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.