The teaching of Dzogchen is in essence a teaching concerning the primordial state that is each individual's own intrinsic nature from the very beginning. To enter this state is to experience oneself as one is, as the center of the universe though not in the ordinary ego sense. The ordinary ego-centered consciousness is precisely the limited cage of dualistic vision that closes off the experience of one's own true nature, which is the space of the primordial state. To discover this primordial state is to understand the teaching of Dzogchen, and the function of the transmission of the teaching of Dzogchen is to communicate this state from one who has realized, or become established in it, to those who remain caught up in the dualistic condition. Even the name Dzogchen, which means 'Great Perfection', refers to the self-perfectedness of this state, fundamentally pure from the beginning, with nothing to reject or accept.
To understand and enter the primordial state one does not need intellectual, cultural, or historical knowledge. It is beyond intellect by its very nature. Yet when people encounter a teaching they have not heard of before, one of the first things they may want to know is where this teaching arose, where it came from, who taught it, and so on. This is understandable, but Dzogchen itself cannot be said to belong to the culture of any country. There is a tantra of Dzogchen, the Dra Thalgyur Tsawai Gyüd, for example, that says that the Dzogchen teaching can be found in thirteen solar systems other than our own, so we can't even truly say that the Dzogchen teaching belongs to this planet Earth, much less to any particular national culture. Although it is true that the tradition of Dzogchen that we are about to consider has been transmitted through the culture of tibet that has harbored it ever since the beginning of recorded history in Tibet, we nevertheless cannot finally say that Dzogchen is Tibetan, because the primordial state itself has no nationality and is omnipresent.
But it is also true that beings everywhere have entered into the dualistic vision that veils the experience of the primordial state. And when realized beings have tried to communicate with them, they have only rarely been able to communicate the primordial state completely without words or symbols, so they have made use of whatever culture they found present, as a means of communication. In this way it has often happened that the culture and the teachings have become interwoven, and in the case of Tibet this is true to the extent that it is not possible to understand the culture without an understanding of the teachings.
It's not that the teachings of Dzogchen were ever particularly widespread or well-known in Tibet; in fact rather the reverse was true. Dzogchen was always a somewhat reserved teaching. But the Dzogchen teachings are the essence of all Tibetan teachings, so direct that they were always kept a little hidden, and people were often a little afraid of them. Furthermore, there existed a tradition of Dzogchen among the ancient Bön traditions, the indigenous and largely shamanic traditions of Tibet, that pre-date the arrival of Buddhism from India.
Thus, if we consider the Dzogchen teachings as being the essence of all the Tibetan spiritual traditions, both Buddhist and Bön (though itself actually belonging to neither Buddhism nor Bön), and if we understand that the spiritual traditions of Tibet were the essence of Tibetan culture, then we can use the Dzogchen teachings as a key to the understanding of Tibetan culture as a whole. And with this perspective it can be seen how all the various aspects of Tibetan culture have been manifested as facets of the unified vision of realized beings, the masters of the spiritual traditions.
Like a crystal at the heart of the culture, the clarity of the primordial state, as manifested in the minds of many masters, has radiated the forms of Tibetan art and iconography, medicine, and astrology, like brilliant rays, or sparkling reflections. So by coming to understand the nature of the crystal, we will be better able to make sense of the rays and reflections that emanate from it.
From The Crystal and the Way of Light, compiled and edited by John Shane, © 2000 by Namkhai Norbu and John Shane. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com.