehicles’. The texts carry on presenting Anuyoga and Atiyoga as modes of Mahāyoga practice, without any specific content of their own.

As far as I know, the first sign of Atiyoga becoming a vehicle is in the work of the great scholar of Tibet’s “dark age”, Nub Sangyé Yeshé. But even in his work, this seems to be a tentative first step. In Nub’s Armour Against Darkness (written in the late 9th century) he treats the yogas of Mahā, Anu and Ati as systems (lugs) representing modes (tshul) of practice, and not  as vehicles. In fact they are specifically characterized as the lower, middle and higher divisions of a single vehicle.

It is in the Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation, which Nub wrote at the beginning of the 10th century, that he sometimes refers to Atiyoga as a vehicle. But he does so rather haphazardly. In his final summary of the differences between Mahāyoga and Atiyoga, he doesn’t call them vehicles (though he doesn’t call them modes either). In general the Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation stands midway between the understanding of Mahāyoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga as modes of esoteric yoga, and the understanding of them as independent vehicles.

*  *  *

So far as I have been able to tell, there is no reliable source before the 11th century for the classic presentation of the nine vehicles as vehicles. Though such a source may yet come to light, I suspect that Atiyoga was not widely and consistently treated as a vehicle with its own specific practices before that time. By then a context existed in which some people (in the newly emerging Nyingma tradition at least) accepted this definition of Atiyoga. And this same context allowed Dzogchen to be understood as more than a way of  doing deity yoga practice. It’s interesting to note, though, that even in the 13th century (and later) the idea of Atiyoga as a vehicle was controversial in other Buddhist schools. Sakya Pandita wrote in his Distinguishing the Three Vows that:

If one understands this tradition properly,
Then the view of Atiyoga too
Is wisdom and not a vehicle.

*  *  *

See also:

Early Dzogchen I: The Cuckoo and the Small Hidden Grain
Early Dzogchen II: An approach to tantric practice
Early Dzogchen III: The origin of Dzogchen

*  *  *

References:

This post draws heavily on an article published in 2004: “The Early Days of the Great Perfection” in Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 27.1 (2004): 165–206. (You can download a PDF from the link at the beginning of this post, or the “Author” page of this site.)

I have also drawn on an article from 2008: “A Definition of Mahāyoga: Sources from the Dunhuang Manuscripts.” Tantric Studies 1 (2008): 45-88. (Not yet scanned, unfortunately.)

And on those two doxographical texts, have a look at Jacob Dalton’s “A Crisis of Doxography: How Tibetans Organized Tantra in the 8th-12th Centuries” in the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 28.1 (2005): 115–182.

Nub Sangyé Yeshé’s Armour Against Darkness can be found in the Rnying ma bka’ ma shin tu rgyas pa (v.93, pp.7-680). Its full title is: Sangs rgyas thams cad kyi dgongs pa ‘dus pa’i mdo’i dka’ ‘grel mun pa’i go cha lde’u mig gsal byed rnal ‘byor nyi ma.

And his Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation is also in the Rnying ma bka’ ma shin tu rgyas pa (v.104, pp.575-1080): Sgom gyi gnad gsal bar phye ba bsam gtan mig sgron.

*  *  *

Finally, a bit of Tibetan and Sanskrit:

Here’s the passage from the Sarvabuddhasamāyoga tantra (P.8, 184-4-7): rjes su sbyor bas mchod byed cing/ rnal ‘byor kun gyi bde ba dag/ bdag nyid kun tu myang byed na/ shin tu sbyor bas ‘grub par ‘gyur/

The Sanskrit text of this verse is found in the ninth chapter of Āryadeva’s Caryāmelāpakapradīpa, which was kindly pointed out to me by Harunaga Isaacson: pūjyate ‘nuyogena sarvayogasukhāni tu/ samāsvādayamānas tu atiyogena siddhyati//

Here is the Sanskrit passage from the Kṛṣṇayamāri tantra (17.8, p.123):bhāvayed yogam anuyogaṃ dvitīyakam/ atiyogam tṛtīyam tu mahāyogam caturthakam//

