The Tantra and Sutra Traditions of Mahamudra

The Tantra Tradition of Mahamudra

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As for the actual basic methods, although there are many ways of asserting mahamudra, there are two when divided according to the sutras and tantras.

On the basis of our efforts to eliminate obstacles and build up positive force, we now proceed with the actual meditations on mahamudra. Although there are many ways of explaining them according to different mahamudra lineages, we can condense them all into two – the sutra and tantra traditions of mahamudra. This division does not refer to a difference in the mahamudra great seal of reality that is realized, but to a difference in the level of mind used to realize it.

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The latter is a greatly blissful, clear light mind manifested by such skillful methods as penetrating vital points of the subtle vajra-body and so forth.

The latter tradition of mahamudra, that of the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, entails harnessing and utilizing clear light mind for understanding and realizing mahamudra. There are various methods for reaching, manifesting and then activating this subtlest level of mind. One involves working with the subtle vajra-body.

As humans, we are born with a body having various levels of components we can use as an inner circumstance for supporting meditation practice. On one level, our body has six constituents, namely the constituent spheres of the elements of earth, water, fire, wind and space, as well as consciousness. On a more subtle level, we have, in addition, a vajra or diamond-strong body consisting of energy-channels as what abides, energy-winds as what courses through them, and energy-drops as what can be led by the latter through the former.

This subtle vajra-body is the gateway for reaching to subtlest, primordial clear light mind which arises simultaneously with each moment of experience. But, in our present, ordinary situation, the swarm of our conceptual thoughts – both conscious and personal, as well as preconscious and primitive – denies us access to that subtle body and, through it, that subtlest level of mind. Therefore we need to silence and eventually rid ourselves of the swarm of our coarse and subtle conceptual minds in order to penetrate vital points of the vajra-body so as then to be able to use the constituents of that body to make manifest primordial clear light mind. As this is rather difficult to accomplish, we need a forceful method.

One such method for activating the vajra-body is to take as our object of meditation the stages of progressive dissolution of our external and internal circumstances. This refers to dissolving, which means withdrawing, our mind from our environment, the beings within it and the elements of our body. We do this by focusing on certain vital points of our subtle vajra-body and gathering in to them and dissolving there, through progressive, sequential stages, the energy-winds that carry with them the levels of mind that give rise to appearances of the environment and so forth as objects of our cognition.

In A Lamp for Further Clarifying the Five Stages [of Guhyasamaja], a commentary on Tsongkhapa’s The Pure Stages of the Yoga of Guhyasamaja, Kedrub Norzang Gyatso has explained that there are basically two methods for manifesting clear light mind through the gateway of triggering, in meditation, the stages of progressive dissolution. The Chakrasamvara system uses the generation of the inner flame, or tummo, and the four levels of joyous awareness it induces, while the Guhyasamaja system employs certain sophisticated practices with the energy-winds, such as vajra-recitation. Moreover, there is also the Nyingma method of dzogchen meditation that accomplishes the same, but without inciting experience of these progressive stages.

Basically, there are two ways to manifest simultaneously arising, primordial clear light mind. One is through stopping the deceptiveness of the conscious and preconscious levels of conceptual mind through a pathway of manipulating various aspects of the subtle vajra-body. This is accomplished by means of either the Guhyasamaja or Chakrasamvara methods. The other major approach, the Nyingma method, stops the deceptiveness of these two coarser levels of mind by taking thoughts themselves as the object of focus, without conscious manipulation of any aspects of the subtle vajra-body. Although these two major approaches are very different, they each lead to the same accomplishment.

The various tantric traditions of mahamudra, then, employ such diverse and skillful means as these to manifest the clear light mind that is simultaneous not only with each moment, but also, through other methods, simultaneous with a greatly blissful awareness, or “great bliss.” They then utilize this simultaneously arising clear light mind for understanding voidness itself.

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The mahamudra of the traditions of Saraha, Nagarjuna, Naropa and Maitripa, it is the quintessence of the anuttarayoga class of tantra as taught in The (Seven Texts of the) Mahasiddhas and The (Three) Core Volumes.

The above explanation of the tantra level of mahamudra practice is in accordance with the works of such greatly accomplished mahasiddha masters as Saraha, Mahasukha, Nagarjuna, Naropa and Maitripa, especially concerning the complete stage practices of anuttarayoga tantra. This level of mahamudra meditation is, in fact, the quintessential practice of this highest class of tantra.

The Sutra Tradition of Mahamudra

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The former refers to the ways of meditating on voidness as directly indicated in the expanded, intermediate and brief (Prajnaparamita Sutras). The supremely realized Arya Nagarjuna has said, “Except for this, there is no other pathway of mind leading to liberation.”

