Dzogchen Meditation and Chinese Buddhism

The historical origin of the Dzogchen meditation teachings and the relationship of Dzogchen meditation to certain other Buddhist teachings and traditions, such as Yogachara and Ch’an or Zen, has puzzled scholars not only in the West, but in Tibet itself.

Some leading Tibetan Lama scholars have accused Dzogchen of being a Chinese Dharma (rgya-nag gi chos), or assert that it is connected with Bon or Advaita Vedanta. Regarding this question in the West for example, W.Y. Evans-Wentz in his pioneering book on Dzogchen, The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (1954), writes, “Our present treatise, attributed to Padmasambhava, which expounds the method of realizing the Great Liberation of Nirvana by yogic understanding of the One Mind, appertains to the Doctrine of the Great Perfection of the Dhyana School.
Between it and the Treatise on Achieving Pure Consciousness (Ch’eng Wei Shih Lun) upon which the Pure Consciousness Sect of China is based, there is a very close doctrinal relationship. Both treatises alike set forth the doctrine that the only reality is mind or consciousness, and that no living thing has individualized existence, but is fundamentally in eternal and inseparable at-one-ment with the universal All-consciousness.”

There are two points regarding the origin and connections of Dzogchen to be considered here with respect to this quotation. First, when Evans-Wentz refers to “the Great Perfection of the Dhyana School,” presumably he is linking Dzogchen with the Ch’an school of China, which is much better known in the West in its Japanese version of Zen. Second, this suggests that there exists a close doctrinal relationship and probably a direct historical connection between Dzogchen and the Pure Consciousness School (Wei-shih Tsung) of China. He asserts that both of the texts cited above set forth the doctrine that the only reality is mind or consciousness. Let us consider the second of these two speculations first.

The Yogachara School and the Doctrine of “Mind-Only” As for the assertion that mind alone is real, this is the view that was traditionally associated with the Yogacharin or Vijnanavadin school of Mahayana philosophy in China. This school was principally characterized by its view of Chittamatra or “mind-only” (sems-tsam). The adherents of this school asserted that, even though the objects of perception, the world which is external to us, are empty and devoid of any intrinsic reality, the states of consciousness that cognize them, which perceive them as objects, are indeed real. The doctrines of the Yogachara system were first outlined in the extensive writings of the two brothers, Asanga and Vasubandhu, in the third century of our era. The views presented by the Yogacharins were in turn refuted by the masters of the Madhyamika school, especially by Chandrakirti. In the form of Prasangika Madhyamaka, which employs the critical dialectical methods perfected by Chandrakirti, this became the official philosophical position among all five Tibetan schools including the Nyingmapa and the Bonpo. Basing themselves on the brilliant commentaries by the great master Nagarjuna to the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the Prasangika Madhyamikas point out that we cannot properly make the assertion that “Mind alone is real!” because this view, if examined critically and carried to its logical conclusion, will only lead to absurdity or self-contradiction. In fact, according to the Prasangikas, this will be the case with any metaphysical statement regarding the ultimate nature of reality because the nature of reality (Dharmata) exceeds and goes beyond the conceptual limitations imposed by the categories and rational processes of the finite human intellect. The human intellect is just too small and provincial to encompass the vast variety of the universe. It is modern arrogance to think otherwise. Reality transcends all logical and ontological categories we may construct with the rational intellect.

However, even though we cannot make such definitive statements, whether affirmative or negative, regarding the ultimate nature of things, this in no way negates the path to liberation or the goal of Nirvana. Academic philosophers in their class rooms may expound very profound theories and many abstruse metaphysical systems, but beyond the classroom there is still everyday life and ordinary language and these must be dealt with in concrete terms. Thus, for a school which asserts that we cannot say anything affirmative or negative definitively, the Madhyamikas actually have a great deal to say about the spiritual path. This is because Madhyamaka is not really a philosophical school that asserts certain well-defined positions, but a kind of philosophical analysis of the meaning of language and a kind of intellectual therapy that purges the human mind of its unwarranted assumptions about the nature of reality, which create for the individual a false and limited image of reality and block or impede progress on the spiritual path. Madhyamaka is a method of philosophical analysis, but it is not nihilism, the asserting that nothing exists and it does not deny nor negate the path indicated by the Buddhas.

