The Higher Teachings

SEARCH     Home     Site Map    Symbolism    Calendar     Karmapa     News    DONATE

You may already have encountered the terms Lam Rim, Lam Dre, Dzogchen, Mahamudra and Maha Ati.  These are the designations of systems or methods, views or attitudes that are characteristic of various schools of Tibetan Buddhism.  

Lam Rim

The first, the Lam Rim teachings, comprise a graduated path to wisdom that is usually associated with the Gelugpas, but is used by all schools of Tibetan Buddhism and, since it refers to a gradual and ordered system, is the method used in almost all the world's Buddhist traditions in one form or another.  The sect to which HH Dalai Lama belongs calls Tsong Khapa's great text, known as the Great Lam Rim (Lam Rim Chenmo) "the definitive teachings on the Path to Enlightenment."

Lam Dre

The Sakyapa path is called Lam Dre, The Path and Its Fruit.

The other three terms Maha-ati, Dzogchen and Mahamudra, are really only two.  The refer to practices that teach the way of directly experiencing the true nature of consciousness -- what is usually called "Mind." Maha-ati is Sanskrit for the Tibetan expression, Dzogchen, a a term generally associated with Nyingmapas. 


Mahamudra is Sanskrit for the Tibetan Chagchen (spelled phyag-rgya-chen -po, or  -mo) associated with the Kagyu.  In the prayers that accompany the ngondro or "extraordinary preliminary practices," we pray to achieve the fruition of our practices, Mahamudra.

Mahamudra is like being immersed in the ocean, while Maha Ati is like looking over the expanse of that ocean. 

(< From www.baynet)

The two approaches may have first been taught as a combination by the First Chagme Rinpoche (17th-century.)  However, their connection was fully understood at least by the time of the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339) for, in the Aspiration Prayer of Mahamudra, he says, 

"Being free from mind-productions, it is the Mahamudra.  Free from extremes, it is the great Madhyamika.  Since it is the consummation of everything, it is called the Great [Maha] Ati.  May I have the confidence that, by understanding one, all are realized."

The "it" which Karmapa Rangjung Dorje refers to is the ultimate nature of the mind.  Note that Karmapa considers the philosophical realization of Emptiness known as Madhyamika, as also leading to realization of that nature.  

His Eminence Jamgon Tai Situ Rinpoche reiterates that in his commentary on Karmapa Rangjung Dorje's The Aspiration Prayer of Mahamudra, the Definitive Meaning mentioned above. (Shenpen Osel: That on-line journal has a number of teachings on Mahamudra. See vol. 3, 2000 especially.) 

"Karmapa says, being beyond any kind of conceptual limitation is Mahamudra. Being beyond any kind of extreme like nihilism, eternalism, etc. is the middle way, the Great Middle Way. The essence of all together, the unity of everything, is called the great completeness, Dzogchen. Then he says, by knowing any one of these, one realizes the essence of everything."

Dzogchen and Mahamudra can both be taught as a progression of Ground, Path, and Fruition. Ground establishes the view and includes information including principles which we can use for orientation; Path involves the implementation of Ground and may refer to specific meditation techniques, and Fruition is the result of the Path -- in the case of Mahamudra and Maha-Ati, it is Enlightenment.

Mahamudra is taught in all the Kagyu lineages, and in the Gelug lineage as well.  Dzogchen is primarily a Nyingma practice but many teachers, eg. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, are fully qualified to teach either.  Also, On the Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen is a popular topic of public discourse. 

Both practices have relatively easy to understand instructions but books are not much help.  The genuine application of these practices require a qualified guide, and there really is the necessity for the special transmission and "pointing out instructions" to be given by a qualified person.  (Look at the above oval image again, please.)






". . . like a lance brandished in space." ~ Kh. Karthar

<sky over western Scotland, July 2005 (c H. Holt)




The Guhyagarbha tantric tradition holds that the Dzogchen (or Dzokchen) teachings were introduced by fully awakened beings to the sage Vimalakirti, and then codified by King Dza of Uddiyana, the region where Padmasambhava appeared.  In the form of that tantra, the method was passed by the yogi Kukkuraja to Sri Pramodavajra (Tib. Garab Dorje,) who at that time (ca. 775 CE) was a Buddhist monk. 

