Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche presents the essential teachings of Mahamudra and its three main approaches to practice, each offering effective methods for directly pointing out mind’s true nature.
The Mahamudra teachings are profound instructions that lead to the realization of the true nature of mind. Mahamudra is a Sanskrit word that describes the fundamental nature of reality, both relative and ultimate. It encompasses our mundane consciousness, in all its confusion, as well as the primordial wisdom that is its true nature. It extends to our experience of all phenomena. In Sanskrit, Maha means “great” and mudra means “seal,” or “symbol.” Mahamudra is like the king’s seal; once the king stamps his seal on a legal document, everyone has to abide by that law. No one can escape its reach. Similarly, nothing can escape the reach of Mahamudra—all phenomena are contained within and sealed by this reality. This is what Mahamudra means: nothing beyond, nothing outside. No matter how hard we search, no matter how skillful or powerful we are, we cannot find buddhahood outside of our present experience.
For a more experiential perspective on the meaning of Mahamudra, we can look at the nature of the present mind as a thought or emotion arises. When you look at the very nature of that instant of consciousness without altering it, that experience becomes a glimpse of mind’s true nature. What is the true nature of mind? It is the union of luminosity-emptiness, awareness-emptiness, and bliss-emptiness. It doesn’t matter whether our thoughts and emotions are positive or negative—that nature is right there. Our thoughts and emotions are Mahamudra, whether we realize it or not.
So Mahamudra is the symbol, the seal, the mudra of all phenomena and the true nature of mind. Thus, the true reality of all appearances is called Mahamudra.
The Ultimate Lineage of Meaning
Even more important than understanding the literal or experiential meaning of Mahamudra is to understand the principle of lineage, and to appreciate the special methods of the Mahamudra lineage for pointing out the nature of mind. Recognizing mind’s true nature is our goal, and it is the lineage gurus who can help us achieve it, in both simple and extraordinary ways.
The lineage of Mahamudra is known as “the ultimate lineage of meaning.” It is also known as the “profound tradition of the practice lineage.” The lineage transmission brings actual realization, rather than a conceptual understanding of the nature of mind.
This lineage is further known as the “incomparable Dakpo Kagyu.” Dakpo Kagyu is the mother lineage of the Kagyu tradition. In which way is it incomparable? It is incomparable in bringing realization to the hearts of its disciples, in its methods of transmission, and in the profound prajna that perfectly penetrates reality without any barriers.
Pointing-Out: The Preview of Mahamudra Realization
Receiving pointing-out instructions is similar to watching a movie preview. Unless we see the preview, we have no idea what the movie will be about. So a preview is an excellent way to be introduced to what a particular movie might be like. We might see the preview and then decide to skip the film—that is up to us. No one is going to force us to sit through the whole movie.
Similarly, we get a preview of the Mahamudra experience when we receive the pointing-out instructions from our guru. They give us a glimpse or flash experience of Mahamudra. They give us a sense of direction and motivate us to go further; however, it is up to us to extend our exploration so that we eventually come to a genuine realization of Mahamudra. Without this flash experience, we would have no way to be exposed to the nature of mind so directly, so nakedly. That flash is a transmission of the lineage, a wonderful blessing through which we are introduced to the deeper experience and realization of the Mahamudra path. This shows how necessary it is to rely on the lineage transmission and to be connected to a genuine lineage master. Without the pure and genuine lineage, without a qualified lineage master, we would have no way to experience such a preview, such a flash experience.
The Mahamudra path begins with developing a clear conceptual understanding of mind’s ultimate nature. Laying that ground of knowledge is very important. On the basis of that understanding, or view, we begin our actual journey.
From the Mahamudra point of view, the nature of our mind is completely enlightened right from the beginning, and it is known as ordinary mind. In this context, “ordinary” does not refer to mundane consciousness—a mind that is totally caught up in this world of samsara. Ordinary mind refers to mind that is not fabricated in any way. It is the natural or fundamental state of our mind, totally free from all conceptual elaborations. It is the best part of mind. When we experience this ordinary mind, we experience buddha mind. It does not matter how our mind is manifesting. Whether our thoughts and emotions are positive, negative, or neutral—that mind, in its essence, is totally free from all dualistic fixations.
