We could say there are three dimensions to the real: a finite, temporal dimension, an infinite, timeless dimension and a narrative, mythical dimension. Correspondingly, there are sciences and arts of the finite, sciences and arts of the infinite, and sciences and arts of the narrative.

The teachings on Dzogchen draw from all three dimensions – in fact, it is a remarkable integration of all three of these.

In Dzogchen there are all the practical teachings of Buddhism, and there are all the narrative teachings of Buddhism. But it is the addition of the infinite, timeless dimension that makes these texts and teachings unlike anything else we typically encounter.

How do you suggest infinite reality to minds that are locked into the finite? In the Mahayana one of the ways is to multiply everything in the most extravagant manner possible. We are overwhelmed by innumerable buddhas, innumerable states of perfection, innumerable pure lands.

This is possible because the space of these teachings is a unique space with some unique properties.

For one, it is a space in which whatever you wish comes to be. Space is all accommodating – it contains all possibilities, those imagined and those beyond imagination. What brings a particular possibility to fruition? At the most basic level it is desire or intentionality; it is aspiration.

If you think about it, it is rather uncanny how conveniently even the finite world is set up to accommodate the desires of sentient beings. We do not appreciate this because we are understandably rather spoiled. Over time we have realized hundreds of thousands of desires. We do not think that is anything special. Instead we complain about the few desires that have been frustrated.

Why are desires frustrated? We could speculate on this at some length, but one possibility may be that we do not have unity of desire, strength of desire arising from all parts of our being – that is to say, we want and don’t want something at the same time – so at some level we contradict ourselves. It is that inner indecisiveness of will, that inner contradiction in our own being that perhaps is the largest obstacle we face.

Purification is the clarification of intentionality. That is something we achieve through prayer and meditation.

Of course there is an irony to this – as we begin the work of clarification of desire, we may discover that we don’t really want what we thought we did. We may discover that all desire carries with it a karmic price tag, at the very least keeps us entangled in the process of desiring itself, continually grazing in the fields of desire without ever lifting our heads up to see what is around us.

Contemplatives have always realized the superiority of desirelessness. Desire binds us to the wheel of fortune. Whatever goes up, comes down. Whatever rises, falls. In Buddhism the wheel of fortune is called samsara. It is notorious for being endless, leading nowhere and causing only suffering. This is why the Greek Sage Epicetus advised, “Desire only that everything happen exactly as it does.”

Yet as worldly people it is hard for us to put such sagely advice into practice. Deep down we have some really strong longings, many such longings, and we are very attached to all of them. For this reason it is easier if we just reduce our desires, rather than eliminate them altogether. We must ask ourselves what it is we really want. What do we really believe will guarantee, without a doubt our happiness, now and forever?

We have all heard of tales where by some great luck one is given the chance to make one wish for whatever one wants. Obviously there are many things one could wish for, but if are clever, we realize that the one thing to wish for would be a wish-fulfilling jewel, that is, something that allows us to continue wishing for whatever we want. That would be the smart thing to wish for.

The premise of Dzogchen is that we already have this jewel and don’t realize it. It is our own inherent goodness. Goodness is the wish-fulfilling jewel. Wherever there is goodness there is joy and happiness, wherever it is obscured or lacking there is no happiness, and wherever it is tenuous and partial, happiness is only tenuous and partial.

This is the logic of the Mahayana and Dzogchen practices. In the Mahayana pure land practice we are given a way to drive all our desires into one desire – the desire for rebirth in the pure land of the buddhas. In Dzogchen we desire simply to experience completeness of intrinsic awareness itself. These are not different desires.

In the world of finite or partial realities, the notion that a practice of just calling on the name of Amitabha would open up the door of paradise is a completely absurd notion. But in the world of complete reality – where the infinite has sway – it makes perfect sense. It is a transcendental sort of sense to be sure, one that requires a certain faith in the unseen, the invisible, the nonlinear, and the non-finite.

It is the Mahayana view that no one ever becomes so closed, so jaded, so hopeless that they lose the spark of the infinite altogether. Buddha nature is present in everyone, even if obscured by eons of obscurations. At any moment we can turn to the open space of pure awareness that is within us and glimpse the transcendent.

