Mahāmudrā (Sanskrit, Tibetan: Chagchen, Wylie: phyag chen, contraction of Chagya Chenpo, Wylie: phyag rgya chen po) literally means "great seal" or "great symbol." It "is a multivalent term of great importance in later Indian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism" which "also occurs occasionally in Hindu and East Asian Buddhist esotericism."[1]

The name refers to a body of teachings representing the culmination of all the practices of the Sarma schools of Tibetan Buddhism, who believe it to be the quintessential message of all of their sacred texts. The mudra portion denotes that in an adept's experience of reality, each phenomenon appears vividly, and the maha portion refers to the fact that it is beyond concept, imagination, and projection.[2]

History and semantic field

The usage and meaning of the term mahāmudrā evolved over the course of hundreds of years of Indian and Tibetan history, and as a result, the term may refer variously to "a ritual hand-gesture, one of a sequence of 'seals' in Tantric practice, the nature of reality as emptiness, a meditation procedure focusing on the nature of Mind, an innate blissful gnosis cognizing emptiness nondually, or the supreme attainment of buddhahood at the culmination of the Tantric path."[1]

Etymology in the tantras

It has been speculated that the first use of the term was in the c. 7th century Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, in which it refers to a hand gesture.[1] The term is mentioned with increasing frequency as Buddhist tantra developed further, particularly in the Yogatantras, where it appears in Tattvasaṁgraha and the Vajraśekhara-tantra. Here it also denotes a hand gesture, now linked to three other hand mudrās—the action (karma), pledge (samaya), and dharma mudrās—but also involves "mantra recitations and visualizations that symbolize and help to effect one’s complete identification with a deity’s divine form or awakening Mind (bodhicitta)."[1] In Mahāyoga tantras such as the Guhyasamāja tantra, it "has multiple meanings, including a contemplation-recitation conducive to the adamantine body, speech, and Mind of the tathāgatas; and the object-—emptiness-—through realization of which 'all is accomplished,'" and it is also used as a synonym for awakened Mind, which is said to be "primordially unborn, empty, unarisen, nonexistent, devoid of self, naturally luminous, and immaculate like the sky."[1]

In the Yoginī or Anuttarayoga Tantras, mahāmudrā "emerges as a major Buddhist concept."[1]> As scholar Roger Jackson explains,

Though still connected there to creation-stage maṇḍala practice, it is more often related to completion-stage meditations involving the manipulation of mental and physical forces in the subtle body so as to produce a divine form and a luminous, blissful, nonconceptual gnosis. In the completion-stage discussions in such Tantric systems as the Hevajra, Cakrasaṁvara, and Kālacakra, mahāmudrā has three especially important meanings. First, it may refer to a practitioner’s female consort in sexual yoga practices. Second, as before, it is one of a sequence of mudrās corresponding to various Buddhist concepts, experiences, and path-stages. Here, though, it usually is the culmination of the series, a direct realization of the nature of Mind and reality that transcends and perfects other, more conventional seals, including those involving actual or visualized sexual yoga. Third, Mahāmudrā by itself connotes the ultimate truth, realization, or achievement of yoginī Tantra practice: the great seal that marks all phenomena and experiences; a synonym for suchness, sameness, emptiness, space, and the goddess Nairātmyā (no-self); unchanging bliss beyond object and subject, shape, thought, or expression; and the ultimate gnostic attainment, mahāmudrā-siddhī.[1]

Thubten Yeshe explains: "Mahāmudrā means absolute seal, totality, unchangeability. Sealing something implies that you cannot destroy it. Mahāmudrā was not created or invented by anybody; therefore it cannot be destroyed. It is absolute reality".[3]

Aryadeva summarises: "The discussion of how to attain mahāmudrā entails methods for meditating on Mind itself as something having voidness as its nature".[4]


Mahāmudrā is most well known as a teaching within the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. However the Gelug and Sakya schools also practice mahāmudrā, as does the Tangmi tradition of Shingon Buddhism. The Nyingma school and Bon practise Dzogchen, a cognate but distinct method of direct introduction to the principle of śūnyatā. Nyingma students may also receive supplemental training in mahāmudrā, and the Palyul Nyingma lineage preserves a lineage of the "Union of Mahāmudrā and Ati Yoga" originated by Karma Chagme.

