Welcome to

Dzogchen: Ten Key Terms

A Wisdom Academy Online Course with Ācārya Malcolm Smith

About this Course

In this course from the Wisdom Academy, you’ll be guided by a master translator through some of the most important and often-misunderstood terms in Dzogchen.

As a student in Dzogchen: Ten Key Terms, you’ll have the chance to delve deep into ten terms and hone a more advanced understanding that will illuminate your practice and inspire your path.

Ācārya Malcolm Smith explores the deep meaning in the dzogchen context of terms such as vidya, kadag, lhudrub, yeshe, and much more.

You’ll enjoy video lectures from Malcolm Smith, curated readings, short quizzes to test your understanding, and a forum for discussion with your fellow students.



Lesson 1: The Basis (gzhi)

In this introductory lesson, Ācārya Malcolm Smith sets the tone for the course, exploring the first of ten key Dzogchen terms: basis (tib. gzhi). This refers to a primordial buddhahood present yet obscured in all deluded beings such as ourselves. Dzogchen’s focus on pristine consciousness (tib. ye shes) distinguishes it from other systems that assert an impure basis of transformation. Malcolm details a core mode of concentration on the basis devoid of both effortful striving and a prerequisite of extensive calm-abiding (skt. śamatha) experience.


Lesson 2: Original Purity (ka dag)

Dzogchen teaching discourse typically comprises presentations of the essence, nature, and compassion. Among these three concepts, the essence—original purity (tib. ka dag)—is the focus of the course’s second lesson. Malcolm characterizes this original purity on the basis of a detailed section (never before presented in English) on the ten pristine consciousnesses found in the Realms and Transformations of Sound Tantra (tib. sgra thal ’gyur gyi rgyud). Cataloging the varied interpretations of the term often translated as “clear light” (skt. prabhāsvara; tib. ‘od gsal), Malcolm establishes the concept of primordial buddhahood and discusses original purity as a mere negation—“that in which no ignorance has ever existed.” He explains how understanding this original purity necessitates a comprehensive explanation of ignorance and how it arises that is not present in any other category of Buddhist teachings.


Lesson 3: Natural Perfection (lhun grub)

In this lesson, Malcolm uses a detailed section from the Sound Tantra (tib. sgra thal ’gyur gyi rgyud) as the starting point for an exploration of the third among the ten key Dzogchen terms covered in this course: natural perfection (tib. lhun grub). He discusses the connotations of the Sanskrit original (i.e., nirābhoga or anābhoga) as well as the topic of “self-liberation,” which involves recognizing and maintaining equanimity toward the appearances arising from natural perfection rather than needing to recourse to the “duct-tape” solution of conventional antidotes.


Lesson 4: Compassion (thugs rje)

Malcolm discusses the etymological implications of the term thugs rje and explains how this impacts his translation of the term. Commenting on rich passages from the Sound Tantra (tib. sgra thal ‘gyur gyi rgyud) and the Six Dimensions Tantra (tib. kun tu bzang po klong drug gi rgyud), he draws connections between compassion and the cognizant aspect of Dzogchen’s rigpa. He also describes how the three kayas (i.e., the dharmakaya, saṃbhogakāya, and nirmāṇakāya) are considered exclusively path-level experiences and manifested from compassion’s energy in Dzogchen.


Lesson 5: Pristine Consciousness (ye shes)

This lesson covers the definition, etymology, essence, characteristics, qualities, divisions, and so-called “luminescences” of pristine consciousness as detailed in authoritative scriptures. Quoting passages from the Self-Arisen Vidya Tantra (tib. rig pa rang shar gyi rgyud), Kulayarāja Tantra (tib. kun byed rgyal po’i rgyud), and the Vima Nyingtik collection’s Agate Letters (phra yig can), Malcolm explains the two key types of pristine consciousness, their natures, and how they arise. He also discusses why pristine consciousness is the basis underlying the assertion that buddhahood is an inevitability for all. Malcolm notes that the various vehicles for reaching this result exist only as a function of deluded beings’ conceptual limitations, or lack thereof. Dzogchen is seen as the pinnacle of these vehicles due to the direct introduction to the basis it involves.


