Is dzogchen Buddhism?

The term dzogchen has two usages.  It is used as a name for primordial nature — the nature of all individual living beings, and also to refer to a specific method of realizing that nature.  There are myriad schools and sects of Buddhism and a global consensus about orthodoxy does not exist.  The majority of Buddhists will probably, with good reason, consider everything that the Buddha taught to be Buddhism and everything he didn’t teach to not be Buddhism.  But we really have no way of determining the totality of the Buddha’s teachings.  Buddha certainly did teach about primordial nature, and when Avalokiteshwara enunciated the Heart Sutra, Buddha praised him and verified its truth and primacy.  So, when the question about Buddhism and dzogchen comes up it usually means, “Did the historical Buddha teach the dzogchen methods that would later be taught by Garab Dorje to Manjushrimitra?”  There is no hard evidence that he did.  And what this means is that there is no record of his teaching dzogchen methods to humans.  Buddhist teachings do however include a prophesy given by the Buddha that a future master would teach methods that go beyond concepts of cause and effect.  Most dzogchen practitioners identify that prophesied master as Garab Dorje, who lived and taught about a century after the Buddha’s parinirvana.  It is really not possible, however, to say for certain that the Buddha didn’t teach dzogchen methods to any human disciples.

There is an oral tradition that relates the following story about the Buddha’s method of teaching.  In the afternoon of the seventh day after Buddha’s enlightenment, three merchants happened to travel through the area where Buddha was.  As they approached, even from some distance, they could all see a very bright and wondrous light emitting through the forest.  Following the light toward its source they found the Buddha still seated under the Bodhi tree, literally enlightened.  Without pretension or protocol one of the merchants called out to the Buddha saying, “What has happened to you? Buddha replied, “There is no way whatsoever for that to be told or explained.”  Persisting, the merchant then said, “Then at least tell me.  What is your doctrine?”  Buddha replied, “There is no precedent for anything.” After some moments of silence, the merchants departed in a befuddled state. Considering what had just transpired, the Buddha then determined to teach a gradient approach to liberation based on the experiences and aptitudes of the individual. With this determination he set out for Deer Park where he was destined to meet his first five disciples.


4 Responses to Interrogatories

  1. gsangsang says:

    Great work!

    It is good to see that you are still offering your service to others. Glad to know that people-in-general are still able, through you, to access the special and necessary combination of both a certain amount of (hidden[?], but serious) scholarship and a weighty addition of the knack one acquires (if sincere) by putting into practice what one has learned—along with the invaluable knowledge of how to subvert the unforeseen pitfalls one typically encounters by seeking out such learning.

    I should say, to anyone else who enjoys this blog, that the gentleman writing these short essays not only “knows a lot,” but is an asset to every community fortunate enough to have or, to have had him as a member; this being so as he selflessly served(/serves) the community of Tibetan practitioners both in Asia and America, as well as those of Western descent who have been sensitive enough to recognize the value and need to take the Sino/Tibetan/Indian traditions seriously.

  2. Odsal says:

    In some ways, the Flower Sermon of the Buddha was dzogchen in nature. Buddha said,

    “I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle Dharma Gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.”

    Though it became sutra based and the precursor to Zen, there must be a connection to its tantric origins.

    • Yedruk says:

      Dear Odsal, these are issues of subtle differentiation and we would not be the first to volley them. Inasmuch as Buddha Shakyamuni was a totally realized being, everything he did or said was Dzogchen in nature because Dzogchen is the State of realization (which is also everyone’s primordial state). The Dzogchen Teachings, however, comprise a precise and specific method for discovering this primordial state. The method includes three (or four) modes: oral transmission, symbolic (gesture) transmission and direct transmission (so called, mind-to-mind). Some say that there is also a written transmission mode. In any case, the special feature of Dzogchen knowledge is the realization of emptiness, clarity and sensation as a holistic gestalt. It is traditionally held that Mahakasyapa realized emptiness when Buddha displayed the flower, and of course Chan/Zen teaches emptiness as its absolute. What distinguishes Chan/Zen from the fundamental teachings of Buddhism is their emphasis on a radical, non-gradual, quantum penetration into the nature of emptiness. The Dzogchen method is also non-gradual but does not merely seek the realization of emptiness. Dzogchen practice functions by direct introduction to Rigpa from a master, self-clarification of essential identity through gaining intimacy with one’s own energy, and special tools for contemplative stability passed down from Dzogchen masters. A Dzogchen master is one who received the Dzogchen Teachings, and self-realized in that way.

      I think to suggest tantric origins is a misunderstanding. Neither Dzogchen nor Chan have tantric origins, if we understand the term Tantra in its standard meaning and denotation. Zen, however, in its culturally specific manifestation in Japan, does have a Tantric element that may even predate Tibetan Buddhism. However, without question, the basis of Zen is Chan.

  3. Tantradude says:

    Superb clarity.. I have no words to describe

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