All of the various Tibetan mahāmudrā lineages originated with the Mahasiddhas of the Pala Empire of 8-12th century India. The Profound Action lineage originated with Maitreya-nātha and Asanga and was introduced to Tibet by Marpa Lotsawa and Atiśa. Marpa's students comprise the Dagpo Kagyu school and Atiśa's the Kadam school, which later had its teachings incorporated by the other Tibetan Sarma schools. Gampopa later received both the Kagyu and Kadam transmissions of the lineage and passed them through to the present-day Kagyu.

The Profound View lineage of mahāmudrā, which originated with Nagarjuna, was introduced to Tibet by Atiśa.

Marpa introduced to Tibet the Profound Blessing Meditation Experience lineage that is believed to have originated with Vajradhara and was passed to Tilopa and Naropa. Marpa also introduced a mahāmudrā lineage that traced back through Saraha and Maitripada.

Kagyu tradition

Three types of teaching

The Kagyu lineage divides the mahāmudrā teachings into three types, "sutra mahāmudrā," "tantra mahāmudrā," and "essence mahāmudrā," in a formulation that appears to originate with Jamgon Kongtrul.[5] Sutra mahāmudrā, as the name suggests, draws its philosophical view and meditation techniques from the sutrayana tradition. Tantric mahāmudrā employs such tantric techniques as tummo, dream yoga, and ösel, three of the Six Yogas of Naropa. Essence mahāmudrā is based on the direct instruction of a qualified lama, known as pointing-out instruction.

Blending of sutra and tantra

The particular Kagyu propensity to blend sutric and tantric traditions of mahāmudrā was a point of controversy in Tibet, with Sakya Pandita one of the most prominent critics thereof. The possibility of sudden liberating realization was seen as a result of this blending,[6] which was criticised:

Certain aspects of the Bka´ brgyud teachings on mahāmudrā, such as the possibility of a sudden liberating realization or the possibility that a beginner may attain mahāmudrā even without Tantric initiation, became a highly controversial issue in the 13th century. For Sa skya Paṇḍita (1182–1251), such teachings represented a new development stemming from a Sino-Tibetan influence on Sgam po pa Bsod nams rin chen (1079–1153).[7][note 1]

According to Klaus-Dieter Mathes, the Kagyu tradition sought to base their teachings in Indian works:

Later Bka´ brgyud pas defended their not specifically Tantric or sūtra mahāmudrā tradition by adducing Indian sources such as the Tattvadaśakaṭīkā or the Tattvāvatāra. These belong to a genre of literature which the Seventh Karmapa Chos grags rgya mtsho (1454–1506) called “Indian mahāmudrā-Works” (phyag chen rgya gzhung).[7]

Dr. Mathes investigated the practice described in these mahāmudrā works and found that it is not necessarily Tantric. In Saraha's dohās it is simply the realization of Mind's co-emergent nature with the help of a genuine guru. Maitrīpa (ca. 1007– ca. 1085) uses the term mahāmudrā for precisely such an approach, thus employing an originally Tantric term for something that is not a specifically Tantric practice.

It is thus legitimate for later Kagyupas to speak of Saraha's mahāmudrā tradition as being originally independent of the Sūtras and the Tantras. For Maitrīpa, the direct realization of emptiness (or the co-emergent) is the bridging link between the Sūtras and the Tantras, and it is thanks to this bridge that mahāmudrā can be linked to the Sūtras and the Tantras. In the Sūtras it takes the form of the practice of non-abiding and becoming mentally disengaged, while in the Tantras it occupies a special position among the four mudrās.[7]


Khedrup Gelek Pelzang, 1st Panchen Lama identified a number of mahāmudrā lineages, according to their main practices for achieving mahāmudrā:

From the point of view of individually ascribed names, there are numerous traditions, such as those of the simultaneously arising as merged, the amulet box, possessing five, the six spheres of equal taste, the four syllables, the pacifier, the object to be cut off, dzogchen, the discursive madhyamaka view, and so on.[4]

In his teachings on the First Panchen Lama's root text and auto-commentary the 14th Dalai Lama delineated the Kagyu practice lineages as follows:[8]

Prominent practitioners

There have been many prominent practitioners and scholars of mahāmudrā in the Kagyu tradition. Rangjung Dorje, 3rd Karmapa Lama wrote 'Aspiration Prayer of Mahāmudrā'.[9] Wangchuk Dorje, 9th Karmapa Lama, wrote Pointing Out the Dharmakaya (Wylie: chos sku mdzub tshugs ); An Ocean of the Definite Meaning (Wylie: nges don rgya mtsho ) and Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance. Tsele Natsok Rangdröl wrote the Lamp of Mahāmudrā and Dagpo Tashi Namgyal wrote Clarifying the Natural State and Moonlight of Mahāmudrā.

