Dzogchen: Who’s Who & What’s What in the Great Perfection

 by Nigel Wellings

Mud Pie Books, 2022

Review by Julia Lawless

Aimed at those new to the Dzogchen teachings and those that want to go a little deeper, this book provides a helpful historical framework and context for understanding the main principles of the tradition. It is more than a simple directory covering the main themes, masters and deities of the Dzogchen tradition, as it is a large volume containing over 400 pages. A brief overview of the lives of the most important Dzogchen Masters including their dates, lineage connections, activities and influences are presented in an easily accessible manner and placed within the larger picture of Tibetan Buddhism and to a lesser extent, Buddhism as a whole. The book also includes a general explanation of the principal guardians and deities connected with Dzogchen as well as helping to elucidate some of the specific terminology commonly used when transmitting the Dzogchen teachings.  This can often be a tricky area to navigate since many terms, such as bodhicitta or emptiness, can have different meanings according to their specific context within Sutra, Tantra or Dzogchen. As Tsoknyi Rinpoche writes in his Foreword:

‘At present, Dharma literature in Western languages has become quite vast with its array of technical terms. Those who wish to deepen their knowledge of Buddhism through books, might find difficulty in understanding certain terms, which quite often appear to specific profound teachings. Although many of these texts include a glossary, where clarifications can be found, sometimes these fall short of providing comprehensive explanations. Focussing on this issue, Nigel Wellings has laid out, in the form of a handbook, accurate explanations of terms, including historical information about the origin of certain teachings and biographies of major teachers.’

I have known Nigel as a friend for many years as he was one of the initial students of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and attended many of Rinpoche’s early retreats in the UK during the 1980’s and 90’s. He first met Rinpoche in India in 1976/7 while he was there studying thangka painting, and subsequently many of his drawings have been used to illustrate Rinpoche’s books. Some years later, Nigel also became involved with the sangha of Tsoknyi Rinpoche, one of the sons of the renowned Dzogchen Master, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Nigel is also a founding member of ‘The Forum for Contemplative Studies’, acted as a teacher for the Bath & Bristol Mindfulness Courses programme, as well as being Director of Training at the ‘London Centre for Transpersonal Psychology’ for many years. Today he works as a practising psychoanalytic psychotherapist who works within a contemplative perspective. Nigel’s familiarity with all these different viewpoints comes across throughout the book, and in this sense, he covers various perspectives when presenting the subject matter and topics which are covered here. Some of the more archaic and complex topics and themes are therefore elucidated using a more contemporary Western-style language and approach.   

‘However, what you will find here is not quite a straight replication or reinstatement of the teachings. Drawing on the scholarly material available, I have in some entries added a little background for additional clarification. Nor does this book assume that the reader is a fully committed student of Dzogchen: many of us may be engaged with the teachings while retaining some hesitations. Acknowledging this, I have in some instances sympathetically described the tradition from slightly outside, not assuming agreement, but inviting thought. I do this from my dual perspective of one who is an aspiring Dzogchen student, but also someone who values knowing the history of the Dharma as a whole and how it has unfolded over time.’

From a historical perspective, the Dzogchen teachings have scarcely found their feet in the West. The first Tibetan teachers only first started transmitting these profound teachings in Europe and the USA the 1970’s. And although over fifty years later there are now many Dzogchen Centres all over the globe, certain aspects of terminology to do with the translation of Tibetan and Sanskrit terms have yet to be agreed upon, and this is an important factor since textual sources are a vital component of how knowledge is passed on from one generation to another. This is apparent in the book where variations in the translation of certain important terms might be interpreted in different ways.

Another hurdle to be surmounted in approaching the continuity of the Dzogchen tradition, is the variation in the cultural outlook between East and West, because although in a real sense the essence of Dzogchen, the state of rigpa, is beyond culture, nevertheless it yet to really find its own local language of expression. In the West, technology and science are dominant factors in our society, as well as those elements of Western philosophy and psychology which underpin our cultural values, and all portrayed upon a Christian background canvas. Gradually, the Dzogchen teachings need to take root in the West and find their own form of expression in an authentic way which does not dismiss or destroy any of the intrinsic and vital principles of the tradition.

Nigel pushes the boundaries of this field of research a little by exploring ways to bridge the gap, yet still leaves space for further interpretation as he suggests in his Postscript on Definitions:

‘… I recommend a light touch when reading this handbook, regarding its contents as ‘mere’ definitions, to borrow a phrase used by Tsoknyi Rinpoche, to counter making things too concrete. Viewed in this way a multiplicity of meanings and contradictions need not be the cause for confusion but may be seen as evidence of the many people who have contributed to the continuous unfolding of meaning that this book contains. Definitions are invaluable and require careful thought but, as the Dharma demonstrates, finally they are empty of inherent existence, entirely transitory and contingent, and most fundamentally they are simply the ephemeral expression of intrinsic awareness’.

‘Dzogchen: Who’s Who & What’s What in the Great Perfection’, by Nigel Wellings, paperback pub. Mud Pie, 2022, available from Amazon £20.


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