Dharma - Merit - Meditation - Nectar - Liberation - Emptiness - Process - Awakening


in Buddhadharma


by Wim van den Dungen

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"If mind is without fixed reference point, that is Mahāmudrā. Meditating and familiarizing with that, unexcelled enlightenment is attained."
Tilopa : The Gangama Mahāmudrā, 9 (Nyenpa, 2014, p.7)

Ground Mahāmudrā
Path Mahāmudrā

Fruit Mahāmudrā
Concluding Remarks

Mahāmudrā (literally "great seal") is one of the supreme yogas (Ati-Yogas) of the Vajrayāna, especially transmitted in the Kagyu school, but also found in all other schools of Tibetan Buddhism. When integrated in the traditional curriculum, Mahāmudrā is only practiced after a very long period of preparation, the Bodhisattva having finished the Path of Preparation.

Mahāmudrā is often translated as "Great Seal" or "Great Imprint". More than a "seal", this is rather an "imprint", both existing upon something and conveying some meaning. The imprint exists upon all possible phenomena. The meaning is always the same : the phenomenon at hand exists as a process, not as a substance (cf. the

The Great Imprint is one all phenomena bear. In that sense, it is another word for absolute, ultimate reality, the way things just are.

Mahāmudrā seals the full realization of the union of emptiness ("shūnyatā") and luminosity (pure awareness, radiant clarity, cognitive lucidity). Luminosity encompasses all minds : coarse, subtle & very subtle. The coarse mind is conceptual. The subtle mind is hyper-conceptual. The very subtle mind is non-conceptual & nondual.

As long as emptiness is only apprehended by the conceptual mind (self-emptiness), Sūtra Mahāmudrā ("prajńā") is at hand. The six perfections, five paths and ten grounds ("bhūmis") are traversed.

As soon as emptiness is prehended by the yogic perceiver of non-conceptual intuition (other-emptiness), Buddha-nature is recognized as always existing & inseparable from its enlightened properties,
always present & free from obscurations.

Here Tantra Mahāmudrā (
"jńāna") is the case. The Four Joys are ways (levels) realizing the ultimate view of Mahāmudrā, the self-emptiness of all sensate & mental objects.

The view of the Great Seal is the emptiness of the mind. The path of the Great Seal is mindfulness, nonminding, unborn & beyond intellect. The fruit of the Great Seal is appearance & emptiness simultaneously rising. The Great Seal is also the actual perfection of wisdom, effectively uniting emptiness & bliss into one momentary spontaneous existence hic et nunc. This is Essence Mahāmudrā. At this point, the Great Gesture is nothing but compassionate activity. Buddhahood realized, the work healing others begins (cf. "To Town with Helping Hands" in Zen).

This presentation is based on Saraha, Tilopa, Maitrīpa & Gampopa.


Over the course of hundreds of years of Indian and Tibetan history, the term "mahāmudrā" evolved. Countless yogis have attained thanks to these excellent teachings & practices. What these lineages teach is Ground, Path & Fruit Mahāmudrā. What they practice is Sūtra & Tantra Mahāmudrā. What they realize is Buddhahood in a single lifetime.

In Sanskrit, "mahā" is "vast, very large, pervading", pointing to quantity, and "mudrā" is "seal, symbol, gesture", pointing to quality. All phenomena are subject to this Great Seal, this Great Gesture. They all carry its imprint.

So the word "mahāmudrā" refers to a solemn hand-gesture, to the culmination of the Tantras, to a meditative procedure recognizing the nature of mind, to the living wisdom understanding existence lacks own-self ("nirsvabhāva") & self-power ("nirsvabhāvasiddha"), to the always existing, actual, innate blissful "gnosis", "intuition" or prehension cognizing emptiness non-conceptually, directly & nondually, to the actual attainment of Buddhahood, to absolute reality, etc.

The Tibetan translators used "chen po" for "mahā" and "gya" ("phyag rgya") for "mudrā", but added "chag", or "chag gya chen po". "Chag" is a honorific syllable and also a honorific word for "hand", suggesting the image of a king sealing a document. It has also the connotation of "cleansing, purifying, removing misery & obscuration". "Gya" also refers to the fact emptiness, the absence of substantial instantiation, has an innate aspect of lucidity, implying the mind's ability to know, also described as "luminosity" or "radiant clarity". This is only indirectly related to "light", namely in the sense the presence of light allows us to see objects. As a word, luminosity comes from the Sanskrit "prabhāsvara", with "pra" meaning "to a great degree" and "bhāsvara" or "illuminating, radiant light" ("bhāsa" is "light" and "vara" means "making clear or evident"). In Dzogchen, "rigpa" or Bodhi-mind (Buddha-nature) also means "to see". Likewise, in Zen, "kensho" means "seeing nature". In general terms, luminosity refers to "cognitive lucidity", but also points to the radiant qualities of the very subtle level of mind.

The word "chen po" is also made used to denote the inseparable nature of appearance ("mu") and emptiness ("drā"). It is not the case phenomena appear and are then known by the wisdom realizing emptiness, rather, they arise as part of the energy of this wisdom itself. This is a special knowing, a "gnosis" or intuition, not an excellent conceptual understanding ("prajńā"), but a living, non-conceptual wisdom ("jńāna") nondually prehending reality just as it becomes ("yathā-bhūtam").

The great seal "marks" all phenomena with the union of emptiness & unchanging bliss beyond object and subject ("mahāmudrā-siddhi"). Mahāmudrā became the most secret part of the Tantras (cf. word empowerment).

In the first Mahāyoga Tantras (Guhyasamāja Tantra,
the early 7th century CE), "mahāmudrā" has multiple meanings. It acts as a synonym for the awakened mind, but -realizing emptiness- is conducive to the enlightened Body, Speech and Mind of the Tathāgatas.

Later, in the popular Yoginī Anuttarayoga Tantras (Hevajra, Samvarodaya, Cakrasamvara, Candamahārosana, Mahāmudrātīlaka, Vajrakīlaya, Catuhpītha, Buddhakapāla, Kālacakra), "mahāmudrā" is turned into a major concept. One should not be oblivious of the impact of Kashmiri Shaiva Tantra on this.

