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date: 22 August 2017


Summary and Keywords

Dzogchen, often translated as “the great perfection,” is a tradition of meditation practice and poetic literary expression in Tibetan Buddhism. Though its origins lie in Indic Buddhism, Dzogchen developed a distinct form of practice and literary expression only in Tibet. In general, Dzogchen texts evoke and discuss a state of awareness present in all living beings that transcends dualities and conceptual elaboration.

Common terms for this state of awareness are “mind itself” (sems nyid) and “awareness” (rig pa). Dzogchen literature often states that in the presence of this awareness, religious practice oriented toward enlightenment is dualistic and, therefore, not only unnecessary, but also obstructive. Nevertheless, Dzogchen is usually integrated with other forms of Buddhist practice.

The Dzogchen tradition encompasses a variety of literature and practice; the most common way of categorizing this is a division into three classes, the mind series, the space series, and the instruction series. The mind series contains most of the early Dzogchen literature, and more recent material in the same style. The space series enjoyed only limited popularity, and little is known of it today. The instruction series, by contrast, increased in popularity from its appearance in the 11th century and in time supplanted the mind series and the space series, ultimately becoming the predominant form of Dzogchen.

The practice of Dzogchen requires an authorized teacher and the ritual transmission of key texts, as well as an “introduction” to the nature of the mind given by the teacher to the student. The main scriptural sources of Dzogchen practice are texts held to be translations collected in semicanonical compendia, treatises by Tibetan scholars, and revealed texts known as terma, usually said to have been concealed in the 8th century by the tantric master Padmasambhava.

Dzogchen is a living tradition, taught within all of the main Tibetan Buddhist schools, though it remains closely associated with the Nyingma school. Within the latter, Dzogchen is considered to be the most advanced of Buddhist meditation practices, placed at the top of a ninefold categorization of Buddhist practice, the “nine vehicles.” Known in this context as atiyoga, “the utmost yoga,” it is the highest of the three “inner yogas,” the other two being mahāyoga and anuyoga. Dzogchen is also at the pinnacle of the teachings of Tibet’s Bonpo religion, which shares much of its doctrine with the Nyingma school and has in recent years been formally identified as one of the Buddhist schools of Tibet.

Keywords: Dzogchen, rDzogs chen, Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingma, meditation, tantric, mind, Buddhism

Dzogchen is a tradition of meditation practice and poetic literary expression in Tibetan Buddhism. Though it derives from Indic Buddhism, Dzogchen developed a distinct form of practice and literary expression only in Tibet, where it was particularly associated with the Nyingma and Bonpo traditions. The Tibetan word Dzogchen (rdzogs chen) is most commonly translated into English as “the great perfection.”

Within the Nyingma school, Dzogchen is at the top of a ninefold categorization of Buddhist practice. Known in this context as atiyoga, “the utmost yoga,” it is the highest of the three inner yogas, the other two being mahāyoga and anuyoga. Dzogchen is also at the pinnacle of the teachings of Tibet's Bonpo religion, which shares much of its doctrine with the Nyingma school and has in recent years been formally identified as one of the Buddhist schools of Tibet.

In general, Dzogchen texts evoke and discuss a state of awareness present in all living beings that transcends dualities and conceptual elaboration. Common terms for this kind of awareness are “mind itself” (sems nyid) and “awareness” (rig pa). Dzogchen literature often states that in the presence of this awareness, religious practice oriented toward enlightenment is dualistic and, therefore, not only unnecessary, but also obstructive.

However, Dzogchen also teaches meditative practices of a specific kind, and these are usually performed in the context of a graduated path (lam rim), which involves a wide variety of contemplative and ritual practices. Therefore the rejection of meditative and ritual practice in Dzogchen texts should be read as a rhetorical device aimed at attachment to the forms of these practices, and at any concept of a cause-effect link between these practices and the state of enlightenment.

The integration of this understanding that the state of enlightenment is already present with a dedication to the Buddhist path is expressed in the following verse from a prayer by the 18th-century Dzogchen teacher Jigme Lingpa:

  • In my own essence, stainless, unborn, and ever-pure,
  • The radiance of unconditioned spontaneous presence rises up.
  • This as the union of awareness and emptiness;
  • Realizing this without looking for it elsewhere,
  • And thus arriving at the full realization of the ground,
  • May I not stray from the essential points of the path.1

The Dzogchen tradition encompasses a variety of literature and practice; the standard traditional way of categorizing this is a division into three classes, the mind series (sems sde), the space series (klong sde) and the instruction series (man ngag sde). The three series are defined as different approaches to the true nature of mind: in the mind series, one’s own mind is established as the basis of all appearances, and then this mind is recognized as an empty and luminous awareness, mind itself; in the space series, one approaches mind itself by recognizing it as empty; and in the instruction series, mind itself is approached directly by the meditator, without any need to establish its character as the basis of all appearance, or to recognize its emptiness.

The mind series contains most of the early Dzogchen literature, and more recent material in the same style. The space series enjoyed only limited popularity, and is little known today. The instruction series, by contrast, increased in popularity from its appearance in the 11th century ultimately became the pre-eminent form of the Great Perfection.

Dzogchen is a living tradition of practice, taught within all of the main Buddhist schools, though most closely associated with the Nyingma and Bon schools. The practice of Dzogchen requires an authorized teacher and the ritual transmission of key texts, as well as an “introduction” to the nature of the mind given by the teacher to the student. The main sources of Dzogchen practice are texts held to be translations, collected in semi-canonical compendia, treatises by scholar meditators such as Longchenpa (Klong chen pa, 1308–64), and revealed texts known as terma (gter ma), usually believed to have been concealed in the 8th century by the tantric master Padmasambhava.


