Essentials of Mahamudra

1. Introduction

– +




Mahamudra Practice

There are many great Buddhist traditions, and of these the teachings of mahamudra are particularly helpful in these modern times. The reason I think that the mahamudra teachings are especially relevant and beneficial today is that we find ourselves in situations that are quite similar to those in which the great practitioners of mahamudra found themselves many centuries ago. The eighty-four great adepts, or mahasiddhas, who lived in India in the second to twelfth centuries found it necessary do spiritual practice in conjunction with their worldly activities. For instance King Indrabhuti ruled a large kingdom and was surrounded by great luxury. Yet he received mahamudra instructions, practiced them while ruling his kingdom, and achieved the supreme accomplishment of mahamudra—enlightenment in one lifetime. Similarly the great scholar Nagarjuna, who composed many treatises on the meaning of emptiness, achieved the supreme accomplishment of mahamudra while carrying out vast responsibilities and difficult work. Other mahasiddhas were cobblers, arrow makers, sweepers, and even practitioners of such humble occupations as grinding sesame seeds. All of them combined their practice of mahamudra with whatever activities they were engaged in. There was, for them, no contradiction between the work that they had to do and the practice of 2mahamudra; no conflicts came up between Dharma practice and worldly activities. Thus the tradition of mahamudra arose and flourished.

Here in the West people are engaged in a great variety of occupations and thus experience a great diversity of thoughts. The practice of mahamudra allows each person to live as they wish, do the work that they want to do, and at the same time, without any contradiction, practice Dharma.

One of the best things about mahamudra practice is that it is peaceful and gentle, and there isn’t a great danger of making terrible mistakes or creating a practice situation that can harm us. In contrast some other special practices can yield profound results if practiced well but involve the danger of unwanted complications. One such practice is known as the dark retreat, which entails doing contemplative practice while staying in a dark room for a month or so. If it is done properly it yields profound realization, but if it doesn’t go well there is the danger of creating even greater difficulties for the person. Another example is the practice of going without food for seven or fourteen days. If done correctly it brings about the realization known as extracting the essence, but if done incorrectly it causes one to become sick and extremely unhappy.

The practice of mahamudra is free from such dangers and complications. It is simply a matter of looking at our mind, recognizing its nature, and remaining within that recognition. The mahamudra instructions penetrate right to the essence of the teachings, and if they are followed there is no risk to body or mind.

Moonlight of Mahamudra

Once we decide to study and practice mahamudra, the question of how to approach the teachings arises. There are a great many texts on the practice of mahamudra—some extremely vast and some quite concise. Most practitioners in the West have gone to school and have been taught analytical thinking, and they want to learn the reasons for doing the practice. 3Therefore I have selected the text Moonlight of Mahamudra by the great practitioner and scholar Tashi Namgyal. This text is not only a compilation of the quintessential instructions on mahamudra, it also explains them in such a way that we can understand the purpose of the practice. From my own experience I have found this text extraordinary.

When the Sixteenth Karmapa came to America for the first time in 1974, a student of his, Mr. Shen, asked, “What text would be of great benefit to students in the West if it were translated? I will sponsor it.” His Holiness the Karmapa replied that Moonlight of Mahamudra would be extremely beneficial. When I heard that he had selected this book, I saw it as proof of the utter clarity of the Karmapa’s remarkable enlightened mind. In accordance with the Karmapa’s wish the text was translated by Lobsang Lhalungpa with the help of Dezhung Rinpoche and published as Mahamudra: The Quintessence of Mind and Meditation. I’ve heard that some students think that there are problems with the translation. This may be the case, as it is difficult to translate some of the subtleties of the thought. However it seems to me that the essential points have been translated well and that they can be understood with careful reading.

I thought that if I were to teach this text in a slow and careful manner over a number of years, it would allow students to understand its meaning and get at something very essential in Buddhist practice. It seemed to me that this must have been the Sixteenth Karmapa’s intention when he recommended that the text be translated, studied, and used as a basis for practice. Although the Karmapa passed into nirvana many years ago, his hope and his instruction regarding this text remain. In presenting an explanation of Moonlight of Mahamudra I feel that I am offering some service to him.

The texts on the Middle Way, or Madhyamaka in Sanskrit, such as The Root Verses on the Middle Way by Nagarjuna and Entrance into the Middle Way by Chandrakirti, explain the perfection of wisdom (Skt. prajnaparamita). These 4texts set forth the correct view of the way things exist and provide very clear explanations of the nature of reality. However they don’t explain how to meditate. The Madhyamaka texts explain the view and allow us to develop great faith and understanding of the Dharma, but they don’t address how we can actually meditate to gain a direct understanding of the view.

Moonlight of Mahamudra is different in that it explains very clearly how to meditate by developing the practices of shamata, or tranquillity meditation, and vipashyana, or insight meditation. It shows how these meditations allow us to rest our mind evenly in order to see the basic nature of reality. In addition Moonlight of Mahamudra describes many levels of meditation experience. If you are new to the practice of meditation and want to know how to begin, the text describes how to begin. If you have practiced meditation and given birth to some results and wish to know how to proceed, the text talks about that also. If you have developed some genuine meditation and encountered obstacles and difficulties, the text explains where these obstacles come from, what they are, and how to get rid of them. All these explanations are presented with great clarity. That is why the Sixteenth Karmapa said that this is the best book to translate for Western students.

