Commentary on "Root Text for Mahamudra" – Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey

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Namo mahamudraya – homage to mahamudra, the great seal of reality.
I respectfully bow at the feet of my peerless guru, lord of that which pervades everywhere, master of those with actual attainment, who expounds, in a denuding manner, the diamond-strong vajra sphere of mind, parted from (what can be expressed in) speech, inseparable from mahamudra, the great seal of reality, the all-pervasive nature of everything.

The Fourth Panchen Lama, Tutor of His Holiness the Fifth Dalai Lama, prostrates to his root guru, that is to his main spiritual mentor, Kedrub Sanggye Yeshe (mKhas-grub Sangs-rgyas ye-shes), from whom he received this mahamudra (great seal) lineage.

Next is the author’s promise of what he intends to compose.

Gathering together and thoroughly condensing the essence of the oceans of sutras, tantras, and quintessence teachings, I shall write some advice concerning mahamudra from the Gelug-Kagyu tradition of the fatherly Dharmavajra, a mahasiddha with supreme actual attainment, and his spiritual offspring.

The quintessence teaching of mahamudra presented here is that of the Gelug adaptation of the Kagyu tradition. It is based on the pure vision (dag-snang) of Manjushri that the Gelug founder, Je Tsongkhapa (rJe Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) received clarifying the mahamudra teachings he had studied with his many Kagyu masters. It was not committed to writing before this text.

Tsongkhapa passed its near lineage (nye-brgyud) orally to Togden Jampel Gyatso (rTogs-ldan ‘Jam-dpal rgya-mtsho), one of the eight disciples to accompany him in his famous retreat for preliminaries and the compiler of his secret (spiritual) biography. Jampel-gyatso transmitted it, in turn, to Baso Choje (Ba-so Chos-rje Chos-kyi rgyal-msthan), the fifth successor to Tsongkhapa’s Ganden throne (dGa-ldan khri-pa). From him, it passed to Dharmavajra (Chos-kyi rdo-rje), a mahasiddha (a great practitioner with actual attainments), and from him to his spiritual son or main disciple Gyalwa Ensapa (rGyal-ba dBen-sa-pa Blo-bzang don-grub). The latter passed the lineage to Kedrub Sanggye Yeshe, who transmitted it in turn to the author, the Fourth Panchen Lama. Moreover, the Fourth Panchen Lama is recognized as the reincarnation of Gyalwa Ensapa.

Togden Jampel Gyatso was also the immediate recipient of Tsongkhapa’s lam-rim (graded path) lineage. He passed that to Kedrub Je (mKhas-grub rJe dGe-legs dpal-bzang), who transmitted it in turn to Baso Choje. The lam-rim lineage then passed down to the Fourth Panchen Lama through the same line of lineage masters as did the Gelug-Kagyu mahamudra lineage.

For this, there are preparatory practices, actual methods, and concluding procedures. As for the first, in order to have a gateway for entering the teachings and a central tent pole for (erecting) a Mahayana mind, earnestly take the safe direction of refuge and develop a bodhichitta aim. Do not have these merely be words from your mouth.

Many Indian masters – such as Atisha, the founder of the Kadam Tradition, and his spiritual masters Dharmakirti of Suvarnadvipa and Shantipa – emphasized taking in life the safe direction of refuge in the Three Precious Gems of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This is the dividing line between being a Buddhist or not. Sakya Pandita (Sa-skya Pan-di-ta) has stated this succinctly, “If you do not take in life the safe direction of refuge, you are not a Buddhist.”

Similarly, the fatherly Padampa Sanggye (Pha-dam-pa sangs-rgyas) has said, “Entrust your mind, heart, and chest to the Three Precious Gems and their inspiration will strongly follow, O people of Dingri.”

With bodhichitta resolve, you work to attain the full enlightenment of Buddhahood in order to be best able to help others gain liberation from suffering. The works of Shantideva and Atisha, as well as many tantric texts, attest to the fact that developing such a motivation or aim is the singular gateway for entering the Mahayana path.