Accomplishing full realization, Garab Dorje as a wandering yogi then taught mahapandita (great expert) Manjushrimitra, of Nalanda University in central India.   Later, both yogis taught at the great stupa of Shankarakuta.

The essence of this non-dual (Skt. advaita) approach is, that through the pointing out instructions of an empowered, experienced Dzogchen teacher, one can  be 

1. directly introduced to one's own nature which is not different from the Dharmakaya; 
2. directly recognize (Skt. pratyabhijna) that singular state, and  
3. through this experience, directly immerse in it by means of faith in Liberation.

Nyoshul Khenpo in Natural Great Perfection: Teachings on Dzogchen holds that experience is a function of the "creative energy of the ground state of being" or the dharmakaya.  Traleg Rinpoche who is a Kagyupa said, in a teaching about Dzogchen, that Mahamudra and Dzogchen are the same since both say that the dharmakaya, sambogakaya and nirmanakaya are present in everyone, and not only in buddhas.  

This is so when we see that:  dharmakaya - is the nature of the original state of being (Emptiness) sambogakaya- is the essence of the original state (luminosity) and  nirmanakaya- the unceasing activity of mind, its experiences and responsiveness.

These three concepts are fundamentally the same thing and that fact can be recognized by everyone under the guidance of a teacher who has seen and understood that.  That attitude or view really cannot be described or conceptualized, for there is no object or subject to talk about.

Honey & Maple Syrup

Alex Wilding, in response to a question, to the Kagyu email list, Sept. 3, 2007:

. . .  .   . . .   .   there is a broad similarity between the two. Even the
speculation that the ultimate experience of the two is the same is not
particularly remarkable.

Coming in a bit closer, there is also a broad similarity in the paths of the
two systems.  As both systems are looked on as the pinnacle of Buddhist
practice, and of Tantric practice in particular, they both assume that the
practice is based on first of all the path of renunciation and individual
liberation, and also on the bodhisattva path of universal compassion as well
as the wisdom of the empty nature of all phenomena.  

Both will begin with consideration of topics like precious human birth, impermanence, karma and suffering. Both will put a lot of emphasis on the special foundations involving tantric refuge (by "tantric" I mean refuge in the three roots of lama, yidam and protector as well as the three jewels of buddha, dharma and sangha), bodhicitta meditations, Vajrasattva practice for purification, mandala offering, guru yoga. 

On top of this, both paths will then be likely to involve other more specialised and/or elaborate guru yogas, and more or less extensive yidam practice. In both cases it is not at all unlikely that at a more or less advanced stage some of the "psychophysical" yogas involving blissful heat and other related "perfecting stage" practices will be performed.

In both cases I think it is fair to say that it will be clear that all of this extensive practice is of enormous value as a support and as a means of opening up to the blessings of the lineage/lama/Buddha, but at the same time has a certain aspect of being beside the point!

The single essential is, so I have been led to believe, just recognizing the true
nature of the mind. Both systems again, for more essential practice, will
involve "calmness" and "insight" meditations of a type that is subtly but
importantly different from conventional "calmness" and "insight" meditations.

But the picture that I have just painted has been done with a very broad
brush. Once you start to get into the real nuts and bolts, the details are
different in many ways.
The lineages are different. The liturgies are
different. The yidams are different. The tantras are classified in different
ways. The practices are based on different tantras. The stages of the
unfolding of experience are described differently. The tunes are different.
The hats are different!

So it's like the difference between the taste of honey and the taste of
maple syrup.  . . .   .

Clarifying the Terminology

Rigpa in Dzogchen and Mahamudra are not the same thing.  The former refers to a wisdom; the latter refers to the reflexive clarity of the mind, which discovering its own Emptiness, rests in it.   This latter meaning is similar to gsal rig, "clear awareness" at term from the Sakyapa Lam 'bras [pron. lam dre] system.