Both the Nyingma and the Bonpo traditions of Dzogchen trace its origin to an ancient kingdom to the west of Tibet. For the Nyingma, this is Oḍḍiyana, which is usually identified with the Swat Valley in modern Pakistan. The traditional lineage for the transmission of Dzogchen originates with a figure called Garab Dorje, who has not been identified with a historical person. For the Bonpo, Dzogchen originated in the kingdom of Zhangzhung in western Tibet. On the other hand, recent historical research into the origins of Dzogchen has turned instead to the Buddhist traditions of tantric practice of northern India.2

The term “Dzogchen” itself (rdzogs chen or rdzogs pa chen po) can be traced back into Indian tantric literature, in particular a group of tantras classified as mahāyoga. The earliest datable appearance of the term being used in a similar way to the later Tibetan tradition is in the Guhyagarbha tantra. The Indian origins of this tantra were questioned in Tibet, but it is generally thought that this and other texts of a group known as the Māyājāla tantras were circulating in some form by the mid-8th century, and by the 770s, commentaries were being written on them.

The practices described in mahāyoga tantras such as the Guhyagarbha involve the visualization of Buddhist deities and their entourage in a maṇḍala. These practices have a twofold structure, the “development stage” (bskyed rim) and the “perfection stage” (rdzogs rim). The term “Dzogchen” seems to be used in these tantras in association with a specific ritual moment, the state of being at the climax of the yoga of the perfection stage. In this context, the term rdzogs chen was used to refer to the great (chen) culmination of the perfection (rdzogs) stage.

In the Guhyagarbha tantra, the meaning of Dzogchen is similar to what one finds in the later tradition: all enlightened qualities and activities—that is, the aims of the Buddhist practitioner—are perfected from the very beginning. The tantra also discusses the transcendence of concepts in a state beyond the reach of thought (bsam gyis mi khyab), and another phrase that frequently appears in the tantra, that everything is already accomplished (lhun kyis grub), is also characteristic of Dzogchen literature.

An early treatise on the practices based on these tantras, Rosary of Views on the Instructions (man ngag lta ba’i ‘phreng ba), attributed to the 8th-century tantric master Padmasambhava, confirms that Dzogchen was understood in this way, as the culmination of deity yoga, which was structured in the trio of development, perfection, and great perfection. However, this relatively limited role for Dzogchen was already changing by the 9th century.

Dunhuang Manuscripts

Dzogchen texts as such exist only in the Tibetan language. Early Dzogchen literature is available from two kinds of source: texts from semicanonical collections, available in manuscript and printed editions, and texts from manuscripts found in a sealed cave in Dunhuang, Central Asia.

The earliest surviving manuscripts containing Dzogchen texts were found in this cave, along with thousands of other manuscripts in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and other languages. The cave was sealed at the beginning of the 11th century, and the Tibetan manuscripts containing Dzogchen texts were probably written during the 9th and 10th centuries. The majority of the Tibetan manuscripts are now held at the British Library, London, and the Bibliothèque nationale de Paris.

The British Library manuscript IOL Tib J 647 contains a brief Dzogchen text called The Cuckoo of Awareness (Rig pa’i khu byug) and a commentary upon it.

  • The variety of things is non-dual in nature,
  • And each one is free from elaboration.
  • What we call “reality” is beyond concepts,
  • And yet it still appears—all is good.
  • Since you already have it, give up the sickness of effort,
  • And since it is already present, leave it as it is.3

These six lines, also known as “the six vajra verses,” are of great importance in the early Dzogchen tradition, featuring also among the canonical five early translations of Dzogchen texts and incorporated into the quasi-scriptural text The All-Creating King (see section Early Canonical Literature). These six lines state the basic themes of Dzogchen: non-duality, freedom from conceptual elaboration, and the pointlessness of attempting to reach the state of enlightenment when it is already present.

The Cuckoo of Awareness also references tantric Buddhist practice through a pun; the fourth line can be read as the names of two tantric deities, Vairocana and Samantabhadra. Furthermore, the commentary on the text in the manuscript IOL Tib J 647 specifically links the text to tantric Buddhist practice, by providing an interpretation of the practices of “union and liberation” (sbyor sgrol) according to the principle of non-duality and the conviction that enlightenment is already accomplished.

This role for Dzogchen, as a way of contextualizing the practices of the tantras, is also seen in the treatise attributed to Padmasambhava, and other texts from Dunhuang, which cannot easily be classified either as Dzogchen texts or as straightforward treatises on tantric practice, such as The Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva (Rdo rje sems dpa’i zhus lan) by Nyen Palyang (Gnyan dpal dbyangs, early 9th century). In these texts, Dzogchen is a “mode” (tshul) of tantric practice. This means, to put it simply, the state of mind in which one engages in the practice of deity yoga.4

Another Dunhuang manuscript, IOL Tib J 594, contains a text called The Little Grains of Buddhagupta (Sbas pa’i sgum chung) along with a commentary. The text is on the theme of the pointlessness of intellectual analysis or formal sitting meditation. Here there is no overt reference to tantric practices, and the context is clearly the Buddhism of the sūtras, especially the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras.

These Dunhuang manuscripts exemplify two divergent trends in early Dzogchen literature: first, texts that interpret and contextualize deity yoga practices from the perspective of non-duality, and second, poetic meditations on the enlightened state, dealing with practices only in terms of the general criticism of the idea that any formal practice could result in the state of enlightenment. In any case, in the larger context of the Dunhuang manuscript collections, these few Dzogchen texts are accompanied by many more texts on tantric meditation practice, as well as texts clearly intended for other forms of practice such as reciting prayers, sermons, and teaching.

