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Mahamudra Meditation: The Road to Nowhere

In this article, we overview what mahamudra is, the stages of mahamudra meditation, and how this approach differs and matches other spiritual systems. By the end, you’ll be able to implement the main practices, which with enough work will give you deep insight into the true nature of your mind, as will all serious meditation practice.

Mahamudra meditation practice comes from Tibet Buddhism and is part of the Gelugpa school, one of the four Tibetan schools. Its goal is to take practitioners from identification with the ordinary, gross-reflecting, samsaric mind to identification with the empty, selfless ground of mind.

Let’s look more closely at the Mahamudra meditation path before we look at the practices themselves.

The Way of Mahamudra Meditation

I’ll be quoting Lama Thubten Yeshe from his book Mahamudra, How to Discover Our True Nature in this section.

Mahamudra is the name given to “the universal reality of emptiness, of nonduality”. It means The Great Seal, it is “The inborn nature of all phenomena. It exists equally in all things: organic, nonorganic, permanent, impermanent, including all beings…”.

Mahamudra meditation ultimately comes down to cultivating experience of the fundamental innate mind of clear light. Our object of concentration is our own mind and its conventional mind, and our goal is to realise its ultimate nature, which is emptiness.

The Madhyamaka approach to this is to analyse the five aggregates/skandhas as a basis for the person; in Mahamudra meditation, we focus on consciousness, which is another aggregate.

In Mahamudra meditation, we develop calm abiding, AKA shamatha or concentration, before investigating the fundamental nature of self, via self-inquiry practices. Calm abiding doesn’t necessarily mean feeling calm or good. It’s the ability to abide, to be with your experience mindfully.

Lama Yeshe hammers on the importance of shamatha:

To achieve the realization of mahamudra, the reality of nonduality, we first need to develop calm abiding.

Samadhi is the source of liberation. Without perfect samadhi, then, there is no way to become liberated from samsara and no way to achieve enlightenment.

This cultivation refines the subtle levels of consciousness and mind, which then enables us to see the unconscious levels of grasping. Lama Tsongkhapa says calm abiding isn’t enough to cut the dualistic view. We need special insight (vipashyana in Sanskrit; lhagtong or “extra seeing” in Tibetan).

So, calm abiding/concentration/shamatha/samadhi AND special insight/vipashyana are necessary to see Mahamudra.

Preliminary Practices

In Tibetan Buddhism, meditation practice is presented in terms of stages (lamrim), as Buddha did. We progress from our limited concepts and views to a limitless, universal view.

The most basic taxonomy tells us the rough stages we’ll go through as a practitioner:

Preliminary practices → Main Practice → Result

You’ll notice that the preliminary practices precede the main Mahamudra meditation practices. There are four of them: Taking Refuge, Bodhichitta, Vajrasattva, and Guru Yoga.

Though it might sound like we do these practices only for a few weeks or months then move on to the main ones, I’ve found they become a natural part of your spiritual life when you are truly committed to achieving enlightenment and using your realisations for positive ends.

That said, if you are serious about the path of Mahamudra, I recommend you practice these for a few weeks before taking on the main practices.

I don’t go into lots of detail here, so if you’d like full instructions, check out Lama Yeshe’s book or follow the links I’ve peppered throughout the text.

Preliminary Practice 1: Taking Refuge

I think of this as both a one-time pledge and as an ongoing practice.

Here, we take refuge in Buddha, Sangha and Dharma. This means we prioritise them over other views and pursuits, and resolve to return to them when we forget. From the moment we make it, we have committed to spiritual purificiation and the Buddhadharma.

We then carry this pledge forward as a practice in our lives. We let go of momentary, transitory pleasures. We try to see the grasping mind. We look inside and try to see the inner forces that pull us away from our spiritual path, and resist acting on them as best we can.

Practice 2: Bodhichitta

Bodhichitta is a Sanskrit term and is often translated as enlightened attitude.

In Bodhichitta, we establish the aim and destination of our spiritual path – enlightenment – and hold it clear. Again, I believe we need to repeatedly do this. We’ll forget many times.

The other aspect of Bodhichitta is to establish the why of our enlightenment, and ultimately this comes down to service.

We may start this path for many reasons… but if we stay on it, in the end, [service] is where we end up.

Shinzen Young, from talk given in January 2009

We practice Bodhichitta by generating this compassion early on, planting a seed that will germinate, flower and flourish over the months and years. To do so, we “Open up hugely to others”, as Lama Yeshe says. We see other people, both their fullness and their suffering, and open our hearts, but not in an imbalanced or over-emotional way. This expands our consciousness and is itself a glimpse of enlightenment.