Among Tibetan Buddhists, the doctrine of Chittamatra, “Only the mind is real,” is considered to be a provisional teaching and not the ultimate teaching of the Buddha. If this is so, and it is not the ultimate view, then why did Shakyamuni Buddha teach this view of “mind only”? When the Buddha delivered his discourse on the Prajnaparamita, the Perfection of Wisdom, at the Vulture Peak near Rajagriha, many of his Shravaka disciples became terrified at the prospect of Shunyata or emptiness— the assertion that there is no substantial reality in or behind what we perceive as phenomenal existence. These Shravakas had rejected the commonsense view that the phenomena of the world are discrete entities made up of “stuff” or self-existing substances, such as flesh, wood, stone, and so on, but they clung to the view that momentary elemental events in the stream of consciousness (dharma-atmavada) are somehow real. They asserted that the self in the individual is not real, but that these dharmas or phenomenal events are real. This represented the ground of reality to which these Shravakas clung, the thought that at least dharmas are real although the phenomena of world are mere illusions. So, as an expression of his compassion and his skillful means, Shakyamuni later taught to them at various locations a lesser doctrine, which, although representing only a portion of the truth, yet was something that would help lead them toward the ultimate truth for which they were not ready at that time.

As we have explained elsewhere, the various teachings found in the Sutras came to be classified according to the Three Turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma. The First Turning is represented by the Buddha’s discourse on the Four Holy Truths delivered to five ascetics at the Deer Park near Varanasi. Within this category are found all the discourses known as the Hinayana Sutras. Originally in Ancient India, the Hinayana approach comprised eighteen different schools, of which the Theravadins in Southeast Asia are the lone survivor. The Second Turning is represented by his discourse on the Perfection of Wisdom at the Vulture Peak near Rajagriha. This class includes all of the Mahayana Sutras relating to the view and methodology of the Prajnaparamita, and it is upon these scriptures that the literature of the Madhyamaka school is based. The Third Turning occurred later at various different locations and this class includes those Mahayana Sutras, such as the Lankavatara Sutra, the Sandhinirmochana Sutra, and so on, which teach Chittamatra (mind-only) doctrine and related teachings such as the Tathagatagarbha (the embryo of Buddhahood) in all sentient beings, which were later systematically elaborated by the Yogachara school. The doctrines of the Yogachara system were first systematically outlined in the extensive writings of the brothers, Asanga and Vasubandhu, in the third century of our era.

Hsuan Tsang

Then in the seventh century, between the years of 626 and 645, a Chinese Buddhist scholar by the name of Hsuan Tsang traveled overland through Central Asia to Kashmir and India. He remained in India for many years, during which time he mastered Sanskrit and Buddhist philosophy. After returning to China again, at the request of the Emperor, he wrote a full account of what he had seen in Central Asia and in India. This account, the Si-yu-ki or “The Memoirs of Western Countries,” has become on of the primary historical sources on India for that period. Hsuan Tsang was especially interested in the Yogachara philosophy and so he collected manuscripts of the principal Sanskrit texts and later while in China he translated them into Chinese. As a translator, he was principally interested in introducing this Indian school of Mahayana Sutric Buddhism into his native land; consequently, his writings are more Indian in spirit than Chinese and contrast markedly with the more purely Chinese reactions to Buddhism which preceded him.

His most famous work was the Ch’eng Wei Shih Lun. This work is much more than a faithful translation of a Yogachara Sanskrit text, for it consists of Vasubandhu’s Vijnaptimatrata-siddhi and Trimshika combined with Hsuan Tsang’s own comments. Thus, even though Hsuan Tsang became the founder of the Pure Consciousness School in China, in his extensive writings he nowhere mentions Tibetans and Dzogchen and his Chinese Sutric school could not be source of Dzogchen, as Evans-Wents appears to suggest in the above quotation.

