Mahāmudrā in Tibet
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0086
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0086
The Tibetan term phyag rgya chen po (pronounced “chakya chenpo” in central Tibet, “chaja chenpo” in Kham) translates the Sanskrit mahāmudrā, usually rendered as the “great seal.” It is best known as a system of meditation on the nature of mind that is central to the Marpa Kagyü (Bka’ brgyud) order of Tibetan Buddhism, but it is important in other Tibetan traditions, too, including the Nyingma (Rnying ma), Shangpa Kagyü (Shangs pa bka’ brgyud), Kadam (Bka’ gdams), Zhijé (Zhi byed), Sakya (Sa skya), Jonang (Jo nang), and Geluk (Dge lugs). Mahāmudrā became a central topic of discourse during the so-called Tibetan renaissance (10th–13th centuries), when all these schools either originated or gained articulation. The term became important in Tibet because it was prominent in the literature transmitted from India at that time, especially that of the highly esoteric Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras. See the companion Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism article, “Mahāmudrā in India.” In Tibet, mahāmudrā inspired philosophical, meditative, ethical, and poetic creativity and often sparked intense debate. In Marpa Kagyü traditions, mahāmudrā could be based in the sutras, tantras, or both. Synonymous with buddha-nature, emptiness, great bliss, the connate (Sanskrit, sahaja), nonmentation (Sanskrit, amanasikāra), 6, and the dharma body of a buddha, it could be attained either suddenly or gradually, through a succession of yogas and/or “pointing-out instructions” from one’s guru. In Nyingma, mahāmudrā was considered a high tantric realization, but less profound than the Great Perfection, or Dzokchen (rdzogs chen). In Shangpa Kagyü, it was a contemplation conjoining bliss and the realization of emptiness, like two halves of an amulet box. In Zhijé, it involved realization of the nature of mind through severing ego clinging. In Kadam, its tantric sources were approached cautiously, but it formed part of the background of thought and practice. In Sakya, it was the buddhahood ensuing from tantric initiation. In Jonang, it was the realization of buddha-nature, empty of everything but its own intrinsic purity. In Geluk, it was a sutra- or tantra-based meditation leading, through philosophical analysis, to direct realization of the empty or clear-light nature of the mind. In the modern era, mahāmudrā meditation has attracted those who—rightly or wrongly—see its emphasis on formless meditation as a way to bypass the “cultural trappings” of complex tantric practices. Thus, scholarship on it has emerged from meditation centers or translation groups nearly as often as from universities, and while some work on it lacks academic rigor, most—whatever the provenance—meets reasonable scholarly standards. The focus of this article is mahāmudrā in premodern Tibet. Many modern Tibetan masters have written on the Great Seal, but their work is not considered here, except in certain cases where a modern author has commented on a premodern work.
Despite its ubiquity and importance in Tibetan Buddhist literature, mahāmudrā has not so far been the subject of a comprehensive monograph. The broadest perspectives on the concept, therefore, must be drawn from disparate sources of various kinds, each of which has its strengths and limitations. Jackson 2011a and Jackson 2016 provide brief synoptic overviews, while Jackson 2019 contains a more detailed account. Jackson 2011b surveys modern scholarship on mahāmudrā produced in Western languages up to 2010. Roerich 1976 is a translation of Gö Lotsawa’s (’Gos lo tsā ba gzhon nu dpal, b. 1392–d. 1481) classic Tibetan dharma-history, the Blue Annals, which contains two chapters that focus on mahāmudrā lineages, though it lacks detailed discussions of the literature or teachings of the lineages. A number of useful sources for gaining an appreciation for the contours of mahāmudrā theory and practice focus on the tradition to which it is most central, the Kagyü: Dakpo Tashi Namgyal 2019 is a translation of a classic insider’s overview of the tradition; Brown 2006 is a detailed discussion of meditation practices, drawn from a plethora of important texts on the topic, while Brunnhölzl 2007 and Roberts 2014 are anthologies of short mahāmudrā-related texts from all periods; the former includes translated texts from a variety of Indian and Tibetan traditions, while the latter focuses on texts produced by Kagyü masters in Tibet. Useful summaries of mahāmudrā also may be found in Ray 2001 and Jamgön Kongtrul 2007.
Brown, Daniel P. Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahāmudrā Tradition. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2006.
