Early Dzogchen I: The Cuckoo and the Hidden Grain

Cuckoo 1

The tradition of Dzogchen has been hugely significant in Tibet, and looks set to be equally important in the global assimilation of Tibetan Buddhism. Yet the early history of Dzogchen (rdzogs chen: “the great perfection”) remains unclear and the subject of controversy. No Indic texts have been found to confirm the tradition’s origins, and most of the early Indic figures in Dzogchen’s lineages remain elusive to modern historians.

The Indic origin of the early Dzogchen texts was disputed by Podrang Zhiwa Ö, a Western Tibetan monk and ruler of the 11th century, and a proponent of the “new transmissions”. From that time on, the question of Dzogchen’s authenticity has been raised, usually by critics of the Nyingma tradition, the home of this and many other transmissions from the early period. (Though we should not let these polemics obscure the fact that Dzogchen has been practised within all of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.)

So, the discovery in the 1980s of two Dzogchen texts among the Dunhuang manuscripts seemed to be of some importance and was celebrated by supporters of the historical authenticity of Dzogchen. The texts were noticed, at around the same time, by Namkhai Norbu and Samten Karmay. Namkhai Norbu wrote:

Today, however, the historical authenticity of the Dzogchen texts can be proved, thanks to certain texts rediscovered among the Tun Huang manuscripts, which are considered original and authentic by all scholars.

Now I would never want to impugn Norbu Rinpoche’s understanding of Dzogchen, but I wonder if he overestimated the significance of the Dunhuang manuscripts here. In truth, they probably have little to offer those who would defend Dzogchen against its critics. Before I explain what I mean by this, let’s look at the two Dzogchen texts from Dunhuang. Both have been translated and transcribed in Karmay’s The Great Perfection, and are even more easily accessible in Karen Liljenberg’s online translations.

(1) “The Small Hidden Grain” and commentary (IOL Tib J 594)

Sbas pa’i rgum chung

This is a short verse text which argues that the ultimate state, repeatedly called “space” or “sky” (nam mkha’) is beyond conceptualization and cannot be reached through structured practice. The brief commentary divides the text into sections. The commentary also identifies the category of the text as Atiyoga and the author as Buddhagupta. Most of the root text also appears elsewhere in the writings of a Tibetan author, Nyen Palyang (on whom, more in a later post).

(2) “The Cuckoo of Awareness” and commentary (IOL Tib J 647)

Rig pa’i khu byug

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.

Now, what do these manuscripts tell us about the authenticity of the Dzogchen tradition? Well, very little. The Dunhuang cave was closed in the early 11th century, and therefore any Dunhuang manuscript may have been written no earlier than that. It was once thought that the Tibetan manuscripts at least must come from the period of the Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang, that is, between the 780s and the 840s. In recent years this has been shown to be a mistake, as a significant number of Tibetan manuscripts have been dated to the late 10th century. Recent investigations into identifying handwriting styles in the Dunhuang manuscripts (see here) strongly suggest that these two Dzogchen manuscripts should be dated no early than the 10th century.

So what do we mean by “authenticity” anyway? According to Podrang Zhiwa Ö and those polemicists who followed him, it is primarily based on an Indic source, or the lack of it. Yet there is nothing in these manuscripts to confirm an Indic source, not even the Sanskrit versions of the titles found in later Dzogchen texts. The naming of Buddhagupta as an author is interesting, and quite credible, but would hardly be likely to impress a critic who thought that these texts were fabricated by the Tibetans anyway. And then there is the date: with nothing to link them to the Tibetan imperial period, these manuscripts prove nothing about the presence, or otherwise, of Dzogchen texts during the time of the early Tibetan kings.

Perhaps the question of authenticity is not a terribly interesting one anyway.* I would argue that these two Dzogchen texts from Dunhuang are valuable in other ways–at least to those of us interested in the early development of Tibetan Buddhism. Despite their internal rhetoric of non-action, these two Dzogchen manuscripts do not exist in a space-like vacuum, but in the extrordinarily rich context of the rest of the Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang. By placing these manuscripts with the other tantric material in the Dunhuang collections (sādhanas, tantras, commentaries, notes from teachings, and so on) we can begin to form a picture of the way Dzogchen was practised in this early period.

To be continued…

1. Dalton, Jacob, Tom Davis and Sam van Schaik. 2007. “Beyond Anonymity: Palaeographic Analyses of the Dunhuang Manuscripts” (with Tom Davis and Jacob Dalton) in Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 3.
2. Karmay, Samten. 1980. “An Open Letter by Pho-brang Zhi-ba-‘od” in The Tibet Journal 5.3: 1-28.
3. Karmay, Samten. 1988. The Great Perfection. Leiden: Brill.
4. Norbu, Namkhai. 1989. Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State. London: Arkana.

* Despite his enthusiasm for these manuscripts expressed in Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State, Namkhai Norbu suggests he has his own reservations about this concept of “authenticity” in stating that Dzogchen is verified by the state of awareness itself, and not by historical accounts.

33 thoughts on “Early Dzogchen I: The Cuckoo and the Hidden Grain

  1. Dear Early,

    Still playing with the early bird metaphor are we? Thought I’d get my worms in quick before the bigger birds get here. By some weird coincidence (with them happening so much I wonder why I keep using the weird word) I just last week got in the mail a copy of another translation of the Rgum chung:

    Buddhagupta, The Little Hidden Harvest: Sbas pa’i rgum chung, translated into Italian by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu & Enrico dell’Angelo, and then translated into English by Barrie Simmons, Shang Shung Edizioni (Archidosso 1996) in 23 pages only. Included are passages reflecting Buddhagupta’s teachings found in other sources, including the Bsam gtan mig sgron.

