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Mahāmudrā (Sanskrit: महामुद्रा, Tibetan: ཕྱག་ཆེན་, Wylie: phyag chen, THL: chag-chen, contraction of Tibetan: ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོ་, Wylie: phyag rgya chen po, THL: chag-gya chen-po) literally means "great seal" or "great imprint" and refers to the fact that "all phenomena inevitably are stamped by the fact of wisdom and emptiness inseparable". Mahāmudrā 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 also 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 practice of Mahāmudrā is also known as the teaching called "Sahajayoga" or "Co-emergence Yoga". In Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the Kagyu school, this is sometimes seen as a different Buddhist vehicle (yana), the "Sahajayana" (Tibetan: lhen chig kye pa), also known as the vehicle of self-liberation.
The Tibetan nonsectarian, Jamgon Kongtrul, characterizes mahāmudrā as the path to realizing the "mind as it is" (Tibetan: sems nyid) which also stands at the core of all Kagyu paths. He states, "In general, Mahamudra and everything below it are the ‘mind path’ " (Tibetan: sems lam). Mahāmudrā traditionally refers to the quintessence of mind itself and the practice of meditation in relation to a true understanding of it.
The usage and meaning of the term mahāmudrā 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 mahāmudrā tradition are Yogacara Tathagatagarbha (Buddha-nature) texts such as the Samdhinirmocana sutra and the Uttaratantra. The actual practice and lineage of mahāmudrā 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 in rhyming couplets) 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 and Tibetan masters such as Padmavajra, Tilopa, and Gampopa incorporated mahamudra into tantric, monastic and traditional meditative frameworks.
Etymology in the tantras
This section contains too many or overly lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (January 2022)
It has been speculated that the first use of the term was in the c. 7th century Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, 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 Tattvasaṁgraha and the Vajraśekhara-tantra. Here it also denotes a hand gesture, now linked to three other hand mudrās—the action (karma), pledge (samaya), and dharma mudrās—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 Mahāyoga tantras such as the Guhyasamāja tantra, it "has multiple meanings, including a contemplation-recitation conducive to the adamantine body, speech, and Mind of the tathāgatas; 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 maṇḍala 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, Cakrasaṁvara, and Kālacakra, mahāmudrā 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 mudrās 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, Mahāmudrā by itself connotes the ultimate truth, realization, or achievement of yoginī Tantra practice: the great seal that marks all phenomena and experiences; a synonym for suchness, sameness, emptiness, space, and the goddess Nairātmyā (no-self); unchanging bliss beyond object and subject, shape, thought, or expression; and the ultimate gnostic attainment, mahāmudrā-siddhī.
Thubten Yeshe explains: "Mahāmudrā means absolute seal, totality, unchangeability. Sealing something implies that you cannot destroy it. Mahāmudrā was not created or invented by anybody; therefore it cannot be destroyed. It is absolute reality".
All of the various Tibetan mahāmudrā lineages originated with the Mahasiddhas of 8-12th century India. The earliest figure is the tenth century poet yogi Saraha, and his student Nagarjuna (not to be confused with the earlier philosopher). Saraha's collections of poems and songs, mostly composed in the apabhramsa language are the earliest Indian sources for mahāmudrā teachings, aside from the Buddhist tantras.
Other influential Indian mahasiddhas include Tilopa, his student Naropa and Naropa's consort Niguma. Tilopa's "Ganges Mahāmudrā" song is a widely taught short mahāmudrā text. Niguma is an important source for the Shangpa Kagyu lineage.
Tilopa's pupil Maitripa became the principal master of mahāmudrā in India during his time and most lineages of mahāmudrā are traced from Maitripa. Maitripa was a very influential figure of the eleventh century, a scholar and tantrika who widely taught the Ratnagotravibhaga, a text which is widely seen as bridging the sutric Mahayana and Anuttarayogatantra views. He composed commentaries on the buddhist dohas, and his works include a collection of 26 texts on "non-conceptual realization" (amanasikara), which are a key Indian source of mahāmudrā teachings that blend sutra and tantra and teach an instantaneous approach to awakening.
Maitripa described mahāmudrā as follows:
Mahāmudrā, that which is unified and beyond the mind, is clear yet thoughtless, pervasive, and vast like space. Its aspect of great compassion is apparent yet devoid of any nature. Manifesting clearly like the moon in water; It is beyond all terms, boundaries or center. Polluted by nothing, it is stainless and beyond hope and fear. It cannot be described, like the dream of a mute.
One of Maitripa's students was the Kadam scholar Atisha, who taught mahāmudrā to his pupil Dromtönpa (1004–63) who decided not to make mahāmudrā a part of the Kadam tradition. Another pupil of Maitripa, Marpa Lotsawa, also introduced mahāmudrā to Tibet and his disciple Milarepa is also a central figure of this lineage. Another important figure in the introduction of mahāmudrā to the area is Vajrapani, yet another student of Maitripa. His student, Asu, also was a teacher of Rechungpa (1084-1161), one of Milarepa's pupils.
- "The Seven [or eight] Siddhiḥ Texts" (Saptasiddhiḥ, Tib. Grub pa sde bdun), which include Padmavajra's Guhyasiddhi and Indrabhuti's Jñanasiddhi.
