Dzogchen is synonymous with Prajnaparamita when these terms are understood as referring to the fundamental condition of an individual living being. However, by all accounts, Buddha was a very practical man. And so the practice which is associated with the realization of Prajnaparamita follows a very comprehensible curriculum that is incremental and cumulative.
The Dzogchen approach affords a direct and sudden awakening, without reliance upon the Two Accumulations of merit and wisdom. The Dzogchen approach does this however without in any way contradicting the value and practicality of the Two Accumulations. In fact, a Dzogchen practitioner can pursue the Two Accumulations and maintain Dzogchen practice at the same time, without any dissonance. It is controversial to say so, but in the real sense, a Dzogchen practitioner could just as well maintain the practice of Christianity or Islam or any other spiritual practice, if it were practical to do so. However, to really understand fully how this would work, the reader would need to receive specific instructions from a qualified Dzogchen teacher. The point of discussing this unique feature of Dzogchen practice is that Dzogchen is taught, discussed and practiced these days mostly in a context that was relevant more than a thousand years ago. This is certainly not to suggest that our context now is completely different from a thousand years ago, but it is unquestionably different in many important ways. These differences in context that exist today are just as important as the aspects of context that have remained the same. In other words, the real value of the Dzogchen teachings consists not in their historical relevance, but rather in the nature of ourselves, as individual living beings, alive today.
When we were children our mothers had to continuously say, “Don’t touch that. Don’t step there. Don’t eat that.”, etc. The ideal purpose of such prohibitions was to protect us from harm until we developed sufficient knowledge of our own. So, it should be obvious that although certain prohibitions are reasonable in certain circumstances, knowledge is the ultimate objective. Any methodology that inhibits knowledge in the interest of temporary protection is therefore less than ideal. It is apparent from a critical reading of the Abhidharma teachings that Buddha Shakyamuni had knowledge far beyond the popular metaphysics of his era. Although such knowledge unquestionably informed the content of the Abhidharma, only fundamentalists would presume that the metaphysical content of the Abhidharma is exhaustive and definitive. To restate, Buddha was a practical man. Given the circumstances of his society, there were definite limits that needed to be observed. If Buddha had, for example, declared that the Earth was a rotating sphere orbiting the Sun, functioning in our solar system analogous to how the spleen functions in a human body, only very very few would have followed him. So, keeping the big picture, Buddha permitted his disciples to continue holding the erroneous geo-centric view because metaphysics and astrophysics weren’t largely relevant to the meditation he was teaching. However, when Guru Padmasambhava began to teach in Tibet, the situation was quite different. Consequently, Padmasambhava gave very detailed information about the mechanics of the afterlife, and other highly specialized subjects. This is because the people of Tibet had already developed some knowledge of these subjects. It was therefore useful and practical to not only integrate this knowledge with spiritual work but to also insure that such knowledge would not inhibit or distract a practitioner from ultimate realization. Our situation today should be seen in this light. In some sense everyone today is a scientist. Even though they might not really know all the details, every-day people commonly use terms associated with quantum theory, will likely acknowledge that they are literally composed of stardust, and are not likely to hit you or run away screaming if you point out to them that they share more than 90% of their genetic code with swine and about 50% of it with bananas. Therefore it is appropriate to integrate our current state of knowledge with the teachings of Dzogchen.
In his eighteenth-century opus of practical Dzogchen, Jigme Lingpa first describes how to be in the state of Ati Guru Yoga by the Dzogchen practice of remembrance and cognizance. Then, after pointing out all the advantages and pitfalls of our present life situation, he goes into great detail describing the terrible experiences of the so-called lower realms. Descriptions of the sufferings of what we call, Hell, comprise most of the verses. Jigme Lingpa itemizes eighteen hells: eight hot hells, eight cold hells, one hell “of close proximity”, and a hell that is continuously changing from day to day. What is the real purpose of this gloomy litany? Is it possible that the enlightened Dzogchen master, Jigme Lingpa merely wanted to frighten his students into being good boys and girls? Perhaps those verses are useful for functioning at that level, but it is very doubtful that such would be its only function. Furthermore, in that same text and just before the referenced litany of hells, Jigme Lingpa lists various subjective and objective conditions that can effectively block a practitioner’s capacity to realize. Among these there are two main defects pertaining to one’s basic motivation, namely: pretentiousness and fear of hell.
So, if fear of the sufferings of hell is not the real point of detailing them, what is the point? If we consider our present state of knowledge and face this question outside of the psycho-traumatic context of our early religious indoctrination, many interesting and potentially useful things present themselves. Why would there be hot hells and cold hells? According to the teachings, being born into hell is the result of anger and hatred. However, anger and hatred are not the same. It could be said that anger is hot and hatred is cold. Anger is expressed in the heat of the moment whereas a murder motivated by hatred is calculated and executed in cold blood. When the evil step-mother of fairy tales is expressing anger she lashes out heatedly; when she is expressing hatred, however, she glares with a creepy smile — as cold as ice. So, this detail tells us something about ourselves that is potentially useful right now. For that matter, perhaps it can now also become more clear that traditional fairy tales are in fact an ancient mode of transmitting spiritual truths. If you learn how to read them, it can be very interesting. In any case, in Dzogchen context, understanding the actual mechanism of hell can be very useful because all of the eighteen hells constitute specific subjective experiences that will continue to be our potential fate, so long as we remain in ignorance, the root cause of both anger and hatred.
The teachings tell us that although Hell is not an eternal state as portrayed in Christianity, it can nevertheless seem so due to the intensity of its experience. The main point to be understood is not so much the details of Hell’s torments but rather the fact that these torments render a being hyper-subjective. Such hyper-subjectivity usually requires a very slow and tedious conversion that is analogous to the process of converting granite into loam, with corresponding long-term exposure to the extremes of heat, cold and pressure. The main issue therefore, from the Dzogchen perspective, is that in hell there is a very long-term loss of good opportunities for practicing Trekcho and Togal. How long does one remain in Hell? First, consider the corporeal life of a human being. Although everybody knows that some die very young and others live long, everyone presumes optimistically that they will live a more or less average life time. According to statistics, the average lifespan is about 66 years. If you are alive and well at age 65 however, you will probably live to age 84. For reasons beyond the scope of this discussion, let’s say that the average lifetime of humans is 78 years. If we understand (or suppose) that existence in hell could be calculated in a similarly conceptual way as existence as a human life on Earth, the average lifespan in hell would be about 82,000 years. If this seems either very odd or very ridiculous, remember that Guru Padmasambhava definitively declared in the Zhi Tro cycle of teachings that the typical afterlife lasts from 3 to 49 days. But that period which is detailed in the Bardo Thodol does not refer to the situation of dying and going to hell. The dimension of the hells is completely different from the 49-day dimension of the Bardo afterlife. Just as knowledge and understanding of the 49-day afterlife can be very relevant to a practitioner of Dzogchen, so too can be the understanding and knowledge of the 82,000-year hell realm.
There are also a couple of other dimensions that a Dzogchen practitioner can greatly benefit from understanding. This is so because all of these dimensions happen to intersect at one and the same singular point. This important intersection of all possible dimensions is visited by everyone at the moment of death. But because the actual point of intersection is outside of time, the overwhelming majority completely miss its significance due to their being thoroughly conditioned by attachment and the illusion of time. A Dzogchen practitioner however can learn how to visit this point at more convenient moments.