    But the main comment I want to make is I think the translation ‘grain’ or ‘harvest’ for that syllable rgum is not quite on the mark. I mean, the title as a whole has to mean, “[Buddha]gupta’s Small Rgum,” and we just have to figure out the meaning of the very obscure word rgum. I believe rgum has a more specific meaning of ‘birdfeed’ and even more specifically, the birdfeed kept in the crop or craw or maw (take your pick) of the nesting bird (male or female).

    You can check your Yisun Chang dictionary under rgum bu — byas za ba’i dngos rdzas sam bya gso byed kyi zan chas, where it is at least abundantly clear that it means birdfood.

    Those who have watched nesting birds will know what happens with the parent bird’s craw-full (any better English word for this?) when the baby chicks are hungry. And I think they may also appreciate how beautifully it works as a metaphor for the transmission of Gupta’s [deceptively] ‘small’ set of esoteric upadeshas on realizing ultimate bodhicitta.

    With texts as small as these two, one wonders why they ever would have gotten written down, since apparently they weren’t meant to be.

    Yours truly,

  2. That’s a very elegant explanation of the title Sbas pa’i rgum chung. I was pretty sure Karmay’s translation as “Small Hidden Grain” wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t work out a better reading of rgum. Your interpretation seems right to me. And your suggestion that the first part of the title is the ‘gupta’ of Buddhagupta is one of those things that seems suddenly obvious once it has been pointed out. The metaphor of birdseed works especially well in conjunction with the other text; perhaps the title of this post should be revised to ‘Buddhagupta’s birdseed for the cuckoo of awareness’…

    The question of why personal instructions (man ngag) like these came to be written down is a fascinating one. I won’t start discussing it here, but it’s interesting to note that both of these Dzogchen texts contain some form of commentary on the root verses. So perhaps it is the act of commentary that precipitates the writing down of verses likes these? Just a thought.

  3. Dear Early,

    I’m glad I could bring you along this far on the interpretation of that title, because in fact I’ve got a further and if anything even more interesting level in the interpretation that may be still more difficult to see, and even then seem quite esoteric in its own way. How to get started?

    Well, I think to begin with you ought to try a little harder and take just a tad seriously the idea that one Buddhagupta might have been invited to Central Tibet in the late 8th century, and that he actually did visit there in the first decade of the 9th, under Khri-lde-srong-btsan. His name was, following the shorter Lde’u history, p. 133: “Bu-dha-gu-bta” as well as the longer Lde’u history, p. 330: “Bu-dha-kug-rta.” Interesting spellings of his name seem common in the Nyingma literature, as for instance in the Vairocana biography (‘Dra-‘bag Chen-mo), where you find the spelling Bhu-ta-kug-ta. (Think of spellings like Bye-ma-la-mu-tra for Vimalamitra…).

    In the Zhi-byed Collection [full reference below; ms. dating to mid-13th century] is this very interesting line: khug sta’i [~khug rta’i] sgum bu sa la nams kyang min.

    If I’m allowed to translate this as I’d like to, it means, “The cātaka’s craw-full [has] never touched ground.”

    The cātaka bird is one of those marvelous ‘poetic conceits’ in Sanskrit literature. It catches raindrops in midair, and knows no other food. The equivalence with Tibetan khug-rta is fully justified in Mahāvyutpatti, so no problem from that side.

    I think you may have intuited already where I think this is going. Among several options, the one I’m imagining at the moment is that there was a text before the presently existing Dunhuang manuscript that had the title *K[h]ug-rta’i rgum-chung, carrying with it the idea that the cātaka bird doesn’t have to go pecking around in the dirt (“practicing”) but to the contrary snatches its sustenance all at once in mid-flight. Although of course the ‘double reading’ possibility remains. It’s the small craw-full of Gupta [Kug-ta], too. But just see how well the cātaka reading fits with the alternative title given in the text itself, reflect on it, and get back with me on your conclusion. I think this further level in the reading brings a new resonance to the words of the text, “The title which emerges from its meaning is: Thigle of the Sky.”

    That’s all for now. Night’s falling. Gotta fly.


    Reference: The Tradition of Pha Dampa Sangyas: A Treasured Collection of His Teachings Transmitted by T[h]ug[s]-sras Kun-dga’, “reproduced from a unique collection of manuscripts preserved with ‘Khrul-zhig Rinpoche of Tsa-rong Monastery in Dingri, edited with an English introduction to the tradition by B. Nimri Aziz,” Kunsang Tobgey (Thimphu, Bhutan 1979), vol. 1, p. 270.

  4. That was quite a craw-full! I’ve had to spend a couple of days digesting it…

    First of all a question. Are you are distinguishing the Dzogchenpa Buddhagupta from the Yogatantra exegete Buddhaguhya (Sangs rgyas gsang ba)? And how about the Guhyagarbha exegete Buddhaguhya? Or do you have in mind the invitation written by Khri srong lde’u btsan to Buddhaguhya, which he is supposed to have turned down?

    (By the way, look at IOL Tib J 1774 for another spelling: ‘Bu ta kub ta.)

    Looking into the longer Lde’u history, I see that Buddhagupta is associated with a transmission of Dzogchen known as rdzogs chen sgang dril. Don’t you think sgang dril has something of the same resonence as rgum chung? Anyway, there seems a clear connection with the Buddhagupta of our Dunhuang text.

    On to the birds.

    Perhaps the cātaka is not entirely the product of the Indian poetic imagination. The swifts that visit us in London every summer, yet never (willingly) touch the ground are, apparently, raindrop drinkers–at least according to the BBC (We have an abundance of the “thigle of the sky” here). The swift also–as I’m sure you know–likes to spend time in India.

    But back to your argument (if that is not too forceful a word). So the Sbas pa’i rgum chung was originally the Khug rta’i rgum chung, meaning “the cātaka’s craw-full” until some clever type thought that khug rta must be the second part of Buddhagupta’s name, and ‘translated’ it into Tibetan sbas pa. Right?

