Mahāmudrā in India

Roger Jackson

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online March 2012 | | DOI:
Mahāmudrā in India

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Mahāmudrā—Sanskrit for the “great seal” (Tib. phyag rgya chen po)—is best known as a system of direct meditation on the nature of mind central to the Kagyü (Bka’ brgyud) orders of Tibetan Buddhism, and it is significant for most other Tibetan traditions as well. For Tibetan treatments of Mahāmudrā, see the companion Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism article “Mahāmudrā in Tibet” by Roger Jackson. The identification of Mahāmudrā as a central topic of discourse is largely a product of the so-called Tibetan renaissance (10th–14th centuries), but the term became important in Tibet because it was prominent in the literature transmitted from India at that time, especially in the corpus surrounding the highly gnostic Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras, which expound esoteric—and sometimes antinomian—yogic practices and often relate those practices to earlier Mahayana discourses on such topics as emptiness, mind-only, and buddha-nature. The Mahayana discourses, in turn, are rooted in mainstream Buddhist discussions of the purity and power of the mind, the possibility of various nonconceptual meditative states, and the absence of any enduring self anywhere. The first explicit references to Mahāmudrā occur in early tantric literature (7th–8th centuries), where it most often denotes a ritual hand gesture (mudrā) that signifies the clear visualization of oneself as a buddha/deity. In the literature of the Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras (9th–11th centuries), Mahāmudrā has several different meanings, including one of a number of “seals” that confirm contemplative experiences; a “consort” for sexual yoga practices; the empty nature of reality and, especially, the mind; a blissful, gnostic realization of that reality, arrived at either suddenly or gradually; and the buddhahood achieved at the culmination of the tantric path (mahāmudrāsiddhi). In these later Indian traditions, and for much of the history of Tibetan Buddhism, Mahāmudrā was the focus of theoretical speculation, meditative exploration, philosophical debate, ethical reflection, and poetic celebration. With its focus on the nature of mind and its common emphasis on direct, formless meditations, Mahāmudrā has proven appealing to modern Buddhists as well and is frequently taught, practiced, discussed, and written about both in Asia and the West. Its popularity in the West has meant that scholarship on Mahāmudrā has emerged from meditation centers as often as from universities, so the degree of academic rigor applied to its study has varied greatly. The aim of this article is to supply the reader with the tools to investigate the texts and contexts for discourse on Mahāmudrā in India, so although the most academically rigorous studies are highlighted, numerous works that are accurate and informative but lacking a full scholarly apparatus have been included, too. Also, because most traditional scholarship on Mahāmudrā arose in Tibet rather than India, a significant number of the texts cited here are influenced by Tibetan views, so their account of Indian Mahāmudrā must be approached with due caution.

Article.  11932 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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