Gelug tradition

The First and Second Panchen Lamas wrote important discourses about mahāmudrā from the Gelug perspective. The main text of Khedrup Gelek Pelzang, 1st Panchen Lama. is A root text for the precious Gelug/Kagyu tradition of mahāmudrā: The Main Road of the Triumphant Ones (Wylie: dge ldan bka' brgyud rin po che'i phyag chen rtsa ba rgyal ba'i gzhung lam zhes bya ba ).

Sakya mahāmudrā

According to Alexander Berzin:

The Kagyu and Gelug/Kagyu traditions have both sutra and anuttarayoga tantra levels of the practice, while Sakya only an anuttarayoga one. In other words, Sakya mahāmudrā focuses only on the nature of clear light mental activity, while the other two traditions include focus on the nature of the other levels of mental activity as well.[10]


The advice and guidance of a qualified teacher is considered to be very important in learning and practicing mahāmudrā meditation. Most often mahāmudrā (particularly essence mahāmudrā) is preceded by pointing-out instruction.

Before the 1955 invasion of Tibet, many of the texts and information that are now available would have been esoteric and restricted. The Dalai Lama has been influential in making public some of these formerly esoteric Tibetan teachings, while still some remain entirely esoteric, available to a student only through a private guru-student relationship.

Some parts of the transmission are done verbally and through empowerments and "reading transmissions." A student typically goes through various tantric practices before undertaking the "formless" practices described below; the latter are classified as part of "essence mahāmudrā."[11] Ngondro is the preliminary practice common to both mahāmudrā and dzogchen traditions. According to one scholar, most people have difficulty beginning directly with formless practices and lose enthusiasm doing so, so the tantric practices work as a complement to the formless ones.[12]


As in most Buddhist schools of meditation, the basic meditative practice of mahāmudrā is divided into two approaches: śamatha ("tranquility","calm abiding") and vipaśyanā ("special insight"). This division is contained in the instructions given by Wangchuk Dorje, the ninth Karmapa, in a series of texts he composed; these epitomize teachings given on mahāmudrā practice.[13]


Mahāmudrā śamatha contains instructions on ways to sit with proper posture. The mahāmudrā shamatha teachings also include instructions on how to work with a mind that is beset with various impediments to focusing,[14] such as raising the gaze when one feels dull or sleepy, and lowering it again when one feels overly excited. Two types of mahāmudrā śamatha are generally taught: śamatha with support and śamatha without support.

With support

Mahāmudrā śamatha with support involves the use of an object of attention to which the meditator continually returns his or her attention. One of the main techniques involved in Mahāmudrā śamatha with support is mindfulness of breathing (S. ānāpānasmṛti). Mindfulness of breathing practice is considered to be a profound means of calming the mind to prepare it for the stages that follow. For the Kagyupa, in the context of mahāmudrā, mindfulness of breathing is thought to be the ideal way for the meditator to transition into taking the mind itself as the object of meditation and generating vipaśyanā on that basis.[15] The prominent contemporary Kagyu/Nyingma master Chogyam Trungpa, expressing the Kagyu Mahāmudrā view, wrote, "your breathing is the closest you can come to a picture of your mind. It is the portrait of your mind in some sense... The traditional recommendation in the lineage of meditators that developed in the Kagyu-Nyingma tradition is based on the idea of mixing mind and breath."[16]

Without support

In objectless meditation, one rests the mind without the use of a specific focal point.


The detailed instructions for the insight practices are what make mahāmudrā (and Dzogchen) unique in Tibetan Buddhism. In Mahāmudrā vipaśyanā, Wangchuck Dorje gives ten separate contemplations that are used to disclose the essential mind within; five practices of "looking at" and five of "pointing out" the nature of mind. They all presume some level of stillness cultivated by mahāmudrā shamatha. In retreat, each contemplation would typically be assigned specific time periods.[17]

The five practices for "looking at" the nature of the mind are as follows:[18]

The practices for "pointing out the nature of mind" build on these. One now looks again at each of the five, but this time repeatedly asks oneself "What is it?" In these practices, one attempts to recognize and realize the exact nature of, respectively:

The above practices do not have specific "answers"; they serve to provoke one to scrutinize experience more and more closely over time, seeking to understand what is really there.[19]

Four yogas

Mahāmudrā is sometimes divided into four distinct phases known as the four yogas of mahāmudrā (S. catvāri mahāmudrā yoga, Wylie: phyag rgya chen po'i rnal 'byor bzhi ). They are as follows:[20]

  1. one-pointedness (S. ekāgra, T. rtse gcig)
  2. simplicity (S. niṣprapāncha, T. spros bral) "free from complexity" or "not elaborate."
  3. one taste (S. samarasa, T. ro gcig)
  4. non-meditation (S. abhāvanā, sgom med) The state of not holding to either an object of meditation nor to a meditator. Nothing further needs to be 'meditated upon' or 'cultivated at this stage.[note 2]

These stages parallel the four yogas of Dzogchen semde.

