Tibetan Chan V: Dzogchen and Chan

I’ve managed four posts on Tibetan Chan without mentioning the question of whether the Chinese meditation tradition known as Chan influenced the Tibetan meditation tradition known as Dzogchen. Or, to put it in the stronger version, whether Dzogchen is just a disguised form of Chan. Partly, I’ve left the question alone because it doesn’t seem that interesting to me. It seems evident that if you spend a while with Chan and Dzogchen texts from the time when the influence is supposed to have taken place (the 8th/9th centuries) that there is one clear difference between the two: they are in dialogue with two different kinds of scripture. That is to say, Chan is a tradition in dialogue with the sutras, while Dzogchen is in dialogue with the tantras.

Though nobody (with the notable exception of Jeffrey Broughton) has recently gone into print trying to prove that Dzogchen came from Chan, the idea hasn’t gone away. It was repeated to me recently, and insistently, by a very intelligent and very nice Indologist. And now that I’m involved in a research project on Tibetan Chan, I’ve decided to stop avoiding the issue, partly to try to show why “was Dzogchen influenced by Chan” is a bad question, partly to argue that when Chan and Dzogchen did come together, it was a case of them converging at the same point, rather than one influencing the other. That will be in an article which will probably come out next year. For now, I’d like to look at a very short Chan text, and make a very simple point.

The point is this – people who have said that there must be some kind of influence passing from Chan to Dzogchen have come to this belief because the texts look similar. However they justify the argument, it is the similarity in the language used in these two meditation traditions that caught their eye. (And this is surely true of the polemics in the Tibetan tradition itself as well as modern scholars like Guiseppe Tucci.) But, as we all know, apparent similarities can be misleading.

*  *  *

Let’s look at the text. It is found in the compendium IOL Tib J 709, and is presented as the teaching of a certain ’Gal na yas. So far nobody has identified this figure, but I think I have — the name seems to be a somewhat garbled rendering of Haklenayaśas, the 23rd patriarch of Chan. (The Chinese version of his name, by the way, is Helenayeshe 鶴勒那夜奢, and that initial H would have been pronounced more like G in this period.) The teaching attributed to this Indian master is “the instantaneous approach to the Madhyamaka”:-

There are many gates to meditation in the Mahāyāna. The ultimate among them is the instantaneous approach to the Madhyamaka. The instantaneous approach has no method. One cultivates the nature of reality in this way: phenomena are mind, and mind is uncreated. In that it is uncreated, it is emptiness. Since it is like the sky, it is not a field of activity for the six sense-faculties. This emptiness is what we call vivid awareness. Yet within that vivid awareness there is no such thing as vivid awareness. Therefore without remaining in the insights gained from studying, cultivate the essential sameness of all phenomena.

The tone of this is certainly similar to many Dzogchen texts. Take for example these lines from the Dzogchen text found in another Dunhuang manuscript, IOL Tib J 647 (for more on which see this post, and the comments):

The mind itself, which is without basis or root,
Is not to be found through effort; it is like the sky.
Enlightenment which is uncreated
Is enlightenment free from cause and effect.

I think you can probably see why there might be a temptation to say, “they’re so similar, one must have come from the other!” After all, they both talk about the mind being like the sky, and about not engaging in conventional methods to realize enlightenment (and I could find another quote to illustrate that Dzogchen texts also talk about the sameness of all phenomena). But hang on a minute — all of this language is also found in Buddhist scripture, in both the sutras and the tantras. Readers of Tibetan might like to check this at the online resources of the Universities of Virginia or Vienna. So what we have here is a case of a shared basis.

*  *  *

There are also, though somewhat hidden in translation, quite a few differences in the terminology between Tibetan Chan and Dzogchen texts. Looking back to the teaching attributed to Haklenayaśas, we see the key term “vivid awareness” plays a key role. Now the Tibetan term behind this is tshor, and it is translating the Chinese character jue 覺. In Chan, this term means the clear and present awareness that arises in meditation.