    But it seems now that, having argued for Buddhagupta’s presence in Tibet, you have severed the historical connection between this text and Buddhagupta himself, surely not your intention. But then you suggest that the title might hold a double meaning. Well perhaps, but that would be an unsual instance of bilingual Tibeto-Sanskrit punning?

    So, I now feel like I’m in the middle of an Indo-Tibetan Finnegan’s Wake, and I think I must stop and ask you to respond to at least some of the many question marks scattered here.

  5. Dear Early,

    “unusual instance of bilingual Tibeto-Sanskrit punning”

    I don’t think it was unusual. Vimalamitra became Bye-ma-la Mu-tra, ‘Urine in the Sand.’ This takes the first part of the name as Tibetan, and the last part as Sanskrit (check the Rhoton translation of Sa-pan’s Sdom gsum rab-dbye, at p. 171).. Tibetans were not averse to making what must often seem to us very silly ‘Tibetanizing’ readings of Indian names (whether you want to call them ‘puns’ or not, that’s what they come out like).

    I don’t see any reason why anybody would ever confuse a person named Buddhagupta (Sangs-rgyas-sbas-pa) with a person named Buddhaguhya (Sangs-rgyas-gsang-ba). They are totally different names.

    There was in the 4th century an Indian seafarer named Buddhagupta who left his mark in the Malay peninsula. And there was another Buddhagupta (Buddhaguptanâtha) who lived from around 1530 to 1610, visiting Madagascar and Tibet. So, well, Yes I think the Buddhagupta in question in Lde’u histories and the ‘Bu-ta-gub-ta etc. in Dunhuang texts are very probably one and the same. I very strongly doubt that we ought to ever identify anyone named Buddhagupta with anyone named Buddhaguhya (the fact that this confusion has taken place is another matter altogether, as in Blue Annals, p. 170).

    I don’t know how the ‘authorship’ of the title of this very short text has necessarily anything to do with the authorship of the words it contains. So I don’t see any danger of any historical connection getting severed.

    What does Sgang dril mean? Something like ‘All Rolled Up’? Just more thinking outloud.


  6. I’ll agree with you that “punning” (if we call it that) in transcriptions of foreign languages is not so unusual. Now I think about it, it’s utterly common in Chinese, for example. Somewhat relevant here may be the usual observation of psychologists and cognitive scientists that much of our linguistic activity is via metaphor.

    I wonder if there is a pattern of increasingly metaphorical transcription. For example, the early instance in IOL Tib J 1774 of ‘Bu ta kub ta (a phonetic transcription with little metaphorical content), compared with the later Bu dha kug rta from the longer Lde’u history. And another example is the progress from pang kong to spang skong which I discussed a little while ago.

    Oh, and I am with you on the Buddhagupta / Buddhaguhya issue. There seems no need to create needless problems by worrying that they were the same person.

    As for sgang dril, I had in mind the same kind of meaning as the one suggested, something rolled up in a small package (like the rgum bu). I noticed though that Goldstein’s dictionary defines sgang ril ma as “entire, complete” (but only in the context of a carcass of meat!).

    Perhaps you have some other ideas?

  7. Dear Early,

    Um, yeah, exactamente. Like Thig-le nyag-cig in Klein & Wangyal’s book Unbounded Wholeness. It’s a package deal, all or nothing.

    But what I find so much more intriguing is that in the sûtra citation text in the collected works of the 12th century Pagmodrupa you find Thig-le nyag-cig in a listing of seven terms for “Dharma” or “the Dharma.” And it’s right there along with Dzogpa Chenpo (Dzogchen), Ati-yoga and Great Sealing (Chagchen, Phyag-rgya Chen-po). And for each name there is scriptural citation to support it. These are *sutra* quotations, I hasten to point out. And all the more reason to take these sutra quotations seriously when we see how difficult it is to identify some of their titles with sutra titles in the (only later ‘canonized’) Kanjur canons.

    [1] CHOS KYI MING la bdun / [a] a ti yo ga dang / [b] rdzogs pa chen po dang / [c] thig le nyag gcig dang / [d] ma ‘dres yongs rdzogs dang / [e] rang byung ye shes dang / [f] lhun gyis grub pa dang / [g] phyag rgya chen po’o //

    [a] A TI YO GA ni / rin po che’i phung po’i mdo las / sangs rgyas kun gyi gsang ba’i don / spros pa gcod cing dngos po med / rang bzhin med cing ‘gyur ba med / rnal ‘byor pa yis shes par bya / ces so //

    [b] RDZOGS PA CHEN PO ni / ‘dus pa chen po’i mdo las / thams cad chos nyid ngang du rdzogs / des na rdzogs pa chen po yin / ces so /

    [c] THIG LE NYAG GCIG ni / bdag med pas dris pa’i mdo las / chos rnams spros pa kun dang bral / de ni thig le nyag gcig yin / ces so /

    [d] MA ‘DRES YONGS RDZOGS ni / de bzhin gshegs pa gsang ba’i mdo las / sangs rgyas rnams kyis chos bstan pa ni / thog mar dge ba / bar du dge ba / tha mar dge ba / don bzang po / tshig ‘bru bzang po / ma ‘dres pa / [218r] yongs su rdzogs par bstan pa’o // ces so /

    [e] RANG BYUNG YE SHES ni / phal po che las / ‘jig rten khams ni la la dag // bsam gyis mi khyab tshig gyur kyang / nam mkha’ tshig par ‘gyur ba med // rang byung ye shes de yin no // ces so /

    [f] LHUN GYIS GRUB PA ni / ting nge ‘dzin rgyal po las / mdzad mi shes shing nye bar zhi / lhun gyis grub cing bstan du med / ces pa dang / yang ye shes snang brgyan mdo las / rgyu rkyen rten ‘brel bshad pa dang / rim par ‘jug par bstan pa yang / rmongs pa rnams la thabs su gsungs / lhun gyis grub pa’i chos ‘di la / rim par ‘jug pa ga la yod / ces so //

    [g] PHYAG RGYA CHEN PO ni / gsung bkod pa’i mdo las / dngos po mkhas pas ma byas pa / dngos po rang bzhin ma bcos pa / rtogs na phyag rgya chen po yin / ces so /

    Now that this cat is out of the bag, I expect the history of Dzogchen will need to be more or less entirely rewritten. Well, OK, assuming we can figure out what to make of it as part of a larger historical picture.

