The search for an origin is a seductive task, but one to be wary of. As Nāgārjūna pointed out a long time ago, nothing ever really comes into being as such. Any entity we might identify is both composite and has developed through the mutual dependence of causes and conditions. The idea of an ‘origin’ supposes that we can identify a source that is cannot be broken into composite parts and is free from any previous causes.
That said, the whole point of this website, and the materials on which it comments, is that earlier textual sources can tell as something that later sources do not. This survey of the earliest sources on Dzogchen is, then, not the search for an origin, but an examination of the character of Dzogchen as it appears in the earliest reliably dated texts.
What are the earliest reliably dated Dzogchen texts? There is The Meditation on the Awakened Mind by Mañjuśrīmitra, which is mentioned in the Denkarma, an early 9th century library catalogue. And then there are the many texts quoted by Nub Sangyé Yeshé in his Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation, written in the late 9th century. These are generally short instructional texts which overlap to some extent with the traditional list of eighteen early Mind Series (sems sde) texts.
Earlier still than these is the Guhyagarbha tantra. This tantra is nowadays thought to have been circulating in India by the eighth century (notwithstanding the Tibetan controversies over its Indic origin–see my earlier post). Dzogchen is mentioned four times in the tantra, each time in a different chapter. Let us look at two examples, first from chapter 13, which is on the practice of the perfection stage:
Thus the Great Joyous One settled into the contemplation of the cloud-array that is at the heart of the extremely secret commitment–that all phenomena are, from the beginning, spontaneously present in the great perfection (rdzogs chen).
Here we see not just the word Dzogchen, but the same basic meaning that it is given in the later tradition. The term occurs again in chapter 14, which celebrates the realization arising out of the pefection stage:
Oṃ! The great perfection (rdzogs pa che) of body, speech and mind,
Is the total perfection of enlightened qualities and activities,
From the beginning spontaneous present, perfect, and all good (kun tu bzang)
The great sphere (thig le) of the vast gathered assembly. Ho!
The sense that Dzogchen here means the realization that comes out of the perfection stage is confirmed in The Garland of Views, a treatise on chapter thirteen of the Guhyagarbha found in the Tengyur and attributed to Padmasambhava. If the attribution is correct, then The Garland of Views would probably date from before or during Padmasambhava’s time in Tibet in the 770s. We saw in the previous post a manuscript describing how Padmasambhava taught the meditation on Vajrakīlaya in the context of Atiyoga. Here the author only briefly deals with the actual practices, mainly focusing on the ideas of spontaneous accomplishment and primordial purity as the experiential climax of the practices.
In The Garland of Views, Dzogchen is the culmination of the three ways (tshul) of inner yogic practice: the ways of development (bskyed), perfection (rdzogs), and great perfection (rdzogs chen). In this text these three ways are subdivisions of the vehicle of inner yoga, but not vehicles in their own right. Remember in the last post how often we saw Dzogchen described as a “way”? Here Dzogchen is rooted in the practices found in the Guhyagarbha tantra: the visualization of deities and the experience of bliss through union. Like the manuscripts we looked at in the previous post, Dzogchen here functions as an interpretive framework for these experiences:
The way of the great perfection (rdzogs chen) is to realize that all phenomena of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa are inseparable and have always had the nature of the maṇḍala of body, speech and mind, and then to meditate on that.
Finally, let us return to the Dunhuang manuscripts one more time, for one elegant piece of evidence for the association between Dzogchen and the Guhyagarbha. Pelliot tibétain 322B is a poem from the Dunhuang manuscripts which takes Dzogchen as its theme, while remaining within the frame of reference of the Guhyagarbha and Māyājāla tantras:
The teaching of the primordial, spontaneously present Dzogchen,
This sublime experiential domain of supreme insight
Is bestowed as a personal instruction for those with intelligence;
I pay homage to the definitive counsel spoken thus.
Without centre or periphery, neither one nor many,
The maṇḍala that transcends thought and cannot be expressed,
Illuminates the mind of intrinsic awareness, wisdom and knowledge;
I pay homage to the great Vajrasattva.
In the illusory three worlds which are like the limitless sky,
Many millions of emanations are present everywhere,
Surrounded by the net of insight in the expanse of sameness,
I pay homage to you, the Māyājāla.
The ten directions and the four times secretly have the nature of Dzogchen,
Which itself is the suchness of the definitive essence,
Primordial and spontaneously present, cause and effect inseparable,
I pay homage to the supreme Guhyagarbha.
The close association between early Dzogchen and the Guhyagarbha shouldn’t surprise us, really. When later tantric lineages were brought to Tibet in the 11th and 12th centuries, they came with their own frameworks for interpreting yogic practice in terms of nonconcepualization and the immanence of buddhahood. The Mahāmudrā cycles transmitted in the Kagyü schools are an obvious example. A balance of ritual or meditative practice with a view that transcends both practice and result seems to have characterised late Indic tantra. On the whole, as we know, that balance was skilfully maintained in the Tibetan tradition as well.
1. Germano, David. 1994. “Architecture and Absence in the Secret Tantric History of the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen)“, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 17.2: 203-335.
2. Karmay, Samten. 1988. The Great Perfection. Leiden: Brill. [Includes a translation and edition of The Garland of Views].
3. Norbu, Namkhai and Kennard Lipman. 2001. Primordial Experience: An Introduction to RDzogs-chen Meditation. Boston: Shambhala. [A translation of The Meditation on the Awakened Mind].
4. van Schaik, Sam. 2004. “The Early Days of the Great Perfection” in Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 27/1: 165–206.
Gsang ba snying po de kho na nyid nges pa (Guhyagarbha tantra). Tb.417.
‘Jam dpal bshes gnyen. Byang chub kyi sems bsgom pa [The Meditation on the Awakened Mind]. P.3418
Gnubs chen Sangs rgyas ye shes. Bsam gtan mig sgron [Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation]. S. W. Tashigangpa, Ladakh, 1974.
Padmasambhava. Man ngag lta ba’i phreng ba [The Garland of Views]. P.4726
In Search of the Guhyagarbha Tantra