The Mind of Mahāmudrā - Introduction

Advice from the Kagyü Masters

The Mind of Mahamudra introduces the conception of mahamudra in India, its transmission to Tibet, and the varying practices within the Kagyü School of Tibetan Buddhism. This volume includes important texts by the Third Karmapa such as “Prayer for the Definitive Meaning” and other texts by Shonu Lha, Lama Shang, Drukchen Pema Karpo, and Tsele Natsok Rangdrol.



256 pages, 5.5x7.75 inches


ISBN 9781614291954

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ISBN 9781614292128

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The six texts compiled in this volume address the subject of mahāmudrā, the central meditation practice of the Kagyü school of Tibetan Buddhism. They were written in classical Tibetan between the twelfth and the seventeenth century.

Mahāmudrā is essentially a simple, direct method for seeing the nature of the mind. This method of meditation appeared in northern India in the last centuries of the first millennium and was introduced into Tibet in the eleventh century by such luminaries as Marpa and Vajrapāṇi and made widespread by the popular Tibetan saint Milarepa and his disciple Gampopa. Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche (b. 1933), the foremost scholar in the Karma Kagyü tradition today, selected the eleven texts that comprised the larger volume this book is distilled from.

In the Kagyü tradition, the higher tantric practices are twofold—the stage of generation and the stage of completion. The generation stage entails the visualization of oneself as an enlightened deity within a divine palace encircled by an entourage; and the practice consists primarily of visualizations, mantras, prayers, and offerings. The practitioner’s habituation to “pure perception” of the deity and the environs eliminates ordinary habits of perception and reveals the intrinsic purity of all mental and physical phenomena.

The Kagyü school divides the completion stage into two kinds of practice: the path of methods and the path of liberation. The path of methods consists primarily of the six Dharmas of Nāropa, and the path of liberation is primarily the practice of mahāmudrā, the topic of the present volume.

Mahāmudrā, or chakchen (phyag chen) in Tibetan, literally means “the great seal.” Masters of this tradition have explained it to mean that everything is sealed with buddhahood, the intrinsic true nature, which is already perfect. Therefore there is nothing to be added to or removed from the mind. There is no liberation to be attained other than what is already present. A common saying is that the reason why mahāmudrā is not attained is not because it is too difficult but because it is too easy, not because it is too far but because it is too close, and not because it is hidden but because it is too evident.

Therefore the mahāmudrā tradition employs the phrase “ordinary mind” to express that enlightenment is nothing other than the mind that we already have. As Tselé Natsok Rangdröl states in his text within this volume, the error that meditators make is “thinking that simply maintaining the ‘ordinary mind’—your own mind—is not enough. Instead, you seek elsewhere for some longed for, imagined, marvelous meditation.”

The actual meditation entails looking inward, directly at one’s own mind, without conceptualization, categorization, or conclusions. This true nature of the mind is there for anyone to see, and anyone who looks in this way will inevitably see it, at least for an instant, before conceptualization sets in. The practice of the meditation is essentially familiarization with this direct seeing of the mind.

Nevertheless, a series of graded meditations are taught in conjunction with this practice, including basic śamatha meditations, for stabilizing concentration, and successive stages of vipaśyanā meditation, insight practices that lead a practitioner gradually to actual mahāmudrā.

Thrangu Rinpoche has emphasized on many occasions that the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rikpé Dorjé (1924–81), told him that mahāmudrā was the most beneficial practice for Westerners because it eschews complex and culturally foreign practices. Rinpoche has also stated that elaborate practices such as the six Dharmas of Nāropa and dark retreats do not achieve any higher goal than mahāmudrā but are taught for the benefit of those who cannot believe that the ultimate attainment can be attained by such a simple method. Nevertheless, he adds that pursuing an array of practices can aid practitioners in their progress.

Mahāmudrā in India

The term mahāmudrā had earlier uses in Buddhist literature, but it first appears as synonymous with buddhahood in such higher tantras as the Buddhakapāla Tantra, which is said to have been revealed by Saraha (ninth–tenth century). Saraha’s songs or dohas are considered to be the source of the mahāmudrā lineage, and therefore Saraha is said to be the first human teacher of mahāmudrā.

