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Dzogchen or Dzogpachenpo (T. rdzogs pa chen po རྫོགས་པ་ཆེན་པོ་; Skt. Mahāsandhi [alt. Mahāpūrṇa]) is a practice lineage within Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan Bön tradition that emphasizes directly recognizing the true nature of the mind. Dzogchen (literally "Great Perfection") is a central teaching of the Nyingma school, where it is "considered the highest and most definitive path to enlightenment (bodhi)."[1]

Cortland Dahl states:

Though the term “Great Perfection” can be used to refer to the fundamental nature of reality as well as the state of buddhahood, it most commonly refers to a continually evolving set of spiritual instructions and the lineage of enlightened beings who have mastered these teachings and passed them down through the ages. This radically direct approach points out the mind’s fundamental nature of luminous purity. According to its teachings, enlightenment is not a distant goal to strive toward, but an immanent reality that must be recognized in the present moment. Effort and agendas only serve to obscure the true nature of mind. Once this nature has been recognized, however, problems and negativity automatically dissolve, leaving the open space of pure awareness, in which the qualities of enlightenment spontaneously unfold.[2]

Within the Nyingma tradition, Dzogchen is also known as the "utmost yoga" (atiyoga). Dzogchen is also practiced within other schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Etymology of "Dzogchen"

The term dzogchen is composed of two terms:

  • rdzogs – perfection, completion
  • chen – great

Hence, Dzogchen is commonly translated as the ‘Great Perfection’ or ‘Great Completeness’.

Dzogchen refers to both the practice of Dzogchen and the body of teachings related to this practice. John Pettit states:

"Great Perfection" variously indicates
  • the texts (āgama, lung) and oral instructions (upadeśa, man ngag) that indicate the nature of enlightened wisdom (rdzogs chen gyi gzhung dang man ngag),
  • the verbal conventions of those texts (rdzogs chen gyi chos skad),
  • the yogis who meditate according to those texts and instructions (rdzogs chen gyi rnal 'byor pa),
  • a famous monastery where the Great Perfection was practiced by monks and yogis (rdzogs chen dgon sde), and
  • the philosophical system (siddhānta, grub mtha') or vision (darśana, lta ba) of the Great Perfection.[3]

Dzogchen practice

Peter Harvey states:

Dzogchen is based on the notion of the Tathgata-garbha within all, seen as pure awareness (rig pa) – which is different from the content-laden and reactive ordinary mind (Skt. citta). Rig pa is regarded as thusness empty of constructing ‘objects’, motionless (Norbu, 2000: 32–3, 89–93; Samuel, 1993: 534–5). The aim is to directly see that:
The empty essence of the mind is the Dharma-body, the radiant clear nature of the mind is the Enjoyment-body and the unimpeded universal compassion of the mind is the Transformation-body.[4]
Dzogchen includes the possibility of recognizing rig pa...from the start of practice, with the aid of a guiding Lama. The practitioner then rests in and cultivates rig pa.
If this initial recognition – the way of ‘uncommon’ Dzogchen – is not attained, then initial śamatha is needed, to aid it – the ‘common’ Dzogchen approach, which is very similar to Mahamudra (Kongtrul, 2002: 137–8, 141–6). The ‘common’ form of Dzogchen uses tantric preparations, while the ‘uncommon’ one is not really tantric at all, being seen as beyond the tantric approach of ‘transformation’ of defilements, and even beyond Mahamudra practice. [The uncommon form of Dzogchen] is seen by its adepts as a wholly self-sufficient path which is a ‘spontaneously perfect’ way encompassing all the previous ‘vehicles’. Either form is seen as leading to a sudden realization of one’s primordial perfection and wisdom.[5]

Ian Baker states:

