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date: 28 March 2017

Mahāmudrā in India and Tibet

Summary and Keywords

Mahāmudrā, “the Great Seal,” is a Sanskrit term (Tibetan: phyag rgya chen po) that connotes a wide range of concepts and practices in Indian Mahāyāna and, especially, Tibetan Buddhism, most of them directly or indirectly related to discourse on ultimate reality and the way to know and achieve it. The term first appeared in Indian tantric texts of the 7th or 8th century ce and gained increasing prominence in the final period of Buddhism’s efflorescence on the subcontinent, particularly in the sometimes transgressive Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras and the works of such charismatic great adepts (mahāsiddhas) as Saraha, Tilopa, and Maitrīpa. By the 11th century, Mahāmudrā had come to refer, in India, to a hand gesture signifying clear visualization of a deity, one of a number of “seals” (with or without hand gestures) that confirm tantric ritual procedures, a consort employed in sexual yoga practices, a meditation technique in which the mind contemplates its own nature, the great bliss and luminous gnosis that result from advanced subtle-body practices, a way of living in the world freely and spontaneously, and the omniscient buddhahood that is the final outcome of the tantric path. It also came to be synonymous with such concepts as emptiness, the middle way, sameness, the co-emergent, the natural mind, luminosity, the single taste, non-duality, meditative “inattention,” buddha nature, non-abiding nirvāṇa, and a buddha’s Dharma Body—to name just a few. Although little discussed during the period of Buddhism’s introduction to Tibet (c. 650–850), Mahāmudrā came to the fore on the plateau during the so-called Tibetan Renaissance (c. 950–1350), finding a place of greater or lesser prominence in the ideas and practices of the religious orders that formed at that time, including the Kadam, Sakya, Shijé, Shangpa Kagyü, and—most notably—the powerful and influential Marpa Kagyü, for which it is a pivotal term, referring to the true nature of the mind, a style of meditation aimed at the realization of that nature, and the perfect buddhahood resulting from that realization. Although it has all these meanings and more, Mahāmudrā became best known as a contemplative technique in which the mind realizes, and settles within, its own true nature: as empty and luminous. It was brought to the center of Kagyü religious life by Gampopa (1079–1153), and studied, practiced, and systematized by generations of great Kagyü scholars and meditators. In later times, it sometimes inspired syncretic formulations, which combined the practices of Kagyü Mahāmudrā with those of the Nyingma Great Perfection (Dzokchen), or the Gelukpa analysis of the emptiness of all existents. Over the course of a millennium or more in Tibet, the Great Seal informed ritual, prompted ecstatic poetry, provoked debate, became the focus of yogic retreats, and was used as a lens through which Indian Buddhist thought and Tibetan institutional history might be viewed. With the post-1959 Tibetan disapora and the subsequent spread of Tibetan Buddhism outside Asia, Mahāmudrā has become a topic of interest for scholars and practitioners in many and varied settings, and a part of the vocabulary of educated Buddhists everywhere.

Keywords: Mahāmudrā, Great Seal, Indian Buddhism, tantra, ultimate reality, mind, great adepts, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Renaissance, Kagyü

The Sanskrit term mahāmudrā (Tibetan: phyag rgya chen po), best translated as “the Great Seal,” refers to a variety of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist metaphysical concepts and meditative practices concerned with the nature and attainment of ultimate reality. The term probably first occurred in Indian Buddhist tantric literature of the 7th or 8th century ce, and came to the fore in the final centuries of Buddhism’s efflorescence on the subcontinent, especially in the radically “counter-cultural” Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras, and in the songs, treatises, and commentaries attributed to the influential great tantric adepts (mahāsiddhas). Mahāmudrā was not much discussed during the early spread of Buddhist teachings in Tibet (c. 650–850), but it gained great prominence on the plateau during the later spread of the teaching, the so-called Tibetan Renaissance (c. 950–1350). In that era, it found a place of greater or lesser prominence in the ideas and practices of newly founded religious orders, especially the Marpa Kagyü (mar pa bka’ brgyud), for which it became a central term, referring to the nature of the mind, a contemplative technique aimed at the realization of that nature, and the complete buddhahood resulting from that realization. Over the course of time, Mahāmudrā became known primarily as a style of meditation, in which the yogin or yoginī realizes the empty and luminous nature of the mind, and lives and acts from within that realization. For the past thousand years, Mahāmudrā has been a notable theme in ritual, meditative, philosophical, and literary discourse in Tibet, a touchstone for contemplatives, poets, and polemicists alike. With the spread of Tibetan Buddhism outside the plateau after 1959, Mahāmudrā has drawn the interest of scholars and practitioners in Asia and in the West, and has entered the lexicon of informed Buddhists throughout the world. This article will survey, to the extent that is possible, the historical development of usages of Mahāmudrā, from its earliest instances in India to its interpretation in the modern world, noting along the way the key teachings of the masters of the Great Seal and the controversies those teachings sometimes occasioned.

Mahāmudrā in India

The Sanskrit term mudrā is used widely in Indic literature. Originally, it denoted a seal of the sort used to secure and authorize important documents. It also could be a sign, a symbol, or a token. Its best-known usage is as one of a multitude of symbolic hand gestures displayed by deities, dancers, and ritual performers to “seal” or guarantee a particular identity or action. In the richly symbolic and highly ritualized world of tantric religions, mudrā refers not only to a hand gesture or bodily posture, but also to a deity or practitioner’s female consort, a particularly exalted state of yogic awareness, or—in Hindu settings—a type of fermented grain consumed during ceremonies at which liquor, meat, fish, and sexual intercourse also play a role.1 The specific term mahāmudrā (“great seal”) is found occasionally in Hindu tantric literature—for instance in reference to a particular bodily position (āsana), a partner for sexual yoga practice, or the blissful gnosis of a perfected yogī—but it is in the Buddhist realm that it proved most important. Early Buddhist literature abounds in common usages of mudrā as a seal, sign, or gesture. Some Mahāyāna scholars defined Buddhism in terms of four “sealing” assertions: all contaminated entities are unsatisfactory, all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, all phenomena are empty, and nirvāṇa is peace. Certain Mahāyāna sūtras, such as the King of Concentrations (Samādhirāja), speak of emptiness—and other key terms in Mahāyāna metaphysics—as the “seal” of all dharmas. As in Hinduism, however, in Buddhism, too, the term mahāmudrā apparently does not occur until the advent, around the 7th century, of the tantric traditions, which in a Buddhist context are usually referred to as the Mantra Vehicle, Mantrayāna, or Adamantine Vehicle, Vajrayāna.2

The Buddhist Tantras

The Buddhist tantras emerged from the matrix of the Great Vehicle, the Mahāyāna, with its emphasis on the spiritual ideal of the compassionate bodhisattva, its vertiginous metaphysics of emptiness and non-duality, its rich and colorful traditions of meditative practice, and its assertion that all beings eventually will attain the three “bodies” (kāya) of a fully awakened buddha: the Dharma Body (dharmakāya), Enjoyment Body (sambhogakāya), and Emanation Body (nirmāṇakāya).3 Historians of Buddhism are far from unanimous on the relative or absolute dating of the tantras, but there is general agreement that we can trace an overall arc of development in which complex but relatively conventional systems of thought and practice, rooted in standard Mahāyāna (7th–9th centuries), are supplemented and eventually superseded by systems—some of them influenced by Hindu traditions—that employ increasingly transgressive imagery, rhetoric, and praxis, (8th–11th centuries).4 It is in the more conventional systems (most often divided by Tibetans into Action, Performance, and Yoga Tantras) that the term mahāmudrā first appears. For instance, the compendious Action Tantra, The Basic Ordinance of Mañjuśrī (Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa), variously refers to the Great Seal as a “five-peaked” ritual hand position signifying the attainment of all worldly and ultimate aims (e.g., chapter 2, section 26, verses15–17), a female consort through which the practitioner may gain great power (chaps. 43–47), and more abstractly, “the splendor of all mantras, pure, stainless, the destruction of evil, the attainment of all worldly aims, the achievement of all that is highest . . . the highest dharma, undeclining, the highest step” (43:22:370).5 The yoga tantras, such as the Compendium of the Principles of All the Tathāgatas (Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha) echo the sense that Mahāmudrā is at once a hand position, a female consort, and the highest yogic attainment, but most often they define it as the clear visualization of oneself as a buddha-deity—a practice central to nearly all tantric traditions. The yoga tantras also set Mahāmudrā within a larger set of four seals—the others are the Pledge (samaya), Dharma, and A ction (karma) seals—that denote various meditations and their symbolic correspondences to various worldly and transmundane categories.6

It is in the often transgressive Mahāyoga and Yoginī Tantras, with their strong focus on advanced meditations, practiced in the context of a subtle-body that consists of channels, winds, and “drops” that Mahāmudrā truly comes to the fore. In the most important of the Mahāyoga Tantras, The Secret Assembly (Guhyasamāja), it is explicitly described as a consort (mudrā) for the practice of sexual yoga as well as the realization ensuing from that practice (10:21); a contemplation-recitation that leads to attainment of the adamantine body, speech, and mind of the tathāgatas (11:1–3); and the essence of the vows of the tathāgatas—meditation on which assures buddhahood (17:45).7 Elsewhere, the ultimate—for which Mahāmudrā clearly is one designation—is described as beyond meditation; pure in essence; space-like; free from thought or its objects; the way to awakening in which there is no awakening; beyond the aggregates, sense fields, and elements; one with the lack of self in dharmas; eternally unarisen; and in the nature of emptiness (2:3–4).8 In the Yoginī Tantras, Mahāmudrā becomes a term of central ritual, philosophical, and soteriological importance. In the systems based on such tantras as the Pledge Wheel (Cakrasaṃvara), Hevajra, Adamantine Dagger (Vajrakīla), and Wheel of Time (Kālacakra), it still may be seen as one of three or four mudrās that “seal” tantric experiences, but it is now usually the highest in the sequence, the Great Seal that betokens a full understanding of the nature of reality. At the same time, it is often treated on its own, referring to, for instance, a goddess to be invoked; a consort in sexual yoga practice; the gnostic great bliss ensuing from that practice; the ultimate reality, emptiness, experience of which is inseparable from great bliss; and the buddhahood attained at the culmination of the tantric path (mahāmudrāsiddhi). To cite just one example, in the Hevajra Tantra, Mahāmudrā is a synonym for emptiness (part 1, chapter 10, verse 20); a consort for sexual yoga (2:8:2–5), as well as the bliss arising from that yoga (2:4:50); an empowerment that produces great bliss (2:2:31); and the “eternal state” that is the goal of tantric practice (1:8:43), the final achievement of the mind of coemergent (sahaja) and inseparable bliss and emptiness (2:8:5).9

The Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras spawned an immense exegetical literature, including “explanatory tantras” (vyākhyātantras) attributed to the Buddha and commentaries and treatises composed by late first-millennium authors such as the tantric Nāgārjuna, the tantric Āryadeva, and Nāropa (956–1040). Composed at a time when Mahāmudrā had gained increasing currency, these texts tended to focus on the term even more strongly than the basic tantras on which they were commenting, and to exalt it even more highly. A Hevajra-related tantra called the Drop of Mahāmudrā (Mahāmudrātilaka) gives a classic etymological definition of the term, the first of many to follow: “mu is awareness of voidness, drā is its nature of transcending duality, mahā is the union of the two.”10 The text goes on to describe Mahāmudrā as the “sublime mystery, indefinable, inexhaustible, and unborn . . . formless . . . unaffected by concepts . . . unstained lucidity . . . the source of all excellent qualities and spontaneous attainments.”11 Puṇḍarīka’s famous Wheel of Time commentary, the Stainless Light (Vimalaprabhā), specifies that Mahāmudrā entails “emptiness devoid of differentiated representations and provided with all excellent aspects, [and] the accomplishment of omniscience, devoid of differentiated representations.”12 A Guhyasamāja explanatory tantra, the Matrix of Gnosis (Jñānagarbha), goes so far as to subsume four tantric seals under Mahāmudrā: the Action Seal (a physical consort), the Pledge Seal (tantric vows), the Gnosis Seal (a visualized consort), and the Dharma Seal (the nature of phenomena).13

The Great Adepts

The major exponents of the Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras were the charismatic, wonder-working, and often quasi-legendary Buddhist tantric masters known as the great adepts (mahāsiddhas).14 In prose and poetic treatises, and in songs in such poetic forms as the couplet (dohā), adamantine song (vajragīti), and performance song (caryāgīti), these men (and a few women) distilled essential themes from the most esoteric tantras, criticizing religious customs and social mores while celebrating the bliss and freedom found in yogic contemplation and an unconventional way of life. Though many had monastic backgrounds, they periodically or permanently repaired to cremation grounds or mountains caves, where they consorted with low-caste women, consumed forbidden substances, and generally engaged in a religious performance, or mode of conduct (caryā), that appeared to turn brahmanical—and Buddhist—values upside-down. In traditional accounts of their lives, their often transgressive practices inevitably culminate in the Mahāmudrā Attainment, that is, buddhahood. In their works, Mahāmudrā has many more meanings as well, and takes on great significance, whether as an explicit topic of discourse or through discussion of related terms, such as the coemergent purity of our primordial mind (sahaja or nijacitta) or the practice of “inattention” (amanasikāra), a type of formless, concept-free meditation. As a result, many of the adepts’ writings were incorporated into anthologies of Mahāmudrā texts compiled later by Indian or Tibetan scholars. The three collections most widely recognized in Tibet are the “Seven Attainment Texts,” the “Essential Trilogy,” and the “Twenty-five Works on Inattention.”

The Seven Attainment Texts,15 most of which probably date from the 8th to 10th centuries, are attributed to seven different adepts who base themselves closely on one or another system of Mahāyoga or Yoginī tantra and presuppose familarity with those systems on the part of their readers. They emphasize practice over theory, but do occasionally discuss philosophical matters. It is in philosophical passages that they are likeliest to mention Mahāmudrā. In the Attainment of Secrets (Guhyasiddhi), Padmavajra refers to Mahāmudrā as that which is cultivated when one has given up practice with either a physical consort or imagined consort, and has “abandoned multiple concepts” (3:34); “the perfection of all ornaments, pacification into supreme formlessness, lucid, faultless, stainless” (4:15); and realization of the unproduced, selfless nature of mind (4:40–41).16 In the Attainment of Gnosis (Jñānasiddhi), Indrabhūti describes it as “pervasive and without characteristics, like the sky . . . the ultimate, the unsurpassed adamantine gnosis, the all-good, . . . the Dharma Body, the mirror-like gnosis” (1:44-47), and the “abandonment of all conceptuality” by which all the buddhas and adepts achieved awakening in a single life (1:56–57).17 Other Attainment Text authors mention Mahāmudrā less often, focusing instead on synonymous concepts like the coemergent or the natural mind. Still, because the Attainment Texts deal with esoteric practices that lead to the Mahāmudrā Attainment, their inclusion in the Great Seal canon is understandable.

The Essential Trilogy comprises three poetic works attributed to the great adept Saraha, who probably lived in east India late in the first millennium ce. In legend, he is said to have learned arrow-making from a yoginī with whom he consorted; his name, literally, means “fletcher.” Saraha is regarded by most Tibetan traditions as the earliest and greatest Indian exponent of Mahāmudrā, reputed to have been the guru of the great philosopher (and tantric adept) Nāgārjuna and the mountain-hermit Śavaripa, both of whom figure importantly in Tibetan Mahāmudrā lineages. The works of the Essential Trilogy—commonly designated, on the basis of their audience, as the People, Queen, and King Dohā Treasuries (dohākoṣas)—seldom refer to Mahāmudrā. It is explicitly mentioned only in the Queen Dohā, which describes it as the abiding state of natural non-duality, the sameness of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, a consort for sexual yoga practice, and the goal of the tantric path.18 The King Dohā emphasizes the fundamental purity of mind rather than Mahāmudrā, but it does mention the four seals and implicitly equates Mahāmudrā with the unborn, empty nature of all dharmas, insisting that “all the worlds in their diversity have this very nature.”19 The People Dohā, the best known, most studied, and oft-quoted of the three, focuses not on Mahāmudrā, but on cognate concepts, such as the coemergent, the yoginī, great bliss, thatness, the natural mind, the stainless nature, and mind itself—all of which are equated to buddhahood, and all of which are described in terms familiar to us from discussions of Mahāmudrā elsewhere in tantric literature.20 Saraha actually addresses Mahāmudrā in far greater detail in other texts, especially in a trilogy of adamantine songs consisting of the Body Treasury (Kāyakoṣa), Speech Treasury (Vākkoṣa), and Mind Treasury (Cittakoṣa), where it is described as “unchangeable great bliss,” “experienced like ocean and space,” “the sameness of all phenomena,” “the nature of fruition,” “unborn, nondual . . . beyond the intellect,” “nothing other than oneself,” “the highest union,” “instantaneous full awakening,” “just that,” “one’s own mind,” and the basis of “thought-free ethics.”21 Saraha also composed texts that began to systematize ideas about Mahāmudrā, dividing it, for instance, into the triad of basis, path, and fruition, or the quartet of view, meditation, behavior, and result; these categories would be extremely influential in Tibetan discourse on the Great Seal.

The Twenty-five Works on Inattention (amanasikāra)22 are attributed to Maitrīpa (986–1063), a scholar adept who studied with a number of human teachers, but received his profoundest instruction through visionary encounters with Saraha’s disciple, Śavaripa. He was roughly contemporary with, and may have known, a number of other adepts who would influence understandings of Mahāmudrā in Tibet, most notably Tilopa (928–1009), a master of both the Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras, who wrote a famous instruction-song called the Ganges Mahāmudrā (phyag chen gangā mā),23 and his disciple, Nāropa, who wrote on Mahāmudrā, but is best known for teaching his esoteric Six Dharmas, drawn from the Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras: inner heat, dream, illusory body, luminosity, intermediate state, and transfer of consciousness.24 Many of Maitrīpa’s own disciples—especially Vajrapāṇi (b. 1017) and the Tibetan translator Marpa Chökyi Lodrö (mar pa chos kyi blo gros, 1012–97) would be instrumental in the transmission of Mahāmudrā to Tibet. The Twenty-five Works on Inattention (most of which are available in Sanskrit) comprise an anthology of treatises, some in verse, some in prose, that deal with a variety of topics in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna thought and practice. They rarely mention Mahāmudrā, and inattention itself is only occasionally discussed, while the text often regarded as most seminal, the Ten Stanzas on Reality (Tattvadaśaka), mentions neither—yet whether taken individually or as a whole, the works in the anthology still are regarded by Tibetans as foundational for understanding either concept. Maitrīpa does provide eloquent and extensive descriptions of Mahāmudrā in the Sequence of the Four Seals (Caturmudrānvaya; the text is sometimes attributed to the tantric Nāgārjuna), where it is said that it “lacks an own-being, is free from the hindrances of the knowable . . . It resembles the day-sky in the middle of autumn, stainless, and is the basis of everything perfect. It has the identity of [cyclic] existence and nirvāṇa as its nature, consists of universal compassion, and has the unique form of great bliss”25; and the Teaching on Empowerment (Śekanirdeśa), where the Great Seal is explicitly equated with the practice of nonabiding (apratiṣṭhāna) and the realization of emptiness. Maitrīpa also wrote works outside the Twenty-five Texts that deal with the Great Seal, including the Golden Rosary of Mahāmudrā (Mahāmudrākaṇakamālā), where he roots Mahāmudrā in devotion to the guru and the practice of tantra; links it to emptiness, reality, the natural mind, great bliss, inaction, and spontaneity; and explicitly states: “inattention is the path of Mahāmudrā.”26

Esoteric and Non-dual Mahāmudrā

One of Maitrīpa’s signal contributions to Mahāmudrā discourse was to imply that, as an index of ultimate reality and its realization, it was a term relevant not just to the tantras but to sūtra-based traditions, as well. He is reputed to have linked Mahāmudrā to both the King of Concentrations Sūtra27 and the Higher Continuum (Uttaratantra),28 an important Mahāyāna treatise on buddha nature often attributed to the coming buddha, Maitreya. Like many others in his era, Maitrīpa, was conversant with Mahāyāna literature from the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra philosophical schools, as well as traditions surrounding buddha nature, and sought to fuse “Perfection Vehicle” standpoints on reality with the ritual and meditative techniques developed in the Mantra Vehicle. To the degree that (a) Mahāmudrā came increasingly to connote ultimate reality, (b) many of the profoundest Mahāyāna discussions of ultimate reality are found in such pre-tantric works as the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras and the treatises of Nāgārjuna and Maitreya, and (c) association with such works remained a guarantor of legitimacy in the Indic Mahāyāna world, it is unsurprising that a handful of late Indian thinkers—including Jñānakīrti and Sahajavajra—identified a Perfection-Vehicle Mahāmudrā, though Maitrīpa himself never seems to have done so explicitly.29

To summarize, by the 11th century, Mahāmudrā had come to refer, in India, to a hand gesture signifying clear visualization of a deity, one of a number of “seals” (with or without hand gestures) that confirm tantric ritual procedures, a consort employed in sexual yoga practices, a meditation technique in which mind contemplates its own nature, the great bliss and luminous gnosis that result from advanced subtle-body practices, a way of living in the world freely and spontaneously, and the omniscient buddhahood that is a final outcome of the tantric path. It also had come to be synonymous with such ideas as emptiness, the middle, sameness, the coemergent, the natural mind, luminosity, the single taste, non-duality, inattention, buddha nature, non-abiding nirvāṇa, and a buddha’s Dharma Body—to name just a few. Amidst this plethora of connotations and synonyms, two major conceptions of Mahāmudrā may be discerned. Esoteric Mahāmudrā focuses on the generation of a non-conceptual, blissful gnosis of reality—the natural mind—through subtle-body practices described in the literature of the Mahāyoga and Yoginī Tantras. By contrast, non-dual Mahāmudrā focuses on attaining a direct and unmediated experience of the natural mind through a sudden transcendence of thought, image, and effort, as often described in the songs and treatises of the great adepts. Although these two approaches to Mahāmudrā are distinguishable, they are not mutually exclusive, since the Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras contain numerous passages that suggest the unadorned views and practices of non-dual Mahāmudrā, while the great adepts who expound non-dual Mahāmudrā usually do so within a context profoundly shaped by the esoteric practices of the “higher” tantras. What’s more—and crucially—nearly all approaches to Mahāmudrā are set within the affective—and often ritual—context of guru yoga, the tantrically inflected veneration of the spiritual master, whose instruction is crucial to gaining the Mahāmudrā Attainment.