This meaning of tshor is specific to literature translated from Chinese, and original Tibetan Chan texts based on that literature. It’s a fairly central concept for Tibetan Chan texts, but elsewhere in Tibetan Buddhist writing, tshor means something completely different, Sanskrit vedanā, which is one of the five aggregates, usually translated as “feeling”. And tshor meaning “vivid awareness” does not, as far as I know, ever appear in Dzogchen texts.

So, to sum up, the similarities that Dzogchen texts share with Chan texts are also shared with the sutras and tantras, while the differences show that the two genres come out of quite different environments. This is not to say that no Tibetan ever held transmissions of both Chan and Dzogchen texts; in fact it is highly likely that several did. There might have been some instances of cross-pollination. I’m not trying to hermetically seal Dzogchen away from Chan, but I hope I’ve shown why arguments based on the fact that they look similar are not going to take us very far.

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See also…

Tibetan Chan I: The Emperor’s Chan
Tibetan Chan II: The teachings of Heshang Moheyan
Tibetan Chan III: More teachings of Heshang Moheyan
Tibetan Chan IV: The Great Debate

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Tibetan text

IOL Tib J 709, 42v: $/:/mkhan po ‘gal na yas bs[am] g+tan gI snying po bshad pa’// theg pa chen po’i bsam gtan gI sgo yang mang ste// de’I nang na dam pa nI don dbu ma la cig car ‘jug pa yIn te// cIg car ‘jug pa la nI thabs myed de// chos nyId kyI rang bzhIn la bsgom mo// de la chos nI sems sems nI ma skyes pa ‘o// ma skyes pa nI stong pa ste// dper naM ka dang ‘dra bas// dbang po drug gI spyod yul ma yin bas na// stong pa de nI tshor ba zhes bya ‘o// tshor nas nI tshor ba nyId kyang myed de// de bas na thos pa dang bsam pa’i shes shes [sic] rab la/ ma gnas par chos mnyam pa nyId la sgoms shig ces bshad do//: ://

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For statements about Chan influencing Dzogchen, see:

Jeffrey Broughton. 1983. “Early Ch’an Schools in Tibet.” In Robert Gimello and Peter N. Gregory (eds.), Studies in Ch’an and Hua-yen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 1-68

Giuseppe Tucci. 1958. Minor Buddhist Texts: Part II. Rome: Is.M.E.O.

On the term tshor in Tibetan Chan texts, see:

Luis Gomez. 1983. “The Direct and the Gradual Approaches of Zen Master Mahâyâna: Fragments of the Teachings of Mo-ho-yen.” In Robert M. Gimello and Peter N. Gregory (eds.), Studies in Ch’an and Hua-yen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 69-168.

For an argument against Tucci, basically the tenth-century argument of the Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation, see:

Kenneth Tanaka and Raymond Robertson. 1992. “A Ch’an Text from Tun-huang” Implications for Ch’an Influence on Tibetan Buddhism.” In Steven Goodman and Ronald Davidson (eds.), Tibetan Buddhism: Reason and Revelation.  New York: SUNY Press. 57–78.

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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/ 

Tibetan Chan III: more teachings of Heshang Moheyan

In the last post we were looking at Heshang Moheyan, the Chinese teacher of Chan (better known in the West as Zen) who became for Tibetans a lesson in how to go wrong in meditation. He taught, they said, a method of suppressing thoughts leading to a blank state of mind that could be mistaken for enlightenment, but was really just a dead end. Not only that, but his teachings were dangerous too, scorning the traditional division between virtue and vice, because both were just thoughts and therefore obstacles to enlightenment. As an old saying attributed to Moheyan goes, it doesn’t matter whether the cloud is white or black–it still blocks the sun.