- "The Cycle of Six Heart Texts" or "Six works on essential meaning" (Snying po skor drug), including Saraha's Dohakosha and Nagarjunagarbha's Caturmudraniscaya.
- Maitripa's "Cycle of Teachings on Non-Cognition" (Yid la mi byed pa 'i chos skor).
Indian sources of mahāmudrā were later compiled by the seventh Karmapa Chos grags rgya mtsho (1454- 1506) into a three-volume compilation entitled "The Indian Mahāmudrā Treatises" (Tib. Phyag rgya chen po 'i rgya gzhung). This compilation includes the above three collections, along with the Anavilatantra and texts that teach a non-tantric "instantaneous"approach to the practice by an Indian master named Sakyasribhadra.
Mahāmudrā is most well known as a teaching within the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. However the Gelug and Sakya schools also practice mahāmudrā. The Nyingma school and Bon practise Dzogchen, a cognate but distinct method of direct introduction to the principle of śūnyatā. Nyingma students may also receive supplemental training in mahāmudrā, and the Palyul Nyingma lineage preserves a lineage of the "Union of Mahāmudrā and Ati Yoga" originated by Karma Chagme.
Gampopa Sönam Rinchen (1079-1153), a Kadam monk who was a student of the lay tantric yogi Milarepa, is a key figure in the Kagyu tradition. He is responsible for much of the development of Kagyu monastic institutions and for recording the teachings of the lineage in writing. He synthesized the Mahayana Kadam teachings with the tantric teachings he received from Milarepa and developed a unique system of mahāmudrā which he often taught without tantric empowerment, relying instead on guru yoga.
Mahamudra is defined by Gampopa as "the realization of the natural state as awareness-emptiness, absolutely clear and transparent, without root". Gampopa also states that mahamudra is "the paramita of wisdom, beyond thought and expression." Gampopa taught mahamudra in a five part system to his disciples, one of his most well known disciples, Phagmo Drupa (1110-1170) became a very successful teacher who continued to teach this five part system and eight "junior" kagyu lineages are traced to him. This "Five-Part Mahāmudrā" system became one of the main ways that Mahāmudrā was transmitted in Kagyu lineages after Gampopa.
The tradition which follows Gampopa is called Dakpo Kagyu. A key Mahāmudrā author of this tradition is Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, well known for his Mahāmudrā: The Moonlight. Karma Kagyu Karmapas like the ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje also composed important Mahāmudrā texts. A development of these later mahāmudrā writers is the integration of the common Mahayana teachings on samatha and vipasyana as preliminaries to the practice of mahāmudrā.
Three types of teaching
The Kagyu lineage divides the mahāmudrā teachings into three types, "sutra mahāmudrā," "tantra mahāmudrā," and "essence mahāmudrā," in a formulation that appears to originate with Jamgon Kongtrul. Sutra mahāmudrā, as the name suggests, draws its philosophical view and meditation techniques from the sutrayana tradition. Tantric mahāmudrā employs such tantric techniques as tummo, dream yoga, and ösel, three of the Six Yogas of Naropa. Essence mahāmudrā is based on the direct instruction of a qualified lama, known as pointing-out instruction.
As a path beyond sutra and tantra
Kagyu lineage figures such as Gampopa presented a form of mahāmudrā that was said to transcend the vehicles of sutrayana and vajrayana. According to Karl Brunnholzl, Gampopa saw mahāmudrā as a third path that was neither sutra nor tantra which he called "the path of prajña" and "the path of suchness," and which "relies on blessing and is for those who are intelligent and of sharp faculties." Brunnholzl adds that for Gampopa, the mahāmudrā path of "taking direct perceptions as the path" relies on introduction by a genuine guru to the luminous dharmakaya and thus:
Through having been taught an unmistaken instruction of definitive meaning like that, one then takes native mind as the path, without separating the triad of view, conduct, and meditation in terms of this connate mind about which one has gained certainty within oneself.
Gampopa also stated that mahāmudrā was "the highest path that actually transcends both sutra and tantra." Brunnholzl further states that "In practice, most of Gampopa's preserved teachings consist primarily of sutra-based instructions and then conclude with Mahāmudrā, either not teaching the path of mantra at all or mentioning it only in passing." The Kagyu tradition bases their mahāmudrā teachings on the works of Indian mahasiddhas like Saraha and Maitripa. According to Klaus-Dieter Mathes,
Later Bka´ brgyud pas defended their not specifically Tantric or sūtra mahāmudrā tradition by adducing Indian sources such as the Tattvadaśakaṭīkā or the Tattvāvatāra. These belong to a genre of literature which the Seventh Karmapa Chos grags rgya mtsho (1454–1506) called "Indian mahāmudrā-Works" (phyag chen rgya gzhung).
