Mind Seeing Mind

1. Mahāmudrā in India: Hindus and Buddhists, Sūtras and Tantras

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1. Mahāmudrā in India: Hindus and Buddhists, Sūtras and Tantras

OVER THE CENTURIES, the Sanskrit term mudrā — usually derived from the verbal root mud, meaning “to enjoy”10 — came to convey a wide range of meanings, but the most basic seem to involve sealing, stamping, or signifying. Drawing on such sources as the Mahābhārata, kāvya literature, the Purāṇas, and the Rājataraṃgiṇī (roughly dateable to the early centuries of the common era), Monier-Williams defines it as:

a seal or any instrument used for sealing or stamping, a seal-ring, signet-ring . . . , any ring . . . ; type for printing or instrument for lithographing . . . ; the stamp or impression made by a seal &c; any stamp or print or mark or impression; . . . an image, sign, badge, token . . . ; authorization, a pass, passport . . . ; shutting, closing . . . ; a lock, stopper, bung . . . ; a mystery.11

Although a derivative meaning, the best-known referent of mudrā — perhaps stretching back as far as the Vedic period — is as a symbolic gesture or hand position displayed in ritual, dramatic, and artistic settings. In a dramatic context, such as that of dance, it expresses a character’s intentions or actions. In an artistic medium such as sculpture or painting, it identifies a human or divine figure and particular actions or attitudes associated with that figure. In a religious setting, the mudrā effects, confirms, or “seals” various aspects of yogic and/or ritual performance.12 The term mudrā is used widely — and in a variety 18of different senses — in Indic religious traditions, including many forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as Jainism. Some mudrās, considered especially important or “great,” are referred to as mahāmudrā.

Seals and Great Seals in Hindu Traditions

In Hindu traditions, mudrā carries all of the meanings just mentioned and more. It is a particularly significant term in the Hindu tantric culture that flourished from the mid-first millennium CE onward, frequently intersecting with similar Buddhist and Jain cultures. For our purposes here, I would define tantra as “an esoteric tradition of thought and practice, rooted in South Asia, that requires empowerment by a qualified master and has as its aim the exercise of power over divinities to the point where one identifies one’s own body, speech, and mind with one or more of those divinities and, in the end, transforms onself into one of those divinities.” Visualizations, maṇḍalas or yantras, mudrās, mantras, and the manipulation of both external forces and energies found within a “subtle body” are part of most (but not all) tantric traditions, while sexual, scatological, morbid, and/or wrathful imagery, as well as transgressive behavior, occurs in some (but not all) tantric traditions. The presence of one or more of the above-listed elements in a tradition does not assure that it is “tantric” (for those elements are the common currency of many South Asian traditions), nor do all of the elements have to be present to assure that a tradition is tantric. Indeed, the efforts of traditional and modern scholars notwithstanding, there is no “essential” defining characteristic of tantra, merely a set of interlocking features like those listed above. In Hindu traditions generally regarded as tantric, four major usages of the term mudrā can be identified.

The first is its best known sense: as one of a multitude of hand gestures (or, secondarily, body positions), demonstrated by deities and employed in ritual by humans to effect certain ends. A clear account of the tantric sense of this is provided by Douglas Brooks:

By showing the mudrā, the Tantric creates a physical manifestation and visual display of divine form; not only do mudrās give “shape” to the divine in a ritual context, they also provide a conceptual link to the qualities or attributes of divinity that are made part of the Tantric’s personality. As the Tantric adept shows the mudrā in the course of contemplative worship (upāsana), he or she acquires the power associated with that particular aspect of divinity. The adept is said to achieve the level of realization with which the 19mudrā is associated. The mudrā literally “seals” the relationship between the adept and the deity invoked in the form of the mudrā.13