The four yogas of mahāmudrā have been correlated with the Mahāyāna five paths (S. pañcamārga) as follows:

According to Tsele Natsok Rangdrol (Lamp of Mahāmudrā):

According to Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (Moonlight of Mahāmudrā):

According to Je Gyare as reported by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (Moonlight of Mahāmudrā):

According to Drelpa Dönsal as reported by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (Moonlight of Mahāmudrā):

Six Words of Advice

Tilopa was a Bengali mahasiddha who developed the mahāmudrā method around 1,000 C.E. Tilopa gave Naropa, his successor, a teaching on mahāmudrā meditation called the Six Words of Advice.

In the following chart a translation is given of the Tilopa's Six Words of Advice.[21]

Six Words of Advice
First short, literal translation Later long, explanatory translation Tibetan (Wylie transliteration)
1 Don’t recall Let go of what has passed mi mno
2 Don’t imagine Let go of what may come mi bsam
3 Don’t think Let go of what is happening now mi shes
4 Don’t examine Don’t try to figure anything out mi dpyod
5 Don’t control Don’t try to make anything happen mi sgom
6 Rest Relax, right now, and rest rang sar bzhag

See also


  1. This is a reference to Hwashang and the Council of Lhasa, in which Indian Buddhism and its gradual approach was chosen over the sudden approach of Chan Buddhism. See Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, Bkra-śis-rnam-rgyal (Dwags-po Paṇ-chen) (2006), Mahamudra: The Moonlight - Quintessence of Mind and Meditation, Wisdom Publications, p.104-105.
  2. See also Shikan-taza, Turiya, Sahaja, and choiceless awareness.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Mahāmudrā" by Roger R. Jackson. Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition Gacl: 2005 ISBN 0-02-865733-0. pg 5596
  2. Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, page 261.
  3. Yeshe, Lama Thubten (2003). Becoming the Compassion Buddha: Tantric Mahamudra for Everyday Life. Wisdom Publications. p. 21. ISBN 0-86171-343-5.
  4. 1 2 quoted in Gyatso, Tenzin; Alexander Berzin (1997). The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. New York: Snow Lion Publications. p. 119. ISBN 1-55939-072-7.
  5. "Blending the Sūtras with the Tantras: The Influence of Maitrīpa and his Circle on the formation of Sūtra Mahāmudrā in the Kagyu Schools" by Klaus-Dieter Mathes in Tibetan Buddhist Literature and Praxis : Studies in its Formative Period, 900-1400, PIATS 2003: Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Tenth seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies. Oxford: 2003 pg 201
  6. Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, Bkra-śis-rnam-rgyal (Dwags-po Paṇ-chen) (2006), Mahamudra: The Moonlight - Quintessence of Mind and Meditation, Wisdom Publications, p.104
  7. 1 2 3 "Indian Mahāmudrā-Works” in the Early Bka’ brgyud pa." Centre for Tantric Studies website.
  8. Gyatso, Tenzin; Alexander Berzin (1997). The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. New York: Snow Lion Publications. pp. 262–271. ISBN 1-55939-072-7.
  10. Berzin, Alexander (1995, revised July 2006). "What Is Dzogchen?". Study Buddhism. Retrieved 2016-06-16. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  11. Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 273-274.
  12. Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 272-274.
  13. Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, page 274.
  14. Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 274-275.
  15. Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra tradition by Dan Brown. Wisdom Publications: 2006 pg 221-34
  16. The Path is the Goal, in The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Vol Two. Shambhala Publications. pgs 49, 51
  17. Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, page 276.
  18. Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, pages 276-277.
  19. Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. Shambhala 2001, page 277.
  20. Mahamudra: The Moonlight: Quintessence of Mind and Meditation by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal Wisdom Publications; 2nd ed: 2006 ISBN 9780861712991 pg 463
  21. According to Ken McLeod, the text contains exactly six words; the two English translations given in the following table are both attributed to him.

Further reading

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