The Tibetan is in P.103, 16-4-1ff: dang por sgom pa rnal ‘byor te/ gnyis pa rjes kyi rnal ‘byor yin/ gsum pa shin tu rnal ‘byor te/ bzhi pa rnal ‘byor chen po’o/ 

24 thoughts on “Early Dzogchen IV: the role of Atiyoga

  1. On a tangent to this, I am considering buying “Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts from Dunhuang”, and was wondering if it goes beyond what is provided on this site and on the pdf downloads in the introductions to the cataloged items for a person of general interest reading at the College History department student level. “Canons”. “Esoteric Buddhism” and Karmay were all well worthwhile the investment to me. Thanks

  2. If one understands this tradition properly,
    Then the view of Atiyoga too
    Is wisdom and not a vehicle.

    Atiyoga is an objective epistemological observation of primordial knowledge: the way things are known to be and, by virtue of the way they are, the only way they can be. The concept of a vehicle, that which transports an individual across a divide that separates two points, cannot therefore be applicable. As is so often written, there is nothing to do and nothing to be achieved. Whence, then, the presumption of the need for vehicles, paths, antidotes and the rest.

    To discover the answer we must consider the imagery of IOL 594. As Karmay translates it, “The metaphorical title of this work is the ‘Small hidden grain’. The subject title is ‘the Central point of Space’”. If the “Small hidden grain” and “the Central point of Space” are metaphors for the locus of self-awareness then we may appreciate that the nature of this transcendent singularity is communicated in lines 23 and 24: “The mind that has no roots, Cannot be searched for and found. It is like space.” Those who appreciate the verity of the observation would not concern themselves with the geographic origin of any text whose sole purport is making explicit such an epistemology.

    However, many “Buddhist” exegetes, from ancient times to the present, make the fundamental error of reifying the small hidden grain, the central point of space. Subsequently, because all we can know is emptiness, in the midst of self-reflection the reified “grain” appears to be apart, to abide in space, to be an Other. Such a situation demands a vehicle to traverse the divide. There are further consequences: The multiplicity that is believed to proceed from singularity, like the hierarchical constructs that appear to stand in opposition to the notion of “one taste,” find their genesis in the ubiquity of the “between” that is concomitant with self-reflection and the reification of the perceived.

    As vehicles necessarily incorporate a commitment to specific rites and rituals, so do they render conceptual architectures canonical. What those who reify the “small hidden grain” are incapable of appreciating is that rites and rituals – any rite or ritual – induce spontaneity and there can be no reification in the midst of spontaneity. Ironically, the constructs by which vehicles define themselves and to which they cling are irrelevant except in so far as they are responsible for the emergence of the ubiquitous “between.” All we can know is truth: the coalescence of mind and emptiness.

    In the ultimate deity yoga no subject or object is perceived. Because there are no difficulties or effort, this is the highest deity yoga.

    Those who felt the legitimacy of Dzogchen/Atiyoga was dependent upon whether or not it could trace its origins to India evidently failed to appreciate the absolute truth to which (true) Buddhism refers; the universality of the experience. Reliance upon an intellectual continuum stands in contrast to the potential for “self-sprung” individuals to emerge in any culture or epoch. Questions regarding the provenance and accuracy of Dzogchen/Atiyoga reflect an intellectual Buddhism, a conceptual Buddhism, and not the purport of “the spontaneous presence of the enlightened state.”

    Although modern scholars do not appear to appreciate it, “Buddhist” exegetes from ancient times to the present demonstrate the fundamental error of reifying the small hidden grain, the central point of space. So it is that they quibble over definitions of “bodhicitta,” issues regarding sudden or gradual, and whether compassion is a consequence of coalescence or the instantiation of a subject/object relationship. The coalescent object of perception is inherently subject to interpretation; simultaneously immanent and transcendent. There is no other.

    IOL 594: The unborn enlightenment, Is devoid of cause and effect.

    R.H. Joseph

  3. Thanks for sharing these rich and focused pieces with us. I personally would say that your writings are very helpful and useful for Tibetan writers in the long run.
    Thank you very much.

  4. Leo,

    “Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts from Dunhuang” is a manuscript catalogue, and probably only of interest if you are considering working closely with the primary sources. I would suggest saving your funds for something else!

