rDzogs Chen

the importance of Sem-dé

by Khandro Déchen

The methods of men-ngag-dé are extremely simple and direct. They could easily be misunderstood. The four chög-zhag are a skeletal frame clothed by many sem’dzin – the methods of men-ngag-dé. These methods are secret, not because they are dangerous – but because the power of transmission would be jeopardised if they were given to people who could not comprehend them.

Of the nine vehicles of the Nyingma tradition, the most important, with regard to the Aro gTér, is Dzogchen – ati-yoga yana or shintu-naljor thegpa. This vehicle has three series of teachings, Dzogchen sem-dé, Dzogchen long-dé and Dzogchen men-ngag-dé. The sem-dé and long-dé series came into Tibet from India in the 10th century, but have neither been taught widely nor survived as living traditions in the major Nyingma lineages. Both the lineal streams of sem-dé and long-dé declined as religious traditions after the 11th century, and only seem to have survived in small family lineages, if at all. Men-ngag-dé developed later, from the 12th century, and has continued to grow and flourish up to the present day. Men-ngag-dé is now the pervasive extant teaching and practice of Dzogchen taught in the major Nyingma lineages.

The sem-dé series is of great interest because of its rarity, and because it contains a ngöndro[1] – a way of approaching the Dzogchen teachings through the gradual development of meditative experience. Long-dé and men-ngag-dé do not contain ngöndro, and thus have to be approached via the Tantric ngöndro, kyé-rim, and dzog-rim[2]. Sem-dé should be of interest to Western practitioners of Vajrayana in particular, not only because of its rarity, but because it provides a means of access to Dzogchen practice which bypasses or skips the stages of Tantric ngöndro, kyé-rim and dzog-rim. Practitioners of the Aro gTér lineage are therefore very lucky because they can gain access to the practice of Dzogchen through the method of Dzogchen itself. The sem-dé teachings from the pure vision gTérma cycles of Khyungchen Aro Lingma contain the ngöndro practice of ‘the four naljors’ – the four foundation practices of Dzogchen – and this is the main practice taught within the Confederate Sanghas of Aro by the Lamas of our lineage. This article concentrates on sem-dé, the series of the nature of Mind, traces its origins, and elaborates on the importance of this series within the Aro gTér tradition. But first we will describe the major historical practitioners of Dzogchen sem-dé.

Vairochana was one of the twenty-five disciples of Padmasambhava, and is considered to have brought the sem-dé and long-dé teachings to Tibet. During the reign of King Trisong Détsen in the 8th century he was ordained by Shantarakshita as one of the first seven monks in Tibet at the newly-founded Sam-ye monastery[3]. He was a prolific translator and siddha. Trisong Détsen sent him to India, accompanied by another monk, to receive teachings from Sri Simha on sem-dé and long-dé, but it is not clear whether he was still a monk when he returned to Tibet. These teachings were given to them at night with the utmost secrecy. This is said to have happened in the following way: Sri Simha wrote down the ‘eighteen esoteric instructionsof the series of the nature of Mind on white silk using milk from a white goat[4]. The words became clear when held over smoke. This teaching is comprised of the eighteen texts known as Sems sDe bCo brGyad.

There were many critics of Dzogchen[5] at this time because these teachings went beyond conventional moral codes – including the principle of karma. The idea that karma was not a mechanistic system of cause and effect but in reality an illusory manifestation of perception and response was very threatening to the religious hierarchy – and still is. The sense in which karma was the ‘form aspect’ of pattern that played in relation to the ‘emptiness aspect’ of chaos was not judged to be conducive to maintaining social order. These teachings were therefore given in secret, as they were seen to be too dangerous for the general population. Ngak’chang Rinpoche says of this issue that … it would seem to be a perennial policy amongst all socially repressive cultures to keep people ignorant and bound in materialistic superstitions of punishment and retribution.

Sri Simha gave Vairochana all the empowerments and instructions of the sixty-Tantra pitaka along with that of long-dé (the series of space). Before returning to Tibet Vairochana also met Garab Dorje, the first human teacher of Dzogchen, from whom he received further teachings. On his return, he taught everything that he had received, also in secrecy, and translated the first sem-dé texts into Tibetan. After this time he was forced into exile because of malicious rumours spread by the Indian factions who wanted to prevent access to the Dzogchen teachings. Having discovered that Vairochana had received these teachings against their wishes, they spared no effort in their attempts to have him discredited in his own country. The Indian factions feared that Dzogchen could be ‘lost to Tibet’ and, to prevent this, they spread the rumour that Vairochana had only brought back to Tibet a series of magic spells which had nothing to do with Dzogchen. The King’s ministers felt that Vairochana should be executed but the King disagreed and contrived to have a beggar who physically resembled Vairochana thrown into the river while Vairochana himself hid in a hollow pillar in the palace[6]. One night the Queen discovered him there, whereupon she informed the King’s ministers and the King found himself forced to agree to Vairochana’s expulsion.