To live the transcendent each moment of our life – that is not so easy, but to glimpse it, that is not too hard. If we start asking ourselves what it is we really want, eventually we will find that our deepest and purest aspiration – our deepest desire is for goodness itself. There is nothing better.

Plotinus, the great ancient philosopher, would never make any statement about ultimate reality other than to say it was good. That is the only description that speaks to the whole of transcendent reality, not to its manifestation in the realm of partialities.

Goodness makes every other desire desirable. And even more remarkable — just by uncovering that one desire, voicing that one desire, we set into motion the inevitable fulfillment of that desire. If we desire goodness, we will find goodness. If we desire to become Buddha, we will become Buddha. That is the force of aspiration. When we sift through all the partialities of our being, when we lay the competing claims for our attention to rest, and get down to the essential, then our faith comes alive, and we touch the heart of goodness that has been present, everywhere since the beginning of time.

Goodness is not something we can take to the bank and convert into cash. It has no physical substance. Who has ever seen goodness? Actuality, we all have seen goodness. We have felt it and know that it is real. Invisible, yet real. In its reality it has the three dimensions we mentioned before: there is finite goodness, infinite goodness and there is a narrative dimension to goodness. Mahayana and Dzogchen are just that – narratives of goodness.

The goodness that stills desire, the goodness that enlightens us is not finite goodness or narrative goodness, but infinite goodness. When we think of the buddhas, and say the mantras of the buddhas, if in that moment we are happy it is because we are touching goodness in all its dimensions. There is infinite goodness in the buddhas and in their mantras. That is why when you think of them or say their names there is a little jump in your heart. Invisible, yet real. That is what the infinite is like.


The contemplative and philosophical truths of Buddhism arise out of the enlightenment experience of Shakyamuni Buddha. The experience is singular. The possible ways of understanding it are diverse. This is why the dharma is vast. It presents itself in infinite ways according to the needs and desires of sentient beings.

Emptiness is implicit in the Buddha’s earliest teachings. The Buddha denied substance, or ‘thingness’, to reality. Reality is no-thing-ness. There is no higher self or lower self. There is no self at all. What everything has in common is no-thing-ness, not self.

The dharma itself is no thing either. It’s just a glimpse of freedom, the freedom that is possible by avoiding the extremes of nihilism – acting as if nothing matters, and eternalism–acting as if we will live forever.

In the Abhidharma, Buddhist philosophers took an analytical approach to deconstructing appearances into their component, causal conditions. Reality was broken into about one hundred elements. The Yogacara philosophers carried this analysis into the Mahayana, enhancing it within the larger perspective of the Great Vehicle.

These elements form a continuum of potential combinations and arrangements that appearance can take. Knowing the elements means knowing the underlying principles that govern the world as we experience it. Knowing the underlying principles one can apply them in a way that leads to liberation.

Teachings on emptiness, shunyata, come to the forefront in Mahayana in the Prajnaparamita literature. In the Tibetan tradition, the teachings of Prajnaparamita are associated with Nagarjuna and the Madyamika School, although historically these were three independent phenomena.

In the Madyamika view, there are two truths. The absolute truth of no-thing-ness, and the relative truth of phenomena. No-thing-ness and phenomena are always co-present, inseparable. Phenomena arise as an array of sense perceptions, feelings, and thoughts erupting continually in consciousness. Phenomena are the sensual dance of consciousness. If you try to grasp at the dance it will slip through your fingers because it is just dream stuff, no-thing-ness. But you can’t say it doesn’t exist, because it is appearing now. The texts say:

“There might be someone with an intent to know the thoughts of sentient beings in the three times for as many kalpas as sentient beings exist; still he would be unable to know the nature of a single thought of the Buddha.”

In Yogacara, the two truth view was articulated more precisely. The ultimate remains the ultimate. The relative is realized as having two aspects – the actuality of pure experience, the fact phenomena do occur, that appearances are present, even though they are always changing – and the empty nature of any interpretation or explanation we might attach to that appearance.

Consciousness is always interfused with phenomena. Consciousness never changes – consciousness is always consciousness, but phenomena are ever changing. Submerged in phenomena we lose consciousness. Living at the edge of fresh appearance we regain it. The texts say:

“Who does not see the object, sees the wonder.”

