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Mahāmudrā (Sanskrit; Tibetan: Chagchen, Wylie: phyag chen, contraction of Chagya Chenpo, Wylie: phyag rgya chen po) literally means ‘great seal’ or ‘great symbol’. Thubten Yeshe explains the use of the term: “Mahamudra means absolute seal, totality, unchangeability. Sealing something implies that you cannot destroy it. Mahamudra was not created or invented by anybody; therefore it cannot be destroyed. It is absolute reality”.

The term Mahamudra refers to the realization arising from certain advanced forms of Buddhist meditation practice, comprising methods of attaining a direct introduction to the nature and essence of the mind. Mahamudra also includes practices to stabilize the accompanying transcendental realization. The practices associated with Mahamudra draw upon instructions from multiple levels of Buddhism, including Sutra and Vajrayana, to provide a range of approaches to enlightenment suited to the needs of various practitioners. Mahamudra is believed to enable one to realize the mindstream’s innate purity, clarity and perfection, summed up by the term ‘buddha nature’, the topic of the Third Turning of the Dharmachakra, the final phase of Gotama Buddha’s teachings. Aryadeva summarises: “The discussion of how to attain mahamudra entails methods for meditating on mind itself as something having voidness as its nature”.

Lineages of Mahamudra

Mahamudra is most well-known as a teaching within the Kagyu lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. However the Tibetan Buddhist Gelug and Sakya schools also practice Mahamudra, as does Shingon Buddhism, the other major sub-school of the Vajrayana. The Nyingma and Bön traditions practise Dzogchen, a cognate but distinct method of direct introduction to the empty nature of mind. Nyingma students may also receive supplemental training in Mahamudra, and the Palyul Nyingma lineage preserves a lineage of the “Union of Mahamudra and Ati Yoga” originated by Karma Chagme.

All of the various Tibetan Mahamudra lineages originated with the tantric Mahasiddhas of Pala Empire India in the 8th to 12th Centuries. The ‘Profound Action’ lineage originated with Maitreya and Asanga and was introduced to Tibet by Marpa and Atisha. Marpa introduced the lineage to the Kagyu school and Atisha to the Kadam school, which later produced the Gelug school. Gampopa later received both the Kagyu and Kadam transmissions of the lineage and passed them through to the present day Kagyu. The ‘Profound View’ lineage of Mahamudra, which originated with Nagarjuna, also was introduced to Tibet by Atisha. Marpa introduced to Tibet the ‘Profound Blessing Meditation Experience’ lineage that is believed to have originated with the primordial Buddha Vajradhara and was passed to Tilopa and Naropa. Marpa also introduced a Mahamudra lineage that traced back through Saraha and Maitripa.

The Kagyu tradition

The Kagyu lineage divides the Mahamudra teachings into three types, ‘sutra Mahamudra’, ‘tantra Mahamudra’, and ‘essence Mahamudra’. Sutra Mahamudra, as the name suggests, draws its philosophical view and meditation techniques from the sutrayana tradition. Tantric Mahamudra employs such tantric techniques as tummo, dream yoga, and clear light yoga, three of the six yogas of Naropa. Essence Mahamudra is based on the direct instruction of a qualified lama.

There have been many prominent practitioners and scholars of Mahamudra in the Kagyu tradition. The Third Karmapa wrote ‘Aspiration Prayer of Mahamudra’. The Ninth Karmapa wrote three major Mahamudra texts: ‘Pointing Out the Dharmakaya’ (Tibetan: Chos sku mdzub tshugs); ‘An Ocean of the Definite Meaning’ (Tibetan:Nges don rGya mtsho) and ‘Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance’. Tsele Natsok Rangdrol wrote the ‘Lamp of Mahamudra’ and Dakpo Tashi Namgyal wrote ‘Clarifying the Natural State’ and ‘Moonlight of Mahamudra’.
The particular Kagyu propensity to blend sutric and tantric traditions of mahāmudrā was a point of controversy in Tibet, with Sakya Pandita one of the most prominent critics thereof. As scholar Klaus-Dieter Mathes notes