The Buddhist Mahāmudrā lineage is said to have started in India with Saraha (ca. 9th century), one of the "mahāsiddhas" first to introduce Mahāmudrā as the central practice of meditation.  Saraha was the first of a series of extraordinary practitioners : Tilopa (988 - 1069),
Nāropā  (1016 - 1100), Maitrīpāda (Maitrīpa, ca.1007 - 1085), Marpa (1012 - 1097), Milarepa (1040 - 1123), Gampopa (1079 - 1153), the fountainhead of all Kagyu lineages.

The "treasuries of dohā" ("dohākosa") are collections of rhyming couplets about Mahāmudrā attributed to Buddhist tantric masters like Saraha & Tilopa, living in northern India around 1000 CE (other famous figures are Kānha, Shavaripa, Virūpa and the tantric Nāgārjuna). Although these words have influenced countless Buddhists in India, Nepal and Tibet for a thousand years, they seem closely related to Shaivite ascetics like the Pashupatas and Kāpālikas and Kashmiri Shaivas and Bengali Shaktas. The treasuries were likely written somewhat later than 1000 CE, whereas the "dohās" of Saraha and Tilopa were composed around the end of the first millennium.

Most of these extraordinary men and women are collectively known as "mahāsiddhas" (great adepts) and in the twelfth-century hagiographic collection of Abhayadattashrī eighty-four great siddhas are mentioned (later texts mention eighty-five, twenty-four, fifty-nine etc.). Most of these "siddhas" were pre- or non-sectarian wandering yogis. They were appropriated by the sectarian traditions they resented or ignored ...

Most were adepts of the Yoginī Tantras, erotically & soteriologically charged texts flourishing among north Indian Buddhists starting around the eighth century and becoming especially important in the later orders of Tibetan Buddhism (Kagyu, Sakya & Gelug). So when Buddhism was first spread in Tibet in the eight century, Tantra was already part of Indian Buddhism. The Old Translation School, the Nyingma, focused on Tantras translated into Tibetan before the Yoginī Tantras arrived in Tibet in the tenth & eleventh centuries.

Saraha, the "arrow-maker", disciple of a female tantric practitioner and also know as the "Great Brahmin", was an eloquent poet and fountainhead for lineages of practice related to the "great seal" of reality. When he once saw a woman making an arrow, she (as a "dākinī") made him see the realizations of the Buddhas did not come through words and writings, but through skillful methods and indications. From that point onwards, he -born into the Brahmin caste and a Buddhist monastic called "Rāhulabhadra"- changed his lifestyle from monk to siddha. As he lived with this woman, the king sent a group to ask him to behave as a monk should, and his response was his first spiritual song, A Song for the People, the longest of his songs (160 verses in the venacular of southern India). The people got realizations and stopped asking Saraha to change his ways. Then the king send his queen and her retinue. Responding with his second song, the king finally decided to go himself to ask Saraha to mend his ways. This resulted in the third spiritual song.

Despite the beauty of this story, we cannot be certain that two of his most celebrated poetic works, A Song for the King and the A Song for the Queen were written by him or by some eleventh century Nepalese master. His A Song for the People is deemed to relate to the "nirmānakāya", whereas the first two relate to the "dharmakāya" and "sambhogakāya" respectively. The first is the shortest, the most subtle and succinct.

The Ground of Mahāmudrā is described by Saraha in terms of the nonduality of appearance and emptiness, pointing to the nature of mind. The Path is mapped through a unique presentation, laid out as four symbols, defining increasingly subtle levels : (1) mindfulness, (2) nonminding, (3) the unborn and (4) beyond the intellect. Saraha's four stages bear close resemblances to the later "canonical" Four Yogas of Mahāmudrā : one-pointedness, simplicity, one taste & nonmeditation.

Let us briefly look into these :

(1) mindfulness : calming the busyness of proliferating concepts, reining the distracted, overactive mind, bringing about a more calm state ;
(2) nonminding : an extension of mindfulness, here concepts grasping into "I", "me" and "mine" slip from mind, and one rests in a state free from depression caused by faults or elation caused by positive qualities ;
(3) the unborn : recognizing the mind as unborn, thereby transcending "samsāra" ;
(4) beyond the intellect : even the name "unborn" is left behind, and one is liberated into a state beyond conceptualization, word or thought.

Tilopa, the "sesam-pounder", said to have received four great tantric lineages, received teachings from Saraha but also from actual or visionary female figures. He distilled this into twelve profound instructions transmitted to Nāropa, who then taught his own "Six Topics" to Marpa. His "dohākosa" is unattested as an independent text and extracted from a later anonymous Sanskrit commentary, the Dohākosa-Pańjikā-Sārārtha-Pańjikā.

Although the "dohās" promote "mahāmudrā" as a separate yogic technique, in practice "mahāmudrā" was integrated in the Yoginī Tantras. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt as to the importance of "sahaja", translated as "the innate", "the spontaneous", "coemergence", "the together-born", and synonymous with "inmost nature", "stainless mind", "that", "nirvāna", "Buddha", the Thus Gone", "nondual mind", "the union of wisdom and method", "the profound", "the ultimate", etc. It is also clear the "dohās", although accepting "intrinsic emptiness" (self-emptiness) are amenable to "extrinsic emptiness" (other-emptiness). Indeed, "sahaja", although empty by nature is replete with all possible virtues (enlightened properties).

Anything leading to the experience of the innate is celebrated, even if it contravenes accepted ideas and practices. A hallowed idea hindering this should be rejected ... And as Saraha evidences, the Great Seal is a yoga on its own, albeit one for advanced practitioners.

One may treat the Great Seal as the culmination of the Highest Yoga Tantra. Mahāmudrā as an integral part of Tantra. This is the traditional take. The "empowerment" to practice this profound yoga (initiation) is part of the Four Tantric Empowerments.

