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Mahamudra: Background, Way & Fruit

Mahamudra is a set of advanced spiritual teachings from the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Its goal is to help practitioners reach the realisation of Mahamudra, which we’ll speak about in detail. It’s one of Buddha’s most advanced doctrines, and is often called the sister practice of Dzogchen.

The most elaborate text on this tradition is Mahamudra: The Moonlight by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal. I’ve used that book for this article, along with Lama Thubten Yeshe’s Mahamudra: How to Discover Our True Nature and The Dalai Lama’s Dzogchen: Heart Essence of the Great Perfection.

Mahamudra… represents a special path that embodies a view of the ultimate reality and an instantaneous self-realization process. The Mahamudra teachings represent the essence of the vast doctrine of Buddha.

Lobsang P. Lhalungpa

What is Mahamudra?

The word Mahamudra represents both the method and its finality. The method is the Buddhist tradition of Mahamudra, and the finality is enlightenment.

The word is Sanskrit for The Great Seal (maha = great, mudra = seal) and is the name given to the universal reality of emptiness, nonduality and non–self-existence. This reality is unavoidable. It is the inborn nature of all phenomena, whether ourselves, others, or inanimate life.

Just as a royal seal wields unchallengeable authority, so the all-encompassing voidness of the ultimate reality prevails upon the cosmic phenomena. It also stands for the path of self-realization, which integrates authentic view, contemplation and action into one perfect insight.

Lobsang P. Lhalungpa

And though it has deep philosophical roots dating back thousands of years, Mahamudra ultimately comes down to the experience of the fundamental innate mind of clear light. It is a system designed to help us realise The Great Seal in ourselves. In this way, its goal is the same as that of all other esoteric traditions the world over.

This tradition dates back to the Buddha. But before the 17th century, it wasn’t taught publicly. It was an oral tradition, passed from lama to student. The First Panchen Lama wrote the oral instructions down, and his text became the root text of the tradition.

In the root texts of Dzogchen and Mahamudra, the nature of mind is called “uncompounded clear light”. Uncompounded means a phenomenon that does not depend on causes and conditions. It’s not contrived, nor temporary, nor. It’s primordially present, uninterrupted. So, Mahamudra is our innate nature, ready to be remembered and recognised.

The Mahamudra tradition includes the standard Madhyamaka insights: that the individual personality lacks true self-nature, as do all phenomena, and that all phenomena are empty, as is all of reality.

Yet it goes one step further than Mahdyamaka, adding the insight that “the root of all these phenomena, the source from which they all spring, is the mind.”

There are also different levels: there is the mahamudra common to both sutra and tantra; the third empowerment (wisdom-knowledge), or the practice of clear light; and the union of illusory body and clear light.

By © Christopher J. Fynn / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Check out my article on Mahamudra meditation to get going with your Mahamudra practice.

The Way of Mahamudra

Comparing with Other Tibetan Traditions

Mahamudra meditation comprises both the sutras (gradual self-realization) and the tantras (instantaneous self-realization). The tradition represents the instantaneous, non-mystical, direct path, but doesn’t use tantric methods per se.

Its root tradition is the same as that of Dzogchen and Mahyamaka: the root yana or the Fundamental Vehicle, whose core insight is that all suffering has its origin in the mind.

Mahamudra and Dzogchen ultimately converge, but at initial stages there are differences in emphasis.

In Dzogchen, the focus is on finding where the ordinary, samsaric mind comes from, which is the self-arising state of primordial awareness. It starts at the top, with enlightenment, then works back. As a result, “Dzogchen is often referred to as the consummate result, the ultimate fruition of practice.” It assumes we already possess this awareness fully and doesn’t emphasise stages of growth, unlike Mahamudra.

The Methodology

The typical approach to realising emptiness is to analyse and cultivate awareness of all five aggregates or skandhas. In Mahamudra, we only use one: the aggregate of consciousness. That is, our object of concentration is our conventional mind. Our goal is to realise its ultimate nature, which is emptiness.

Using our own mind as the object of concentration is the unique characteristic of mahamudra meditation that makes it such a powerful method for eliminating our dualistic thinking.

Lama Thubten Yeshe

We tend to believe the exact opposite of Mahamudra: we grab on to the mind, which creates an illusory self: a self-existent, separate me. This belief in a “me” creates the concept of other, and this self-other gap leads to all samsara, the entire cycle of existence that is a core pillar of the Buddhist path.

Lama Yeshe teaches that though Mahamudra is about emptiness, the emphasis is on meditation: on experience, not explanation. It’s no use learning the words and the scriptures: we must directly realise it.

Though courses in Mahamudra offer philosophy and a guided framework, and though monks spend much time analysing texts, the background information is always a bridge to your own first-person, immediate comprehension of the Great Seal.

Once you’ve experienced the fundamental nature of your own self—and your own consciousness—it’s goodbye to all the philosophical concepts.

Lama Thubten Yeshe

Let’s look at a core aspect of the Mahamudra method: shamatha and vipashyana.

Shamatha & Vipashyana

Tibetan Buddhism presents meditation practice in terms of stages (lamrim), as Buddha did. We progress from our limited concepts and views to a limitless, universal view. We begin with the preliminary practices, then we get to the main practices, which lead to the result:

Preliminary practices → main practice → result

In the main practices, we develop two essential skills:

  • shamatha, which means tranquility, concentration, calm abiding, quietude, perfect ease, and “turns body and mind into a tractable and efficient spiritual vehicle.” There are nine stages of shamatha.
  • vipashyana, which means special insight.

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

Lama Thubten Yeshe

By developing shamatha or calm abiding, we refine the subtle levels of consciousness and mind and begin to see our unconscious levels of grasping. Don’t restrict the term tranquility to a state of peace or calm or happy: rather, it is the ability to observe our body and mind without being shaken or emotionally affected.

“If the meditator concentrates one-pointedly in his tranquil meditation, he is bound to achieve calmness, for this concentration integrates the fragmented inner forces in a natural way.”

Lobsang P. Lhalungpa

Yet 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).

“Only perfect insight (in meditation) can bring about an awakened wisdom that perceives the falsity of the centralized self (or ego-entity) and at the same time the truth of the nonselfhood of personality as being the valid nature of man’s stream-consciousness.”

Lobsang P. Lhalungpa

This contemplation is not the same as Mahamudra, but it leads there. Eventually, we unify samadhi with special wisdom, and we discover non-duality.

The Outcome of Mahamudra

Lobsang P. Lhalungpa says the test of Mahamudra is whether we are spiritually mature, have tamed our worldly mind, eliminated basic malaise like selfishness, greed and hatred, gained insight into reality, and developed a concern for the well-being of others. These points are a simple and powerful measure of your practice, and they underlie the three excellences:

Three Excellences of Mahamudra
1. Excellence in the beginning: desiring well-being and enlightenment of others,
2. Excellence in the middle: Reorienting one’s meditation state to transcendence and nonconceputual awareness,
3. Excellence in the end: Sharing of spiritual merits with others.

And it’s always worth remembering that:

It is difficult to realize nonduality not because it’s hiding from us but because our concepts are so thick.

Lama Thubten Yeshe

Check out my article on Mahamudra meditation to get going with your Mahamudra practice.

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