The second tantric usage of mudrā is as a type of fermented grain, cereal, or kidney bean employed in tantric rituals as one of the “five m’s” (pañcamakāra) spurned by brahmans and used especially by tāntrikas of the “heroic” (vīra) type: liquor (madya), fish (matsya), meat (māṃsa), grain, cereal, or beans (mudrā), and copulation (maithuna). The Mahānirvāṇa Tantra specifies that this mudrā is of three kinds: superior, middling, and inferior: “The excellent and pleasing kind is that made from Shāli rice, white as a moon beam, or from barley or wheat, and which has been fried in clarified butter. The middling variety is made from fried paddy. Other kinds of fried grain are inferior.”14 In some sources, this type of mudrā is considered originally or primarily to have been fermented, hence to have intoxicating qualities;15 in others, it consists of any savory treat.

The third tantric meaning of mudrā, found especially in Śākta systems that developed in Bengal and elsewhere, is as a synonym for śakti, in the specific sense of “the consort of a male adept, or the female counterpart of a male divinity.”16

A fourth Hindu tantric usage of mudrā is as the clear, blissful awakened state of consciousness — that of Śiva — attained by the adept of Kashmir Śaivism, a tradition that arose around the same time as some of the later Buddhist tantric systems. Thus, the Śiva Sūtra (2:5) states, “When the knowledge connately inherent in one’s own nature arises, [that is] Śiva’s state — [the gesture of] the one who wanders in the sky of consciousness.”17 The commentator, Bhāskara, explains:


Pure Knowledge is said to be the light of one’s own nature (svāloka) which dawns when [the yogī] emerges from the higher stages of contemplation . . . . [At the same time] it is the uncreated and connate (sahaja) power . . . , inherent in one’s own nature. As it is such, the vitality of Mudrā expands within it. It is Śiva’s state, called [the gesture of] “the one who wanders in the Sky of Consciousness” because it is risen . . . in the sky of Śiva and because [it is the power of awareness] which moves . . . in the expanse . . . of the firmament of one’s own consciousness. It is the dawn of realisation [in which the yogī perceives] his identity with [Śiva], the object of [his] meditation. And so, [this gesture] that possesses the contemplative absorption . . . which penetrates into one’s own nature, is Śiva’s state.18

The addition to the term mudrā of the adjectival prefix mahā, or “great” (or a synonym), is relatively rare in Hindu contexts, but a number of instances, and several different usages, can be found. The most common sense of mahāmudrā, it would seem, is as a particular body position (āsana), especially important in the yoga traditions of Śākta tantrism. Mahāmudrā is described by Ajit Mookherjee as an āsana “in which the practitioner sits with the left heel pressed against the perineum (yoni-place) and the right leg stretched out, while holding the right foot with both hands.”19 It is one of a number of śakticālanā (energy-moving) mudrās20 that “are combined with postures, breath-techniques and mantras to awaken Kuṇḍalinī.”21 According to Arthur Avalon, once the position has been assumed,


Jālaṃdhara-Bandha22 is then done. When Kuṇḍalinī is awakened, the Prāṇa [energy] enters the Suṣumnā [central channel], and Iḍā and Piṅgala [the left and right channels], now that Prāṇa has left them, become lifeless. Expiration should be done slowly, and the Mudrā should be practiced an equal number of times on the left and right sides of the body. This Mudrā, like other Haṭha-yoga Mudrās, is said to ward off death and disease.23

Swami Muktananda adds that, through mahāmudrā,

all the nadis are activated and physical inertia dispelled. It aids the retention of semen. The body becomes calm and glowing, the digestive fire gets stronger, the senses become easier to control, and the process of aging is slowed down. When practiced constantly, it eradicates diseases such as tuberculosis, leprosy, piles, hernia, dyspepsia, and spleen trouble.24

In this sense, then, mahāmudrā is an important technique for dissolving vital winds into the central channel of the subtle body, a crucial step on nearly any tantric practitioner’s path to liberation.