Although form and emptiness are inseparable, practitioners sometimes lean one direction or the other. Those who lean in the direction of form take the view that the Buddhist path is one of long, slow incremental steps of reconditioning our awareness to receive the fullness of enlightenment. Those who lean in the direction of emptiness take the view that we are inherently enlightened and only need to stop obstructing its natural presence in our lives.

There is form because the mind craves it. When the mind stops craving form, mind relaxes and form ceases to exist. Form is a product of our desire. Seeing what animates form gives all form a single taste, that of bliss. Bliss is the end of all desire.

But the end can be nowhere else but at the beginning. The present is the source of all thoughts and desires. To attain bliss is not a matter of shuffling desires in some better way, but to let them subside, to become desireless. The bliss of desire is partial bliss, fleeting pleasure. The bliss of desirelessness is complete.

Emptiness is the view of no-view. The school of direct pointing does not have a single tenet. Phenomena rise and fall, yet in the experienced present, nothing rises or falls. It is all already here in the infinite continuum of space-awareness. The texts say:

“The Great Perfection is the Mother who produces all Buddhas. It is the antidote of all activity that involves effort. Whichever path one follows and whatever method one adopts, without realization of the Great Perfection, one cannot attain enlightenment.”

In Dzogchen we do not cultivate an elaborated view. We are not under compulsion to accept or reject anything. Everything is primordially settled. Emptiness is not an object of knowledge. It is not a path. It is not a cure. It is not something that settles or resolves anything. It just is. And you must see it for yourself.

Dzogchen Practice in Everyday Life


The everyday practice of Dzogchen is simply to develop a complete carefree acceptance, an openness to all situations without limit.

We should realize openness as the playground of our emotions and relate to people without artificiality, manipulation or strategy.

We should experience everything totally, never withdrawing into ourselves as a marmot hides in its hole. This practice releases tremendous energy which is usually constricted by the process of maintaining fixed reference points. Referentiality is the process by which we retreat from the direct experience of everyday life.

Being present in the moment may initially trigger fear. But by welcoming the sensation of fear with complete openness, we cut through the barriers created by habitual emotional patterns.

When we engage in the practice of discovering space, we should develop the feeling of opening ourselves out completely to the entire universe. We should open ourselves with absolute simplicity and nakedness of mind. This is the powerful and ordinary practice of dropping the mask of self-protection.

We shouldn’t make a division in our meditation between perception and field of perception. We shouldn’t become like a cat watching a mouse. We should realize that the purpose of meditation is not to go “deeply into ourselves” or withdraw from the world. Practice should be free and non-conceptual, unconstrained by introspection and concentration.

Vast unoriginated self-luminous wisdom space is the ground of being – the beginning and the end of confusion. The presence of awareness in the primordial state has no bias toward enlightenment or non-enlightenment. This ground of being which is known as pure or original mind is the source from which all phenomena arise. It is known as the great mother, as the womb of potentiality in which all things arise and dissolve in natural self-perfectedness and absolute spontaneity.

All aspects of phenomena are completely clear and lucid. The whole universe is open and unobstructed – everything is mutually interpenetrating.

Seeing all things as naked, clear and free from obscurations, there is nothing to attain or realize. The nature of phenomena appears naturally and is naturally present in time-transcending awareness. Everything is naturally perfect just as it is. All phenomena appear in their uniqueness as part of the continually changing pattern. These patterns are vibrant with meaning and significance at every moment; yet there is no significance to attach to such meanings beyond the moment in which they present themselves.

This is the dance of the five elements in which matter is a symbol of energy and energy a symbol of emptiness. We are a symbol of our own enlightenment. With no effort or practice whatsoever, liberation or enlightenment is already here.

The everyday practice of Dzogchen is just everyday life itself. Since the undeveloped state does not exist, there is no need to behave in any special way or attempt to attain anything above and beyond what you actually are. There should be no feeling of striving to reach some “amazing goal” or “advanced state.”

To strive for such a state is a neurosis which only conditions us and serves to obstruct the free flow of Mind. We should also avoid thinking of ourselves as worthless persons – we are naturally free and unconditioned. We are intrinsically enlightened and lack nothing.

