The Mahamudra Lineage

Osel Tendzin on Mahamudra and the lineage of Naropa, Marpa & Milarepa.

Ösel Tendzin
1 September 1994
Vajradhara surrounded by smaller figures of Telopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarapa Hanging scroll (mounted on panel). Courtesy of the Freer Sackler Gallery.

Osel Tendzin on the lineage of Naropa, Marpa & Milarepa.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome. We have undertaken to discuss and practice in the style of the Kagyu lineage of Tibet, which is the lineage of mahamudra.

The mahamudra lineage refers to an expression of enlightened mind presented in this world by realized beings, such as the eighty-four siddhas of India, who lived in the eighth century and earlier and who actually realized complete enlightenment, the awakened state of mind. Siddha means “completely accomplished person” or, as it is sometimes translated, “magician.”

The siddhas realized the ultimate awakened state, which is known as Mahamudra. Mudra means “sign” or “seal,” and maha means “great.” These siddhas did not live ordinary lives in the sense that they did not fit the picture of conventional spirituality. But because the Mahamudra teaching is all-encompassing and direct, it was possible for them to manifest in a variety of ways in order to present the awakened state to others. Among them were sweepers, kings, warriors, and business persons; one in particular worked in a brothel. The unique quality of this lineage is that, over time, those who realize the mahamudra are able to manifest according to the different needs of the societies in which they live.

Among these eighty-four siddhas was the great mahasiddha, Tilopa, from whom the Kagyu lineage evolved. Tilopa was born a high caste Brahmin in India. At a very young age he was attracted to the dharma. By the time he was in his teens, he had mastered all the sutras and later on, all the tantras. To complete his realization, he studied with four great gurus, and ultimately he manifested as a completely awakened one. In other words, he attained buddhahood. Tilopa said, “My guru is none other than Vajradhara himself.” In this case, Vajradhara means “primordial mind.” He transmitted this particular teaching to the mahapandita Naropa, who was a great scholar.

Naropa was the head of Nalanda University, the greatest center of Buddhist learning of the time. Naropa was completely accomplished in all the sciences: grammar, epistemology, medicine, and so on, and he knew all the dharmas thoroughly, but he felt that somehow he had not understood everything. Motivated by that he had a vision of Tilopa as an old hag with thirty-seven ugly features, which corresponded to thirty-seven defilements and thirty-seven aspects of enlightenment. Naropa understood that this vision had a profound meaning, and so he gave up his position and went to seek the guru. After a lot of hardship—the basic hardship being his own projections— he found his teacher, Tilopa, and served him for twelve years. And Naropa attained complete enlightenment.
In turn, Naropa transmitted the teaching directly to Lord Marpa, the first Tibetan to hold this particular lineage. When Marpa was young, he was so short-tempered that his family said, “He must learn the dharma or he’s going to come to no good,” so they sent him off to study the dharma. Marpa spent sixteen years in India with five great teachers, particularly Naropa, who taught him the complete tantra.

Marpa was a householder. He had lots of land, a wife, and seven children. He was gruff and short-tempered. Marpa had a reputation among some as one who spent all of his time amassing material wealth, but he gathered gold as an offering to his guru, Naropa. Marpa was a brilliant scholar and translator, and one of the founders of what is called the New Translation School of Tibetan Buddhism. Moreover, he was an adept in meditation. It is said that Marpa perfected the Mahamudra in seven days. He had four great disciples; and the superior one was called Milarepa.

Milarepa had no talent whatsoever. His only achievement was that he had learned black magic to fulfill his mother’s wish for revenge on an aunt and uncle who had usurped their property. But Milarepa had one-pointed dedication and devotion that has not been equaled in this world. He served his guru, Marpa, for many years.