In Hindu tantra, mahāmudrā or one of its cognates may also refer to:

1. The “great vulva” (mahāyoni) found at the śāktapīṭha of Kāmākṣyā, in the Himalayas25

2. The supreme goddess of a tantric system, who is invoked so as to possess the disciple26

3. A consort for sexual yoga practice27


4. The “great seal” (mahāmudrā) that in some Kashmir Śaiva emanation schemes (e.g., that of Kṣemarāja) seals off, or blocks, the supreme experience of śāṃbhavamudrā, in which “the supernal ‘nectar’ of the paramount bliss of one’s own nature flows uninterrupted ‘from the ocean of consciousness,’ which is the conscious nature consisting of the harmonious unity (sāmarasya) of Light and Bliss”28

5. The “supreme gesture” (paramamudrā) that in other Kashmir Śaiva systems (e.g., that of the Īśvarapratyabhijñā) is the secret, internal experience of the perfected yogī “established on the plane of Bliss relishing the objects of sense that appear before him . . . the perfect and unobstructed expansion of the Awakened”29

6. The “great gesture” (mahatīmudrā) that in still other Kashmir Śaiva authors (e.g., Maheśvarānanda) is the subsumption of physical gestures to the process of yogic reflection (rāva) and “the intuition (parāmarśa) of one’s own nature [that] is the supreme worship”30

In brief, we see that both mudrā and mahāmudrā (or its cognates) came to have a wide range of meanings in Hindu — and especially Hindu tantric — traditions, from such relatively “concrete” (though still symbolic and transformative) referents as a kind of grain, a hand gesture, a bodily posture, a goddess, or a consort for sexual yoga to rather more abstract associations with advanced states of awareness involving luminosity, bliss, and an understanding of the true nature of self, consciousness, and reality. Many of these usages are shared by Hindu and Buddhist traditions alike. Of those mentioned, Buddhists will come to speak of mudrā/mahāmudrā in terms of (a) hand gestures that seal one’s identification with a deity, (b) goddesses and human female consorts, and (c) the nature of reality and/or a blissful and luminous awareness that is the true nature of mind. Buddhists less often use the terms to refer to forbidden grains or specific bodily postures. Although the very earliest usages of mudrā probably are Hindu (or proto-Hindu), the provenance of mahāmudrā is very much in doubt — there being no certainty that the earliest Hindu usages of then term predate its first appearances in Buddhist texts. In any case, it is within Buddhism that discourse on mahāmudrā became most prominent, and — with these Hindu echoes still in mind — it is to Buddhist discussions of seals and great seals that we now turn.


Seals and Great Seals in Sūtra-Based Buddhism

There is general agreement among traditional Tibetan scholars, as well as modern researchers, that although Foundational31 and Mahāyāna Buddhist literature are replete with references to mudrā, the term mahāmudrā does not appear in the Buddhist sūtras and is, rather, a product of the tantras. In Pāli Buddhist literature (ca. 300 BCE–400 CE), muddā is used primarily to mean either a seal as a physical implement, such as a royal seal (rājamuddā), a method of calculation using the fingers, or signs that may be communicated manually, as sign language (hatthamuddā).32 In nontantric Sanskrit Buddhist literature (especially of the early centuries CE), it may refer to finger calculation, a coin, or an unspecified high number,33 as well as the hand gesture employed by a buddha, bodhisattva, or deity, but its primary usage, again, seems to be as a seal, albeit sometimes in a less than concrete sense. The literature of the Great Vehicle, the Mahāyāna, uses the term mudrā in a number a creative ways, some of which prefigure meanings that mahāmudrā will come to have later on. Thus, the Questions of Sāgaramati Sūtra (Sāgaramatiparipṛcchāsūtra) describes all phenomena — dharmas34 — as being “marked by the seal of intrinsic freedom . . . the seal of sameness.”35 The Questions of Gaganagañja Sūtra (Gaganagañjaparipṛchhāsūtra) gives a list of ten seals, those of (1) the tathāgata, (2) nonarising, (3) emptiness, (4) signlessness, (5) wishlessness, (6) uncompoundedness, (7) nonattachment, (8) suchness, (9) the utmost limit, and 24(10) space.36 A famous (and sometimes misquoted) passage in the King of Concentrations Sūtra (Samādhirājasūtra) asserts, “the concentration called ‘the proclamation of the essential sameness (samatā) of all phenomena’ . . . is the seal of all phenomena (mudrā sarvadharmāṇām).”37 Other sūtras mention the “seal of emptiness,” the “seal of awareness,” or the “seal of realities.”38 In other contexts Buddhist scholars developed a list of four “seals” of the Buddhist teaching: all contaminated entities are unsatisfactory, all compounded phenomena are impermanent, all phenomena are empty, and nirvāṇa is peace. The third and fourth seals clearly are consonant with the “ultimate” seals mentioned in the sūtras and implicitly indicate some of the referents to which the term mahāmudrā eventually would be applied.