Mahāmudrā in Tibet

Although some meanings of Mahāmudrā—those of the “lower” and Mahāyoga tantras30—undoubtedly would have been familiar to educated Tibetans during the imperial period, or “earlier spread of the Dharma” (7th–9th centuries), it was during the “later spread of the Dharma,” or Tibetan Renaissance (10th–14th centuries),31 that it became a central topic of religious discourse in Tibet. Indeed, it can be argued that singling out Mahāmudrā as a focus of study and practice really is a Tibetan idea. Certainly, much of what we know about Indian Mahāmudrā and its practitioners we owe to Tibetan sources, and Mahāmudrā took on an importance for at least some Tibetan traditions that surpassed anything seen in India. Yet Tibetans did not simply imagine that Mahāmudrā was important in Indian Buddhism. When, after nearly two centuries of limited contact, Tibetans in the 11th century began visiting India again to collect texts and receive teachings, and Indians began traveling to Tibet carrying texts and teachings, Mahāmudrā was a far more central part of what was transmitted than it had been during the imperial period—largely due to the prominence of the Yoginī tantras and the literature they spawned, especially the works of the great adepts.

A number of Indian and Tibetan masters involved in the revival of Buddhism in Tibet focused prominently on Mahāmudrā, helping the term to stand out from the welter of concepts that were being newly transmitted across the Himalayas. In most cases, these masters—who interacted frequently with one another—came to be regarded as founders of various practice lineages that developed in Tibet, and at least some of these practice-lineages became sufficiently institutionalized that they developed into identifiable “orders” or “schools”—some of which have survived to the present day. Traditions that arose in 11th-century Tibet based primarily on the new tantric texts appearing then are generally designated as New Translation (gsar ma) schools. These include the Marpa Kagyü, Kadam (bka’ gdams), Shijé (zhi byed), Chöd (gcod), Shangpa Kagyü (shangs pa bka’ brgyud), and Sakya (sa skya)—as well as the one tradition that situates its origins in the imperial period: the Old Translation school, or Nyingma (rnying ma). All of these traditions, and others that developed later, incorporated notions of Mahāmudrā into their discourse to one degree or another.

Tibetan Renaissance Schools

Nyingma traditions find their sources of authority not in the texts and teachers of the Tibetan Renaissance but, rather, in those of Tibet’s imperial period. They emphasize such commonly accepted tantras as the Secret Assembly and Adamantine Dagger, but look as well to a large collection of idiosyncratically Nyingma tantras, such as the Secret Matrix (Guhyagarbha) and The All-Creating Sovereign (Kun byed rgyal po). They honor Indian teachers like Vimalamitra, Vairocana, and—above all—Padmasambhava, a charismatic adept from northwest India who is said by Tibetans to have helped establish Buddhist practice on the plateau in the late 8th century, and to have left behind assorted teachings as Treasure-texts (gter ma). It is with the discovery of these Treasure-texts, during the Tibetan Renaissance, that the Nyingma begins to demarcate itself as a distinct tradition, and perhaps the most distinctive of all Nyingma systems of theory and practice is Dzokchen (rdzogs chen), the Great Perfection—“an aestheticized and streamlined” style of tantric meditation, influenced by the Indian Mahāyoga Tantras, as well as Chinese Chan and native Tibetan conceptions—which came to be regarded in time as the acme of the Buddha’s teaching, transcending even the esoteric subtle-body practices of the Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras.32 Dzokchen’s blend of esoteric and non-dual styles of discourse is reminiscent of that of Mahāmudrā, but because its vocabulary developed before Mahāmudrā became a major term in Indian Buddhism, there is not much discussion of Mahāmudrā in early Nyingma literature. When it is mentioned, it may—depending on the level of tantric practice under discussion—denote hand gestures, the clear visualization of oneself as a deity, or the luminous and blissful realization of emptiness effected by subtle-body practices. Nyingmapas also occasionally used Mahāmudrā in the sense of the supreme attainment at the end of the path, but in the literature of Atiyoga, their highest level of tantra, it is Dzokchen that typically is accorded this status.

The Kadam order, which lasted from the mid-eleventh to the late 14th century, when it was absorbed into the Geluk (dge lugs), is traced to the Bengali pandit Atiśa (982–1054), who lived the last twelve years of his life in Tibet. A master of the sūtra and tantra traditions, he placed special emphasis on living a morally pure life dedicated to the development of love, compassion, and the awakening mind, and articulated an all-inclusive, gradual path to awakening that became a model for the sequencing of “stages of the doctrine” (bstan rim) or “stages of the path” (lam rim) that would be adopted by every major Tibetan order. The place of Mahāmudrā in Kadam circles is uncertain. Atiśa is said to have studied the Higher Continuum, Saraha’s songs, and other Mahāmudrā-related texts with Maitrīpa. Atiśa’s foremost Tibetan disciple, Dromtönpa (’brom ston pa, 1000–1064), however, apparently urged his master not to teach Saraha’s songs in Tibet, lest their antinomian rhetoric be misunderstood and taken literally—as had happened before in Tibet with tantric teachings.33 The Kadam did, indeed, place slightly less emphasis on tantric practices, including Mahāmudrā, than other Indians and Tibetans of the 11th century, yet some historians assert that Atiśa secretly passed on instructions for meditation on the “quintessence of reality,” that is,Mahāmudrā, to some of his disciples, while a Kadampa master, Parpuwa Lodrö Sengé (phar phu ba blo gros seng ge, 12th century) wrote commentaries on a number of Saraha’s songs and promulgated their study, all of this suggesting that a tradition of Mahāmudrā practice persisted privately among small circles of Kadampas.34 In any case, Kadampas were strong proponents of Mādhyamika techniques for meditating on emptiness, and when Atiśa, for example, gives instruction to the effect that “in the expanse of intrinsic reality, detached from any conception, one settles the mind without discrimination,”35 he is describing techniques very much like those that were associated with Mahāmudrā, even if he does not use the term.

The Sakya, named after the site in Tsang (gtsang), west-central Tibet, where the tradition’s main monastery was founded in 1073, has from its inception been connected with the locally important Khön family. Its patriarch, Khön Könchok Gyelpo (khon dkon mchog rgyal po, 1034–1102) rejected the Nyingma affiliation of his ancestors and turned to the study of the Yoginī and other later tantras. Over the course of two hundred years, the Sakya became an order that combined deep study of tantric traditions (especially the Hevajra and the Adamantine Dagger systems) with extraordinary philosophical and literary attainment, and would become for a time, under the sponsorship of the Mongol Yuan dynasty of China (1271–1368), a major political force in inner Asia. The central practice-tradition for the Sakya is Lamdré (lam ’bras, the Path and Fruit), an integrated system of sūtra- and tantra-based discourses and rituals rooted partly in Mahāyāna wisdom literature and centrally in the Hevajra Tantra. In Lamdré, the usages of “Mahāmudrā” are quite restricted: for the most part, it refers to the result of an advanced tantric path that begins with empowerment: the omniscient buddhahood known as the Mahāmudrā Attainment. It also was used occasionally to denote the view attained as the result of empowerment or a tantric practice, but in all cases the referents presuppose tantric empowerment.36 It is worth noting, however, that despite the Sakyapas’ restrictions on the use of the term Mahāmudrā, many of the meditations and other practices associated with Lamdré—under such names as the Inseparability of Saṃsāra and Nirvāna (’khor ’das dbyer med) or the Three Appearances (snang gsum), and involving, for example, identification of the nature of mind and realizing the coemergence of an awareness of emptiness with luminosity, bliss, and non-duality—bear a striking resemblance to those approaches to ultimacy that, in other traditions, are designated as Mahāmudrā.

Mahāmudrā figured more prominently in three “minor” lineages that arose during the Tibetan Renaissance but whose practices were, within several centuries, absorbed by larger orders. The Shijé (Pacification) tradition is traced to Pa Dampa Sangyé (pha dam pa sangs rgyas, d. 1117), a peripatetic master from south India who visited Tibet five times and spent many years in China, too. His signature teaching, Shijé, derives its name from a line in the Heart Sūtra that associates the Perfection of Wisdom—that is, insight into emptiness—with the “pacification of all suffering.” Also referred to as the Mahāmudrā of Symbols or the Stainless Drop of Mahāmudrā, Shijé involves both esoteric practices such as those of the Yoginī Tantras and direct, non-conceptual realization of the mind’s true nature as taught by the great adepts, whose songs Dampa helped promulgate in Tibet. The practice of Chöd (gcod, “severance”)—or, more fully, the “Severance Mahāmudrā whose objective is the severing of demons”—was popularized in Tibet by Dampa’s great Tibetan female disciple (or grand-disciple), Machik Lapdrön (ma gcig lab sgron, 1055–1143). Like Shijé, Chöd is traced to the Perfection of Wisdom literature, in this case to passages that speak of a bodhisattva’s severance of various māras, or demons; it also is deeply beholden to the Yoginī tantras and the teachings of the adepts. Esoteric Chöd Mahāmudrā includes teachings on both maṇḍala and subtle-body practices and on the idiosyncratic Chöd technique of offering up one’s body to visualized demons in order to sever grasping at self. Non-dual Chöd Mahāmudrā is described as follows: “Primordially co-emergent, like space / It does nothing, depends on nothing. / In just the same way, the mind itself / Possesses no support, possesses no object: / Let it rest in its natural sphere, without fabrication.”37 The Shangpa Kagyü is traced to the Tibetan yogī Khyungpo Neljor (khyung po rnal ’byor, d. 1135), who studied with numerous male and female adepts in India, including Nigumā, the sister or consort of Nāropa. Along with various esoteric practices, he received a teaching called the Amulet-Box Mahāmudrā (phyag chen ga’u ma); because a portable amulet box usually is divided into two interlocking sections, the term came to connote the way in which, in Mahāmudrā practice, one conjoins method and wisdom, luminosity and emptiness, or bliss and emptiness. Fundamentally, the practice of the Amulet-Box Mahāmudrā involves the “natural settling” of body, speech, and mind in serenity and insight, releasing faults through gaining certainty about the true nature of mind, and recognizing that one’s ordinary mind is the three bodies of a buddha.38