    Sûtra citation compendium “Mdo-lung rin-chen dpungs-pa,” contained in Phag-mo-gru-pa, Golden Manuscript Bka’-‘bum, vol. 3, p. 215 ff. Note that this has meanwhile been published (although this version has not been used here): Dus gsum sangs rgyas thams cad kyi thugs rje’i rnam rol dpal ldan phag gru rdo rje rgyal po mchog gi gsung ‘bum rin po che, Khenpo Shedup Tenzin & Lama Thinley Namgyal (Kathmandu 2003), vol. 3 (GA), pp. 573-648. {TBRC has made it available in PDF format.}

    All yours,

  8. Wow. What a fantastic find. I’m going to have to do some trawling through these sutras, especially the Mahāsamāja sūtra (‘Dus pa chen po’i mdo). Come to think of it, could there be some kind of relationship (if only semantic) between the names of the Mahāsamāja sūtra and the Guhyasamāja tantra?

    I couldn’t find atiyoga (shin tu rnal ‘byor?) in the atiyoga citation though…am I missing something?

    Do we need to rewrite the history of Dzogchen as a sutra-based tradition? I wonder. I think a multiplicity of sources was available to the early exponents of what we now think of as Dzogchen, so to identify any one of them as ‘the source’ is an error. And the same for Chagchen of course.

  9. Dear Early,

    Well, I know you know that according to the Samten Migdrön (Bsam gtan mig sgron) the real difference between Ch’an / Zen and Dzogchen is that Ch’an is sutra-based, while Dzogchen ‘presumes’ Vajrayâna / tantra. Or, another way to put it, Ch’an is simultanealist sûtra, while Dzogchen is simultanealist tantra.

    And then you have the wonderful traditional Tibetan argument about the im/possibility of sûtra Mahâmudrâ, which is certainly relevant here.

    Myself, I wonder why the existence / possibility of sûtra Mahâmudrâ was ever questioned. Guess we should bring Sakya Pandita in for interrogation. Where did I leave that box full of paperwork?

    Although I know there are a few dissenters and a lot of fine points to finesse, most agree that Buddhist Enlightenment is the same Buddhist Enlightenment whichever skilful means or whichever Vehicle you use to get there.

    I have to say that I most definitely prefer flying. Why sit around and go nowhere slow?


  10. Why sit around and go nowhere slow? Well, where is there to go?


    Don’t you think Nub Sangyé Yeshe and Sakya Pandita were pursuing very similar goals? I mean they were both trying to erect doxographical barriers to stop certain transmissions (Mahamūdrā, Dzogchen, Chan) from spilling across from one category to another–the sutra/tantra barrier being an especially important one.

    Many of the distinctions made in the Samten Migdrön seem to me prescriptive rather than descriptive. At least the Dunhuang manuscripts suggest that Nubchen was trying to achieve degrees of separation that weren’t yet generally accepted.

  11. Dear Early,

    You got my joke. But anyway, the categorizing mind would seem to be part of the original mind (sorry, another wee Zen joke), and it’s true we often get carried away by it, even those of us with minds that haven’t been excessively academized. Adam named the animals. He just had to.

    I think Sakya Pandita is an excellent example when he insists (in Sdom-gsum rab-dbye) that there is no ritual (cho-ga) in sutra, that the presence of ritual is a defining characteristic of tantra. Nobody follows this distinction, and indeed when you think about it, you see ritual all over the place in sutra contexts (medicine Buddha, Theravada Buddhism, monastic ordination, paritta, etc.). Or if we did follow Sakya Pandita’s idea precisely we would be forced to draw the boundaries between sutra and tantra in ways it’s never been done before… (or, alternatively, we would be forced to redefine ritual to mean only tantric ritual, which would beg the whole [pseudo]issue).

    Just my thinking.


  12. Hi again Sam!

    I still don’t understand considereing the opinion as clearly portrayed in the Kunje Gyalpo with its strong anti-tantric sentiment, to be able to say that the Dzogchen tradition grew out of the Mahayoga approach. Unless we devalue the authenticity of the KJG, we have a serious problem on our hands. Don’t we? I do assume you know the contents of the KJG thoroughly?

    It seems there may be a non-tantric Dzogchen that only embedded itself in the tantric milieu for survival purposes. If you are familiar with thogal theory, it too decries the tantric methods that all revolve around bringing the karmic winds into the central channel through methods, the most important being gTu mo or Kundalini yoga. Thogal considers this method a conterfeit pursuit of bliss and relies on the channels of Light sucn as the Ka-ti instead of the central channel.

    Therefore, I would speculate that Dzogchen represents a teaching that is most definitely from a non-tantric tradition.
    I believe your embedding Dzogchen in the Mahayoga teachings is not indicative of a sourcing, but rather an assimilation. a relationship more like Anu yoga and chod is to Ati.

    Because of the unique theory of the light channels, such as the Ka-ti, we may very well be confronting a tradition that has completely different roots, perhaps as John Reynolds suggests, from central Asian and Iranian shamanic traditions that may be the anscestors of the Zhang Zhung traditions.

    Your thoughts? Others thoughts?


  13. Dear Jax,

    Thanks for your thoughts, though I remain unconvinced. Let me try to explain why.