Reasons to Meditate on the Nature of Mind

[6] It is important to know why we practice meditation. There are two main types of meditation: analytical meditation and placement meditation. The Madhyamaka school has given us extensive, clear explanations of how external things or phenomena are actually emptiness. In analytical meditation we meditate on these reasons and arguments; however it is very difficult to actually meditate on the emptiness of phenomena. In the tantric, or Vajrayana, tradition of Tibet, rather than meditating on the nature of external phenomena, we meditate on mind itself. The technique of mahamudra meditation is essential and unique to the Vajrayana tradition.


Tashi Namgyal, who lived four hundred years ago in Tibet, observed that, in his day, there were those who practiced meditation but did not understand the true nature of phenomena, and those who knew the true nature but did not practice meditation.1 He said that it is important to combine the practice of meditation with analytical understanding of the teachings. Therefore both the explanation of the view and the explanation of the practice are taught in Moonlight of Mahamudra.

The first Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Lodro Taye, said that a person without the view of how to practice meditation is like a person with no hands trying to climb a mountain. On the other hand someone who understands the view but doesn’t practice is like a wealthy person who is a miser and does not use his money to help himself or others. But if a person has the understanding of the view and also practices the view, he or she is like a great garuda bird that uses both wings together to travel freely and effortlessly through space. If we combine the wisdom of listening to the teachings with the wisdom of meditation, we will surely arrive at the final truth.

The reason for teaching meditation on the true nature of the mind is that all phenomena are just mind. This means that external appearances, such as images, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangible objects, are merely mind, and internal objects, such as feelings and thoughts of pleasure, pain, attachment, and anger, are also just mind. All of these various experiences of mind and body come back to mind itself.

When we say that we “meditate on the mind,” we are referring to the true nature of mind, or the way the mind is. In the Vajrayana tradition the teacher points out the nature of the mind to the student; this pointing-out is called semtri in which sem means “mind” and tri means “leading someone.” So semtri means “leading the mind to knowing the mind as it is.”

The first teaching of mahamudra is that “all phenomena are mind” or “all dharmas are mind.” This teaching is presented first because the nature 6of the mind is most important in mahamudra. In the Mind Only, or Chittamatra, school of Buddhism the notion that everything is mind is explained in great detail. The view that all appearances—mountains, houses, trees, and so forth—are just mind is expounded in a set of logical arguments. However when it comes to practice, we aren’t very concerned whether these appearances are mind, for it does not matter much for meditation. When we practice mahamudra, what we are concerned with are our mental states. We are concerned with feelings of pleasure and pain. We are concerned with aspects of the mind that are beneficial to us, such as faith, confidence, compassion, and the aspiration that all beings attain enlightenment. We are also concerned with what is harmful, such as the disturbing emotions (Skt. klesha) of great attachment, hatred, and ignorance, with discursive thought and our holding onto a self. If we meditate on the mind we can understand the mind as it is. With this understanding whatever good qualities need to be developed will be developed, and whatever negative qualities need to be abandoned will be abandoned. Along the way good qualities, such as faith and confidence in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, the energy to practice, love, and compassion, will become stronger and stronger. At the very end of this path wisdom will be unveiled. All of this just through understanding the mind as it is.

We can try to discover the nature of mind by studying logical arguments, or we can rely on the authority of the scriptures. For example the Lankavatara Sutra says:

             All things appear as perfect reality to the mind.

             Apart from the mind, no reality as such exists.

             To perceive external reality is to see wrongly.

In the Samputa Tantra it says:


             All things, external and internal,

             are imputed by the mind.

             Apart from the mind nothing else exists.

Problems from Not Meditating on Mind

[9] Is it helpful to know the true nature of mind but not practice meditation? It is somewhat helpful, but just knowing it is not going to allow us to abandon the various negative emotions, such as desire and hatred, and achieve complete enlightenment. This is the great problem with not meditating on the true nature of mind.

[10] Moonlight of Mahamudra explains the importance of meditating on the thought that all appearances are mind by first discussing the faults of not meditating in this way and then discussing the benefits of actually doing this meditation. The Buddha and many learned adepts of the tradition have given the faults of not meditating. For example in the Treasury of the Abhidharma, Vasubandhu gives an example of a bank teller who spends all day counting hundreds of thousands of dollars and stacking the money into piles. The teller has a great deal of money but can never do anything with it because it doesn’t belong to him. Similarly you can listen to all these valuable teachings and tell others about the miseries of cyclic existence or samsara and the great qualities of liberation, but if you have never actually meditated on them they are useless to you.

In the Gandavyuha Sutra, the Buddha compared a person who knows a great deal about the Dharma but doesn’t put it into practice to a doctor who knows a great deal about medicine but doesn’t apply it when he or she becomes sick. If we know a lot of Dharma but don’t practice, it will not be very beneficial.

