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The Evolution of Mindfulness 5.

Week 5. Dzogchen – The Great Perfection

As we saw last time, Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, is the pinnacle of the Nyingma nine vehicle system that arranges the various Buddhist teachings into a hierarchy of efficacy. What makes it the pinnacle is that unlike all the teachings that precede it, it requires that we change nothing at all – a teaching that is as extraordinary as it is difficult.

A little background history

It’s hard to say just when the first stirring of the Great Perfection occurred. It’s own tradition says that it has existed for countless aeons in innumerable places throughout the universe. On planet Earth Garab Dorje was its first human exponent and the source of the teachings that continue to flourish up until today. Western scholarship, somewhat more modestly, contests the date and even the existence of Grab Dorje. Further more it can not find a clear mention of Dzogchen as a separate and distinct vehicle to awakening until the late ninth century when Nubchen Sangye Yeshe, a tantric yogi and sorcerer, compares it to the graduated path of the Bodhisattva, Mahāyoga tantrism and Zen. However this does not mean that it did not exist before this date and certainly something essentially Great Perfection-like did exist at least several centuries earlier. The history of Dzogchen has not been without event. Many Tibetan scholars have doubted its Buddhist credentials, questioning whether it was in fact a Chinese heresy or even whether it wasn’t even Buddhist but a kind of closet Hinduism – Vedanta in all but name. In response it has over the thousand years of its existence somewhat softened its radical approach, making itself more similar to those ideas and practices held by its critics.

An Overview of the Teaching

Actually I find this subject more difficult to write about than any other as it is the one I know most about. The little background history above is a précis of over twenty two thousand words I wrote for a dissertation. So here we go …

Dzogchen is invariably presented in the format of Base, Path and Fruit.

The Base is the reality of how things really are – right now. Dzogchen describes this as the union of emptiness and clarity, the energy of which is like the unlimited expanse of the sky. 

The path is the means to know this experientially. It consists the view, meditation and conduct.

The view is to be aware all the time. In the context of Dzogchen this awareness is called rigpa (the absolute key term) that is non-dual awareness. Dzogchen texts describe this in innumerable ways.

The meditations are divided into three series: The Mind, Space and Secret Instruction Series. The Mind Series is remarkably similar to the calm abiding and insight practices we have looked at previously. They are also the earliest layer of teachings. The later Secret Instruction Series contains many teachings that are called ‘Treasures’ that ‘Treasure Revealers’ received in visions. These are very similar to the more elaborate tantric material we looked at in the last session.

Conduct is the integration of the whole path into our lives. Essentially this means resting uninterruptedly in non-dual awareness and acting from this state. This however is extremely difficult and may only be partially realised after a life time of practice and so for the rest of the time other levels of Buddhist teachings are utilised. These will include practices of the bodhisattva and tantric practices visited in the last two sessions.

The fruit is realisation of the base. This means that the union of emptiness, clarity and its energetic expression is directly known in rigpa, non-dual intrinsic awareness. For this reason it is said that the path of Dzogchen is also its base and fruit. It starts with a description of rigpa, it continues with the path of establishing rigpa and ends once rigpa has been fully realised. 

Tradition also describes the realisation of the ‘Rainbow Body’ and the ‘Great Transfer’. The rainbow body occurs when the Dzogchen yogi at death manages to reintegrate the elements comprising the body back into the energy they emerged from. The sign of this accomplishment is the disappearance of the body leaving only hair and nails – or if this is not possible – a tiny, shrunken body. Also, at this time, the sky becomes full of rainbow phenomena, hence, ‘rainbow body’. Reports of this miraculous event persist up until today – much to the annoyance of the Chinese authorities. The Great Transfer is even more miraculous. Said to have been achieved by two of the Dzogchen masters who brought Dzogchen to Tibet, Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra. The person simply dissolves into light, becoming progressively more translucent until they are invisible to all except those that have pure spiritual vision. Not unlike the marmalade cat in Alice!

Mindfulness in Dzogchen

Dzogchen makes a really big thing about the difference between ‘ordinary mind’, which is dualistically partitioned into subject and object experiences, and ‘the nature of mind’, emptiness and clarity, which is non-dual awareness, rigpa. In this context mindfulness can be either ordinary, dualistic mindfulness, or what Dzogchen sometimes calls, ‘king mindfulness’, which is synonymous with resting in non-dual awareness. 

If we think about this it actually makes a lot of sense. We are usually mindful of an object of mindfulness – typically a single object like the breath, or many objects as when we rest in open, choiceless awareness. In these cases, whether it be a single or multiple objects there remains an observer and what is observed. The practice is dualistic. 

However we can turn our awareness back on itself – having awareness of awareness. When we do this we may discover that we cannot actually find anyone who is having the awareness of the awareness, there is just awareness.  As such it is non-dual. This experience Dzogchen describes as coming to know the nature of mind. When we look in meditation we cannot find the meditator, there is only an experience of space – which Dzogchen equates with emptiness. But there is also not simply a blank, a complete nothingness, because that space is known, or suffused, with clarity. Clarity and emptiness are inseparably united together. 

Once this experience has been glimpsed – and it can only be glimpsed for a second or two initially before thoughts come in and obscure it – the practice is to re-glimpse it over and over again until we begin to be able to rest in it for extending amounts of time. In this state of rigpa thoughts (and emotions) do continue to arise but they do not disturb it in any way. An analogy that is often used is that the mind is like a mirror: images of all kinds, beautiful, violent, wise, insane etc. etc., arise within it but the mirror itself is not changed or blemished in any way. Intrinsic awareness contains everything but in itself does not change. The trick is to not identify with the contents and then they simply dissolve on their own accord.

As already said this is a hard practice despite being so simple. The ordinary mind naturally wants to grasp at the experience and the instant it does this non-dual awareness is destroyed. Part of the process of doing this is learning not to grasp, to ‘look’ for the space and then be perfectly indifferent as to whether we recognise it or not. It’s always there, we are not creating it, so it is a certainty that sometimes we will find it. Making it no big deal really helps. And there is one last twist: non-dual awareness cannot be known by dual awareness. The moment we think about whether we have ‘got it’ or not this also obscures it. This awareness can only confirm itself. Resting in it provides its own absolute certainty.

Pointing out the nature of mind

Traditionally the practice of resting in rigpa is given, ‘pointed out’, by a person, a Lama or Rinpoche, who has received the practice from a master and to some degree has realised it for themselves. The belief is that there is a blessing that descends down the lineage of teachers that empowers the new practitioner. For this reason I have been careful here to describe the process but not pretend in anyway that I am capable of ‘pointing out the nature of mind’. However, this is something of an open secret and there are many descriptions of this practice and how to access rigpa all over the internet and in many books on Dzogchen and awareness more generally. For those attracted to this see:

Loch Kelly, 2015, Shift To Freedom, The Science and Practice of Open Heated Awareness, Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado.

This is a very good practical introduction – it takes us step by step towards the recognition of rigpa, non-dual awareness. The author has been given permission by his own teacher to give these instructions. But remember, if we pay attention to the tradition – those that know what they are talking about – we will need a teacher to make this really happen.


A more general introduction from my own recently deceased teacher:

Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, The Crystal and the Way of Light, Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen. (With lots of drawings by yours truly!)

And from my alive teacher:

Tsoknye Rinpoche, Fearless Simplicity. (Which covers the material of these notes more fully).

NW. 7.6.19