Instead, this exceptional yoga may be classified as an instance of Ati-Yoga, the supreme yoga. The fact it shares a lot with other Ati-Yogas like Dzogchen & Zen makes the case of "mahāmudrā" being a special yoga, one exclusively dealing with the mind (and no longer with the energy-body) and it fundamental nature or ground. And this does not preclude prior tantric activity.

The quest for the common ground or view of Mahāmudrā is answered by Ground Mahāmudrā, Path Mahāmudrā and Fruit Mahāmudrā.

Ground Mahāmudrā

The "ground" is the view, the foundation or basis of awakening.

The view of Mahāmudrā is the self-empty nature of mind itself ; pure, ultimate and free of inherent existence.

The ground is the liberating (enlightening) view explaining (a) how things truly are, namely without self-existence & other-powered, and (b) how confusion about things comes about and ends. Realizing phenomena, without own-nature ("svabhāva"), are not self-powered ("svabhāvasiddha"), but other-powered, understand why they appear as solid, independent, and existing from their own side (as substances). This confusion results from the innate & acquired tendency of the mind to grasp at objects by superimposing (non-existing) substantial permanence on what truly are impermanent dependent-arisings. Sentient beings are delusional. Innate self-grasping stems from our previous lives as well as from the ante-rational processes in this life. Acquired or intellectual self-grasping results from our upbringing in this life.

In the 11th century, a collection of teachings of Indian masters of Mahāmudrā was made in Tibet. Called The Indian texts of Mahāmudrā, it contain the "dohas" of Saraha, but also most of the available writings of the Indian Master Maitrīpa, a contemporary of Nāropā, who's presentation of the view formed the basis of the Kagyu view. His approach is a view combining Mind-Only and Great Middle Way. He is the main source of the Tibetan views of Other Emptiness & Mahāmudrā.

"Emptiness and compassion become one
Is not done through conceiving of it ;
Emptiness and its utter luminance are
By nature unification."

Maitrīpa : Unification Totally Clearly Shown (Duff, 2010, p.14).

The meaning of the ground is the Two Truths beyond the extremes of substantial permanence & annihilation. The ground is not substantial (the extreme of eternalism). It does not exist from its own side, self-powered and independent. The ground is a dependent-arising and therefore changing from moment to moment (impermanent). This does not preclude the ground to be an uninterrupted continuity (the ground is a moving symmetry-transformation), an always existing continuity or "holomovement" (Guenther). The ground is not non-existent or total absence of existence (absolute annihilation). The ground is some thing, not nothing, and this something called "ground" is not a substance, but a special process, an uncontaminated dependent-arising.

As for Gelugpas the Third Turning is not definitive and the Second Turning is the finality of the definitive, these Rangtong Pandits refuses themselves Buddha-nature as unfolded from beginningless time. Indeed, exclusivists & purists reckon the Buddha Within to be viewed as a seed only, a potential to be actualized by meditations on the self-emptiness of the mind. Without right practice, Buddha-nature is of no actual meaning. The case the enlightened properties are inseparable from Buddha-nature fails in argument, running into absurd, paradoxical results. Enlightened properties need to be generated. In absence of this, the Buddha Within is of no soteriological value.

In answer to this, proponents of Other Emptiness remark : (a) in practice, self-emptiness alone does not automatically lead to awakening (a self-empty mind does not cause awakening), (b) Tantra practiced without the view of other-emptiness is like going through the motions without inner realizations, like mimicking the fruit and (c) suppose the Buddha Within indeed has no soteriological value before its generation, then one cannot explain why sentient beings actually seek liberation & enlightenment, truly answer the silent whispers of the fully endowed Buddha Within.

Mahāmudrā without devotion for the actual Buddha Within does seem rather pointless.

The Great Seal of an object is the ultimate absolute nature of this object (or "dharmadhātu") as prehended by Buddha-mind (or "Dharmakāya").

In Sūtra Mahāmudrā, this ultimate nature is empty of inherent existence (self-emptiness).

In Tantra Mahāmudrā, this ultimate nature is self-empty, but also other-empty or resplendent, radiant, open and endowed with an infinite number of inseparable enlightenend properties. These special dependent-arisings, naturally & always just existing, are empty of anything other than themselves. Buddha-nature is an exceptional and special uncontaminated dependent-arising, namely one lacking all (conventional) realities other than itself (other-emptiness). A mere potential cannot possess these properties innately. Buddha-nature, empty of inherent existence, is full of inseparable uncontaminated dependent-arisings. The challenge here is how to describe something so extraordinary special as existing conventionally. This can only be done if the sublime lies in the always existing harmony of constant movement.

Path Mahāmudrā

After accepting the ground (the view, the basis, the foundation), we cultivate the realization of the ultimate nature of all phenomena, in particular the mind. This is the path, it has three phases : hearing (studying), contemplating (reflecting) and meditating (actualizing).

Because the waves of ignorance are not instrinsic to the ocean, it is possible to calm them. The process-nature of phenomena is there, but we fail to see it. But it is possible to remove this. A path exists. It is possible to remove the confused appearances and directly observe the true nature of phenomena. The path is the method to realize the view. It is a way leading to the fruit.

In a very general way, the process of the Vajrayāna involves two stages : the path of ripening and the path of liberation.

On the path of ripening, we accumulate merit & wisdom and purify our obscurations by preliminary practices (Refuge, Prostrations, Offerings, Generating Bodhicitta, Vajrasatta, Guru Yoga, etc.) and then Deity Yoga (Generation Stage). This is a process of maturing, preparing for the actual process of liberation itself.

On the path of liberation, we practice Ati-Yoga, turning one's samsaric style of existing into an enlightened style of being. In terms of Mahāmudrā, we stabilize the wavering mind (Calm Abiding), and then investigate the mind (Insight Meditation), opening up for the direct recognition of the natural mind.

What to say about the authentic path of Mahāmudrā ?