In exile in Tshawarong, Vairochana accepted Yudra Nyingpo as a disciple. Yudra Nyingpo was eventually responsible for helping Vimalamitra to translate the later texts of sem-dé into Tibetan, whilst also working towards helping his teacher return to Tibet from exile. At this time Vairochana gave Pag Mipham Gönpo oral instruction on the Dzogchen long-dé series. Pag Mipham Gönpo (the Invincible Geriatric) was a physically frail man of eighty-five when he started to practise, so the meditation belt and a stick which were part of the transmission proved very useful. A lot of people imagine that Vairochana gave him the meditation belt and a stick to prop up his chin and hold him in position because of his age, but this is not accurate. The belt and stick are an essential aspect of long-dé practice, and are used by practitioners of all ages[7]. According to Düd’jom Rinpoche’s text, The History and Fundamentals of the Nyingma School, it is said that his family laughed at the idea of him starting to practise at such a late stage of life, but he achieved liberation[8]. It is also said that at this time he became immensely joyful, and embraced Vairochana around the neck not letting go for a whole day.

He lived for a further hundred years, transmitting the teachings to his own disciples, and each one of them achieved rainbow body. Vairochana also transmitted the sem-dé teachings to Nyak Jnana Kumara, who was born in Yarlung in the late 8th century. He was ordained as a monk, and became a brilliant translator. In his late twenties he, like Vairochana, had to spend time in exile after King Trisong Détsen died. His life was not easy. His brother took a violent dislike to him and declared that he was ‘an adept of extremist mantras’[9]. He regained the confidence of the people by manifesting precious gems where he lived, but his bad luck persisted and he was pursued by antagonists[10]. Fortunately he met Vimalamitra in the course of his travels, and received teachings from him.

Nubchen Sang-gyé Yeshé became a student of one of Nyak Jnana Kumara’s disciples, and he also had teachings from Padmasambhava, Yeshé Tsogyel and many other masters. Later, when Langdarma, the King of that time, persecuted the monastic institutions, it was by Nubchen Sang-gyé Yeshé’s kindness that the mantra adepts who wore the white skirt and long braided hair were unharmed by Langdarma’s persecution[11] though his own two sons were killed during the King’s reign. Nubchen Sang-gyé Yeshé terrified the King by pointing a finger at the sky and bringing forth a black iron scorpion the size of a yak. He also demonstrated how he could manifest a thunderbolt and use it to smash rocks to pieces. He was also a great writer on sem-dé.

Aro Yeshé Jungné[12] was a teacher and writer on sem-dé of the 10th century. His system of teaching was known as Kham-lug as he hailed from the Kham region of Tibet. He formulated a system of sem-dé known as the Seven Sessions of Aro. His teachings and writings had a profound influence on Dzogchen sem-dé but his life remains obscure.

Rongdzom Chökyi Zangpo was a great master of Dzogchen in the 11th century. At the age of eleven he was able to remember teachings after hearing them only once. For this reason he was known as an emanation of Manjushri. He also possessed great siddhis and during the one hundred nineteen years that he lived he had many students, wrote prolifically and developed the system of teaching known as Rong-lug. Many more lines branched out after this but after the 11th century it declined. By the 17th century sem-dé had become extinct as a separate living tradition. Rig’dzin gTér-dag Lingpa, one of the great Nyingma gTértöns, stated that practically nothing survived of sem-dé in his day (17th century) apart from the transmission of the rLung (permission to practise).

When sem-dé was brought to Tibet it was a time of proliferation of Buddhist teachings. Ordained practitioners were comprised of monks / nuns (ordination based within the Sutric vehicle) and ngakpas / ngakmas (ordination based within the Tantric vehicle). In addition, of course, there were the lay yogis and yoginis, a group of non-ordained practitioners. From the point of view of Dzogchen, ordination was not a consideration, as it is not a vehicle of ritual practice. The historical records of this time are not explicit in their descriptions of which type of practitioner the great lineage holders were.

