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Why we do what we do: Dzogpa Chenpo (རྫོགས་པ་ཆེན་པོ་), shortened as Dzogchen and rendered in English as Great Perfection, is a tradition of meditation which is practiced primarily but not exclusively by the Nyingma tradition in Bhutan.

Dzogchen – The Great Perfection

Why we do what we do: Dzogpa Chenpo (རྫོགས་པ་ཆེན་པོ་), shortened as Dzogchen and rendered in English as Great Perfection, is a tradition of meditation which is practiced primarily but not exclusively by the Nyingma tradition in Bhutan. In Tibet, Dzogchen teachings are mainly espoused by the Nyingma and Bon traditions but masters from other Buddhist traditions also followed Dzogchen. It is considered by its adherents to be the highest form of meditation techniques, and the fastest and easiest path to enlightenment. From its origin of being a specific method or technique of advanced meditation in India, Dzogchen emerged as a distinct spiritual system in Tibet with its own corpus of literature, philosophical theories, pantheon of deities and numerous methods of practice.

The origins of Dzogchen in India is traced through the term mahāsandhi, the concept of development stage, completion stage and great completion/perfection stage and the Dzogchen tantras which were translated into Tibetan in the 8th century. Dzogchen is also known through the term atiyoga or primordial yoga, which initially referred to a type of yogic practice but later features as the highest school of thought and vehicle for enlightenment in the Nyingma spiritual doxography. It tops the nine vehicles including the three sūtra vehicles, three outer tantras and three inner tantric systems of mahāyoga, anuyoga and atiyoga.

Dzogchen teachings are said to have been first delivered by the celestial Buddha Samantabhadra and passed down to the first human master Garab Dorji, who was born in Oḍḍiyāna. From him, it was passed down to Mañjuśrīmitra, Śri Siṃha, Jñānagarbha and eventually to Vimalamitra and Padsambhava, both of whom transmitted the teachings to Tibet in the 8th century. The Dzogchen tradition expanded since then and benefited from the influences of Chinese Chan Buddhism, new Buddhist imports from India and Nepal, and local Tibetan innovation and reappropriation.

The teachings of Dzogchen are generally classified into the Semde (སེམས་སྡེ་) or Mind Series, Longde (ཀློང་སྡེ་) or Space Series and the Man-ngagde (མན་ངག་སྡེ་) or Instruction Series. The Mind Series and the Space Series were mainly passed down in Tibet by the great scholar Vimalamitra and the translator Vairocana. The Instruction Series is further divided into the outer cycle (ཕྱི་སྐོར་), inner cycle (ནང་སྐོར་), secret (གསང་སྐོར་), and innermost secret unsurpassed cycle (ཡང་གསང་བླ་མེད་སྐོར་), and the last cycle includes the popular teachings of the Nyingthig (སྙིང་ཐིག་) or Seminal Heart. The Seminal Heart teachings passed down from Vimalamitra are known as Vima Nyingthig (བི་མ་སྙིང་ཐིག་) and those from Padmasambhava are known as Khadro Nyingthig (མཁའ་འགྲོ་སྙིང་ཐིག་). The Seminal Heart teachings were mostly revealed as treasure teachings by various treasure discoverers. In the fourteenth century, the Seminal Heart teachings saw a great champion in Longchenpa, who synthesised the Seminal Heart teachings of Dzogchen in his Seven Treasures (མཛོད་བདུན་), Trilogy of Natural Freedom (རང་གྲོལ་སྐོར་གསུམ་) and Trilogy of Natural Ease (ངལ་གསོ་སྐོར་གསུམ་). The latest most popular cycle among the Dzogchen Seminal Heart teachings is the Longchen Nyingthig (ཀློང་ཆེན་སྙིང་ཐིག་) or the Seminal Heart of Vast Space which was revealed by Jigme Lingpa. In terms of literary genre, Dzogchen teachings can be classified into gyud (རྒྱུད) or tantras, lung (ལུང་) or expositions and man-ngag (མན་ངག་) or instructions.

In content, the Dzogchen teachings focus on the innate nature of the mind, the reflexive awareness or rigpa (རིག་པ་) which is empty, luminous and immanent. This natural awareness is actualised through the two main practices of trhekcho (ཁྲེགས་ཆོད་) or breakthrough and thogal (ཐོད་རྒལ་) or leapover. Trhekcho practice reveals the mind’s aspect of the being primordially pure or kadag (ཀ་དག་) through the four ways of natural abiding (ཅོག་བཞག་བཞི་), and thogal brings out the mind’s aspect of being spontaneously present or lhundrub (ལྷུན་གྲུབ་) through the four visions (སྣང་བ་བཞི་). To this effect of actually pristine awareness, the Dzogchen tradition also includes the preliminary practices, deity visualisation, mantra recitation, and many other esoteric methods, which are integrated from other tantric traditions.

In Bhutan, Dzogchen tradition is one of the most elevated meditation systems and the preliminary practices and the deity worship associated with Dzogchen form the most popular Buddhist practice in Bhutan. It is practiced in the Longchen Nyingthig, Peling, Jangter and Tersar traditions of Nyingma school.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.

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