When engaging in meditation practice, we should feel it to be as natural as eating, breathing and defecating. It should not become a specialized or formal event, bloated with seriousness and solemnity. We should realize that meditation transcends effort, practice, aims, goals and the duality of liberation and non-liberation. Meditation is always ideal; there is no need to correct anything. Since everything that arises is simply the play of mind as such, there is no unsatisfactory meditation and no need to judge thoughts as good or bad.

Therefore we should simply sit. Simply stay in your own place, in your own condition just as it is. Forgetting self-conscious feelings, we do not have to think “I am meditating.” Our practice should be without effort, without strain, without attempts to control or force and without trying to become “peaceful.”

If we find that we are disturbing ourselves in any of these ways, we stop meditating and simply rest or relax for a while. Then we resume our meditation. If we have “interesting experiences” either during or after meditation, we should avoid making anything special of them. To spend time thinking about experiences is simply a distraction and an attempt to become unnatural. These experiences are simply signs of practice and should be regarded as transient events. We should not attempt to re-experience them because to do so only serves to distort the natural spontaneity of mind.

All phenomena are completely new and fresh, absolutely unique and entirely free from all concepts of past, present and future. They are experienced in timelessness.

The continual stream of new discovery, revelation and inspiration which arises at every moment is the manifestation of our clarity. We should learn to see everyday life as mandala – the luminous fringes of experience which radiate spontaneously from the empty nature of our being. The aspects of our mandala are the day-to-day objects of our life experience moving in the dance or play of the universe. By this symbolism the inner teacher reveals the profound and ultimate significance of being. Therefore we should be natural and spontaneous, accepting and learning from everything. This enables us to see the ironic and amusing side of events that usually irritate us.

In meditation we can see through the illusion of past, present and future – our experience becomes the continuity of nowness. The past isonly an unreliable memory held in the present. The future is only a projection of our present conceptions. The present itself vanishes as soon as we try to grasp it. So why bother with attempting to establish an illusion of solid ground?

We should free ourselves from our past memories and preconceptions of meditation. Each moment of meditation is completely unique and full of potentiality. In such moments, we will be incapable of judging our meditation in terms of past experience, dry theory or hollow rhetoric.

Simply plunging directly into meditation in the moment now, with our whole being, free from hesitation, boredom or excitement, is enlightenment.

The Dzogchen Lineage

Although Dzogchen teachings originate in time before time, they are preserved in only two traditions: the Nyingma and Bon traditions of Tibet. In the Nyingma tradition, Dzogchen, called Maha Ati, the Great Completion, is the highest of the nine paths. The Nyingma is the only school that contains the full Mahayana, the full Vajrayana and the full Dzogchen teachings.

The Dzogchen lineage begins with Garab Dorje who may have lived around the 7th century in Uddiyana, the mountainous area north of Gandhara. Garab Dorje received the transmission of Dzogchen directly from the deity Vajrasattva. As a youth he is said to have defeated 500 scholars in debate, and then retired in retreat until the age of 32. At that time, alone in the mountains, he began to receive over a three year period, the 6.4 million verses of the Dzogpa Chenpo. These he taught to his primary student Manjushrimitra.

Manjushrimitra was born in India. He was a Brahmin, a monastic pandit, learned in the five branches of knowledge, and in ‘all the teachings of cause and effect’. He received pure visions from Manjushri telling him a rare event has occurred, that one Garab Dorje was transmitting a teaching beyond cause and effect in a cemetery in Uddiyana and that he should go and receive instruction there. Manjushrimitra went, but brought along eight other pandits who did not believe there were any teachings beyond cause and effect. At the cemetery they engaged Garab Dorje in debate and were all soundly defeated.

Manjushrimitra was deeply upset at his doubts and offered to cut off his tongue, but Garab Dorje told him, “The bliss of self-perfection is beyond any school. The Great Completion is beyond any limits. The teachings of cause and effect neglect the natural state, then try to attain it with effort. Liberate yourself from this attachment.”

Manjushrimitra stayed and became Garab Dorje’s foremost student, receiving the teachings by ‘symbolic transmission’ rather than words. He classified the 6.4 milllion verses of Dzogchen into three categories: the ground teachings of Semde, philosophical teachings on ‘the way the mind dwells’; the path teachings of Longde, on effortlessness; and the fruition teachings of Menagde on the essential points.

Two writings translated into English are attributed to him: A philosophical text called Primordial Experience and a commentary on popular tantric work translated as Chanting the Names of Manjushri.