This is given by Saraha's Four Symbols, associated with the Four Joys, Four Levels of Practice and Mahāmudrā Stages.


joy one-pointed calmness


supreme joy free from projection insight in self

the unborn

joy without joy one taste insight in others

beyond the intellect

coemergent joy free of meditation and non-meditation non-conceptual realization

We first practice Calm Abiding. This leads to a stable and equipoised mind in which the afflictive emotions have ceased. The waves on the surface of the mind are pacified. Mindfulness & alertness are strong. Then, having developed mental stability and stillness, we realize the emptiness of mindfulness itself, in other words emptiness of personal self. We begin to see the nature of mind beyond conceptual elaboration. After this, we recognize the emptiness of others. Not only our own mind is unborn, but this quality belongs to all phenomena. The best of the intellect is accomplished ("prajñâ"). Finally, beyond the intellect, there is the non-conceptual, nondual prehension of the nature of mind itself. All conceptual paraphernalia are dispensed with. The living wisdom of "jńāna" is the reality of the subject, and "tattva" (things as they are) is the reality of the object. Both are inseparable but distinct.

Nondual does not mean one, but merely intimately united, as two inseparables. This differs from "advaita", which also means "nondual", but then as "one without a second". When Vedantists discuss oneness they do so from an ontological point of view, whereas in the Buddhadharma an epistemological perspective is at hand. The nondual indestructible realization is to know the gold of the Buddha-nature within, the Great Seal ("jńāna"). The identity of "samsāra" and "nirvāna" does not imply there is absolutely no difference at all between both. In ontological fact there is a difference, but in existential actuality there is not. On the level of how things exist there is no difference between suffering and happiness, but on the level of our consciousness a difference is the case. So in the nonduality of Mahāmudrā, duality is not removed, but integrated into reality (in Mind-Only, duality has to be removed, in itself another dualistic mentality) ...

So the experiential path of Mahāmudra has Four Levels of Practice :

(1) one-pointed yoga : thanks to training Calm Abiding, meditative equipose is realized, and the mind is stable enough, for a certain amount of time, to hold on to an object one-pointedly without distraction. The mind is also taken as object of placement. The first realizations of the natural mind dawn, but one is uncertain whether these experiences are conceptual or direct yogic perceivers ;

high : holds the object of placement without effort ;
middle : holding the object of placement with effort ;
lesser : holds concentration at times, but also loses it ;

(2) yoga free from projection : directly, face to face, in a non-conceptual manner, the nature of mind is recognized or doubtlessly prehended, and so there is no "projection" (conceptualization) anymore. The non-arising, non-abiding and non-ceasing of the natural mind is directly experienced ;

high : nondual prehension of ultimate nature of phenomena ;
middle : total control of mind, hesitation about implications ;
lesser : still with doubt & illusions due to a limited view of reality ;

(3) yoga of one taste : conventional & ultimate reality are integrated and form a dual-union, an organic whole composed of many & various complementary (symmetrical) parts. "Samsāra" and "nirvāna" are seen as one, but both are appreciated insofar as their own modalities go ;

high : nirvanic & samsaric, of same essence, is appreciated for what it is ;
middle : oneness as a completely integrated whole with no distinctions ;
lesser : the way things appear and how they are, are of "one taste" ;

(4) yoga free of meditation & non-meditation : meditation is no longer separate from anything else, and the distinction between practice and non-practice is gone ;

high : limitless compassion for all sentient beings ;
middle : manifestation of the Three Kayas ;
lesser : unbroken stream of pure enlightenment.

As long as meditations are conceptual, they are analytical and so approximate. This is certainly the case on the first stage of practice (one-pointed yoga). But even there, the nature of mind may already be glimpsed.

LESSER Level Practitioner
One-Pointed concentration is sporadic
Free from Projection limited view of the nature of mind
One Taste unity of phenomena
Free from Meditation & Non-Meditation unbroken flow of realization
MIDDLE Level Practitioner
One-Pointed strong concentration with effort
Free from Projection penetrating reality
One Taste non-duality as organic fullness
Free from Meditation & Non-Meditation Three Bodies manifest effortlessly
HIGHEST Level Practitioner
One-Pointed continuous, effortless concentration
Free from Projection completely free of delusions
One Taste subtle prehension of nonduality
Free from Meditation & Non-Meditation perfect, complete enlightenment

In Mahāmudrā, self-awareness is not like the mind being able to be aware of what it is experiencing right now (as in Calm Abiding). The latter, a merely being aware of your mind, is a valid cognition and this self-awareness a conventional truth. Neither is this self-awareness like the mind actually directly experiencing its ultimate nature, its self-emptiness (as in Insight Meditation). Nor is this a self-awareness which cannot possibly exist, like the mind being able to actually see itself as an object other than itself (like a sword cutting itself).

In Mahāmudrā, self-awareness is the direct, immediate, here & now recognition of the original, natural mind. This a nondual cognition, a prehension. It is experiencing the emptinesses of the mind and at the same time experiencing its cognitive lucidity, inseparable from these emptinesses. These are the lack of self-power ("svabhāvasiddha") and the lack of anything other than these enlightened properties.

As a supreme yoga in its own right, Mahāmudrā has three paths : Sūtra Mahāmudrā, Tantra Mahāmudrā and Essence Mahāmudrā.

• The Sūtra path focuses on the true nature of phenomena, their self-emptiness, or their lack of inherent existence. This is a vast approach, calling for all sensate and mental objects to be analyzed. Self-emptiness is the nature of all phenomena. This is the conclusion reached on the sutric path. Emptiness Meditations anchor the right view, but they are based on the conceptual mind. This mind is unable to directly witness emptiness. It is a conceptual perceiver, not a yogic perceiver. The realizations reached on the basis of such a conceptual perceiver are contrived, approximate and mediated by the generic idea of emptiness generated by Emptiness Meditation (insight meditations on the Path of Preparation). Sūtra Mahāmudrā, using a special meditation to empty the mind itself, removes confusion but does not focus on the original nature of the mind, the fact the natural mind has properties of its own. While these are not substantial (the very subtle mind also being self-empty), they are uncontaminated dependent-arisings.

