The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition Of Mahamudra

The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition Of Mahamudra

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Mahamudra, the great sealing nature, refers to systems of meditation on both the conventional and ultimate natures of the mind. These have been transmitted through the Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Within the Gelug, Mahamudra teachings occur in a combined Gelug/Kagyu tradition exemplified in the First Panchen Lama's Root Text for the Precious Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. The work presented here contains two brilliant commentaries by the Dalai Lama. The first is a teaching based directly on the First Panchen Lama's root text. In the second, His Holiness bases his discussion on the First Panchen Lama's own commentary to this text. The book opens with an overview of Mahamudra by Alexander Berzin that discusses the relation of mind appearances and reality and offers practical techniques for overcoming problems of excessive worry, anxiety, and disturbing thoughts. This treasury of practical instruction contains extensive teachings on the nature of mind, the development of shamata, sutra and tantra levels of Mahamudra, and the compatibility of Dzogchen and Anuttarayoga Tantra.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781559390729
Publisher: Shambhala
Publication date: 01/28/1997
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Alexander Berzin received a PhD from Harvard University in 1972 from the Departments of Far Eastern Languages and Sanskrit and Indian Studies. A member of the Translation Bureau of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives since 1972, he is the author of numerous books and articles. He frequently travels to the Americas, Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, lecturing on Buddhism and Tibetan culture and helping to establish programs of co-operation between the Tibetan community and academic and religious institutions.

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Chapter One



"Mahamudra" is a Sanskrit word meaning "great seal" and refers to the nature of all phenomena. Just as a wax seal is stamped on legal documents to authenticate their signature, likewise the nature of reality is figuratively stamped upon everything as a guarantee that nothing exists in a fantasized, impossible way. The fact that everything is devoid of existing in any impossible manner thus validates that things actually exist.

    Mahamudra also refers to sophisticated Buddhist systems of meditation and practice to realize this great sealing nature. The distinctive characteristic of these techniques is to see this nature by focusing on mind itself and discovering the relationship between mind and reality. When our mind confuses reality with fantasy, we produce problems for ourselves. Furthermore, when our mind gives rise to an appearance of others in a way that does not correspond to their reality, we are unable to be of help to them. Understanding the intimate relation between mind and reality, therefore, is essential for achieving both liberation and enlightenment, the goal of mahamudra practice.

    The most commonly discussed fantasized and impossible manner of existence in Buddhism is literally called "true existence," referring to existence truly independent from a relation with mind. Since true existence is, paradoxically, false existence, referring to a manner of existence that is impossible and not at all real, we can perhaps avoid the confusion by using, instead, variations of the term"solid existence."

    We can begin to appreciate the complex relation between mind and reality by examining it from various points of view. For example, if we approach the topic in a practical, down-to-earth manner and call the actual way in which we and the universe exist "reality," we live "in reality." On the basis of our everyday experience of reality, we can know and perhaps understand it. This process can only occur through the medium of mind.

    If directly experiencing and knowing reality is not sufficient to be able to understand it clearly and we also need to think about it, we can only do so through a conceptual scheme, which is a construct of mind. Furthermore, if we need to formulate and express to ourselves or others what reality is, we can only do so through words or symbols, which are also a construct of mind. Reality exists, but it is a fantasy to imagine that we can experience, understand, prove or describe it independently from the relationship between reality and mind. If we may borrow a term from post-modernist philosophy, we must "deconstruct" reality from being some solid thing "out there."

    If we ask how do phenomena exist, we have already involved mind in merely asking the question. Moreover, we can only answer this question by also involving mind. Suppose we reply, Yes, that is obvious, but on a theoretical level don't things exist separately from mind? We would have to say that a theoretical level does not exist by itself, independently from a mind that is either formulating or at least thinking about it. We cannot say anything further about how a theoretical level exists, because to say anything involves language, which is a construct of mind.

    In fact, as soon as we raise the issue of how things exist, we have entered the realm of description which can only be carried out by mind. But that does not mean that everything exists only in the mind and that the earth did not exist before there was life on it. An object need not be experienced by a specific mind at this moment in order to exist. But if we are going to talk about how things exist, or try to understand, prove and know it, we can only do so in relation to mind. Mahamudra starts on this premise.

    We can formulate the relationship between mind and how things exist in several ways. There are two major approaches in mahamudra. Let us characterize them in very general terms. The first presents what exists in terms of phenomena being either mind or objects of mind — in other words, experience or the contents of experience. Phenomena, including minds, exist merely by virtue of the fact that mind can simply give rise to an appearance or occurrence of them as an object of cognition. We can establish that our children and love for them exist simply because we can know and experience them. The other major approach discusses what exists in terms of mental labeling, which means things exist as what they are simply in relation to words and what words refer to or signify. Phenomena exist as what they are by virtue of being simply the meaning of the words, mental labels or conceptual formulations of them. We can establish that our children and love exist simply because we can give them names that refer to them.