Both Vairochana and Nyak Jnana Kumara are said to have been ordained as monks; however, line drawings in The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism by Düd’jom Rinpoche depict all but Vairochana with long hair and yogic dress. It would seem to be the case that most of these practitioners belonged either to the ngak’phang sangha or to the lay yogic Dzogchen style of practice.

Sem-dé is the series of the nature of Mind. As one might expect from its title, it is comprised of detailed teachings on the nature of Mind and how that is differentiated from dualistic mind. It describes in detail how dualistic mind is affected by practice, with regard to the sem-nyams – the experiences of emptiness and form through which one discovers the instant-presence of rigpa.

In the Aro gTér, the teachings on sem-dé are divided into two parts. The first of these is an actual practice of ngöndro or preliminary practices which are the four naljors[13]. The second part is the definitive practice of sem-dé – the four ting-ngé-dzin (absorptions or samadhis). The purpose of any ngöndro practice in any vehicle is to bring the condition of the practitioner to the base of that vehicle. The Tantric ngöndro, which is the one most widely known in the West, brings its practitioners to the base of Tantra, which is the experience of emptiness. It bridges the experiences of the previous vehicle[14]; and, because it is the Tantric ngöndro, it is Tantric in its nature. For example, the practice of Lama’i naljor is pure Tantra. Likewise the four naljors contain detailed teachings on the nature of Mind, which bridge the experiences gained in both Sutra and Tantra. This allows the practitioner to arrive at the base of Dzogchen, which is the non-dual experience, and then to begin the actual sem-dé practice of the four ting-ngé-dzin (népa, gYo-wa, nyam-nyid and lhundrüp). In the same way as the Tantric ngöndro resembles the practice of Tantra, the Dzogchen ngöndro resembles the practice of Dzogchen. The fourth naljor is lhundrüp, which is the integration of the non-dual experience into everyday life. This of course is none other than the practice of Dzogchen itself.

Dzogchen teachings available today are mostly those of men-ngag-dé, because this was the tradition which survived and flourished. There are very few teachings from sem-dé ngöndro and the ting-ngé-dzin available, and also few from long-dé. Men-ngag-dé is the series of implicit instruction. The word ‘implicit’ is used because the meaning of the instruction is only accessible to the practitioner who is in a condition to be able to perceive it. In other words, it is not hidden but neither is it explicit – it is implicit. The transmission of understanding the practice is contained in the instruction of the practice itself. This is given to the disciple by the teacher in a very cryptic manner according to the four chog-zhag[15]. The chog-zhag of the body is: whatever the position of the body is the correct one for integration with rigpa. The chog-zhag of the eyes is: wherever the eyes are looking is where they are looking. The chog-zhag of the focus of the eyes is: wherever the eyes focus is where their focus is found. The chog-zhag of the Mind is: whatever arises in the Mind is already integrated with rigpa. This is an example of the teaching of the four chög-zhag. The implicit instruction is that there is nothing either to change or to alter. There is nothing to do, nowhere to go, no practice to follow. If this is not immediately understood, questions are useless – there are no answers beyond direct communication of the four chög-zhag. There is nothing to ask because there is nothing to do beyond recognising that you have never been anywhere other than the state of rigpa. If the practitioner is in the non-dual state, then of course there is nothing to do, and nowhere else to go.

Men-ngag-dé contains no detailed teachings on mind and the nature of Mind; thus it is much harder to access the meaning of the teaching, or to explore and practise in relation to an evolving understanding. In fact, it is impossible to practise men-ngag-dé if one has no experience of the non-dual state. Unless one first practises either the sem-dé ngöndro or the vehicles of Sutra and Tantra one is unlikely to find the non-dual state; and the non-dual state is the spring-board necessary to understand and practise the men-ngag-dé teachings. This goes some way towards explaining why most of the teaching available on Dzogchen at this time is cryptic and introduced within the context of Tantric training. It also explains why many Nyingma Lamas are so reluctant to teach Dzogchen. The methods of men-ngag-dé are very, very simple and direct, and could easily be misunderstood. The four chög-zhag are a skeletal frame clothed by many sem’dzin – methods of men-ngag-dé. These methods are secret – not because they are dangerous, but because the power of transmission would be jeopardised if they were given to people who could not comprehend them.

