Dzogchen and Mahamudra, Two Great Paths

Dzogchen and Mahamudra, the Great Perfection and the Great Seal, are powerful meditative systems for revealing the nature of mind.

By Adeu Rinpoche

Samantabhadra Buddha (detail), Tibet collection of rubin museum of art (acc. #2003.25.3). Samantabhadra is the primordial buddha of the nyingma tradition.

The meditation approach of Mahamudra as found in the Tibetan Kagyu tradition and the Dzogchen approach from the Nyingma tradition are identical in essence—you may follow one or the other—however, each has its own unique instructions. In each system, Mahamudra and Dzogchen, various methods are used to reveal the nature of bare awareness itself.

When embarking on meditation practice in the Mahamudra tradition, a meditator is taught three aspects: stillness, occurrence, and noticing. Cultivating stillness means training in cutting off involvement in memories of the past or entertaining thoughts about what might happen in the the future; you refrain from constructing plans about the next moment. In the present, you simply and completely let go. You drop everything and settle into now. In the Mahamudra tradition, stillness refers to not churning out new thoughts or following thoughts about the past, present, or future.

At first, you will notice that totally settling, without any involvement in thought, does not last that long. Due to the karmic force of one’s internal energy currents, new thoughts are continually being formed—thoughts grasping at subject and object, at pleasant and unpleasant. The activation of such patterns is known as occurrence.

When one’s attention is quiet and still, there is a knowing of what there is. When one is involved in thinking about this and that, there is a knowing of what there is. In the context of stillness and occurrence of thought, this knowing is called noticing. These are the three aspects: stillness, occurrence, and noticing.

The training in Mahamudra is this: each time you notice that you are thinking of something, disengage from it—suspend your attention. Pull back into being quiet and still, and simply remain that way. When you notice that you are thinking about something, again simply return to stillness. That is the training. By repeating this over and over, you will become more familiar and more experienced. This is how to progress.

As you grow more capable, there will come a point when the occurrence of thought will no longer have such a strong hold on your attention. It will become easier to settle back in quietness. Eventually, every time a thought begins to stir, rather than getting caught up in it, you will simply be able to remain still, until the force of the thought occurrence weakens, as awareness grows and strengthens. The dividing line between stillness and occurrence will fade away. This is the point when you can notice the actual identity of mind’s nature. In other words, vipassana, or heightened meditative vision, begins.

The great yogi Milarepa said, “In the gap between the past thought and the next thought, thought-free wakefulness continuously dawns.” This is the way it is, whether you recognize it or not. The difference is being able to recognize it; the opportunity to do so is there all the time. This is the training.

Tilopa, Tibet, 1600–1699 private collection (har #61215). The mahasiddha Tilopa is regarded as the founder of the Kagyu lineage.

In the beginning, as a thought vanishes, that is called stillness. As a new thought arises, that is called occurrence. Bringing attention to what is happening is called noticing. These three—stillness, occurrence, and noticing—have to do with becoming increasingly aware of the gap between thoughts. This aware quality grows stronger and stronger only with training. You cannot artificially increase this. Here, the difference between shamatha and vipassana is the difference between recognizing that which is noticing and the actual awake quality.

According to Dzogchen, when your shamatha practice is simply remaining in a neutral, indifferent state without any thought activity whatsoever, this is known as the all-ground. It is simply a way of being free of thought involvement. Moreover, when attention becomes active within the expanse of the all-ground, that activity is known as dualistic mind. When the dividing line between stillness and thought occurrence fades away, and the strength of attention is intensified, rigpa, or pure awareness, is revealed. Depending on whether one is using the Mahamudra or Dzogchen approach, there are different terminologies, but the actual training is essentially the same.

According to Dzogchen instructions, there are three points to remember. First, track down the dualistic mind or normal attention. Second, discover the mind’s secret identity, what dualistic mind has hidden away. Third, reveal its vanishing point.

To track down means to investigate how the attentive quality of dualistic mind behaves, where it comes from, where it is right now, and where it goes. The second point, discovering mind’s secret identity, is actually finding out what mind is, namely, a seeming presence—there is no thing there. It is just some behavior that is mistaken for being a real thing while actually there is no thing there whatsoever. It is only when we investigate that we discover that this attentive quality is not a thing, that it has fooled us. It is called a nonexistent or seeming presence. The last point—revealing the vanishing point of dualistic mind—refers to the fact that the moment you look for this attentive quality and what it is made of, you discover that there is no actual thing. It simply vanishes every time you look. This is the Dzogchen approach: finding out what dualistic mind really is.