Yogachara and Dzogchen

According to the Nyingmapa tradition, the Dzogchen masters Manjushrimitra and Shrisimha were already active in the Tantric milieu in India independently. However, Manushrimitra, a learned scholar of Brahman origin, was evidently an adherent of the Yogachara school before his becoming a disciple of the mysterious Prahevajra or Garab Dorje (dga’-rab rdo-rje) from the country of Uddiyana (Eastern Afghanistan). It should also be recalled that his disciple Shrisimha was said to have born and resided for sometime in China (more likely Chinese Central Asia) before coming to India. And that the latter’s disciple Vimalamitra visited China (or Central Asia) before and after he came to Tibet and transmitted the Dzogchen teachings to his disciples at Samye Monastery.

Moreover, in terms of content, it is quite clear that the early Dzogchen Movement of the eighth and ninth centuries did not teach the Chittamatra doctrine of the Yogacharins, even though it borrowed some of the terminology of the earlier school. But it understood these terms in a different manner than did the Yogacharins. The precepts of Dzogchen are found in the Dzogchen Tantras of Atiyoga and not in the Mahayana Sutras of the Third Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, although later Lama scholars in Tibet noticed the existence of certain similarities in terminology between Dzogchen and Chittamatra. This may be due to the activities of the scholar Manjusrhimitra who wrote a book on Garab Dorje’s teaching from the Yogachara perspective.

Nevertheless, in the bSam-gtan mig-sgron of Nubchen Sangye Yeshe (gNubs-chen Sangs-rgyas ye-shes, 9th century), the special viewpoints of both Dzogchen and the Sutra system of the Mahayana are set out and clearly distinguished. Dzogchen does not assert that everything is only mind, but rather, it asserts that everthing, all phenomena, appears as a manifestation of mind (kun la sems kyi snang-ba yin). We only know the so-called objective world, which we naively take to be substantial and real, through the mind, through its symbolic and culturally conditioned processes of perception and imagination. Needless to say, both Dzogchen and Chittamatra texts are speaking of individual mind-streams. Certainly neither Dzogchen nor any other Tibetan Buddhist school ever taught that “the One Cosmic Mind alone is real.” The Madhyamake dialectic of Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti soon makes short work such metaphysical assertions and speculations.
Buddhism in China

On the other hand, a home grown Chinese Buddhism accommodated to native Taoism did come to speculate on a Universal Mind in its interpretations of the Mahayana Sutras, and they did this in a vein not too dissimilar to Evans-Wentz. Chinese tradition tells us that Buddhism came to China from Central Asia in the reign of the Emperor Ming (58-75 CE) of the Han dynasty. At first at court and elsewhere in China, Buddhism was considered to be some sort of occult system similar to the Yin-Yang school. Efforts were made to relate it and to interpret in terms of Taoist concepts and a legend even sprang up that the Indian Shakyamuni Buddha had actually been the disciple of the venerable Taoist master Lao Tzu, who had disappeared mysteriously, riding off on a buffalo into the West. Thus, the Buddhist Sutras were at first seen as only being a foreign variant of the teachings of the Tao Te Ching.

When subsequently more Buddhist Sutras were translated into Chinese in the third and fourth centuries, Buddhism came to be considered a philosophy similar to that of the Taoist master Chuang Tzu and in general the Buddhist Sutras were interpreted with ideas and with terminology taken from philosophical Taoism (tao chia). This procedure was known as interpretation by analogy (ko-yi); but this interpreting of Indian Buddhist teachings in terms of native Taoism led to much confusion and distortion. This was not unlike the case with Evans-Wentz and his neo-theosophical hermeneutics.