    By ‘anti-tantric’ I assume you mean not the discourse on non-activity and non-conceptuality that we see in the early Semde texts and the works of Nyen Palyang and others that I have discussed in the next post (Early Dzogchen II) but the slightly more insistent rejection in the Kunje Gyalpo of all things associated with tantric practice (such as the criticism of ten aspects of tantra). And you believe that such statements are strong enough to preclude any possibility that they were intented to be applied to tantric practice as a view. You also take these more extreme rejections of all aspects of structured tantric practice as the original form of Dzogchen, and thus the Kunje Gyalpo as the best representative of the earliest form of Dzogchen.

    Now this rests on the assumption that the Kunje Gyalpo (or at least the most strongly ‘anti-tantric’ parts of it) is a very early text, earlier than the material which incorporates Dzogchen into Mahāyoga, such as the Guhyagarbha tantra, which was circulating by the 8th century. The problem is that there is no evidence of the existence of the Kunje Gyalpo before the 11th century. Though it includes short texts from the early period of transmission (8th-9th centuries), the majority of it (including the more vehemently anti-tantra discourse) cannot be firmly dated to this period. It seems the Kunje Gyalpo *may* be a phyi dar text incorporating a certain amount of snga dar material.

    Let us accept for a moment your position–that the Kunje Gyalpo is as early as you suggest, and that the ‘anti-tantric’ discourse therein could not possibly be applied as a view applying to tantric practice. Based on this you suggest that any sources that mix Dzogchen with Mahāyoga must represent a later attempt to propagate Dzogchen under the guise of Mahāyoga. Such sources would include the Guhyagarbha tantra itself. What would this mean? Are we to think that the redactors of the Guhyagarbha tantra were holders of an non-tantric Dzogchen lineage who created the rest of the tantra, the mandalas of the peaceful and wrathful deities and so on, as a kind of front for the transmission of Dzogchen in the tantra’s chapters 13 and 14? (And was this non-tantric Dzogchen based on the sutras–sources such as those listed in Dab’s comment above–or a non-Buddhist tradition?).

    Anyway, I think you are quite right to identify an apparently ‘anti-tantric’ character in some Dzogchen, including parts of the Kunje Gyalpo, and the thögal discourse of the Nyingtig traditions. The difficult part is to show that these sources represent the ‘original’ Dzogchen, and that the kind of Dzogchen we find in the earliest datable sources, in which Dzogchen is an approach to Mahāyoga, is a later adulteration. Like the Kunje Gyalpo, the Nyingtig texts are not securely datable to the snga dar period, and indeed David Germano has characterized them as both based on, and reacting against, later (i.e. 9th-10th centuries) developments in Indic tantra, especially the Kālacakra tantra.

    This may seem an overly sceptical position, but if we do not entirely accept the traditional histories (which you are not quite doing either), then I think we must be ready to consider such sceptical conclusions.

    These, anyway, are my thoughts!


  14. Thanks Sam!

    Chronologies are unfortunately on your side. Still, the thogal traditions may lead us in another direction. Did you say David G. has made a study of this?

    Please read what Norbu wrote below… and he has many times taught that the KJG is the real View of the oldest tradition of Dzogchen.

    From Namkhai Norbu Rinpoches book: The Rigpa Khu Byug
    The Six Vajra Verses (p. 119)

    “Ati Yoga is the path of self-liberation, but many teachers teach it in a Tantric way. This is because Tantrism is the most important teaching presented in Tibetan Buddhism, so people tend to consider Dzogchen in terms of the path of transformation. An important Nyingmapa scholar Ju Mipam wrote a book, in which he insisted that in
    Dzogchen, there are generation and completion stages. Why? Because if one says that there are not these two stages, then the other schools who are totally influenced by the path of transformation will say that Dzogchen is not a valid path. In view of the prevailing attitude of the other schools, some Nyingmapa scholars found it distinctly uncomfortable to maintain the existence of a perfectly valid path
    which has nothing to do with transformation (tantric) practice. As for the other schools, they also found it hard to accept that
    Dzogchen is a wholly self-sufficient path in its own right.
    The result of trying to maintain a smooth relationship with
    other schools is that many teachers later integrated Dzogchen into Tantric practices. Today when you receive Dzogchen Upadsha teaching, first of you receive a form of initiation, and is considered to be very important. It does not mean that you cannot transmit the knowledge of Dzogchen through initiation. You can, and is a correct way, but it is not according to the characteristic of Dzogchen of discovering ourselves.”


  15. I find it very funny that you use the term “anti-tantric” about the Kunjed Gyalpo. Practicing both Tantra and Dzogchen for a long time I never found the Kunjed Gyalpo in any way “anti-tantric”. In fact if you haven’t practiced Tantra I think you will not be able to understand the meaning of the Kunjed Gyalpo. The author of the Kunjed Gyalpo seems to expect that you are very familiar with Tantra as a practice. Ultimately for me the Kunjed Gyalpo is an instruction in how to cut through the most subtle obstacles for realization and as such a great inspiration.


  16. Thank you a carefully considered discussion without a sene of pedantic absolutism and with some measure of humor. My lack of
    scholastic background in these matters leaves many points lost on me but nonetheless I reading and considering your thoughts.
    Thanks again.

  17. Hi Magnus!

    Of course the Kunje Gyalpo is a great inspiration for many pradtitiioners for centuries… and I happen to be one of them. As Norbu’s mentions in his commentary, it is sufficient alone to practice the teachings of the KJG and one will attain realization.
    My comments on “anti-tantric” aspects of the KJG are based not on my opinion, but the text itself. It clearly outlines how one must not follow the “ten aspects of Tantra, such no mantra, no mandala, no deitty yoga, no samaya… etc. invalidating the tantric requirements. This is actually identical to Saraha’s Dohas, where he intsructs the same independence from the tantric approach. I practice both… especially gTu mo having recieved both the Nyingma and the Kagyu traditions and have found great benefit indeed!