This is how to discover and enter rigpa. To begin, we need to be clear about what dualistic mind is. Find out the identity of this wakeful quality that clings to reality by inquiring into the arrival, remaining, and disappearance of dualistic mind. Where did mind come from? Where is it right now? When it is no more, where did it go? This is the point when rigpa can be introduced or pointed out.

In Mahamudra, the procedure begins with shamatha that is accompanied by certain experiences or meditative moods called bliss, clarity, and nonthought. Once one proceeds into vipassana in an uninterrupted way, so that the mind is no longer distractedly flitting here and there, but has some ability to sustain that meditative state, this is called one-pointedness, the first stage of Mahamudra. Continuing, you reach a level of progress known as simplicity, which leads into another state known as one taste, and finally you achieve a state known as nonmeditation, or literally, noncultivation. This means that there is no longer anything that needs to be brought forth or cultivated by an agent cultivating it. In other words, the primordial state of enlightenment is discovered. Mind’s essence is already enlightened. Though in the Dzogchen approach, this discovery is called being re-enlightened because we are already pre-enlightened, Mahamudra does not use these terms re-enlightened and preenlightened. However at the fourth stage of nonmeditation the meaning is basically the same.

The Dzogchen path begins with rigpa being pointed out. This is like being shown the beginning of the road. One should not just stand there and wait, but must move forward. Sometimes people misunderstand and think it is enough to have received the pointing-out instruction and recognized rigpa in one’s experience, and that they have achieved all there is to achieve. This however is not sufficient. Recognizing rigpa is only the beginning of the Dzogchen path. We need to follow through and it requires a lot of perseverance. Giving the pointing-out instruction is like pointing to the ground and saying, “This is the road to Lhasa.” If you just stand there, you will never get to Lhasa. You need to proceed step by step along the road, putting one foot in front of the other. Similarly, having recognized rigpa, you need to train and progress along the path. Of course you could say that the perseverance is effortless, but this definitely does not mean that we should ignore the need for practice. It is said that there are two types of Dzogchen practitioners: the lazy type and the diligent type. For the lazy type there is the practice of trekchö, the training in primordial purity. For the diligent practitioner there is the tögal path of training in spontaneous presence. But in both cases there is still the need to practice.

There are four stages of development in Dzogchen. The first stage comes with recognizing rigpa, which is sometimes called manifest dharmata, or innate nature—the natural state seen as it actually is. As you progress and your experience deepens, the second stage is called increased meditative experience. The third stage is awareness reaching fullness while the fourth is the exhaustion of all concepts and dualistic phenomena. This last stage is equivalent to the stage of nonmeditation in Mahamudra. As mentioned above, the ultimate state of enlightenment is being re-enlightened in the pre-enlightened original ground. The great Dzogchen master Paltrül Rinpoche often told his disciples, “You should leave room for progress. You should not think that you are already there and that there is nothing more to attain. Even though it is the state of rigpa, leave room for progress. Don’t be satisfied, it’s too early. There is still room for improvement in your practice.”

Garab Dorje date/source unknown. Garab dorje is considered the first human master of the dzogchen teachings in an unbroken lineage originating with the primordial buddha Samantabhadra.

What is pointed out according to the Mahamudra approach is the true state of original wakefulness as your ordinary mind. Once this has been pointed out to you, it is called mindessence. The instruction is: “Look into mindessence. Sustain mind-essence. This is the way.” According to Dzogchen instructions, what is pointed out is called rigpa, which is the intrinsic original wakefulness that is present within you. Once it is pointed out you recognize rigpa and sustain it. There is no real difference between these two teachings. Of course, there are some extra instructions in the two systems. It is like approaching Bodhgaya from the south or the north—both roads lead to the same destination. The pointing-out instruction is the same as showing the unmistaken way that leads straight to Bodhgaya. If one truly recognizes the way one needs to train to be enlightened, and if one follows this exactly, there is no doubt that this is the unmistaken path. However, one must still follow the path. How swiftly you reach the goal is entirely up to you and your diligence.