Mind’s nature has two qualities: a sense of spaciousness, expansiveness, or totality, and a vivid, wakeful awareness. The aspect we experience as space is what we call emptiness. Emptiness does not refer to a vacuum experience, but rather to this quality of spaciousness or totality. Yet mind is not just space; it is full of awareness, full of wakefulness, which is always in union with emptiness. The aspect of awareness is mind’s luminosity quality. When we describe mind’s nature as luminosity-emptiness, it is the same as saying that mind’s nature is the wisdom of emptiness and compassion in union.
Ordinary mind, itself, is complete and full. There is no need to try to improve or perfect it. There is nothing we need to get rid of, because faults do not exist in the nature of mind. There is also nothing we need to add to it. It’s not the case that now we lack the qualities and wisdoms of buddhahood and that we will have to acquire them in the future. Why? Because they are complete within the nature of our mind. This means that what we generally regard as the faults of our mind—the negative habitual tendencies that cause confusion and suffering—are not part of mind’s nature. They are extrinsic to mind’s nature, not inherent within it. Therefore, these stains are temporary and removable. They are called stains because they obscure our ability to see our mind directly and clearly.
In our ordinary, confused way of seeing, we tend to view our thoughts and mind as one. For example, if we think “I am an angry person,” or “I am a jealous person,” then we are identifying who we are with our angry or jealous thoughts. There is a sense of mixing up the relative with the ultimate. When we confuse our temporary, fleeting thoughts and emotions with mind’s genuine nature, it becomes difficult to see beyond that—to see who we truly are.
This kind of misperception is like thinking that the ocean is just the waves. When we look at the ocean but notice only the waves, we may think that is what the ocean is all about. But that is not true; the ocean is not simply waves. In the same way, we usually misunderstand the nature of mind. We are not able to see through the confusion of our thoughts and emotions to recognize the true nature of our mind. However, when we look with penetrating insight, or prajna, then we can see clearly: This confusion, these fleeting stains, are not who I am. They are not what my mind is all about. My true nature of mind is beyond this.
We may have heard such statements over and over, but just hearing them isn’t sufficient. We need to have certainty that this is the case. We need to gain confidence that the enlightened qualities and wisdom are present in our very own mind. The Buddha taught that all sentient beings possess the potential for enlightenment, and that this potential is present in each of us. This potential is called buddhanature. Our enlightened nature is present at all times and under all circumstances. We activate that potential as we develop greater insight into mind’s nature.
What this really means is that, when you trust yourself, you can find your own liberation—with this very mind that you have right now, and just as you are in this very moment. When you trust yourself and look deeply at the nature of your own mind, you can find your own enlightenment, because it is within you. Therefore, from the Mahamudra point of view, we don’t have to change ourselves into someone else. That’s our usual problem. We feel that who we are, this “me,” is not good enough. This “me” is not sacred enough. We think we have to be someone else. There can be many, many persons whom we would like to be, such as the yogi Milarepa or the people in Vogue magazine ads. These advertisements are good at provoking our desire—our craving to be some ideal other. We think it’s not enough to be who we are, and that’s an obstacle in our Mahamudra journey. We have to trust our own heart, our own strength of mind and power to realize and manifest this ordinary mind. We have to trust that it is here, within us, completely awake and full of wisdom and non-conceptual compassion.
Classifications of Mahamudra
Mahamudra, in the Kagyu lineage, has three different classifications or approaches to practice: sutra Mahamudra, mantra Mahamudra, and essence Mahamudra. It is important for us to understand these differences. A common misconception is to equate Mahamudra, in general, with Vajrayana. While in some lineages, Mahamudra is taught strictly through the Vajrayana practices, in the Kagyu lineage a slightly different approach is taken, which started with the great Tibetan master Gampopa, the heart son of the tantric yogi Milarepa. Gampopa first studied with the Kadampas—whose tradition holds important teachings of the Indian mahasiddha Atisha—for six years before meeting his guru, Milarepa. By combining the teachings and instructions he had received from each lineage—the essence and mantra Mahamudra lineages from Milarepa, and the more gradual stages-of-the-path instructions of the Kadampas—Gampopa systematized the Mahamudra lineage into three practice paths, establishing a framework that would suit the capacities and inclinations of different students. In this way, a unique tradition known as the Dakpo Kagyu was established, and became of critical importance to the unfolding of the Kagyu lineage. Sutra Mahamudra is connected to two main streams of the Mahayana sutras—the Prajnaparamita Sutra, or teachings on emptiness, and the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, or teachings on buddhanature. Mantra Mahamudra is connected to the tantras and the deity yoga practices; it is the Vajrayana form of Mahamudra. Essence Mahamudra is connected to both the sutras and tantras. It is the most formless approach and is called the path of simplicity, or the devotional path based on blessings.
