Garab Dorje

Garab Dorje, painting by Vladimir Pyatsky

Garab Dorje, painting by Vladimir Pyatsky

There is not much known about Garab Dorje, the founder of Dzogchen. Tradition says he was born in the legendary country of Uddiyana and received direct transmission from Vajrasattva himself.

His closest disciple was Manjushrimitra. When Garab Dorje was dying, Manjushrimitra was in despair. Garab Dorje appeared before him in his rainbow body and uttered words of consolation: “Do not be sad, as all forms are no more than appearances.” But even this miraculous appearance of Garab Dorje did not dispel Manjushrimitra’s doubts and sorrow.

So out of his rainbow body Garab Dorje sent him a terma: characters made with a turquoise seal and contained in a case the size of a thumb. Manjushrimitra kept them close to his heart for all his life. This message contained the Garab Dorje’s three precepts, or principles in which the essence of the Dzogchen teaching is condensed:

  1. “Take a decision about the nature of mind.”
  2. “Do not deviate from the nature of mind.”
  3. “Get confident in the nature of mind.”


We had a conversation with my Teacher about the meaning of this story, and discussed whether these events where real or not. My Teacher made the following comments:

“The story of Garab Dorje describes a key moment of life – the moment of death, the moment of parting. This is the moment from where we start studying Dharma because death is an integral and inseparable part of existence.


In our physical body the heart’s tissue is the tissue able to produce electricity. From an energetic point of view, when we consider the subtle body and the structure of channels, there is a short heart channel which has a size of one thumb named kati. Its function for the heart is like the one of a car’s accumulator which is to produce an ignition spark. When Manjushrimitra keeps the turquoise characters in a case of one thumb’s size in his heart, he is receiving and protecting this terma in his heart channel. By Enclosing terma of knowledge in Manjushrimitra’s heart channel, Garab Dorje thus created and preserved the spark of Dzogchen lineage transmission in his heart.


The three precepts of Garab Dorje may be explained in the following terms:

  1. “Take a decision about the nature of mind” = “Get sober”

The story of Garab Dorje and Manjushrimitra is paradoxical. The events described in the story do not fit the frames of ordinary perception and are more like tale or allegory. So naturally the question arises: “What really happened?” The listener’s attention is turned in on itself, doubting either the reality of the story itself or the reality of ordinary perception. After all, such events when taken literally do not seem possible. Just as there is no way a person may rise from the dead, there is no way to put a case with characters in a person’s heart. And yet the story gives a feeling of a different reality, the reality of pure vision. The pure vision reality is a reality of the more subtle realms, normally not perceived by an ordinary mind.

Reflecting upon how to connect our own concept of reality with the perception of pure reality described in the story causes our rational mind to get confused. These two realities cannot exist at the same time; so one of the two is deluded, is drunk. Either the one who is asking about the reality of pure vision or the one who tells us about it. Our mind discovers its roughness and limited nature when confronted with the possibility of pure vision, like a drunk man telling a story without noticing that he is drunk. It becomes evident who actually is drunk: it is our ordinary, sensible, rational perception which is drunk! After building our own picture of the world, our ordinary perception considers it the only possible one and perceives it to be reality. The call to “get sober” provokes us to a perception of pure vision.

Get sober from faith in reality of this world, from involvement into flow of the own desires, from attachments and aversions. Our ordinary existence is like intoxication, and like drunk man is not aware of the own intoxication the same way we are not aware of our intoxication, considering our faith in reality of the world sober and balanced condition.

Get sober from considering yourself sober, take a decision about the nature of mind.

  1. “Do not deviate from the nature of mind” = “Repent”

Accumulation of delusions and ignorance do not let us awaken and realize true reality. Repentance from one’s own ignorance means not-deviating from the nature of mind.

Garab Dorje puts the case with his precepts into Manjushrimitra’s heart and there it is kept. The heart center opens up and this is repentance. Manjushrimitra stops giving faith to different fears and despair caused by Garab Dorje’s departure. Repentance here means that he stops being involved in different delusional states.

  1. “Get confident in the nature of mind” = “Recognize”

In this story the direct transmission of knowledge from guru to disciple is described.

  • Garab Dorje, the Guru, represents the embodiment of primordial consciousness in Ushnisha which in Dzogchen is symbolized by the syllable “A”.
  • Manjushrimitra, the disciple, is an embodiment of heart area consciousness, which receives the syllable “A”. It is from within our heart that we perceive, feel, and recognize.
  • The syllable “A” is an embodiment of primordial mind energy which initially is concentrated over the crown of the head. In Dzogchen when a yogi’s consciousness is concentrated over the crown, it is seen as the returning of energy in its initial state.

Garab Dorje appears in his rainbow body, that is after death his consciousness returns in its initial form over the crown.

Manjushrinitra is incarnated being. In the human body, the sphere of incarnated consciousness is in the heart. And when Manjushrimitra receives and preserves Garab Dorje’s precepts in his heart an important yogic process takes place. When Manjushrimitra receives and preserves Garab Dorje’s precepts in his heart a very important yogic process takes place – primordial energy of Guru fills an incarnated vessel (disciple). This process, an embodiment of the universal process of transmission of the energy of syllable “A” from the crown to the heart and filling the disciple heart area with guru’s primordial energy represents non-duality of their relationship as a play of the Clear Light.

Initially, samsaric consciousness is totally empty, it has no content of its own. Ordinary human consciousness is like cracked earth yearning for rain. Samsaric consciousness is imbued with thirst since it is devoid of it’s own essence. Like a bottomless barrel it is not able to be filled to contentment.

When the primordial energy of the great perfection, the syllable “A”, fills this bottomless vessel, recognition takes place. Through recognizing Buddha nature in all phenomena we develop confidence in the nature of mind, realizing all manifestations, outer and inner, as the play of Clear Light.

By Marina Sherman

Translation by Ilona Erkin and Dorey Glenn