Well, as I mentioned last time, the Dunhuang manuscripts contain the teachings of Heshang Moheyan, and they were much less simplistic, and more reasonable, than the later cartoonish version of him might suggest. For one thing, he didn’t advocate the suppression of thoughts (with a blank mind “like an egg” as one version of the Samyé debate nicely puts it). He says this quite clearly:

Therefore you should not suppress concepts. Whenever they arise, if you do not fabricate anything but instead let them go, then they will stay as they are and come to rest by themselves; thus you will not pursue them.

So I think we can say with some confidence that the ‘real’ Heshang Moheyan (insofar as we can claim to know him) was quite aware of the dangers of approaching meditation as the mere suppression of thoughts. He also didn’t think that the simple approach set out in the quotation above was right for everybody. In fact it was only intended for “those of the sharpest faculties.” For the rest of us he taught a series of five techniques of increasing subtlety. All are misguided in some way apart from the fifth and ultimate method.

1. A direct awareness of the arising of deluded thoughts.
2. An examination of that awareness.
3. The prevention of the arising of thoughts.
4. The perception that thoughts have no intrinsic nature (that is, they are empty).
5. Awareness of the arising of deluded thoughts without analysing or pursuing this awareness, so that thoughts are freed the instant they arise.

So it would clearly be an oversimplification to characterize Moheyan as teaching a single method for every student. It seems here that he is well aware of the need for different methods depending on the ability of the student. Likewise, he didn’t reject the bodhisattva’s classic path of six ‘perfections’: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom. In the Dunhuang manuscripts Moheyan answers a question on this very topic with subtlety. The question is, “is it necessary to practice the other dharma methods, like the six perfections?” Moheyan answers:

“According to conventional truth, the six perfections are said to be the means for teaching the ultimate truth; it is not that they are unnecessary. According to the scriptures that speak of the ultimate truth beyond the ordinary mind, there is no knowing or saying whether the other dharma methods like the six perfections are necessary. This is explained more extensively in the sutras.”

Isn’t this the move that the Perfection of Wisdom sutras make over and over again? From the conventional point of view, ethical practice and meditation are necessary to progress toward the goal. But from the point of view of the goal, ultimate truth itself, these practices are all empty of any real existence. So, as Moheyan says, one can’t speculate from the position of ultimate truth about the need for methods which don’t truly exist. What one cannot say, according to Moheyan, is that the six perfections are unnecessary. That possibility is the only one that he is excluding here.

* * *

Perhaps the disagreement between the two sides in the Samyé debate really comes down to this question: who are these people with sharp faculties who can access ultimate truth directly through their own awareness? Because for everybody else, Moheyan’s teachings are not that different from the Indian and Tibetan masters he is supposed to have faced in the debate. If a significant proportion of students may be considered to have sharp faculties, then the difference between the two sides is a significant one; but as that proportion shrinks, so does the difference between the two sides.

I’m not sure we can ever say what Moheyan’s position was here. It might be argued that if he spent so much time teaching the direct approach to ultimate truth, he must have thought that there were plenty of students able to practise it. Perhaps. If we look at a similar (though not identical!) tradition, that of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, we find that the same issue comes up again and again. The greatest exponent of Dzogchen, the fourteenth-century scholar and meditator Longchenpa, wrote this:

“The great yogins who arrived at that [ultimate] state–such as Padmasambhava, Vimalamitra and Tilopa–taught it directly, without cause and effect, virtue or sin. Even if we can understand this intellectually, we have not reached it through becoming truly accustomed to it. Therefore we are taught it only when we are no longer afraid of that state and can be careful about the subtleties of cause and effect.”

For Longchenpa then, the class of those who can approach ultimate truth directly without a gradual build-up is very small, and perhaps no longer exists at all, consisting only of famous masters from the distant past. As we know from his many other works, Longchenpa was very serious about teaching the direct approach to the ultimate. Yet as this passage makes clear, for everyone but the very greatest of meditators this did not mean rejecting the Buddha’s teachings on causation, or ethics.