The doha is a literary medium most closely associated with Indian mahāmudrā teachings and was used by successive generations of siddhas in India. However, the meaning of the word doha was lost in Tibetan translation. A doha is in fact a particular form of rhyming couplet. Famous examples of dohas are the Hindi poetry of Kabir (1440–1518), in which each doha could be an independent separate work. Indian poetry employed various kinds of verse and meter based on patterns of long and short syllables, unlike Tibetan, which counts only the number of syllables per line. As there is no Tibetan equivalent for the word doha, it has often simply been transcribed rather than translated. However, the general word for a spiritual song in Tibetan is gur (mgur), and the dohas along with a related type of verse called caryāpādas written in the earliest form of Bengali are generally referred to in Tibetan as gur. This has led to an inaccurate back translation of all instances of gur in Tibetan, including native Tibetan songs, as doha, glossed as “a song expressing realization.”

Saraha’s dohas were written in an eastern form of Apabhraṃśa and appear to actually be a collection of couplets by various authors. The do in doha means “two.” Their distinctive rhyming sound pattern is lost in their Tibetan translation. For example:

Brāhmaṇ to nā jāne to bhed
Ebhāve pāḍ ā hoḥ e catur ved

(For brahmans the truth is not in view;
recite the Vedas is all they do.)

Saraha is said to have transmitted his mahāmudrā lineage to the siddha Nāgārjuna, the tantric master whom the Tibetan tradition conflates with the well-known Mādhyamika of that name. Śavaripa, described as a pupil of both Saraha and Nāgārjuna, is said to have been a hunter from the tribal peoples in what is now Orissa. In one description of how Śavaripa first appeared to his disciple Maitripa, he is wearing a peacock-feather skirt and attended by two tribal women picking lice from his hair.

We enter surer historical footing with Maitripa (986–1063), who became the principal master of mahāmudrā in India and one of the spiritual fathers of the Tibetan Marpa. Maitripa studied with Nāropa for twenty years and is said to have started teaching in his fifties. His hermitage appears to have been in Mithilā, an area around the present border between Bihar and Nepal.

The Kagyü have in addition to this mahāmudrā lineage that which Marpa received directly from Nāropa (956–1040). Nāropa was one of the most famous Buddhist masters in India in the first half of the eleventh century. A surprising firsthand description of Nāropa in the final years of his life describe him as corpulent, his hair dyed red with henna, chewing betel and being carried on a palanquin. What we know about Nāropa’s teacher Tilopa (928–1009) comes primarily through the legends of his disciple’s life. One of Tilopa’s dohas, said to have recited to Nāropa on the banks of the Ganges, is often taught.

The Introduction of Mahāmudrā into Tibet

Atiśa received mahāmudrā instruction from Maitripa, which must have been before 1040, the year of both Nāropa’s death and Atiśa’s departure for Tibet via Nepal. He arrived in Tibet in 1042, where he stayed until his death twelve years later at age seventy-two. He taught mahāmudrā to his pupil Dromtön (1004–63), but Dromtön decided against making mahāmudrā a part of the Kadam tradition, fearing it would have a negative influence on conduct.

The mahāmudrā lineage of Marpa Chökyi Lodrö (eleventh century), even though he was a pupil of Maitripa and the ostensible founder of the Kagyü tradition, is classed as the subsidiary translation tradition (zur ’gyur), because initially other mahāmudrā transmissions, many of which originated with Vajrapāṇi (b. 1017), were of greater importance.