The ‘Great Perfection’ (rdzogs chen) teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Ati, or ‘utmost’, Yoga (shin tu rnal ’byor, gdod ma’i rnal ’byor) elucidate the innate ‘self-liberating’ disposition of human consciousness. Described as both the essence and culmination of the Vajrayāna Buddhist path to ‘pure and total presence’ (byang chub kyi sems), Dzogchen frees consciousness from vestigial discontent through sustained and unmediated insight into the non-dual (gnyis med) nature of primordial awareness (rig pa). As explicated in the ‘Six Vajra Verses’ (Rig pa'i khu byug), one of Dzogchen’s earliest known literary sources:
Recognising that everything is self-perfected from the very beginning and beyond the constraints of conceptualising mind, the malady of striving is spontaneously relinquished. One remains immaculately at ease in innate perfection.
Similarly, Padmasambhava, the eighth-century figure most commonly identified as having established the Dzogchen teachings in Tibet, is said to have proclaimed that:
In its true state, the mind is naked, immaculate, clear, without duality, transparent, empty, timeless, uncreated, unimpeded; not realisable as a separate entity, but as the unity of all things. . . . To know whether or not this is true, look into the nature of your own mind.[6]

Dzogchen-related yogic exercises

Ian Baker states:

Although, as a lived experience, Dzogchen requires no modification of psychophysiological processes—only vivid insight into their essence—it nonetheless relies, in practice, on yogic exercises that push the body, and thereby consciousness, to their physical and psychological limits. These range from physically demanding ‘preliminary practices’ (sngon ’gro) to supportive qigong and hatḥayoga-related exercises (rtsa rlung 'khrul 'khor)[7] that balance and amplify somatic processes prior to undertaking Dzogchen’s more widely known and transmitted contemplative techniques of ‘cutting through’ (khregs chod) and ‘leaping over’ (thod rgal), the latter involving precise body postures, breathing techniques, and methods of gazing. Auxiliary Dzogchen practices involve condensed renditions of the so-called Six Yogas, geared towards recognising the Natural State (gnas lugs) at all stages of waking, dreaming, sleeping, and posited post-mortem states of consciousness. In all aspects of Dzogchen practice, the body is cultivated and its natural processes enhanced and ultimately transcended, in order to facilitate effortless abiding in the self-liberated radiance of intrinsic awareness, equated in Dzogchen to the ‘Buddha Nature’ (bde bar gshegs pa’i snying po, Skt: sugatagarbha) held to be latent within all beings. As stated in the Secret Nucleus,
‘The Perfect Buddha is not found in any of the ten directions or four times. Other than the perfect Buddha which is mind-as-such, do not seek the Buddha elsewhere.’
As Dzogchen treatises repeatedly point out, the human body is an essential vehicle for the realisation of the radiant and selfless expanse of enlightened awareness obscured by habitual subject-object mentation.[8][9]

Three classes of Dzogchen teachings

The teachings of the Dzogchen tradition are are traditionally divided into three categories (referred to as classes, cycles, series, etc.).[10]

John Pettit states:

The Great Perfection is primarily a tradition of meditation practice. But like the tantric systems of lower vehicles, Great Perfection teachings are classified according to different levels of profundity in their philosophical views. All the Great Perfection teachings, regardless of their textual origin, are classified according to three sde or classes: mind (sems), space (klong), and esoteric instruction (man ngag). Of these three classes, only the esoteric instruction class is held to convey the essence of gnosis (ye shes) in a perfectly unmodified, uncontrived way. The differences among the three classes are anything but obvious; most Great Perfection texts use similar terminology and, to all appearances, teach the same thing.[11]

The Nyingma tradition distinguishes the three classes of Dzogchen teachings as follows:[11]

  1. Semdé (sems sde), the cycle on mind, "teaches that all appearances are mind, that mind is emptiness, emptiness is intrinsic awareness, and emptiness and intrinsic awareness are in union."[12]
  2. Longdé (klong sde), the cycle on space, "teaches that the awareness and clarity aspect of mind is emptiness."[13]
  3. Mengakdé (man ngag sde), the cycle on instruction, "teaches realization of the true nature, as it is, without falling into extremes or creating something new."[14]

Chogyal Namkhai Norbu states:

The Three Series should not be seen as three grades, or divisions, or a school. They are three modes of the presentation of Introduction, and three methods of practice, but they all aim to bring the practitioner to contemplation, and they are all equally Dzogchen teachings. The division of Garab Dorje's teaching into Three Series was carried out by Manjushrimitra, Garab Dorje's principal disciple, and continued by later masters.[15]

The nine yanas of the Nyingma tradition

The Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism identifies nine successive stages of the path known as the nine yanas.[16][17] In this classification system, Dzogchen is identified as the ninth and highest yana, and it is referred to as the "utmost yoga" (atiyoga).