Practice 3: Vajrasattva, the Purification Practice

Vajrasattva is a manifestation of all the Buddhas, but in particular he represents the energy of total purity. Here, we recite the hundred-syllable Vatrasattva mantra while visualising him. All four Tibetan traditions make use of this practice, which is powerful for seeing through and beyond the habitual dualistic mind.

Practice 4: Guru Yoga

This is a more involved visualisation practice, where the goal is to unify our consciousness with that of Buddha. Again, Lama Yeshe gives the detailed steps in his book.

Preparing for Mahamudra Meditation

Now we’ve looked at the initial practices, it’s time to look at the main ones. First, we talk about the seven points of posture and nine-round breathing, which help us set up our meditation sessions.

Seven Points of Posture

Unlike Dzogchen, its sister practice, Mahamudra gives explicit instructions on posture. Follow the Seven Points of Posture to sit comfortably and maintain a posture for extended periods.

  • Sit on a comfortable seat with body slightly raised at the back
  • Preferably sit in full lotus, but if not, no problem.
  • Body is upright, head bent forward slightly, eyes half closed and defocused, looking towards tip of nose. Can close eyes if too challenging.
  • Place tongue against roof of mouth just behind the front teeth, lower jaw relaxed,
  • Shoulders held back straight,
  • Hands in mudra of concentration in lap: right on left, thumbs touching to form a triangle,
  • Torso slightly tight and rest of body natural and relaxed.

You might like to check out my article on how to sit perfectly in meditation for some further ideas.

Nine-round Breathing

The nine-round breathing isn’t a meditation practice, but it does help us come into meditation in the right state of mind. Spend a few minutes practicing it before you get to the main course.

There are three cycles, each with three in-breaths and out-breaths, making nine total rounds of breathing.

In the first cycle, we:

  • Breathe in through right nostril, using the back of our index finger to close the left nostril. As we do, we imagine breathing in pure blissful energy.
  • We breath out through the left nostril, using our finger to close the right nostril. We imagine breathing out our impure desire energy.
  • We repeat this three times.

In the second cycle, we switch nostrils (breathe in through left and out through right). We still imagine breathing in pure blissful energy, but this time we imagine breathing out our anger energy.

In the third cycle, we breathe in and out through both nostrils, and imagine breathing out ignorance energy.

Main Mahamudra Meditation Practices

As I’ve mentioned, contacting Mahamudra relies on shamatha (concentration) and vipashyana (insight, clarity). In the first main Mahamudra meditation, we develop the first.

Mahamudra Meditation 1: Shamatha or Samadhi through Thought Penetration

Our habit is to follow whatever appears in our awareness, particularly thoughts, and this is one of the main obstacles to our recognition of our innate clean-clear mind. We train the opposite habit in this practice by working with thoughts directly.

After following the Seven Points of Posture and practicing the Nine-Round Breathing, follow these steps:

  • Let your thoughts come and go on their own accord, as they are,
  • When you notice a thought, whether mental or auditory, hold your attention on it, perceive it as clearly as possible,
  • Penetrate its essential nature,
  • Watch it until it disappears.
  • Repeat for the duration of your session.

It’s crucial you let go of fears and expectations, even positive states. Just do the practice and train yourself to see your thoughts without following them. The mind is clear light, That is its innate nature, and we don’t need to clean it up! Just watch your thoughts: be like the sunlight that shines through them.

As the Panchen Lama recommends,

recognize as movement whatever conceptual thoughts are generated and, without blocking them, focus on their nature.

Panchen Lama

I recommend balancing ease with effort, and “undoing the habit of overdoing”, as my Dzogchen teacher says. Even if you experience the clean-clear nature of consciousness, keep your concentration loose. Don’t try too hard.

Lama Yeshe gives us a metaphor for understanding emptiness and our mind’s emptiness. He says consciousness is like the sun, the air, the ocean and the full moon:

Sun: all light comes from the sun; all thoughts come from our mind.
Space: when it rains, space is disturbed, but the rain is still part of space; when thoughts arise, they disturb us, but their nature is still emptiness.
Ocean: waves manifest from the ocean, there’s some surface turbulence, then they fall back into the ocean.
Full moon: the moon shines regardless of what happens on Earth. Pure consciousness remains regardless of our mental activity.

With diligence and attention, we’ll discover these properties through this meditation.

Mahamudra Meditation 2: Self-Enquiry

After meditating on the mind and developing some level of Shamatha, we can now investigate the ego, how it perceives, and how it projects itself on to reality. This will give us special insight and lead to Mahamudra.

In order to experience Mahamudra, we need to destroy ego’s conception, the hallucinated idealistic picture, the concentre view, “this is me.”

Lama Thubten Yeshe

When we have a few minutes of non-distraction through penetrating thoughts, we can begin. In this clean-clear, subtle, undistracted state, we investigate the opposite of mahamudra wisdom: the ego, its clinging, and our unconscious attachment to it.