Dr. Mathes investigated the practice described in these mahāmudrā works and found that it is not necessarily Tantric. In Saraha's dohās, it is simply the realization of Mind's co-emergent nature with the help of a genuine guru. Maitrīpa (ca. 1007– 085) uses the term mahāmudrā 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 mahāmudrā tradition as being originally independent of the Sūtras and the Tantras. For Maitrīpa, the direct realization of emptiness (or the co-emergent) is the bridging link between the Sūtras and the Tantras, and it is thanks to this bridge that mahāmudrā can be linked to the Sūtras and the Tantras. In the Sūtras 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 mudrās.
The Kagyu teachings of mahāmudrā became a point of controversy. The possibility of sudden liberating realization and the practice of mahāmudrā without the need for tantric initiation was seen as contrary to the teachings of the Buddhist tantras and as being just a form of Chinese Chan (Zen) by certain critics. However, Dakpo Tashi Namgyal explicitly reaffirms that a tantric empowerment is not, in and of itself, a requirement for the path of liberation. He writes, “(Gampopa) did not make the esoteric empowerment a prerequisite for receiving the Mahāmudrā teachings. He spoke about the method of directly guiding the disciple toward the intrinsic reality of the mind…if one follows venerable Gampopa’s system in elucidating Mahāmudrā alone, it is not necessary ….” In addition, he notes certain “…followers of this meditative order (who later) adapted Mahāmudrā to the practice of esoteric tantra”, which typically relies on empowerments.
Kagyu mahāmudrā lineages
Khedrup Gelek Pelzang, 1st Panchen Lama identified a number of mahāmudrā lineages, according to their main practices for achieving mahāmudrā. In his teachings on the First Panchen Lama's root text and auto-commentary the 14th Dalai Lama delineated the Kagyu practice lineages as follows:
- The Karma Kagyu "Simultaneously Arising as Merged" tradition - This is the tradition introduced by Gampopa with a main practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa.
- The Shangpa Kagyu "Amulet Box" tradition - This tradition came from Khyungpo Naljor and its main practice is the Six yogas of Niguma.
- The Drikung Kagyu "Possessing Five" tradition - Jigten Gonpo founded the school and mahāmudrā lineage whose main practice is known as the fivefold mahāmudrā consisting of refuge and bodhicitta, deity yoga, guru yoga, mahamudra meditation, and dedication of merit.
- The Drukpa lineage "Six Spheres of Equal Taste" tradition - Tsangpa Gyare founded this tradition which encompasses a range of practices, including the Six Yogas of Naropa.
- The Dagpo Kagyu "Four Syllables" tradition - This is the tradition that derives from Maitripa. The four syllables are a-ma-na-si which make up 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.
Following the great Sakya exegete and philosopher Sakya pandita (1182-1251), mahāmudrā in the Sakya school is seen as the highest tantric realization, which means that mahāmudrā practice is only taken on after having been initiated into tantric practice and practicing the creation and completion stages of deity yoga. In his "A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes" (Sdom gsum rab dbye), Sakya Pandita criticized the non-tantric "sutra" mahamudra approaches of the Kagyu teachers such as Gampopa who taught mahāmudrā to those who had not received tantric initiations and based themselves on the Uttaratantrasastra. He argued that the term mahāmudrā does not occur in the sutras, only in the highest class of tantras and that only through tantric initiation does mahāmudrā arise: "Our own Great Seal consists of Gnosis risen from initiation." According to Sakya Pandita, through the four empowerments or initiations given by a qualified guru, most practitioners will experience a likeness of true mahāmudrā, though a few rare individuals experience true mahāmudrā. Through the practice of the creation and completion stages of tantra, the tantrika develops this partial understanding of bliss and emptiness into a completely non-dual gnosis, the real Mahamudra, which corresponds to the attainment of the Path of Seeing, the first Bodhisattva bhumi.
In Sakya, this insight known as mahāmudrā is described variously as "the unity of lucidity and emptiness, the unity of awareness and emptiness, the unity of bliss and emptiness" and also "the natural reality (chos nyid gnyug ma) which is emptiness possessing the excellence of all aspects."
The Gelug school's mahamudra tradition is traditionally traced back to the school's founder Je Tsongkhapa (1357- 1419), who was said to have received oral transmission from Manjushri, and it is also traced to the Indian masters like Saraha through the Drikung Kagyu master Chennga Chokyi Gyalpo who transmitted Kagyu Mahamudra teachings (probably the five-fold Mahamudra) to Tsongkhapa. Jagchen Jampa Pal (1310-1391), a prominent holder of the 'jag pa tradition of the Shangpa teachings, was also one of the teachers of Tsongkhapa.
However, a specifically "Gelug" Mahamudra system was only recorded at the time of Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen, 4th Panchen Lama (sometimes named the "1st Panchen Lama", 1570–1662), who wrote a root Mahamudra text on the "Highway of the Conquerors: Root Verses for the Precious Geden [Gelug] Kagyu [Oral] Transmission of Mahāmudrā" (dGe-ldan bka'-brgyud rin-po-che'i phyag-chen rtsa-ba rgyal-ba'i gzhung-lam) and its auto commentary (the Yang gsal sgron me, "Lamp re-illuminating Mahamudra"), which is still widely taught and commented upon. Before this work, Gelug writings on Mahamudra tended to follow orthodox Kagyu teachings. This text and its auto commentary have become a central work on Mahamudra in the Gelug school. The current 14th Dalai Lama and Lama Yeshe are some of the modern Gelug figures which have written commentaries on this key Gelug Mahamudra text.