If the Dunhuang fragments really do present Moheyan’s teachings, then there is every reason to believe that he held much the same view. He may have had a more optimistic idea of the number of students able to approach the nature of mind directly with no previous training, but he was careful to emphasise the need and value of the rest of the Buddha’s teachings.

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References and Tibetan texts

This post, like the last, is indebted to Luis Gomez’s excellent article which gathers the Tibetan sources for Moheyan’s teachings (see the reference in the previous post). The first quote in this post comes from The Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation (p.165). The five approaches are found in Pelliot tibétain 117 and The Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation (p.165). The quotation on the six perfections appears in Pelliot tibétain 823 (f.2.4 to 3.3) and is also found the Chinese version of the Samye debate in Pelliot chinois 4646 (136b.2-5). Finally, the Longchenpa quote is found in Jigmé Lingpa’s Yeshé Lama (p.332; I haven’t found the location of this passage in Longchenpa’s work yet). I also discussed the issue of the different types of student in the context of Dzochen in my book Approaching the Great Perfection (pp.115-124).

Bsam gtan mig sgron p.165: de bas na ‘du shes dgag par yang mi bya / ‘byung bzhin ci la yang mi bcos par gyi na ye gtang ji bzhin du bzhag dang rang zhi ste rjes su mi ‘brang ngo //

Pelliot tibétain 823: f.2.4-3.3: pha rol tu phyin pa drug la stsogs pa’i chos kyi sgo gzhan dgos saM myI dgos/ smras pa/ kun rdzob ltar pha rol tu phyin pa drug kyang/ don dam par bstan pa’i phyIr thabs su bshad de/ myI dgos pa yang ma yin// don dam par smra bsam las ‘das pa’i gzhung ltar na/ pha rol tu phyin las stsogs pa chos kyI sgo gzhan dgos saM myI dgos shes smos su yang myed de/ mdo sde las kyang rgyas par bshad do/

Ye she bla ma p.332: gshis der phebs pa’i rnal ’byor pa chen po rnams la rgyu ’bras dge sdig med pa thad drang du bshad de padma dang/ bi ma la dang/ te lo pa la sogs pa bzhin no/ rang cag rnams la blos de ltar rtogs kyang goms pas thog du ma ’phebs pas/ gshis la mi skrag cing las ’bras cha ’phra ba la ’dzem pa dang sbyar nas bshad do/

Also in this series:
Tibetan Chan I: The Emperor’s Chan
Tibetan Chan II: the teachings of Heshang Moheyan

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

Early Dzogchen II: An approach to tantric practice


In the previous post I looked at the the earliest Dzogchen manuscripts in existence (as far as we know). These two Dzogchen texts appear to reject any kind of structured practice, and yet they exist in the extraordinarily rich Dunhuang collection, containing prayers, manuals for rituals of offering, confession and so on, meditation manuals, and many other things which clearly fall into the category of structured practice. So, we may well ask ourselves, what was going on? Were people practising, or not? Do we really imagine that among the population of tantric practitioners around Dunhuang there were few hip Dzogchenpas secretly scorning the efforts of the rest? I doubt it.

Fortunately we don’t have to rely on speculation here. There are in fact a number of texts from Dunhuang that explain exactly how Dzogchen relates to tantric practice. The Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva is a series of questions and answers, an early FAQ, on tantric practice. In particular, it is concerned with the practice of a level of tantra known as Mahāyoga (“the great yoga”). It was written in the earlyish 9th century by a Tibetan called Nyen Palyang and is preserved in several Dunhuang manuscripts, including IOL Tib J 470.

Now Nyen Palyang clearly had a view of tantric practice that was very close to what we find in the Dzogchen texts. He writes:

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.

But this is a treatise on tantric practice, in particular, on the practice of visualizing a deity. So the next question Palyang posits is how do we receive the blessing from the deity if the above is true? He answers his own question in this way:

When dirty water becomes clear,
No effort is required for the reflections of the sun and moon to appear.
Similarly, if one transforms one’s own mind through yoga,
No accomplishment is required for the conquerors’ blessings to arise.