This context allows us to understand how these Dzogchen texts with their radical reformulation or rejection of formal practice coexisted with the variety of Buddhist practices. Formal practice is not abandoned; instead it is informed by an understanding that there is no essential difference between an ordinary sentient being and a buddha, and that enlightenment is already present, and not to be brought into being by meditation. Among the new tantric traditions that flourished in Tibet from the 11th century onward, the tantric literary genre of “the great seal” (phyag rgya chen po, Skt. mahāmudrā) performed a similar function, describing the state of enlightened awareness that both precedes and arises out of the practice of deity yoga.

Early Canonical Literature

The majority of early Dzogchen texts are available in the Collected Tantras of the Nyingma (rnying ma’i rgyud ‘bum), which survive in several different manuscript and printed editions of Nyingma tantras. Another, overlapping collection of Dzogchen texts is the Collected Tantras of Vairocana (bai ro rgyud ‘bum).5 Among these, the texts that are traditionally held to have been the first to be introduced into Tibet are a group of eighteen, the “five earlier” and “thirteen later” translations. The five earlier translations are said to have been done by the Tibetan scholar Vairocana in the 8th century. The traditional histories also relate that, owing to intrigues at the Tibetan court, Vairocana was sent into exile in eastern Tibet; thus the next thirteen translations of Dzogchen texts were done by another Tibetan, Vimalamitra.

The five earlier translations include The Cuckoo of Awareness; this and three of the other texts in the group have an indefinite status as scriptures, sometimes being presented as sūtras, sometimes as tantras. Only one of the five, a treatise titled Gold Refined from Ore (Rdo la gser zhun), is attributed to an author, the Indian tantric scholar Mañjuśrīmitra. This text differs from the other seventeen in its more scholastic tone, its frequent explicit references to tantric practice, and its references to competing non-Buddhist schools of thought in India. It is also the only one of these texts that is attested in a source close to the time when it is meant to have been translated: an early 9th-century catalog of the holdings of the Denkar (ldan dkar) palace.6

Lists of the thirteen later translations are presented differently by different Tibetan authors, and in the various editions of the Collected Tantras of the Nyingma. Several were considered lost for centuries, until recent textual scholarship identified them under other names, or embedded in other texts. Like the five earlier translations (except Gold Refined from Ore), these texts have an indeterminate status; though they are not attributed to authors, they are also not directly presented as the speech of the buddha or another divine being, as Buddhist scriptures generally are.7

Another highly influential text associated with these eighteen is a much longer work called The Sūtra of the All-Creating King (Kun byed rgyal po’i mdo). Though it is considered to be the primary tantra of the mind series of Dzogchen, it appears to be a compilation of already-existing texts including the five earlier translations, presenting them as the speech of a buddha and thereby giving them full scriptural status.8

The dating of this early literature, preserved only in much later editions of semicanonical collections, remains elusive. A terminus ad quem is provided by a treatise written in the early 10th century, the Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation (Bsam gtan mig sgron) by Nub Sangye Yeshe. This text was written to show the distinctions between four different approaches to the Buddhist path: (i) the gradual approach based on the sūtras, (ii) the instantaneous approach of Chan, (iii) the practices of the mahāyoga tantras, and (iv) the approach of Dzogchen. In each section the author quotes numerous texts, and the Dzogchen section contains quotes from many of the eighteen translations (though not from The All-Creating King).9

Thus it remains a matter of debate whether there were Dzogchen texts in circulation during the initial phase of Buddhist translation in Tibet, and indeed whether they are really translations from Indic or other sources, or original Tibetan compositions. It is notable that the one text that is attested in the early period, Gold Refined from Ore, is different in several ways from the others. The available evidence points to the conclusions that the discourse of Dzogchen is present in certain tantras and their commentarial literature circulating in the 8th century, and that brief poetic texts based on these may have been written in Sanskrit or other Indic languages.

The eighteen translations and The All-Creating King comprise only a fraction of the Dzogchen texts in the Collected Tantras of the Nyingma: around 370 texts in most editions. There are many other texts categorized as mind series or texts in the space and instruction series categories, as well as two other, rarely discussed, categories of “peak essence” (spyi ti) and “utter essence” (yang ti) However, the great majority of these, which are not quoted in the Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation, probably date from the 11th century onward.10

Apparent similarities between early Dzogchen and the Chan literature written in China during the same period has evoked comment and comparison ever since the Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation. While that work found a place in the Buddhist path for both Dzogchen and Chan, the later Tibetan tradition tended to reject Chan entirely as a false path, justifying this position through a story set in the Tibetan imperial period of a debate between a Chinese Chan monk and an Indian Buddhist scholar, in which Chan was defeated and rejected. Tibetan polemical critiques of Dzogchen, mainly from the Gelug school, have attempted to associate Dzogchen with a meditation that involves the suppression of all mental activity, which is how Chan meditation was presented in the Tibetan polemical accounts.

There have also been attempts in modern academic writing to link Dzogchen historically with Chan, but such links remain difficult to substantiate. Most similarities in the language of Dzogchen and Chan are likely to be due to their being based on similar scriptural sources, such as the Laṅkāvatāra sūtra, and the adoption of the language of these sūtras in the tantric sources for Dzogchen. On the other hand, it is clear from the Dunhuang manuscripts that Chan meditation practices were combined with the deity yoga of the mahāyoga tantras. In this way, they occupied the same role as early Dzogchen. However, the popularity of Chan practices began to decline in Tibet during the 11th century, and they had all but disappeared by the 14th century.11

The Vehicle of Atiyoga

In the 11th and 12th centuries there was a great increase in translation activity in Tibet, and the transmission of these new texts and practices stimulated the development of new schools, which came to be known as the “new schools” (gsar ma). This was in contrast to the lineages of texts and practices that were considered to derive from the first major period of transmission of Buddhism to Tibet, known as the “old ones,” or Nyingma. Despite this appellation, Nyingma lineages did in fact involve many new developments.