Each individual practitioner, depending on their disposition, connects to the Mahamudra teachings through one of these three. Which one you connect through doesn’t matter, as they are essentially the same—although the methods are specialized, the result is identical. In particular, however, there is one thing that’s common in all three approaches: they share methods for directly pointing out the nature of mind. We could say that what characterizes the Mahamudra path is a style of introducing students to the nature of their mind in a way that is non-conceptual and direct. It is a direct introduction to the essential wisdom nature of one’s mind.
Sutra Mahamudra is a unique method of achieving the direct realization of Mahamudra mind—the inseparability of luminosity and emptiness. It does not rely on elaborate forms, like mantra Mahamudra, yet it is not utterly free from all forms, like essence Mahamudra. Sutra Mahamudra involves a certain amount of formal study and practice. For example, the practices of shamatha and vipashyana are retained, and students engage in studies of certain sutras and philosophical texts. These are followed by the main practice, which essentially consists of resting one’s mind, free of any thoughts or concepts, in the state of non-conceptual wisdom. The difference between sutra Mahamudra and other sutra-based approaches, such as the general Hinayana and Mahayana paths, is that sutra Mahamudra contains profound methods for directly pointing out the selfless, luminous nature of mind. Such instructions do not exist in other sutra approaches. As well, there is a touch of tantra, or “a sprinkle of vajra,” in the pointing-out process of sutra Mahamudra, because its methods borrow certain elements from the mantra and essence traditions.
In the beginning, it is important for the Mahamudra practitioner to gain certainty in the view that emptiness is the abiding nature of reality. We must each discover for ourselves the meaning behind the word “emptiness.” What we are trying to discover is what emptiness is and to see that it is the true nature of all phenomena. In sutra Mahamudra, we do this by first looking directly at our own mind in the present moment. What we are attempting to see is our mind’s egoless, selfless reality. Next, we try to see that same nature—the same reality we see in our mind—in the outer world. We do this by looking at the vivid appearances of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations that are constantly before us. Through looking over and over, we come to see that they too are empty of any identifiable self or essence. As we develop further clarity and precision in our looking, we see that there is no separation between mind’s emptiness and its aspect of luminosity. We see that these two are inseparable; they are not two different things.
In sutra Mahamudra, determining the right view of emptiness and the right view of buddhanature is essential to our practice. In fact, understanding emptiness becomes key to understanding buddhanature. It’s easy to misunderstand buddhanature if we don’t understand the essential point of selflessness. It is possible to start to think of buddhanature as some kind of eternal super-self, and when we become attached to that concept, it’s quite hard to let go of it. We could easily shift the self-clinging we have to our ordinary identity—to that sense of “I” or “me”—to a fixation on some kind of nicer or more elevated identity called buddhanature. Who am I? I am buddhanature.
As long as we have that kind of self-fixation, no matter what its basis or how we define it, it is still fixation. It is still clinging. It’s not going to lead us out of samsara. That’s the danger. On the other hand, there’s not much danger in becoming too attached to emptiness because nobody really likes the idea of emptiness. If we were to ask a roomful of people how many prefer emptiness to buddhanature and how many prefer buddhanature to emptiness, the buddhanature party would definitely win. Nobody likes to be told, “You don’t exist,” but everybody likes to be told, “You are a buddha.” We can’t turn that compliment down. It is so tempting—especially when we are a potential buddha!
