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An Enquiry into the Development of the Dzogchen Tradition in the Commentaries of the Tibetan Scholar Nubchen Sangye Yeshe (10th Century)

The Tibetan scholar Nubchen Sangye Yeshe (10th century) was an influential figure in Tibet’s intellectual history, who played a prominent role in the early codification of Buddhist lineages in Tibet, especially with regard to the development of the Dzogchen tradition. The Dzogchen doctrine, which presents itself as a path of immediate and unmediated realization of the mind’s true nature, was to become one of the hallmarks of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism; its origins, however, are not fully understood.

This research project, which is sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research in the context of the funding line “Kleine Fächer – Große Potenziale”, focuses on an unstudied group of Nubchen’s Dzogchen writings, which belong to the earliest indigenous Dzogchen commentaries. These writings explore some of the fundamental principles of Dzogchen, for example the notions of spontaneous accomplishment and non-striving. The writings to be studied as part of this project are the Tsemo Jungyal Drelpa (rTse-mo byung-rgyal ’grel-pa, TBG); the Jangchub Sem Dewa Trakökyi Döndrel (Byang-chub sems bde-ba ’phra-bkod-kyi don-’grel, DPG); and the Dorje Zongpukyi Drelpa (rDo-rje gzong-phugs-kyi ’grel-pa, DZG); as well as their respective root texts, which are counted among the 18 texts of the mind series (sems-sde bco-brgyad) and thus belong to the earliest strata of written works on Dzogchen. Because of its archaic and highly specialized terminology, this largely unexplored corpus of texts is accessible to only few experts worldwide. An important task of the project will thus consist in a philological analysis of the texts, which is required both in order to render them accessible to an audience beyond that of Dzogchen-specialized Tibetologists, and in order to establish a solid foundation for context-sensitive research into the ideas articulated in this unique corpus.

The hermeneutical examination of the texts’ content will concentrate on three distinct yet interrelated research questions. The aim is to work on highly specialized Tibetological issues while bringing them into resonance with wider concerns in Religious Studies.

  1. An analysis of the Dzogchen themes in Nubchen’s commentaries
    Studying seminal themes of Dzogchen doctrine and practice in a group of closely related commentaries by Nubchen will enable us to trace the maturation of Nubchen’s understanding of the tradition he inherited, as well as the manner in which he codified and transmitted it to posterity.
  2. Processes of delimitation in the development of the Dzogchen tradition
    Comparing Nubchen’s commentaries to selected manuscripts from the ground-breaking finds at Dunhuang will allow for a broader understanding of Nubchen’s innovative role in the formative phase of delimitating Dzogchen as an autonomous tradition. The goal is to examine Tibetan tradition-building processes in interaction with contemporaneous Central Asian developments. Nubchen’s decision to demarcate Dzogchen as an independent path to awakening was a religious innovation with far-reaching consequences for the self-presentation of the Nyingma tradition. Moreover, the case study of Dzogchen can be applied to research concerning fundamental issues in the early phases of tradition-building processes across the field of Religious Studies.
  3. The paradox of practising uncontrived non-striving
    The in-depth study of Nubchen’s commentaries will allow us to glean a better understanding of the (at least apparent) paradox consisting in practising uncontrived non-striving: How can non-effort be learnt as a form of meditative praxis, when learning and practice are themselves forms of striving? This theme is highly relevant to the self-understanding of the Dzogchen tradition, and examining it provides a good starting point for comparative religious reflection: How is the denial of wilful striving applied and portrayed in Dzogchen, and how is this theme comparable to similar procedures in Chan Buddhism and in other contemplative systems?

To sum up, this research project aims to present a unique and highly specialized group of unstudied old Tibetan Dzogchen texts to a broader audience, while simultaneously tackling fundamental questions concerning processes of doxographical demarcation and the content of contemplative practices in the light of their relevance to the wider field of Religious Studies.


10/2019 – 09/2022

Funded by


  • Esler, Dylan. “Yamāntaka’s Wrathful Magic: An Instance of the Ritual Legacy of gNubs chen Sangs rgyas ye shes on the Byang gter Tradition via the Figure of rGya Zhang khrom.” Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines 62 (2022): 190–215. Open Access.
  • Esler, Dylan. “Negotiating the Absence of Ritual: Dzogchen in the Tantric Manuscripts of Dunhuang and Beyond.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 44 (2021): 409–440.           esler_2021_negotiating_the_absence_of_ritual_jiabs_44.pdf
  • Esler, Dylan, and Yukiyo Kasai. “Introduction—Buddhist Rituals and Practices in Central Asia: Texts and Material Culture.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 44 (2021): 405–408.                       esler_and_kasai_2021_introduction_jiabs_44.pdf
  • Esler, Dylan, and Yukiyo Kasai (eds). Buddhist Rituals and Practices in Central Asia: Texts and Material Culture (Special panel of four articles). Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 44 (2021): 405–556.
  • (Knowledge transfer) Esler, Dylan. “In Search of the Tibetan Dzogchen Manuscripts in Tagore’s Haven: Report of a Research Trip to Santiniketan.” Temenos Academy Review 25 (2022, forthcoming).
  • Esler, Dylan. Effortless Spontaneity: The Dzogchen Commentaries by Nubchen Sangye Yeshe, book project with Brill, Leiden.
In Preparation:
  • Esler, Dylan. “The Notion of ‘Effortlessness’ in the Dzogchen Commentaries by Nubchen Sangye Yeshe.” Entangled Religions, Special issue on Contemplation and Non-Doing (forthcoming).
  • Esler, Dylan (ed.). Contemplation and Non-Doing: Solitude, Absorption and Letting-be as Structural Principals of Contemplative Religious Practice (Special issue). Entangled Religions (forthcoming).

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