Dzogchen is a tradition of teachings in Tibetan Buddhism that focuses on discovering the ultimate ground of existence. Although it is normally associated with the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism founded by Padmasambhava, Dzogchen has been practiced over the centuries by masters of different schools and traditions. Its teaching claims that Dzogchen can be found in 13 different solar systems. It is an abbreviation of the Tibetan word Dzogpachenpo. Dzogpa means “complete” or “the end” and “chenpo” means great. Thus, it is often translated “Great Perfection. The focus of this teaching is on our uncreated, already-perfect primordial nature, and sits there waiting for us to remember it.
It is also known as “Atiyoga,” which means “primordial” or “topmost” yoga. Atiyoga constitutes the end-point of our spiritual evolution and results in direct experience of the absolute through spiritual awakening. Through this, we transcend ordinary mind and reach the Absolute of rigpa, which consists of rest. Everything is contained within this awareness, including both the absolute of emptiness and the relativity of sense-perception. Everything, good, bad, and indifferent, exists within Dzogpachenpo as an absolute field.
As a teaching, it is communicated through masters who directly transmit it to students. Rigpa eventually results from the dissolution of the conceptual mind, when the student has a direct and immediate experience of the nature of mind. In this respect, there is a parallel to Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on direct and immediate nonconceptual experience. There is an emphasis on transmission through lineage in this teaching, and the true realization of the nature of mind can only occur from the heaert of the master to the student, which is exemplified in the transmission from Garab Dorje’s last will and testament to Manjushrimitra or Shri Singha’s revelation of the nature of mind to Padmasambhava. Out of this realization comes a compassion for those who remain unawakened, and thus, as in Mahayana Buddhism, this Tibetan teaching has a great interpersonal focus that both traditions see as lacking in Theravada Buddhism, which is comparatively individualistic.
The word “Rigpa” is a Tibetan word that refers to intelligence or awareness, and within the Dzogchen tradition, has the more technical meaning of referring to the innermost nature of mind. Dzogchen practice focuses specifically on realizing this innermost ultimate nature, resulting in enlightenment. It is said to be the distinguishing mark of the Dzogchen teaching, and is seen as intelligence or awareness that transcends the ordinary mind. In contrast to this is the Tibetan word “sem,” referring to ordinary mind, as opposed to rigpa, which refers to pure awareness. Sem consists of distorted relative perception based on dualistic perceptions of subject and object, while rigpa is a form of nondual awareness free from such distortion.
The essential practices of Dzogchen can be summarized in the four practices of shamatha, vipashyana, cutting through and direct crossing over. These four practices alone are sufficient ground for resulting in the rainbow body that indicates culmination of this path. Rainbow body is a concept in Tibetan Buddhism, according to which certain meditation practices can alter the appearance of the human body, resulting in its transformation into five radiant lights. Tibetan Buddhism conceives of physical matter as made up of the five elements of space, air, fire, water and Earth. The Tibetan Book of the Dead are undifferentiated elements which produce the human body, causing the whole of the cosmos to be tained within the body. Some Buddhist meditation practices are intended to alter the gravitational field of these five elements of the body and transform them into the five radiant lights of the color spectrum, which results after years of specific practices.