We know that the Buddha taught emptiness in the second cycle of his teachings, and buddhanature in the third cycle. Why? Because he wanted people to have a good understanding of emptiness before hearing about buddhanature so they could develop a correct understanding of it. As practitioners, we must realize that even buddhanature is not truly existent. We could try to make it into something solid by making it into just another concept, like ego, but even then, that solidity would be imaginary.
The sutra Mahamudra approach is a specialty of the Kagyu tradition. Although it originated in India and was taught by Marpa and Milarepa, it was Gampopa who made it the central emphasis of his teachings. He is therefore regarded as the main figure responsible for bringing this teaching to its full development and manifestation.
Mantra Mahamudra is the tantric, or Vajrayana, form of Mahamudra practice. One enters into the path of mantra Mahamudra by receiving the four stages of tantric empowerment, or abhisheka: the vase abhisheka, secret abhisheka, prajnajnana abhisheka, and word abhisheka. Within these four abhishekas, a different pointing-out instruction is given at each stage. That instruction is practiced until the student accomplishes some level of realization, and then the student moves on to the next one.
When we go through the initiation process of an empowerment, we become authorized to practice the mandala of a particular deity. This is the traditional way of introducing students to the nature of mind. The deities we are introduced to, however, do not represent external entities but are representations or reflections of the non-conceptual wisdom nature of our own minds. By working with such a reflection through visualization, we are working toward the recognition of our own mind.
In the context of mantra Mahamudra, mudra refers to union and maha refers to the nature of this union as fully pervading all phenomena. All phenomena, in reality, are in the state of union. No phenomenon lies beyond this. Here, union refers to three different types: the union of appearance-emptiness, the union of awareness-emptiness, and the union of bliss-emptiness.
Appearance-emptiness means that all outer phenomena—forms, sounds, smells, and so on—have no true, inherent existence; at the same time, they appear clearly and precisely to our five sense-consciousnesses and conceptual mind. Thus, they are appearance-emptiness. Awareness-emptiness means that the perceiver of the five sense objects—the inner awareness—also has no true, inherent existence. Just as the outer world of phenomena is appearance-emptiness, all inner experiences of consciousness are in the nature of awareness-emptiness. Bliss-emptiness refers to the experience that arises when inner awareness meets outer appearances, when subject and object connect. That contact produces sensations, which are of the nature of bliss-emptiness. The meeting of awareness with any object can bring the experience of great joy, great bliss, unified with emptiness.
Mantra Mahamudra mainly emphasizes the practice of bliss-emptiness, which includes working with creation- and completion-stage deity practices, as well as very detailed instructions on working with the three basic elements of the subtle vajra body—nadi, prana, and bindu. If we can discover this all-pervasive sense of union, then all of our experience becomes valuable and enables us to recognize ordinary mind. In this context, “ordinary” refers to mind in its natural state, which means we do not edit appearances, awareness, or feelings. We leave them as they are, as spontaneous, as natural, as unfabricated, and as free from elaborations as when they arise. We simply leave mind as it is and rest in that. There is no experience more profound than the direct experience of unfabricated mind itself. There is nothing to see beyond that. This becomes the way to experience the all-pervading nature of mudra—maha-mudra.
Essence Mahamudra is nothing more than the experience of one’s naked, ordinary mind resting in the unfabricated state. It employs no forms, no rituals, no philosophy, no view. In contrast to sutra and mantra Mahamudra, which rely on certain formalities of practice, it is the most stripped down, unelaborated way of directly introducing a student to the true nature of mind. Essence Mahamudra is practiced when a guru endowed with supreme realization bestows a transmission upon a student endowed with exceptional faith and devotion. The blessing bestowed is called the empowerment of vajra wisdom. It is regarded as the descent of the actual realization of the root and lineage gurus upon or into a student. Through this process, a direct experience of ordinary mind is suddenly awakened in the student and instantly recognized.