Nyingma scholars such as Rongzom Chokyi Zangpo (Rong zom chos kyi bzang po, 1012–1088) wrote new interpretations of the texts of their tradition, while others, such as Nyangral Nyima Ozer (Nyang ral nyi ma ’od zer, 1124–1192), wrote histories of the early period of transmission of Buddhism to Tibet. Most significant was the activity of terton (gter ston) or “treasure revealers,” who presented new collections of texts said to have been concealed in the 8th century and rediscovered in rocks, pillars, or other hiding places.12

Drawing on earlier systems of classification, Nyingma authors of this period developed a classification of the Buddha’s teachings into nine vehicles, comprising the non-tantric vehicles of hearers, solitary buddhas, and bodhisattvas; the lower tantric vehicles of kriyā, ubhaya, and yoga; and the higher tantric vehicles of mahāyoga, anuyoga, and atiyoga. With atiyoga being a synonym for Dzogchen, this system definitively placed these teachings at the top of the hierarchy of Buddhist practice.13

The question whether atiyoga should be considered a vehicle in itself was disputed by some Tibetans, including Sakya Paṇḍita (Sa skya paṇḍita, 1182–1251), one of the most eminent scholars of the 13th century. At this point, atiyoga was well established as a scriptural category in the Nyingma school, yet Sakya Paṇḍita considered this an inauthentic innovation, arguing that “the view of Atiyoga is wisdom, not a vehicle.” This continued to be the view in the Sakya school, though since the 19th century at least, Dzogchen has been practiced to a limited extent in this school.14

The term “atiyoga” does appear in Indian tantras, perhaps the earliest of which is the Sarvabuddhasamāyoga (8th century). Much like “Dzogchen,” the term is used to refer to a way of practicing deity yoga. It was only in Tibet that the term came to signify a specific class of practices, and then a vehicle. However, the use of the term “vehicle” in the Nyingma system seems to be looser than in its Indian antecedents, where the vehicles of hearers (Skt. śrāvaka), solitary buddhas (Skt. pratyekabuddha), and bodhisattvas were treated as self-contained paths. On the other hand, there is no evidence that any of the six tantric vehicles out of the Nyingma nine vehicles were ever intended or practiced in isolation from the others.

In any case, the increasing acceptance in the Nyingma traditions of atiyoga as a distinct vehicle allowed for the development of a new scriptural literature of atiyoga. This occurred through the repurposing of the early literature of Dzogchen as sūtras or tantras, and through the appearance of new Dzogchen tantras through revelation. The practice of presenting new texts as terma (gter ma), “hidden treasures,” began in Tibet in the 11th century, though it has precedents in the Indic Buddhist tradition.

Early terma were presented as works written or translated by famous figures from Tibet’s past, such as the 8th-century translator Vimalamitra; later, almost all terma, particularly from the 14th century onward, were attributed to a single figure, Padmasambhava, in the 8th and early 9th centuries. While some terma may have included material that had been concealed and rediscovered, in general these were visionary revelations, and their acceptance depended on the reputation of the treasure revealer. For the Nyingma and Bonpo schools, treasure revelation was a means by which the tradition could evolve, while still retaining its connection to the first period of transmission of Buddhism to Tibet.15

Bonpo Dzogchen

This period also saw the emergence of the Bonpo tradition of practice in Tibet (distinct from the Tibetan non-Buddhist rituals sometimes also referred to as “Bon,” although incorporating some of them). This tradition took literary form through the means of terma revelation, and the collections attributed to the earliest treasure revealer, Shenchen Luga (Gshen chen klu dga’, 996–1035), include Dzogchen texts. Later in the 11th century, other treasure revealers expanded the scope of Bonpo literature, resulting in three distinct lineages of practice with close similarities to Buddhist Dzogchen: the meditation instructions on a (a khrid), the aural lineage of Zhangzhung (zhang zhung snyan rgyud), and a Bonpo lineage that also bears the name Dzogchen.16

Close textual study of individual works among these Bonpo texts has shown that some are clearly based on earlier Buddhist Dzogchen texts, while others are quite different in approach. Among the latter is the Authenticity of Awareness (rig pa’i tshad ma), an influential work in which the methods of logical analysis (tshad ma, Skt. pramāṇa) are applied to the nonconceptual awareness of Dzogchen. This text remains part of the curriculum of study for the Paṇḍita qualification in the Bonpo school.17

In the 13th century, Drugom Yungdrung (Bru sgom rgyal ba g.yung drung, 1242–1290) composed works in the tradition of the “aural lineage of Zhangzhung,” including Advice on the Six Lamps, teaching practices that are very similar to those of the leap-over practices of Buddhist Dzogchen. In the early 20th century, Bonpo Dzogchen was revitalized by Shardza Tashi Gyeltsen (Shar rdza bkra shis rgyal mtshan, 1859–1934), whose writings are now standard reference works for the tradition.18

The Instruction Series

The instruction series built a complex system upon the basis of earlier Dzogchen literature, partly through the adaptation of material from Indic sūtra and tantra sources, and in part through distinctive doctrines and practices of its own. By this stage, the Great Perfection had developed beyond its role as an interpretative approach to deity yoga (although it did not lose that role) and had developed a philosophical approach and meditation techniques of its own.

The philosophical vocabulary of instruction series Dzogchen is clearly based on previous Buddhist literature, yet turned to a new purpose. Among the many words used in the instruction series to denote the state of enlightenment, two are particularly significant: “awareness” (rig pa) and “the ground” (gzhi). Awareness, in this special sense, refers to the mind in the state of enlightenment, which does not distinguish between subject and object, self and other, and is free from all other kinds of conceptual elaboration. Awareness became increasingly distinguished from mind (sems), which refers to our ordinary state of consciousness, defined by subject and object and other conceptual constructions. In this sense, Dzogchen practice in the instruction series is aimed at being able to distinguish awareness from mind.