The Panchen Lama Chökyi Gyaltsen, himself was influenced by Kagyu teachings, and wished to imitate great siddhas like Milarepa and Sabaripa. He names various Mahamudra and Dzogchen lineages in his text, and comes to the conclusion that "their definitive meanings are all seen to come to the same intended point." Chökyi Gyaltsen also sides with the Kagyu school against Sakya, arguing that there is a sutra level of Mahamudra. However, in his account, sutra Mahamudra is particularly associated with a gradual path and his presentation of insight practice (vipasyana) is uniquely Gelug.
Yongdzin Yeshe Gyaltsen (also known as Khachen Yeshe Gyaltsen, tutor of the 8th Dalai Lama, 1713–93) composed a commentary on Chökyi Gyaltsen's Mahamudra text, entitled "The Lamp of the Clear and Excellent Path of the Oral Tradition Lineage" (Yongs-'dzin ye shes rgyal mtshan). He also comments on Mahamudra in the context of Lama Chopa Guru Yoga.
Practices and methods
A common schema used in the Kagyu school is that of Ground (buddha-nature, emptiness), Path (practice) and Fruition mahāmudrā (Buddhahood). 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 mahāmudrā meditation. Most often mahāmudrā (particularly essence mahāmudrā) 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 mahāmudrā." Ngondro are the preliminary practices common to both Mahāmudrā 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. Others develop a sincere and strong interest in the mahāmudrā teachings on the nature of mind, but find themselves quite resistant to the path of tantra and its empowerments. Regardless of how one proceeds, it is regarded to be of great benefit to study and practice in reliance upon the lineage’s treasured quintessential instructions.
The meditation manual A Meditation Guide for Mahāmudrā summarizes a typical oral introduction to ground, path, and fruition mahāmudrā:
Mahāmudrā is regarded by the Tibetan Kagyu lineage to be the heart essence of all of the teachings of the Buddha. Mahāmudrā also stands for the essence of mind-itself. The true nature of the mind is called the ground of our existence or ground mahāmudrā. Path mahāmudrā begins with recognition of this essence (Tibetan: ngo bo ) and continues as progress is made at stabilizing this recognition. When the recognition of mind-as-it-is (Tibetan: sems nyid ) becomes completely part of our condition, without wavering (Tibetan: yengs med ), and we bring forth effective means of freeing sentient beings from ignorance and suffering, then this is referred to as fruition mahāmudrā. 
Another way to divide the practice of mahāmudrā is between the tantric mahāmudrā practices and the sutra practices. Tantric mahāmudrā practices involves practicing deity yoga with a yidam as well as subtle body practices like the six yogas of Naropa and can only be done after empowerment. After the preliminary practices, the Kagyu school's sutra mahāmudrā practice is often 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 "formless" practices like 'one taste yoga' and 'non-meditation'. The tradition also culminates with certain special enlightenment and post-enlightenment practices. According to Reginald Ray, the "formless" practices, also called "Essence mahamudra," is when "one engages directly in practices of abandoning discursive thinking and resting the mind in the clear, luminous awareness that is mahamudra." The reason that preparatory practices and "form" practices like deity yoga and vipasyana are needed is because formless practices are quite difficult and subtle, and most practitioners are not able to enter into the simple essence of mind successfully without considerable mental preparation.
Four yogas and five paths
In the Dagpo Kagyu tradition as presented by Dagpo Tashi Namgyal, Mahāmudrā is divided into four distinct phases known as the four yogas of mahāmudrā (S. catvāri mahāmudrā yoga, Tibetan: ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོའི་རྣལ་འབྱོར་བཞི།, Wylie: phyag rgya chen po'i rnal 'byor bzhi). They are as follows:
- one-pointedness (S. ekāgra, T. རྩེ་གཅིག་ rtse gcig);
- simplicity (S. niṣprapānca, T. སྤྲོས་བྲལ་ spros bral), "free from complexity" or "not elaborate;"
- one taste (S. samarasa, T. རོ་གཅིག་ ro gcig);
- non-meditation (S. abhāvanā, T. སྒོམ་མེད་ sgom med), the state of not holding to either an object of meditation nor to a meditator. Nothing further needs to be 'meditated upon' or 'cultivated' at this stage.[note 1]
These stages parallel the four yogas of Dzogchen semde. The four yogas of mahāmudrā have been correlated with the Mahāyāna five paths (S. pañcamārga), according to Tsele Natsok Rangdrol (Lamp of Mahāmudrā):
- Outer and inner preliminary practices: the path of accumulation
- One-pointedness: the path of application
- Simplicity: the path of seeing and most of the path of meditation (bhūmis one through six)
- One taste: the last part of the path of meditation, most of the path of no-more-learning (bhūmis seven through nine)
- Nonmeditation: the last part of the path of no-more learning (tenth bhūmi) and buddhahood (bhūmis eleven through thirteen)
Dakpo Tashi Namgyal meanwhile in his Moonlight of Mahāmudrā correlates them as follows:
- Outer and inner preliminary practices and one-pointedness: the path of accumulation
- Simplicity: the path of application
- One taste: the paths of meditation & no-more-learning
- Nonmeditation: the path of no more learning & buddhahood.