From within that very state of clear equipoise, investigate intelligently with subtle awareness the essence of the individual who is meditating, just like a small fish that moves in lucid waters without causing any disturbance.

Panchen Lama

A key tenet of Buddhist practice is that our true self is empty. So what is this fantasy I that we have concocted? It turns out to be just a vague notion with no real substance, yet our superficial mind never tries to uncover this truth.

2.1 Watching The I

In the first self-enquiry practice, which you can for a phase of your meditation or for a full meditation session, we simply watch our self-sense as it is.

Try to watch the ego, the self-sense, as it appears and disappears in your awareness. It appears as mental chatter, mental images, body sensations, and emotions, either separately or together. You’ll find it comes and goes in these various forms.

When you notice these impressions, penetrate them, as you did with your thoughts.

Lama Tsongkhapa says that once we’ve identified the false conception of I, it’ll take about a minute, a second, to discover its emptiness. Be alert for it, because it will appear and all of a sudden you’ll be lost in it. You have to be ready!

Your subtle analytical wisdom, your mindfulness fish, watches intently, ready to capture the way that the ego-mind perceives the self-existent I and simulate comprehend the non–self-existent I.

Lama Thubten Yeshe

2.2 Seeking the I

Now, instead of watching the I as it comes and goes, we go looking for it in the Five Aggregates. In fact, I suggest you use Shinzen Young’s taxonomy (See In, See Out, Hear In, Hear Out, Feel In, Feel Out) to look for the self. Is it in mental images? Mental talk? My emotions? My physical body? You might like to go through all six categories in turn.

Just watch, without disturbing the clarity. Where is your self? Where is it?

If you find something, no matter which category it appears in, penetrate to its essential nature. Ask yourself if that’s really you. You’ll find that it isn’t.

Continue until you truly realise that you can’t pin down this self and see that it is a kind of hologram or optical illusion. Don’t believe me, or Lama Yeshe, or the Panchen Lama. See it for yourself, until you’re convinced it’s nowhere to be found.

But seeing the ego self arise and pass, and realising it’s not in these six categories, are not the same as the realisation of emptiness.

These experiences are good. But you haven’t yet identified the nuclear energy of ego, the self-existent I, which doesn’t exist but which produces all the problems.

Lama Thubten Yeshe

2.3 Penetrate the Innate I-Sense

What ego-mind is really holding is an I that exists from itself. It totally believes that somewhere, somewhere deep inside you, solidly within you, beyond the body, beyond the mind, there is the concrete identification “me.”

Lama Thubten Yeshe

As Lama Yeshes says, though in Practice 2.1 we’ve seen the ego to be transitory and fleeting, and in 2.2 we’ve been unable to find it anywhere, our real self sense is subtler than this. You really believe it exists beyond the five aggregates or six categories of sensory experience.

This sense is so intrinsic, so habitual, so deeply rooted. It continually holds this I.

Try to identify this I that you totally believe exists somewhere. It feels solid, objective, unconnected. When you think you’ve found it, penetrate it, and it will disappear.

Every time you experience the nonexistence of your I, you’re experiencing emptiness. You’re contacting Mahamudra.

The view of the simultaneously born ego that holds such a projection of ego—the concept of I, the fantasy that you have built up—dissolves. You the seeker and the thing being sought dissolve; subject and object dissolve.

When you penetrate, the sense of the self-existent I disappears. That is the real mahamudra experience

Lama Thubten Yeshe

You may feel fear, and this is normal. For so long you have believed in this illusion.

And even though you;ve seen the non-existence of the ego, and the emptiness of the true self, these practices are potentially lifelong endeavours. We so habitually make something out of nothing – make an ego out of sense impressions – that we need to practice the opposite for a long time until we truly inhabit our true empty self.

You can try each of these practices as you’re going about your day. Especially when you’re experiencing emotions, which tend to inflame our sense of self. This will deepen and solidify your insights.

Mahamudra Meditation 3: The Emptiness of All Phenomena

Mahamudra describes the reality of all existent phenomena, not just the self, as do the original teachings of the Buddha. Once we’ve experienced the emptiness of ourselves, we extend it to all phenomena in the five aggregates. 

After repeated experiences of Mahamudra through thought penetration and self-enquiry, investigate the nature of any experience in the five aggregates, and you’ll realise how it really exists. Don’t grasp at how they appear to be: penetrate their nature, and you realise that they’re essentially empty. In this way, they’re all part of a single essence.

Once we’ve achieved that realisation [of empty self], experiencing the reality of everything else is easy. Having discovered the nonduality of our own self, we will discover the nonduality of the entire universe.

Lama Thubten Yeshe

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