Early Marpa Kagyü

Mahāmudrā was, to a greater or lesser degree, an important concept in all the schools described above; for the Marpa Kagyü lineage, though, it was essential. The translator Marpa (1012–1097) was a wealthy farmer from south-central Tibet who traveled multiple times to India and Nepal to collect texts and teachings. There, tradition tells us, he encountered Nāropa, from whom he received such esoteric instructions as the Six Dharmas; Maitrīpa, with whom he studied a number of tantras, as well as Mahāmudrā; and many others. Thanks to Maitrīpa, Marpa says, he “realized the foundation, reality itself, as unarisen, . . . took hold of the emptiness of mind, . . . saw the meaning of the original nature, unelaborated, and met the mother, the three buddha bodies, in person.”39 Marpa attracted many disciples and, through his translations and teachings, was instrumental in introducing to Tibet various esoteric tantric traditions, the songs of the adepts, and other sources of discourse on Mahāmudrā. He seems to have divided Mahāmudrā into an esoteric Path of Means (thabs lam), centered on the Six Dharmas of Nāropa, and a more immediate non-dual Path of Liberation (thar lam), with each path supporting the other. Marpa’s most celebrated disciple was the reformed black magician and peripatetic poet-yogin, Milarepa (mi la ras pa, 1040–1123), whose life and songs have been a source of inspiration for all Tibetans, regardless of sect.40 For Mila, Mahāmudrā is “the natural state . . . clear, radiant, ample and relaxed, without hope or fear, . . . free from virtue or sin, without plans or expectations, neither samsara nor nirvana, . . . beyond thought, beyond concepts—unmistakable!”41 Describing his own practice, he remarks, “to perceive the ultimate reality, I mark everything with the great seal of emptiness. This is the quintessence of non-duality.”42 At the same time, he frequently refers to Mahāmudrā as ensuing from tantric empowerment, and involving the complex, blissful experiences produced by subtle-body practices such as the Six Dharmas of Nāropa. Although both Marpa and Mila discoursed on both esoteric and non-dual Mahāmudrā, they do not seem to have taught them as separate “tracks” to buddhahood.

Milarepa’s great disciple, Gampopa Sönam Rinchen (sgam po pa bsod nams rin chen, 1079–1153)—also called Dakpo Lharjé (dvags po lha rje), “the doctor from Dakpo,” after his original profession—trained as a monk in the Kadam order after the death of his young wife. He went on to study with Mila, learning a whole range of practices from him, none more crucial than Mahāmudrā. After Mila’s death, he established a retreat center at Gampo, southeast of Lhasa, where he began the process of organizing the Kagyü into a religious order, distinguished by its combination of Kadam gradualism and Mahāmudrā immediacy. It was Gampopa who brought Mahāmudrā firmly to the center of the Kagyü world-view and set the terms for most subsequent discourse about the term.43 He emphasized a number of distinctive Mahāmudrā practices, both instantaneous and gradual. His most famous instantaneous teaching was the White Simple (dkar po chig thub), which focuses on the single (chig) spiritual “remedy”—seeing the nature of mind—that, by itself, is able (thub) to cure spiritual ills and effect awakening. More gradual techniques include Joinging the Coemergent (lhan cig skyes ’byor), which involves guru devotion, serenity, and insight; the Fivefold (lnga ldan) Mahāmudrā practice of awakening mind, deity yoga, guru yoga, Mahāmudrā, and dedication of merit; and the Four Yogas (rnal ’byor bzhi): one-pointedness, non-elaboration, single taste, and non-meditation.44 The Four Yogas would serve as a key organizing principle for subsequent Kagyü discussions of the path of Mahāmudrā. At times, too, Gampopa equated Mahāmudrā with “ordinary mind,” identifying concepts with the Dharma Body and insisting that “what is designated as ‘ordinary mind’ is your own cognition . . . If you recognize it, it is the gnosis of intrinsic awareness; if you fail to realize it, it is coemergent ignorance.”45

Gampopa was perhaps most renowned for introducing—and perhaps even favoring—a Perfection (or Sūtra) Vehicle Mahāmudrā practice, which could be found in such Mahāyāna texts as the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, with their discourse on emptiness; the King of Concentrations Sūtra, with its discussion of the “sameness” that is the “seal of all dharmas”; and the Higher Continuum, with its emphasis on the natural purity of mind, or Buddha Nature. This teaching did not require tantric empowerment but simply an experiential introduction to the reality of one’s mind through the “pointing-out instruction” (ngo sprod) of the guru. Gampopa makes it clear that such a non-dual approach can be found in both Perfection and Mantra Vehicle sources, but most often he classifies Mahāmudrā as a sort of “third-way” teaching that both includes and transcends the two Mahāyāna vehicles. Nevertheless, scholars in his own and other schools who accepted two, and only two, Mahāyāna vehicles understandably viewed his insistence that Mahāmudrā could be found outside the tantras as establishing Perfection Vehicle or Sūtra Mahāmudrā, and the legitimacy of such a category would be much debated in Tibetan religious and philosophical circles.

Gampopa’s major students and their many disciples were responsible for founding monasteries that became the seats of the various orders and sub-orders that now go under the name Dakpo Kagyü. With Gampopa as a common source, all the Dakpo Kagyü traditions placed Mahāmudrā at the center of their theoretical and practical concerns. Each, however, differed from the others in emphasis and interpretation, so that certain schools became renowned for specializing in one or another of the many approaches to Mahāmudrā offered by Gampopa and his successors. For instance, the Tselpa (tshal pa) Kagyü—founded by Shang Rinpoché (zhang rin po che, 1123–1193)—was famed for its promulgation of the radical White Simple Mahāmudrā teaching. The Pakdru (phag gru) and Drigung (’bri gung) Kagyü—founded, respectively, by Pakmo Drupa (phag mo gru pa, 1110–1170) and Jikten Sumgön (’jigs rten gsum mgon, 1143–1217)—were known for their teachings on the Single Intention (dgongs gcig) and the gradual Fivefold Mahāmudrā. The Drukpa Kagyü—founded by Lingrepa (gling ras pa, 1128–1188)—was noted for its systematization of Mahāmudrā theory and its emphasis on the practices of Joining the Coemergent and the Equal Taste (ro snyoms). The Karma Kagyü—founded by Düsum Khyenpa (dus gsum mkhyen pa, 1110–1193)—was renowned for its promulgation of Joining the Coemergent, its incorporation of the teachings of Saraha and other Indian adepts, its brilliant scholastic tradition, and its openness to Dzokchen. Over the course of time, each of these Marpa Kagyü schools, and others besides, produced saints and scholars alike, and contributed to the development of Mahāmudrā discourse in Tibet.

Controversy and Consolidation

The growth of Mahāmudrā as a focus of discourse in Tibetan religious circles did not proceed unquestioned. In the 13th century, Sakya Pandita Künga Gyeltsen (sa skya paṇḍita kun dga’ rgyal mtshan), or Sapan (1182–1251), a brilliant historian, philosopher, literatus, and diplomat, became perhaps the first Tibetan intellectual to criticize Kagyü Mahāmudrā ideas and practices, throwing down a gauntlet that nearly every subsequent serious scholar of Mahāmudrā felt obliged to pick up. Sapan’s objections to Kagyü Mahāmudrā discourse—which focus especially but not exclusively on the White Simple doctrine of Gampopa and Shang Rinpoché and the Single Intention of the Drigung—are stated most systematically in his Clear Ascertainment of the Three Vows (Sdom gsum rab dbye). Sapan’s criticisms there fall into two main types: historical and doctrinal. His historical argument centers on the claim that the White Simple has no real precedent in India, and is instead a Tibetan adaptation of a dicredited Chan Buddhist assertion of the possibility of immediate awakening through discarding conceptuality. According to Sapan, this position, which also influenced Dzokchen, was simply renamed “Mahāmudrā” early in the Tibetan Renaissance, so as to diguise its non-Indian origins.46 Doctrinally, Sapan attacks three basic ideas inferable from the Kagyü texts: (a) that a single practice—even meditation on emptiness—could alone suffice for liberation (for multiple method-side practices always are required), (b) that the gnosis of Mahāmudrā could arise through solely non-conceptual meditation (because philosophical analysis is essential, too), and (c) that Mahāmudrā ever could be taught outside of the Mantra Vehicle (for its sole legitimate meaning is as the attainment resulting from prior tantric empowerment).47 As suggested above, later Kagyü scholars were not shy about refuting Sapan’s criticisms, arguing that he had ignored Indian precedents for the rhetoric of immediacy used by Tibetan Mahāmudrā commentators, overlooked evidence that Mahāmudrā was used in India in non-tantric contexts, and wrenched Tibetan non-dual Mahāmudrā discourse out of its broader context as part of a carefully constructed path system that was perfectly consonant with Mahāyāna theory and practice. In any case, Sapan’s critique did virtually nothing to stifle the creativity of later Marpa Kagyü masters as they continued to develop their Mahāmudrā traditions, building on the foundation laid by Gampopa and other great Tibetan Renaissance figures, and expanding into new areas of inquiry, new ways of systematizing theory and practice, and new genres of literary expression, including histories, textual commentaries, philosophical treatises, anthologies, and polemics. Here, we can mention only the most prominent.

The first important later Marpa Kagyü contributor to Mahāmudrā discourse was the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorjé (rang byung rdo rje, 1284–1339).48 Among the first recognized Tibetan reincarnates (sprul sku), Rangjung Dorjé lived a life typical of a charismatic lama, traveling widely, studying Buddhist literature, undergoing retreats, gaining realizations, encountering visions, writing texts in a variety of genres, engaging in diplomacy, and promoting religious and public works projects. In his writings, the Karmapa synthesized Madhyamaka, Yogācāra, Buddha Nature, and tantric discourse from India with various Tibetan perspectives to produce an original and influential account of Buddhist thought and practice, the hallmark of which is sharp distinction between mere cognition and true gnosis—the primordially pure awareness that all beings possess and must realize if they are to actualize their buddhahood. As heir to a number of different Kagyü lineages, Rangjung Dorjé was well versed in Mahāmudrā traditions, and composed songs, commentaries, treatises, and practice-manuals related to the Great Seal. Instructions for the Mahāmudrā Joining the Coemergent (lhan cig skyes ’byor phyag chen khrid)49 elaborates a model for Mahāmudrā instruction—credited to Gampopa—that would be adopted by many subsequent Kagyü authors. The text begins by leading an initiated disciple through a series of preliminaries, such as developing compassion and devotion, praying to the guru visualized at the crown of one’s head, absorbing the guru’s blessings, and dedicating merit. Next, serenity meditation is developed, first on the basis of sense objects, then on the basis of whatever mind-states arise, and finally on a space-like awareness of clarity and non-conceptuality. Insight is induced by investigation of the nature of the serene mind—which is, whatever its object, understood to be luminous and non-conceptual, non-elaborated self-knowing, the inseparability of appearance and emptiness. Rangjung Dorjé goes on to discuss three experiences (nyams) that accompany Mahāmudrā meditation—bliss, luminosity, and non-conceptuality—and the ways in which they either enhance or diminish our realization. He concludes by noting that Joining the Coemergent should be practiced in concert with the Six Dharmas of Nāropa, thereby bringing together the non-dual and esoteric approaches to Mahāmudrā. His Prayer of the Mahāmudrā of Definitive Meaning (nges don phyag chen smon lam),50 which has been discussed at length by masters of the tradition since its composition and adopted into Kagyü liturgy, provides a poetic epitome of the attitudes, realizations, and actions proper to a Mahāmudrā practitioner. The Karmapa focuses on the view and meditative practice of the Great Seal, which involve various perceptions and processes—including serenity and insight, as well as the development of both renunciation and compassion—but may be summarized as the blissful, clear, non-conceptual realization that “all phenomena are manifestations of the mind [and] the mind is without mind, empty of an essence of mind,” or, even more basically, that “the nature of beings is always buddhahood.”51 This view, says Rangjung Dorjé, is held in common by practitioners of Mahāmudrā, Dzokchen, and “Great Madhyamaka.”