    In neither case is the existence of phenomena established from their own side by virtue, for example, of an inherent, findable self-nature rendering them truly what they are, independently from any relation with mind. Our children do not exist as our children because they have some defining characteristic somewhere inside them making them inherently "our children" even if we ourselves never existed. And love does not exist by itself somewhere in the sky with a defining internal force empowering its existence. These are impossible, fantasized manners of existing, and all phenomena are devoid of existing in those ways. The absence of any phenomenon's existing in impossible manners is called its voidness or "emptiness."

    Each of these two approaches entails its own characteristic style of mahamudra meditation on the nature of reality. With the former, we focus on the mind that apprehends voidness as its object and come to realize that all appearances are the play of that mind. With the latter, we focus on voidness as an object of cognition, specifically on the voidness of mind, and come to realize that even mind itself exists merely by virtue of the fact that it can simply be labeled as "mind." With the former, then, we focus on a mind that apprehends a certain object, while with the latter, on an object apprehended by a certain mind.

    The Kagyü, Sakya and Gelug traditions of Tibet each transmit lineages of mahamudra presented with a distinctive manner of explanation and with an individual style of meditation. All derive from common sources in India transmitted to Tibet during the early eleventh century. Kagyü and some schools of Sakya present mahamudra in terms of the inseparability of appearance and mind. Gelug presents it in terms of mental labeling, while other schools of Sakya combine the two by first seeing the relation between objects of mind and mind itself, and then realizing the nature of mind itself in terms of mental labeling. Kagyü and Gelug present mahamudra techniques involving both coarse and the most subtle levels of mind, whereas Sakya approaches this only from the point of view of the subtlest level. Kagyü explains two styles of mahamudra practice — one for those who progress through graded stages and the other for those for whom everything happens at once. Sakya and Gelug describe paths of practice for only the former. The Gelug tradition of mahamudra is known as Gelug/Kagyü because it uses Kagyü-style techniques for recognizing the conventional nature of mind and then typically Gelug ones for recognizing its deepest nature. In the end, as the First Panchen Lama explains in A Root Text for the Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra, each approach comes to the same intended realization and result. Each leads, on the basis of mind itself, to the elimination of all confusion and the realization of all potentials, which enables us to be of fullest benefit to others.


In order to understand, appreciate and, if we are so inclined, eventually practice mahamudra techniques, we need to see them within their appropriate context. Let us begin by outlining this context briefly in terms of the four facts in life that Buddha realized and taught, and which all aryas, or highly realized beings — "noble ones" — see as true. They are usually called the "four noble truths."

    Living in India two and a half thousand years ago, Buddha was a person who liberated himself from all confusion and thus became able to use all his potentials for the benefit of others. He achieved this state of enlightenment basically by understanding reality, namely what is true in life. First he saw the truth of suffering. The standard way of expressing this first true fact, however, that "life is suffering," sounds rather ominous and pessimistic. It does not quite convey the intention. He saw, in fact, that no one who looks at life truthfully could deny that it is difficult.

    Nothing in life is ever easy. It is not easy to live in society, make a living or raise a family. As trying as these normal aspects of life may be, we tend to make them even more difficult than necessary. For example, we become so nervous, upset and worried about everything that we do not handle life's trials as well or as gracefully as we could. Always tense, we make not only ourselves, but everyone around us miserable.

    Buddha explained that the deepest cause of our making life more difficult than need be is our unawareness, or "ignorance." This is the second true fact of life — the true cause of suffering. Unawareness can be about either behavioral cause and effect or reality, and we can be unaware of each by either simply not knowing about it or, in addition, apprehending it in an incorrect manner. "Apprehending," usually translated as "grasping," means to cognize an object in a certain way. Since apprehending reality in an incorrect manner is the root cause of our difficulties in life, we shall refer to unawareness in this context as "confusion about reality."

    Being confused about reality, we naturally feel insecure and are nervous and tense. We tend to make such heavy ordeals out of everyday things in our life, such as driving to work or putting the children to bed, that we feel constantly stressed. Of course we need to be concerned about life and take care of our responsibilities, but there is never any need to handicap ourselves with compulsive worry and chronic anxiety. They only prevent us from effectively dealing with life. They certainly do not lead to happiness and peace of mind. To paraphrase the eighth-century Indian master Shantideva, "If there is something difficult in life that we can change, why be upset? Just change it. But if there is nothing that can be done, why be upset? It doesn't help."

