Three great philosophical and contemplative traditions are described by many Tibetan masters as the essential standpoints of their tradition: the Great Seal, or Mahamudra, most often associated with the Kagyu school; the Middle Way, or Madhyamaka, which is the philosophical stance claimed by most Tibetan Buddhists; and the Great Perfection, or Dzogchen, best known for its centrality to the Nyingma tradition.
Do practitioners of these different systems ultimately experience the same reality? The Third Karmapa of Tibet, Rangjung Dorje (1284–1339), provided this answer:
Free of mental activity, it is the Great Seal;
Free from extremes, it is the Great Middle Way;
Comprising everything, it is called the Great Perfection—
Be confident that by knowing one you realize the meaning of all.
The Karmapa’s assertion—echoed by lamas from all the great lineages—that these (and other) systems of thought and practice come down to the same thing suggests that beyond the differences apparent at the level of terminology and sectarian style there is a profound unity at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism.
All three systems plumb the nature of reality as deeply as possible—all three provide methods to realize it and attain spiritual freedom—but Dzogchen and Mahamudra are especially notable for their focus on uncovering the original nature of the mind. Both are what we might call gnostic traditions; that is, their main concern is the attainment of gnosis, or divine wisdom. The Greek word gnosis is etymologically related to the Sanskrit term jnana, which in Buddhism refers mainly to a direct, liberating realization of the nature of reality.
In certain traditions, particularly those influenced by the mind-centered Yogacara school of Mahayana, Buddhist gnosis is above all a matter of discovering the true nature of mind—which is and always has been pure, luminous, blissful, empty, and aware. By contrast, our delusions and defilements are just temporary occlusions, like clouds passing across an eternally radiant sun.
Such a notion of mind, which is detectable in many cultures, both Eastern and Western, can be traced in Buddhist literature back to the Pali canon and early Mahayana sutras. It is crucial to the development of buddhanature theory, which in turn is a key to understanding both East Asian Chan/Zen and Buddhist tantra. Zen and tantra, in strikingly different ways and in different cultural settings, attempt to translate into practical terms the idea that we are all in some sense buddhas already, but have forgotten the fact and must rediscover, reembody, and reenact our original, awakened identity.
Dzogchen and Mahamudra both arose within the milieu of Indian Buddhist tantra, with its emphasis on reenvisioning ourselves and the world as divine, and becoming actual buddhas by transforming our physical and mental being through contemplative work within the “subtle body” widely accepted in yogic traditions.
The Great Perfection and the Great Seal were transmitted to Tibet between the eighth and twelfth centuries, and became there, in different times and settings, vital systems of theory and practice. The hallmarks of the two systems include: a philosophical view focused on the emptiness and natural purity of primordial “mind-itself” (semnyi), which must be distinguished from everyday mental activity; a style of meditation that largely dispenses with conceptual analysis and other forms of “mental elaboration”; and a notion of conduct that aims at expressing our liberation through behavior that is relaxed, natural, and spontaneously compassionate.
Dzogchen and Mahamudra often are presented through a “rhetoric of immediacy,” which insists that the surest way to attain buddhahood is to “cut to the chase” by transcending ritual, dropping concepts, overcoming duality, and seeing and living out our true nature right here and now—although their self-identification as “easy” paths is belied by their insistence on devotion to the spiritual master and the practice of renunciation, compassion, wisdom, and other virtues.
It was such commonalities between Dzogchen and Mahamudra that led the Third Karmapa to equate the two, and prompted some later masters within the Nyingma and Kagyu schools to combine them into a single system of practice. Many contemporary lamas from these traditions teach both Dzogchen and Mahamudra, sometimes separately, sometimes together. This can give the impression that they are interchangeable, two superficially different expressions of a single gnostic tradition. But are they identical? Before deciding, we must first disentangle them, to see what is distinctive about each. To do this, we must briefly delve into their respective histories.
Dzogchen, the Great Perfection
Dzogchen seems to have originated primarily in the northwest corner of the Indian subcontinent, in such western Himalayan regions as Kashmir, the Swat Valley, and Gilgit. Dzogchen is a key concept and practice in a distinctive set of Buddhist tantric writings that includes such texts as the Secret Matrix (Guhyagarbha) and the All-Creating Sovereign (Kunje Gyalpo). Starting in the eighth century, these teachings were introduced to the Tibetan empire by legendary masters like Vairocana, Vimalamitra, and, especially, Padmasambhava.