The ground has three aspects: essence (ngo bo), nature (rang bzhin), and compassion (thugs rje). The essence of the ground is defined as ever pure (ka dag), a concept that is closely related to the emptiness in the Prajñāpāramitā literature and the writings of Madhyamaka scholars. The ground’s second aspect, its nature, is defined as spontaneous accomplishment (lhun grub), a term already in use in early Dzogchen texts and their tantric antecedants. The ground’s nature is its experiential presence, often described as luminosity (’od gsal or gsal ba). Compassion, the third aspect of the ground, signifies more in this context than its literal meaning; it is the dynamic energy that is the manifestation of the ground. These three aspects of the ground are clearly based to some extent on the three bodies (Skt. kāya) of a buddha.

Whether one experiences reality as saṃsāra or nirvāṇa depends on what happens during dynamic manifestation of the ground. This manifestation is basic experience (shes pa). This experience becomes delusion when it does not recognize its own nature, and instead operates according to the false duality of self and other. This fall into delusion is sometimes called “experience moving away from the ground” (shes pa gzhi las g.yo ba). Nevertheless, non-dualistic awareness (rig pa) always remains present, and the catalyst that switches the practitioner’s mode of being from delusion to realization is the recognition of this awareness (rig pa’i ngo sprod), which may be more simply called self-recognition (rang ngo sprod).19

The practices taught to actualize this state of self-recognition in the instruction series are twofold, “breakthrough” (khregs chod) and “leap-over” (thod rgal). Instructions on breakthrough practice, which has much in common with other Dzogchen literature, tell the practitioner to renounce the idea of meditation as causing the state of enlightenment, and in meditation to avoid straining to attain a state of enlightened awareness. A simple practice of sitting with one’s eyes open and remaining in the present moment of awareness is taught. In leap-over, a more complex series of practices is involved, with special postures, breathing practices, and gazing at the sky or into darkness. These allow for the spontaneous emergence of luminous visions. While these practices are clearly similar to those of the perfection stage of later tantric literature, especially the Kālacakra tantra, they are distinguished in Dzogchen treatises by the fact that they are to be practiced without effort.20

The Seminal Heart

The popularity of the instruction series owes much to a corpus of literature known as the Seminal Heart (snying thig). Although the term suggests an essential and condensed teaching, in fact the most elaborate discussions of the Great Perfection occur in Seminal Heart texts. Some doxographies identify the Seminal Heart with the instruction series, some place it at the pinnacle of various subdivisions of the instruction series, and some place it outside all the three series, as the very essence of them all.

The earliest known Seminal Heart texts are the collection of tantras known as The Seventeen Tantras (rgyud bcu bdun) and a collection of miscellaneous texts attributed to six Indian figures, named Bima Nyingtig (bi ma snying thig) after one of those figures, Vimalamitra. Both collections were circulating in Tibet from around the mid-11th century onward. The Indian masters, who also figure in other Great Perfection lineages, are Garab Dorje (Dga’ rab rdo rje), Mañjuśrımitra, Śrī Siṃha, Jñānasūtra, Vimalamitra, and Padmasambhava. Several of these are also authors of mahāyoga treatises that were translated in the 8th and early 9th centuries and included in Tibetan canonical collections of Indian-authored treatises and commentaries, the Tengyur (bstan ’gyur). Garab Dorje and Śrī Siṃha are not attested elsewhere, but their names may be compared with the authors of influential commentaries on the Guhyagarbha tantra, Vilāsavajra (Sgeg pa’i rdo rje) and Sūryaprabhāsasiṃha.

The key figure in the establishment of the Seminal Heart, and indeed of Dzogchen in general, as a coherent system of philosophy and practice was Longchen Rabjampa (Klong chen rab byams pa, 1308–1364. Longchenpa, as he is usually called, produced a monumental work, the Fourfold Seminal Heart, incorporating the Bima Nyintig, a new terma collection called Khandro Nyingtig (mkha’ ‘gro snying tig), and his own compositions: works based on the former collected under the title Lama Yangtig (bla ma yang tig) and works based on the latter collected under the title Khandro Yangtig (mkha’ ‘gro yang tig). The endurance of this cycle ensured that the great variety of meditation practices and doctrines contained in the Seminal Heart rubric would not be lost.

Longchenpa wrote many other texts, the most famous of which are known as his “seven treasuries.” Among these, two lengthy prose works, the Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle (theg mchog mdzod) and the Treasury of Topics (tshig don mdzod), created a coherent system for the miscellaneous and heterogeneous doctrines and practices contained in the Seminal Heart collections. These materials are established as the supreme method of Buddhist practice, not only for the Nyingma, but for all of the Tibetan schools. The Seminal Heart is also given full Buddhist legitimacy by relating it to the Indic Buddhist tradition (especially the philosophical works of the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra) and to the interpretations of the tantras found in the new schools, thus giving the Great Perfection an acceptable place in the Tibetan Buddhist milieu of the 14th century.21

Terma Collections

Though Longchenpa’s works are justly famous for their synthesis of the various practice traditions of Dzogchen, and for their elegant, poetic style, they offer only a partial picture of the context in which Dzogchen was practiced. By the 14th century, terma collections had evolved into compendia of texts for all aspects of the practice of the Buddhist path. The Embodiment of the Guru’s Realization (bla ma dgongs ‘dus), revealed by Sangye Lingpa (Sangs rgyas gling pa, 1340–1396), is one of the largest and most influential of these compendia. Here we see Dzogchen (generally in the Seminal Heart category) texts alongside practice texts such as introductory tantric practices (sngon ‘gro), deity yoga, and a host of manuals for ritual practices such as the making of torma (gtor ma) or effigies and the transmission of texts from master to student (po ti’i lung). In general, here, as in subsequent terma collections, Dzogchen was presented as part of a graduated path, in the ethical framework of Mahāyāna Buddhism, practiced in the context of tantric deity yoga and other ritual practices.