The Third Karmapa’s perspective opened the way to later attempts to synthesize Mahāmudrā and Dzokchen, and also may have influenced the development of the radical interpretation of Mahāmudrā favored by Tibetan proponents of “extrinsic emptiness” (gzhan stong), the view that the emptiness predicated of Buddha Nature and Buddhahood may be quite different from the emptiness of worldly phenomena and persons. Phenomena and persons are said to be self-empty (rang stong) in the sense of lacking permanent, partless, independent—that is, intrinsic—existence, buddha-mind to be empty in the sense it lacks saṃsāric qualities while permitting the full manifestation of the qualities of buddhahood that are implicit in buddha nature. First articulated by the Jonang (jo nang) master Dölpopa Sherap Gyeltsen (dol po pa shes rab rgyal mtshan, 1292–1361), extrinsic emptiness became a popular, albeit controversial, position in Tibetan thought, adopted in one form or another by numerous Kagyü and Nyingma masters, who found it a plausible way to understand the philosophical keys to both Madhyamaka and Mahāmudrā, in particular the assertion that emptiness, when applied to supreme gnosis or buddha-mind, is an affirming negation rather than a non-affirming negation. In other words, emptiness in this context is not a negation pure and simple, but a negation that clears the way for the expression of the awakened qualities intrinsic to all beings.

The Kagyü Efflorescence

In the centuries after Rangjung Dorjé’s passing, the fortunes of Kagyü tradition improved. Nominal Sakyapa hegemony over Tibet ended with the consolidation of power there, in the 1350s, by Jangchup Gyeltsen (byang chub rgyal mtshan) of Pakmodru (1303–1373), whose triumph ushered in an era of relative peace and prosperity, allowing religious and cultural life to develop—at least for a time—unshadowed by the prospect of war. Though shorn of political power, the Sakyapa retained their instutitonal and intellectual prestige; the Nyingma, spurred by the brilliant innovations of Longchenpa (klong chen pa, 1308–1363), found clearer articulation and greater self-confidence than they had for many years; and the “Neo-Kadam” order, eventually known as the Geluk, was founded near Lhasa by Tsongkhapa (tsong kha pa, 1357–1419). The most widespread and well-organized Marpa Kagyü sub-orders—the Karma, Drigung, and Drukpa—flourished, gaining institutional strength and continuing to develop scholarly and meditative traditions—including those surrounding Mahāmudrā—that had been established during the Tibetan Renaissance.

The last half of the 15th century produced three remarkable figures, each illustrating a distinctive aspect of Kagyü culture, who helped to further understanding of Mahāmudrā. Gö Lotsawa Shönupel (’gos lo tsā ba gzhon nu dpal, 1392–1481) was one of Tibet’s greatest historians and a learned and subtle commentator on Indian philosophical texts. His Blue Annals (deb ther sngon po), completed in 1478, is one of the most influential of all Tibetan historical works. The longest chapter in the book, on the Marpa Kagyü, recites many narratives that prominently feature Mahāmudrā, whether as a system of philosophy, a meditation practice, or a realization required for the attainment of liberation. Gö also devotes a separate, shorter chapter to the transmission of Mahāmudrā lineages to Tibet. There, he describes Mahāmudrā as “the doctrine which seals all the meditative and religious practices, from the Pratimokṣa, which is the foundation of the Doctrine of the Buddha, to the Guhyasamāja,” a salvific understanding of the nature of reality that can be grasped “only through the blessing of a holy teacher.”52 Gö also wrote a masterful commentary on the Higher Continuum, which he reads as a key source for a sūtra-based practice of Mahāmudrā.53 Utterly different, on the surface, from the scholarly Gö was Tsangnyön Heruka (gtsang smyon heruka, 1452–1507), one of a number of self-professed “madmen” (smyon pa) who shook up the Kagyü establishment in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. He attracted both disciples and patrons, whose support enabled him to compose and publish some of the enduring masterworks of Kagyü—indeed, of Tibetan—literature. Drawing skillfully from an array of written and oral sources that had been circulating for centuries, Tsangnyön wrote The Life of Milarepa (mi la rnam thar), The Life of Marpa the Translator (mar pa lo tsā ba’i rnam thar), and The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa (mi la ras pa’i mgur ’bum),54 each of which has become a classic of Tibetan tradition, and each of which is a rich source of information on Kagyü approaches to Mahāmudrā as they developed over a number of centuries. A third key late 15th-century figure was the Seventh Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso (chos grags rgya mtsho, 1454–1506). Identified as the Karmapa tulku at the unusually early age of nine months, he went on to live a life devoted, in varying degrees, to scholarship, meditation, diplomacy, animal protection, and public works. Two of his writings are especially relevant to Mahāmudrā. The Ocean of Texts on Valid Cognition (tshad ma rigs gzhung rgya mtsho) is the definitive Kagyü discussion of the tradition of Indian Buddhist logic, to which it gives a particular spin by tracing how the conventional processes of valid cognition may lead to a supramundane form of self-cognition (rang rig) that is a luminous awareness empty of duality—implicitly, Mahāmudrā. This awareness is explicitly taken to exemplify the idea of extrinsic emptiness—not in the radical sense proposed by Dölpopa, but in a “rationally structured, logically argued, moderate form”55 that typifies Kagyü approaches to the concept. Indian Mahāmudrā Texts (phyag chen rgya gzhung) is a voluminous anthology of Tibetan translations of over two hundred Indian works explicitly or implicitly related to Mahāmudrā in all its many senses, most composed by one or another of the great adepts of late Indian Buddhist tantrism, and especially consonant with non-dual Mahāmudrā, where the Great Seal is understood primarily in terms of the natural purity of mind, buddha nature, or emptiness rather than as a function of esoteric tantric practice.56

The 16th century was marked by increasing conflict between the Kagyü (especially the politically powerful Karmapas) and the ascendant Geluk, but it also witnessed an unparalleled flowering of Kagyü scholasticism in general and systematic Kagyü thought about Mahāmudrā in particular, which still shapes discussions of the topic today. The Eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorjé (mi bskyod rdo rje, 1507–1554), was an eastern Tibetan who rose to become one of the great scholars and philosophers in Kagyü history. He was the first compiler of the great anthology of Kagyü religious poetry, The Ocean of Kagyü Songs, to which he contributed his own spiritual songs and reflections, prompted by dreams and visions.57 He composed a four-session guru yoga liturgy that still is used by many Kagyüpas. He also wrote a number of smaller works on Mahāmudrā that explore the complex relation between sūtra and tantra elements in theorizing and practicing the Great Seal and that place a particular emphasis on the identity between Dharma Body and the ordinary mind.58 Finally, Mikyö Dorjé wrote influential treatises on the key Indian sources of Tibetan religious thought and life, including a commentary on Candrakīrti’s Entry to the Middle Way (Madhyamakāvatāra), which seeks to align the Madhyamaka philosophical view with Mahāmudrā as a tradition of meditation and realization, and identifies a major line of Kagyü Madhyamaka transmission that focuses on non-dual Mahāmudrā precepts taught by, among others, Saraha, Nāgārjuna, Śavaripa, and Maitrīpa in India, and Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa, and Jikten Sumgön in Tibet.59

The Eighth Karmapa’s younger contemporary, Dakpo Tashi Namgyel (dvags po bkra shis rnam rgyal, 1512–1587), is renowned for the clarity of his exposition of Kagyü approaches to both tantra and Mahāmudrā. His massive Moonbeams of Mahāmudrā (phyag chen zla ba’i ’od zer),60 which remains a vital source of textual citations and meditation instructions to this day, presents a graded path of Mahāmudrā practices that begins with “common” techniques for attaining serenity and insight, then moves on to the “uncommon” techniques of Mahāmudrā: the preliminary rituals related to refuge, offering the maṇḍala, purifying defilements, and harmonizing with the guru; attainment of serenity on the basis of meditation on external objects, internal objects, and, finally, the mind itself; attainment of insight on the basis of recognizing all objects to be products of mind, and both mind and its objects to be unarisen, or empty; a deeper exploration of the nature of mind through contemplation of the coemergent identity among mind, thoughts, and appearances; maintaining unbroken realization of ultimate reality in post-meditative everyday life; overcoming errors in the practice of serenity and insight; enhancing one’s realization through an even deeper recognition of the mind’s empty nature and through transforming worldly suffering into the path; and attaining buddhahood through the Four Yogas: one-pointedness, non-elaboration, the single taste, and non-meditation. In the course of his exposition, Tashi Namgyel provides copious references to Indic and Tibetan sources relevant to Mahāmudrā, defends the Kagyü approach to the Great Seal against criticism from Sakyapas and others; and clearly locates Mahāmudrā within the larger frame of the Mantra Vehicle and the Perfection Vehicle, with a special emphasis on the latter. Indeed, a central concern of Tashi Namgyel is to establish the legitimacy of Gampopa’s claim that Mahāmudrā is a special teaching that at once includes and transcends both Perfection and Mantra approaches to the path.