According to Je Gyare as reported by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (Moonlight of Mahāmudrā):
- One-pointedness: paths of accumulation and application
- Simplicity: path of seeing (first bhūmi)
- One taste: paths of meditation and part of the path no-more-learning (bhūmis two through eight)
- Nonmeditation: rest of path of no-more-learning, buddhahood (bhūmis nine through thirteen)
According to Drelpa Dönsal as reported by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (Moonlight of Mahāmudrā):
- One-pointedness: paths of accumulation and application
- Simplicity: path of seeing (first bhūmi)
- One taste: paths of meditation and no-more-learning (bhūmis two through ten)
- Nonmeditation: buddhahood (bhūmis eleven through thirteen)
Ordinary meditation practices
As in most Buddhist schools of meditation, the basic meditative practice of mahāmudrā is divided into two approaches: śamatha ("tranquility","calm abiding") and vipaśyanā ("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 mahāmudrā practice.
Often associated with the yoga of one-pointedness, mahāmudrā śamatha contains instructions on ways to sit with proper posture, called the seven point posture of Vairocana. The mahāmudrā 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 mahāmudrā śamatha are generally taught: śamatha with support and śamatha without support.
Mahāmudrā śamatha with support involves the use of an object of attention to which the meditator continually returns his or her attention. Wangchuk Dorje mentions that one can use a wide variety of supports, visual objects like a candle flame, but also sounds, a smell, etc.
One of the main techniques involved in Mahāmudrā śamatha with support is mindfulness of breathing (Sanskrit: ānāpānasmṛti; Pali: ānāpānasati). 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 mahāmudrā, 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 vipaśyanā on that basis. The prominent contemporary Kagyu/Nyingma master Chogyam Trungpa, expressing the Kagyu Mahāmudrā 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."
Śamatha without support or objectless meditation refers to resting the mind without the use of a specific focal point or object of concentration. According to Reginald Ray, in this practice "the eyes are open and one gazes straight ahead into space, directing one's mind to nothing at all."
In Gelug sutra mahāmudrā, the śamatha techniques are similar to the Kagyu presentation.
The detailed instructions for the insight practices are what make Mahāmudrā (and Dzogchen) unique in Tibetan Buddhism. In Mahāmudrā vipaśyanā, 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 mahāmudrā 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:
- Looking at the settled mind. One repeatedly looks at the mind's still state, possibly posing questions to arouse awareness, such as "what is its nature? It is perfectly still?"
- Looking at the moving or thinking mind. One tries to closely examine the arising, existence, and ceasing of thoughts, possibly posing oneself questions so as to better understand this process, such as "how does it arise? What is its nature?"
- Looking at the mind reflecting appearances. One looks at the way in which phenomena of the external senses occur in experience. Usually, a visual object is taken as the subject. One repeatedly looks at the object, trying to see just how that appearance arises in the mind, and understand the nature of this process. One possibly asks questions such as "what is their nature? How do they arise, dwell, and disappear? Is their initial appearance different from how they eventually understood?"
- Looking at the mind in relation to the body. One investigates questions such as "what is the mind? What is the body? Is the body our sensations? What is the relation of our sensations to our mental image of our body?"
- Looking at the settled and moving minds together. When the mind is still, one looks at that, and when the mind is in motion, one looks at that. One investigates whether these two stages are the same or different, asking questions such as "if they are the same, what is the commonality? If different, what is the difference?"
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 settled mind,
- The moving or thinking mind,
- The mind reflecting appearances,
- The relation of mind and body,
- The settled and thinking mind together.
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.
In an actual meditation session, this involves, first of all, analyzing whether the meditator who has achieved tranquil equipoise actually can be found in an ultimate sense. Seeking the meditator both within and apart from the various elements, one encounters the meditator nowhere; seeking ultimacy in phenomena (dharmas), one encounters it nowhere. Thus, one comes to abide in a space-like awareness of the void nature of both the person and dharmas. Next (or, alternatively) one examines more carefully whether the mind itself can be found in an ultimate sense: it is discovered to have the conventional nature of a flow of awareness and clarity, but no ultimacy, no true existence. In short, one should recognize that any existent that arises, whether an object of the mind or the mind itself, is merely conceptual, is void and—as Chos rgyan quotes his guru, Sangs rgyas ye shes, as saying—"When . . . you are equipoised one-pointedly on that, marvelous!" (GBZL: 4a; trans. Dalai Lama and Berzin: 100; YSGM: 30b). In the period between meditation sessions (rjes thob), one should see all appearances as deceptive (sgyu ma), as existing differently than they appear, but one must at the same time recognize that their ultimate voidness does not preclude their conventional functioning, any more than conventional functioning gives them true existence.
Extraordinary meditation practices
The practice of ordinary meditation eventually leads one to the yoga of simplicity, which according to Gampopa, is "understanding the essential state of that awareness [of one-pointedness] as nonarising [emptiness], which transcends conceptual modes of reality and unreality." One sees all phenomena just as they are, non-conceptually, beyond extremes of existence and non-existence.
