Dzogchen & Zhentong

Reading through the miscellaneous guidance texts (khrid yig) of Khenpo Lodrö Drakpa, I came across a brief instruction that he gave on clarifying the distinctions between the 4 predominant Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna views: (1) zhentong, (2) rangtong, (3) mahāmudrā, and (4) dzogchen.[1]

Of particular interest to me is the question, “What are the differences between the zhentong and dzogchen views?” This is a question of recurring interest in learned Buddhist circles. Not only have several friends in New York and elsewhere asked me this question, but I remember that while living in the monastery, monks would occasionally come to see my Tibetan teacher and ask him this very same question. Rinpoche would smile and assure the monks by saying, “There are slight differences.”

Since Khenpo Lodrak makes such clear distinctions between these 4 views ― and since his instructions are so short and sweet, I thought to translate the excerpt here,

  • The view of our own [zhentong] tradition is that within the natural lucid radiance of one’s own mind, there are coarse and subtle agitations, and there is a gross mentality that fabricates subtle and coarse degrees of laxity; within the nature of one’s own mind, there is an enduring experience of steadiness and stable attention, and there is an infinitely subtle mentality that fabricates these. The only unmodified natural flow of freedom is that pristine awareness that is the natural manifestation of abiding clear light without fixations, without conceptualizations, and without preset references.For the unfortunate, and from the vantage point of those who are less adept, this is difficult to fathom because it lies beyond the domain of what can be expressed through relative thoughts and words.[2]
  • The rangtong view is that nondual pristine awareness is free from all fixations onto any aspect of what persists as real.[3]
  • The mahāmudrā view is that vivid pristine awareness is the mere unmodified cognizance that quells the infinite proliferations of the subject-object complex.[4]
  • The dzogchen view is that the fabrications of the mind are qualitatively natural manifestations of pristine awareness that are originally pure clear light. This is the awareness of the uncorrupted expanse, the wisdom-mind of the actuality of phenomena that remains a forever unchanging timeless ground as the radiance of nondual awareness; the magnificent all-pervasive vast openness that is genuine and free from original time, spontaneously arising pristine awareness.[5]

These instructions were given on an occasion when Khenpo Lodrak was making general remarks on the 6-fold vajrayoga practices of the Kālachakra, and was distinguishing these various views in order to highlight how reality is regarded from multiple perspectives.[6]

Of course the danger with such concise comments is that its so easy to essentialize these nuanced and profound understandings of the nature of reality. Aware of that danger, and not seeking to de-complexify these views, its important to note the operative term that Khenpo Lodrak keeps chiming in on: “pristine awareness” (jñāna, ye shes). In fact, this short piece falls into the subgenre of Tibetan contemplative literature that is concerned with making distinctions (shan ‘byed) about such key terms and concepts.[7] Similar distinctions have been a favorite topic of discussion in Jonang literature from the time of Dolpopa, and are considered to be very useful for enhancing one’s own understanding of this material and therefore one’s own meditative experiences.


1. Ngag dbang Blo gros grags pa. Khrid yig tshogs, ca, 353-4. In Blo gros grags pa’i Gsung ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang.

2. Here it reads, “rang lugs kyi lta ba ni / rang sems gsal ba’i rang mdangs la ‘phro rgod phra rags bying ba phra rags ki blos byas rags pa rnams dang rang sems kyi ngo bo la gtad pa myong ba gnas pa la ched du rtsol ba la sogs pa’i blos byas phra ba mtha’ dag dang bral ba’i ma bcos rang babs kho nar gnas pa’i ‘od gsal rang byung mi rtog pa’i ‘dzin med gtad med kyi ye shes ‘di ga skal dman bla chung dag gi yid ngor shong dka’ zhing kun rdzob sgra rtog gis brjod byas yul las ‘das pa zhig yin ni re.”

3. Here it reads, “rang stong pa’i lta ba ni / bden pa tshugs thub kyi rnam par ‘dzin pa kun dang bral ba’i gnyis med kyi ye shes zhig yin.”

4. Here it reads, “phyag chen pa’i lta ba ni / gzung ‘dzin gyi spros ba mtha’ dag nyer par zhi ba’i ma bcos rig tsam sa le ba’i ye shes zhig yin.”

5. Here it reads, “rdzogs chen pa’i lta ba ni / ‘od gsal ka dag rang byung gi ye shes yid byed mtshan mas ma slad pa’i dbyings rig gnyis med kyi rig gdangs nam yang mi ‘gyur ba’i ye gzhi chos nyid kyi dgongs pa khyab brdal g(k?)long yangs chen po ye grol gnyug ma lhan cig skyes pa’i ye shes zhig yin.”

6. The concluding line reads, “zhes pa’ang sbyor drug spyi don du rang gzhan gyi lta ba’i shan ‘byed skabs lugs srol so so’i lta ba’i min tsam ma ti ki+rti’i nye bar bkod pa’o.”

7. For further discussion, see Sheehy, Michael R. “Rangjung Dorje’s Variegations of Mind: Ordinary Awareness and Pristine Awareness in Tibetan Buddhist Literature.” In Buddhist Thought and Applied Psychological Research: Transcending the Boundaries. Routeledge Curzon Press, London, 2005.

Blog Category: Research Articles


  1. James Rutke on June 6, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    It looks like the dzokchen statement should read khyab brdal klong yangs chen po. Namkhai Norbu translates klong chen or klong yangs chen po as: the universe. Also, how are you construing the word yig in mi ‘gyur ba’i yig zhi (gzhi?)? Might it refer to the short syllable A? Or is it a misprint?