It is exceptional to have a transmission occur in this way because it is rare for the necessary conditions to come together. It requires a guru who has supreme realization and a student who has supreme faith, diligence, and wisdom, and these two must be together, in the same place, for whatever time it takes for a meeting of minds to develop. If you read the story of the mahasiddha, or great yogi, Tilopa and his student Naropa, the great scholar from Nalanda University, you’ll see that Naropa spent twelve years with Tilopa. They spent their time together simply walking here and there, around the banks of the Ganges and other places in India. In these stories, there are no accounts of them sitting down and doing sadhana practices or building beautiful shrines. There is no record of Tilopa teaching him Madhyamaka philosophy or discussing emptiness teachings. Most of the time, Tilopa and Naropa are just walking along and nothing much seems to be happening. Then, at other times, we see a different story—Naropa willingly jumps off a cliff to prove his devotion to Tilopa. He steals food for his guru, and even a bride from a wedding party. Why would a highly respected scholar act like this?
From our conventional point of view, it makes no sense; Naropa’s actions seem irrational, wild, and improper. From the perspective of training, however, it looks different. Tilopa tested Naropa’s view and devotion in many painful ways, by creating situations that would require Naropa to face a clear choice: respond habitually or transcend his conceptual clinging. During all this time, Tilopa was training Naropa. He was preparing his mind, making it ready to awaken. The whole twelve-year process was like going through the stages of a tantric abhisheka, or through the sutrayana path of view, meditation, and action. It accomplished the same intention, that of ripening Naropa’s mindstream, only using different means. In the hands of an enlightened master like Tilopa, such deeds were skillful means for working with Naropa’s mind, provoking him to the point of cutting through all hope and fear, all clinging to conceptual reference points.
Because the intention of the Mahamudra teachings altogether is to bring us to the point of awakening, the journey of Naropa becomes our journey as well. In order to see clearly, we must bring to light whatever fixations we have that are hidden. In addition to our ordinary clinging to the samsaric world of duality, we possess other, unexamined fixations, and the deepest of these may be our fixation on our values. Without question, we believe some things are inherently good and right, and others are inherently bad and wrong. Our values are so important to us and seem so real that we hold them above the level of ordinary thought and concept. When we look at these values more closely, however, we find that they are often culture-specific, rather than absolute ideals or principles. When we look at other cultures, or even subcultures within our own country, we find many different sets of values, many different ways of judging conduct and worth. Which values are the best? There is no way to judge that because values are simply conceptual constructions. Some values may seem to be fixed, but in fact our values change as our culture changes and as we change as individuals. The teachings of Mahamudra, as demonstrated by the trainings undergone by Naropa and many other lineage masters, are designed to take us beyond such conceptual clinging to our samsaric values and to dualistic fixations of any kind. “Going beyond” means transcending our relative confusion about reality and discovering a genuine clarity of mind and depth of compassion that was previously obscured.
At the end of twelve years of “torture,” Tilopa gave the final pointing-out instructions to Naropa in a very simple way. Naropa was already exhausted and fragile at that point. The story goes that they were walking along and Tilopa took off a sandal and whacked Naropa’s forehead, saying something like “You still don’t get it, my son, do you?” Naropa fainted, and when he regained consciousness, it is said that his realization of Mahamudra was equal to that of his teacher. The final transmission was very simple and ordinary. It did not involve the uttering of any mantras, which we usually don’t understand anyway, or any elaborate ceremonies. Tilopa just said, “You still don’t get it, do you?” and then whacked Naropa with his sandal. That approach is the approach of essence Mahamudra, the direct introduction. It is direct because it doesn’t depend on any rituals, nor does it depend on any extensive explanation of philosophy.
You can see a similar process in the relationship of Marpa and Milarepa. Before Marpa would grant Milarepa’s request for teachings, he commanded Milarepa to construct a house of stones and mud, only to make him tear it down and return every stone to its original place. This scenario was repeated several times. Then, Marpa promised to confer teachings if Milarepa built a nine-story tower for Marpa’s son. Still, Marpa found reasons for withholding the teachings, until he saw that Milarepa’s mindstream was ripened. Essentially, all the interaction between Marpa and Milarepa was a form of preliminary practice—meaning a form of preparation to receive the pointing-out instructions and initiations—like the foundational practices, or ngondro, that students perform now.
