In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mahāmudrā in India

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Related Concepts

Buddhism Mahāmudrā in India
by
Roger Jackson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0084

Introduction

Mahāmudrā—Sanskrit for the “great seal” (Tib. phyag rgya chen po)—is best known as a system of direct meditation on the nature of mind central to the Kagyü (Bka’ brgyud) orders of Tibetan Buddhism, and it is significant for most other Tibetan traditions as well. For Tibetan treatments of Mahāmudrā, see the companion Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism article “Mahāmudrā in Tibet” by Roger Jackson. The identification of Mahāmudrā as a central topic of discourse is largely a product of the so-called Tibetan renaissance (11th–14th centuries), but the term became important in Tibet because it was prominent in the literature transmitted from India at that time, especially in the corpus surrounding the highly gnostic Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras, which expound esoteric—and sometimes antinomian—yogic practices and often relate those practices to earlier Mahayana discourses on such topics as emptiness, mind-only, and buddha-nature. The Mahayana discourses, in turn, are rooted in mainstream Buddhist discussions of the purity and power of the mind, the possibility of various nonconceptual meditative states, and the absence of any enduring self anywhere. The first explicit references to Mahāmudrā occur in early tantric literature (7th–8th centuries), where it most often denotes a ritual hand gesture (mudrā) that signifies the clear visualization of oneself as a buddha/deity. In the literature of the Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras (9th–11th centuries), Mahāmudrā has several different meanings, including one of a number of “seals” that confirm contemplative experiences; a “consort” for sexual yoga practices; the empty nature of reality and, especially, the mind; a blissful, gnostic realization of that reality, arrived at either suddenly or gradually; and the buddhahood achieved at the culmination of the tantric path (mahāmudrāsiddhi). In these later Indian traditions, and for much of the history of Tibetan Buddhism, Mahāmudrā was the focus of theoretical speculation, meditative exploration, philosophical debate, ethical reflection, and poetic celebration. With its focus on the nature of mind and its common emphasis on direct, formless meditations, Mahāmudrā has proven appealing to modern Buddhists as well and is frequently taught, practiced, discussed, and written about both in Asia and the West. Its popularity in the West has meant that scholarship on Mahāmudrā has emerged from meditation centers or translation groups as often as from universities, so the degree of academic rigor applied to its study has varied greatly—although it should be noted that the quality of scholarship has improved on all fronts in recent decades. The aim of this article is to supply the reader with the tools to investigate the texts and contexts for discourse on Mahāmudrā in India, so although the most academically rigorous studies are highlighted, numerous works that are accurate and informative but lacking a full scholarly apparatus have been included, too. Also, because most traditional scholarship on Mahāmudrā arose in Tibet rather than India, a significant number of the texts cited here are influenced by Tibetan views, so their account of Indian Mahāmudrā must be approached with due caution.

General Overviews

Although it was a topic of increasing importance in Indian Buddhist literature and a central concept in Tibet, Mahāmudrā has not so far been the subject of a comprehensive monograph, and the Indian side of the tradition—vital and authoritative as it is—has not received sufficient systematic study. An understanding of Indian discussions of Mahāmudrā, therefore, must be drawn from disparate sources of various kinds, only a few of which really qualify as “general overviews.” Three encyclopedia-type entries on Mahāmudrā worth noting have appeared in the early 21st century: Quintman 2003, Jackson 2011a, and Jackson 2016; all three provide overarching synopses but are necessarily quite brief. More recently, Jackson 2019 surveys Indian Mahāmudrā in some detail. Jackson 2008 surveys the Indian literature on Mahāmudrā that was eventually regarded as “canonical” by Tibetan authors, and so gives a reasonable overview of the textual traditions that might be regarded as forming an Indian Mahāmudrā corpus. Jackson 2011b reviews the study of Mahāmudrā in the West from the 19th century up through 2010. Dakpo Tashi Namgyal 2019 is a translation of a Tibetan Kagyü scholar’s (Dvags po Bkra shis rnam rgyal, b. 1512–d. 1587) classic insider’s overview of the tradition, which includes many useful citations from Indian works, while Brunnhölzl 2007 contains translations of a range of texts, both from Indian and Tibetan traditions, many of which are foundational for the study of Mahāmudrā.

  • 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 translations of many texts of significance to Mahāmudrā traditions, including important works by Nāgārjuna, Tilopa, and Maitrīpa.

  • Dakpo Tashi Namgyal. Moonbeams of Mahāmudrā: With Dispelling the Darkness of Ignorance by Wangchuk Dorje, the Ninth Karmapa. Translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan. Boulder, CO: Snow Lion, 2019.

    This superlative translation of Dakpo Tashi Namgyel’s influential 16th-century compendium of Kagyü Mahāmudrā ideas and practices is a trove of textual citations and meditation instructions. Indian sources, both sutra and tantra based, are scattered throughout but are especially concentrated on pp. 113–128.

  • Jackson, Roger R. “The Indian Mahāmudrā ‘Canon(s)’: A Preliminary Sketch.” Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies 9 (2008): 151–184.

    Discusses the process of identifying an Indian Mahāmudrā “canon” undertaken by Tibetan scholars, and provides detailed bibliographic information on the various arrangements of texts proposed by those scholars. Helpful for making sense of the manifold Indian sources of Mahāmudrā.

  • Jackson, Roger R. “Mahāmudrā: Natural Mind in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism.” Religion Compass 5.7 (2011a): 286–299.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2011.00283.x

    Overview of Mahāmudrā that covers its early development in India and its various manifestations in Tibet, including its approach to meditative praxis, and introduces key philosophical questions debated within Tibetan traditions.

  • Jackson, Roger R. “The Study of Mahāmudrā in the West: A Brief Historical 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 bibliographic essay that reviews the development of Western scholarship on Mahāmudrā from the 19th to the early 21st centuries.

  • Jackson, Roger R. “Mahāmudrā in India and Tibet.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, August 2016.

    The most detailed and recent of Jackson’s article-length overviews of Mahāmudrā in India and Tibet.

  • 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 the primary focus of this study is Mahāmudrā in Tibet, and in the Geluk school in particular, a fairly detailed overview of Indian Mahāmudrā literature is found on pp. 17–64.

  • Quintman, Andrew. “Mahāmudrā.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 2, M–Z. Edited by Robert Buswell, 488–489. New York: Macmillan Reference, 2003.

    A brief, but very clear, summary of Mahāmudrā ideas and practices, with a major focus on usages of the term in Tibetan Kagyü contexts but also with references to Indian sources.

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