Holistic or Radical Dzogchen?

Dzogchen has been growing in popularity over the last three decades, arguably playing a significant role in the explosion of interest in Tibetan Buddhism in the West. It’s not hard to see the reasons for this. Taking as their raw material nothing more than the present state of one’s own mind, the teachings of Dzogchen point out that this mind is inherently pure, already enlightened, and merely overlooked in our day-to-day distraction. This mind, as it rests in the present moment’s awareness (known in Tibetan as rigpa), is beyond conceptualization and can’t be fabricated through effort.

As Dzogchen has found increasing popularity in the West, different ways of teaching it have emerged. Three newly published works highlight this difference, two of them favoring a traditional approach following a gradual path of practice laid out by the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the other presenting Dzogchen largely stripped of this context. While these two approaches to Dzogchen are not the only ones taught in the West, they do represent the predominant viewpoints and reflect a broader discussion of the forms Buddhism will take as it becomes increasingly established the West.

Dzogchen came to the West in the seventies as a key aspect of the teachings of many Tibetan masters of the Nyingma and Kagyu schools, but it was not until the eighties that it began to be widely known. This was largely through the teaching activities and writings of Namkhai Norbu, a Tibetan lama who had been invited to Italy in the sixties. Working at first as a professor at Naples University, in the seventies Namkhai Norbu gradually began teaching dharma students, focusing on the presentation of Dzogchen.

Then, in 1986, came the publication of Namkhai Norbu’s The Crystal and the Way of Light, which brought the teachings of Dzogchen to a far wider audience in the English-speaking world. The book was an engaging mix of autobiography, anecdote, and Dzogchen teachings. It was the first place I encountered Dzogchen, and I was fascinated. But I and perhaps many other readers at the time were unaware that The Crystal presented Dzogchen in a rather idiosyncratic way, almost independent of Buddhism. Namkhai Norbu was himself quite clear that this was an unusual approach, a response to the problem of communicating Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

Keith Dowman’s Natural Perfection (which, incidentally, has a foreword by Namkhai Norbu) is a translation of a key work by Longchenpa, the most important exponent of Dzogchen. In his introduction, Dowman presents the reader with a Dzogchen that is accessible without context and beyond anything that we might think of as religion. For Dowman, Dzogchen is best for the West because it “addresses the mood of our Western cultural moment.” Yet, he warns, we must be careful to separate the essence of Dzogchen from its Tibetan cultural context, where it is “embedded in the Vajrayana Nyingma tradition.”

Like Namkhai Norbu, Dowman offers the reader the essence of Dzogchen stripped of any cultural trappings, which he calls radical Dzogchen:

In Western society the message of Dzogchen may come as a relief, particularly to those who feel that much of Vajrayana Buddhism is culturally alien, or that the cultishness of “Lamaism” is akin to [George Orwell’s] Animal Farm, or that the great gains of the Protestant Reformation and the move toward nondogmatic humanism seem to have been thrown away in a fascination for oriental ritualism and dogma…

Dowman’s words resonate with a tendency in Western Buddhism to isolate and adopt those parts of the tradition that seem to accord with our Protestant sensibility and lack Asian cultural baggage. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth, this was reflected in the bias toward the “original” teachings of the Buddha, which were believed to be essentially rational but corrupted with ritualism.

Later, Zen Buddhism became an ideal vehicle for the antirational, antiorganized religion counterculture (still very much Protestant in its sensibilities). One of the great popularizers of Zen, Alan Watts, played a major part in this Western adaptation of Zen. In Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen he wrote that “the underlying Protestant lawlessness of Beat Zen disturbs the Square Zennists very seriously. For Square Zen is the Zen of established tradition in Japan, with its clearly defined hierarchy, its rigid discipline, and its specific tests of satori.” Though he was no Beat, it’s clear where Watts’ sympathies lay.

Similarly, in the first flush of the reception of Dzogchen in the West, it has often been presented as if its association with Tibetan Buddhism was merely accidental. Dowman’s radical, or Protestant, Dzogchen is—like Alan Watts’ Zen—distinguished by its transcendence of the other aspects of Buddhist practice. In this, Dowman finds ample support in the work of Longchenpa, whose text, The Treasury of the Way of Abiding, along with an autocommentary and a further commentary by Dowman, make up the remainder of this book. This inspired, poetic meditation on the nature of awareness states again and again that in awareness’ true nature there is no virtue or sin, no vows to uphold, no practices to maintain.

Yet even here there is context. Longchenpa contextualizes his own inspired poetry with an explanation of the master–disciple relationship, the need for the students to maintain the samaya vows of the tantric path, and the importance of keeping the Dzogchen teachings secret from those who might misinterpret them. Dowman ignores this section in his own commentary, suggesting that it may be a later addition.

Now, since a translation of The Treasury has been published by Richard Barron as part of his ongoing project to translate all of Longchenpa’s Seven Treasuries, readers may wonder what advantage Dowman offers over Barron. I suspect it will be a matter of taste. For instance, compare Barron’s translation, “In unobstructed awareness, without limit or center” with Dowman’s translation of the same line, “In the holistic transparence of zero-dimensional rigpa.”