Lesson 6: Vidyā (rig pa)

In this lesson, Malcolm covers a Dzogchen term that garners perhaps more interest than any other and yet remains the most elusive: rigpa (skt. vidyā). Malcolm situates an authoritative work (i.e., the so-called Lamp That Summarizes Vidyā) from the Vima Nyingtik (compiled by Longchenpa) as the basis for an extensive discussion covering topics ranging from the role of guru yoga in Dzogchen to the true meaning of realization (tib. rtogs pa). He also dispels a number of misconceptions around rigpa’s identification. 


Lesson 7: Ignorance (ma rig pa)

In this lesson, Ācārya Malcolm Smith elucidates rigpa’s direct counteragent, ignorance. He begins with a brief recap of the explanation of ignorance (and the 12 links of dependent arising) originating from Vasabhandu’s autocommentary on the Verses of Abhidharma. He then discusses the three operating factors involved in the wheel of samsara: affliction, karma, and suffering. He discusses the Dzogchen understanding of the 12 links and then poses three questions to be explored in the remainder of the session: (1) how does ignorance influence the samsaric cycle from the Dzogchen perspective? (2) What do we do about ignorance once we have identified it? (3) Does ignorance substantially differ from rigpa?


Lesson 8: Play (rol pa)

In a thought-provoking eighth lesson, Malcolm Smith follows a section in Longchenpa’s Treasury of Citations (tib. lung gi gter mdzod) to explore the implications of the term “play” (tib. rol pa) in Dzogchen teachings. This is an often misunderstood term, particularly in the context of statements such as “All appearances are the play of bodhicitta.” The ensuing explanations go on to refute the idea that all phenomena are in the nature of mind, establishing inner and outer objects that merely depend on mind for their designation.


Lesson 9: Bodhicitta (byang chub sems)

In this lesson, Malcolm introduces the uncommon Dzogchen understanding of bodhicitta (tib. byang chub sems), seizing the opportunity to compare and contrast the modes of meditation on the view at various levels of Buddhist practice and in different schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Focusing on readings from the commentatorial tradition of the Cuckoo of Vidya (tib.  rig pa’i khu byug) as well as Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo’s Introduction to Mahayana Systems (tib. theg chen kyi tshul la ‘jug pa), the discussion is expansive, covering topics ranging from the real meaning of “seeing the face of the deity” to the three types of rigpa that counteract the three types of ignorance as well as the danger of meditating on a mere conceptual representation of suchness.


Lesson 10: Transcendent State (dgongs pa)

The term dgongs pa, or transcendent state, occurs repeatedly in the Dzogchen scriptural tradition and is commonly mistranslated—rather than mere intentionality or similar, “transcendent state” here specifically means to be in a state of contemplation without any interruption. Malcolm explains that as our practice slowly deepens, our relationship with our primordial state is enhanced such that we can gradually begin to abide within the transcendent state of the buddhas in meditation.

About the Teacher

Ācārya Malcolm Smith has been a student of the Great Perfection teachings since 1992. His main Dzogchen teachers are Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, the late Kunzang Dechen Lingpa, and the late H.H. Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche. He is a veteran of a traditional three-year solitary Tibetan Buddhist retreat, a published translator of Tibetan Buddhist texts, and was awarded the Āchārya degree by the Sakya Institute in 2004. He graduated in 2009 from Shang Shung Institute’s School of Tibetan Medicine. He has worked on translations for renowned lamas since 1992, including His Holiness Sakya Trizin, Kunzang Dechen Lingpa,  Khenpo Migmar Tseten, Tulku Dakpa Rinpoche, and many others. His works include Buddhahood in This Life and The Self-Arisen Vidya Tantra (vol 1) and The Self-Liberated Vidya Tantra (vol 2).