Dampa Kor Nirūpa (1062–1102) was a Tibetan who held yet another mahāmudrā lineage. After a curious case of the practice of purapraveśa, or “consciousness transfer,” Dampa Kor, as he was originally called, became known as Kor Nirūpa. A practitioner and traveler to Nepal from an early age, Dampa Kor is said to have died there when he was only nineteen. In the same house at the time was seventy-three-year-old Nirūpa, a pupil of Maitripa’s disciple Karopa. Nirūpa performed the practice of purapraveśa and entered Dampa Kor’s body and revived it. After Nirūpa’s old body was cremated, he went to Tibet in the young Tibetan body but wearing Indian clothing and with the conjoined name of Kor Nirūpa. He then changed to wearing Tibetan clothing and taught mahāmudrā there for twenty-one years, dying at age forty, this time in the more conventional manner.

Following these earliest transmissions of mahāmudrā there came what are called the middle transmissions, in which Vajrapāṇi, another disciple of Maitripa, plays a crucial role. Vajrapāṇi moved to the Kathmandu Valley in 1066, and went to Tibet with his Kashmiri pupil Dharmaśrī and gave many teachings in the Tsang region. Eleven texts in the Tibetan canon are attributed to him. The lineage of his teachings is called the upper or western mahāmudrā tradition to differentiate it from two other mahāmudrā traditions, the lower and later mahāmudrā.

The lower or eastern mahāmudrā began with Vajrapāṇi’s pupil, a Nepalese brahman generally known as Asu. Asu is said to have been passing through Tibet on pilgrimage to China when he married a Tibetan woman and settled down in the Phenyul area. Asu had many pupils and established a family line of mahāmudrā through two of his four sons.

Asu taught mahāmudrā to Milarepa’s pupil Rechungpa (1084–1161), who also studied with Rāmapāla, one of Maitripa’s four principal pupils, and with Tipupa, one of Maitripa’s seven “middle-ranking” pupils. Rechungpa introduced various teachings into Tibet, even transmitting them to his own teacher, Milarepa. Rechungpa’s transmission is central to the Drukpa Kagyü school, which originated with Lingrepa, who was at one time a practitioner within Rechungpa’s nonmonastic lineage.

The later tradition of mahāmudrā comes from Nakpo Sherdé, a pupil of Vajrapāṇi in Nepal during the master’s last years. He focused in particular on the dohas of Saraha.

Mahāmudrā instructions were also introduced into Tibet in the twelfth century. Vairocanarakṣita, a paṇḍita originally from South India, studied in northern India under a number of masters, the most famous being Abhayākaragupta (d. 1125), the greatest Indian Buddhist master of his time. Vairocanarakṣita’s principal teacher for mahāmudrā was the great scholar and yogin Surapāla at Nālandā, who taught him the Twenty-Six Teachings of Nonattention (amanasi). Vairocanarakṣita became a master of mahāmudrā as well as other tantras and visited Tibet a number of times, eventually dying there. He translated many mahāmudrā dohas and teachings, including those of Maitripa. His pupils in Tibet are said to have included Lama Shang (1123–93), one of this volume’s authors.

The Kagyü Schools

The Kagyü is one of the major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Soon after its establishment in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, it branched into a number of independent Kagyü schools. Buddhism had been introduced into Tibet in the seventh and eighth centuries during Tibet’s dynastic period, and that early tradition is called Nyingma, or “old.” By the eleventh century, the Tibetan kingdom had fragmented, and Tibetans went on their own individual initiative to India in search of teachings unavailable in Tibet, particularly what were called the highest yoga tantras, which had appeared in India in the ninth and tenth centuries. The schools formed in Tibet from that time onward are collectively called Sarma, meaning “new.”

The Kagyü, which literally just means “lineage of instructions,” considers its founder to be Marpa, and Marpa Kagyü is a generic name for all Kagyü lineages. Marpa spent many years visiting India and Nepal, studying under Nāropa and Maitripa in particular. In Tibet Marpa became a wealthy landowner, in contrast to the ascetic lifestyle of his pupil Milarepa (ca. 1040–1123), who became the subject of the most popular biography in Tibet’s religious history. A biography of Milarepa and a collection of his songs were composed and compiled in the late fifteenth century by Tsangnyön Heruka (1452–1507). This brilliant writer also composed a popular biography of Marpa. But while they are powerful biographies, neither is reliable in terms of historical veracity. Unlike earlier biographies that presents him as an ordinary being who has to overcome many obstacles in order to achieve enlightenment, and therefore this biography has been the source of inspiration for practitioners from all traditions.