  5. Dear Richard,

    Usually when I write something about Dzogchen or Atiyoga, somebody comes along to tell me what these words really mean. But please note – I am not trying to get at the “real” meaning of either term; I’m just following the historical development of the way people used the term. As a nominalist, I don’t think that the idea of a real meaning lying behind the term is useful to us. So what your comment says to me is that in the early 21st-century Anglophone world, some people defined Atiyoga as “an objective epistemological observation of primordial knowledge.” To give this some context I might note the influence of Western philosophical concepts (post-Kant but pre-Wittgenstein) on that definition. And in the broader context of intellectual history, I would suggest that the current tendency in the West to remove Dzogchen from its contexts is linked to our protestant legacy: a desire for an individualized access to the truth, coupled with a distaste for ritual.

  6. Dear Dhondup Tashi Rekjong,

    Thanks for your kind comment. I am pleased and impressed to see that it is now possible to run a blog entirely in Tibetan.

  7. You wrote:I would suggest that the current tendency in the West to remove Dzogchen from its contexts is linked to our protestant legacy: a desire for an individualized access to the truth, coupled with a distaste for ritual.

    Yes indeed, not at all impossible. :-)

    /magnus

  8. Dear S, before you disappear from view entirely by retreating into that safe citadel of nominalism you’re carving out for yourself, I’d like to peep up and say that, as you know, there is no “small hidden grain” in that Dunhuang text as I think lDab showed a long time ago in “Early Dzogchen I.”

    Understanding and interpreting go hand in hand, or we’re probably not really going to go anywhere worthwhile ever. I don’t think invoking the “objective” as the first commenter does helps much with recognizing what Atiyoga is, does it? I doubt it could sit well with the Yogacara ideas (including Kamalasila’s) about meditation either. It particularly doesn’t look good hanging there up-front and ‘obvious’ in that definition of what Atiyoga is. What would be the objective in invoking that word objective, I’m wondering? Does the scientistic fetishization of science have to creep in even here?

  9. Dear Dan,
    Thanks for reminding me about lDab’s comment. What a guy. Whatever happened to him? Well, having carved out a citadel of nominalism (what an image! Can I even imagine it?) I must retreat for a while and forgo moderating. Well, it is August. Those who’ve commented before can carry on regardless.
    See you soon,
    Sam

  10. Excuse me, I should have said you were busy feathering your nominalism nest. You’re not really a cave person, after all. Not as far as I think I know you. Last I heard Dab was dabbling in other things not so worthwhile. Have fun in the Canaries.

  11. “Atiyoga is an objective epistemological observation of primordial knowledge…”

    Nah, like everything else in Buddhism, it is actually a subjective phenomenology.

  12. Dear Sam, This emphasis on vehicle is a bit misguided specially as it is only focused on Ati yoga. The label really is not that important. You also completely disregard the development and geographical origins of Anu yoga on which there are some interesting theories too.

    You acknowledge you only have very few vague citations. This is not signs of solid work. Even if no more sources come to light. Doesn’t prove things solidly or anywhere near. Another case of over extrapolating that is a modern problem which the old greats never suffered from. They also immersed themselves in the subject not censored parts with psycho-historic excuses. Ati has extensive rituals based on Anu yoga as well as secret practices. It is not a sparse whitewashed Nordic church recently invented as you imagine.

    The lineage sources, whether right or wrong, tell us Dzogchen was taught secretly by Padmasambhava to his 25 disciples including the all powerful king and not the wider public. Also certain lineages and major practice cycles were hidden for future as terma. You completely ignore this limited secret aspect as claimed by the tradition which you are free to attack. This is another mistake the old historians would not make. You simply can not ignore large parts of the field with various excuses when making such general claims based on very scant circumstantial evidence.

    Finally, like king Trisong before you take a person’s position during their long career as their eternal one, again. Didn’t Sakya Pandita change his mind on Kilaya after he unearthed some texts in Samye? Was your quote before or after the event? The point is central figures often change in history during different periods and it is not right to depict them in one pose as their only period as you often do. This dismissing of the ages of a certain figure alongside self-censoring parts of the field and over extrapolating from scant citations takes away from your great work.

    Happy holidays and keep up the good work.