Quite apart from ultimate-level usages of mudrā in sūtra literature, many Tibetan authors regarded the entire sūtra-based tradition — both the Foundational Vehicle and the Great Vehicle or Perfection Vehicle (pāramitāyāna) — as replete with ideas that later would be intrinsic to conceptions of mahāmudrā. To the degree that, eventually, mahāmudrā came to connote understanding of and meditation upon the empty, luminous, nondual nature of mind, virtually any sūtra-tradition passage that refers to lack of self, voidness, or simply the nature of mind may be read as “about” mahāmudrā. Thus, mahāmudrā may be seen in anything from Foundational Buddhist passages asserting that we neither are nor possess a permanent self, to the discourse on emptiness in the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras and the treatises of Nāgārjuna and other Mādhyamikas; from the Dhammapada’s opening statement that “phenomena are preceded by mind, they are founded on mind, they are composed of mind,”39 to the Yogācāra school’s claim that “all the three worlds are mind-only”;40 from the Aṅguttara Nikāya’s oft-echoed claim that mind by nature is luminous and its defilements merely incidental,41 to Mahāyāna texts on buddha nature that describe permanence, purity, bliss, and selfhood intrinsic 25to awareness at its deepest level;42 from accounts in the early sūtras of such “formless” contemplative states as infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothing whatsoever, and neither perception nor nonperception, to descriptions in Mahāyāna sūtras and treatises of the practice of nonduality in view, meditation, and action.

Tantric Buddhism

However much an implicit discussion of mahāmudrā may be read ex post facto into the literature of Foundational and Mahāyāna Buddhism, it is only in the texts of that branch of the Mahāyāna variously called the Secret Mantra Vehicle (guhyamantrayāna), the Mantra Way (mantranaya), or the Vajra Vehicle (vajrayāna), that the term mahāmudrā actually appears. The tantric tradition, whose articulation in India dates roughly to the last half of the first millennium CE, is set off from other forms of Buddhism by its intense focus on a combination of ritual and gnostic practices that are intended to swiftly transform a practitioner into a fully awakened buddha by “taking the goal as path”: becoming buddha by first seeing oneself as buddha and identifying oneself with buddha in every thought, word, and deed, then being buddha through transforming one’s ordinary psychophysical being into the body and mind of an awakened being. One achieves this above all through the mediating figure of the tantric guru, who gives one access to, and instruction on, (a) a particular lineage of teachings traced back to the Buddha, or a buddha, and (b) a range of buddha deities, the practice of whose rituals and meditations become the vehicle for one’s own awakening. The ritual context in which the guru — in exchange for pledges of secrecy and loyalty — grants the qualified disciple access to the buddha deity is a formal consecration, initiation, or empowerment (abhiṣeka) that enables him or her to practice the contemplative ritual (sādhana) of the particular buddha deity that is the focus of the rite, such as Avalokiteśvara, Tārā, or Hevajra.

