What Is Mahamudra?
Dr. Alexander Berzin
Mahamudra is a body of teachings found in the many of the Tibetan Buddhist schools, which includes methods for truly understanding the very nature of our own minds, leading us to enlightenment. Different schools might propose slightly different approaches for achieving this goal, but regardless of which one is followed, working on knowing the actual nature of our minds is a way of making our lives incredibly meaningful.
Mahamudra, a Sanskrit word meaning “great seal,” refers to an advanced and sophisticated system of meditation on the nature of the mind, and the realizations gained through it. Just like wax seals are stamped on legal documents to authenticate their signature, similarly the great seal of mahamudra is stamped on authentic practices that bring enlightenment for the benefit of all.
Mahamudra meditation’s distinctive characteristic is that it focuses on the mind itself and its intimate relation with the world of conventional appearances and with voidness (emptiness). Confusion and unawareness (ignorance) of this relation drive our disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior, resulting in unrelenting suffering and problems. Mahamudra meditation is a highly effective method for attaining liberation from this suffering, and for becoming enlightened, but only when undertaken on a firm foundation. This means that extensive training in the entire lam-rim graded path is required for progress to be made.
Mahamudra-style practices are found in the Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. In Kagyu and Gelug, it has both sutra and anuttarayoga tantra levels of practice, which focus on the usual levels and clear light level of the mind respectively. Sakya transmits only the anuttarayoga tantra level. Here, we’ll focus on the sutra level in its Gelug and Karma Kagyu forms. Gelug emphasizes meditation on the voidness of the mind, while Karma Kagyu emphasizes meditation on the mind that non-conceptually realizes voidness.
For both approaches, it is crucial to distinguish what exactly mind is.
This activity continues unbroken throughout all our lifetimes, with no beginning or end. The mind itself is extremely difficult to recognize, and so success in the practice is only possible on the basis of extensive positive force and the purification of negative potentials through repeated preliminary practices, or ngondro.
Clarity – the mental activity of giving rise to appearances (appearance-making), namely the mental holograms of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations and thoughts, all accompanied by some level of happiness, various emotions, and such basic mental factors as attention and concentration.
Awareness – some type of cognitive engagement. It’s neither separate nor subsequent to appearance-making – it’s not that a thought first arises and then we think it. Awareness is just a subjective way of describing the same mental activity as appearance-making.
Mere – this is all that mental activity is, and excludes there being a separate, findable “me” as the agent or observer of this activity, or a separate, findable “mind,” like some sort of immaterial machine doing it all. Mental activity occurs on the physical basis of a brain and neural system, but that doesn’t mean that mind is equivalent or reducible to something physical.
Voidness – the total absence of anything findable on the side of mere clarity and awareness that by its own power establishes that there is such a thing as mental activity, not even these defining characteristics themselves. The only thing we can say that accounts for the fact that conventionally we all agree that we subjectively and individually experience things is mental labeling.
Mental labeling – the fact that we, as a society, have the concept and word “mind,” that we’ve coined as a mental label and designation for the moment-to-moment continuum of mere appearance-making and cognitive engagement that we all experience. Mental labeling isn’t, however, an active practice that just creates anything – it’s simply a way of accounting for the valid conventional existence of things. There is no self-establishing nature on the side of mental activity or of anything else that accounts for its existence – that’s impossible. Voidness is the total absence of that impossible way of establishing the conventional existence of anything.
The Gelug style of mahamudra meditation focuses first on the conventional nature of mental activity, with mindfulness to prevent loss of focus and alertness to detect any such loss. Think of a flashlight, but where we pay no attention to what it’s illuminating (the appearances of sensory objects or thoughts, plus the emotional content accompanying them). Instead, we focus on the activity of the flashlight that is occurring in each moment – making appearances visible. It’s important not to focus on the mental activity as if it were an object, but rather just to be attentively focused while mental activity is occurring. We make sure not to identify “me” with the flashlight, not as the person holding the flashlight or observing what appears. When thoughts arise, we simply notice them, without getting drawn into their storyline; they automatically disappear and our original intention to meditate on the mind itself brings our focus back to the mental activity. Alternatively, we ourselves cut off the thought and consciously bring our attention back.
Once we attain a stilled and settled state of shamatha focused on the conventional nature of mental activity, we then focus on its deepest nature, its voidness of self-established existence. We eventually attain an exceptionally perceptive state of vipashyana joined with shamatha and focused on the voidness of the mind. We continue practice until this joined pair becomes non-conceptual and, through stages, we attain liberation and enlightenment.
The Third Karmapa’s Presentation
The conventional nature of mental activity is “inseparable appearance-making (clarity) and appearances.” The deepest nature of mental activity is “inseparable awareness and voidness” and “inseparable appearance-making/appearances and awareness/voidness.”
Voidness – the other-voidness view, according to which voidness is a mental state beyond words and concepts – “beyond” both in the sense of an awareness that is devoid of all grosser levels of mind on which words and concepts occur, as well as in the sense of existing in a manner that is beyond what would correspond to words and concepts.
The Ninth Karmapa’s Presentation
Clarity-making, or simply “clarity (appearance-making)” – described as being “sparkling”
Knowing – equivalent to “awareness” in the sense of being “wide-awake”
Starkness – non-conceptuality, the cognitive state devoid of conceptual thought. Conceptual thought is what projects appearances of truly established existence and categorizes phenomena as “this” or “that.”
Voidness – the self-voidness view, according to which voidness is the state beyond words and concepts merely in the sense of existing in a manner that is beyond what would correspond to words and concepts (such as truly existent, non-truly existent, both or neither.)
In the Karma Kagyu style of mahamudra meditation, one attains a state of shamatha by settling down, with mindfulness and alertness, in the present moment of clarity-making, knowing and starkness, free of any conceptual thought. This means meditating without expectations or worries, and without conceptually identifying as “this” or “that” concrete object:
The meditation employs the same methods for concentrating as used in the Gelug style described above. For gaining a state of vipashyana on the deepest nature of mind, the meditation examines and analyzes the relation between mind, in its conventional sense, and appearances.
Gelug mahamudra meditation focuses on the relation between mind and conventional appearances from the point of view that mind makes all conventionally existent objects appear and be known and does this because it does not exist by the power of some findable self-nature. Both mind and conventional appearances can only be accounted for as what the concepts and words for them refer to on the basis of moment-to-moment mere appearance-making and awareness.
Karma Kagyu mahamudra meditation focuses on the relation between mind and appearances from the point of view of their non-duality – neither can be established as existing on its own, separately from the other. Both exist beyond words and concepts in the sense that neither of them exist as findable objects inside the box-like categories that correspond to words or concepts.
Regardless of which method we use, we come to the same conclusion: we can only know the nature of appearances in terms of their relation with mind. When we understand mind and the world of conventional appearances, and have as our firm foundation the lam-rim graded path trainings and extensive preliminary practices, then with sustained mahamudra meditation we will be able to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all.