Dzokpa Chenpo (རྫོགས་པ་ཆེན་པོ་), shortened as Dzokchen and rendered in English as Great Perfection, is a tradition of meditation that is practiced primarily but not exclusively by followers of the Nyingma school. In Tibet, Dzokchen teachings have been espoused by the Bon as well as the Nyingma traditions, though masters from other Buddhist traditions also incorporated Dzokchen into their practice. Its adherents consider Dzokchen to be the highest form of meditation techniques, and the fastest and easiest path to enlightenment. From its Indian origins as a specific method or technique of advanced meditation, Dzokchen emerged as a distinct spiritual system with its own corpus of literature, philosophical theories, pantheon of deities and numerous methods of practice.
The origin of Dzokchen in India is traced through the term mahāsandhi, the concept of development stage, completion stage and great completion/perfection stage, and the Dzokchen tantras that were translated into Tibetan in the 8th century. Dzokchen is also known through the terms atiyoga or primordial yoga. Initially these terms referred to a type of yogic practice but later featured as the highest school of thought and vehicle for enlightenment in the Nyingma spiritual doxography. It tops the nine vehicles including the three sūtra vehicles, three outer tantras, and three inner tantric systems of mahāyoga, anuyoga and atiyoga.
Dzokchen teachings are said to have been first delivered by the celestial Buddha Samantabhadra and passed down to the first human master Garab Dorje, who was born in Oḍḍiyāna. From him, it was passed down to Mañjuśrīmitra, Śri Siṃha, Jñānagarbha and eventually to Vimalamitra and Padmasambhava, both of whom transmitted the teachings to Tibet in the 8th century. The Dzokchen tradition subsequently expanded and benefited from the interactions with Chinese Chan Buddhism, other Buddhist traditions imported from India and Nepal, and local Tibetan innovation and reappropriation.
The teachings of Dzokchen are generally classified into the Semdé (སེམས་སྡེ་) or Mind Series, Longdé (ཀློང་སྡེ་) or Space Series, and the Menngakdé (མན་ངག་སྡེ་) or Instruction Series. The Mind Series and the Space Series were passed down in Tibet mainly through the great scholar Vimalamitra and the translator Vairocana. The Instruction Series is further divided into the outer cycle (ཕྱི་སྐོར་), inner cycle (ནང་སྐོར་), secret (གསང་སྐོར་), and innermost secret unsurpassed cycle (ཡང་གསང་བླ་མེད་སྐོར་), and the last cycle includes the popular teachings of the Nyingthik (སྙིང་ཐིག་) or Seminal Heart. The Seminal Heart teachings passed down from Vimalamitra are known as Bima Nyingtik (བི་མ་སྙིང་ཐིག་) and those from Padmasambhava are known as Khadro Nyingtik (མཁའ་འགྲོ་སྙིང་ཐིག་). The Seminal Heart teachings were mostly revealed as treasure teachings by various treasure discoverers. In the fourteenth century, the Seminal Heart teachings saw a great champion in Longchenpa, who synthesized the Seminal Heart teachings of Dzokchen in his Seven Treasures (མཛོད་བདུན་), Trilogy of Natural Freedom (རང་གྲོལ་སྐོར་གསུམ་), and Trilogy of Natural Ease (ངལ་གསོ་སྐོར་གསུམ་). The latest cycle among the Dzokchen Seminal Heart teachings is the Longchen Nyingthig (ཀློང་ཆེན་སྙིང་ཐིག་) or the Seminal Heart of Vast Space which was revealed by Jigmé Lingpa. In terms of literary genre, Dzokchen teachings can be classified into gyud (རྒྱུད་) or tantras, lung (ལུང་) or expositions, and man-ngag (མན་ངག་) or instructions.
In content, the Dzokchen teachings focus on the innate nature of the mind, the reflexive awareness or rigpa (རིག་པ་) which is empty, luminous and immanent. This natural awareness is actualized through the two main practices of threkchö (ཁྲེགས་ཆོད་), or breakthrough, and thögal (ཐོད་རྒལ་), or skipping stages. Threkchö practice reveals the mind’s aspect of being primordially pure or kadag (ཀ་དག་) through the four ways of natural abiding (ཅོག་བཞག་བཞི་), whereas thögal brings out the mind’s aspect of being spontaneously present or lhundrub (ལྷུན་གྲུབ་) through the four visions (སྣང་བ་བཞི་). To this effect of actually pristine awareness, the Dzokchen tradition also includes the preliminary practices, deity visualisation, mantra recitation, and many other esoteric methods which are integrated from other tantric traditions.
In Bhutan, Dzokchen is one of the most elevated meditation systems. Its preliminary practices and the deity practices associated with Dzokchen constitute some of the most popular Buddhist practices in Bhutan. It is practiced in the Longchen Nyingthig, Peling, Jangter and Tersar traditions of the Nyingma school.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why We Do What We Do.