Tib., rDzogs-pa ch'en-po: Great Perfection
Skt., mahasandi: Great Completion
The term Dzogchen is the often used abbreviated form of the Tibetan Dzog-pa Chen-po, which fully translated means "Great Perfection Teachings". Less literally taken, Dzogchen has been defined as the "self-perfected state of the individual" [Norbu, Dzog Chen and Zen, p. 31], the "state of total completeness" [Norbu, Primordeal Experience, p. IX] or the "teaching of spontaneous self-perfection" [Norbu, The Crystal, p.146].
Dzogchen is often regarded as the name of a specific school of Vajrayana Buddhism, yet is, quite simply, the Tibetan name for the highest stage of the Inner Tantras as defined by the Nyingmapa, and has much in common with the Mahamudra and certain Lamdre teachings of other Tibetan schools. Many of the major teachers, teachings and texts that belong to the Dzogchen can be found in the discussion of the Nyingtig teachings.
Dzogchen is, or was, sometimes regarded as heretic, especially by the Gelugpa, mainly because it does share certain points of view with Chinese Ch'an-Buddhism (influenced by Taoism) and with the Shaiva tradition of Kashmir. Thus, most Dzogchen-texts have been consciously left out of the Buddhist Kanjur, the famous 13th century collection of sacred texts by Bu-ston. However, also adherents of the Gelugpa and other schools have recognized the value and power of Dzogchen teachings and have often practised it (for example the 5th Dalai Lama); and if necessary they did so in secret. The present Dalai Lama (Tendzin Gyatso) has done much, in recent years, to help Dzogchen become more accepted - and he has even written books about these teachings hmself.
Dzogchen teachings have been transmitted mainly by the Nyingmapa, the first and oldest of all Tibetan schools. The tradition is still very much alive and is represented in the West, especially by the incarnated Tibetan Lama Namkhai Norbu. Due to his unique training and background, due to his knowledge of Tibetan, Chinese, Mongolian and modern Western languages, and due to his diligent research into the earliest beginnings of the Tibetan culture, (see Zhang Zhung) it has become known that Dzogchen has roots independent from Buddhism (see Bön), and that important aspects of it actually predate the Buddhist teachings that reached Tibet from India by the late 7th century.
One of the interesting and rather unique features of the Dzogchen teachings is the non-hierarchic method that is used, a method that leaves the student/practitioner very much room for her or his individuality, and for the social role he or she happens to play in life. A Dzogchen teacher will not, as is the case with many other masters or guru's, demand blind obeisance in the sense of "Follow my rules unquestioningly and obey all my precepts!" Instead, he or she simply tries to transmit a particular knowledge, to awaken the student's mind and to make the individual aware of the primordeal, inborn nature of consciousness. Such a Dzogchen master will much rather say this:
Open your inner eye and observe yourself. Stop seeking an external lamp to enlighten you
from outside, but light your own inner lamp. Thus the teachings will come to live in you, and
you in the teachings. The teaching must become a living knowledge in all one's daily
activities. This is the essence of the practice, and besides that there is nothing in
particular to be done.
Namkhai Norbu. Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State, p.7]
Dzogchen is often compared to Chinese Ch'an Buddhism and has even been called "Tibetan Zen". To a certain degree, the comparison certainly holds and is an observant one. A typical Dzogchen anecdote that does sound uncannyly similar to many of the teaching stories known from Ch'an/Zen will illustrate the point.
Also in regard to the important question of mindfulness, important at least for Buddhist practitioners, Zen and Dzogchen both show a similarly deep appreciation for a particular advice of Siddharta Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha (563-483 BCE) on these matters. The Buddha said, as is recorded in the Prajnaparamhita Sutra, that when standing, one should be mindful of standing, when sleeping to be mindful of sleeping, when being well or ill, to be fully mindful of either condition. Another point of view that sounds very much alike in Dzogchen and Zen, is the fact that both do not cease to declare that they are not a "religion" or "faith", but simply a way of knowledge. Both define themselves as philosophical and/or psychological systems transcending any religious and cultural limit. Also, similar to the wu-wei (Chin., "action within non-action") of Taoism and Ch'an Buddhism, also Dzogchen knows and teaches a principle of non-action (Tib., bya-bral, "pure potential").
Such striking similarities between the two systems, however, can easily lead us to overlook the major difference, which is the difference between the gradual Mahayana Sutra based path of the Zen monk, and the Bön & Tantra inspired non-gradual path of the independent Dzogchen practitioner.
Sometimes these teachings are also referred to as "Sacred Great Perfection" (Tib., bka' rdzogs pa chen po). However, even if the term Dzogchen does not appear in a given text at all - as in the most early writings - the teachings can be recognized by terms and expressions that are virtual synonyms:
In the history of this ancient tradition, the almost forgotten kingdoms of Zhang Zhung and Uddiyana play a major role. Both regions have often been regarded as being purely legendary, yet they are now being recognized as kingdoms with distinct traditions that have clearly and strongly influenced the cultural development of Tibet and some of its neighbors.
A rather detailed discussion of Dzogchen's philosophical and psychological precepts and techniques can be found in Sky Dancer by Keith Dowman [pp. 217-252].
See here for a specialized bibliography