Mah?mudr? (Sanskrit, Tibetan: Chagchen, Wylie: phyag chen, contraction of Chagya Chenpo, Wylie: phyag rgya chen po) literally means "great seal" or "great symbol." It "is a multivalent term of great importance in later Indian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism" which "also occurs occasionally in Hindu and East Asian Buddhist esotericism."
The name refers to a body of teachings representing the culmination of all the practices of the Sarma schools of Tibetan Buddhism, who believe it to be the quintessential message of all of their sacred texts. The mudra portion denotes that in an adept's experience of reality, each phenomenon appears vividly, and the maha portion refers to the fact that it is beyond concept, imagination, and projection.
The usage and meaning of the term mah?mudr? evolved over the course of hundreds of years of Indian and Tibetan history, and as a result, the term may refer variously to "a ritual hand-gesture, one of a sequence of 'seals' in Tantric practice, the nature of reality as emptiness, a meditation procedure focusing on the nature of Mind, an innate blissful gnosis cognizing emptiness nondually, or the supreme attainment of buddhahood at the culmination of the Tantric path."
According to Jamgon Kongtrul, the Indian theoretical sources of the mah?mudr? tradition are Yogacara Tathagatagarbha (Buddha-nature) texts such as the Samdhinirmocana sutra and the Uttaratantra. The actual practice and lineage of mah?mudr? can be traced back to wandering mahasiddhas or great adepts during the Indian Pala Dynasty (760-1142), beginning with the 8th century siddha Saraha. Saraha's Dohas (songs or poems) are the earliest mahamudra literature extant, and promote some of the unique features of mahamudra such as the importance of Pointing-out instruction by a guru, the non-dual nature of mind, and the negation of conventional means of achieving enlightenment such as samatha-vipasyana meditation, monasticism, rituals, tantric practices and doctrinal study in favor of mahamudra 'non-meditation' and 'non-action'. Later Indian masters such as Padmavajra, Tilopa, and Gampopa incorporated mahamudra into tantric, monastic and traditional meditative frameworks.
It has been speculated that the first use of the term was in the c. 7th century Mañju?r?m?lakalpa, in which it refers to a hand gesture. The term is mentioned with increasing frequency as Buddhist tantra developed further, particularly in the Yogatantras, where it appears in Tattvasa?graha and the Vajra?ekhara-tantra. Here it also denotes a hand gesture, now linked to three other hand mudr?s--the action (karma), pledge (samaya), and dharma mudr?s--but also involves "mantra recitations and visualizations that symbolize and help to effect one's complete identification with a deity's divine form or awakening Mind (bodhicitta)." In Mah?yoga tantras such as the Guhyasam?ja tantra, it "has multiple meanings, including a contemplation-recitation conducive to the adamantine body, speech, and Mind of the tath?gatas; and the object---emptiness---through realization of which 'all is accomplished,'" and it is also used as a synonym for awakened Mind, which is said to be "primordially unborn, empty, unarisen, nonexistent, devoid of self, naturally luminous, and immaculate like the sky."
Though still connected there to creation-stage maala practice, it is more often related to completion-stage meditations involving the manipulation of mental and physical forces in the subtle body so as to produce a divine form and a luminous, blissful, nonconceptual gnosis. In the completion-stage discussions in such Tantric systems as the Hevajra, Cakrasa?vara, and K?lacakra, mah?mudr? has three especially important meanings. First, it may refer to a practitioner's female consort in sexual yoga practices. Second, as before, it is one of a sequence of mudr?s corresponding to various Buddhist concepts, experiences, and path-stages. Here, though, it usually is the culmination of the series, a direct realization of the nature of Mind and reality that transcends and perfects other, more conventional seals, including those involving actual or visualized sexual yoga. Third, Mah?mudr? by itself connotes the ultimate truth, realization, or achievement of yogin? Tantra practice: the great seal that marks all phenomena and experiences; a synonym for suchness, sameness, emptiness, space, and the goddess Nair?tmy? (no-self); unchanging bliss beyond object and subject, shape, thought, or expression; and the ultimate gnostic attainment, mah?mudr?-siddh?.
Thubten Yeshe explains: "Mah?mudr? means absolute seal, totality, unchangeability. Sealing something implies that you cannot destroy it. Mah?mudr? was not created or invented by anybody; therefore it cannot be destroyed. It is absolute reality".