When this process of preparation can take place on a one-to-one basis, it is a beautiful and unique experience. It is not always necessary for us to do the institutionalized form of preliminary practice, in which thousands of people are practicing in a uniform way, doing the same 100,000 repetitions of this and that. That’s done because, in most cases, neither teacher nor student has the time for such a personalized relationship. Therefore, we also need the more institutionalized approach. But the true preliminary practice is to prepare the mind to recognize its true nature of Mahamudra—luminous, empty awareness. Such pointing out can happen in any situation; there is no restriction. When it occurs, what is transmitted is the very quintessence of Mahamudra and its immediate realization. As each realized student passes on the transmission, an uninterrupted lineage of true meaning emerges.
Living Lineage: The Karmapa
These days, books on Mahamudra are available in many stores. You can find them in Barnes & Noble and in Borders, and they can be shipped to your door by amazon.com. But those who become realized do not accomplish their enlightenment through books alone. It is taught that the realization of the Mahamudra nature of mind cannot be achieved simply through possessing a sharp intellect, extensive knowledge of philosophy, or an attitude of blind insistence. There are two experiences that do bring realization, however—one is devotion and the other is the blessings of the lineage.
On the Mahayana path, which has a strong philosophical basis, we may connect to the teachings through our intellect. When we are studying the views of emptiness or buddhanature, we discover a wealth of knowledge, which is a very powerful and liberating experience. Yet it is not necessarily a heartfelt one. When we begin to work with the Mahayana teachings on compassion, we start to open up and connect with our heart. Yet devotion requires us to open our heart further and further, until we can genuinely connect with the lineage of enlightenment. When our open heart meets the blessings of the lineage, then realization takes place.
It’s not that difficult. The key point is to keep trying. We have to open our heart through our own initiative, which makes it possible for the lineage blessings to enter our mindstream. No matter how powerful a guru might be, he or she cannot force blessings on us when we do not want them. That is very good news. It means we have complete power over our destiny. The guru is not a “big brother” who controls our life and says, “Okay! Now it is your turn to get enlightened. Let’s see who’s next. No, not you—you wait a little bit.” That is purely imaginary. You may see that in a movie, but out on the streets, it is up to us. Whenever we can fully open our mind and heart, and connect with the enlightened heart of the lineage, then yes, we’re ready to go. We are ready to exit samsara.
For most of us, the idea of enlightenment or buddhahood is pretty abstract. When we talk about liberation from samsara, it sounds good, but it’s just a theory. It’s a little like talking about quantum mechanics. It’s a beautiful theory but one that is quite removed from our everyday experience. When we see a table, for example, we experience “table,” not sub-nuclear particles like quarks. It is the same with enlightenment. We read about it, we talk about it, but we experience samsara. When we sit in front of an embodiment of enlightenment itself, it is an altogether different experience. In our present day, that embodiment exists in the form of His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje.
The Mahamudra lineage that has been passed down from Tilopa through generations of lineage holders continues with the Seventeenth Karmapa. When you are in the presence of His Holiness, you feel that you are in the center of the mandala of all the lineage gurus. You may meet many Kagyu masters, but the center of that mandala, the core or heart that holds everything together in perfect balance, is the Karmapa. When you are seated before him, you feel the presence and power of the living lineage. At last, you are face to face with an actual manifestation of enlightenment; there is a radiance that you can see, feel, and almost touch. It is breathtaking. Then you realize, “Oh yes, enlightenment is not just another theory. It’s very real!”
It is important for us to remember, however, that enlightenment has a human side. That is its great beauty. That is what touches our heart and produces such longing and devotion. We are taught by the Buddha himself that his wisdom was no different from the mind of ordinary beings. Therefore it is entirely possible for us to make a genuine connection with the guru and the lineage. The wisdom and compassion we see in them is within us as well. That connection is the essence of the Mahamudra practice of devotion. Through the path of devotion, what we are actually developing is trust and confidence in our own enlightened nature, with the help of the lineage gurus. “Guru” is simply a reflection of that nature. Therefore, when you are in the presence of a guru such as His Holiness the Karmapa, make the connection: open your heart fully and mix your mind with that experience.
DZOGCHEN PONLOP RINPOCHE is a meditation master and scholar in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1997 he founded Nalandabodhi, an international network of meditation centers and study groups. He is the author of several books, including Mind Beyond Death and Wild Awakening: The Heart of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. This article is adapted from a teaching he gave in Berkeley, California, in November, 2005, which first appeared in Bodhi magazine.