Dzogchen teachings are inconceivably ancient. Of course, the teachings themselves were not always called Dzogchen teachings. Dzogchen is a Tibetan term of relatively recent times, perhaps originally coined by Padmasambhava. It may at first seem convenient and maybe even necessary to have such a word as, Dzogchen, to identify these teachings as distinct from other teachings. But this habit of reductionist thinking is one of the main obstacles to actually realizing what the Dzogchen teachings are about. The distinguishing characteristic of Dzogchen teachings is the principle upon which they function rather than the ultimate goal. It would seem that all genuine wisdom systems aim the individual toward the same ultimate goal of total freedom. The function of a teaching is to engender knowledge of what is real, and there are many strategies for that purpose.
The extreme antiquity of Dzogchen teachings on the one hand may give an impression of their importance and enduring relevance. But we must be careful to keep in mind the symbolic nature of language – particularly the language of esoteric teachings. Moreover, language in general is a continuously changing phenomenon. So, it is complete folly to merely translate the ancient teachings into modern language and expect the same meanings to automatically emerge. This is why it is necessary to receive intentional transmission from a realized master. For more than a thousand years the corpus of Dzogchen teachings was preserved almost exclusively by Tibetan masters. Now, these teachings are being communicated in all the major languages of the world. While this unique situation is truly fantastic, it should also give rise to caution.
Padmasambhava explained that there are three modes of transmitting Dzogchen teachings: words, gestures and mind-meld. These modes of transmission however are not the principle of the teachings. The principle of the Dzogchen teachings is the fact that all living beings are intrinsically/primordially endowed with all of the qualities of a Buddha, and that this knowledge can be instantly recognized by direct introduction from a master. It is the direct introduction that has the three modes of oral, gesture and mind-meld. If a student is sufficiently receptive, the direct introduction from a master is all that is necessary for immediate and total realization. Most individuals are unfortunately not sufficiently receptive and therefore require some remedial work in order to develop such receptivity. This being the case, the correct understanding and diligent practice of the remedial work becomes extremely important. It is this work that stands between our on-going confusion with its resultant unhappiness, and total realization.
The Dzogchen teachings give many specific as well as general instructions regarding this work. In order to make good use of the specific instructions, a student needs to receive intentional transmission of those instructions and train properly. The general instructions are however just as important as the specific ones. Furthermore, if the general instructions are thoroughly understood and applied, these alone can be completely sufficient. What follows is an overview of the general instructions on remedial work for Dzogchen practitioners and aspirants.
Whatever we desire to do or aspire to do, we must have the capacity to do those things if we are serious about it. The level of spiritual practice we are discussing is very high and very subtle. The direct and instantaneous realization of the non-conceptual state of Dzogchen even defies such considerations as high or low. But our capacity to comprehend and follow the Dzogchen teachings is a legitimate consideration. So the foundation of our practice needs to address our capacity. In a very real sense, our capacity for following the Dzogchen teachings is a function of our real interest in the teachings. This sounds very simple but when observed critically exposes deep levels of confusion about our motivations. The code-word in Tibetan for having developed sufficient interest in the teaching is tepa. This word is commonly translated as “faith”. For the great numbers of westerners who venture into the teachings of Dzogchen as actual refugees from theistic religions such as Christianity etc., the concept of faith presents many misunderstandings. In the context of Dzogchen, tepa refers to the sincere and courageous openness that is the main characteristic of genuine interest. It is a kind of courageous confidence in the fundamental beneficence of Being. The epicenter of this confidence is the Dzogchen master who gives us the transmission of teachings and exposes the fact that our minds are none other than Dharmakaya. This primordial trust is actually an aspect of our own pure Buddha-nature. Our master has already fully realized this and so aligning our conceptual derivative of essential trust with the master thus constitutes our faith, or tepa. Since faith typically refers to a state of confidence that lacks the support of intelligence, precedence or knowledge, we need to be clear that Dzogchen is not faith-based in that sense.