Over the following centuries, compendia of terma texts like these continued to be the way that new Dzogchen texts came into circulation, and Dzogchen was practiced in the context of graduated paths set out in these compendia. Other terma collections containing Dzogchen texts and practices include the Northern Treasures (byang gter) of Godem Ngodrup Gyaltsen (Rgod ldem dngos grub rgyal mtshan, 1337–1408), the Union of the Three Jewels (kon mchog spyi ‘dus) by Jatson Nyingpo (“Ja” tshon snying po, 1595–1656), and the Seminal Heart of the Vast Expanse (klong chen snying thig) by Jigme Lingpa (’Jigs med gling pa, 1730–1799). These collections continue to serve as the source of practice traditions through to the present day. The Union of the Three Jewels has, since its appearance, been practiced within the Kagyu school as well as the Nyingma.

The Seminal Heart of the Vast Expanse is the most popular of these collections, and none of the terma collections from the following centuries have eclipsed this popularity. This collection evokes the influence of Longchenpa in its very name, as well as in the visions that Jigme Lingpa linked to its revelation. However, the heterogeneous contents of the collection have more in common with the Embodiment of the Guru’s Realization, which was the source of many of Jigme Lingpa’s own meditation practices. Thus though the sources of the practice of Dzogchen have evolved over the centuries, they continue to follow a model that was in place by the 14th century.

Dzogchen was also incorporated into Tibetan funerary traditions, including the Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo (bar do thos grol) by Karma Lingpa (Karma gling pa, 14th century), better known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Funerary practices in which the spirit of the dead person is guided on the journey to the afterlife existed in pre-Buddhist Tibetan practices. Buddhist versions of these funerary rituals were in circulation circulating from at least the 10th century, and from the 11th century onward there was a strong influence from Dzogchen, and the Seminal Heart in particular, on these rituals.22

From at least the 14th century, Dzogchen has been practiced alongside the similar contemplative tradition of Mahāmudrā, which is mainly transmitted through the lineages of the Kagyu schools. The 14th-century terma collection Embodiment of the Guru’s Realization contains both genres of text. Equally, Dzogchen has also been an important part of the Kagyu schools, usually through Nyingma teachers of Kagyu students; for example, the Union of the Three Jewels is practiced in the Karma Kagyu school because Jatson Nyingpo was a teacher of Karmapa Choying Dorje (Karma pa chos dbyings rdo rje, 1610–1674). Also in the 17th century, Karma Chagme (Karma chags med, 1613–1678) merged Dzogchen with Mahāmudra in his works.23 Though they remain distinct genres, internally Dzogchen and Mahāmudrā texts show some mutual influence.

The Modern Period

In Tibet before the mid-20th century, Dzogchen was not taught to large groups; instead, instructions were given by teachers to students in small sessions. As with other tantric practices, the students do not read the texts or put them into practice before receiving the reading transmission (lung) and, in the case of leap-over practices of the Seminal Heart, an initiation ritual. Dzogchen was taught and practiced in monasteries, especially after the establishment of large Nyingma monasteries in the 17th and 18th centuries. Yet it has been equally if not more often practiced outside the monastic context, among lay practitioners living as ordinary householders or in meditation communities. As with all tantric practices, meditators usually have a daily meditation practice and may also engage in meditation retreats for a fixed amount of time, sometimes as long as three years.24

In the mid-20th century, many Nyingma and Bonpo lamas left Tibet and settled elsewhere. This led to the introduction of Dzogchen, as part of the complex of Tibetan Buddhist practices, to the West. Most Tibetan lamas taught Dzogchen practices in a relatively traditional way, as part of a wider Buddhist path. An exception was Namkhai Norbu (Nam mkha’i nor bu, b. 1938), who was educated in Tibet in the Nyingma and Sakya traditions and moved to Italy in 1962 to take up a position at the University of Naples. Here he taught students and published influential works on Dzogchen for a general audience. In his writings, Norbu emphasizes that Dzogchen is found in both Buddhist and Bon traditions but is not defined by either.

Perhaps partially as a result of the success of Namkhai Norbu’s books and the Dzogchen communities he established, the idea of Dzogchen as something that may be distinguished from other aspects of the Buddhist path and practiced without reference to them has entered popular culture. This may be compared to the Western appropriation of Japanese Zen Buddhism in the 20th century, though Dzogchen has not yet achieved the same level of penetration into popular culture. On the other hand, Tibetan Buddhist teachers, especially those from a Nyingma and Kagyu school background, continue to incorporate instruction in Dzogchen in a graduated path of practice. In Tibet, Dzogchen has continued to be taught and practiced by Nyingma teachers who chose to stay, the most influential of whom has been Jigme Puntsog (’Jigs med phun tshogs, 1933–2004), who established the Larung Gar (Bla rung sgar) Buddhist community in Sichuan. This community has been hugely successful, comprising an estimated forty thousand monks, nuns, and laypeople as of 2015.25

Review of the Literature

The study of Dzogchen outside the traditional Tibetan context is still relatively young. The key figure in the early stages of this study is Herbert Guenther (1917–2006), who published many translations and studies of Dzogchen literature from the 1970s to the early 2000s. However, Guenther’s translations and discussions of this material were strongly influenced by his belief that it could be assimilated into the Western philosophical tradition, and a different, historicist path has been taken by the next generation of scholars.