After having given Gampopa all the necessary instructions on meditation, Milarepa told him, “Now it is up to you to go and practice.” As Gampopa was leaving, Milarepa accompanied him for a stretch. At one point he stopped and told Gampopa, “I have given you all the teachings, but there is one instruction I have held back.” Gampopa thought that he should make a mandala offering, and as he made preparations to do so, Milarepa said, “There is no need to offer a mandala. I will just give you this teaching.” Milarepa turned around, lifted his skirt, and bared his buttocks. They were so calloused that Gampopa could not tell whether they were made of flesh, stone, or wood. After he had given his student a good look, Milarepa said, “If you want to reach perfection in meditation practice, then you should sit as I have. I sat on solid stone continuously for so long that my butt is like a fossil—it’s as hard as stone. You should train with this kind of perseverance. That is my last instruction.” It is not sufficient to look at where you are standing and think that you have arrived somewhere else. Recognizing the awakened state of rigpa is not enlightenment, but the path towards enlightenment. You still need to develop the full strength of this recognition by training continually.

Now let’s identify what we train in during a meditation session. Generally this is said to be “natural mind” or “ordinary mind,” but what is that? Does it mean our normal state of mind or the specific natural state of mind as described in Dzogchen? The great treasure revealer Sherab Özer said, “It is not enough to suspend your attention into not distinguishing between anything at all. Simply not meditating or keeping any concept of meditator or meditation object is not enough. This is likely the vacant state of absentmindedness that is the basis for all samsara and nirvana.”

According to Dzogchen, one must identify the ground of liberation, the natural state of rigpa, which is not the same as the ordinary state of mind known as the all-ground. No matter how many thousands of years one trains in the state of the all-ground, there will be absolutely no progress— one will simply arise again in the state of samsara—whereas training in the natural state of rigpa is nothing other than the ground of liberation. Therefore it is important to distinguish the normal, ordinary mind of the all-ground from the natural, ordinary mind that is the ground of liberation, and train accordingly. To put it simply, according to Dzogchen, self-knowing original wakefulness is pointed out in our natural, ordinary state of mind.

According to Mahamudra, the essence of meditation practice is also found within the ordinary, natural state of mind. This is pointed out to be original, true wakefulness. Having recognized this, one can then proceed to train in it, and as one’s training deepens, there are certain stages of progress that are described as the four yogas. Each of these are further divided into the three categories of lesser, medium, and higher capacity. These are collectively known as the twelve aspects of the four yogas on the path of Mahamudra. Another approach is to apply the structure of the four yogas to each of the yogas, resulting in sixteen aspects. These are equally valid and merely describe the ever-deepening levels of experience and stability in the natural, ordinary mind.

The Dzogchen path has a similar explanation. According to trekchö, there is a growing sense of becoming more and more accustomed to the state of rigpa, which is described as the stages of the path known as the four visions. These four can also be applied to the practice of tögal.

Whether you progress according to Dzogchen or Mahamudra, please understand that ultimately there is no real difference. There is not one awakened state called Mahamudra and a separate one known as Dzogchen. It is all of one taste within the expanse of dharmakaya. What these two words actually refer to is the basic nature of things. Since all phenomena, all that appears and exists within samsara and nirvana have the stamp of great bliss, it is called the “Great Seal,” which is the literal meaning of Mahamudra. Similarly, since all phenomena are perfected in the expanse of self-existing awareness, it is called the “Great Perfection,” or Dzogchen.

Fruition, or the final result of the path, is described as awakening to true enlightenment within the expanse of the three kayas, or bodies of enlightenment. This is explained to be the empty essence that is realized as dharmakaya, the cognizant nature that is realized as sambhogakaya, and the ever-present capacity that is realized as nirmanakaya. These three kayas are also realized to be indivisible within the single sphere of original wakefulness. This holds true whether we call that state of fruition Mahamudra or Dzogchen.

Vajradhara Buddha (detail) Tibet, 1600–1699 drigung (Kagyu) Lineage collection of Rubin museum of art (acc.# c2006.66.95). Vajradhara is the primordial buddha of the Kagyu lineage.

From Freedom in Bondage: The Life and Teachings of Adeu Rinpoche, translated by Erik Pema Kunsang and compiled by Marcia Binder Schmidt. Published by Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2011.

Adeu Rinpoche

Adeu Rinpoche (1931–2007) was a master of the Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism who discovered hidden texts (termas) and wrote extensive teachings and instructions. He lived at Tsechu Monastery in Nanchen, Eastern Tibet, but spent twenty-three years in prison after the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. This article is from a new book of his teachings, Freedom in Bondage.