It is important to stress that tantric empowerment only is conferred upon qualified disciples. A “qualified” disciple is, in principle, one who already has internalized the basic ideas and values of Foundational and Mahāyāna Buddhism. Like Foundational Buddhist aspirants to arhatship, they must:

Acknowledge that the mind is a primary and potent force in the cosmos, and that its training is central to the spiritual path


Recognize the essential cosmological distinction between the repeated, unsatisfactory series of rebirths that is saṃsāra and the undecaying bliss of nirvāṇa, and key their practice to the four noble truths:

There is suffering, whether through birth, sickness, aging, dying, separation from the pleasant, encounter with the unpleasant, or not getting what one wants.

There are causes for suffering, often condensed to the three poisons — ignorance, desire, and anger — of which ignorance is usually regarded as the most basic.

There is a cessation of suffering, nirvāṇa, which may be experienced in the world or attained utterly beyond it.

There is a path to the cessation of suffering, which may be divided in a number of ways, including into the three trainings in morality, concentration, and wisdom.

Aspire to eliminate defilements (such as the three poisons) and unskillful actions (karma), so as to eliminate the saṃsāric suffering that results from these

Assiduously practice morality, concentration, and wisdom in pursuit of liberation from saṃsāra

Attain the transformative realization that no person anywhere possesses a permanent, partless, independent self

And, like Mahāyāna bodhisattvas, they must:

Acknowledge the fundamental purity and power of the mind as enshrined in the concept of buddha nature, the notion that all beings have the capacity to become buddhas

Aspire to full buddhahood, a state in which one not only transcends defilement and suffering but possesses three (or four) “bodies”:

A Dharma body (dharmakāya) that involves direct, simultaneous, and nonconceptual apprehension of ultimate reality (dharmatā) and complete omniscience, along with limitless compassion and knowledge of the skillful means (upāyakauśalya) through which one might help suffering beings

An enjoyment body (saṃbhogakāya), a glorified, subtle form through which one may give Mahāyāna teachings to high-level bodhisattvas in a pure realm until saṃsāra ends (if, in fact, it ever ends)

An emanation body (nirmāṇakāya), which may appear in various guises (including that of the historical Śākyamuni Buddha) in order to assist and enlighten ordinary beings


A nature body (svabhāvikakāya), which may be regarded as the unity of the three other bodies or, in certain cases, simply as the empty aspect of the Dharma body

Develop and express confidence in the Buddha and his Dharma, in part through such virtuous activities as going on pilgrimage, circumambulating holy objects, reciting and copying sūtras, and practicing the sevenfold worship rite or seven-limbed pūjā (saptāṅgapūjā), consisting of prostration, offering, confession, rejoicing in the virtues of awakened and ordinary beings, entreating the buddhas not to disappear into nirvāṇa, requesting them to turn the wheel of Dharma, and dedication of merit

Pursue the path to buddhahood not only for the sake of one’s own awakening but for the awakening of all sentient beings (bodhicitta), making it the basis for mastering the perfections (pāramitā) of generosity, morality, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom, and ascending through the various paths and levels of the bodhisattva

Develop a range of skillful techniques for compassionately teaching and helping others (upāyakauśalya)

Attain the transformative realization of emptiness (śūnyatā), whether understood (as in the Madhyamaka school) as the lack of intrinsic existence that is the ultimate nature of all persons and phenomena, or (as in some Yogācāra traditions) as external objects’ lack of difference from the mind that perceives them, or (as in other Yogācāra and buddha-nature traditions) as the mind’s essential purity and luminosity, which is empty of any defilements but implicitly contains all the qualities of Buddhahood