• The Tantra path is not so vast as Sūtra, does not involve all phenomena, but is very profound, focusing in the cause of our confusion : the mind itself. While the sutric approach allows us to analyze the nature of phenomena, direct experience of emptiness is not possible (or extremely difficult). Tantric methods, looking directly at the mind, allows to directly "see" emptiness. This method is no longer on the Path of Preparation, but on the Path of Seeing. In this sence, Tantra Mahāmudrā is actual Mahāmudrā, whereas Sūtra Mahāmudrā is preparative Mahāmudrā. This is also the path advocated by Saraha. It explains why -in practice- his view is ordered differently, starting with nonminding (insight in the self) and then mindfulness. Saraha recognizes the nature of mind first, and then stabilizes this recognition. In Sūtra Mahāmudrā, we first calm the mind and then look within.

Both methods lead to the accumulation of merit and the accumulation of wisdom. The former generates the right conditions for the accumulation of the latter and can be done physically, verbally & mentally.

• Essence Mahāmudrā is the most profound path, bringing the realization of enlightenment on the spot. This is brought about through the blessings of the Guru and the sharp mind & devotion of the disciple. It has no elaborate methods, no gradual progression etc. The instantaneous transmission is called "forcefully pointing out the profound essence". This reminds of Ch'an/Zen.

Ground, path & fruit are also taught on this path. The ground is the mind of the moment, the mind existing here & now. The instruction is to simply look at this ordinary mind in every moment of experience. The path, as in Sūtra Mahāmudrā, begins with Calm Abiding and Insight Meditation. Here Calm Abiding is nondistraction. The ordinary mind, which is simply clarity, is attended.

Insight Meditation calls for eight points (Ponlop, 2003, p.167) :

(1) rest in present awareness ;
(2) rest in the nature of this ordinary state without focus or desire;
(3) rest without hope, fear and without altering anything ;
(4) rest in fresh awareness, without thoughts of past & future ;
(5) rest in clear awareness, without agitation & dullness ;
(6) rest with awareness & understanding of the self-empty nature of thoughts ;
(7) rest within bare perception without following objects ;
(8) rest in the continuity of mindfulness.

The fruit is relative & ultimate. Relative realizations are the Five Freedoms (complete happiness & joy, free of focus, free from effort, free from laziness, pride, hope & fear and great bliss arising from the experience of primordial purity) and Ultimate fruition is the realization of the Three Bodies of a Buddha.

Fruit Mahāmudrā

The fruit is the result of walking the path, this spontaneous, natural existence wherein the emptinesses of objects rise simultaneously with the actual blissful experience of them being dependent-arisings. This union of bliss & emptiness happens through nondual & non-conceptual prehension beyond apprehension. This highest state of realization is an instance of the categories of absolute & mere existential instantiation. The conventional & ultimate properties of every appearing object are simultaneously perceived. In this ultimate state of non-differentiation, they are of "one taste". Like letters written on water, their existence is differential.

The fruit of Mahāmudrā divided in two : the state of fruition and the meaning of the fruit.

The state of fruition is beyond decrease and increase. The realization involves the prehension of the qualities of the ground, the nature of mind as it was since beginningless time, as it is here & now in this moment, and as it will be for evermore. There is nothing to be removed from this (no decrease) and nothing to be added to this (no increase). There is no defect in the nature of mind that needs to be removed, nor is there something outside this natural mind that needs to be introduced into it. Then suchness.

The meaning of the fruit in Sūtra : the ground of the mind is a very subtle Clear Light mind realizing self-emptiness ; a  mind existing just like that, absolutely freed of inherent existence and uncontaminated. In Tantra, the meaning is recognizing the fully endowed, actual Buddha Within, the flawless mind.

Depending upon the quality of one's joyous effort and ongoing practice, three types of practitioners : best, middle & lower. Each type represents a level of realization.

In the imagery of Lord Gampopa (1079 - 1153), the "father" of the Kagyu school, the Tibetan yogis inheriting the Indian lineage of the "mahāsiddhas", the best practitioner is like the Sun dawning in a sky free of clouds, crystal clear. Realization is resting. The middle one is like the Sun dawning in a sky intermittently open & clouded. Resting is near, but recognition is lost, comes back and is lost again, etc. The lower is like the Sun shining in a deep abyss. A glimpse of light is seen, not to be seen again. With each step down, obstacles are more difficult.

For the lesser practitioner, the fruit is a stage free of arriving at a realization of something arising ; an unbroken stream of pure awareness. The middle practitioner manifests the Three Bodies without exertion. In the best practitioner, having attained all good qualities, compassion for all beings radiates spontaneously & uninterruptedly. All limits upon object & subject are gone. In this total, complete realization, all causes & conditions of awakening have been met.

At no point should best, middle & lesser practitioners become attached to their respective higher states of consciousness  (formless, form & desire) and mistake them as the ultimate level of realization (Buddhahood). This is said to cause rebirth in the heaven worlds. Emptiness is not to be turned into a new kind of substance. Neither is bliss to be denied (cf. the Four Joys), except as something existing on its own, causing attachment to the very high & pure levels of bliss for their own sake.

The Path of Sūtra Mahāmudrā

In Sūtra Mahāmudra one does not manipulate the Vajra Body (make the winds enter the central channel) or take the fruit (Buddhahood) into the path (as in Deity Yoga). One either practices without anticipating & recognizing the nature of mind (Mahāmudrā of Abiding, Moving & Knowing), or this being directed to the natural mind is indeed an integral part of the practice (Mahāmudrā on the basis of Calm Abiding & Insight Meditation). In the former, a self-introduction is aimed at. In the latter, the role of the Guru is central.

(1) Mahāmudrā of Abiding, Moving & Knowing :

In this system of practice -also making it possible to introduce oneself to the natural mind- is called "Threefold Abiding, Moving & Knowing". The pivotal point here is to immediately recognize the instant present thought.