Phagmo Drupa says:
By meditating on the one taste of all things, the meditator will cognize the one taste of all these things. The diversity of appearances and nonappearances, mind and emptiness, emptiness and non-emptiness, Are all of one taste, undifferentiable in their intrinsic emptiness. Understanding and lack of understanding are of one taste; Meditation and nonmeditation are nondifferentiable; Meditation and absence of meditation are unified into one taste; Discrimination and lack of discrimination are one taste In the expanse of reality.
Phagmo Drupa says:
By perfecting this [nonmeditation] stage the meditator attains naked, unsupported awareness. This nondiscriminatory awareness is the meditation! By transcending the duality of meditation and meditator, external and internal realities, the meditating awareness dissolves itself into its luminous clarity. Transcending the intellect, it is without the duality of meditation and post-meditation. Such is the quintessence of mind.
Main source texts
- Asanga's Ratnagotravibhaga.
- Saraha's Dohas and other poetry (circa 8th century CE).
- Tilopa (988–1069) – Ganges Mahamudra  and Treasury of Songs.
- "The Seven [or eight] Siddhiḥ Texts" (Saptasiddhiḥ, Tib. Grub pa sde bdun):
- Padmavajra's Guhyasiddhi (Q306 1, D2217);
- Anangavajra's Prajñopayaviniscayasiddhi (Q3062, D22 l 8);
- Indrabhuti's Jñanasiddhi (Q3063, D22 1 9);
- Laksmi's Advayasiddhi (Q3064, D2220);
- Ulavajra's Vyaktabhavasiddhi;
- Darika's Mahaguhyatattvopadesa (Q3065, D222 1);
- Sahajayogini Cinta's Vyaktabhavanugatatattvasiddhi (Q3066, D2222);
- Dombhi Heruka's Sahajasiddhi (Q3067, D2223).
- "The Cycle of Six Heart Texts" or "Six works on essential meaning" (Snying po skor drug):
- Saraha's Dohakosagiti (D 2224, p 3068)
- Nagarjuna's Caturmudranvaya (D 2225, P 3069)
- Aryadeva's Cittavaranavisodhana (D 1 804, P 2669)
- Divakaracandra's Prajñajñanaprakasa (D 2226, P 3070)
- Sahajavajra's Sthitisamasa (D 2227, P 307 1)
- Kotali's Acintyakramopadesa (D 2228, P 3072).
- Maitripa's cycle of  texts on non-conceptual realization (amanasikara).
- Milarepa's The Hundred Thousand Songs
- Gampopa (1079–1153) – Numerous texts of the Dags po 'i bka ' 'bum, "the Manifold Sayings of Dags po"
- Phagmo Drupa (1110–1170) – Verses on the Fivefold Path.
- Jigten Sumgon (1143–1217) –The Source of the Jewels of Experience and Realization, The Ocean-Like Instruction on the Five Parts and Song of the Five Profound Paths of Mahamudra.
- Rangjung Dorje, 3rd Karmapa Lama (1284–1339) – Aspiration Prayer of Mahāmudrā.
- Khedrup Gelek Pelzang, 1st Panchen Lama (1385–1438 CE) – A Root Text for the Precious Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra
- Gyalwang Kunga Rinchen (1475–1527) – Clarifying the Jewel Rosary of the Fivefold Profound Path.
- Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen, 4th Panchen Lama (1570–1662) – Highway of the Conquerors
- Wangchuk Dorje, 9th Karmapa Lama (1556–1603) – Pointing Out the Dharmakaya (Wylie: chos sku mdzub tshugs); An Ocean of the Definite Meaning (Wylie: nges don rgya mtsho) and Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance.
- Tsele Natsok Rangdröl - Lamp of Mahāmudrā 
- Kunkhyen Pema Karpo (1527–1592 CE) – Practice Guidelines of the Simultaneous School of Mahamudra , The Oral transmission of the Six Cycles of Same Taste: Rolled into a ball [Path walking] instructions and "Mind Harvest", An instruction on the Five-Part Mahamudra.
- Dagpo Tashi Namgyal (16th century) – Clarifying the Natural State and Moonlight of Mahāmudrā.
- Karma Chagme (1613–1678) – Meaningful to Behold
- Situ Panchen (1700–1774) – Commentary on the Third Karmapa's Mahamudra Prayer.
- Jamgon Kongtrul (1813–1899) – A Treasury of Instructions and Techniques for Spiritual Realization and Torch of certainty
Six Words of Advice
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|
- Body of light – Hermetic starfire body
- Buddhist meditation – Practice of meditation in Buddhism
- Chöd – Buddhist religious practice
- Dhyāna in Buddhism – Training of the mind through meditation
- Duff, Tony, Gampopa's Mahamudra, p. vii, ix
- Jackson, Roger R. (2005). "Mahāmudrā". Encyclopedia of Religion (2 ed.). p. 5596. ISBN 0-02-865733-0.
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, page 261.
