Taken from the introduction to Great Perfection: Outer and Inner Preliminaries by the Third Dzogchen Rinpoche, this brief excerpt clearly and simply lays out what the term Dzogchen means.
The instructions of the Dzogchen lineage are used to directly point out the nature of mind and bring the experience of enlightenment into our ordinary life and experiences. Therefore, these teachings are known as “pith instructions,” the heart or quintessence of pure knowledge that cuts through all confusion and gets straight to the point. There is a saying, “don’t beat around the bush,” meaning “get to the point.” That is Dzogchen.
In many ways, these teachings go beyond scripture and the formality of spiritual techniques. These two do have their place, since it is important to study scripture and meditate in a step-by-step manner, but at the same time, we also have to go directly to the nature of mind at some point. We have to strike the crucial point, the enlightened state, and leap directly into the experience and realization of the true nature of our mind.
The term Dzogchen can be translated into English in different ways: as the Great Completion, the Great Perfection and the Great Exhaustion. It is called the “Great Completion” because the nature of mind is endowed with all enlightened qualities and everything is complete within it. Everything is complete within this path, within these instructions. If we relate this to our individual path and practice, then it means that our mind itself is completely awakened right from the beginning. It is full of the genuine qualities of buddhahood. There is nothing missing.
It is called “Great Perfection” because the nature of mind and the nature of the world is perfect from the beginning. There are no impurities in the true nature of mind. All such incidental stains are temporary. The true nature, or reality, of mind is perfect; it is inherently pure, which in Dzogchen language is called the “primordial pure” nature. Therefore, you don’t have to look beyond or go outside of your immediate experience to find another thought or emotion that is more sacred, more pure.
It is called the “Great Exhaustion” because, first, from the point of view of the fruition of the path, all the mind’s impurities are exhausted and consumed; and second, from the point of view of mind’s true nature, these impurities have never had any true existence. In reality, they have no true essence. They are just the confused appearances of our thoughts. From the positive side we say they are primordially pure, and from the point of view of negation we say they are primordially nonexistent.
From Great Perfection: Outer and Inner Preliminaries by the Third Dzogchen Rinpoche, translated by Cortland Dahl, introduction by Dzogchen Ponlop.