When meditating, the mind is either abiding or moving, never not moving and not abiding. During Calm Abiding, turn all possible discursivity into the object of placement. This meas trying to come closer to discursive thought itself. When concepts enter the mind, no thinking is required. Knowing it when they come, one cannot be distracted by them and that is the practice. No matter what discursiveness enters the mind, one stays right with that without being distracted from it. Like the beads of a "mālā", these thoughts follow each other. Allow yourself to be aware of each.

"So, if you are just aware of a thought when it comes, then that thought itself becomes the support for the non-distractedness of mind." - Duff, 2007, p.126.

Do not generate aversion when something comes up you dislike. Do not cling to something pleasurable. Do not dwell in a blank state of indifference. First, recognize the thought in the moment it arises. Secondly, look at it, but do not disturb it. Stay with it as it comes, stays and goes. Then even negative thoughts are a way to remain undistracted. Stay with the content of mind, whatever it is. Whatever arises is all right and nothing needs to be done with it.

"... if you do the practice as described above and look again and again at mind to see is it abiding, is it moving, then it is possible that the knower, which in this case is a coarse, separate observer, might dissolve and the knower which is innate to the essence of mind might come forth. If that happens, the essence of whatever abiding happens is the knower and the essence of whatever moving happens is the knower. Thus, the abiding and the movement come to have the same essence, which is the mind's innate knower." - Duff, 2007, p.129, my italics.

When the innate knower, natural mind or Buddha-nature is present, meditation disappears and "no-meditation" has been realized. At some point, observer & observed are no longer experienced as separate and the natural mind is returned to. This recognition must be stabilized.

This practice can be done during formal sessions, but also as "micro-practices" during post-meditation. In the former case, first short but frequent sessions are indicated. In the latter case, the "STOP" routine is at hand :

(1) Stop : stop what your are doing and attend the present thought ;
(2) Take a breath : be aware of your breath, in & out ;
(3) Observe : take note of the thoughts or state of mind at hand ;
(4) Proceed : continue with what you were doing.

(2) Mahāmudrā on the basis of Calm Abiding & Insight Meditation :

These instructions of Sūtra Mahāmudrā involve : (1) meditative equipoise (Calm Abiding, which is not a nondual practice) and (2) Insight Meditation on the mind. As Calm Abiding has been explained in Book I, we skip the instructions specific to it. The core point being never to cut the "rope of mindfulness".

Mahāmudrā Insight Meditation, positioning the mind itself as object of placement in Calm Abiding, investigates the mind, asking : What kind of entity is the mind ? What are its defining characteristics ? What is its nature ? This investigation is very akin to Insight Meditation on the Selflessness of Persons (Book I).

The first question is answered when it is realized mind implies clarity or luminosity. Not directly referring to light, but compared to act of actually seeing something, this points to the fact our mind merely exists as a cognitive act, as possessing knowledge, as being cognizant (of).
The mind is always being aware of something. The suffering mind then attends this, lending attention to particulars. The mind, the "merely cognizing", is defined by Five Factors : sentience, space, time, continuity & ground.

Sentience refers to the fact the mind can be aware of something, be affected, physically, emotionally, conceptually (rationally), intuitively etc. by sensate & mental objects appearing to it. Space & time designate the material context mind is found in ; in all cases in some way "defined" by its location and existing in one of the Four Times (past, present, future, timeless time). Continuity refers to the fact each moment of consciousness is also an energy propelling towards the next moment. This energy is also highly informational and invited by the slightest change of direction as a result for free will and initiative. But when this continuity is studied and taken as an object of meditation, the illusionary nature of this appearance is seen, clearing the way for the absolute nature to shine through, the ground of the mind. This is the fully enlightened fundamental & very subtle level of mind, the "just existing" natural mind, with an infinite number of enlightened properties of body, speech & mind. To recognize it, just remove all adventitious material from this luminous mind.

Has the mind a location ? It is outside or inside the body ? Where does it exist ? The mind seem to move. Where does it arise ? Where does it stay for a while ? Where does it go ? Where do the thoughts entering the mind come from, where do they stay and where do they go next ? These and many other questions bring the point home the defining characteristic of its appearance : the mind arises at all times. Looking for the natural mind, we realize it is free from generation, annihilation and abiding. The mind does not arise at some point, it is always arising. It does not abide in the sense of not changing, nor does it cease or end. The mind exists from beginningless time and continues to arise for ever. The substance of the mind is like the substance of all phenomena (both samsaric and nirvanic) : empty of inherent existence. So in all directions, focusing on the subject and focusing on the object, all is selfless.

The style of these Insight Meditations varies from teacher to teacher. The Ninth Karmapa Wang-chu'g Dorje (2007) has the following order :

(1) looking at the settled mind : place your mind in equipoise and look at the settled mind when it is in perfect mental quiescence, inquire : does it have a colour, a form, a shape ? Is it arising, abiding, ceasing, outside or inside ? Aside of being settled, is the mind blank or is there a vividness, a pristine purity, a resplendence ?

(2) looking at the moving, thinking mind : placing yourself in a state of bliss, clarity and non-conceptuality, let a fleeting thought all of a sudden arise, look at it and ask : Does it have shape ? Colour ? From where did it arise, is there a place it endured in, a place it ceased into ? So watch the moving mind and recognize it for what it is. Likewise, look at the train of thought for what it is.

(3) looking at the mind reflecting appearances : look at a specific object or imagine one. Do so for all the senses. Inquire whether there is a difference between an appearance that is the object of a consciousness and the consciousness that has is as its object.

(4) looking at the mind in relation to the body : as before look to see whether the body and the mind are the same or different. Body and mind are like something supporting and something being supported. They are neither the same, nor different ;

(5) looking at the settled & moving minds together : place yourself in a state of pure clarity and let a thought arise. Inquire whether the thought and the moving mind are the same or different. The realization dawns both are the same.