Indian practitioners of Dzogchen almost certainly interacted with, and may have been influenced by, Hindu proponents of Kashmiri Shaivism, and early Dzogchen masters in Tibet intersected with Chan Buddhists from China and practitioners of the Tibetan Bön religion. Such connections, however, are common in religious history, and Dzogchen is not only Buddhist to its core, but also, despite the reservations of some later Tibetan scholars, almost certainly of Indian provenance. Within the classification scheme developed by its proponents in India and imperial Tibet, Dzogchen lay at the heart of the highest of all tantric systems, Atiyoga, which superseded eight other Buddhist vehicles (yanas) variously associated with mainstream Buddhism, “Perfection Vehicle” Mahayana, and the “lower” Buddhist tantra systems.
Translated into Tibetan, the Dzogchen-based tantras formed an important part of early Buddhism on the plateau, along with philosophical, meditative, and monastic traditions imported at the same time from Bodhgaya, Nalanda, and other Buddhist sites in the east Indian plains. With the collapse of the Tibetan empire in the mid-ninth century, many Buddhist institutions crumbled, and interchanges with India became less common, though the practices initiated by Padmasambhava and others did not disappear.
Around the year 1000, trans-Himalayan contact resumed, and a new wave of Indian masters and texts entered Tibet, sparking what is often called the Tibetan renaissance, with its translations of more recent Indian tantric writings and the rise of Buddhist orders rooted in these “new” (sarma) tantras’ Indian lineages. The most important of these were the Kadam, Sakya, and Kagyu traditions. In this new religious landscape, practitioners of the “old” (nyingma) tantras began to identify themselves as a distinct order, traceable not only to the tantras brought to the plateau in the eighth century but also to treasure-texts—termas—supposedly hidden at the time by Padmasambhava and others, which their revealers, called tertons, now began to discover hidden in the ground, in pillars, and even in their own minds. Nyingma traditions continued to develop in Tibet over the next millennium, explicated and elaborated by such masters as Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo (1012–88), Longchen Rabjampa (1308–64), Jigme Lingpa (1730–98), Getse Mahapandita (1761–1829), and Dudjom Lingpa (1835–1904).
The apex of Nyingma was always Atiyoga, and the core of Atiyoga was the Dzogchen teaching. Dzogchen, in turn, was analyzed by Longchenpa and others into three “classes” of practice: the mind class (semde), which emphasizes the natural luminosity of the mind; the expanse class (longe), which focuses on the spaciousness, or openness, of the mind in its natural state; and, most important of all, the esoteric instruction class (mengakde), which provides a set of radical practices, first transmitted through oral precept and only later written down, that are said to lead directly to buddhahood. Especially as formulated by Longchenpa, the esoteric instruction class forms the heart of Nyingma theory and practice to this day.
Dzogchen theory focuses above all on mind-itself, which is seen as a primordially pure, empty, and luminous gnosis (yeshe) or awareness (rigpa), which must be distinguished from unenlightened “ordinary” mind (sem). Awareness is not only the true nature of each individual sentient being but the very source and substance—in Yogacara terms, the foundation (alaya)—of the cosmos itself. Rigpa is conventionally divisible into essence, nature, and compassionate energy, and includes within it all of samsara and nirvana. Beginninglessly pure mind-itself is captured symbolically in the figure of the primordial buddha Samantabhadra (luminosity) and his consort, Samantabhadri (emptiness). Although we and all beings—indeed, all things—are thus originally pure, we fail to recognize the fact, and hence wander in samsara, bound by delusion and defilement. In order to reclaim our primordial purity and awareness, we must understand the mind as it truly is.
If we are spiritually adept, we may, with appropriate prompting, realize our true nature quickly, even instantaneously. For most of us, though, the path is gradual, beginning with recognition of our original nature, then moving through various types of preliminary practices (ngöndro). These include “outer” reflections on standard Buddhist topics, like the miseries of samsara and the bodhisattva’s path to awakening, and “inner,” tantrically-inflected preliminaries, including prostration, purification, offering, and guru-yoga, aimed at purifying negative karma and collecting merit. Whatever our practice, it must always be performed within the framework established by the initial, profoundly tantric recognition of primordial purity, a “pure vision” (daknang) we must maintain at all times and in all circumstances.