Though Dowman aims to avoid the “strings of turgid jargon” that he feels characterize most translations of Dzogchen texts, it seems fair to say that here one style of jargon has replaced another. And while Dowman’s radical Dzogchen translations are meant to be readable without contextual explanation, this is difficult to accomplish for any translation of a Buddhist text, and especially for Dzogchen, steeped as it is in the Buddhist literary heritage, full of wordplay, allusion, and metaphor.

In Entrance to the Great Perfection, Cortland Dahl takes a much more traditional approach to the Dzogchen teachings. In his presentation, context is all. His introduction lays out the path, from the Longchen Nyingtig preliminary practices, or ngöndro, to the tantric development and completion stages and Dzogchen itself.

The Longchen Nyingtig ngöndro, revealed by the eighth-century hermit Jigme Lingpa, has been translated before and is presented in Patrul Rinpoche’s Words of My Perfect Teacher. Yet Dahl offers a valuable contribution for those engaging in this practice. Included here is a translation of Jigme Lingpa’s own commentary, as well as a more extensive commentary by his tulku (reincarnation), Jamyang Khyentse Özer, and the full and condensed liturgical arrangements. Dahl writes with the humility that characterizes the best translations, and with an eye to the right balance of accuracy and readability.

The book makes a strong case for approaching the Buddhist path in a holistic way. In the Nyingma tradition, the complete Buddhist teachings are included in a series of nine “vehicles” beginning with the teachings of the sutras, and then moving on the to stages of tantric practice, before culminating in the ninth vehicle, Atiyoga or Dzogchen. Dahl writes that each of the nine vehicles is indispensable to the path:

Students of the Nyingma teachings practice these various approaches as a unity. Lower vehicles are not dispensed with in favor of supposedly “higher” teachings, but rather integrated into a more refined and holistic approach to spiritual development.

The holistic approach is also evident throughout Jigme Lingpa’s ngöndro text, which begins with poetic contemplations of the opportunities provided by a human life, and about impermanence, karma, and so on—simple teachings associated with the lowest of the nine vehicles. And it ends with an evocation of the spirit of Dzogchen, beyond good and bad, requiring no effort. The ability to embrace this contradiction—that there is nothing to be done, yet there is work for us to do—is surely one of the great achievements of Tibetan Buddhism.

Entrance also features an essay by a contemporary Tibetan heir to this tradition, Dzongsar Khyentse, who points out that the simple contemplations of the ngöndro were practiced by Tibetan masters such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche whose own realization of Dzogchen was widely recognized:

If ngöndro were only a preliminary or prerequisite practice, one would think that clearly we would not find great masters practicing it. Surely a great master like Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche would not need to practice the Nyingtik ngöndro, for instance. But I have seen this with my own eyes; even toward the end of their lives I found them practicing ngöndro. This alone should indicate why ngöndro practice is so necessary.

With the publication of The Collected Works of Dilgo Khyentse in three volumes, readers can make their own assessment of the teaching style of this particular master. Dilgo Khyentse was among the last generation of Tibetan teachers who spent their formative years in Kham, Eastern Tibet, where a cultural renaissance flowered in the nineteenth century. In 1959, Dilgo Khyentse escaped from Tibet with his family and a few disciples and went to Bhutan, where he became a tutor to the royal family. He also served as one of the Dalai Lama’s most revered teachers.

The Collected Works present teachings given by Dilgo Khyentse to his Western students, most of which have been individually published before. The translations themselves are excellent, showing how a simplicity and clarity of presentation, and a sympathetic translator, can make the traditional accessible. The subjects of these teachings are wide-ranging, and while only one is devoted specifically to Dzogchen, everything is shot through with the view of Dzogchen.

Reading these teachings from different times and places together in this collection reveals how Dilgo Khyentse presented Dzogchen holistically, within the context of the nine vehicles. What becomes apparent is the spaciousness of Dilgo Khyentse’s mind, as he moves from simple ethical teachings to the twists and turns of Indian Buddhist philosophy, to tantric visualization practices, to the open realm of Dzogchen. Such an approach suggests not only a brilliant intelligence, but also an internalization of one of Dzogchen’s key teachings, that there is nothing to be accepted and nothing to be rejected. By contrast, a Protestant Dzogchen, in which an acceptance of Dzogchen entails the rejection of so much else, appears strangely impoverished.

Yet it would be a mistake to think that the extremes of Protestant and traditional Dzogchen represent the only available options, or even that they need be in direct competition with each other. A few decades is very little time for transferring a new and complex system of thought and practice to another culture. These are early days indeed. Zen has had a little more time to settle into its Western context, and we all know that a decontextualized “Zen” has now entered popular culture. But there are also thousands of Zen centers in the West, most of which identify themselves with lineages derived from Asian teachers. The same trend seems to be emerging in Dzogchen, the subject of numerous publications in which it is presented without much context, yet generally put into practice within a Tibetan lineage and as part of the Vajrayana path.


SAM VAN SCHAIK is a researcher and scholar working at the British Library with the early Tibetan manuscripts from the sealed cave at Dunhuang. He is author of Approaching the Great Perfection and coeditor of Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang with Matthew Kapstein (Brill, 2010).