  13. “Didn’t Sakya Pandita change his mind on Kilaya after he unearthed some texts in Samye?”

    Sakya Pandita would never had occasion to doubt Kilaya since it was part of his inheritance and was always an important Khon family practice. A Yogi delivered to him a short text written in Sanskrit in Padmasambhava’s own handwriting, so the story goes, which he translated into Tibetan i.e. Fragment of the Vajrakila Root Tantra.

    As to the citation above, Sapan wrote the three vows in his early forties, if memeory serves me correctly. He apparently had adjusted his attitude towards Nyingma a little bit, writing more favorably about the Nyingma nine yana tradition in Clarifying The Muni’s Intent, written on his way to Mongolia, in his sixties.

  14. Having had the privilege of commenting on your site, I was satisfied. Then, this morning, I happened to read the following contribution by Michael A. Williams, included among the papers given during the proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies. It is to be found in “Neoplatonism and Gnosticism” edited by Richard T. Wallis.

    While the following speaks for itself, I would add that primordial knowledge is to be understood as atemporal and those compelled to address it make reference to objective truth.

    Finally, in addition to the image of the central point of space, recall that of the reflection of the moon on water. The luminous sphere is coalescent with emptiness until, following self-reflection and the reification of the perceived, the sphere appears to abide in space.

    M.A. Williams:

    The universal Providence in (The Apocryphon of John) comes before us in a mythological, personified form as the first thought of the highest God, or Invisible Spirit:

    “(The Invisible Spirit) contemplated his own image when he saw it in the pure light-water which surrounds him; and his thoughts (ennoia) performed an act, it appeared, it stood before him out of the brilliance of the light. This is the power which is before the All, which appeared; that is, the perfect Providence (pronoia) of the All, the light, the likeness of the light, the image of the Invisible. She is the perfect power, Barbelo, the perfect aeon of glory (BG 27, 1-14).”

    Obscure as the name “Barbelo” itself is, the actual role of the entity Barbelo/Providence is much easier to discern. As the beginning of thought, she is the center of intellectual energy through whom the entire intellectual realm actualizes itself. There is some resemblance of Plotinus’s Nous, particularly in the way that Barbelo, like Plotinus’s Nous, is the first emanation from the ultimate source of all things and is described as emerging to “stand before” that source with which she had previously been united, thus initiating the subject-object relationship (cf. Plot., Enn. 5.2.1.7-13).

  15. Hey Sam!

    Just read your earlier paper on the possible history of Dzogchen and Atiyoga. Extremely interesting! However your view seems to exclude the possibility of there being an older tradition that was based on an oral lineage that preceded the published texts. There may have only been brief summary instructional texts only circulated amongst lineage members. Both Dzogchen and Atiyoga may have originated from this tradition. Separately, the similarities between Essence Mahamudra and “pristine” Great Perfection teachings seem too close to ignore. Especially trekchod. Could Mahamudra and Atiyoga or Dzogchen have sprung from a common source? When is Garab Dorje first mentioned? And finally, where in the world did thogal come from? Any hints or mentions in Tunhuang texts?

    Greatly appreciate your work and books!
    Jackson Peterson

  16. Hi Jackson,

    Glad you found the article interesting (I guess you mean “The Early Days of the Great Perfection”). I did leave the question of an oral tradition out of that paper as I was attempting to see how far back one could go in texts with reasonably well-accepted dates. The problem is that identifying a historical oral tradition is very difficult indeed. Still, I think it’s highly likely, in fact almost inevitable, that there must have been oral traditions pre-dating the earliest texts. What I would suggest, though, based on the texts, is that the oral tradition which is the ancestor of Dzogchen was transmitted as personal “esoteric instructions” (man ngag) accompanying the empowerments and transmissions of Mahayoga, or as you say “brief summary instructional texts only circulated amongst lineage members.” Obviously this dependence upon Mahayoga lineages is somewhat different from the way the later tradition presents the history of Dzogchen lineages back to Garab Dorje — who is not mentioned in the Dunhuang manuscripts. As for thogal, this too does not appear in teh Dunhuang manuscripts or any pre-11th century source. David Germano has done some work on this and sees it as a response to the introduction to Tibet of meditation practices from the Kalacakra, but I haven’t looked into that myself.