With the preliminaries complete, a master will give us pointing-out instructions (ngotrö) by which we recognize our true nature, and we can enter the first of the two main stages of esoteric instruction class Dzogchen, cutting-through (trekcho). This involves contemplating and gaining direct awareness of the primordial purity, emptiness, and luminosity of the mind, then resting comfortably within that ultimate awareness.
From there, we may move on to the final stage, transcendence (tögal). This involves a set of physical, verbal, and mental practices for functioning insightfully and effectively within the world, which is itself seen from a visionary standpoint as the pure and spontaneous “presencing” of mind/reality itself. Through the practice of tögal, buddhahood may be achieved and fully expressed in this very life.
Mahamudra, the Great Seal
Like Dzogchen, Mahamudra originated in India, but primarily in the eastern plains and their surrounding hills rather than the western mountains. Mahamudra is a malleable Sanskrit term that appears throughout Indian Buddhist tantric literature. Over the course of the final centuries of the first millennium, depending on the context, it was used to refer to a ritual hand gesture, the clear visualization of oneself as a buddha-deity, a female partner for ritual sexual yoga, a blissful gnosis attained through advanced tantric practice, the empty-yet-luminous nature of the mind, a technique for resting nonconceptually in the nature of mind, and the buddhahood achieved as the fruit of the tantric path.
Mahamudra was especially prominent in such late, highly esoteric, and often transgressive tantra systems as the Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, Hevajra, and Kalachakra. It was—along with cognate concepts of ultimacy like great bliss or sahaja, the innate purity of mind—celebrated in the songs and treatises of the charismatic and sometimes controversial great adepts, the mahasiddhas, who practiced those tantras, including Saraha, Virupa, Tilopa, Naropa, and Maitripa. Although identifiable as Buddhists, the adepts who sang of the Great Seal inhabited a milieu in which Hindu tantric ideas and practices were prominent, and as with Dzogchen, there undoubtedly were interchanges and influences across religious lines.
Although Mahamudra had a minor place within the Nyingma traditions transmitted to Tibet during the early period, it became a term of central importance on the plateau during the Tibetan renaissance, when literature related to the newer tantras began to be translated and taught. The Great Seal thus found its way into the ideas and practices of the “new-translation” schools that arose in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, including the Kadam, Sakya, and Kagyu. The late-arriving Gelug school, founded around 1400, eventually developed its own Mahamudra system as well.
It was in the Kagyu orders—especially the branch founded by the Tibetan translator Marpa (1012–97), who had studied in India with Naropa and Maitripa—that Mahamudra became most prominent. At the hands of masters such as the peripatetic poet–yogi Milarepa (1040–1123), the great institution builder Gampopa (1079–1153), and subsequent teachers in the Drigung, Drukpa, Karma, and other sub-schools, the Great Seal became the definitive Kagyu approach to view, meditation, and conduct on the Buddhist path.
Like their Dzogchen counterparts, Mahamudra masters drew on the vocabulary of multiple Indian philosophical perspectives, including Madhyamaka, Yogacara, and the buddhanature tradition, and recognized that the Great Seal was divisible into gradual, quick, and instantaneous paths. Although in India mahamudra was typically a tantric term, Gampopa and his Kagyu successors insisted that if—as suggested by Maitripa and other late Indian masters—the Great Seal simply describes the empty, luminous, and blissful nature of the mind and a contemplative technique for realizing that nature, then tantric empowerment might not be required for its practice: the blessing of one’s master, accompanied by pointing-out instructions on the nature of mind, might suffice. The possibility of a non-tantric “Perfection Vehicle” Mahamudra practice was much debated in Tibet, but it became a hallmark of the Kagyu approach, and was adopted as well in the Great Seal tradition that developed later within the Gelug order.
Indeed, most Kagyu Mahamudra manuals focus not on the tantric Great Seal—the “path of means” associated with such advanced subtle-body practices as the Six Yogas of Naropa—but on a series of contemplations of the nature of mind. This “path of liberation” begins with preliminary reflections and rituals like those prescribed in Dzogchen (with guru yoga given special prominence), then move into the practice of serenity (shamatha) and insight (vipashyana) meditation, with the mind itself as the main object of contemplation.