Tashi Namgyel’s most brilliant disciple, and arguably the greatest of all Kagyü scholars, was the fourth Drukchen (’brug chen) tulku, Pema Karpo (padma dkar po, 1527–1592). Like other Kagyü masters of his era, he was preoccupied with Mahāmudrā, which he tended to regard as a practice tradition in which Sūtra and Mantra are inseparable. Consider, for instance, the mix of esoteric and non-dual imagery in the following definition: “Emptiness rich in the most excellent potentialities is termed Mahāmudrā, because it offers unchanging bliss, in which there is complete elimination [of disturbances] and complete intrinsic awareness [of what there is].”61 His most thorough treatment of the Great Seal is the Storehouse of Mahāmudrā (phyag chen gan mdzod), which details the various textual traditions of Mahāmudrā that developed in India; refutes mistaken opinions on the topic, including those of Sapan; defines the term and relates it to basic Buddhist categories; lays out Kagyü teachings on a number of key practices, including Joining the Coemergent and the White Simple; and establishes in detail the view, meditation, and result of Joining the Coemergent, in which the mind and its appearances are understood to be inseparable from the Dharma Body. Pema Karpo also describes the practice of Joining the Coemergent in a number of popular short manuals, which still are in use today.62

The Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorjé (1556–1603), was the last of his line to enjoy significant temporal power. His many writings include several treatises on Mahāmudrā that remain widely read classics. The longest and most important of the three, Ocean of Definitive Meaning (nges don rgya mtsho),63 begins with such preliminaries as an aspiration for the dharma, finding a teacher, recognizing the nature of mind in general terms, and attempting to observe mind as it is. The main practice is divided into serenity and insight meditation. In serenity meditation, one assumes the proper posture, then focuses on various external and internal objects of meditation, eventually settling on the present mind itself, and remaining focused on that, non-conceptually, in a relaxed but alert manner, neither suppressing nor chasing the thoughts that naturally arise. In insight meditation, one first examines the mind in movement and at rest, then “cuts to the root” by searching mind to see if it has an intrinsic nature. When no such nature is found, one is prepared for the four “pointing-out instructions”: appearances are mind, mind is empty, emptiness is natural presence, and natural presence is self-liberated. In the concluding practices, having learned to avoid various pitfalls of meditative experience and developed various skills, one traverses the Four Yogas of Mahāmudrā, which culminate in buddhahood, or final Mahāmudrā—from which one acts creatively and compassionately in the world for the sake of others. The shorter Mahāmudrā Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance (phyag chen ma rig mun gsal) offers a “psychological” interpretation of buddhahood, wherein the Dharma Body is simply the mind’s natural emptiness, the Enjoyment Body is simply the mind’s natural clarity or luminosity, and the Emanation Body is simply the appearances that arise in the mind.64 This interpretation is particularly consonant with Mahāmudrā discourse, since it keeps its focus squarely on the mind—which, after all, whether ordinary or exalted, is, in the oft-quoted words of Saraha, “the single seed of all.”65

Later developments

The period from 1600 until the early 19th century was marked, politically, by the rise to power of the Geluk order and a corresponding decrease in the worldly fortunes of the Kagyü. Still, the religious creativity of the Kagyü remained strong, and discourse on Mahāmudrā continued to develop. Great scholars such as Tselé Natsok Rangdrol (rtse le sna tshogs rang grol, b. 1608) and Situ Panchen Chökyi Jungné (si tu paṇ chen chos kyi byung gnas, 1700–1744) continued in the tradition of clear and systematic exposition of Mahāmudrā, writing texts that continue to guide practitioners to this day.66 Inspired by the efforts of earlier Kagyü masters like the Third Karmapa, Karma Chakmé (1613–1678) brought together contemplative practices drawn from Kagyü Mahāmudrā and Nyingma Dzokchen into a single, synthetic system.67 In doing so, he also anticipated the “ecumenical” spirit displayed to an even greater extent by later figures, such as Shapkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol (zhabs dkar tshogs drug rang grol, 1781–1851), who freely adopted Kagyü, Geluk, and Nyingma practices into his own unique system, and the First Jamgön Kongtrul (’jam mgon kong sprul, 1819–1899), a key figure in the coterie of eastern Tibetan scholars and thinkers known for their nonsectarian (ris med) approach to preserving and promulgating rare and endangered teaching traditions from all the major non-Geluk orders.68 Jamgön Kongtrul and others of his era accentuated the synthetic tendencies already at work among the Kagyü to such a degree that, in the 20th century and beyond, Kagyü and Nyingma traditions—especially Mahāmudrā and Dzokchen—often are mastered by teachers in both orders, and sometimes are taught as complementary practices.

The last truly distinctive Great Seal tradition to develop in Tibet was that of the Geluk, which came to light with the publication, around 1600, of two texts on the “Geden Oral Transmission” (dge ldan bka’ brgyud) of Mahāmudrā, composed by the First Panchen Lama, Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen (blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan, 1570–1662)69 This practice was authenticated by its ascription to a great founder of the Geluk, Tsongkhapa, and to a special hearing transmission (snyan brgyud) he initiated on the basis of instructions from the wisdom buddha, Mañjughoṣa. Geluk scholars agree, however, that the practice was not publicized until the time of the First Panchen, and it was only in the centuries after him that it became a major focus of discourse within the order. The Panchen clearly divides Mahāmudrā into two types. Mantra Mahāmudrā is the direct realization, based on advanced subtle-body yogas, of the empty luminosity (’od gsal) that is the sublest nature of consciousness, while Sūtra Mahāmudrā involves developing serenity and insight with regard to, respectively, the conventional and ultimate nature of the mind, as, respectively, clear and knowing, and empty of inherent existence. All of this—like most Mahāmudrā practice—is executed within the context of guru yoga. There has been some debate as to whether the Panchen intended his system to be strictly Geluk or a Geluk-Kagyü synthesis. He draws widely on Kagyü literature, and at times gives instruction in meditation techniques developed by Kagyü masters. At the same time, he sometimes chides his Kagyü contemporaries, whom he accuses of confusing the attainment of serenity with the achievement of real insight—and true insight, it is clear, comes only from an analytical and experiential understanding of the Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka view espoused by Nāgārjuna and Candarkīrti in India and brought to perfection in Tibet by Tsongkhapa.70 In any case, from the time of the First Panchen on, Mahāmudrā became a vital, if subsidiary, tradition of practice within the Geluk, and it remains so in the 21st century.

The world of Tibetan Buddhism changed forever with the Chinese takeover of the plateau in the 1950s. Within Tibet, especially during the period of the Cultural Revolution (c. 1966–1976) many traditions were actively suppressed, and the material culture on which religious practice depended was destroyed to a significant degree. In recent decades, there has been something of a restoration of Buddhist culture in Tibet, but under considerable restriction. Still, to the degree that some traditions continue, we can safely affirm that Mahāmudrā continues to be practiced, and even written about, on the plateau. The Tibetan exile community, some hundred thousand strong, has, since 1959, succeeded in establishing itself and preserving elements of Tibetan culture in South Asia and, more recently, in the West. Tibetan Buddhism has proven appealing to large numbers of Western students, who either study Buddhism with lamas in Asia or, increasingly, are taught by lamas who visit or reside in the West. Scholars have observed that, of the vast range of practices developed in various Buddhist cultures, Westerners are most drawn to meditation, and of the countless meditations available, they gravitate in greatest numbers to those that appear to bring the least “cultural baggage” and, at the same time, to offer the greatest psychological benefit. Thus, great popularity has accrued to the Theravāda “mindfulness” practice of observing the flux of experience and to Zen’s aesthetic and incisive penetration into the true nature of the mind and reality. Among Tibetan meditations, Mahāmudrā and Dzokchen have drawn a disproportionate amount of interest, precisely because they, too—at least in their non-dual versions—seem to involve a direct insight into how the mind is and the way things are, supposedly without recourse to metaphysics, cultural images, or social practices that Westerners might find discomfiting. Of course, in the original Indian and Tibetan context, the Great Seal was deeply embedded within a particular worldview and cultural system, and it remains to be seen whether the imprint it leaves in the West will somehow preserve the key attitudes and insights developed in Asia, or whether it will be irretrievably lost in the process of translation.

Review of the Literature

There is, properly speaking, no field of “Mahāmudrā studies.” Some modern scholars have focused on Indian and/or Tibetan discourse about the Great Seal, but such scholarship is usually produced within the larger context of the study of Indian Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, or the intersection between the two. Nevertheless, the importance of Mahāmudrā in Indian and Tibetan circles, combined with the appeal of Mahāmudrā poetry, philosophy, and praxis to many contemporary Buddhists, does mean that the topic has been an increasing focus of scholarly investigation. The modern study of Mahāmudrā is skewed, to some extent, between “Dharma centers” and the academy. Many important translations of Mahāmudrā texts have been produced by organizations (and publishers) that promote the study and practice of Buddhism. At the same time, scholars affiliated with universities, colleges, and research institutes have pursued their own courses of study, producing translations, to be sure, but also tending to treat Mahāmudrā literature analytically and critically, in line with modern academic standards. These two approaches to the study of Mahāmudrā are distinctive, but far from mutually exclusive. Many texts produced by “Dharma centers” and their denizens are of very high quality, and often include the critical apparatus an academician would require. At the same time, many academic scholars are themselves also Buddhist practitioners, and their work is sometimes inflected by concerns that have arisen within their own experience of the Dharma. Suffice it to say that, over the past two centuries, important work on the Great Seal has come from both of these settings, and neither should be exalted to the detriment of the other.71

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mahāmudrā received occasional comment from pioneering scholars of Tibet, surfacing as a matter of more than passing interest only in the late 1920s, when W. Y. Evans Wentz began to publish translations, by Kazi Dawa Samdup, of a number of Tibetan Buddhist classics, including The Life of Milarepa and Mahāmudrā-related philosophical and meditative texts by the likes of Padampa Sangyé, Gampopa, and Pema Karpo.72 At the same time, M. Shahidullah produced the first—and still unsurpassed—scholarly translation of the seminal songs of the great adepts Saraha and Kāṅha.73 It was after World War II that scholarship on Mahāmudrā truly began to develop. In 1949, George Roerich, assisted by the Tibetan scholar Gendun Chöpel (1903–1951), published his translation of Gö Lotsāwa’s Blue Annals, which is a trove of information on Mahāmudrā;74 and in the 1950’s, Herbert V. Guenther began to issue translations and analyses deeply informed by his reading of Kagyü and Nyingma sources, with Mahāmudrā often at the center of attention75 David Snellgrove’s 1959 edition, translation, and discussion of the Hevajra Tantra opened the door to the study of the Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras, in which Mahāmudrā is a vital term.

In the wake of the Tibetan diaspora of 1959, Tibetans and Westerners came into contact as never before, and the long-term fruit of their exchange was the development, in Asia and in the West, of Dharma centers, usually directed by Tibetans, and an increase in the numbers of Westerners practicing Tibetan Buddhism, studying Buddhism academically, or both. To the degree that Mahāmudrā was important in many Buddhist orders, and especially attractive to Westerners because of its “simplicity,” Mahāmudrā increasingly became the focus of scholarship, and, where in the 1950s and 1960s, only a handful of books on the topic were produced, by the turn of the second millennium, perhaps a dozen or more Mahāmudrā-related books were published yearly. Of particular importance to the progress of Great Seal studies were Garma C. C. Chang’s translation of Milarepa’s songs (1962),76 Lobsang Lhalungpa’s translation of Tashi Namgyel’s great compendium of Mahāmudrā meditation (1986),77, David Jackson’s study of early Tibetan disputes over Perfection Vehicle Mahāmudrā (1994),78 Karl Brunnhölzl’s translation of Indian and Tibetan esoteric instruction texts (2007),79 Klaus-Dieter Mathes’s analysis and translation of Gö Lotāwa’s Mahāmudrā-based commentary on the Higher Continuum (2008),80 Peter Alan Roberts’ anthology of Kagyü Mahāmudrā texts,81 Roger Jackson and Matthew Kapstein’s edited volume of essays on the Kagyü and the Great Seal (2011),82 David Gray’s inquiry into usages of mudrā and mahāmudrā in Indian Buddhist tantra (2011),83 Lara Braitstein’s study and translation of Saraha’s Mahāmudrā-centered adamantine songs (2014),84 and Ulrich Timme Kragh’s massive study of the Six Dharmas of Nāropa and Mahāmudrā in the tradition of Gampopa (2015).85