The 14th Dalai Lama states:

In the early translation school of the Nyingma, a system of nine yanas is taught. Three of these--the paths of the sravaka, pratyekabuddha and bodhisattva--constitute the sutra tradition, while the tantric tradition consists of six levels--the three outer tantras and the three inner tantras. The tradition of Dzogchen, or Atiyoga, is considered to be the pinnacle of these nine yanas.[18]

John Pettit states:

Great Perfection practitioners also engage in practices that belong to the lower vehicles. Most Tibetan masters of the Great Perfection have completed one or more retreats of three years' duration, during which time they practice all nine yanas in stages.[19]

Patrul Rinpoche states:

Just as it is impossible for a king to travel without the aid of his courtiers, in the same way the key points of all the yanas serve as steps and supports for the Dzogchen path.[20]

Dzogchen and Vajrayana

John Pettit states:

The Great Perfection teaching belongs to the tantric traditions of Buddhism. The revealed scriptures of esoteric Buddhism, or tantras, are understood to comprise a soteriological approach or conveyance (yāna), the Vajrayana or "Indestructible Vehicle." Though Vajrayana is firmly rooted in the philosophical conventions of critical Buddhist philosophy, its texts epitomize mystical or speculative philosophy. Vajrayana meditation is based on the principle of the immanence of ultimate reality, which is a coalescent continuum (tantra, rgyud) of gnosis (jñāna, ye shes) and aesthetic form (rūpa, gzugs, snang ba). Exoteric Buddhist scriptures (sūtras) know this immanence as buddha nature or tathāgatagarbha, while tantric scriptures describe it as the pervasive, unfabricated presence of divine form, divine sound, and gnosis-awareness. For this reason, tantric meditation does not invoke the logical syllogisms of dialectical philosophy. Instead, it uses special methods that force normal conceptuality to subside and cause gnosis to manifest spontaneously.
In the Nyingma tradition, the Great Perfection is regarded as the most direct and powerful way to access the continuum (tantra, rgyud) of reality, and as the highest form of Vajrayana practice. Though the personal instructions of a qualified teacher of the Great Perfection may on very rare occasions suffice to induce "sudden enlightenment" in a disciple, it has generally been practiced alongside more conventional forms of Buddhism.[21]

Dzogchen and Madhyamaka

The Madhyamaka teachings on emptiness are fundamental to and thoroughly compatible with Dzogchen practices.[22]

View of Madhyamaka

The Dzogchen tradition shares the view of Madhyamaka. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu states:

...Madhyamaka explains with the four "beyond concepts," which are that something neither exists, nor does not exist, nor both exists and does not exist, nor is beyond both existing and not existing together. These are the four possibilities. What remains? Nothing. Although we are working only in an intellectual way, this can be considered the ultimate conclusion in Madhyamaka. As an analytical method, this is also correct for Dzogchen. Nagarjuna's reasoning is supreme.[23]

Indivisibility of appearance and emptiness

In Dzogchen tradition, the concept of dependent origination is considered to be complementary to the concept of emptiness. Specifically, this tradition emphasizes the indivisibility of appearance and emptiness—also known as the relative and absolute aspects of reality.[24] In this context:

  • Appearance (relative truth) refers to the concept that all appearances are dependently originated
  • Emptiness (absolute or ultimate truth) refers to the concept that the ‘’nature” of all phenomena is emptiness—lacking inherent existence.