Then with the fifth century, there came a veritable flood tide of translations of Buddhist Sutras. In consequence, the method of analogy was abandoned. This new system of accurate translations from the Sanskrit into Chinese was largely the work of the great Kumarajiva (344-413 CE). Of Indian descent, he was a native of the Central Asian trade city of Kucha. When the Chinese armies of the T’ang dynasty overwhelmed previously independent Kucha, the forty year old Buddhist monk was carried off to the imperial capital of Ch’ang-an, as the greatest treasure among the spoils of their conquest. Nevertheless, despite his Indian Buddhist background, Kumarajiva continued to use a few Taoist terms to express Buddhist concepts, such as yu (existence), wu (non-existence), wu wei (non-action) and so on. But here there was only a superficial resemblance, whereas earlier Buddhism was actually interpreted as a species of Taoism.

However, gradually the interpretation of Indian Buddhism and Taoist spirituality led to the manifestation of the characteristically Chinese form of Buddhism, as opposed to being merely Indian Buddhism transplanted to China. Some Buddhist schools in China remained totally Indian in approach and spirit, such as the Wei-shih Tsung, the School of Pure Consciousness, founded by Hsuan Tsang (596-664 CE). But such schools were restricted to small elite groups among the Chinese intelligenzia for a limited period only and did not reach the average Chinese intellectual serving in the government bureaucracy, let alone the Tibetans. So, Dzogchen cannot be historically from the school of Hsuan Tsang. Tantra in China In general, the development of Buddhism in China, where it had penetrated much earlier, was quite different from its development in Tibet. In Tibet itself, the study of philosophical Buddhism or the Sutra System of the Mahayana (mdo-lugs) was firmly based on translations of the original Sanskrit Shastras or philosophical treatises written by the great Indian masters such as Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Chandrakirti, and so on. On the other hand and in contrast, in China only the translations of the Mahayana Sutras gained a prominent and enduring place in Chinese Buddhism. This furnished a spirit and an aesthetic to Chinese Buddhism that is quite different from Tibetan Buddhism which is thoroughly permeated with the spirit of the Indian Buddhist Tantras. Fundamentally Chinese Buddhism, and this included Ch’an, is based on the Mahayana Sutras, which, as their essential approach, represent the path of purification (sbyong lam). It is true that some Tantras were translated into Chinese, even a few Anuttara Tantras like the Hevajra Tantra, for example, but the Tantras did not gain a wide circulation or popularity in China, although they did come to be included in the Chinese Canon of Buddhist Scriptures. In particular, the antinomianism and the libertine sexual sentiments expressed in the Anuttara Tantras appear to have no appeal to the Chinese.

At one time a small Tantric school did exist in South China, but its influence was rather limited. This was the Mi Tsung or “School of Secrets,” which was founded by the Indian master Amoghavajra (d. 741 CE). His teaching was based on the Yoga Tantras, which had also been introduced into Tibet and enjoyed some popularity in the earlier period before the eleventh century when they were largely superseded in popularity by the New Translations of the Anuttara Tantras. Although this school flourished within a small circle for a limited time, the Mi Tsung, the other schools of Chinese Buddhism, has since been absorbed into Ch’an. But the situation of Buddhism was quite different in Japan where the various transplanted schools of Chinese Buddhism have not merged together, but have been kept separate and cultivated in their pristine and independent purity. Due to the efforts of the Japanese Tantric master Kukei (774-835 CE), otherwise known as Kobo Daishi, the Chinese Tantric tradition was brought to Kyoto and Koyasan in Japan, where this master organized his own school of Tantric Buddhism known as Shingon. This is now the third largest sect of Buddhism in Japan, after Jodo Shinshu (the Pure Land sect) and Zen. The two principal Tantras of this school, employed in their Chinese translations, are the Mahavairochana Tantra (called a Sutra in both Chinese and Japanese versions) and the Vajrashekhara Tantra, which belong to the Charya Tantra and the Yoga Tantra classifications, respectively, that are in vogue among the Tibetans.