    My view is reflecting the material itself. Have you read Norbu’s commentary on the KJG? It is quite wonderful!

  18. Dear Jax,

    Of course I read the Supreme Source many times. I can’t find asingle “anti-tantric” statement in it. The “no mantra, no mandala, no deitty yoga, no samaya” and so on is just pith instructions aimed at it’s natural audience, the Tantric practitioners. This attitude is clearly stated in Nyen Palyang’s The Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva. A text on the development state that I cite from this blog;

    This mind itself which is without basis or root
    Is, like the sky, not purified by cleansing.
    Because enlightenment is free from production,
    Enlightenment does not come from cause and effect.


  19. Thank you both for your comments, but since I don’t have the time to moderate a discussion list, I’m going to call an end to this thread. Feel free to comment on other posts of course!


  20. Great blogz, Sam! And this a great thread — saved to my HD for perusal at leisure. THere’s quite a lot to grok here.

    Two afore/after thoughts to this or future discussions. (1) On puns, indeed they do exist in Tibetan as do alliteration, assonance, dissonance and (possibly) anagrams — even if these are not classical kavya conceits, curiously. Cf. Mipham’s Kavyaadars”a commentary where he hints at some of this (though indirectly, i.e. by examplifying the classical alamkaras with verses that seem full of puns and other underhanded conceits).

    Funny thing is, happening upon such examples of puns, one can hardly decide if the punning’s intentionally spun or not, which is half the fun. So to dribble further down the court with that well-masticated pin.d.a aforementioned — the well-chewed wad of bird-rgum – it becomes apparent that ‘k[h]ug-[r]ta etc. are not only phonetic respellings (to put it politely); they are descriptive of ‘secret Dharma names’ — or pudenda (gsang-mtshan) perhaps — and worthy of even the most guffaw-convoking Zennist yarn.

    Hence, analogous to rig pa’i khu [by-, sky-]ug ( ‘[be]come besotted of awareness’ or ‘juice-vomitus of awareness’), and analogous also to ‘sbas pa’i sgum chung’ (‘surreptitious pinch of chaw’ — a favorite vice of naughty monks) we have also ‘bu-rta kug-rta ‘bug-horse twisted-horse’ (kug=khyug/kyog rta) or ‘lame, fleabitten nag’; and bu-[r]ta [r]kub-rta ‘son-horse ass’s horse’ which liberally shorn of redundancy clearly means to have meant ‘son of a horse’s ass’ — an epithet (or hypothet?) combining the ribald imagery of ‘horse’s ass’ with the bestial implications of ‘son of a bitch’.

    Perhaps the early rDzogs-chen-pas felt that only by assigning ever-more outrageous epithets to their patriarchs and patriarchal texts could they keep up with the gSam-gtan-pas, the stories of whose self-deconstructing self-deprecation via contrarian self-appellation are legion. In the end, though, it would seem Tantra — with its irrepressible totems of respect and taboos against disrespect — won out; rather than stage the epoch-making publicity stunt of having someone famous tear up these old manuscripts in a sudden-enlightenment-inspired frenzy of transeverance (e.g., ego-severance beyond reverence and irreverence), they banished the texts, a la Vairocana, to Dunhuang, knowing that rDzogs-chen futures would rise if early rDzogs-chen text supplies were depleted for a millenium of so.

    And they were right, for here we are, still chewing the same old cud.

    All best,


  21. Dear slimdx,

    Puking the [thin] soup of science? That’s one title Snow Lion won’t be carrying anytime soon, let alone Wisdom. But the other one really gets my goat. What would that ‘child [given birth from] the southern end of a horse with a northerly trend’ be besides, to put it simply, horseshit? And what would that be besides all this drivel you just typed in here? Expecting us to just step in it? (Add smiley and wink if it helps you take the heat!)
    As you said, “one can hardly decide if the punning’s intentionally spun or not.” Well, I remember a respected Tibetan teacher telling me with the straightest of all possible faces that there is no such thing as a double-meaning word or pun in Tibetan, since “No language can work that way.” Ha!

  22. Oh my! I so much regret leaving that last post. It isn’t like me. It certainly represents a new low in vulgarity never before reached, if I’m not mistaken, in your otherwise pristine blogspace. Whatever came over me? Perhaps it was the Gewürztraminer, which by the way was quite good to me otherwise. As if I could see the small print without my glasses anyway, it probably says right on the bottle that you shouldn’t add comments on blog pages after imbibing.

  23. Actually, slimdx’s undoubtedly educated comments were just too far out for a square like me, so I was quite glad you stepped up to bat back a response. The Gewürztraminer sounds good, anyway.

  24. Hi — Regarding “Namkhai Norbu suggests … not by historical accounts.” I would like to cite this. (It seems to be the general Dzogchen view, but finding a clear statement would be useful.)

    I have just skimmed Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State, and didn’t find it. Was this in that book? Might you supply a page reference? (I have the original edition, not the Snow Lion one — maybe the pagination is different, so if you have the later edition, perhaps you could give a chapter and context.)

    Or was this elsewhere in print? Or is this oral transmission / personal communication?

    Many thanks. And thanks for the great blog!


  25. Dear David,

    My sentence was only paraphrasing Namkhai Norbu’s position in Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State. In the context of the historical authenticity of Dzogchen, Namkhai Norbu writes: “But the practitioners of Dzogchen have never had any interest in forming a sect, or in defending themselves and getting into arguments with others, because the principle thing in Dzogchen is the state of knowledge, which is not concerned with externals.” By “externals” I think he means the evidence for “authenticity”, such as original Indic texts…. This is found in the introduction to Part II of the book, p.46 in my copy, which is published by Arkana (1989).

    Thanks for your vote of confidence!

  26. Dear Sam,

    We have exchanged ideas before out of this context but I thought I might take courage and enter this pool.

