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Library: Member Essays

The Path of Mahamudra: Pointing Out Instruction, Direct Recognition, and Self-liberation

"Lo! The self-aware Primordial Wisdom! It is beyond all avenues of speech and all thoughts of mind. I, Tilopa have nothing more than this to teach. Know everything merely to be a display of this Awareness."

Mahasiddha Sri TilopaThe path of Mahamudra, a Sanskrit term which in Tibetan is known as "Chag-chen," the Great Mudra or Seal, is often referred to as the "practice lineage" of Buddhism, the heart-essence of the Buddha's teaching.1 The path of Mahamudra meditation is a clear cutting through to seeing the true nature of mind just as it is. It is an immediate attainment of Enlightenment, as a result of clearly recognizing the true condition.

By following the yogic teachings of Mahamudra one sets oneself consciously on the path whose ultimate fruit is Nirvana. Thereby liberation from the interminable cycle of birth and death is acquired.

A key point regarding the enlightened nature of mind is that it is not something that is created or fabricated. It is not something newly brought forth or produced through meditation. Enlightened-mind does not originate from an unenlightened basis, nor does it manifest by transforming the ego into something divine and grand. The intrinsic self-existing primordial wisdom2 or enlightened nature of the mind3 is not magically created as a result of doing certain practices. Rather, it is seen that this wisdom has always been fully present from the very beginning within our being. It is therefore purely a case of recognizing it, directly realizing it, or in other words, waking up to what is already there.

Enlightened-mind, our Buddha-nature, is innate to every sentient being. It is utterly beyond temporal characteristics and the flow of time. It has no spatial dimension or location. It simply is; immutable and unchanging, unborn, deathless. Nevertheless, not knowing this primordial Awareness,4 sentient beings wander endlessly in the Samsaric cycle of space and time, taking birth and dying repeatedly.

The path of Mahamudra grants ultimate liberation. There probably is no greater gift from the treasury of the East to the West than this remarkable yoga of the mind.

When Prof. Chen Chi Chang first came across and spoke about the Mahamudra teachings, he compared them to what he already knew of Chinese and Japanese Zen meditation. "From my own personal experience in the study and practice of both Zen and Mahamudra," he wrote, "I have discovered that the teachings of Zen and the advanced tantricism of the Mahamudra are identical. Any difference discernible is merely the superficial and external one of diversity of style and methods of presentation. The essence is wholly the same."5 This is true, and the same might be said with regard to other schools of self-realization, such as Adwaita Vedanta, Kashmiri Saivism, etc., were the non-dual reality that lies behind apparent existence is directly pointed out.

Once that the seeker recognizes mind's absolute nature, then it is merely a matter of abiding uninterruptedly in that realization or view for liberation to unfold on its own. The latter is called self-liberation. It means that it liberates itself by itself, without an effort put forth to attain anything on the meditator's part. In fact effort, which is a function of ego, is only a hindrance as most practitioners quickly discover.

This is an all too brief description of the path of Mahamudra. Hopefully it gives the reader some idea of this extraordinary path of self-realization. The Mahamudra lineage is ancient, descending from enlightened saints who lived in India millennia ago through lines of Vidyadhara and Mahasiddhas, Insight-holders and perfected Adepts. It was introduced into Tibet thanks to Tilopa and Naropa, and then passed from Marpa to Milarepa, to Gampopa and the Karmapa, on down to the present era. The great custodian of this lineage today is His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa. This Mahamudra lineage is passed by Kagyu Lamas to their close disciples wherever the Dharma is being followed with virtue, commitment and sincere discipline.


1 Chag-chen is short for Chag-Gya Chen-po, where Chag-gya means "seal" and Chenpo is the adjective "great": according to Tibetan forms of spelling, this term is actually written (but not pronounced) phyag-chen or phyag-rgya chen-po.

2 Tib: rang-rig ye-she, or rang-jung rig-pa gi yeshe, Skt: svayambhuvidya-jnana.

3 Tib: chanchub sems, Skt: bodhicitta.

4 Tib: rig-pa, Skt: vidya. In classical Gnostic tradition, this is the equivalent of the Greek term "nous". It is the primordial intelligence, the fundamental Awareness prior to everything, immutable and unborn, which is to be found at the core of the mind, or as some say, in the depth of the heart. Rig-pa, primordial Awareness, is the naked essence of mind.

5 Quoted from Evans-Wentz, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, Oxford University Press, London, 1958.


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