The Aro gTér lineage has teachings from each of the three series in fairly equal quantities. This is unusual, as sem-dé has all but died out in most of the other lineages of the Nyingma tradition[16]. This explains why in the Aro gTér lineage practitioners are not required to complete Tantric ngöndro. They gather the required experiences by practising the sem-dé ngöndro, i.e. the four naljors. In the Aro gTér lineage, the Dzogchen sem-dé teachings are comprised of the four naljors, the four ting-ngé-dzin, and trül-khor naljor (yantra yoga). The Dzogchen long-dé teachings are comprised of the four da (instructions relating to sensation through physical posture and pressure points), and sKu-mNyé. The Dzogchen men-ngag-dé teachings are comprised of the four chög-zhag, and the a-tri exercises.


1. Ngöndro means preparation or foundation practice. Literally, ngöndro means ‘before going’ and is usually understood to apply to the precursor of Tantric practice, i.e. 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 mandala offerings, 100,000 Dor-sem recitations, and 100,000 repetitions of Lama’i naljor.

2. Kyé-rim is the development stage of Tantra, and dzog-rim is the completion stage. Both phases are usually necessary before the practitioner can approach the Dzogchen teachings. Kyé-rim is mainly the practice of the awareness-beings, and dzog-rim is mainly the practice of the spatial nerves, winds, and elemental essences.

3. According to Ngak’chang Rinpoche, this does not imply that Vairochana remained a monk for the rest of his life. Ngak’chang Rinpoche states quite definitely that it was a customary option for practitioners at that time to take on monasticism for a limited period, before moving into their Tantric phase. Becoming a monk, or a nun in the case of Yeshé Tsogyel, represented the Sutric phase of their training (see Sky Dancer by Keith Dowman).

4. It is also said that these texts were written down on goat skin.

5. There have been many critics of Dzogchen in Tibet throughout its Buddhist history, and this pattern continues to the present day. The criticisms are often based either on its supposed similarity to Ch’an, or the idea that it is a Shaivite heresy. Due to the fervour of critics over a millennium, Nyingma scholars have argued the position of Dzogchen as an authentic Buddhist vehicle using the language and constructs of both Sutra and Tantra. As a result, Dzogchen became gradually more ritualised from the time of Jig’mèd Lingpa onwards. This is another reason for the emphasis placed on the Tantric ngöndro as a precursor before receiving Dzogchen teaching or engaging in Dzogchen practice.

6. The highly questionable nature of this behaviour does not seem to be addressed in the texts.

7. The meditation belt is called a gom-tag, and the stick is called a gom-ten (support) or gom-shing (stick). There are gom-tags of at least four different lengths and also different kinds of gom-ten. These are used in various combinations to facilitate a series of highly specific meditation postures which co-ordinate body posture with the functioning of the rTsa-rLung system (spatial nerves and spatial winds).

8. According to other oral sources, he was supposed to have been a monk, but this is doubtful. This is probably another of the many cases in which yogis and yoginis are portrayed as having been monks and nuns in order to ‘monasticise’ the history of the various traditions.

9. H. H. Düd’jom Rinpoche, Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism; Volume one. Wisdom Publications (1991), page 601.

10. Things do not seem to change very much with the passing of history. We do not have to look very far to see the same thing playing itself out today.

11. H. H. Düd’jom Rinpoche, op. cit., page 612.

12. From what we know of the Aro gTér tradition so far, there is no obvious link between either Aro Lingma or Aro Yeshé and Aro Yeshé Jung-né. At this point the names would appear to be coincidental.

13. Naljor is the Tibetan equivalent to the Sanskrit word yoga, but in the Dzogchen tradition it does not have the meaning of union or unification. In Dzogchen the word has a meaning closer to its Tibetan etymology: ‘nal’ derives from ‘nalwa’ which means ‘the natural state’, and ‘jor’ derives from ‘jorpa’ which means ‘to remain’ or ‘remaining’. Hence naljor means ‘remaining in the natural state’.

14. mDo – Sutra.

15. Chög-zhag means ‘leaving it as it is’.

16. Namkha’i Norbu Rinpoche teaches from sem-dé and is intimately familiar with both the four naljors and the four ting-ngé-dzin, but at the point of publication we cannot give a reference as to the origin of these teachings in terms of his lineage. We know that these teachings are also given in the Bön tradition, from what we have heard of Bön teachings given in the USA. There may well be extant lineages of sem-dé within the lesser-known Nyingma family lineages. Historical research into the Tibetan traditions is in its infancy and new information comes to light all the time in research papers and books. If further information is forthcoming it will be included in a revised version of this article.