Mahamudra (Sanskrit: Mahāmudrā
, Tibetan: Chagchen
, Wylie: phyag chen
, contraction of Chagya Chenpo
, Wylie: phyag rgya chen po
) literally means 'great seal' or 'great symbol'. Mahamudra is an advanced form of Buddhist
meditation practice, comprising methods of attaining a direct introduction to the nature and essence of the mind. Mahamudra also includes practices to stabilize the accompanying transcendental
realization. The practices associated with Mahamudra draw upon instructions from multiple levels of Buddhism, including Sutra
, to provide a range of approaches to enlightenment
suited to the needs of various practitioners. Mahamudra is believed to enable one to realize the mindstream
's innate purity, clarity and perfection, summed up by the term 'buddha nature
', the topic of the Third Turning
of the Dharmachakra
, the final phase of Gotama Buddha
's teachings. Aryadeva
provides the simple summary: "The discussion of how to attain mahamudra entails methods for meditating on mind itself as something having voidness
as its nature".
The term Mahamudra
The term mahamudra is often explained as referring to the uncontestable validity of the experience. For example, if a document bears the Great Seal of the Emperor, then there is no question as to the authenticity of that document. Similarly, during the genuine experience of mahamudra, one has no question that one is directly glimpsing the nature of Mind (which is Tathāgatagarbha
, realization that it is possible to achieve Buddhahood) and that recalling and stabilizing this experience leads to profound certainty and eventual enlightenment
Lineages of Mahamudra
Mahamudra is most well-known as a teaching within the Kagyu lineages
of Tibetan Buddhism
. However the Tibetan Buddhist Gelug
schools also practice Mahamudra, as does Shingon Buddhism
, the other major sub-school of the Vajrayana
. The Nyingma
traditions practise Dzogchen
, a cognate but distinct method of direct introduction to the empty
nature of mind. Nyingma students may also receive supplemental training in Mahamudra, and the Palyul
Nyingma lineage preserves a lineage of the "Union of Mahamudra and Ati Yoga" originated by Karma Chagme
All of the various Tibetan Mahamudra lineages originated with the tantric Mahasiddhas of Pala Empire India in the 8th to 12th Centuries. The 'Profound Action' lineage originated with Maitreya and Asanga and was introduced to Tibet by Marpa and Atisha. Marpa introduced the lineage to the Kagyu school and Atisha to the Kadam school, which later produced the Gelug school. Gampopa later received both the Kagyu and Kadam transmissions of the lineage and passed them through to the present day Kagyu. The 'Profound View' lineage of Mahamudra, which originated with Nagarjuna, also was introduced to Tibet by Atisha. Marpa introduced to Tibet the 'Profound Blessing Meditation Experience' lineage that is believed to have originated with the primordial Buddha Vajradhara and was passed to Tilopa and Naropa. Marpa also introduced a Mahamudra lineage that traced back through Saraha and Maitripa.
The Kagyu tradition
The Kagyu lineage divides the Mahamudra teachings into three types, 'sutra Mahamudra', 'tantra Mahamudra', and 'essence Mahamudra'. Sutra Mahamudra, as the name suggests, draws its philosophical view and meditation techniques from the sutrayana tradition. Tantric Mahamudra employs such tantric techniques
, dream yoga
, and clear light yoga
, three of the six yogas of Naropa
. Essence Mahamudra is based on the direct instruction of a qualified lama.
There have been many prominent practitioners and scholars of Mahamudra in the Kagyu tradition. The Third Karmapa wrote 'Aspiration Prayer of Mahamudra'. The Ninth Karmapa wrote three major Mahamudra texts: 'Pointing Out the Dharmakaya' (Tibetan: Chos sku mdzub tshugs); 'An Ocean of the Definite Meaning' (Tibetan:Nges don rGya mtsho) and 'Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance'. Tsele Natsok Rangdrol wrote the 'Lamp of Mahamudra' and Dakpo Tashi Namgyal wrote 'Clarifying the Natural State' and 'Moonlight of Mahamudra'.
The Gelug tradition
The First and Second Panchen Lamas
wrote important discourses about Mahamudra from the Gelug
perspective. The main text of the First Panchen Lama
is 'A root text for the precious Gelug/Kagyu tradition of Mahamudra:The Main Road of the Triumphant Ones' (Tibetan:dGe-ldan bkah-brgyud rin-po-chehi phyag-chen rtza-ba rg yal-bahi gzhung-lam
The First Panchen Lama
identified a number of Mahamudra lineages, according to their main practices for achieving Mahamudra:
From the point of view of individually ascribed names, there are numerous traditions, such as those of the simultaneously arising as merged, the amulet box, possessing five, the six spheres of equal taste, the four syllables, the pacifier, the object to be cut off, dzogchen, the discursive madhyamaka view, and so on.