For a long time Marpa would not give Milarepa teachings, knowing that Milarepa had murdered members of his own family. Instead, Marpa asked Milarepa to build a house with nine stories for his son. When Mila had almost completed building it, Marpa said, “Tear it down; it’s not right.” Marpa did this again and again and again. Finally, after Mila had built a fourth house, he became so discouraged that it seemed he had no choice but to commit suicide because his guru would not give him the teaching. At that point Marpa relented, but in order for Milarepa to clear away his past misdeeds, Marpa had to train him in that way. Milarepa meditated for twelve years in the mountains. He had no liking for the world whatsoever, but he produced a great many disciples.

The foremost among them was Lord Gampopa, who organized the teachings of the Kagyu lineage, which have been passed down in an unbroken succession from Gampopa to this time, primarily through the line of Karmapas, of which there have been sixteen. The sixteenth Karmapa, His Holiness Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, died in 1981. Part of that lineage is the line of Trungpa tulkus, and the eleventh Trungpa, the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, passed those teachings on to me.

The Mahamudra lineage teaches what is called vajra- yana. According to this lineage, there are three main teachings: the path of individual liberation, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Vajrayana, the third and last, is known as the expedient path, which if followed completely with one-pointed mind and devotion, brings enlightenment in one lifetime.

When sentient beings like ourselves wake up to our basic intelligence, we enter the path informed by individual liberation. That is to say, we examine everything very closely by focusing on ourselves, on our consciousness and our activity. At the same time we refrain from causing harm to others. So to simplify and to not cause harm is the basic way we enter the path of dharma.

Beyond that, in the Mahayana path, once we have steadied the mind and understood the basic problem of existence, so to speak, our view begins to expand. We begin to create a relationship between that understanding and our sense of other, the so-called outside world. That expansion is based on recognizing some fundamental spark in ourselves, which in essence is warmth or heat but in expression is called compassion.

This compassion is the quality of a buddha. In the Mahayana phase of the path one actually conceives of oneself as a buddha. This does not mean simply imagining that one is a buddha. An actual experience occurs where one feels a complete sense of openness and generosity toward all beings. That is our first glimpse of actually possessing enlightened mind. In the phase of the path of individual liberation, we simplify and by doing so we refrain from causing harm. In the Mahayana phase of practice, we work very hard at dissolving any accumulated aggression. Because we have opened our hearts, we not only refrain from causing harm but we also develop compassion by letting go of aggression.

The final phase, Vajrayana, is based on having felt the kind of compassion toward all sentient beings that actually brings up the buddha mind in oneself. We become capable of practicing the path of upaya, or skillful means. The practitioner of skillful means works with everything that exists, whether it’s considered good or bad, and uses it as part of their practice. That is why the siddhas could manifest in various ways without corrupting their motivation or their point of view. According to some, the Vajrayana is corrupt; it is not true Buddhism. Some of the tantras, for example, talk about indulging in the senses, among other things. However, that language is the language of Mahamudra, and it is sealed by enlightened mind. To understand it, one has to experience it directly.

All three yanas are contained in the Vajrayana: renunciation, or not causing harm; generating compassion, or working for others; and utilizing all phenomena as expressions of enlightenment. These are all one path, one practice.

Nevertheless, entering the Vajrayana path requires a bit of a leap on the part of the practitioner. To people who do not follow this path, it seems frightening. However, in this age, the Vajrayana teachings seem to be the most direct way of awakening our so-called primordial instincts. When students like ourselves hear the Vajrayana teachings and enter this path, we enter primarily on the level of the yana of individual liberation, but we hear the teachings from a Vajrayana point of view. I think this is the best approach, because you can hear the whole story right from the beginning, so you know what you are getting into. Also, you know what you are getting out of.

What is that Great Symbol, that Great Seal of Mahamudra? Basically, it means that all of phenomena, all that is experienced by the mind, is the symbol of itself. There is no duality whatsoever between what you experience and who you are. There is no duality whatsoever between mind and its projections. There is no duality whatsoever between phenomena and appreciation. In all of reality there is no particular break. It is totally sealed and complete, altogether. There are no second thoughts. That is the Mahamudra.