In any case, the sādhana practice that follows upon empowerment generally entails the dissolution of the world and one’s ordinary appearance into emptiness, after which the world is reconstituted as a divine abode, or maṇḍala, with oneself as a buddha deity at the center of that maṇḍala. In many traditions, the three basic stages of generating oneself as a deity — reduction of one’s ordinary appearance to emptiness, generation of a “seed” syllable/sound from emptiness, and generation of the deity’s luminous form from the seed syllable — are said, respectively, to purify the three “existential events” (death, intermediate existence, and rebirth) and to prefigure the attainment of the Dharma body, enjoyment body, and emanation body of a buddha. After one’s self-generation as the deity, the maṇḍala is populated by a range of other deities that represent the enlightened transformation of various aspects of one’s psychophysical being: aggregates, physical elements, senses, body parts, bodily functions, and so forth. Situated at the center of the maṇḍala, one utters the mantra of oneself as the central deity, then those of the surrounding deities, in the process 28sending out purifying and illuminating light-rays to all sentient beings, who are visualized as being cleansed and awakened, then as absorbing into oneself. As part of sādhana practice, one develops “divine pride” in one’s identity as a buddha deity and tries in all circumstances to imagine one’s surroundings as a maṇḍala or pure land, see other beings as deities, hear and speak all sounds as mantras, and think all thoughts as a buddha would — to the degree that a buddha “thinks” at all. In some tantric systems, especially earlier ones, mastery of the sādhana, with its range of contemplative and ritual procedures, may lead to buddhahood.

In the later, more esoteric, tantric systems, sādhana, called the “generation stage” (utpattikrama), is merely preliminary to a “completion” or “perfection” stage (saṃpannkrama) that involves manipulation and transformation of various physical and mental elements within a subtle body (sukṣmaśarīra) or diamond body (vajrakāya) consisting of channels, vital winds, and drops (nāḍī-prāṇa-bindu), and the wheel-like channel intersections known as cakras. The empowerment that is the basis for practice at these more advanced levels is typically fourfold, involving:

1. The vase (kalaśa) empowerment, in which the disciple is purified by contact with various consecrated substances, among them a vase of sanctified water. This purifies the disciple’s body and their rebirth process, enables them to practice the generation stage, and sows the seeds for their attainment of the emanation body of a buddha.

2. The secret (guhya) empowerment, in which the guru enters into sexual union either with their own consort or with the disciple’s consort and offers the disciple a taste of the resulting sexual fluids, which induce an experience of great bliss. This purifies the disciple’s speech and their intermediate-state process, enables them to reach the illusory-body phase of the completion stage, and sows the seeds for their attainment of the enjoyment body of a buddha.

3. The wisdom-gnosis (prajñajñāna) empowerment, in which the disciple enters into sexual union with his own or the guru’s consort and experiences four levels of progressively greater joy, which culminate in a state of great bliss that is connate (sahaja) with wisdom realizing the nature of reality. This purifies the disciple’s mind and their death process, enables them to reach the luminosity phase of the completion stage, and sows the seeds for their attainment of the Dharma body of a buddha.

4. The fourth (turiya) or word (śabda) empowerment, in which the guru offers the disciple instruction on the nature of reality and/or 29the mind, which induces in the disciple a profound realization of that reality. This purifies the disciple’s body, speech, and mind all at once, enables them to attain the union phase of the completion stage, and sows the seeds for their attainment of the nature body or, alternatively, the great-bliss body (mahāsukhakāya) of a buddha.43