Mah?mudr? is most well known as a teaching within the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. However the Gelug and Sakya schools also practice mah?mudr?, as does the Tangmi tradition of Shingon Buddhism. The Nyingma school and Bon practise Dzogchen, a cognate but distinct method of direct introduction to the principle of nyat?. Nyingma students may also receive supplemental training in mah?mudr?, and the Palyul Nyingma lineage preserves a lineage of the "Union of Mah?mudr? and Ati Yoga" originated by Karma Chagme.
All of the various Tibetan mah?mudr? lineages originated with the Mahasiddhas of the Pala Empire of 8-12th century India. The Profound Action lineage is traditionally attributed to Maitreya-n?tha and Asanga and was introduced to Tibet by Marpa Lotsawa and Ati?a. Marpa's students comprise the Dagpo Kagyu school and Ati?a's the Kadam school, which later had its teachings incorporated by the other Tibetan Sarma schools. Gampopa later received both the Kagyu and Kadam transmissions of the lineage and passed them through to the present-day Kagyu.
Marpa introduced to Tibet the Profound Blessing Meditation Experience lineage that is believed to have originated with Vajradhara and was passed to Tilopa and Naropa. Marpa also introduced a mah?mudr? lineage that traced back through Saraha and Maitripada.
The Kagyu lineage divides the mah?mudr? teachings into three types, "sutra mah?mudr?," "tantra mah?mudr?," and "essence mah?mudr?," in a formulation that appears to originate with Jamgon Kongtrul. Sutra mah?mudr?, as the name suggests, draws its philosophical view and meditation techniques from the sutrayana tradition. Tantric mah?mudr? employs such tantric techniques as tummo, dream yoga, and ösel, three of the Six Yogas of Naropa. Essence mah?mudr? is based on the direct instruction of a qualified lama, known as pointing-out instruction.
The particular Kagyu propensity to blend sutric and tantric traditions of mah?mudr? was a point of controversy in Tibet, with Sakya Pandita one of the most prominent critics thereof. The possibility of sudden liberating realization was seen as a result of this blending, which was criticised:
Certain aspects of the Bka´ brgyud teachings on mah?mudr?, such as the possibility of a sudden liberating realization or the possibility that a beginner may attain mah?mudr? even without Tantric initiation, became a highly controversial issue in the 13th century. For Sa skya Paita (1182-1251), such teachings represented a new development stemming from a Sino-Tibetan influence on Sgam po pa Bsod nams rin chen (1079-1153).[note 1]
According to Klaus-Dieter Mathes, the Kagyu tradition sought to base their teachings in Indian works:
Later Bka´ brgyud pas defended their not specifically Tantric or s?tra mah?mudr? tradition by adducing Indian sources such as the Tattvada?akak? or the Tattv?vat?ra. These belong to a genre of literature which the Seventh Karmapa Chos grags rgya mtsho (1454-1506) called "Indian mah?mudr?-Works" (phyag chen rgya gzhung).
Dr. Mathes investigated the practice described in these mah?mudr? works and found that it is not necessarily Tantric. In Saraha's doh?s it is simply the realization of Mind's co-emergent nature with the help of a genuine guru. Maitr?pa (ca. 1007- ca. 1085) uses the term mah?mudr? for precisely such an approach, thus employing an originally Tantric term for something that is not a specifically Tantric practice.
It is thus legitimate for later Kagyupas to speak of Saraha's mah?mudr? tradition as being originally independent of the S?tras and the Tantras. For Maitr?pa, the direct realization of emptiness (or the co-emergent) is the bridging link between the S?tras and the Tantras, and it is thanks to this bridge that mah?mudr? can be linked to the S?tras and the Tantras. In the S?tras it takes the form of the practice of non-abiding and becoming mentally disengaged, while in the Tantras it occupies a special position among the four mudr?s.
Khedrup Gelek Pelzang, 1st Panchen Lama identified a number of mah?mudr? lineages, according to their main practices for achieving mah?mudr?:
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.
Khedrup Gelek Pelzang, 1st Panchen Lama wrote A Root Text for the Precious Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra. Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen, 4th Panchen Lama also wrote root Mahamudra text, Highway of the conquerors and its auto commentary, which is still widely taught and commented upon. He names various Kagyu and Nyingma Mahamudra and Dzogchen lineages and comes to the conclusion that "their definitive meanings are all seen to come to the same intended point." The current 14th Dalai Lama has also practiced and written on Mahamudra using this root text.
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 mah?mudr? 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.
The advice and guidance of a qualified teacher is considered to be very important in developing faith and interest in the dharma as well as in learning and practicing mah?mudr? meditation. Most often mah?mudr? (particularly essence mah?mudr?) is preceded by meeting with a lama and receiving pointing-out instruction.