    As you know my day job is psychoanalysis and so it is of interest to me to observe my own and perhaps others anxiety around the subject of the origins of rDzogs chen – it is almost as if the possibility that it as a discrete vehicle, only emerging somewhere around late ninth/early tenth century, threatens the authenticity of the teaching and by extension our refuge within it.

    I have been reading very carefully your arguments for the roots of the term rdzogs chen in the Mahayoga tantra and initially I too was threatened. For those of us who have studied with Dzogchen teachers like Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, we have been ‘brought up’ on the traditional diet that the teachings are of great antiquity and somehow I suspect this makes us feel that the teaching is therefore real and true – while the opposite – a teaching relatively newly minted – has the opposite emotional effect. “It’s just made up.”

    This leads to my second psychological observation. It was only by reading your work very carefully did I realize that what you are saying (assuming I have understood properly) is actually not so very different from what the tradition implicitly says itself. That it was less threatening then it initially seems to one wedded to the traditional accounts.

    Does the tradition not actually say that Padmasambhava taught Mahayoga and reserved a special precept (man ngag/upadesha) for a smaller group of students?

    And also that the teachings that are now called the Mind and Space Series, traditionally assigned to Vimilamitra and Vairochana, existed within a lineage of teachers coming from India and continuing in Tibet. That those in these lineage’s were not exclusively practitioners of what we now know as either Maha, Anu or Atiyoga. That they were, as many people are now, initiated into several different practices.

    I also think that we knew – although this was not made explicit – that the teaching has always been in a process of evolution. That parts that we take for granted like the nine vehicles and the distinction between ‘transformation’ and ‘self liberation’ had not always – from the beginning of time – been so. Of course we did because this is just common sense if we think about it – and it is what Buddhism itself teaches. Everything is transitory and arises from causes and conditions.

    However what none of us has thought to recognise was that the very name of the teaching itself was also part of that process of change – that the names Dzogchen and Atiyoga were applied at a later date to a teaching that was characterized by the pointing out of the nature of mind by a master to a disciple based, not so much on scriptural authority, but on the authority of their own realization.

    Effectively – and this is my main point – I realized I had unconsciously projected all sorts of assumptions onto the teaching that it actually did not claim for itself. It had never said it had always been called Dzogchen or Atiyoga. It had never said that the three series of teaching had always been organized as they are now. It had never said that the term ‘rdzogs chen’ had not been used differently in tantric contexts. And it had never said that it had not found at a later date that the name ‘Great Perfection’ would suit its more ancient insights and methods just fine. I had just unthinkingly assumed that this had always been so and finding that the name, organization, discrete identity and its process of entering the written word took time to evolve I almost forgot for a moment that none of this invalidated the immediate presence of intrinsic awareness that someone, somewhere had once discovered and then passed on to someone else.

    Of course I have strayed here from simply sticking with the few pieces of the jig saw puzzle that we still have. However I still think it a valid way of thinking about what ever it was – the ‘pristine Great Perfection’ that came up from India or perhaps across from Zhang-zhung. The way people create new understandings is by having an intuitive insight and then casting around for something to borrow language from which they then adapt. As time goes by this language becomes their own and its meaning evolves and in more time this language evolves further. None of this challenges your or others theories but it does say that the primary material is not actually the Dunhuang manuscripts or something from the Nyingma collections but something more ghostly, the presence of the vivid transmission, variously named, of often unknown adepts which we can only glimpse by inference.

    Best wishes, Nigel

  27. Dear Nigel,

    Thank you for an immensely thoughtful (and might I say well-written) comment. You’re quite right that Westerners learning about the tradition have a tendency to gain an overall view of the teachings and their structure and assume, in effect, “thus it has always been.” Academics on the other hand are always looking for change, and the emergence of new ideas.

    I think it’s useful look at the way Tibetans approached their own Buddhist tradition. Despite an immense reverence for the source of the teachings, they also accepted that the teachings would change to suit the times. That, for one thing, is the raison d’etre of the terma tradition. Even if we trace these developments back to Padmasambhava, the planned emergence of terma over the centuries remains a program of change over time.

    It’s true as well in the more conservative schools. What was Tsongkhapa’s version of Madhyamaka if not ground-breaking – and acknowledged never to have existed in India. The Sakyapas developed the vast Lamdre literature around a few core verses, and then split the teaching method into forms never heard of before: slob bshad and tshogs bshad. And so on.

    I could respond at much more length to your various points, but I’ll just say that I agree with almost all of it. Yes, what I’ve said here on this site and in my article – though it’s by no means definitive! – is no so far from what the tradition says. I don’t see much merit in those attempts to hook Dzogchen up with Chan or other vaguely similar contemplative traditions.


  28. Dear Sam,

    Thank you for your kind reply – I especially liked the compliment for the writing!

    May I ask for two clarifications of the material here?

    1. You frequently speak of the generation and perfection stages and how the term rdzogs chen is found in this Mahayoga context. How then does this fit in with the present day association of Mahayoga being principally associated with the generation stage and Anuyoga with the perfection stage. It sounds like Maha and Anu also at an early date had not differentiated out. Is this correct?

    2. If so when did Anuyoga tantras first arrive?

    3. Lastly, someone calling them self “Dab” wrote to you in this section in Jan. about Sutra references to Dzogchen and Atiyoga and you wrote back very excited.

    Please can you explain why this was important enough for you to think it might cause a rewrite of the early history and what you decided once you had a think about it?

    That’s it – no more questions.
    Thanks, N.