The author is keen to get the message across that the practice of deity yoga is emphatically not to be abandoned, but any concept of the practice of yoga as the cause for enlightenment is to be abandoned. Pelyang constantly refers to nonduality, freedom from effort, and the primordial and spontaneous presence of the enlightened mind, using terms familiar from Dzogchen texts, such as awareness (rig pa) and spontaneous presence (lhun gyis grub). The term Dzogchen appears here too. Pelyang poses the question—if there is no cause and effect, how does a yogin obtain accomplishments? The answer is this:

When, as in the example of a king appointing a minister,
The accomplishments are granted from above, this is the outer way.
When the kingdom is ruled having been offered by the people,
This is the way of the unsurpassable, self-arisen Dzogchen.

Leaving aside the interesting political metaphor, what is striking here is that Dzogchen is clearly being presented as a way (tshul) of practicing Mahāyoga. The same applies to the term Atiyoga: there is a note appended to a point in the main text where the following answer is given to the question of how one should perform deity yoga, here called “approach and accomplishment” (bsnyen bsgrub):

In the ultimate approach and accomplishment no subject or object is perceived;
Because there are no difficulties or effort here, this is the supreme approach and accomplishment.

The note underneath the second line states that this is “an explanation of the view of Atiyoga.”

IOL Tib J 470

The Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva is not an isolated case. Another text from Dunhuang, a long tantric treatise on various topics arising out of deity yoga (IOL Tib J 454) makes it clear that the deity is simply the awareness (rig pa) of one’s own enlightened mind or bodhicitta (byang chub sems). The idea of buddhas and buddhahood is also firmly brought back to the practitioner’s own primordially pure mind:

One’s own mind is primordial purity and buddhahood, and to comprehend that this mind is primordially purity and buddhahood is to be accomplished as a buddha, to see the face of the buddha, to hold the buddha in one’s hands.

Finally, there is a brief account of how Padmasambhava taught the meditation on the deity Vajarakīlaya to his students in the manuscript Pelliot tibétain 44, which states:

[Padmasambhava] taught the secret bodhicitta that is included within Atiyoga, and the sādhanas of Vajrakīlaya in accordance with the Mahāyoga texts. He showed that meditation on Vajrakīlaya is the state of reality, and then they meditated on the nonduality of objects and minds within the uncreated bodhicitta.

We are in a better position now to understand how the two Dzogchen texts that I mentioned in the last post coexisted with the vast amount of practical instructions on ritual and meditation practice that are also found in the Dunhuang collections. The texts I’ve quoted here make it plausible that at the time of these manuscripts (9th to 10th centuries) Dzogchen/Atiyoga was primarily a view applied to the practice of deity yoga.

“But what,” you may ask (adopting for the moment the Tibetan question-and-answer method), “about those Dzogchen texts that don’t refer to tantric practice at all, but just talk about nonduality and the uselessness of any practice? Like, for example, your Dunhuang text by Buddhagupta?”

Well, that’s an interesting example. You may remember from the last post that much of Buddhagupta’s Dunhuang text was re-used in another work by none other than Nyen Palyang, author of The Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva. Palyang also wrote several Dzogchen texts that don’t mention deity yoga, or any other practices at all.

Now, I don’t want to draw sweeping conclusions from this limited source material, but this seems to have been a common pattern: to write Mahāyoga commentaries or treatises alongside short instructional texts on the nonconceptual aspect of Mahāyoga practice. Other authors and translators of early Dzogchen texts (like Mañjuśrīmitra and Vimalamitra for instance) also wrote commentaries on Mahāyoga tantras. So it seems that writing (or studying) these early Dzogchen texts didn’t preclude the practice of deity yoga. In fact the point of the the Dzogchen view was to apply it to these practices.

“So, was this the original form of Dzogchen?” I suspect that ‘original’ (like ‘authentic’) is word that seems simple until you start to ask what we really mean when we use it. Let’s leave this question till next time…

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.