    Sam

  17. Would this mean that just as trek-chod “esoteric instructions” could be represented as a side-car line lineage of view incorporated to fine-tune the completion of Mahayoga practice and clear light wisdom that thogal emerged as a side-car line lineage of view incorporated to fine-tune the completion of Kalachakra practice and emptiness forms? This would suggest modern Dzog Chen is the union of classic Mahayoga and Kalachakra results.

  18. Well they could be represented in that way, but not very usefully or accurately! That’s a kind of reductive move along the lines of statements like “Christianity is just a Jewish messanianic cult.” Good for shock-value but not much more, I’d say.

    S.

  19. In effect, my statement was partially the case but standing alone, outside of the bigger picture, it could only serve to foreshorten or inflame the dialogue. My lack of background showing here. I’ll wait until the bigger picture on the unfolding of the 9 yanas out of the 11th Century era is filled in. Back to lurking.

  20. Dear Sam,

    Have read some texts from the Upanishads recently and have suddenly had the insight that much of Dzogchen theory really deviates from the original oral traditions as in the Theravadin canon regarding the nature of “consciousness” and “luminous awareness”. I am getting the strong sense that Vedantic sources are very much present in Dzogchen descriptions of reality, especially the status of “Self” being located in the heart as a luminous presence and how it leaves the body at death etc. These descriptions below are from the Brihadarannyaka Upanishad. Is Dzogchen really even Buddhist as defined in the Pali canon? What are your thoughts on Dzogchen having roots in Vedantic philosophy?

    This probably pre-dates the Buddha by a century or so…

    kaṃ vijānīyāt yenedaṃ sarvaṃ vijānāti taṃ kena vijānīyāt sa eṣa neti nety ātmā |agṛhyo na hi gṛhyate | aśīryo na hi śīryate |asaṅgo na hi sajyate |asito na vyathate na riṣyati |vijñātāram are kena vijānīyād ity

    Through what should one know that owing to which all this is known ? This self is That which has been described as ‘Not this, Not this’. It is imperceptible, for It is never perceived; undecaying, for It never decays; unattached, for It is never attached; unfettered – it never feels pain, and never suffers injury. Through what, O Maitreyi, should one know the Knower?
    BrhUp_2,4.14

    Rigpa as Dharmakaya is described the same…

    katama ātmeti — yo ‘yaṃ vijñānamayaḥ prāṇeṣu hṛdy antarjyotiḥ puruṣaḥ

    What is the Self? This very person made of viññāṇa, among the breath (life-faculties), the light in the heart.

    BrhUp_4,3.7 ||

    sa vā ayam ātmā brahma vijñānamayo

    ekībhavati na vijānātīty āhuḥ | tasya haitasya hṛdayasyāgraṃ pradyotate | tena pradyotenaiṣa ātmā niṣkrāmati | cakṣuṣṭo vā mūrdhno vānyebhyo vā śarīradeśebhyaḥ | tam utkrāmantaṃ prāṇo ‘nūtkrāmati | prāṇam anūtkrāmantaṃ sarve prāṇā anūtkrāmanti | savijñano bhavati | saṃjānam evānvavakrāmati | taṃ vidyākarmaṇī samanvārabhete pūrvaprajñā ca ||

    “He becomes united; then they say, ‘He does not have viññāṇa’. The top of the heart brightens. Through that brightened top the self departs, either through the eye, or through the head, or through any other part of the body. When it departs, the vital force follows; when the vital force departs, all the organs follow. Then the self has viññāṇa, and goes to the body which is related to that consciousness. It is followed by knowledge, kamma and past experience.”
    BrhUp_4,4.2

    The “leaving through the head or eye” is taught also in Dzogchen regarding Rigpa. And where this “self” goes relates to the “6 destinies” or Lokas…

    Best,
    Jackson

  21. Pingback: Dzogchen History, part one | A New Sun in Western Skies

  22. Pingback: The developing main article for “Dzogchen: History, Teachings, and Practices” | A New Sun in Western Skies

  23. Pingback: The developing main article for “Dzogchen: History, Teachings, and Practices” | A New Sun in Western Skies

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