    When we are feeling tense, either about a specific situation like being caught in traffic, or in an unlocalized manner such as when in a bad mood, we tend to externalize our tension. We express it and perhaps spread it to others, but more importantly, on a deeper level, we misapprehend our tension as something solid and project it onto all situations we are in. Our mind gives rise to an appearance of the traffic jam, and even of our getting up in the morning, as if they were themselves solid, monstrous ordeals. It gives rise to an appearance of them as though their very natures made them truly and inherently stressful, regardless of who might experience them. In addition to our mind automatically and unconsciously giving rise to appearances of things in that way, we may also dwell on these appearances with morbid, uncontrollably recurring thoughts, reinforcing our belief that these appearances are true reality. Everything feels so tense and stressful, it seems as if life were a bear-trap, somewhere "out there," and we are caught tightly and inexorably in its cruel grip.

    Buddha explained that this confusion about reality — our imagining that everything exists in the manner in which our mind gives rise to an appearance of it — is the root cause of our trouble. In this way we make difficult aspects of life even more difficult for ourselves. It does not appear to us that tension is merely an experience of a situation, but rather that it is truly and inherently part of the situation itself. If a situation were inherently stress-producing, there would be no way to avoid becoming stressed by it. As a personal experience of a situation, however, stress arises dependently on many psychological factors and is not inevitable. Unless we understand this well, we condemn ourselves to unremitting stress.

    Certainly it is difficult to live in a crowded city and be caught in traffic, noise and pollution each day, not to mention being prey to possible crime. No one can deny that. But when we construct a concrete, fixed mental image of the city as some fearful, horrible, tense place "out there," impinging like a monster on poor me, the victim, "in here," we make living there even more difficult. The city in our head that we project onto the streets seems even more concrete and solid than the actual city made of cement. In this way, our belief that our image is the actual reality generates all our tension and stress. Sadly, many people view not only where they live, but all of life in that way.

    Buddha taught that it is not inevitable that we experience such painful syndromes as this. It is possible for these syndromes and their causes to cease, not just temporarily, but forever. Their true stopping or ending, equivalent to their total removal, is the third true fact in life— the true "cessation" of suffering and its causes. If we eliminate the recurrence of the causes for suffering, we definitely experience the absence of the suffering that would have arisen as their results. Without a cause, a result cannot arise. Moreover, since the root cause of the recurrence of our problems is the confusion with which we imagine that things actually exist in the impossible manner in which our muddled mind deceptively makes them appear to exist, it is possible to eliminate the recurrence of this cause. This is because confusion cannot be verified. Based on fantasy, not fact, it lacks a stable foundation and cannot withstand close scrutiny. Therefore true endings can definitely occur.

    In order to realize a true stopping of our problems and their causes, however, we must actively do something to bring it about. Otherwise, due to strong habit, we endlessly continue to make our life miserable — for instance by generating tension over and over again. Since the root cause of our suffering is a confused state of mind, we need to replace it permanently with an unconfused state so that it never arises again. Such unconfused states of mind with which we see reality are the fourth true fact in life — true pathways of mind, or true "paths." It is not sufficient, therefore, merely to mask over the problem of stress, for example, by taking a tranquilizer or having a drink. We must rid ourselves, or "abandon" the confusion with which we believe that somehow the tension exists "out there." We must replace confusion with correct understanding, for example with understanding that tension is a creation of mind.

    Our attitudes of mind can be changed much more easily than the entire world. To paraphrase Shantideva once more in the context of his discussion of patience, "It is impossible to cover the entire rough surface of the world with leather. But, by covering the bottom of our feet with leather, we accomplish the same purpose." Therefore, to liberate ourselves from our problems in life and be of best benefit to others, it is crucial to understand the nature of the reality of the appearances we experience and to do so in terms of their relationship with our mind. The mahamudra teachings present effective, sophisticated techniques for accomplishing this aim.


If the first true fact is that life in general is not easy, we should certainly not expect that seeing the nature of our mind will be simple. The actual nature of mind, on any level, is not very obvious. Even to identify and recognize correctly what is mind is extremely difficult. Just to start to try to see it, we need strong motivation. We need to be clear about why we would like to see the nature of our mind. Let us briefly review the Buddhist presentation of the graded stages of motivation through which we progress to gain optimum success in this undertaking.

    The foundation for any level of spiritual motivation is to take ourselves and the quality of our life seriously. Most people get up in the morning and either have to go to work or school, or stay home and take care of the house and children. At the end of the day, they are tired and try to relax by maybe having a beer and watching television. Eventually they go to sleep, and the next day get up and repeat the sequence. They spend their whole lives trying to make money, raise a family and catch whatever fun and pleasure they can.

