Dzogchen is a Tibetan word meaning “great” (rdzogs) “perfection” or “completion” (chen). It refers to a genre of Buddhist texts and associated oral transmissions and meditation practices in Tibet’s Buddhist and Bonpo traditions. In general, Dzogchen texts express the presence of a state of awareness transcending all dualities and conceptual elaborations. Common terms for this kind of awareness are “mind itself” (sems nyid) and “knowing” (rig pa). Dzogchen texts often state that in the presence of this awareness, religious practice oriented toward enlightenment is dualistic and, therefore, not only unnecessary but also obstructive. However, Dzogchen texts and oral transmissions have tended to exist in the context of Tibet’s tantric traditions. Dzogchen is considered one of the three “inner yogas,” which are Mahāyoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga. In most contexts, Atiyoga is synonymous with Dzogchen. Of Tibet’s main schools, it is the Nyingma lineages that have produced and transmitted most of the Dzogchen literature, though Dzogchen has also been transmitted in the Kagyü schools and, to a much lesser extent, in the Sakya and Gelug schools as well.
According to its own lineage histories, Dzogchen originated in India before coming to Tibet during the first wave of the transmission of Buddhism in the 8th and 9th centuries. See Dudjom Rinpoche 1991 and Nyoshul Khenpo 2005 for translations of traditional historical material. Namkhai Norbu 1996 gives an accessible introduction that is based largely in the traditional presentation of Dzogchen. Bonpo Dzogchen has a different historical tradition, for which see Bonpo Dzogchen. Dzogchen is traditionally divided into three classes, namely those of “mind” (sems sde), “space” (klong sde), and “esoteric instruction” (man ngag sde). However, note that these terms are not found before the 11th century, and other classes of Dzogchen text, such as “peak essence” (spyi ti), are also found, which do not fit within the traditional triad. Within the “esoteric instruction” class, a genre of texts known as “heart essence” (snying thig) became especially popular from the 14th century onward. Overviews of these developments can be found in Karmay 1988, Karmay 1998, Germano 1994, and Achard 1999. The single-best resource for texts, in Tibetan, on Dzogchen and on any other subject concerning Tibetan Buddhism is the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center.
Achard, Jean-Luc. L‘essence perlée du secret: Recherches philologiques et historiques sur l‘origine de la Grande Perfection dans la tradition rNying ma pa. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1999.
An overview of the traditional accounts of the origins and early development of Dzogchen, through the texts of the heart essence (snying thig).
Dudjom Rinpoche. Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje: The Nying-ma School of Tibetan Buddhism—Its Fundamentals and History. 2 vols. Translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991.
The best traditional presentation of the doctrines, practices, and history of the Nyingma tradition. Explains the place of Dzogchen at the pinnacle of meditative practice and gives brief biographies of many important authors and revealers of Dzogchen texts.
Germano, David. “Architecture and Absence in the Secret Tantric History of the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen).” Journal of the International Association for Buddhist Studies 17.2 (1994): 203–335.
A thoughtful essay on the historical development of Dzogchen, placing Dzogchen texts in the context of other developments in Tibetan Buddhism.
Karmay, Samten Gyaltsen. The Great Perfection (rdzogs chen): A Philosophical and Meditative Teaching in Tibetan Buddhism. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1988.
An essential work on Dzogchen, dealing with the elements out of which the early tradition appeared, the two texts found in the Dunhuang manuscripts, the relationship of Dzogchen and Chan, and later doctrinal developments.
Karmay, Samten Gyaltsen. The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet. Kathmandu, Nepal: Mandala Book Point, 1998.
A collection of articles published elsewhere. Nos. 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, and 8 are directly relevant to the study of Dzogchen.
Namkhai Norbu. Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State. Edited by Adriano Clemente. Translated from the Italian by John Shane. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.
Of the many books by Namkhai Norbu, this is the best overview of Dzogchen.
Nyoshul Khenpo. A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage; a Spiritual History of the Teachings of Natural Great Perfection. Translated by Richard Barron. Junction City, CA: Padma, 2005.
An extensive collection of traditional biographies of Dzogchen lineage holders.
The single-best resource for texts in Tibetan on Dzogchen and on any other subject concerning Tibetan Buddhism.
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