(6) recognising the nature of the settled mind : look at the nature of the settled mind again and recognize its nature : vivid brilliance, clarity, open, resplendent, gently flowing consciousness one cannot identify as this or that. All the time, these pristine, pure, brilliant & vivid moments of consciousness happen. The defining characteristic is this clarity and open awareness, alert and with no discontinuity. You realize "nirvāna" and "samsāra" (the process of reactive self-torture) are only different in terms of your awareness of their nature.

(7) recognizing the nature of the moving, thinking mind : realize all conceptual minds are not different than the non-conceptual nature of mind, the former are like waves, the latter the ocean. They have no endurance and are always permeated by the nature of mind.

(8) recognizing the nature of the mind reflecting appearances and (9) recognizing the nature of the mind in relation to the body : place yourself in the state of the inseparability of appearance and emptiness, of bliss and emptiness, of clarity and emptiness. Realize blending mind and appearances is not like mixing flour and cement, but rather like pouring water into water.

(10) recognizing the nature of the settled and moving minds together : when your mind is settled it is not moving and when it is moving it is not settled. Recognize the agent of both is the mind alone and the nature of both is clear, luminous emptiness. At this point, we see with absolute nakedness, without any kind of "vikalpa" (concepts, words). This is "mind-as-such".

Mahāmudrā Insight Meditation brings about two realizations : mind has the defining characteristics of clarity and mind is (self)empty, i.e. lacks inherent existence. Realization is not merely intellectual understanding. To actually experience both rising together, one needs to repeat this meditation again and again. When each point has been investigated thoroughly without distraction for about a few weeks or so, some clear determination can be arrived at. At some point, depending on the degree of opacity of the obscurations at hand, the ultimate natural mind, clarity & emptiness rising simultaneously is "seen" and the Path of Seeing entered. Samsaric existence is then known as "maculate Mahāmudrā" and "nirvāna" is "immaculate Mahāmudrā".

In any case, without a direct introduction to the natural mind, this procedure -like all instructions based on sūtra- is not a fast lane.

Gampopa warns us not to fall off the path of Mahāmudrā, described by him in four ways :

(1) confuse ultimate reality with an intellectual understanding, like thinking one has been to a certain place by only hearing it described. The latter is merely an approximate facsimile, whereas the Great Seal refers to reality in its ultimate sense. Non-conceptual, it is not an intellectual understanding. This is like identifying approximate emptiness (the realization at the end of the Path of Preparation with an actual prehension of emptiness) ;
(2) trying to transform oneself into something one is not because one thinks Buddhahood is something ontologically entirely different than a living being. This is like a prince who thinks he will become something radically different when he becomes king. Upon attaining Buddhahood, one does not adopt a new mind or another ontic state (a transfiguration in a Platonic sense), but one completely becomes what one already is, namely a fully realized Buddha Within (cf. other-emptiness) ;
(3) rejecting conceptual elaborations or the conceptual mind as a whole because we think the pure mind to be something separate from these elaborations. However, both the conceptual mind as the mind realizing its own emptiness are of the same natural mind. This is like discarding some parts of a medicinal plant, thinking the medicinal properties are only found in one part of the plant, whereas in truth the whole plant is needed & wholesome. The conceptual mind is actually a manifestation of the nature of mind, an ornament of the "Dharmakāya" ;
(4) thinking appearances exist in their own right separate from their emptiness, one goes searching for this emptiness excluding appearances. This is like someone trying to separate wetness from water. Appearances and their emptiness rise together, in other words, in every moment of their existence, objects have conventional & ultimate properties.

The Path of Tantra Mahāmudrā

"Genuinely experiencing the Mantra Mahamudra journey is totally dependent upon the strength of our trust, longing, and devotion. There are no other causes whatsoever. Intellectual knowledge is not the cause, nor is great endurance on the meditation path with some conceptual hope of realizing buddhahood. The cause of such experience is complete trust and confidence in the guru, in the lineage, and in our own true nature, which is the union of bliss and emptiness." Polop, 2003, pp.142-143.

When Mahāmudrā is part of secret mantra, two sets of instructions are to be noted : Tilopa's Mahāmudā Upadesha and the Five-Part Mahāmudrā of Gampopa.

"There is no 'teaching' of Mahāmudrā,
Yet an example is space : upon what does it rely ?
Our mind Mahāmudrā, likewise, has no support.
Not remedying anything, relax and settle in the unborn primordial state."
Tilopa : Mahāmudā Upadesha, 2 (Nyenpa, 2014, p.3).

The first text, the so-called Ganges Mahāmudrā, is a "doha", a spontaneous song expressing realization, by the mahāsiddha Tilopa to the pandit Nāropa. Rather than analyzing self and others individually, as in all sūtra approaches, Tantra Mahāmudrā understand the ultimate nature of phenomena by studying their relationship to mind, in particular Buddha-nature or the very subtle mind of Clear Light, the irreducible, unpolluted core of consciousness of every sentient being. Here, the focus of attention is directly on our Buddha-nature. This Clear Light mind is caused to manifest by directly focusing on the present moment of awareness. According to Gampopa, this kind of yoga does not require initiation (only Generation Phase and Completion Phase Yogas call for this). Constant mindfulness of all mental activity is the way to go.

So Tantra Mahāmudrā, contrary to Sūtra Mahāmudrā, does accept the message of the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma as definitive, anticipating the existence of a fully endowed, completely unfolded actual Buddha Within. This enlightened mind is an object of devotion and introduced by the outer Guru. Not by a special Pointing-Out Instruction (as in Dzogchen or Other Emptiness), but merely as part of the special relationship existing between disciple & Guru. Although no special empowerment is necessary here, without an outer Guru the path to this Ati-Yoga is too obscured to be seen. Focusing on Buddha-nature is foremost a devotional practice based on the intense & emotional bond with the Guru. It is not an attainment based on intellectual work.

"Practitioners of Mantra, and of the Pārāmitas,
Vināya Sūtra, the Pitakas, as so on,
Will not see the clear light Mahāmudrā
By way of the tenets of each of their scriptures.
Because of their assertions, clear light is obscured, not seen."
Tilopa : Ibidem, 10 (Nyenpa, 2014, p.7).