The next important aspect of this work is called dam-tsig. This is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word, samaya, and refers to a special kind of commitment. This word is very important and widely used in Vajrayana Buddhism but has a unique and special meaning in Dzogchen. A practitioner who really maintains dam-tsig has achieved the highest level of loyalty. Loyalty, even at the mundane level, is a rare and precious state. The real meaning of the loyalty implied by dam-stig in the Dzogchen teachings is ultimately to be realized as yet another aspect of our Buddha-nature. However, if in the course of basic self-observation we discover that we are not yet capable of even the common meaning of loyalty, how can we expect to maintain dam-tsig?
In order to recognize our primordial state of being, it is very helpful to be able to recognize our habitual, dualistic state of being. This may sound like an easy task but it isn’t. Typically, we don’t recognize our various states at all. To recognize a state we must develop the capacity to be at least momentarily objective about ourselves. Let’s say we are hungry, for example. Hunger is then our state. Recognizing the state of hunger would mean being momentarily detached from the habitual response to hunger, so that the fully nuanced experiences of that hunger are observable. Most people never do this. Normally, hunger is only something we respond to – never something we observe objectively. The same goes for all of our states, such as: anger, fear, embarrassment, pride, pity, remorse, love, loneliness, boredom and so forth. When we have developed the capacity to objectively observe our habitual states, and we routinely practice this successfully, we will have made great progress. Particularly in the context of Dzogchen practice, our habitual states can be understood (and realized) as none other than perfectly manifesting projections of our totally pure nature. The secret is that the purity is to be discovered in the state itself, not in our habitual responses to the states. So it is indispensable to train ourselves to remain present in our various states without immediately reacting to the states.
In the traditional Tibetan lingo of Dzogchen there are two terms: dren-pa and she-zhin. These words refer to this practice. Basically, what is important is to develop the capacity and the practice of self-observation. This cannot be overdone. Since we breathe approximately 21,000 times per day, we therefore have about 14,000 opportunities to practice she-zhin each and every day by simply being mindful and present with our breathing while awake. But what happens when we attempt this is failure. Almost everyone who seriously attempts this practice finds out very quickly just how difficult it is. In any case, if we persevere we can develop some degree of mindfulness and presence. The main obstacle that comes up for us in the practice of ordinary presence is our emotional conditioning. We could call this emotional conditioning, “our attitude”. Attitude almost always trumps presence. It is possible to be present in our attitude but this is an exceeding difficult practice. If we can’t be present in our various metabolic and emotional states, or even in our breathing, there’s no way we can be present in our attitudes because our attitudes are deeply imbedded biases that are virtually invisible to the untrained mind. So in the beginning we need to find a way to suspend our attitudes for at least a moment so we can observe our states objectively. Practicing conscious breathing very much helps with this.
The next general instruction has to do with recognizing, or at least considering, the perspectives of other beings. As Dzogchen practitioners we endeavor to be objective about the attitudes of others. We do not need to pander to others’ views or necessarily cooperate with them, but it is important to have respectful acknowledgement for the dimension in which other beings exist. Every living being is the center of their own individual universe. And although they, like we ourselves, may not have realized it, all living beings are intrinsically and essentially Buddhas. As we develop the capacity for this view, we will discover greater ability to communicate and collaborate with others. As this communication and collaboration deepens, spontaneous waves of uncontrived and non-dualistic compassion will arise from our own essence. If we are truly adept at recognizing our states, even this wholly positive state of compassion will remind us (dren-pa) of our commitment (dam-tsig) to presence (she-zhin). If we are following a Dzogchen master and we have received transmission, then we can also train ourselves to be present in the state of the transmission. Although this is very different indeed from the common practice of devotion, such presence encompasses all levels of devotion and represents its quintessence. The Tibetan term for this is mo-gu. By being present in the state of the master’s transmission we become receptive to the direct introduction of our own primordial state. Once we have definitively recognized our own primordial state, all of our various states, without exception, can then be recognized as totally legitimate nuances of that self-same unique state.