Two Tibetan scholars who studied in Europe produced groundbreaking work on Dzogchen literature, in quite different ways. In books for a general audience, Namkhai Norbu has published translations and discussions of Dzogchen texts, and from the 1980 onward has written about his firsthand experience of Dzogchen practitioners in Tibet. His works have sometimes synthesized the Nyingma and Bonpo Dzogchen traditions, and he also writes on Tibetan ritual practices, including Tibetan medicine, and astrology. Primarily a religious teacher, rather than an academic, Norbu is highly respected but remains on the margins of academic discourse.

Samten Karmay (b. 1936) has published extensively in English on Tibetan history, ritual, and religious practice. His book The Great Perfection, published in 1988, was the first major text-historical study of Dzogchen, dealing with its origins and early history, its later developments, and criticism within Tibet, including comparisons with Chan. Coming from a Bonpo background, Karmay compared Buddhist and Bonpo traditions of Dzogchen, showing where the traditions had borrowed from each other. Thus Karmay’s interests overlap considerably with Norbu’s, but his approach has situated him at the center of academic discourse on Dzogchen.

Several scholars have followed the historicist approach established by Karmay, most significantly David Germano, who has written a series of influential articles on Dzogchen, especially Longchenpa and the Seminal Heart tradition. The complex philosophical Dzogchen of Longchenpa has also been the subject of several articles and monographs by Jean-Luc Achard, whose work has moved from Buddhist to Bonpo Dzogchen. Further work on the origins and early development of Dzogchen has been published by Sam van Schaik, based mainly on the Dunhuang manuscript sources, and by Karen Liljenberg, based on the early canonical sources. The 10th-century syncretic treatise Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation, one of the key sources for early Dzogchen, also continues to generate new research (see Further Reading).

A number of Tibetan religious teachers and their students have published translations and discussions of Dzogchen literature and history, some of which are valuable resources. Notable Tibetan authors include Tulku Thondup, who has published translation anthologies, traditional histories, and a useful traditional account of the terma tradition. Some of the key early texts of Dzogchen have been reliably translated into English by John Myrdhin Reyonds, while Richard Barron’s ongoing project of translating the works of Longchenpa into English is providing high-quality renditions of these key texts. In addition, Karen Liljenberg has published translations of key texts of early Dzogchen on her website (see Links to Digital Materials).

Primary Sources

Dunhuang manuscripts containing early Dzogchen texts are held at the British Library, London (BL), and the Bibliothèque nationale de Paris (BnF). The key manuscripts are The Cuckoo of Awareness,26 The Little Grains of Buddhagupta,27 and The Questions and Answers of Vajrasattva.28 Digital images of all are available at the website of the International Dunhuang Project (see Links to Digital Materials).

Dzogchen texts are found in the canonical collections Collected Tantras of the Nyingma (rnying ma’i rgyud ‘bum) and Collected Tantras of Vairocana (bai ro’i rgyud ‘bum). There are several editions of the Collected Tantras of the Nyingma available. See for example Collected Tantras of the Ancients of the Tshamdrak Monastery.29 For the Collected Tantras of Vairocana see The Rgyud ‘bum of Vairocana.30 Scans are available from the website of the Tibetan and Himayalan Digital Library (see Links to Digital Materials).

For the works of Longchenpa and other authors and treasure revealers, the best source for bibliographical information and scans is the website of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Centre (see Links to Digital Materials).

Further Reading

Dudjom Rinpoche. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Translated by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein. Boston: Wisdom, 2005. First published in 1991.Find this resource:

Esler, Dylan. “The Exposition of Atiyoga in gNubs-chen Sangs-rgyas ye-shes’ bSam-gtan mig-sgron.” Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines 24.4 (2012): 81–136.Find this resource:

Germano, David. “Architecture and Absence in the Secret Tantric History of the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen).” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 17.2 (1994): 203–335.Find this resource:

Germano, David. “The Funerary Transformation of the Great Perfection (Rdzogs chen).” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 1 (2005): 1–54.Find this resource:

Hatchell, Christopher. Naked Seeing: The Great Perfection, the Wheel of Time, and Visionary Buddhism in Renaissance Tibet. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Karmay, S.The Great Perfection. 2d ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007. First published in 1988.Find this resource:

Liljenberg, Karen. “On the History and Identification of Two of the Thirteen Later Translation of the Dzogchen Mind Series.” Revue d’études tibétaines 17 (2009): 137–156.Find this resource:

Longchen Rabjampa. Precious Treasury of the Way of Abiding. Translated by Richard Barron. Junction City, CA: Padma Publishing, 1998.Find this resource:

Longchen Rabjampa. The Practice of Dzogchen: Longchen Rabjam’s Writings on the Great Perfection. Translated by Harold Talbott and Tulku Thondup. 2d ed. Boston: Snow Lion, 2014. First published in 1989.Find this resource:

Namkhai Norbu. The Crystal and the Way of Light: Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen. 2d ed. Boston: Snow Lion, 2000.Find this resource:

Pettit, John. Mipham’s Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzochen, the Great Perfection. Boston: Wisdom, 1999.Find this resource:

Rossi, Donatella. The Philosophical View of the Great Perfection in the Tibetan Bon Religion. Boston: Snow Lion, 2000.Find this resource:

van Schaik, Sam. Approaching the Great Perfection: Simultaneous and Gradual Approaches to Dzogchen Practice in Jigme Lingpa’s Longchen Nyingtig. Boston: Wisdom, 2004.Find this resource:

van Schaik, Sam. “The Early Days of the Great Perfection.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 27.1 (2004): 165–206.Find this resource:


(1.) Jigme Lingpa, Aspirational Prayer for the Ground, Path and Result, trans. Sam van Schaik, Approaching the Great Perfection: Simultaneous and Gradual Approaches to Dzogchen Practice in Jigme Lingpa’s Longchen Nyingtig (Boston: Wisdom, 2004), 168.