To the mind of a student, this is a terrifying prospect, and at the same time it opens the mind completely. It is terrifying in the sense that, on hearing these words, one begins to feel the quality of the mind itself. In other words, mind is seeing mind. If there is a residue of fear or struggle or egotism, the mind begins to move or shake. From That a quality of paranoia arises. That paranoia is this very mind, which we call nowness, or things as they are. So to hear the Mahamudra is actually to experience a glimpse of it, on the spot.

Due to lingering in the fog of ignorance we accumulate habits. Actually the mind accumulates its own habits; “we” is just a euphemism at this point. Although those habits are nothing in particular, they become forms. They become bodies and places and things. They become attitudes and environments. They become philosophies and religions, nations and races. They become history. They become good and bad. They become war and peace. They become everything. In reality, everything is generated from mind.

According to the Mahamudra, this mind has never been corrupted. All the forms that appear in the mind are simply the display of brilliant energy. However, lingering in a foggy way creates images and forms that don’t exactly seem real but at the same time, do. In other words, due to ignorance and laziness a kind of split occurs in one’s consciousness. The forms that we experience appear to be real and at the same time appear to be a mirage.

It is very hard for the foggy mind to appreciate the true nature of form, which is simply the result of a lack of clarity. When there is a lack of clarity, one thing is usually mistaken to be another. When that occurs, there is the perception of friend and enemy, good and bad, and so on. When that occurs, because of our projections, we begin to take sides, not realizing that these are the projections of mind.

In taking sides we create endless confusion and endless repetition and what eventually becomes the neurotic struggle to survive. This culminates in taking birth in a body like the one we have, or in another type of body. According to the Buddhist teachings, there are six realms or types of manifestation, and the realm of human beings is one of them. Once we acquire a physical body, our minds are so confused and we are so far from seeing things clearly that all we can do is habituate ourselves to whatever body we have. If you are human, you will like comfort, so you will constantly strive to create a more comfortable environment. If you are an animal, you will constantly crave food, and so on. The view of Mahamudra is that once you have entered one of these states, it is almost impossible to see the clear, naked, crystal-like quality of mind itself.

However, due to auspicious coincidence, at some point you hear the teachings. Out of their great compassion, the Buddha and his lineage taught the path of awakening. Hearing that for the first time may be like having cold water poured on your head. You wake up, and in hearing the teachings, you begin to practice the discipline of waking up.

Frankly speaking, that’s all I’m talking about. There isn’t anything that we’re doing, other than waking up. There is no enlightenment that exists outside that you can “get.” It is simply a matter of waking up. The Buddha and his disciples have presented a path that can be done, that can be practiced. That is the great proclamation of Mahamudra: that enlightenment can actually be attained. You can do it. In fact, Lord Marpa’s biography is called Seeing Accomplishes All. In just one glimpse |snaps fingers] you are on the path. If you have one glimpse, you are on it forever.

To the frightened, deluded mind, the prospect of being on it forever is threatening and somewhat claustrophobic. When you feel that way, you would like to have somewhere to go. When you are stressed out you think there should be some therapy, some alternative. My dear friends, that is so silly. If you are in trouble and feeling crazy and someone could present you with an alternative, can you get out of your craziness? Can you actually get out of the real craziness? Real craziness is wanting some alternative to what is. The world we live in is replete with alternatives, and worst of all are the psychological alternatives. The spiritual alternatives are very tired. The psychological alternatives are much more insidious because they offer actual results.

The Kagyu lineage talks about “rock meeting bone.” This means that you actually see your own face. To do that, one has to have a genuine teacher. It cannot be done through books, nor can it be done through association, such as having a friend who practices meditation. It cannot be done through thinking that you are doing it. It cannot be done through thinking at all. It is necessary to have a genuine teacher, one who has done it. You can recognize a genuine teacher by his or her qualities. A genuine teacher should possess gentleness and kindness, should know the teachings thoroughly, and should be able to transmit those teachings in such a way that their students attain those qualities themselves. In this lineage we do not just talk; we actually produce such people.