Universal Mind

One way in which ideas found in the Mahayana Sutras were interpreted and developed by native Chinese Buddhists who had not studied in India was the introduction of the concept of a Universal Mind The Chinese had accepted the idea of karma (yeh). The individual sentient being is actually an endless chain of causes and effects; one’s present life being but one phase in a beginningless causal process. Moreover, death is not the end of existence or this causal process; it is only another aspect of one’s experience which is dependent upon the individual’s karma. What one is now in this present life is the result of what one has done in the past; what one does in this present life will determine what one is in the future. What one does at the present moment will have consequences in future lives, and this causal process continues ad infinitum. All of the suffering experienced in life arises from a fundamental ignorance of the nature of things. All of the phenomena of the universe, that is to say, the universe of the individual sentient being, are but the manifestations of one’s mind and, therefore, they are illusory and impermanent. Nonetheless, the individual craves for them and continually seeks to grasp after them. This is because of ignorance (wu-ming) or non-enlightenment. It is from ignorance that craving and attachment arise and thereby the individual is bound to a beginningless cycle of death and rebirth. The only solution to this predicament is to replace ignorance with enlightenment.

This state of enlightenment is called Nirvana. But what is Nirvana? One particularly Chinese interpretation asserted that it represents an identification of the mind of the individual sentient being with a Universal Mind, or what is called in the Sutras “the Buddha-nature.” Or to put it another way, Nirvana is the realization of the individual’s original identification and “at-one-ment” with the Universal Mind. The individual sentient being is in essence this Universal Mind, but due to ignorance, one has not realized this previously. The adherents of this view were known as the Hsing Tsung, “the School of Universal Mind.” For this school, nature (hsing) and mind (hsin) are the same. In its hermeneutics of the Sutras, this school introduces the notion of the Universal Mind into Chinese thought, but other schools of Mahayana Buddhism, such as the K’ung Tsung, “the School of Emptiness,” which followed the tradition of the Indian Madhyamaka, did not describe Nirvana in this way, but expressed it in terms of the traditional via negativa. However, the influence of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and the writings of the Hsing Tsung school spread this idea of the Universal Mind, but before the advent of this interpretation, there did not exist the notion of a Universal Mind in Chinese philosophy. The Tao was not understood as “Mind.”

This exposition of the Universal Mind in the Hsing Tsung is very close to the views of Evans-Wentz as he expressed them in his interpretation of Dzogchen texts. However, Evans-Wentz derived his ideas directly from the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, rather than from a reading of Chinese Buddhism. As we have pointed out elsewhere, it is true that the Dharmakaya, the dimension of reality, is universal, like infinite space itself. It is one in the sense of transcending all dualities. It is omnipresent and all-pervading and all sentient beings, the enlightened and the unenlightened, equally participate in this single Dharmakaya. But Dharmakaya refers not to mind (sems), but to the Nature of Mind (sems-nyid) and this is a crucial distinction in Dzogchen. Furthermore, the Dharmakaya, which is understood in Dzogchen as the state of Shunyata and the basis of everything (kun-gzhi), is not a mind, let alone the One Mind or the Universal Mind, even though it is the context for the activities of thought. For this reason, the Dharmakaya is compared to the clear open sky, whereas thoughts are compared to the clouds that come to fill the sky. Moreover, there is also the Rupakaya or Form Body, the dimension of form, which is equally the manifestation of Buddhahood and this Rupakaya is always individual in its nature. Therefore, the enlightenment of a Buddha has both a universal aspect, the Dharmakaya, and a particular and individual aspect, the Rupakaya.

The Hsing Tsung is a particular interpretation of certain Mahayana Sutras, an interpretation that originated in China as a consequence of the efforts of some Chinese authors to understand these oft-times recondite Indian texts. The Hsing Tsung had no discoverable influence in Tibet and was not the historical source of Dzogchen, for that lies in the direction of India and Uddiyana. Except for a brief flirtation with Ch’an in the early days of Buddhism in Tibet in the eighth century, the Tibetans exhibited almost no interest at all in Chinese Buddhism, except for translating a few Sutras from Chinese for which they did not possess Indian originals. (To be continued.)

[The above represents portions of two chapters from the original manuscript version of Self-Liberation through Seeing with Naked Awareness by John Myrdhin Reynolds (reprinted by Snow Lion Publications, 2000) and omitted from the published version.]