In total relaxation, with our mind remaining in the present moment, not entering past & future or moving away from "here", without discarding or placing, settling in that state, without reference point, seeing the Clear Light mind, unexcelled enlightenment is attained.

"Intellectual Dharma does not see what transcends intellect.
Fabricated Dharma does not realize what 'nonactivity' means.
If you wish to attain 'transcendence of intellect' and 'nonactivity',
Cut the root of your mind and leave awareness naked.
Immerse conceptual thought in that bright stainless water.
Do not approve or reject appearances ; leave them as they are.
Not abandoning or adopting, all of existence is liberated in Mahāmudrā."
Tilopa : Mahāmudā Upadesha, 18 (Nyenpa, 2014, p.13).

True Buddha-nature is an actual existence, always fully unfolded since beginningless time. When this Clear Light mind is prehended, all what exists is merely the natural display or ornamentation of the original mind.

Finally, the Five Part Mahāmudrā of Gampopa. His heart disciple Phagmo Drupa summed this up as follows :

"First, meditate on enlightenment mind ;
Meditate on the yidam deity ;
Meditate on the holy guru ;
Meditate on Mahāmāmudrā ;
Afterwards, seal it with dedication."

Phagmo Drupa (Duff, 2008, p.xiv).

Enlightenment mind is "Bodhicitta", delivering all sentient beings. The Yidam is the meditational Deity, the inner Guru. Generation Stage Deity Yoga is implied (as in Lower Tantra). This is followed by Guru Yoga. The outer Guru is a living Buddha. Only at this point is Great Seal yoga at hand (and followed by the standard dedication, sealing the merits of the activity). Gampopa integrates the yogas of Mahāmudrā (one-pointed, no projection, one taste, non-meditation).

By actually practicing the Path of Meditation (second to seventh stage) we gradually remove the adventitious obscurations, thereby attaining all the enlightened properties of Buddhahood. The clarity aspect of the mind has always been unified with its self-emptiness, but a Buddha is fully radiant because nothing other than what a Buddha is & does shines. Ground Mahāmudrā is "the way your inner disposition is present" (Ibidem, p.99).

Regarding the path, after having attained calmnes, one looks directly at the discursive thought, not following or stopping it. A conceptual flow of cogitation is allowed to rise. But thoughts are just recognized and left by themselves. There is no reactivity.

"Since it is the root of meditation,
Look at mind with mind !
When mind looks at mind,
If there is nothing whatsoever to be seen,
Then meditate in that state !
If a blizzard of different thoughts appears
Look hither at the esence of the thinking !
If past thoughts have dissolved,
Then rest in that essence !"

Khenpo Tashi Ozer (Duff, 2008, p.110).

The way to meditate in Tantra Mahāmudrā, is -in equipoise- look at the mind with the self-generated mind of the Yidam. This is like an approximate Buddha in search for an actual Buddha (the very subtle Clear Light mind of the given mindstream).

Concluding Remarks

In the space of this short exposition, the vast topic of reality just as it is cannot be exhausted, obviously. This ultimate nature or emptiness of any phenomenon is empty of inherent existence, always rising simultaneously with the clarity, luminosity & open, pure awareness attending this phenomenon as appearance.

Scholars teach "clarity" and "luminosity" refer to the cognitive act itself, the fact something is "possessed" by a subject. And indeed, even at an innate level of cognitive activity, the knower grasps at the known (cf. mythical & pre-rational cognition). Critical self-awareness (its reflective nature) is also connoted. The coarse & subtle minds are addressed. The coarse mind by formal-critical thought and the subtle mind by creative thought.

What about the very subtle mind, the self-reflexive awareness cognizing Buddha-nature ? The direct recognition of the natural mind is called the Path of Seeing. So besides to know or cognize (attend appearances), there is this notion of the natural mind shedding light upon the subtle & coarse minds, radiating out to them and via them to the world. The natural mind is an unseen seer or hyper-reflective mirror-mind. This "secret Sun" of Buddha-nature is always existent,
without disintegration, without beginning and end, unborn and timeless. It is uninterruptedly continual ... and because of all these properties, absolute & ultimate.

"Dharmakāya" is the actual state of mind of a Buddha at any given moment since beginningless time and this for all moments after the present moment ("Sambhogakāya" the actual state of "mantra" and "Nirmānakāya" the actual state of physico-mental manifestation).

Essence Mahāmudrā is realizing the natural mind in this every moment here & now. The ultimate reality (or "dharmadhātu") of any phenomenon is the Great Seal or "mahāmudrā" of that object ; "Dharmakāya" its nondual cognition or prehension. Nonduality does not eliminate duality, it merely ends the reification (substantialization or "dualistic perception") of both object & subject and integrates them.

From its inception, Great Seal Yoga was intimately related with Tantra and the indirect (Lower) & direct (Higher) manipulation of the Vajra-body. It represents the highest set of yoga practices part of Tantra, namely those dealing with the mind itself, in particular the Clear Light mind (Tantra), in Ati-Yoga designated as "nature of mind", "natural mind", "primordial mind", "original mind", "Buddha-nature", etc.

Saraha is said to be the first to teach Mahāmudrā as a yoga in its own right, as a separate method. On the basis of tranquility, one insightfully looks for the mind and then at the mind in various ways. This may lead to a recognition of the natural mind. The coarse ("skandhas" of form, volition, affection and thought) and subtle aspects of mind ("skandha" of consciousness and the white, red & black minds) are in sequence, gradually found to lack substantial "own-form" or "self" ("nirsvabhāva"). The mind thus freed from false ideation is reborn in the "fourth time" (timeless time) at the same time Clear Light mind emerges. When this happens, one directly "sees" this mind and stabilizes this recognition. Eventually one is able to rest in it. Fruit Mahāmudrā or Buddhahood is at hand.


© Wim van den Dungen
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.



initiated : 01 X 2014 - last update : 05 XI 2014 - version n°1