  29. Here’s a footnote from a forthcoming article:

    Anuyoga seems to have developed independence even later than Atiyoga. It is absent from Vilāsavajra’s commentary on the Guhyagarbha’s chapter thirteen, on the stages of tantric practice (Q.4718: 186b), and it is similarly absent from the treatment of the levels of empowerment in Sūryasiṃhaprabha’s Guhyagarbha commentary (Q.4719: 224a–224b). In the doxographical texts IOL Tib J 656 and Pelliot tibétain 644 it is the same as Atiyoga in having no specific meditative or ritual content, while according to IOL Tib J 656 the practice of Anuyoga is the same as Mahāyoga: union and liberation (sbyor sgrol). Moreover it seems that Anuyoga was not given any specific scriptural content until much later than was the case with Atiyoga. While Gnubs chen Sangs rgyas ye shes seems to have been instrumental in defining a group of texts as Atiyoga scripture in his Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation, no specifically Anuyoga texts are mentioned there. The Sutra Gathering all Intentions, which was to become one of the central Anuyoga scriptures was well known to Gnubs chen, who wrote an extensive commentary on the text, but in the Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation, he uses it solely as a source for his Atiyoga chapter, suggesting that it, like the other sources in that chapter, should be considered an Atiyoga text.

    As for the sutra references to concepts from Dzogchen — they could well be significant for further research into the literary/historical development of the tradition, but I haven’t had time to look into them. Perhaps you would like to…


  30. Dear Sam,

    You are the professional and I the dabbler – I am afraid I must wait on you!

  31. What a profound and inspiring blog! I should have probably learned Tibetan to provide a similar quality of thoughts presented here, nevertheless some different ideas on the usage of the term/symbol/metaphor “cuckoo” – and I am sure some modern day researches must have had these ideas before, I just haven’t found evidence of it:
    The first thing that I personally learned about the cuckoo when I was a little child was its unique call and the accompanying tale was told that the cuckoo applies “brood parasitism”, i.e. laying its egg into the nests of other birds and thus letting its child be raised by foster-parents who indeed have no clue that they raise a young cuckoo – and by the time they realize that the brood somehow looks quite different than their own appearance, they have probably already “fallen in love” with the uncommon kid… Cuckoos have indeed developed numerous strategies for somehow getting their egg into a host nest, i.e. female cuckoos may show secretive behavior, their eggs may look very similar to those of the foster parents, etc.
    Quite interesting if we dare to consider the possibility of a similar relationship between dzogchen and deity yoga…
    and furthermore…

    Unfortunately I don’t know much about the usage of the cuckoo as a symbol or metaphor for this specific kind of behavior in Tibetan scriptures, but at least the Koel bird, a member of the cuckoo family of birds, is a widely used symbol in Indian scriptures of various traditions. For example we find it in Tirumantiram, Tantra 2, verse 488 (of Saiva Siddhanta tradition) which was attributed to the seventh century siddha Tirumular (although this is a scripture from southern India, Douglas Renfrew Brooks argues that the author was also very well aware of e.g. Kashmiri Saiva traditions):
    “The koel bird leaves its egg in the crow’s nest; The crow hatches it, nurses it, suspecting nothing; (…)”
    Now consider the following tale told by John M. Reynolds (2005, p.149) about some specific Bonpo dzogchen teachings becoming part of the transmissions of the Nyingmapa:

    “In the tenth century, Shengyal (Lhatse) was also a contemporary of the great Buddhist master and scholar of the Nyingmapa school, Zurpoche Shakya Jyungme (…). This master had been wandering about Western and Northern Tibet in search of obscure lineages and fragments of the Dzogchen teachings. One night he came secretly to Shengyal in his hermitage at Yungdrung Lhatse and (…) he requested the transmission of the Dzogchen teachings that he had been unable to obtain from any other source. In time the two masters became great friends. But there was some bad talk locally about a Buddhist scholar taking teachings from a Bonpo Lama, and so Zurpoche asked permission to change the proper names occurring in the teachings, although he would preserve the real meaning of the texts without distortions. The Bonpo master readily agreed to this. Therefore, in this way, these Dzogchen teachings of Ponchen Tsanpo came to receive the name of Rig-pa’i khu-byug, because that master had transformed himself into the form of a turquoise blue cuckoo bird and disappeared into the sky. And instead of citing the Bonpo master Ponchen Tsanpo as the source, he gave to these teachings an Indian Buddhist background to make this Dzogchen transmission acceptable to the Buddhist generally. (…) the transmission went (…) finally to Rangzom Pandita, the great Nyingmapa scholar. Thus, it is asserted by the Bonpos that the Dzogchen teachings of the Zhang-zhung master Ponchen Tsanpo became part of the Dzogchen transmissions of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism as well…”

    Doesn’t the behavior of these two masters and friends — as it is told in this Bonpo version — closely resemble the cuckoo’s behavior of laying an egg into another bird’s nest?
    For sure Yogins living in hermitages did know about the cuckoo’s special behavior and not just about further implications like its beautiful call which heralds spring season, i.e. the time of sowing and/or transmission taking place, its color which sometimes is blueish and thus resembles the blue sky etc.
    Now I don’t mean to take sides and propagate that this specific dzogchen transmission of the Nyingmapa school for sure has its origin in some Bonpo source — an attempt like this could easily develop into an endless circle if we follow it: Which “bird” might have laid its egg into the “nest of this Bonpo source” in advance? And which came first, the cuckoo or its egg?

    Douglas Renfrew Brooks in: Katherine Anne Harper and Robert L.Brown (editors): The roots of Tantra. State University of New York Press (Albany, NY), 2002.

    John Myrdhin Reynolds: The Oral Tradition from Zhang-Zhung – An Introduction to the Bonpo Dzogchen Teachings of the Oral Tradition from Zhang-zhung known as the Zhang-Zhung snyan-rgyud. Vajra Publications (Kathmandu), 2005.

  32. Reblogged this on rangdrol's Blog and commented:
    Namkhai Norbu wrote:
    Today, however, the historical authenticity of the Dzogchen texts can be proved, thanks to certain texts rediscovered among the Tun Huang manuscripts, which are considered original and authentic by all scholars.

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