In Mipham Rinpoche’s Beacon of Certainty, this relationship is explained using the metaphor of the reflection of the moon in water.[24] According to this metaphor:[24]

  • The nature of all phenomena is like the reflection of the moon in water—completely lacking inherent existence. However,
  • The appearance of the moon in the water is an expression of dependent origination—this appearance is completely dependent upon causes and conditions.

Anyen Rinpoche explains the significance of this understanding for a Dzogchen practitioner:[25]

We gain personal experience through meditation practice and becoming accustomed to naturally seeing appearance and emptiness in union. If we develop confidence in the nature of dependent arising, this will greatly support our personal experience of actual meditation. We could say that it is through our understanding of dependent arising that appearance and emptiness become equal.

Dzogchen teachers emphasize the dangers of misunderstanding the relationship between appearance (relative truth) and emptiness (absolute truth). Misunderstanding this relationship can lead one to disregard the importance of relative truth--thus disregarding the karmic consequences of our ordinary, relative actions and behavior.

The Dzogchen master Patrul Rinpoche writes:

Do not use the Dharma language of the highest views to scorn the principle of [karma]. The Great Master of Oddiyana said:
Great King, in this Secret Mantrayana of mine, the view is the most important thing. However, do not let your action slip in the direction of the view. This will cause you to fall into the evil views of demons, prattling on about how "goodness is empty" and "evil is empty". But also do not let your view slip in the direction of action, or you will be caught in materialism and ideology...
That is why my view is higher than the sky, but my attention to my actions and their results is finer than flour.[26]

Dzogchen and Mahamudra

Ringu Tulku states:

Kongtrul says the Mahamudra teachings of the Kagyu lineage arrive at the same point as the Dzogchen teachings of the Nyingma lineage. He says about the Mahamudra instructions:
These teachings correlate with the Semde teachings of Dzogchen.[27]

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche states:

Although the teachings of Essence Mahamudra and Dzogchen of the Natural State use different terminology, in actuality they do not differ at all. Through such teachings, the mind at the time of death merges with the dharmakaya the instant that the material body disintegrates.[28]


  1. Keown 2003, p. 82.
  2. Dahl 2009, Introduction.
  3. Pettit 1999, p. 4.
  4. Jigme Lingpa 1982, p. 96.
  5. Harvey 2013, s.v. Chapter 11, section "Tantric techniques of spontaneity".
  6. Baker 2012, pp. 226-227.
  7. fn. 6, p.227 in Baker (2012): "rtsa rlung breathing practices that alter the low of somatic energy are typically enhanced by the dynamic yogic movements of ’khrul ’khor to both improve health and expand the body’s capacity for inner experience. Geofrey Samuel has pointed out that the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC) catalogue alone includes 260 ’khrul ’khor-related texts, although little research has been devoted to the subject. He further notes that some of these texts are included in the Tengyur and thus held to be translations of original Indian texts."
  8. fn. 9, p.228 in Baker (2012): "The Reverberation of Sound (Sgra thal ’gyur)... states that ‘the union of body and mind connects primordial space with pristine awareness . . . realising that, all beings are naturally buddhas!’ "
  9. Baker 2012, pp. 227-228.
  10. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Dzogchen.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Pettit 1999, p. 79.
  12. Tulku Thondup 1996, p. 30.
  13. Tulku Thondup 1996, p. 31.
  14. Tulku Thondup 1996, p. 32.
  15. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu 1999, Chapter 3.
  16. LotsawaHouse-tag.png A Brief Presentation of the Nine Yanas, Lotsawa House
  17. Tulku Thondop 1999, p. 16.
  18. Dalai Lama 2000, p. 47.
  19. Pettit 1999, p. 80.
  20. Dalai Lama 2000, p. 87.
  21. Pettit 1999, pp. 3-4.
  22. Wallace 2005, p. 203.
  23. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu 2006.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Anyen Rinpoche 2012, pp. 58-59.
  25. Anyen Rinpoche 2012, p. 133.
  26. Patrul Rinpoche 1998, p. 129.
  27. Ringu Tulku 2006, Chapter 1, The Meaning of Ri-Me.
  28. Tsele Natsok Rangdrol 2009, pp. XVII-XVIII.