Milarepa spent much of his life in solitary retreat in mountain caves, and most of his principal pupils led the same kind of lifestyle, including his main pupil, Rechungpa (1084–1161). Rechungpa is significant for the history of the Kagyü in that he also visited India and introduced a number of mahāmudrā and other teachings into the lineage.

The first Kagyü monastery was founded by Milarepa’s pupil Gampopa Sönam Rinchen (1079–1153), also known as Dakpo Lhajé, and the many schools that derive from him are called the Dakpo Kagyü. He was originally a monk from the Kadam tradition, which focused on the foundational ethical teachings and practical application of the sutras, de-emphasizing the higher tantras. Gampopa’s union of two apparently antithetical traditions and his establishment of a monastic community as a foundation for Milarepa’s practices created the basis for the widespread and powerful monastic Kagyü traditions. Tsangnyön fifteenth-century biography of Milarepa casts Gampopa as Milarepa’s principal pupil, declaring him to be the “sun-like” disciple and Rechungpa as the secondary “moon-like” disciple.

Gampopa, with his scholastic background, was the first in the Kagyü school to author a significant number of texts. His substantial text on the graduated path entitled the Ornament of Precious Liberation continues to be an essential foundation for Kagyü study.

Gampopa’s successor as abbot of his monastery was his nephew Gomtsul (1116–69), short for Gompa Tsultrim Nyingpo, whom he had adopted as a ten-year-old boy and declared to be the rebirth of an Indian paṇḍita. Gomtsul became directly involved in resolving religio-political conflicts in Lhasa. He rebuilt the main temple in Lhasa, which had been destroyed, and established law and order in the Lhasa region.

Lama Shang (1123–93) was a pupil of Gomtsul and he continued this secular activity, firmly establishing theocratic rule over the region. He also founded Tsalpa Monastery and the Tsalpa Kagyü, which no longer exists as an independent school. However, this volume contains two Tsalpa Kagyü texts, one of which is by Lama Shang himself.

Of the more than fifteen Kagyü lineages that have appeared since the eleventh century, those that currently survive as major independent schools are the Karma Kagyü, Drukpa Kagyü, and Drigung Kagyü. The Drukpa Kagyü exists in both Tibetan and Bhutanese forms. Its most famous lama, Pema Karpo, is the author of one of our mahāmudrā texts.

The largest Kagyü tradition is that of the Karma Kagyü, which was founded by Düsum Khyenpa (1110–93), a pupil of Gampopa and Rechungpa. He became the first in a series of recognized reincarnations, the Karmapas, becoming the earliest in the now ubiquitous tulku system of incarnate lamas. Among numerous other tulkus to appear within the Karma Kagyü tradition, the Shamarpas and Situ Rinpochés have been the most consequential. Gampopa, Lama Shang, and Düsum Khyenpa all recognized lamas and children as rebirths of great masters, but the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204–83), was the first to inherit the monasteries and authority of his predecessor. The Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorjé, is the author of two our texts in this volume.

As for the smaller, yet still existing Kagyü lineages, the Barom Kagyü continues to have over a dozen monasteries in Golok, a region in the northeast of the Tibetan plateau. The Taklung Kagyü had a major monastery and lineage in both central and eastern Tibet and still continues in a reduced form. In eastern Tibet the Yelpa Kagyü, Yasang Kagyü, and Trophu Kagyü continue to have a few monasteries and tulkus. The Martsang Kagyü has presently no monastery, but its principal tulku and the transmission of its essential teachings continues. The Shuksep Kagyü transformed into a Nyingma tradition, with a famous nunnery. There are also the Surmang Kagyü and Nedo Kagyü, though they function as a subschool within the Karma Kagyü. The Shangpa Kagyü is technically a distinct, separate lineage from the Marpa Kagyü traditions, but while it can be classified as a school in its own right, it is currently primarily preserved as a lineage of practices within the Karma Kagyü.