In these highly esoteric traditions, such basic forces as sexual desire, anger, and even death itself may be harnessed toward spiritual ends, and the literature related to the traditions is replete with transgressive rhetoric and descriptions of countercultural performance or conduct (caryā), which may include inhabiting charnel grounds, consorting with low-caste women, wearing bone ornaments, behaving as if mad, and singing and dancing at tantric ritual feasts (gaṇacakra). There has been much debate among modern scholars as to whether such practices are a sign of Buddhism’s degeneracy in its late phases in India, an indication that the tantras are motivated by religious and social protest, or, in fact, a carefully controlled phase of tantric practice that does little to undermine orthodoxy.44 Completion-stage yogas include practices — some of them requiring a sexual consort — aimed at producing such experiences as inner heat (caṇḍalī), the four joys (caturānanda), luminosity (prabhāsvara),45 the illusory body (māyādeha), and the gnosis of inseparable bliss and emptiness. These practices eventually were codified under such titles as the five stages of Guhyasamāja, the six Dharmas of Nāropa, or the six yogas of Kālacakra.46 All of them require the practitioner to direct the vital winds from the “outer” channels of the subtle body to the central channel (avadhūti) — where one moves the winds up and down through the cakras, manipulating the various drops that are found there, producing experiences of supernal joy and 30realizations of emptiness, and, in the end, purifying the subtlest basis of one’s mental and physical being (located at the heart cakra) and transforming them into, respectively, the Dharma body and form body (or bodies) of a buddha, thereby completing the tantric path. It should be noted that in later Indic and in Tibetan tantric traditions, the mind’s blissful realization of its own natural luminosity and/or emptiness during the completion stage often came to be synonymous with mahāmudrā, as was the state of buddhahood that ensued from completion-stage practices.

Mahāmudrā in the “Lower” Buddhist Tantras

It is difficult to know precisely where and when the term mahāmudrā first appears, because the historiographical problems endemic to the study of Indian Buddhism in general pertain to the tantric traditions as well. Any relative chronology, let alone firm dating, of tantric literature still is quite tentative.47 What little solidity it has comes through piecemeal evidence provided by, for instance, linguistic analysis, quotation of one text by another, stray historical references, the existence of an early Tibetan translation in the caves at Dunhuang, or the date of a Chinese translation where there is one (most of the later tantric material, unfortunately, was not translated into Chinese). One reasonable — if far from foolproof — approach to a chronology of Indian Buddhist tantra assumes that it may roughly correspond to the different types of tantric systems that eventually were identified by a few Indian scholars and later many Tibetan ones. These systems, which seem to show “development” from more external, ritualized, and purificatory practices to those that are increasingly internal, gnostic, and transformational, have been arranged in various ways; one useful sequence, frequently discussed by modern scholars, involves the classes of tantra known as action (kriyā), performance (caryā), yoga, mahāyoga, and yoginī.48 Generally speaking, the first three classes contain “early” tantras, composed before the end of the eighth century, while the last two contain “later” tantras, mostly dating from the eighth through eleventh centuries. In outlining the history of mahāmudrā in India, I will — with due acknowledgment of their artificiality and arbitrariness — employ these five categories and two phases.


Most of the texts classified as action and performance tantras have as their focus the service of and identification with one or another buddha, bodhisattva, or deity, primarily of peaceful disposition.49 Action and performance tantras contain copious references to and descriptions of mudrās as hand gestures, but they rarely, if ever, mention mahāmudrā. Perhaps the earliest tantra in which the term occurs is the massive Root Tantra of Mañjuśrī (Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa), often classed as an action tantra.50 There, the great seal refers principally to a “five-peaked” (pañcasikhā) ritual hand-position, that of Mañjuśrī himself, which signifies the attainment of all mundane and ultimate aims.51 In chapter 36, eight mahāmudrās are listed:

