Quite some time ago I read a Tibetan text that was subtitled, “The Union of Dzogchen and Mahamudra”. This puzzled me on a few levels and, being a bit cynical by indoctrination, I consulted one of my Gurus about this. His reply was characteristically curt. “There is no such union”. He went on to explain that although one of the four Dzogchen samayas is unity, this does not mean that Dzogchen is to be unified with anything. It refers rather to the atemporal holistic nature of reality. One of the most common misconceptions concerning the use of the word unity in the context of Dzogchen is that unity normally connotes a reconciliation of plurality — divers things coming together to be as one. According to the Nyingma schematic of Buddhist practice, Atiyoga is the practice of Dzogchen and subsumes all of the eight indirect, preliminary yanas. But this does not mean that all nine yanas are the same, nor does it suggest that they are all unified under an Atiyoga umbrella. It means that if the eight preliminary yanas are followed to their conclusion, they will ultimately culminate in the experience of Dzogchen, after which, Atiyoga is the actual practice of Dzogchen.
The term, Dzogchen, has two usages. It is primarily a special, insider term for the ultimate-reality nature of living beings. In this usage, Dzogchen does not stand alone. There are many terms for ultimate reality. Even in Dzogchen literature there can be found statements confirming that ultimate reality can alternately and equality be referred to as Prajnaparamita or Mahamudra, etc. And certainly other spiritual systems have their own terms such as Satchidananda, Wu Chi and God. But when using the term Dzogchen to refer to a specific method of practice, there is really no case to be made for synonyms.
Mahamudra shares with Dzogchen the double meaning of a particular spiritual practice and also a state of being. As has been pointed out above, the state of Mahamudra, in referring to the realized state of non-conceptual awareness, can be equated to the state of Dzogchen. The practice of Mahamudra however belongs to a system of methodology and yogic praxis that is completely different from Dzogchen. Mahamudra practice is based on and functions by the principle of transformation. In particular, the practice of Mahamudra depends on a gradient method that must begin with a systematic mental construction of visionary experience. Only after having developed the visionary experience to a high degree, the meditation is then deconstructed into the experience of nothingness. After mastering both construction and deconstruction, Mahamudra proper consists in merging the two as a transcendent, non-dual experience of being in which appearance and nothingness are known as inseparable aspects of reality. In this way, Mahamudra constitutes the final stage of Tantra, the ultimate transcendence of illusion.
Dzogchen practice however is not part of the Tantra (transformation/transcendence) system and its principle is completely unique. The principle of Dzogchen practice is the fact of primordial purity and spontaneous presence. What this means is that the ultimate truth of primordial perfection can be realized by having it pointed out. Since living beings already have primordial perfection as their very essence (and that perfection isn’t going anywhere) we therefore possess a primordial potential for realizing the ultimate truth. The Dzogchen method of direct introduction obviates any necessity to construct or deconstruct anything. The ways in which this direct introduction can be accomplished are various, often simple, and the masters who might give this introduction must themselves be thoroughly stabilized in the state of Dzogchen. This is how it’s possible to have one’s own true nature pointed out, like seeing yourself in a mirror.
Historically the Dzogchen teachings have been revealed, taught and preserved almost exclusively within the context of Buddhism. But neither the state nor the practice of Dzogchen is limited to Buddhism, and I believe that the significance of this independence will become more and more relevant in the course of time. Dzogchen practice is exceedingly subtle and requires that we learn to abide in the nonconceptual clarity of presence. Due to the power of confusion-based habits, however, Dzogchen practitioners often need to resort to less subtle practices such as, visualization, mantra, yantra yoga, etc. in order to work with temporary problematic states or situations. So, as a practical matter, these secondary practices are taught as a kind of safety-net for those who have chosen to walk the Dzogchen high-wire. Even though conceptual secondary practices may in fact be considered indispensable in some cases, they are not Atiyoga — unless the practitioner is actually in the state of Dzogchen while practicing them. If one can truly be in the state of Dzogchen while doing secondary practices, then those practices are not really needed as a corrective measure. They would instead constitute an act of charity, and of course, real masters do this all the time.
So, what about Mahamudra? We’ve already established that the state of Mahamudra is the same as the state of Dzogchen. Can Mahamudra practice be understood in the context of Dzogchen? Any practice can done in the context of Dzogchen, as a secondary practice. Historically, Dzogchen practitioners have favored secondary practices from the Anuyoga class of Tantras. This is because the Anuyoga method does not require detailed visualization. Furthermore, in Anuyoga the gestalt of the entire mandala is instantaneous and simply feeling the presence of the deity is sufficient. Anuyoga practice can therefore be implemented quickly and easily. This is in contrast to the much more prevalent Anutarrayoga Tantras (to which Mahamudra belongs) which require very detailed visualization and a much longer time investment. If we understand that in Tibet, Mahamudra practice was the norm and Dzogchen practice was rare, we can come to understand why there would be interest in reconciling these two systems. A yogi who encountered and adopted the radical teachings of Dzogchen after having devoted decades to the practice of Mahamudra would obviously be inclined to use Mahamudra practices as secondary practices when necessary. This scenario commonly occurred. But what would it mean to “unify” Mahamudra and Dzogchen?
If the state of Mahamudra is already the same as the state of Dzogchen then they don’t need to be unified. The practice of Dzogchen functions on a different level and is based on different principles from Mahamudra practice, so why, even if it were possible, would you want to unify them? Let’s say you want to have the light on in your room. There are a number of ways to accomplish that. You can walk over to the wall-switch and turn it on that way. But, perhaps for Christmas someone gave you a “Clapper” (you know, “clap on … clap off”). In that case, you don’t even have to get up and walk to the wall-switch. You just clap your hands and the lights come on. Then again, maybe you have a very high tech house and everything is hooked up with voice activation controls. You just say the word, “light”, and the lights come on. Once the lights are on it makes no difference what method you used, the illumination is the same. If you have Alzheimer’s and sometimes forget the word, light, you can’t use voice activation but you can still use the clapper. If your hand is in a cast because you got angry and punched the wall, you can’t use the clapper but you can still get up and flip the wall switch. In any case, there are many different ways to enlightenment. Dzogchen practice begins when a master shows you the luminous, timeless presence of your true nature. From there, developing certainty and stability in that presence is the ongoing practice. Ad hoc secondary practices are infinite. If someone is accustomed to Mahamudra practices, these can be done as secondary practices and there is certainly no conflict with Dzogchen. For that matter, if a Catholic priest receives Dzogchen transmission, he could, with correct understanding, also offer the Sacrament of the Mass as a secondary practice. However, the idea of unifying Dzogchen with the Catholic Mass seems to me no less dubious than the idea of unifying Dzogchen and Mahamudra.