In his teachings on the First Panchen Lama's root text and auto-commentary the Dalai Lama XIV has explained the practice lineages as follows:
Karma Kagyu 'Simultaneously Arising as Merged' tradition
This is the tradition introduced by Gampopa
with a main practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa
and passed through the Karma Kagyu
Shangpa Kagyu Amulet Box tradition
This tradition came from Khyungpo Naljor
and its main practice is the Six Yogas of Niguma
, passed through the Shangpa Kagyu
Drigung Kagyu 'Possessing Five' tradition
founded the school and Mahamudra lineage whose main practice is devotion via Guru Yoga
and purification and merit collection practices and passed through the Drigung
Drukpa Kagyu 'Six Spheres of Equal Taste' tradition
founded this tradition which encompasses a range of practices, including the Six Yogas of Naropa
and passed through the Drukpa Kagyu
Dagpo Kagyu 'Four Syllables' tradition
This is the tradition that derives from Matripa
. The four syllables are a-ma-na-si
which comprise the Sanskrit word meaning 'not to take to mind' and passed through the Dagpo
Kagyu branches, i.e. any that descend from the teachings of Tilopa
rather than those of Niguma
, which in practice means all but the Shangpa Kagyu
Pha Dampa Sangye 'Pacifier' tradition
Pha Dampa Sangye
originated this tradition and its major practices are lojong
to cleanse attitudes and tonglen
or 'taking and giving' to release attachments. This is primarily a Nyingma
school practice lineage.
Machig Labdron Object to be Cut Off tradition
originated this tradition and its main practice is Chod
. This is primarily a Nyingma
school practice lineage.
tradition derives from Padmasambhava
and has three systems or lineages, the 'mind', 'open expanse' and 'oral guidelines' divisions. This is primarily a Nyingma
school practice lineage.
Madhyamaka 'Discursive View' traditions
discursive view is a Gelug
lineage. It is a Mahayana
Mahamudra path rather than a Vajrayana
'And so on'
According to Dalai Lama XIV
, this includes the Sakya
Mahamudra traditions. According to Alexander Berzin
The Kagyu and Gelug/Kagyu traditions have both sutra and anuttarayoga tantra levels of the practice, while Sakya only an anuttarayoga one. In other words, Sakya mahamudra focuses only on the nature of clear light mental activity, while the other two traditions include focus on the nature of the other levels of mental activity as well.
A relationship with a teacher is strongly stressed, and in the former Tibet these texts would not have been available except through a teacher and without having completed preliminary practices. Some parts of the transmission are done verbally and through empowerments
and "reading transmissions". In particular the teacher directly Points out the Mind of the Student.
Mahamudra meditation practice works to directly reveal emptiness to one's own direct experience in one's own mind. This is achieved by meditating directly on one's own mind. This is known as "taking the path of direct valid cognition"—it emphasizes directly experiencing the phenomena of one's own mind and experiencing emptiness.
As in all Buddhist schools of meditation, the basic meditative practice of Mahamudra is divided into two approaches: śamatha ("tranquility") and vipaśyanā ("insight").
The meditation manuals (in particular those of The 9th Karmapa) are among the most detailed and precise in the Buddhist literature. For tranquility practice they enumerate the stages of settling the mind and specify many common problems (eg. excitement, torpor, doubt, apathy) and practices to remedy these problems. The objects of meditation are simple objects, statues of the Buddha, the breath, mantras, complex visualizations and deities and Yidams. These objects of meditation are common throughout Tibetan Vajrayana practice.
The detailed instructions for the Insight practices are what make Mahamudra (and Dzogchen) unique.
The meditator is instructed to observe the mind at rest and then during the occurrence of thought. In some practices disturbing emotions are deliberately invoked and the meditator is directed to experience their "empty" nature. The meditator is further instructed to observe that which is looking for the nature of the mind: to observe the observer.
Questions are posed to the meditator to verify the experiences, to trigger further insight and to identify and correct misconceptions. The Ocean of Definitive Meaning and Pointing out the Dharmakaya (9th Karmapa) both enumerate these questions and common answers to them.
- Ray, Reginald (2000). Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN 1-570-62166-7, ISBN 0-399-14218-5
- Namgyal, Dakpo Tashi (2004). Clarifying the Natural State. North Atlantic Books. ISBN 9627341452, ISBN 978-9627341451,