At his death, he left his last testament, to his primary student, Sri Simha, on the Six Experiences of Meditation:

O son of good family
If you wish to see the continuity
Of naked awareness
Then focus on absolute awareness as the object
Press the points of the body
Close the way of going and coming
Focus on the target
Rely on the unmoving
And grasp the vast expanse

Sri Simha is said to have come from China, where he studied with many teachers there. Avolokiteshvara appeared to him and said he should go to a certain charnel ground in India to receive teachings. He felt he should learn the tantras first and went to Wutai Mountain where he studied tantra for seven years. Avolokiteshvara appeared again, reminding him to go to India. He agreed, but decided it would be best to go by magical means, so he studied for three years to obtain the power of flight walking. Finally, he arrived in India and studied 25 years with Manjushrimitra. He transmited the lineage there notably to Padmasambhava. He arranged the Mennagde teachings into outer, inner, esoteric and innermost esoteric, then concealed these in temples in China and retired to a charnel ground. At his death he left his last testament, The Seven Nails to Jnanasutra:

Homage to perfect wisdom
The unity of uncreated clear light and emptiness
The great self-existing awareness, open and impartial,
Which pervades and abides in all

Nail the original immutable ground
With the seven great nails of the path of the nondual
The difficult path between samsara and nirvana
And the primordial great bliss will arise
Nail together samsara and nirvana
With the unobstructed clarity of pure gnosis
Nail together the observer and the observed
With self-existing clear light
Nail together mind and matter
With the spontaneous stainless essence
Nail together nihilism and eternalism
With liberation from all views
Nail together dharma and dharmata
With absolute awareness
Nail together elation and depression
With the absence of sense impressions
Nail together appearances and emptiness
With the primordial perfection of the limitless space of dharma

Jnanasutra is said to come from eastern India. He and Vimalamitra, who will later went to Tibet and oversaw many translations of Indian Buddhist texts into Tibetan, became friends and students together at Bodhgaya. Vajrasattva appeared to the two of them and said that they needed to go to China to get teachings. Vimalamitra went and received the Dzoghcen teachings there from Sri Simha, but not the texts. He came back and related his experiences to Jnanasutra who went and served Sri Simha for twelve years, getting all the oral instructions, empowerments and innermost esoteric teachings, meditating in the mountains of China, not an easy task, from his account,

The master, Sri Simha, kept behaving in mysterious ways, wandering in charnel grounds, transforming himself into various forms, mingling with dakinis and fearful beings without the slightest fear.

Jnanasutra received the Seven Nails, and then went back to India. There he met up again with Vimalamitra and gave him all the teachings and texts he didn’t get in China. At his death, he left his last testament, The Four Methods of Contemplation to Vimalamitra:

Homage to the primordially pure emptiness
How wonderful! If you train in these, joy will arise naturally
If you wish to attain the state of great equanimity
Gain experience in these contemplations
If you wish to be trained in all esoteric activities
Maintain all the appearances
In the directness of natural contemplation
If you wish to gain strength in your meditation
Remain in the union of mind and phenomena
Through the view of ocean like natural contemplation
If you wish to attain self-liberation from all views
Bring phenomena to cessation
Through mountain like natural contemplation
If you wish to attain all the results as they are
Liberate all the errors in training with the mountain like view

Vimalamitra had now received teachings from Sri Simha and Jnanasutra. He also had pure, direct visions of Garab Dorje. He was invited to Tibet with Padmasambhava by King Trisong Detsen and became famous as one of the first translators of Buddhist texts into Tibetan. He shared teachings with Padmasambhava, and also created his own lineage of teachings which eventually made their way to Lonchenpa in the 14th century.

After teaching in Tibet, it is said Vimalamitra returned to China to meditate on Wutai Mountain where he attained rainbow body. Since then there are many sightings of him. One story tells of a great lama who went there with his disciples. On the mountain, they ran across a grubby shoemaker. The lama went up and talked with him. The disciples saw the shoemaker put his shoes on the lama’s head and force him to drink dirty water from a pail next to him. Understandably, they were all disgusted by this. Afterwards they asked their lama what had just happened. “That was Vimalamitra,” he says, “and I received several important empowerments from him. Obviously your vision is still not pure!”