- Duff, Tony, Gampopa's Mahamudra, p. x
- Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, Mind at Ease: Self-liberation Through Mahamudra Meditation, pp 7-11.
- Barth, Peter F. (2013). The Meditations of Longchen Rabjam. Petaluma: LearningKeys.com. pp. 238–239.
- Lhalungpa, Lobsang P. (2006). Mahamudra - The Moonlight: Quintessence of Mind and Meditation. Boston: Wisdom Publications, Inc. pp. xxii.
- Brown, Daniel P.;Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition, 2006, p 7.
- Brown, Daniel P.;Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition, 2006, p 16.
- Brown, Daniel P.;Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition, 2006, p 17.
- Brown, Daniel P.;Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition, 2006, p 18-22.
- Yeshe, Lama Thubten (2003). Becoming the Compassion Buddha: Tantric Mahamudra for Everyday Life. Wisdom Publications. p. 21. ISBN 0-86171-343-5.
- quoted in Gyatso, Tenzin; Alexander Berzin (1997). The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. New York: Snow Lion Publications. p. 119. ISBN 1-55939-072-7.
- Roberts, Peter Alan, Mahamudra and Related Instructions: Core Teachings of the Kagyu Schools (Library of Tibetan Classics) 2011, p. 9-10
- Roberts, Peter Alan, Mahamudra and Related Instructions: Core Teachings of the Kagyu Schools (Library of Tibetan Classics) 2011, p. 11.
- Ulrich Timme Kragh, Tibetan yoga and mysticism : a textual study of the yogas of Nāropa and Mahāmudrā meditation in the medieval tradition of Dags po 2015, p. 71
- Mathes, Klaus-Dieter, A Fine Blend of Mahamudra and Madhyamaka: Maitripa's Collection of Texts on Non-Conceptual Realization (Amanasikara), (Sitzungsberichte Der Philosophisch-Historischen Klasse), 2016, p. 1.
- Ulrich Timme Kragh, Tibetan yoga and mysticism : a textual study of the yogas of Nāropa and Mahāmudrā meditation in the medieval tradition of Dags po 2015, p. 72-73
- Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang; Khenpo Konchok Tamphel (translator), Water Crystal: A commentary on the Ganges Mahamudra.
- Roberts, Peter Alan, Mahamudra and Related Instructions: Core Teachings of the Kagyu Schools (Library of Tibetan Classics) 2011, p. 12.
- Ulrich Timme Kragh, Tibetan yoga and mysticism : a textual study of the yogas of Nāropa and Mahāmudrā meditation in the medieval tradition of Dags po 2015, p. 76-77.
- Mathes, Klaus-Dieter, A Fine Blend of Mahamudra and Madhyamaka: Maitripa's Collection of Texts on Non-Conceptual Realization (Amanasikara), (Sitzungsberichte Der Philosophisch-Historischen Klasse), 2016, p. 2.
- Ulrich Timme Kragh, Tibetan yoga and mysticism : a textual study of the yogas of Nāropa and Mahāmudrā meditation in the medieval tradition of Dags po 2015, p. 65.
- Duff, Tony, Gampopa's Mahamudra, p. v-vii.
- Ulrich Timme Kragh, Tibetan yoga and mysticism : a textual study of the yogas of Nāropa and Mahāmudrā meditation in the medieval tradition of Dags po 2015, p. 163-164.
- Stenzel, Julia, The Mahåmudrå of Sakya Pandita, Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies Volume 15 (2014)
- Ulrich Timme Kragh, Tibetan yoga and mysticism : a textual study of the yogas of Nāropa and Mahāmudrā meditation in the medieval tradition of Dags po 2015, p. 165.
- "Blending the Sūtras with the Tantras: The Influence of Maitrīpa and his Circle on the formation of Sūtra Mahāmudrā in the Kagyu Schools" by Klaus-Dieter Mathes in Tibetan Buddhist Literature and Praxis : Studies in its Formative Period, 900-1400, PIATS 2003: Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Tenth seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies. Oxford: 2003 pg 201
- Brunnholzl, Karl (2015). When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sutra and Tantra, pp. 192-193. Shambhala Publications.
- "Indian Mahāmudrā-Works" in the Early Bka' brgyud pa." Centre for Tantric Studies website. ""Indian Mahāmudrā-Works" in the Early Bka' brgyud pa — Centre for Tantric Studies". Archived from the original on 2008-08-20. Retrieved 2009-07-15.
- Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, Bkra-śis-rnam-rgyal (Dwags-po Paṇ-chen) (2006), Mahamudra: The Moonlight - Quintessence of Mind and Meditation, Wisdom Publications, p.104
- Barth, Peter F. (1998). A Meditation Guide for Mahamudra. Petaluma: Mahamudra Meditation Center. pp. 144–145.
- Lhalungpa, Lobsang P. (2006). Mahamudra - The Moonlight: Quintessence of Mind and Meditation. Boston: Wisdom Publications, Inc. pp. 123–124.
- Gyatso, Tenzin; Alexander Berzin (1997). The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. New York: Snow Lion Publications. pp. 262–271. ISBN 1-55939-072-7.