1. The mahāmudrā of the Dharma wheel of the Blessed One

2. The mudrā of the buddhas’ conquest of all obstructors

3. The mahāmudrā called the buddhas’ non-arousing of all defilements

4. The mudrā of the great compassion of all the buddhas

5. The mahāmudrā called “raising the spear against all views”

6. The mahāmudrā called “the attainment of all spells”

7. The mahāmudrā called “the pacifier of all disasters”

8. The mahāmudrā called “fortunate”52

Chapters 43–46 of the Root Tantra53 are explicitly devoted to mahāmudrā, which is not only taken there as the five-peaked mudrā but, more abstractly, associated with various ultimate notions, such as no-self, emptiness, and the gnosis of the buddha, and described as “the highest Dharma, undeclining, the highest step” (43:22).54 In a subsequent but still relatively early tantra, Chanting the Names of Mañjuśrī (Mañjuśrīnāmasaṅgīti), variously classed as a performance tantra, yoga tantra, or mahāyoga tantra,55 mahāmudrā is identified as one of six great buddha families (3:2), that associated with the tathāgata Amoghasiddhi, master of the all-accomplishing wisdom, who is described 32elsewhere as “avoiding all imagination; whose incessant realm is without constructive thought; the unchanging supreme Dharma realm (dharmadhātu)” (6:15).56 We see, then, that even in some of the earliest Buddhist tantras, mahāmudrā bears multiple significations. It may be a hand gesture or a buddha family, but it also evokes the true nature of reality and the supreme attainment at the end of the path — though its bearing on questions of ultimate reality and knowledge is less obvious in these texts than it will be later on.

In the yoga tantras57 — which form the core of the esoteric Buddhist traditions of East Asia but also were influential in the early period of Buddhism in Tibet — mahāmudrā takes on further associations. It still may be regarded simply as a symbolic hand gesture (such as the “vajra fist”), and in the root tantra of the class, the Compendium of the Realities of All the Tathāgatas (Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha), it is used, perhaps for the first time, to refer to goddesses and female consorts.58 The major contribution of the yoga tantras to mahāmudrā discourse, however, lies first in its tendency to define the term primarily in terms of the clear visualization of oneself as a buddha deity and second in its inclusion of the term into a scheme of four mudrās — the great seal (mahāmudrā), pledge seal (samayamudrā), Dharma seal (dharmamudrā), and action seal (karmamudrā) — each of which involves particular hand gestures and mantras, and each of which is associated with a particular (a) buddha family, (b) tathāgata, (c) maṇḍala, (d) basis of purification, (e) defilement to be purified, and (f) buddha gnosis. In the Compendium of the Realities of All the Tathāgatas, the seals are arrayed as follows:

1. The great seal is primarily the process and product of visualizing a buddha deity, or oneself in the form of a buddha deity; it is associated with (a) the tathāgata family, (b) Vairocana, (c) the “great” maṇḍala, (d) the body, (e) the defilement of desire, and (f) the mirror-like gnosis.

2. The pledge seal involves visualizing the deity through certain meaningful symbols (such as a sword or lotus); it is associated with (a) the vajra family, (b) Akṣobhya, (c) the “retention” maṇḍala, (d) the mind, (e) the defilement of anger, and (f) the gnosis of equality.

3. The Dharma seal involves visualizing the maṇḍala deities within their symbols on their respective thrones; it is associated with (a) the 33lotus family, (b) Amitābha, (c) the “doctrine” maṇḍala, (d) speech, (e) the defilement of wrong view, and (f) the discriminating gnosis.

4. The action seal involves seeing the peripheral deities in the maṇḍala as offering goddesses; it is associated with (a) the jewel and action families, (b) correspondingly, Ratnasambhava and Amoghasiddhi, (c) the “action” maṇḍala, (d) activities, (e) the defilement of miserliness, and (f) the all-accomplishing gnosis.59

As Jacob Dalton notes, a key point emerging from the Compendium’s four-mudrā scheme is that there, because of its association with the Buddha’s mind, the pledge seal is the most important of the set, while the great seal, associated with the Buddha’s body, is less vital — an order of priority that will be reversed in later tantric theory, where mahāmudrā comes to be associated with ultimate reality and the ultimate attainment, buddha mind.60

Other yoga tantras, such as the Vajra Peak (Vajraśekhara), Conquest of the Three Worlds (Trailokyavijaya), and the Purification of All the Lower Realms (Sarvadurgatipariśodhana), lay out the scheme in slightly different ways, but in each case, mahāmudrā denotes the clear visualization of the bodily form of a maṇḍala deity, usually accompanied by a hand gesture and mantras.61 The Conquest of the Three Worlds adds, “Like a high edict with the king’s seal that should not be broken and is difficult to contradict, the symbolic form of a great spirit is mudrā. . . . This feature of

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