To understand these distinctions, we need to look at their Sanskrit origins:

Svasamvedana is a term from Buddhist logic that refers to reflexive (or, self-) cognition.  In Tibetan it is rang rig.  In Buddhism, this term refers to a tenet of the Sautrantika school, following Dharmakirti.  In that context, because this rang rig is held to be ultimate, it is rejected by some Madhyamakas like Shantideva.   Others, such as Shantarakshita, accept it as a convention, and as such it is a term that plays an important role.   However, rangrig in this context must not be confused with rig pa as used by the Dzogchen system.

Prati-atmya-vedanaj~naana is a term from Sutra meaning, "wisdom of independent self-awareness."  It is used in Tantra and Dzogchen, and the Tibetan term is sor  rang.gyis'i  ye.shes. 

The equivalent term in Mahamudra teachings for Dzogchen's rigpa is sahajaj~naana, meaning "innate wisdom."  In Tibetan, this is called lhan cig skye  ye.she .

Rigpa in Mahamudra

How is this so?  The late Bokar Rinpoche, in the insight section of his short Mahamudra text, outlines three stages of Mahamudra as "seeing reality as the nature of the mind, severing the basis and the root, the introduction having determined awareness to be empty."

This last phase consists of two steps:  First one determines that awareness is empty, then introductions are made through movement, and so forth [ie. examination / analysis].  He says, "First, let the mind relax in its own state. Look nakedly at the relaxed mind. Maintain the stream of recollection without distraction. Make no effort to accept or reject any concepts which may arise; rest alert and present in the clarity and emptiness in the moment of ordinary mind, free from grasping."

So there we understand that rigpa is just this clarity.  According to Yangonpa's Ri chos, this ordinary mind -- tha mal gyis she pa -- is a yogi's name for non-conceptual wisdom  -- rnam.par  ye.shes.

Further proof that in Mahamudra rigpa is a synonym for mind rather than wisdom is given a little later, when Bokar Rinpoche goes on to say, "In the same way, the trio of appearances, awareness and emptiness are the self-perfected unification of clarity and emptiness from the beginning . . .  ."   So rigpa here refers to the second stage.

By contrast, rigpa in Dzogchen [cf. the name of Sogyal Rinpoche's organization] is [short for] rang.'byung'i   ye.shes,  ie. the wisdom of self-originated awareness. What does self-originated awareness mean?  It means that it is discovered for oneself through one's own experience.  Since it is discovered without reference to any outer object, it is called the "wisdom of independent self-awareness."

Finally, the translation of rang.gyis (shortened to rang rig) as "intrinsic awareness" is not a good one. The expression, "intrinsic," usually refers to an essential property of something, eg. "water is intrinsically wet."   However, in Tibetan "gyis" is an instrumental term, so rang.gyis means "by itself"  (and not "of itself.")  For example, rang.gyis stong is "empty by itself."   Therefore, rang.gyis means "self-aware" or "reflexively aware." 

Two things that can cause confusion:

    1. not distinguishing between mind & wisdom:  Wisdom is self-originated in the sense that it cannot be produced from outside oneself; it arises from one's realization of reality, ie. Emptiness.   Mind is ever dependent on causes and conditions.


    2. the way rigpa is used differently in Dzogchen and Mahamudra:  In Dzogchen it refers to wisdom but in Mahamudra it refers to mind.  However, there are many Kagyu Dzogchen masters, and sometimes the term rigpa can be used for both -- for the ordinary mind of Mahamudra (which is a wisdom,) and in the Dzogchen sense.  


~ Edited from comments by Malcolm S. (,)  to the Kagyu Mailing List, Dec. 2005.



Reading is not Doing

Many books are available on these topics, and many more have those enticing words in their titles, but describe or explain as they might, they will not, by themselves, take you where you want to go. The analogy has been made to a travel guidebook that can never serve as a substitute for the actual journey.  In fact, such books may actually serve to discourage or confuse the reader, or worse -- may set you off on misleading tangents.  They are usually intended to provide added support for the actual teaching by the lama who has written it, eg. Pointing Out the Dharmakaya by Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche.  