Although for the most part, scholars of Mahāmudrā have hewed to textual analysis and doctrinal exposition, they also have engaged in lively debates, most notably one that concerns the most contested question in Tibetan Mahāmudrā circles: Was there in India—hence can there be in Tibet—a Perfection or Sūtra Vehicle Mahāmudrā? The debate was spawned by a 1982 article, in which Roger Jackson suggested that Sapan’s criticism of Kagyü Mahāmudrā for its acceptance of a non-tantric Great Seal was based less on historical than polemical considerations,86 but the main antagonists, over the next decade, were Michael Broido, who had studied with Kagyü lamas and was critical of Sapan, and David Jackson, who was expert in Sakya and defended him.87 That phase of the debate came to an end with David Jackson’s Enlightenment by a Single Means, but his book pointed the way to further inquiry into the possibility of an Indian form of Perfection Vehicle Mahāmudrā. That investigation has been pursued with particular vigor since the early 2000s by Klaus-Dieter Mathes, who finds in the works of Maitrīpa evidence for a Great Seal that is not exclusively tantric.88 His conclusions, however, have been disputed by Harunaga Isaacson and Francesco Sferra, who maintain that Maitrīpa’s writings do not provide adequate proof that he asserted a Perfection Vehicle Mahāmudrā.89

Research on Mahāmudrā has been facilitated in the past two decades by the publication, in Asia and the West, of the works mentioned here and many besides, but of even greater import, perhaps, has been the advent of on-line resources such as those of the Tibetan Buddhist Research Center and the Buddhist Canons Research Database, which give scholars access to materials with unprecedented ease and efficiency. In that sense, Mahāmudrā texts are more accessible and easier to seach than ever before. Nevertheless, “Mahāmudrā studies” is still, relatively speaking, in its infancy, and the main task for researchers remains, as it has been for a century, that of editing, translating, and interpreting the hundreds of Indian and Tibetan works on Mahāmudrā that remain unexplored, and helping us understand better the small number of works that already have seen the light of day.

Primary Sources

Buddhist Canons Research Database

. American Institute of Buddhist Studies. This service of the American Institute of Buddhist Studies (AIBS) allows Tibetan-reading scholars to search the length and breadth of the Tibetan canons of translated Buddha-word, the Kangyur (bka’ ’gyur), and Indian treatises and commentaries, the Tengyur (bstan ’gyur).

Fremantle, Francesca. “A Critical Study of the Guhyasamāja Tantra.” PhD Diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1971

. Includes Sanskrit and Tibetan editions, along with an English translation.

Roger R., Jackson. Tantric Treasures: Three Collections of Mystical Verse from Buddhist India. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004

. Includes Apabhraṃśa editions (supplemented by Tibetan, where necessary) of the dohā-treasuries of the adepts Saraha, Kāṇha, and Tilopa.

Khro ru Klu grub rgya mtsho, ed. Nges don phyag rgya chen po’i rgya gzhung. 11 vols. Chengdu, China: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2009

. A book-format anthology of Mahāmudrā texts, in Tibetan. The first six volumes comprise the Seventh Karmapa’s collection of Indian texts, the Phyag chen rgya gzhung. The final five volumes reproduce a number of Tibetan Kagyü Mahāmudrā classics, including key works by Tashi Namgyel, the Ninth Karmapa, and Jamgön Kongtrul.

Kværne, Per. Anthology of Buddhist Tantric Songs: A Study of the Caryāgīti. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1977

. Includes Apabhaṃśa and Tibetan (with English translation) of performance songs of the great adepts, supplemented by Munidatta’s Sanskrit commentary.

Samdong Rinpoche and Vrajvallabh Dwivedi, eds. Guhyādi-Aṣṭasiddhi-Saṅgraha. Sarnath, India: Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, 1987

. Sanskrit and Tibetan edition of eight “Attainment Texts” composed by late-first-millennium Buddhist tantric authors.

Shastri, Haraprasad, ed. Advayavajrasaṃgraha. Vadodara, India: Oriental Institute, 1927

. Sanskrit edition of most of the “Twenty-five Texts on Inattention” attributed to Maitrīpa.

Snellgrove, David L., ed. and trans. The Hevajra Tantra: A Critical Study. 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1960

. Includes Sanskrit and Tibetan editions, along with an English translation.

Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center

. Founded by E. Gene Smith, TBRC provides scholars who can read Tibetan with access to thousands upon thousands of scanned Tibetan texts, usually for free, sometimes for a nominal fee. Nearly every important Tibetan text on Mahāmudrā may be found in the TBRC collection.

Further Reading

Braitstein, Lara. The Adamantine Songs (Vajragīti) by Saraha: Study, Translation, and Tibetan Critical Edition. New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2104.Find this resource:

Brown, Daniel P. Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in Mahāmudrā Tradition. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006.Find this resource:

Brunnhölzl, Karl., trans. Straight from the Heart: Buddhist Pith Instructions. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2007.Find this resource:

Brunnhölzl, Karl. When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge Between Sūtra and Tantra. Boston and London: Snow Lion Publications, 2014.Find this resource:

Chang, Garma C. C., trans. The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. 2 vols. Boston: Shambhala, 1989.Find this resource:

Dalai Lama, H. H. the, and Alexander Berzin. The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahāmudrā. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1997.Find this resource:

Fremantle, Francesca. “A Critical Study of the Guhyasamāja Tantra.” PhD Diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1971.Find this resource:

Gray, David. “Imprints of the ‘Great Seal’: On the Expanding Semantic Range of the Term mudrā in Eighth through Eleventh Century Indian Buddhist Literature.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 34.1–2 (2011): 421–481.Find this resource:

Higgins, David. “On the Development of the Non-Mentation (amanasikāra) Doctrine in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 29.2 (2006): 255–304.Find this resource:

Jackson, David P. Enlightenment by a Single Means: Tibetan Controversies on the “Self-Sufficient White Remedy.” Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wiseenschaften, 1994.Find this resource:

Jackson, Roger R. “The Indian Mahāmudrā ‘Canon(s)’: A Preliminary Sketch.” Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies 9 (2008): 151–184.Find this resource:

Jackson, Roger R. and Matthew T. Kapstein, eds. Mahāmudrā and the Bka’ brgyud Tradition. Andiast, Switzerland: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, 2011.Find this resource:

Kragh, Ulrich Timme. Tibetan Yoga and Mysticism: A Textual Study of the Yogas of Nāropa and Mahāmudrā Meditation in the Medieval Tradition of Dags po. Studia Philologica Buddhica Monograph Series 32. Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 2015.Find this resource:

Kvaerne, Per. “On the Concept of Sahaja in Indian Buddhist Tantric Literature.” Temenos 11 (1975): 88–135.Find this resource:

Lhalungpa Lobsang P., trans. [Bkra shis rnam rgyal.] Mahāmudrā: The Moonlight: Quintessence of Mind and Meditation. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006.Find this resource:

Linrothe, Rob, ed. Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas. New York: Rubin Museum of Art, 2006.Find this resource:

Mathes, Klaus-Dieter. A Direct Path to the Buddha Within: Gö Lotsawa’s Mahāmudrā Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008.Find this resource:

Mathes, Klaus-Dieter. A Fine Blend of Mahāmudrā and Madhyamaka: Maitrīpa’s Collection of Texts on Non-conceptual Realization (Amanasikāra). Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Nālandā Translation Committee, trans. The Rain of Wisdom: The Vajra Songs of the Kagyü Gurus. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 1980.Find this resource:

Rhoton, Jared Douglas, trans. A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes: Essential Distinctions among the Individual Liberation, Great Vehicle, and Tantric Systems. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Roberts, Peter Alan, trans. Mahāmudrā and Related Instructions. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2011.Find this resource:

Roerich, George N., trans. [’Gos lo tsā ba.]. The Blue Annals. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1976.Find this resource:

Schaeffer, Kurtis R. Dreaming the Great Brahmin: Tibetan Traditions of the Buddhist Poet-Saint Saraha. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Snellgrove David L., ed. and trans. The Hevajra Tantra: A Critical Study. 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.Find this resource:

Willis, Janice D. Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.Find this resource:


(1.) See Roger R. Jackson, “Mahāmudrā in India,” Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism, 2015.

(2.) See David Gray, “Imprints of the ‘Great Seal’: On the Expanding Semantic Range of the Term mudrā in Eighth through Eleventh Century Indian Buddhist Literature,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 34.1–2 (2011): 421–481.

(3.) Three is the most common number, but many Mahāyāna sources add a fourth, the Essence Body (svabhāvikakāya), and tantric authors sometimes append a fifth, the Great Bliss Body (mahāsukhakāya).

(4.) See David L. Snellgrove, Indo Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors, 2 vols. (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1987); and Ronald M. Davisdon, Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

(5.) The Basic Ordinance of Mañjuśrī has not been fully translated into any Western language. For its usages of mahāmudrā, see, e.g., Glenn Wallis, Meditating the Power of Buddhas: Ritual in the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 238–239n49; Ariane Macdonald, Le Maṇḍala du Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa (Paris: Adrienne-Maisonneuve, 1962), 42, 69, 99 et passim; and James F. Hartzell, “The Buddhist Sanskrit Tantras: ‘The Samādhi of the Plowed Row,” The Pacific World (Series 3) 14 (Fall 2012): 80, 139–140.

(6.) See Jeffrey Hopkins, Yoga Tantra: Paths to Magical Feats (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2005).

(7.) Francesca Fremantle, “A Critical Study of the Guhyasamāja Tantra” (PhD Diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1971), 58, 59, 130.

(8.) Ibid., 34–36.

(9.) David L. Snellgrove, trans., The Hevajra Tantra: A Critical Study (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), part I, 77, 91, 105, 116, 116.

(10.) Lobsang P. Lhalungpa, trans., Mahāmudrā: The Moonlight: Quintessence of Mind and Meditation (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006), 93.

(11.) Ibid., 103, 228–229.

(12.) Philip Lesco, “The Sekodeśaṭippanī: A Brief Commentary on the Summary of the Initiation,” in Edwin A. Arnold, ed., As Long as Space Endures: Essays on the Kālacakra Tantra in Honor of H. H. the Dalai Lama (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications 2009), 75.

(13.) Lhalungpa, Mahāmudrā, 96.

(14.) See Per Kvaerne, Anthology of Buddhist Tantric Songs: A Study of the Caryāgīti (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1977); James B. Robinson, trans., Abhayadatta, Buddha’s Lions: The Lives of the Eighty-Four Siddhas (Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1979); Davidson, Indian Esoteric Buddhism, chaps. 5–7; and Rob Linrothe, ed., Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas (New York: Rubin Museum of Art, 2006).

(15.) The listing of these texts is not always consistent, nor is their number; sometimes eight texts are included, as in Samdong Rinpoche and Vrajvallabh Dwivedi, eds., Guhyādi-Aṣṭasiddhi-Saṅgraha (Sarnath, India: Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, 1987). See Roger R. Jackson, “The Indian Mahāmudrā ‘Canon(s)’: A Preliminary Sketch,” Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies 9 (2008): 160–162.

(16.) Samdong and Dwivedi, Guhyādi-Aṣṭasiddhi-Saṅgraha, 23, 29, 32.