- Berzin, Alexander (July 2006) . "What Is Dzogchen?". Study Buddhism. Retrieved 2016-06-16.
- Jackson, Roger, "The dGe ldan-bKa' brgyud Tradition of Mahamudra How Much dGe ldan? How Much bKa' brgyud?" in Newland, Guy, Changing Minds: Contributions to the Study of Buddhism and Tibet in Honor of Jeffrey Hopkins 2001 p. 155.
- "Root Text for Mahamudra". studybuddhism.com.
- Thuken Losang Chokyi Nyima, The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems, p 620.
- Lama Yeshe, Mahamudra: How to Discover Our True Nature
- Dalai Lama (Author), Alexander Berzin (Author), The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra.
- Willis, Jan, Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition, p 20.
- Gyumed Khensur Lobsang Jampa; The Easy Path: Illuminating the First Panchen Lama's Secret Instructions, Calm abiding.
- Wallace, B. Alan, Balancing the Mind: A Tibetan Buddhist Approach To Refining Attention, 2005, p. 239.
- Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsen, David Gonzales (translator), Manjushri's Innermost Secret: A Profound Commentary of Oral Instructions on the Practice of Lama Chopa
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, page 266.
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 273-274.
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 272-274.
- Barth, Peter F. (1998). A Meditation Guide for Mahamudra. Petaluma: Mahamudra Meditation Center. pp. 8, 144–145.
- Thrangu Rinpoche, Khenchen (2004). Essentials of Mahamudra: Looking Directly at the Mind. Somerville: Wisdom Publications. p. 88.
- Barth, Peter F. (1998). A Meditation Guide for Mahamudra. Petaluma: Mahamudra Meditation Center. p. 140.
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 271-272.
- Brown, Daniel P.;Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition, 2006, p 28-29.
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 272.
- Mahamudra: The Moonlight: Quintessence of Mind and Meditation by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal Wisdom Publications; 2nd ed: 2006 ISBN 9780861712991 pg 463
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, page 274.
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 274-275.
- Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra tradition by Dan Brown. Wisdom Publications: 2006 pg 221-34
- The Path is the Goal, in The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Vol Two. Shambhala Publications. pgs 49, 51
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, page 276.
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 276-277.
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, page 277.
- Jackson, Roger, "The dGe ldan-bKa' brgyud Tradition of Mahamudra How Much dGe ldan? How Much bKa' brgyud?" in Newland, Guy, Changing Minds: Contributions to the Study of Buddhism and Tibet in Honor of Jeffrey Hopkins 2001 p. 178.
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, p 280.
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 280-281
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, p 282
- Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pp 282-283
- Brown, Daniel P; Pointing out the Great Way, pp 17-36.
- Ulrich Timme Kragh, Tibetan yoga and mysticism : a textual study of the yogas of Nāropa and Mahāmudrā meditation in the medieval tradition of Dags po 2015, p. 76.
- Mathes, Klaus-Dieter, A Fine Blend of Mahamudra and Madhyamaka: Maitripa's Collection of Texts on Non-Conceptual Realization (Amanasikara), (Sitzungsberichte Der Philosophisch-Historischen Klasse), 2016, p. 3.
- "Natural Awareness: Mahamudra texts". Archived from the original on 2019-09-29. Retrieved 2017-02-22.
- http://www.unfetteredmind.com/translations/mahamudra.php[bare URL]
- "Root Text for Mahamudra".
- http://promienie.net/images/dharma/books/mahamudra_lamp.pdf[bare URL PDF]
- Mahamudra and Related Instructions, http://www.wisdompubs.org/sites/default/files/preview/Mahamudra-and-Related-Instructions-Preview.pdf
- According to Ken McLeod, the text contains exactly six words; the two English translations given in the following table are both attributed to him.
- Chagmé, Karma (2009). a Spacious Path to Freedom: Practical Instructions on Union of Mahamudra and Atiyoga. Commentary by Gyatrul Rinpoche. Translated by A. Wallace. Ithaca: Snow Lion. ISBN 1-55939-340-8
- Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, "Three Classifications of Mahamudra" 
- Namgyal, Dakpo Tashi (2004). Clarifying the Natural State. North Atlantic Books. ISBN 962-7341-45-2, ISBN 978-962-7341-45-1
- Jackson, Roger R. (2016). "Mahāmudrā in India and Tibet". Mahāmudrā in India and Tibet. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.184. ISBN 9780199340378.
- Ray, Reginald (2000). Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN 1-57062-166-7, ISBN 0-399-14218-5
- Traleg Kyabgon (2003), Mind at Ease: Self-Liberation through Mahamudra Meditation, Shambhala. ISBN 978-1-59030-156-2
- Schwerk, Dagmar (2020). A Timely Message from the Cave:The Mahāmudrā and Intellectual Agenda of dGe-bshes Brag-phug-pa dGe-'dun-rin-chen (1926–1997), the Sixty-Ninth rJe-mkhan-po of Bhutan (PDF). Hamburg: Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Universität Hamburg. ISBN 978-3-945151-10-5.
- Wangchug Dorje, "Mahamudra: The Ocean of True Meaning", transl. Henrik Havlat. ISBN 978-3-86582-901-6