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Mon May 4, 2020, 11:12 PM

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.”


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