Early Dzogchen III: The origin of Dzogchen?


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.

Tibetan sources
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

See also:
In Search of the Guhyagarbha Tantra

6 thoughts on “Early Dzogchen III: The origin of Dzogchen?

  1. It is wonderful that this kind of discussion is happening as this is actually an ongoing discussion and has been proberly since Garab Dorje (the first Buddhist master to teach Dzogchen).

    I have written to comment on your view.
    From the point of view of Dzogchen (and from the perspective that Dzogchen is the unsurpassed and most essential teaching)
    All the yanas are indirectly ‘trying’ to get to the primordial state.
    the practitioner of Dzogchen by the simple power of recognition, realizes his nature to be perfection and relaxes all internal phenomena that oppose that realization and they are liberated by the power of the view alone.
    Tantric practitioners, unable to relax personal effort (or without teachings) use effort as a path. By means of visualization, they overcome obstacles related to their impure vision( the activity of non-recognition of primordial perfection)
    Dzogchen is simply a state.
    If one needs visualization and wind yoga to realize it then one would do so.
    This does not mean that Dzogchen is simply a view to be applied in tantra. Dzogchen has many methods of its own to recognize the state and they are generally more essential than tantric methods.
    Garab Dorje’s 3 statements on Dzogchen (before he died) were:
    1 – The disciple receives introduction to the nature of awareness

    2- one should o longer remain in any doubt as to what that is

    3- then the disciple continues in that state

    This is the essence
    as you can see there is no mention that the practitioner should visualize, control or recite anything
    they are done ONLY if there is an obstacle.
    Views like ‘Dzogchen is a view to be used in tantra’, come from and irrational fear of the the essence of the Dharma.
    and many to this day refuse to see and believe the simplicity of the Great Perfection.



  2. Dear Jack,

    Thanks for your points. Let me just point out that my statements are purely historical. I don’t have a view, nor any authority to say what Dzogchen is or how it ought to be applied. I leave that to qualified teachers. I have only tried to write about how the presentation of Dzogchen that we find in the texts of the 8th-10th centuries.

  3. Thanks for your efforts in fleshing out this early phase of Tibetan history.

    In light of your discovery of the frequency of mentions to the guhyasamaja in the Dunhuang texts, have you ever looked into Stephen Hodges assertion that there is an evolutionary thread of tantric development from:

    sarvatathagatatattvasangraha -> guhyagarbha -> guhyasamaja

    ? And the fact that in these 3 tantras, as well as in Dzogchen we find the adhibuddha depicted as Samantabhadra?

    All the best,

  4. Dear Jamyang Norbu, or any other knower of this question; what is meant by frequency of mentions of the guhyasamaja in Dunhuang?

    Is it really guhyasamaja?

  5. Understanding the Three Words of Garab Dorje is the View completely non-contrived, that is in it’s simplicity ,too hard for conceptual thinking to grasp since there is nothing to grasp.Just remain in Rigpa once introduced to the view.If one desires to be of greater aid to sentient beings upon awakening then one should reconstitute the Rainbow Body once the dissolution of the physical body into Light has reached the stage of the dissolution of the fingertips into Light and one reverses the dissolution and reconstitutes The Glorious Rainbow Body and is therefore able to reach beings directly in any form in order to help them achieve Liberation.One’s Rainbow Body will be able to be perceived by ordinary humans but if they try to touch it in any way they will find it insubstantial and composed of the rainbow Light of the 5 colors. This body is also Immortal and can therefore work forever in the work of salvaging beings from the sufferings of Samsara. Pema Gyalpo (21st Century Emanation)

  6. It is said by some that the realization of Mahamudra as taught in the Kagyu Schools and the realization of Trekchod(Cutting through to Primordial Purity is the same realization,howeve ,this is not true.The realization of Mahamudra is Emptiness but without any characteristics.The realization of Trekchod is also Emptiness but effulgent with Infinite Glorious Radiance.If ianyone says diffeent they are mistaken.Unfortunately the Kagyu Schools for the most part excepting perhaps the Karma Nyingtik which was a Terma of the Third Karmapa had the teachings of Dzogchen including the Trekchod and Todgyal teachings but if it is practiced today it has not made it’s way into the modern teachings of the Kagyu Schools.Seeing how the difference between Mahamudra and Trekchod realizations of “emptiness” are totally different,that is one great distinction between the Kagyu School which arose during the 12th century in Tibet called the New Translation teachings and the Nyingma School or the Ancient Translation School in Tibet which arose with Padmasambhava, the “second Buddha”. The greatest distinction between the Kagyu and Gelugpa Schools is the teaching called Todgyal or “Leaping Over into the Pure Vision of Awareness of Phenomena” is no where found in any of the other schools in Tibet except the Bonpo which say they have the teachings on Dzogchen including Trekchod and Todgyal. This is taught by the Master Tenzin Wangyal, a Bon-Buddhist Teacher who now has Centers in the west including a retreat Center here in Crestone,Co. a premier Retreat Center for the Major Lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon.Also in Santa Fe N.M. there resides a teacher whose Lineage is Buddhist-Bon and who is the Lineage holder of the Tsa-Sum Lingpa tradition.His name is the Ven.Tulku Sang-Ngak Rinpoche.So this has been my comment on the differences between the two Schools of tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma and the Kagyu.Kalu Rinpoche who was a great Kagyu Lama but was also a master of the Nyingma teachings as well is recognised by the Nyingma as HH Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche.He is passed now and his Tulku has returned. Tulku Yangsi Kalu R.That is enough for now. Yours in the Dharma, Padma Gyalpo x

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