Some parts of the transmission are done verbally and through empowerments and "reading transmissions." A student typically goes through various tantric practices before undertaking the "formless" practices described below; the latter are classified as part of "essence mah?mudr?."Ngondro are the preliminary practices common to both mah?mudr? and dzogchen traditions and include practices such as contemplating the "four thoughts that turn the mind", prostrations, and guru yoga. According to one scholar, most people have difficulty beginning directly with formless practices and lose enthusiasm doing so, so the tantric practices work as a complement to the formless ones.
After the preliminary practices, mahamudra meditation is divided into the ordinary or essential meditation practices and the extraordinary meditation practices. The ordinary practices are samatha (calming) and vipasyana (special insight). The extraordinary practices include 'one taste yoga' and 'non-meditation'. The tradition also culminates with certain special enlightenment and post-enlightenment practices.
These stages parallel the four yogas of Dzogchen semde.
The four yogas of mah?mudr? have been correlated with the Mah?y?na five paths (S. pañcam?rga) as follows:
According to Tsele Natsok Rangdrol (Lamp of Mah?mudr?):
According to Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (Moonlight of Mah?mudr?):
According to Je Gyare as reported by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (Moonlight of Mah?mudr?):
According to Drelpa Dönsal as reported by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (Moonlight of Mah?mudr?):
As in most Buddhist schools of meditation, the basic meditative practice of mah?mudr? is divided into two approaches: ?amatha ("tranquility","calm abiding") and vipa?yan? ("special insight"). This division is contained in the instructions given by Wangchuk Dorje, the ninth Karmapa, in a series of texts he composed; these epitomize teachings given on mah?mudr? practice.
Mah?mudr? ?amatha contains instructions on ways to sit with proper posture. The mah?mudr? shamatha teachings also include instructions on how to work with a mind that is beset with various impediments to focusing, such as raising the gaze when one feels dull or sleepy, and lowering it again when one feels overly excited. Two types of mah?mudr? ?amatha are generally taughtamatha with support and ?amatha without support.
Mah?mudr? ?amatha with support involves the use of an object of attention to which the meditator continually returns his or her attention. One of the main techniques involved in Mah?mudr? ?amatha with support is mindfulness of breathing (S. ?n?p?nasm?ti). Mindfulness of breathing practice is considered to be a profound means of calming the mind to prepare it for the stages that follow. For the Kagyupa, in the context of mah?mudr?, mindfulness of breathing is thought to be the ideal way for the meditator to transition into taking the mind itself as the object of meditation and generating vipa?yan? on that basis. The prominent contemporary Kagyu/Nyingma master Chogyam Trungpa, expressing the Kagyu Mah?mudr? view, wrote, "your breathing is the closest you can come to a picture of your mind. It is the portrait of your mind in some sense... The traditional recommendation in the lineage of meditators that developed in the Kagyu-Nyingma tradition is based on the idea of mixing mind and breath."
In objectless meditation, one rests the mind without the use of a specific focal point.
The detailed instructions for the insight practices are what make mah?mudr? (and Dzogchen) unique in Tibetan Buddhism. In Mah?mudr? vipa?yan?, Wangchuck Dorje gives ten separate contemplations that are used to disclose the essential mind within; five practices of "looking at" and five of "pointing out" the nature of mind. They all presume some level of stillness cultivated by mah?mudr? shamatha. In retreat, each contemplation would typically be assigned specific time periods.
The five practices for "looking at" the nature of the mind are as follows:
The practices for "pointing out the nature of mind" build on these. One now looks again at each of the five, but this time repeatedly asks oneself "What is it?" In these practices, one attempts to recognize and realize the exact nature of, respectively:
The above practices do not have specific "answers"; they serve to provoke one to scrutinize experience more and more closely over time, seeking to understand what is really there.
The major source texts for the Indo-Tibetan Mahamudra tradition include:
In the following chart a translation is given of the Tilopa's Six Words of Advice.
|First short, literal translation||Later long, explanatory translation||Tibetan (Wylie transliteration)|
|1||Don't recall||Let go of what has passed||mi mno|
|2||Don't imagine||Let go of what may come||mi bsam|
|3||Don't think||Let go of what is happening now||mi shes|
|4||Don't examine||Don't try to figure anything out||mi dpyod|
|5||Don't control||Don't try to make anything happen||mi sgom|
|6||Rest||Relax, right now, and rest||rang sar bzhag|