Anyone interested in Dzogchen and Mahamudra should find an accomplished teacher of a genuine Buddhist lineage with the qualifications and experience to provide "pointing-out instructions" and personal guidance.

K.  suggests HH Dalai Lama's Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection or Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche's Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State or his (with John Reynolds) Self-Liberation.

"The Self-Perfected State may be the most accessible introductory book written on the subject in English. But I wouldn't take any of them very fast ... . 

The Practice of Dzogchen by Longchenpa according to Tulku Thondrup is pretty accessible and is a good overview/reference.  [Also] The short teachings published by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche are completely accessible. I haven't read his son[g]s but I've heard they have the same quality.

Of course, when you go to teachings realized beings (HH Trulshik Rinpoche in this case) begin the teaching with stuff like: 'Concerning the nature of mind, there's really not much to say ... .' -- joke (sort of) but really not a joke."

    ~ Kagyu Mailing List.


Relating Mahamudra and Dzogchen (MahaAti)

Traleg Rinpoche said:  "There is no real difference. The difference is how you understand the two traditions. In dzogchen they say you become realized by seeing the nature of the mind and by seeing mind as delusion. But in mahamudra we do not make that distinction between mind and the nature of mind."


BB wrote to the Kagyu Email List:

"In Natural Liberation (Boston: Wisdom, 1998) Dhomang Gyatrul Rinpoche, one of the most amazing masters I have ever met, said 

'. . . there were two people who once went to a lama for spiritual instruction. The lama gave them teachings on the Great Perfection. 

One of the two gained a sound understanding of the teachings, and he went into retreat to put them into practice. He gained confidence in the teachings, and he gained realization. The other person, having  heard these teachings on the Great Perfection, came away with the  impression that the lama had said there is no difference between  virtue and vice. Thinking that he did not have to abandon anything  or follow anything, that he could be totally uninhibited, his  behavior became uninhibitedly nonvirtuous. His mistake was to think there is no difference at all between virtue and nonvirtue. 

The fact that he had such a profound misconception of the teachings was his own karma [That is, it was not the lama's fault, for he explained the dharma accurately and fully to both students] and as a result of that, he engaged in all the ten non-virtues and so forth. 

Eventually these two people met again and compared notes as to what they had been doing in regard to what they thought was the  implementation of the lama's instructions. They found that their  views were not at all compatible and decided to go back to the lama  to find out the truth. They went to him and explained the situation. The lama said that the one who had gone into retreat was right and that the one had acted without inhibition was incorrect. 

At that point the person who was told that he was completely wrong  got very angry. He defended himself saying that he had received the  same teachings as the other person, that he had been diligent, but  that now he was being told he had done everything wrong; and then he went away. Eventually, he was reborn as an animal. The other  practitioner became a buddha."'

"Earlier in the book, [Dhomang Gyatrul] talked about an excellent refuge formula written by Guru Padmasambhava himself and then discovered by the Terton Karma Lingpa, that covers the successive levels of taking refuge, from outer to the innermost:

I bow and take refuge in the spiritual mentors
Who constantly bear in mind
The limitless sentient beings of the three realms and six states of existence,
In the past, the present, and the future.

I bow and take refuge in the buddhas,
The blessed sugatas of the ten directions and the four times,
The foremost among people, endowed with the signs and symbols of  spiritual awakening,
Whose enlightened deeds are inexhautible and as vast as space.

I bow and take refuge in the sublime Dharmas,
The Dharma of ultimate truth, free of attachment to quietism,
The irreversible path of the three yanas,
The scriptures, treasures, oral transmissions, and practical 

I bow and take refuge in the sanghas,
The field of supreme assemblies who dwell on the unmistaken path,
The assembly of aryas, who are utterly free of the taints of mental  afflictions,
The bodhisattvas, sravakas, and pratyekabuddhas, who are the supreme upholders of the Victor's revelation.

I bow and take refuge in the spiritual mentors,
Who are of the very nature of the buddhas of the three times,
The chiefs of all the secret, unsurpassable mandalas,
Who, with blessings and compassion, guide all beings.