(2.) See Samten Karmay, The Great Perfection (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007), 137–144; and David Germano, “Architecture and Absence in the Secret Tantric History of the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen),” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 17.2 (1994): 209–219.

(3.) Translation by the author from IOL Tib J 647, British Library, London (BL), fol. 1r.

(4.) Sam van Schaik, “The Early Days of the Great Perfection,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 27.1 (2004): 171–175; for a translation of the The Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva see Jacob Dalton, “The Questions and Answers of Vajrasattva,” in Yoga in Practice, ed. David White (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 185–203.

(5.) On the Collected Tantras of the Nyingma see Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer, The Kīlaya Nirvāṇa Tantra and the Vajra Wrath Tantra: Two Texts from the Ancient Tantra Collection (Vienna:. Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2006), 1–19. On the Collected Tantras of Vairocana, see Matthew Kapstein, “The Sun of the Heart and the Bai-ro-rgyud-'bum.” Revue d’études tibetaines 15 (2008): 275–288.

(6.) On Gold Refined from Ore and its references to tantric practice, and probably antiquity, see Sam van Schaik, “Dzogchen, Chan and the Question of Influence,” Revue d’études tibetaines 24 (2012): 15.

(7.) Karen Liljenberg, “A Critical Study of the Thirteen Later Translations of the Dzogchen Mind Series” (PhD diss., SOAS, University of London, 2012).

(8.) For a translation of the Sūtra of the All-Creating King, see Namkai Norbu and Adriana Clemente, trans., The Supreme Source (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1999).

(9.) See Dylan Esler, “The Exposition of Atiyoga in gNubs-chen Sangs-rgyas ye-shes’ bSam-gtan mig-sgron,” Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines 24.4 (2012): 81–136.

(10.) See David Germano, “The Funerary Transformation of the Great Perfection (Rdzogs chen),” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 1 (2005): 1–54.

(11.) van Schaik, “Dzogchen, Chan and the Question of Influence,” 5–20.

(12.) On the activities of early treasure revealers and their role in the development of Dzogchen, see Ronald Davidson, Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 210–243.

(13.) On Nyingma lineages in the 11th and 12th centuries, and the development of the nine vehicle system, see Jacob Dalton, The Gathering of Intentions: A History of Tibetan Tantra (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 30–47.

(14.) Sa skya paṇḍita, Sdom pa gsum gyi rab tu dbye ba, in Sa skya bka’ ‘bum (Dehradun, India: Sakya Centre, 1992–1993), 12:61.

(15.) For an insightful discussion of the nature of terma, see Robert Mayer, “gTer ston and Tradent: Innovation and Conservation in Tibetan Treasure Literature,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 36/37 (2015): 227–242.

(16.) See Donatella Rossi, The Philosophical View of the Great Perfection in the Tibetan Bon Religion (Boston: Snow Lion, 2000).

(17.) This text is discussed and translated in Anne Klein and Tenzin Wangyal, Unbounded Wholeness: Dzogchen, Bon and the Logic of the Nonconceptual (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

(18.) See Jean-Luc Achard, Enlightened Rainbows: The Life and Works of Shardza Tashi Gyeltsen (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008).

(19.) Key concepts of the instruction series are discussed in van Schaik, Approaching the Great Perfection, 51–62; see also Jean-Luc Achard, “La Base et ses sept interprétations dans la tradition rDzogs chen,” Revue d’études tibetaines 1 (2002): 44–60.

(20.) On the links between Dzogchen and the Kālacakra tantra, see Christopher Hatchell, Naked Seeing: The Great Perfection, the Wheel of Time, and Visionary Buddhism in Renaissance Tibet (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). See also Germano, “Architecture and Absence,” 267–291.

(21.) A good anthology of Longchenpa’s works is Longchen Rabjampa, The Practice of Dzogchen: Longchen Rabjam’s Writings on the Great Perfection, trans. Harold Talbott and Tulku Thondup (Boston: Snow Lion, 2014). For a biography see Jampa MacKenzie Stewart, The Life of Longchenpa: The Omniscient Dharma King of the Vast Expanse (Boston: Shambhala, 2014).

(22.) On the Tibetan Book of the Dead and related traditions in Tibet, see Bryan Cuevas, The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

(23.) See for example Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, The Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, trans. Erik Pema (Kunzang, Kathmandu: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1989).

(24.) On meditation communities, with specific reference to Longchenpa’s community, see David Germano and Janet Gyatso, “Longchenpa and the Possession of the Ḍākinīs,” in Tantra in Practice, ed. David White (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 241–265.

(25.) On the teaching and treasure-revealing activities of Jigme Puntsog, see David Germano, “Re-membering the Dismembered Body of Tibet: Contemporary Tibetan Visionary Movements in the People’s Republic of China,” in Defining Buddhism(s): A Reader, ed. Karen Dennis and Natalie Gummer (Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2007), 176–213. On the community at Larung Gar, see Alan Taylor, “The Spectacular Seda Monastery,” The Atlantic, May 21, 2015.

(26.) The Cuckoo of Awareness, IOL Tib J 647.

(27.) The Little Grains of Buddhagupta, IOL Tib J 594, BL.

(28.) The Questions and Answers of Vajrasattva, IOL Tib J 470, BL; Pelliot tibétain 819, Bibliothèque nationale de Paris.

(29.) Collected Tantras of the Ancients of the Tshamdrak Monastery (Thimphu, Bhutan: National Library, Royal Government of Bhutan, 1982).

(30.) The Rgyud ‘bum of Vairocana (Leh, Ladakh: S. W. Tashigangpa Smanrtsis Shesrig Spendzod, 1971).