The reason we need to practice meditation is that we have many disturbing emotions. If we do not practice, these disturbing emotions will arise and remain in us. Mere knowledge is not sufficient. The great Indian saint 8Shantideva spoke to this fact when he said that the mind is the hub of our existence in much the same way that the hub is the central part of the wheel, holding all the other parts together. If you don’t understand this essential point about the mind, then even though you want happiness you will not be able to achieve it.

Benefits from Meditating on Mind

Many sutras and other texts extol the benefits of meditation. They all say essentially the same thing: It is far more beneficial to meditate for just one day than it is to listen to teachings and analyze them for eons and eons. It is also far more important to meditate for a short period of time than to engage in vast virtuous and beneficial activity for a very long time. This does not mean that there is no benefit or meaning in other practices. On the contrary it is extremely beneficial to listen to the teaching of the Dharma and to think about the meaning of what one has heard. However the practice of meditation surpasses the benefit of any other type of practice that can be done.


QUESTION: I am tormented by the lack of time I have to practice because of my work. This makes me angry at work. It is a serious attachment problem, and I would like to know how to work with it.

RINPOCHE: What you described is quite familiar. It is really a matter of the balance of meditation and postmeditation. By meditation I mean sitting down somewhere and drawing attention to the mind. If we have the aspiration to meditate for a long time and are busy and have other things to do then we get up and go do them while practicing postmeditation. This makes our meditation continuous. Whether we are speaking with someone or working on a particular task, we bring mindfulness and alertness to the activity so that our mind is not fluttering here and there in 9great distraction. When we are able to bring meditation into postmeditation through this practice of mindfulness, work and meditation cease to be contrary.

If we don’t combine meditation and postmeditation, meditation will be one thing and work will be something else, and they will fight with each other. We will feel that we can’t work when we meditate and we can’t meditate when we work. But if we bring this practice of alertness and nondistraction of mind into all of our actions, work and meditation will go together. In fact we will find that meditation and postmeditation begin to stimulate one another: the more we practice meditation in our actions, the easier our meditation on the cushion will be. Then we will be able to easily carry that good meditation experience back into our work. Meditation and postmeditation will begin to help one another so that we do not have the feeling that we have to flee from work, and working itself will become a way of subduing and overcoming the disturbing emotions, the wildness, dullness, lack of clarity, and instability of mind.

QUESTION: Could you please explain the main differences between dzogchen and mahamudra?

RINPOCHE: There are differences in the lineage of transmission and in the skillful methods (Skt. upaya) of these two meditations. But if we are speaking of exactly what they are, there is no difference: both are practices leading to recognizing mind as it is.

The lineage of dzogchen, which in Sanskrit is mahasandhi and means “the great completion” or “the great perfection,” began with the teacher Garab Dorje, who passed it to Shri Singha, who passed it down from teacher to student. The lineage of mahamudra, which in Sanskrit means “the great symbol,” or the “the great seal,” began with Saraha, who passed it to Nagarjuna, who passed it down to Shawari, and so forth. The lineage of dzogchen that came to Tibet was mostly associated with the Nyingma 10lineage, while the lineage of mahamudra was mostly associated with the Kagyu lineage, with Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa, and so on.

Both dzogchen and mahamudra are methods for meditating on the mind. In the Kagyu lineage supplication we say “all thoughts are dharmakaya.” The guru can point out the nature of mind to us; in the mahamudra tradition, we then meditate in terms of that. In the tradition of dzogchen, we make a distinction between mind (Tib. sem) and awareness (Tib. rigpa). Rigpa has the connotation of knowing and recognizing, of having understood true nature; sem has the connotation of not having recognized the true nature. So the technique or method of dzogchen is to separate sem from rigpa and, knowing that sem is not the true nature of mind, to come to rigpa, the knowing or fundamental mind.

In An Aspirational Prayer for Mahamudra composed by the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, there is a verse that says:

             It doesn’t exist, even the victorious ones haven’t seen it.

             It is not nonexistent because it is the basis of all samsara and nirvana.

             This is not a contradiction because this is the unity of the middle way.

             May we realize the true nature of mind, which is free from all limitations and extremes.

Similarly, in An Aspirational Prayer for Dzogchen by Jigme Lingpa, there is a verse that says:

             It doesn’t exist, even the victorious ones haven’t seen it.

             It is not nonexistent because it is the basis of all samsara and nirvana.


             This is not a contradiction because this is the unity of the middle way.

             May we realize the ground of dzogchen.

So we see that there is little difference between mahamudra and dzogchen.

It should be noted that the Third Karmapa was the teacher of the great Nyingma master Longchenpa. He also wrote one of the most precious teachings of the Kagyu lineage called the Karma Nyingtig; a nyingtig is a dzogchen style of teaching. So the Third Karmapa was not only an author of mahamudra teachings but of dzogchen teachings as well.

Join Wisdom

This content is only available to Free, All-Access, and Plus members of the Wisdom Experience. Please log in, upgrade your membership, or join now.

Join Now
rotate left rotate right