The path of liberation is typically said to involve four yogas: single-pointedness, in which we focus in a relaxed way on the nature of the mind; non-elaboration, in which (sometimes with the help of philosophical analysis) we attain a nonconceptual realization of the empty-yet-luminous nature of the mind; single taste, in which we recognize all events of both samsara and nirvana as reflecting this empty-yet-luminous nature; and non-meditation, which is effortless buddhahood in both its gnostic aspect as dharmakaya and its expressive aspects as rupakaya—the Great Seal as the culmination of the path.
Thus, Dzogchen and Mahamudra differ in several ways. They originated in separate parts of the Indian subcontinent, in tantric texts marked by distinct terminological systems. They were transmitted to Tibet by Indian masters who lived centuries apart and flourished in quite different religious cultures. Dzogchen metaphysics suggests that everything in samsara and nirvana is simply a function of a primordially pure awareness, while not all Mahamudra traditions accept this idea. And Dzogchen, with its insistence on maintaining a vision of primordial purity from the beginning of practice to the end, is uncompromisingly tantric, whereas Mahamudra also admits of non-tantric approaches to awakening and suggests that such a vision may, for many of us, only emerge gradually, with time and effort.
The Emptiness of Mind
As noted at the outset, most Tibetan Buddhists, even those strongly influenced by Yogacara and buddhanature discourse, identify their philosophical outlook as Madhyamaka, using the compass of the “middle-way” tradition founded by Nagarjuna in the second century CE to explicate the cardinal Mahayana doctrine of emptiness and outline how a realization of emptiness leads to gnosis. The label Madhyamaka, however, admits of a multitude of perspectives, and Tibetans, including proponents and practitioners of Dzogchen and Mahamudra, have spent the better part of a millennium debating just what it means to say that all phenomena are empty—or, more to the point, what it means to say that mind is empty.
Tibetan philosophers espoused two major positions, each traceable to India, which are rooted in two different conceptions of what is and is not negated in emptiness. These are self-emptiness (rangtong) and other-emptiness (shentong). Proponents of self-emptiness insist that all phenomena, including the mind of a buddha, are empty in the same way: they lack intrinsic existence, with nothing positive implied or left over. Proponents of other-emptiness argue that buddha-mind—along with the buddhanature that is its basis—is empty in a different way from ordinary phenomena: it is empty of anything other than itself, that is, anything impure or samsaric. Its emptiness of the samsaric implies the presence within it, either actually or potentially, of all the qualities possessed by buddhas. In other words, mind is empty-yet-luminous.
Not all theorists of Dzogchen or Mahamudra adopted the other-emptiness position, but it is widespread in the Nyingma and Kagyu settings where the two great contemplative systems are practiced most intensely. Gelugpas, on the other hand, were antagonistic to other-emptiness, and in their Mahamudra system, the emptiness of mind that must be discovered through insight meditation is a negation pure and simple, without any implication that mind’s ultimate nature includes positive qualities, not even luminosity—which is, however, accepted as a conventional feature of mind. For Gelugpas, the mind’s lack of intrinsic existence is itself said to guarantee our eventual transformation from deluded beings to buddhas, since, as Nagarjuna remarked, “Where emptiness is the case, anything can be the case.”
What, then, of the Third Karmapa’s assertion that Dzogchen, Madhyamaka, and Mahamudra amount to the same thing? As we have seen, there are meaningful historical, terminological, philosophical, and practical differences among the three systems. In that sense, to say that they are essentially identical may be too strong a claim, as is the claim that all Tibetan or all Buddhist meditative systems—let alone mystical traditions everywhere—come down to the same perspective or experience.
Nevertheless, the Great Perfection, the Middle Way, and the Great Seal coincide in profoundly important ways—especially in their gnostic approach to view, meditation, and conduct on the Buddhist path. All three agree that the nature of mind is empty, pure, and luminous, and each, in its own way, calls us to the essential task of rediscovering our primordial mind, insisting that we can be free only if and when we recognize—not just intellectually but through deep contemplation—that this is who and what we are at the deepest level.