The sutra tradition of mahamudra refers to the methods for meditating on voidness as explained in The Three Mothers – the hundred thousand, twenty thousand and eight thousand stanza recensions of the prajnaparamita sutras. As Nagarjuna has said, there is no other pathway of mind to liberation except through this. So long as we are not aware of and do not eliminate our apprehending everything to exist truly and independently, we wander through uncontrollably recurring rebirths by a mechanism of twelve factors that dependently arise – unawareness, affecting impulses, consciousness, nameable mental faculties with or without form, stimulators of cognition, contacting awareness, feeling a level of happiness or suffering, craving, grasping, the compulsive impulse to continue living, conception, ageing and dying – the “twelve links of dependent arising.”

The two major divisions of madhyamaka, the “middle way” Indian Buddhist tenet systems that follow from Nagarjuna, provide progressively more subtle understandings of true, independent existence. Svatantrika uses the term to mean unimputed existence – existence truly independent of being what mind can produce an appearance of, and impute or mentally label as “this” or “that,” on an appropriate basis. Such a basis is one having an inherent, findable self-nature or defining characteristic mark making it not only existent, but what it is. Prasangika takes true, independent existence as a synonym for inherently findable existence – in other words, existence truly independent of being simply what mind can impute or mentally label on an appropriate basis, without that basis having such a self-nature or mark. For the former, then, true, independent existence means true, unimputed existence, while for the latter, true, inherent existence.

The beginningless lack of awareness of the total absence of true, inherent existence, responsible for our samsaric existence, can be explained in two ways. We are unaware of the actual nature of how reality exists in the sense of either (1) being clouded about it, or (2) projecting and apprehending that nature to be a manner of existence contrary to that which is actually the case. Fatherly Nagarjuna and his spiritual offspring take the second position. They assert that (a) projecting that things exist in a manner contrary to the way in which they actually exist, and (b) apprehending things to exist in this fantasized, impossible manner, are both within the sphere of the lack of awareness that apprehends true, inherent existence. Since such ignorance causes and perpetuates our samsaric existence, bringing us all our problems and suffering, we must definitely eliminate our lack of awareness of how everything actually exists.

To extinguish our ignorance, we must realize that our lack of awareness is due to the confused and disturbing way in which we apprehend the appearance of everything that arises in our mind. That, in turn, is due to the obstacles preventing our omniscience that cause our mind to make everything appear as if it existed truly and inherently. A scriptural quotation indicates the solution, “The mind that craves for uncontrollably recurring rebirth is distorted with respect to its objects. Its understanding, however, of the voidness of its objects causes its craving for such rebirth to cease.”

Awareness that understands voidness – the lack of true, inherent existence – has a manner of apprehending its object that focuses on there being no such thing as true and inherent existence. It apprehends such existence not only to be totally absent, but never to have existed at all. The force of this manner of apprehension, then, is the exact opposite of the manner in which apprehending true, inherent existence takes its object – namely by implying that this impossible manner of existence is actually real. Therefore the understanding of voidness causes direct harm to and undermines the ignorance that entails this mistaken apprehension. The former has the support of valid cognition, while the latter lacks such support. The former is a mind that apprehends what corresponds to reality, while the latter is a mind that apprehends what does not correspond to anything real.

Furthermore, in addition to the difference in validity between the former mind that causes direct harm and the latter one that can be harmed by it, the former is such that completely accustoming ourselves to it brings us a habit that has no end. The latter, on the other hand, is such that even our beginningless familiarity with it does not bring us an unending habit because that mind can be harmed or undermined. This being the case, if we become accustomed to a mind that understands the lack of true, inherent existence, we gradually eliminate, in stages, our apprehending true, inherent existence together with all seeds, or traces of such apprehension.

Thus, as the root of samsara is the unawareness that apprehends true, inherent existence, what neutralizes, pacifies or eliminates this root and makes manifest a peaceful state of non discordant liberation is a correct view understanding voidness. Therefore Nagarjuna has said that except for this method, there is no other path to liberation.

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Here I shall give relevant instruction on mahamudra in accord with these intentions of his and discuss the methods that lead you to know the mind, face to face, in keeping with the exposition of the lineage masters.

The intention of Nagarjuna and his spiritual offspring, in the context of our text, is that we must first come to a decisive understanding of voidness, or the abiding nature of reality, in accordance with the sutra tradition of mahamudra. Therefore we need to have more than just keen interest in understanding merely voidness in general. We need to meditate on and realize the devoid nature of our mind and make this our top priority.