(17.) Ibid., 97.

(18.) Roger R. Jackson, “Saraha’s Queen Dohās,” in Yoga in Practice, ed. David Gordon White (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 174, 178, 179, 184.

(19.) Thrangu Rinpoche, trans. A Song for the King: Saraha on Mahamudra Meditation, ed. Michele Martin (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006), 92, 105.

(20.) See Roger R. Jackson, Tantric Treasures: Three Collections of Mystical Verse from Buddhist India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 53–115.

(21.) Lara Braitstein, The Adamantine Songs (Vajragīti) by Saraha: Study, Translation, and Tibetan Critical Edition (New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2104), 126, 129, 132, 133, 135, 137, 139, 140, 141, 142.

(22.) As with the Seven Attainment Texts, the listing of these texts is not always consistent. See, e.g., Jackson, “The Indian Mahāmudrā Canon(s),” 163–166; and Klaus-Dieter Mathes, A Fine Blend of Mahāmudrā and Madhyamaka: Maitrīpa’s Collection of Texts on Non-conceptual Realization (Amanasikāra) (Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2015).

(23.) See Karl Brunnhölzl, trans., Straight from the Heart: Buddhist Pith Instructions (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2007), 93–118.

(24.) See Glenn R. Mullin, trans., The Practice of the Six Yogas of Nāropa (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2006); and Ulrich Timme Kragh, “Prolegomena to the Six Doctrines of Nā ro pa: Authority and Tradition,” in Roger R. Jackson and Matthew T. Kapstein, eds., Mahāmudrā and the Bka’ brgyud Tradition (Andiast, Switzerland: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, 2011), 131–177.

(25.) Klaus-Dieter Mathes, “The ‘Succession of Four Seals’ (Caturmudrānvaya) Together with Selected Passages from Karopa’s Commentary,” Tantric Studies 1 (2008): 115.

(26.) Maitrīpa, Phyag rgya chen po rdo rje’i glu gser gyi phreng ba [Mahāmudrāvajragītikaṇakamālā], in Khro ru Klu grub rgya mtsho, ed., Nges don phyag rgya chen po’i rgya gzhung (Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang 5 (2009): 346. For a translation of this text, see Mathes, A Fine Blend of Mahāmudrā and Madhyamaka.

(27.) See Erik Pema Kunsang, trans., Thrangu Rinpoche and Khenchen Rinpoche, King of Samadhi: Commentaries on the Samadhi Raja Sutra and The Song of Lodrö Thaye (Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1994).

(28.) Also known as the Distinguishing the Precious Lineage (Ratnagotravibhāga); see Karl Brunnhölzl, When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge Between Sūtra and Tantra (Boston and London: Snow Lion Publications, 2014).

(29.) On this question, see Mathes, A Fine Blend of Mahāmudrā and Madhyamaka; Harunaga Isaacson and Francesco Sferra, eds., The Sekanirdeśa of Maitreyanātha (Advayavajra) with the Sekanirdeśapañjikā of Rāmapāla (Naples: Università degli Studi di Napoli “l’Orienetale,” 2014), 411–420.

(30.) See Roger R. Jackson, “Mahāmudrā in Tibet,” Oxford Bibliographies Online.

(31.) See George N. Roerich, trans., The Blue Annals (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1976); Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, vol. 2; and Ronald M. Davidson, Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture and the Rise of Sakya (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

(32.) David Germano, “Architecture and Absence in the Secret Tantric History of the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen),” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 17.2 (1994): 203–335.

(33.) Roerich, Blue Annals, 843–844.

(34.) Kurtis R. Schaeffer, Dreaming the Great Brahmin: Tibetan Traditions of the Buddhist Poet-Saint Saraha (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 74–75.

(35.) Ibid., 67.

(36.) Cyrus Stearns, trans., Taking the Path as Result: Core Teachings of the Sakya Lamdré Tradition (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006), 42–43, 577.

(37.) Jérome Edou, Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1996), 165.

(38.) Sarah Harding, trans., Niguma: Lady of Illusion (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2010), 32.

(39.) Nālandā Translation Committee, trans., The Rain of Wisdom: The Vajra Songs of the Kagyü Gurus (Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 1980), 144–145.

(40.) See Andew Quintman, trans., Tsangnyön Heruka, The Life of Milarepa (New York: Penguin, 2010); and Garma C. C. Chang, trans., The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, 2 vols. (Boston: Shambhala, 1989),

(41.) Lama Kunga and Brian Cutillo, trans., Miraculous Journey: Further Stories and Songs of Milarepa (Novato, CA: Lotsawa Press, 1986), 183.

(42.) Lhalungpa, Mahāmudrā, 167.

(43.) See 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 (Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 2015).

(44.) See Alexander Schiller, Die “Vier Yoga”-Stufen der Mahāmudrā-Meditationstradition (Hamburg: Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Universität Hamburg, 2014).

(45.) Lhalungpa, Mahāmudrā, 245.

(46.) Jared Douglas Rhoton, trans., A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes: Essential Distinctions among the Individual Liberation, Great Vehicle, and Tantric Systems (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 118–119.

(47.) David P. Jackson, Enlightenment by a Single Means: Tibetan Controversies on the “Self-Sufficient White Remedy” (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wiseenschaften, 1994), 72.

(48.) See Ruth Gamble, “The View from Nowhere: The Travels of the Third Karmapa, Rang byung rdo rje in Story and Song” (PhD Diss., Australian National University, 2014).

(49.) Peter Alan Roberts, trans., Mahāmudrā and Related Instructions (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2011), 153–168.

(50.) Ibid., 169–174.

(51.) Ibid., 170, 172.

(52.) Roerich, Blue Annals, 839–841.

(53.) Klaus-Dieter Mathes, A Direct Path to the Buddha Within: Gö Lotsawa’s Mahāmudrā Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008), especially 34–45, 204–311, 367–410.

(54.) See, respectively, Quintman, Life of Milarepa; Nālandā Translation Committee, trans., The Life of Marpa the Translator (Boulder, CO: Prajñā Press, 1982); and Chang, Hundred Thousand Songs.

(55.) Anne Burchardi, “The Role of Rang rig in the Pramāṇa-based Gzhan stong of the Seventh Karma pa,” in Jackson and Kapstein, Mahāmudrā and the Bka’ brgyud Tradition, 340.

(56.) Klaus-Dieter Mathes, “The Collection of ‘Indian Mahāmudrā Works’ (phyag chen rgya gzhung) Compiled by the Seventh Karma pa Chos grags rgya mtsho,” in Jackson and Kapstein, Mahāmudrā and the Bka’ brgyud Tradition, 89–127.

(57.) Nālandā, Ocean, 310–313, 16–26

(58.) Jim Rheingans, “The Eighth Karmapa’s Life and His Interpretation of the Great Seal” (PhD Diss., University of the West of England, 2008).

(59.) See David Seyfort Ruegg, “A Karma Bka’ brgyud Work on the Lineages and Traditions of the Indo-Tibetan dbu ma (Madhyamaka),” in The Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle: Essays on Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010), 323–356.

(60.) See Lhalungpa, Mahāmudrā. A condensed version of his instruction is found in Erik Pema Kunsang, trans., Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, Clarifying the Natural State (Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004).

(61.) Herbert V. Guenther, “Mahāmudrā—The Method of Self-Actualization,” The Tibet Journal 1.1 (1975): 6 (translation slightly modified).

(62.) See W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 114–154; and Roberts, Mahāmudrā, 135–152.

(63.) See Elizabeth Callahan, trans., The Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje, Mahāmudrā: The Ocean of Definitive Meaning (Seattle: Nitartha International, 2001).

(64.) See Alexander Berzin, trans., The Mahāmudrā Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1978), 119–120, 144–146.

(65.) Jackson, Tantric Treasures, 73.

(66.) See Roberts, Mahāmudrā, 289–332, 173–288.

(67.) See B. Alan Wallace, trans., A Spacious Path to Freedom: Practical Instructions on the Union of Mahāmudrā and Atiyoga, with commentary by Gyatrul Rinpoiche (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1998).

(68.) See, respectively, Matthieu Ricard, trans., The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994); Judith Hanson, trans., The Torch of Certainty (Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 1977); and Sarah Harding, trans., Jamgön Kongtrul, The Treasury of Knowledge, Book Eight, Part Four: Esoteric Instructions (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2007), 208–231.

(69.) See His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Alexander Berzin, The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahāmudrā (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1997).

(70.) See Roger R. Jackson, “The dGe ldan-bKa’ brgyud Tradition of Mahāmudrā: How much dGe ldan? How Much bKa’ brgyud?” in Guy Newland, ed., Changing Minds: Contributions to the Study of Buddhism and Tibet in Honor of Jeffrey Hopkins (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2001), 155–191.

(71.) For the only discussion of the “field” in English so far, see Roger R. Jackson, “The Study of Mahāmudrā in the West: A Brief Historical Overview,” in Jackson and Kapstein, ed., Mahāmudrā and the Bka’ brgyud Tradition, 3–54.

(72.) See e.g., Tibet’s Great Yogi Milarepa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1928); Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1935); and The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954).

(73.) M. Shahidullah, Les chants mystiques de Kāṇha et de Saraha: Les Dohā-koṣa et les Caryā (Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1928).

(74.) Roerich, The Blue Annals.

(75.) See, e.g., Yuganaddha: The Tantric View of Life (Varanasi: Chowkhamba, 1952); and The Jewel Ornament of Liberation (London: Rider, 1959).

(76.) Chang, The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa.

(77.) Lhalungpa, Mahāmudrā: The Moonlight.

(78.) D. Jackson, Enlightenment by a Single Means.

(79.) Brunnhölzl, Straight from the Heart.

(80.) Mathes, A Direct Path to the Buddha Within.

(81.) Roberts, Mahāmudrā and Related Instructions. See also his The Mind of Mahāmudrā (Boston: Wisdom Publication, 2014), which brings together Great Seal-related texts from the 2011 anthology.

(82.) Jackson and Kapstein, Mahāmudrā and the Bka’ brgyud Tradition.

(83.) Gray, “Imprints of the ‘Great Seal.’”

(84.) Braitstein, Saraha’s Adamantine Songs.

(85.) Kragh, Tibetan Yoga and Mysticism.

(86.) Roger Jackson, “Sa skya Paṇḍita’s Account of the Bsam yas Debate: History as Polemic,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 5.2 (1982): 89–99.

(87.) See, e.g., Michael M. Broido, “Sa-skya paṇḍita, the White Panacea, and the Hva-shang Doctrine,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 10.2 (1987): 27–68; and David P. Jackson, “Sa-skya paṇḍita the ‘Polemicist’: Ancient Debates and Modern Interpretations,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 13.2 (1990): 17–116.

(88.) His views are collected in Mathes, A Fine Blend of Mahāmudrā and Madhyamaka and in the forthcoming essay, “Sahajavajra’s Integration of Tantra into Mainstream Buddhism: An Analysis of his *Tattvadaśakaṭīkā and *Sthitisamāsa,” in Tantric Communities in Context.

(89.) Isaacson and Sferra, The Sekanirdeśa of Maitreyanātha (Advayavajra).