    Although most people cannot alter the structure of their lives, they feel they also cannot change the quality of their experience of this structure. Life has its ups, but also lots of downs, and it is all very stressful. They feel they are a tiny part of some solid, giant mechanism they can do nothing about. They therefore go through life in a mechanical, passive manner, like a passenger on a life-long speeding roller coaster going up and down and round and round, assuming that not only the track, but also the tension and stress experienced while circling on it are an inevitable part of the never-ending ride.

    Since such experience of one's life, despite its pleasures, can be very depressing, it is vitally essential to do something about it. Just drinking ourselves into oblivion each night, or seeking constant entertainment and distraction by having music or television on all the time or incessantly playing computer games so that we never have to think about our life, is not going to eliminate the problem. We must take ourselves seriously. This means to have respect for ourselves as human beings. We are not just pieces of machinery or helpless passengers on the fixed ride of life that is sometimes smooth, but all too often bumpy. We need, therefore, to look more closely at what we are experiencing each day. And if we see that we are stressed by the tension of our city, household or office, we should not just accept this as something inevitable.

    Our living, work and home environments, including the attitudes and behavior of others in them, merely provide the circumstances in which we live out our lives. The quality of our life, however — what we ourselves, not anybody else, are experiencing right now — is the direct result of our own attitudes and the behavior they generate, not anybody else's. This is clear from the fact that not everyone in the same environment experiences it in the same manner.

    Admittedly, some environments are more difficult than others, for instance living in a war zone, and we must be always alert to avoid real danger. But alertness is different from tension, and the latter does not necessarily need to accompany the former. If, however, we feel that our tension is inescapable, we will not even try to overcome it. We condemn ourselves to an extremely unpleasant experience of life. It does not have to be that way.

    If we are feeling very nervous all the time, the first step toward doing something to remedy the situation, then, is to take ourselves and the quality of our life seriously. Suppose we are walking down the street and we step on a bug and partially crush but have not actually killed it. If we continue walking and ignore the bug's experience of its leg being crushed or severed, we do so because we do not take the insect and its life seriously. We have no respect for it. If we treat ourselves no better than we do a bug and ignore our innermost pains and anguish, that is most unfortunate.

    Taking ourselves seriously means actually looking at how we are experiencing our life and, if there is something unsatisfactory about it, admitting it to ourselves. Our tension and stress do not go away by denying them or avoiding taking an honest look. And admitting that something is amiss is not the same as complaining about it and feeling sorry for ourselves. Nor does it imply that something is fundamentally wrong with us and we are guilty of being a bad person because we are nervous. Being objective, not melodramatic, and remaining non-judgmental are essential for any healing, spiritual process.


Once we take ourselves and the quality of our life seriously, and acknowledge the difficulties we may be experiencing, the next step is to have confidence that (1) it is possible to overcome them, (2) there is a way to accomplish this, and (3) we are capable of achieving it. This bring us to the topics of refuge and Buddha-nature.

    Taking refuge is not a passive act of placing ourselves in the hands of a higher power that will do everything for us, as the English word "refuge" might imply. It is an active process of putting a safe, reliable and positive direction in our life. That direction is indicated by the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha — the Three Precious Gems. They are precious in the sense that they are both rare and valuable. Each has two levels of significance — interpretable and definitive — and a common representation. The interpretable level leads to the definitive one, while the representation serves as a focus for respect without providing an actual safe direction in and of itself.

    The Buddhas are those who have eliminated all their confusion so that they are able to use their potentials fully to benefit others. On the definitive level, the safe direction of the Buddhas is provided by their dharmakaya or bodies encompassing everything — namely, their omniscient awareness and its nature, both of which encompass everything. The rupakaya or bodies of form that Buddhas manifest serve as the interpretable level, while Buddha statues and paintings are the representation of the first precious gem.

    On the definitive level, the Dharma source of direction refers to the complete removal or total absence of obstacles, and the full attainment of good qualities the Buddhas have achieved. Its interpretable level is what they indicate that helps us achieve the same ourselves, namely their scriptural pronouncements and realizations. These are represented by Dharma texts.


Excerpted from The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra by H.H. the Dalai Lama and Alexander Berzin. Copyright © 1997 by Alexander Berzin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

OF MAHAMUDRA: The Main Road of the Triumphant Ones97
Tibetan Text: A Root Text for the Precious Gelug/Kagyü
Tradition ofMahamudra351
Index of Text Titles377

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