Mahāmudrā in Tibet

Roger Jackson

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online April 2012 | | DOI:
Mahāmudrā in Tibet

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The Tibetan term phyag rgya chen po (pronounced “chakya chenpo” in central Tibet) translates the Sanskrit mahāmudrā, usually rendered as the “great seal.” It is best known as a system of meditation on the nature of mind that is central to the Marpa Kagyü (Bka’ brgyud) order of Tibetan Buddhism, but it is important in other Tibetan traditions, too, including the Nyingma (Rnying ma), Shangpa Kagyü (Shangs pa bka’ brgyud), Kadam (Bka’ gdams), Zhijé (Zhi byed), Sakya (Sa skya), Jonang (Jo nang), and Geluk (Dge lugs). Mahāmudrā became a central topic of discourse during the so-called Tibetan renaissance (10th–13th centuries), when all these schools either originated or gained articulation. The term became important in Tibet because it was prominent in the literature transmitted from India at that time, especially that of the highly esoteric Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras. See the companion Oxford Bibliographies article, Mahāmudrā in India. In Tibet, mahāmudrā inspired philosophical, meditative, ethical, and poetic creativity and often sparked intense debate. In Marpa Kagyü traditions, mahāmudrā could be based in the sutras, tantras, or both. Synonymous with buddha-nature, emptiness, great bliss, the innate, nonmentation, the Middle Way, and the dharma body of a buddha, it could be attained either suddenly or gradually, through a succession of yogas and/or “pointing-out instructions” from one’s guru. In Nyingma, mahāmudrā was considered a high tantric realization, but less profound than the Great Perfection, or Dzokchen (rdzogs chen). In Shangpa Kagyü, it was a contemplation conjoining bliss and the realization of emptiness, like two halves of an amulet box. In Zhijé, it involved realization of the nature of mind through severing ego clinging. In Kadam, its tantric sources were approached cautiously, but it formed part of the background of thought and practice. In Sakya, it was the buddhahood ensuing from tantric initiation. In Jonang, it was the realization of buddha-nature, empty of everything but its own intrinsic purity. In Geluk, it was a sutra- or tantra-based meditation leading, through philosophical analysis, to direct realization of the empty or clear-light nature of the mind. In the modern era, mahāmudrā meditation has attracted those who—rightly or wrongly—see its emphasis on formless meditation as a way to bypass the “cultural trappings” of complex tantric practices. Thus, scholarship on it has emerged from meditation centers as often as from universities, and some work on it lacks academic rigor. While the more scholarly studies are highlighted here, numerous less scholarly but still-useful works have been included, too, so the reader may consult as many reliable resources as possible for the study of mahāmudrā, in premodern Tibet.

Article.  14050 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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