A detailed synthetic analysis of the Kagyü approach to mahāmudrā meditation that draws on many important writings on the topic from that tradition, but with special emphasis on the works of Dakpo Tashi Namgyal and other great scholastics of the 16th century.
Brunnhölzl, Karl, trans. Straight from the Heart: Buddhist Pith Instructions. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2007.
This wide-ranging (though, regrettably, unindexed) anthology of Indian and Tibetan texts conveying “pith instructions” (Tib. man ngag) includes many texts of significance to mahāmudrā traditions, including important works by Indian masters and representatives of all the major Tibetan lineages, though the major emphasis is on the Kagyü.
Dakpo Tashi Namgyal. Moonbeams of Mahāmudrā, with Dispelling the Darkness of Ignorance by Wangchuk Dorje, the Ninth Karmapa. Translated by Elizabeth Callahan. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2019.
Superlative translation of perhaps the most influential of all Kagyü mahāmudrā manuals, by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (Dvags po Bkra shis rnam rgyal, b. 1512–d. 1587). Also includes an excellent introduction by the translator.
Jackson, Roger R. “Mahāmudrā: Natural Mind in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism.” Religion Compass 5.7 (2011a): 286–299.
Chronological survey of mahāmudrā ideas and practices in Indian and Tibetan traditions, including details of meditation techniques and analysis of important questions arising from mahāmudrā discourse. Similar to Jackson 2016 in structure, but less detailed.
Jackson, Roger R. “The Study of Mahāmudrā in the West: A Brief Overview.” In Mahāmudrā and the Bka’ brgyud Tradition: PIATS 2006: Proceedings of the Eleventh Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Königswinter, Germany, 2006. Edited by Roger R. Jackson, and Matthew T. Kapstein, 3–54. Andiast, Switzerland: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, 2011b.
A bibliographical essay that surveys Western-language scholarship on mahāmudrā from the mid-19th century to 2010, bracketed by an initial discussion of the appeal of mahāmudrā to Western scholars and practitioners and a concluding set of suggestions about future directions for research.
Jackson, Roger R. “Mahāmudrā in India and Tibet.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedias in Religion. New York: Oxford University, 2016.
Fairly detailed survey of the origins of mahāmudrā discourse and practice in India and their development in Tibet. More recent and detailed than either Jackson 2011a.
Jackson, Roger R. Mind Seeing Mind: Mahāmudrā and the Geluk Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2019.
Although focused primarily on Geluk understandings of mahāmudrā, the book also provides background on the great seal in India and pre-Geluk Tibetan traditions.
Jamgön Kongtrul. The Treasury of Knowledge: Book 8, Part 4, Esoteric Instructions. Translated by Sarah Harding. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2007.
Analysis, by a 19th-century leader of the nonsectarian (ris med) movement, of important Tibetan Buddhist oral transmission lineages, including, prominently, the Marpa Kagyü interpretation of mahāmudrā, which is covered on pp. 208–226.
Ray, Reginald A. Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Boston: Shambhala, 2001.
Exploration of tantric practices in Tibet, set against their Indian background. Drawn primarily from a Kagyü perspective, the book includes a clear overview of mahāmudrā (pp. 261–293).
Roberts, Peter Alan, trans. The Mind of Mahāmudrā: Advice from the Kagyü Masters. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2014.
The first major Western-language anthology of Tibetan Kagyü Mahāmudrā texts, with seminal works by Gampopa (Sgam po pa, b. 1079–d. 1153), Zhang Rinpoché (b. 1123–d. 1193), the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorjé (Rang byung rdo rje, b. 1284–d. 1339), Pema Karpo (Padma dkar po, b. 1527–d. 1592), Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, and others. The translations are drawn from Roberts 2011 (cited under Marpa Kagyü).
Roerich, George N., trans. The Blue Annals. 2d ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1976.
Originally published in 1949, this indispensable, if under-annotated, translation of ’Gos lo tsā ba Gzhon nu dpal’s work includes a chapter (no. 11) devoted to the transmission of Indian mahāmudrā lineages to Tibet in the 11th century and makes many references to mahāmudrā practices and practitioners in the lengthy chapter (no. 8) on the Marpa Kagyü (Mar pa bka’ brgyud), and in other chapters as well.
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