    • Michael R. Sheehy on June 8, 2008 at 10:12 pm

      Mis-spellings in Notes


      Thanks for noticing those mis-spellings in the notes. The text does read “glong…” although it should be “klong…” Also, “yeg zhi” got clumped together. It should be “ye gzhi.” My translations reflect this, though I had entered a mis-spelled version. That’s now fixed.


  2. Jean-Luc on August 6, 2008 at 7:45 am

    Regarding the view of Dzogchen

    Hi, I think that the fabrications of the mind (yid byed) cannot be the natural manifestations of pristine awareness, precisely because these manifestations are the actual visions of the natural state in its visionary mode (snang-cha). It would seem also that you have read nam-yang as rnam-yang, otherwise i don’t see where the « for every facet of the radiance… » comes from. Also you missed the point that dbyings-rig is working as a compound (even styled here as non-dual) which refers to the Space (dbyings) in which the visions of Awareness (rig ; these visions are the glow of Awareness) arise. This forms an unbreakable syntagm in Dzogchen thinking.

    Further, what the abstract actually does is that it simply lists definitions one after another, which are rather classicial ones in Dzogchen thinking. So the texts should be read as follows (i have added the shad wherever it was needed, you’ll see that it really makes more sense):

    rdzogs chen pa’i lta ba ni / ‘od gsal ka dag/ rang byung gi ye shes/ yid byed mtshan mas ma slad pa’i dbyings rig gnyis med kyi rig gdangs/ nam yang mi ‘gyur ba’i ye gzhi/ chos nyid kyi dgongs pa/ khyab brdal klong yangs chen po/ ye grol gnyug ma/ lhan cig skyes pa’i ye shes zhig yin.”

    So the translation would be much simpler:

    The view of the Dzogchenpa is the primordially pure Clear-Light ; the Self-Arisen Wisdom ; the glow of Awareness of the non-dual Space and Awareness which is not corrupted by the characteristics of mental fabrications ; the ever immutable original Base ; the Contemplation of Reality ; the all-pervarsive, great and vast Expanse ; the genuine original Libertation ; the coemergent Wisdom.

    • Michael R. Sheehy on August 11, 2008 at 2:49 pm

      View of Dzogchen

      Thank you for your comment & for participating in the blog.

      Yes, it seems as though I read “nam yang” as “rnam yang.” I fixed that. Very observant. Glad that someone is paying attention. I did that translation very quickly… never a good idea. Glad also that you contributed your own translation.

      The term “dbyings rig” is a compound & that’s reflected in the English. And yes, this is a list of technical phrases used frequently in dzogchen, & I think that comes across in English as well.


  3. George on August 7, 2008 at 6:38 am

    Identifying experience


    At risk of revealing oneself to be ‘an unfortunate’ and ‘less adept’, yet wholly sympathetic to the zhentong tradition as I understand it within my own experience, as an interested layman I must ask (if you forgive the provocation) :- Do the non-nihilistic zhentong and/or dzogchen views of ‘the natural lucid radiance of one’s mind’ constitute (A) an insight into one’s primal, original source preceding all phenomenal existence?; or, (B) a perception of an adventitious psychic system-hum underlying and imbuing one’s material, organic conscious processes? In short, is deep meditative experience sacred or profane? And in what way?

    Does Dolpopa have a direct response to this query?

    • Michael R. Sheehy on August 11, 2008 at 3:06 pm

      The Hum
      Hi George:

      Thanks for your comment & for participating in the blog.

      Good questions. There are regular references within zhentong literature, as well as within dzogchen literature, about the state of being before time or w/o temporal reference. The constant and pervasive is not understood to be confined by time, but always there. As for the underlying “psychic system-hum” that you mention, these traditions ― both the zhentong & dzogchen ― articulate a sub-stratum as pure awareness. In the dzogchen writings of Longchenpa, we have a several tiered stratum of subtle awareness that is simultaneously occurring. Dolpopa speaks of pristine awareness as the universal ground in contrast to ordinary awareness as the universal ground. So, yes there are certainly telling us that there is an underlying hum of sorts that is not the everyday mind.


      • George on August 19, 2008 at 12:42 am

        The Hum

        Dear M.S.,

        Thank you for your patient reply.

        The Dolpopa and Taranatha literature seems oblique on such an important matter. This issue is likely to arise at some point in all meditation regimens, where it may be articulated either baroquely with florid folk religion imagery, or more usually, austerely and evasively to the point of opacity. My understanding of the zhentong tradition is that it is open to a ‘sacred’ reading more readily than some schools of Buddhism?

        • Michael R. Sheehy on August 19, 2008 at 2:55 pm



          Thanks for your comments. I wouldn’t say that they are oblique on such matters. To the contrary, Jonangpa authors write in rather full descriptions on the pre-distorted underlying ( …humming… ) nature of awareness. There are also elaborate descriptions within the Kālachakra literature.

          As for sacred or profane, & I’m guessing that you are using these words in the Eliade sense (?), I would have to go with “sacred.” However, its important to keep in mind that these are foreign categories being superimposed upon a preset descriptive language of experience. There are nonetheless very stark distinctions made within zhentong literature concerning the “relative” & “ultimate,” or “ordinary awareness” & “pristine awareness,” etc. These are distinguishing traits for marking rangtong in contrast to zhentong, & there probably can be some coarse parallels drawn there with “sacred” & “profane” ― though I’m hesitant because Eliade was concerned with contrasting the “modern” with the “traditional” & I would argue that the contemplative language of these traditions is designed to transcend those historical limitations.