  • Anyen Rinpoche (2012), Journey to Certainty, Wisdom Publications 
  • Baker, Ian (2012), "Embodying Enlightenment: Physical Culture in Dzogchen as revealed in Tibet's Lukhang Murals", Asian Medicine, 7: 225–264 
  • Princeton Dict icon 166px.png Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University 
  • Chögyal Namkhai Norbu (1999), The Crystal and The Way of Light: Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen, Snow Lion Publications 
  • Chögyal Namkhai Norbu (2006), Dzogchen Teachings, Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion 
  • Dahl, Cortland (2009), Entrance to the Great Perfection: A Guide to the Dzogchen Preliminary Practices, Shambhala 
  • Dalai Lama (2000), Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection, Ithaca: Snow Lion 
  • Jigme Lingpa (1982), The Dzogchen: Innermost Essence Preliminary Practice, translated by Tulku Thondup, Library of Tibetan Works & Archives 
  • Book icoline.svg Harvey, Peter (2013), An Introduction to Buddhism (Second ed.), Cambridge University Press 
  • Keown, Damien (2004), A Dictionary of Buddhism, Oxford University Press 
  • Book icoline.svg Patrul Rinpoche (1998), Words of My Perfect Teacher, translated by Padmakara Translation Group, Altamira Press 
  • Pettit, John Whitney (1999), Mipham's Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, Wisdom Publications 
  • Book icoline.svg Ringu Tulku (2006), The Ri-Me Philosophy of Jamgon Kungtrul the Great, Shambhala 
  • Tsele Natsok Rangdrol (2009), Heart Lamp: Lamp of Mahamudra and Heart of the Matter, Rangjung Yeshe Publications 
  • Tulku Thondup (1996), Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Boston: Shambhala 
  • Wallace, B. Alan (2005), Genuine Happiness: Meditation as the Path to Fulfillment, John Wiley and Sons 

Further reading

  • Norbu, Chögyal Namkhai (1992). Dream Yoga and the Practice Of Natural Light editor Michael Katz. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-007-7
  • Norbu, Chögyal Namkhai (1996). Dzogchen: The Self-perfected State. Snow Lion Publications.
  • Norbu, Chögyal Namkhai. The Essence of the Three Statements of Garab Dorje: Based on an Oral Advice given by Khyenrab Chökyi Özer. Shang Shung Edizioni.
  • Norbu, Chögyal Namkhai. The Mirror: Advice on Presence and Awareness (dran pa dang shes bzhin gyi gdams pa me long ma). Religions 2013;4(3):412-422.
  • Dudjom Rinpoche (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, Vol. 1. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-087-8
  • Jigmed Lingpa (2008). Yeshe Lama. Snow Lion. ISBN 9781559392945
  • Padmasambhava (1998). Natural Liberation: Padmasambhava's Teachings on the Six Bardos. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 978-0861711314
  • Reynolds, John Myrdhin (1996). The Golden Letters: The Tibetan Teachings of Garab Dorje, First Dzogchen Master. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-050-6
  • Reynolds, John Myrdhin (2005). The Oral Tradition from Zhang-Zhung: An Introduction to the Bonpo Dzogchen Teachings of the Oral Tradition from Zhang-Zhung Known as the Zhang-zhung snyan-rgyud. Vajra Publications. ISBN 99946-644-4-1
  • Surya Das (2007). Natural Radiance: Awakening to Your Great Perfection. Sounds True. ISBN 1-59179-612-1
  • Tarthang Tulku (1977). Time, Space, and Knowledge: A New Vision of Reality. Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing. ISBN 0-913546-08-9
  • Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and Klein, Anne C.(2006). Unbounded Wholeness: Dzogchen, Bon and the Logic of the Nonconceptual. Oxford University. ISBN 0-19-517850-5
  • Thinley Norbu (2016), Echoes: The Boudhanath Teachings, Boston: Shambhala 

External links