I bow and take refuge in the chosen deities,
Whom the Dharmakaya, unborn and free of the extremes of conceptual elaborations,
Emanates as peaceful and wrathful deities for the sake of the world,
Bestowing the supreme and common siddhis.

I bow and take refuge in the assembly of dakinis,
Who move in the space of reality-itself with the power of compassion,
Who bestow supreme bliss from a pure abode,
And grant siddhis to those who maintain their samayas.

I take refuge in the originally pure essence, nature, and compassion
In primordial emptiness, free of conceptual elaboration;
And I take refuge in the state of non-grasping, which transcends the  intellect,
In the nature of the great, vast expanse of homogeneous perfection."

Rinpoche elucidates the above verses:

"The outer refuge is in one's spiritual mentors, and the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The inner refuge is again in one's spiritual mentor (Note: who ultimately is none other than one's very own mind), one's chosen deity, and the dakini. Finally, the secret refuge  is "taking refuge in the experience of non-grasping which transcends  the intellect." 

As such, all three levels of refuge should ultimately be taken without exception; however, since many of us have yet been introduced to this "experience of non-grasping which transcends the intellect" in the hand of a dzogchen lineage guru, nor have we been able to recognize and maintain the "Nang drag rig sum," which is the hallmark of one who is truly taking refuge in the lama, yidam and khandro, we should at least take refuge at the outer level constantly.

Even though the act of taking refuge, especially perhaps the Outer  Refuge, may sometimes be thought of as preliminary, it nonetheless is very important and should be done correctly, as Gyatrul Rinpoche says:

"Now we go to the preliminary practices, which are the very core of  Dharma practice. This is not the time to cut corners. We've been  cutting corners since beginningless samsara, and this has led us to  perpetuate our own existence in samsara. If we cut corners in the  present as we have in the past, then in the future too, we'll simply  continue to wander in the cycle of existence. 

Therefore, it's very important to listen and study well and put the teachings into practice. Without doing that, if you then think that you can teach this to other people, it's a disgrace. You're finished. All of  these teachings are Atiyoga (i.e., Dzogchen or Great Perfection)  teachings, and they're not to be treated lightly or casually in that  fashion. For those of you who are planning to skip ahead to the six  transitional processes (Note: the special Dzogchen Terma that Karling discovered), if you omit the preliminary practices, then you're  really making a mistake and you're missing the whole point."

"I usually try not to just dump a bunch of quotes onto the others, but since Rinpoche made it so crystal clear, this is the only way to do it without distorting and polluting his teachings. I beg your (and the publisher of the book's) forbearance!

May we abide in the Innermost Refuge always!" ~ BB to The Kagyu Mailing List

Eight Great Ways Preserved in Tibetan Buddhism via Nepal

Dzogchen tradition - Guru Padma Sambhava 
Mahamudra - Guru Advayavajra [Maitripa]
Six Yogas - Guru Naropa
Niguma's tradition - Guru Niguma
Lamdrey - Guru Virupa
Lojong - Guru Atisha
Chod - Guru Kamalashila and Dampa Sangye 
Lam rim - Guru Atisha

~ Min Bahadur Shakya

Meditation is Essential

"Mahamudra . . .  is the union of the calm and mindful nature of our minds developed by shamatha meditation with the perception of the nature of reality developed in vipashyana meditation."  ~ D. at the Kagyu Mailing List

As Sukkhasiddhi, the female lineage master, sang:

Give up the mind that wants to meditate and calm down.
Focus on nothing at all.
Disturbing thoughts and lazy indifference are not liberation.
Remain unstained by thoughts and circumstances;
Rest relaxed in the uncontrived nature of mind, free of elaborations or alteration.
For the benefit of one and all, simply preserve peerless awareness.


Back ] Home ] Up ] Next ] [The Kayas]

Four Thoughts ] [ The Higher Teachings ] Prayers ] The Buddhist Shrine ] Stupa or Chorten ] Calendar ] Denominations ]  


Copyright 1998-2016 Khandro.Net  All rights reserved.  This Web site is designed with Firefox as browser but should be accessible to others.  However,  if you eliminate underlining in your Preferences you could miss some of our  many links.