Certain aspects of the Bka´ brgyud teachings on mahāmudrā, such as the possibility of a sudden liberating realization or the possibility that a beginner may attain mahāmudrā even without Tantric initiation, became a highly controversial issue in the 13th century. For Sa skya Paṇḍ ita (1182–1251), such teachings represented a new development stemming from a Sino-Tibetan influence on Sgam po pa Bsod nams rin chen (1079–1153). Later Bka´ brgyud pas defended their not specifically Tantric or sūtra mahāmudrā tradition by adducing Indian sources such as the Tattvadaśakaṭ īkā or the Tattvāvatāra. These belong to a genre of literature which the Seventh Karmapa Chos grags rgya mtsho (1454–1506) called “Indian mahāmudrā-Works” (phyag chen rgya gzhung). . . . Dr. Mathes investigated the practice described in these mahāmudrā works and found that it is not necessarily Tantric. In Saraha´s dohās it is simply the realization of mind´s co-emergent nature with the help of a genuine guru. Maitrīpa (ca. 1007– ca. 1085) uses the term mahāmudrā for precisely such an approach, thus employing an originally Tantric term for something that is not a specifically Tantric practice. It is thus legitimate for later Bka´ brgyud pas to speak of Saraha´smahāmudrā tradition as being originally independent of the Sūtras and the Tantras. For Maitrīpa, the direct realization of emptiness (or the co-emergent) is the bridging link between the Sūtras and the Tantras, and it is thanks to this bridge that mahāmudrā can be linked to the Sūtras and the Tantras. In the Sūtras it takes the form of the practice of non-abiding and becoming mentally disengaged, while in the Tantras it occupies a special position among the four mudrās.

The First Panchen Lama identified a number of Mahamudra lineages, according to their main practices for achieving Mahamudra:

From the point of view of individually ascribed names, there are numerous traditions, such as those of the simultaneously arising as merged, the amulet box, possessing five, the six spheres of equal taste, the four syllables, the pacifier, the object to be cut off, dzogchen, the discursive madhyamaka view, and so on.

Mahamudra meditation

relationship with a teacher is strongly stressed, and in the former Tibet these texts would not have been available except through a teacher and without having completed preliminary practices. Some parts of the transmission are done verbally and through empowerments and “reading transmissions”. In particular the teacher directly Points out the Mind of the Student.
Mahamudra meditation practice works to directly reveal emptiness to one’s own direct experience in one’s own mind. This is achieved by meditating directly on one’s own mind. This is known as “taking the path of direct valid cognition”—it emphasizes directly experiencing the phenomena of one’s own mind and experiencing emptiness.

As in all Buddhist schools of meditation, the basic meditative practice of Mahamudra is divided into two approaches: śamatha (“tranquility”) and vipaśyanā (“insight”).

The meditation manuals (in particular those of The 9th Karmapa) are among the most detailed and precise in the Buddhist literature. For tranquility practice they enumerate the stages of settling the mind and specify many common problems (e.g. excitement, torpor, doubt, apathy) and practices to remedy these problems. The objects of meditation are simple objects, statues of the Buddha, the breath, mantras, complex visualizations and deities and Yidams. These objects of meditation are common throughout Tibetan Vajrayana practice.

The detailed instructions for the Insight practices are what make Mahamudra (and Dzogchen) unique.

The meditator is instructed to observe the mind at rest and then during the occurrence of thought. In some practices disturbing emotions are deliberately invoked and the meditator is directed to experience their “empty” nature. The meditator is further instructed to observe that which is looking for the nature of the mind: to observe the observer.

Questions are posed to the meditator to verify the experiences, to trigger further insight and to identify and correct misconceptions. The Ocean of Definitive Meaning and Pointing out the Dharmakaya (9th Karmapa) both enumerate these questions and common answers to them.


Yeshe, Lama Thubten (2003). Becoming the Compassion Buddha: Tantric Mahamudra for Everyday Life. Wisdom Publications. p. 21. ISBN 0861713435.

quoted in Gyatso, Tenzin; Alexander Berzin (1997). The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. New York: Snow Lion Publications. p. 119. ISBN 1-55939-072-7.

quoted in Gyatso, Tenzin; Alexander Berzin (1997). The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. New York: Snow Lion Publications. p. 119. ISBN 1-55939-072-7.

Gyatso, Tenzin; Alexander Berzin (1997). The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. New York: Snow Lion Publications. pp. 262–271. ISBN 1-55939-072-7.

Berzin, Alexander (1995, revised July 2006). “ntroduction to Dzogchen”. Berzin Archives. Retrieved 2008-07-25.

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