To begin with, one has to have the right view. In order to have the right view one should assume a meditation posture. In assuming that posture one should settle one’s body on the earth so that one feels a connection with all of the elements. The elements of the body and the elements of the earth and the sky and all around are settled together, simultaneously. Next, one should settle one’s speech, that is, one should regard thoughts as transparent. Then one should settle one’s mind by looking straight into things as they are. In those three ways one practices the view of Mahamudra. It is quite simple and at the same time very profound.

Because of discursive thoughts, it is very hard for beginning meditators just to settle the body. In fact, the body that we are trying to settle is what is known as a psychosomatic body. It is a thought body, not an actual, elemental body. We have to settle that thought body, and the way we do that is to use the breath as a vehicle for settling. We work with the breath because it happens by itself; it is not something we have to think up. That is very important, especially in the Mahamudra practice, which is not based on any contrivance whatsoever.

To begin with, we work with the breath, especially the outbreath, because the outbreath is a kind of opening into space. The outbreath allows any centralized notion of “me” or “I” to dissolve in space. When that happens there is a sense of 360-degree awareness. There is no checking back; everything is a one-shot deal, which is called the Mahamudra. In that way, every time you breathe out there is a possibility of experiencing everything there is to experience, in one shot. That is called awareness. In one shot everything is seen clearly, but there is no thing, particularly, that one sees. That practice, when repeated over time, begins to settle the discursiveness of the mind so that the body is felt as an actual body.

When the body is settled, we begin to work with thoughts. Again, the breath is both the background and the connection with space. In that realm of openness, thoughts arise, dwell, and fade, one after another, constantly. If one looks, it seems that there is no end to thoughts. In practice, one sees that thoughts come one upon the other, tumbling down like water over rocks. However, having settled one’s body, if one examines very closely without any bias, one sees that the origin of those thoughts cannot be found. If one examines very closely, without bias, the dwelling of these thoughts, they do not dwell anywhere. If one examines very closely without any bias the cessation of those thoughts, they do not go anywhere.

One begins to see that thoughts are transparent. That is the beginning of realizing nonaggression, and at that point one no longer has to be hard on oneself.

Later on, when one practices more completely, thoughts may begin to subside; but occasionally the mind is gripped by very strong emotion, such as passion, hatred, envy, or jealousy, and those strong emotions create stories in the mind. A story is nothing but a series of thoughts, but in this case the story seems to have a history. If one examines that history very closely, one realizes that it arose from thought. From that thought came a picture, from that picture came a story, and from that story came a very strong emotional feeling. Again, if one simply resolves the mind and the breath and lets the breath go out and dissolve in space, then right at the end of that outbreath [snaps fingers] is the end of that thought. The emotions that create such a picture are in themselves transparent.

Later, even seeing those emotions as transparent might become a kind of trap, another reason to feel self-snug or secure. At that point one actually has to work with the mind. One has to dive straight into whatever arises, dive directly into the mind, into whatever occurs, without any hesitation. That particular practice is done stage by stage, but it is not done deliberately. It will occur naturally if you let go and relax and just be.

In the Mahamudra lineage, we talk about non-meditation, which means that the practitioner and the practice merge together so that there is no more effort. However, in the beginning it is necessary to see that there is an actual path. That path, all the way through, is completely empty of any concept whatsoever. It appears to move from one place to another simply because of the tendency of mind to become foggy. A kind of filminess develops on the surface of the mind and creates shapes like “path of individual liberation,” “Mahayana,” or “Vajrayana.” In reality, those are just words. In reality, that unobstructed and unoriginated mind is always right now. It is the best practice, the best means of waking up to what is already here.

©1994 Irene Rich. All rights reserved.

Ösel Tendzin

Ösel Tendzin

OSEL TENDZIN (Thomas F. Rich) was Vajra Regent and dharma heir of the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. As such, he was the first American accepted as a lineage holder of the Kagyu tradition of vajrayana Buddhism. Osel Tendzin was co-founder of Shambhala Training and author of Buddha in the Palm of Your Hand. Following Trungpa Rinpoche’s death in 1987, he was President of Vajradhatu and the Nalanda Foundation until his own death in 1990.