In fact, among the masters of all the traditions of Buddhism in Tibet, there has been no disagreement that the way to lead disciples onto the path to enlightenment is through the preliminary practices of safe direction, bodhichitta, mandala offerings, Vajrasattva purification, and guru-yoga. These extraordinary preliminaries, as well as the common ones of lam-rim (graded path) meditation, are especially prominent in the works of Jetsun Milarepa (rJe-btsun Mi-la Ras-pa bZhad-pa rdo-rje) and his disciple Gampopa (sGam-po-pa bSod-nams rin-chen), who combined the two streams of the Kadam and mahamudra traditions. The Sakya tradition of Parting from the Four Clingings (Zhen-pa bzhi-bral), which derived from the master Dragpa Gyaltsan (Grags-pa rgyal-mtshan), also makes a strong point of this.

Then, since seeing the actual nature of mind is indeed dependent upon strengthening the enlightenment-building networks and purifying yourself of the mental obscurations, direct (toward your root guru) at least a hundred thousand repetitions of the hundred-syllable mantra and as many hundreds of prostrations as possible, made while reciting The Admission of Downfalls.

Jetsun Milarepa’s repeated building and dismantling of houses for his guru Marpa were all for eliminating obstacles to his spiritual progress. Having overcome the hindrances accumulated by his previous destructive actions, Milarepa was able to attain full enlightenment in his very lifetime.

Both Marpa and Je Tsongkhapa had the custom of prostrating while reciting The Admission of Downfalls (lTung-bshags), popularly known as Admission before the Thirty-five Buddhas. As preliminary practice (ngondro) for strengthening an enlightenment-building network of positive force (collection of merit) and for cleansing obstacles, Jey Tsongkhapa offered thirty-five sets of 100,000 prostrations, one to each of the thirty-five Buddhas, as well as eighteen sets of 100,000 mandala offerings.

Recitation of The Admission of Downfalls three times each morning and three time each evening is the special method for restoring weakened bodhisattva vows, while Vajrasattva meditation with repetition of the hundred-syllable mantra is especially effective for degenerated tantric vows. To cleanse yourself thoroughly of the obstacles that arise from such broken commitments, you need to make these practices complete with the four opponent forces. After openly declaring your transgressions, you need to regret these mistakes, promise to try your best not to repeat them, reaffirm your foundation of safe direction and bodhichitta, and apply the respective meditation practices as opponents to counteract your downfalls.

In addition, make repeated, heartfelt requests to your root guru, inseparable from all Buddhas of the three times.

Your root guru is the one who gives you tantric empowerments, and whose inspiration is the root for all your actual attainments. He is the spiritual mentor to whom you completely entrust yourself. All masters of the four major Tibetan traditions of Buddhism have agreed that a healthy relation with a spiritual mentor is vital for the realization of voidness.

The Kalachakra Tantra states, “Even if you were to make offerings to all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, and practice generosity to limited beings for eons, you might still not be able to attain enlightenment. But, through relying fully and properly on your spiritual mentor in a healthy manner, the attainment of mahamudra becomes easy.”

The Guhyasamaja Tantra also stresses this point. Gampopa has said that when he realized the inseparability of his mind and his root guru Jetsun Milarepa, he realized mahamudra.

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.

In The Profound Four Types of Mudra (Zab-pa’i phyag-rgya rnam-bzhi), for example, Drigungpa Jigten Gonpo (‘Bri-gung-pa ‘Jig-rten mgon-po), the founder of the Drigung Kagyu Tradition, explained the four types of mudra (seals) in accordance with the three vehicles. In doing so, he was elaborating on the explanation given by Drogon Rinpoche (‘Gro-mgon Ras-pa bSod-nams grags-pa), a disciple of the First Karmapa (Kar-ma-pa Dus-gsum mkhyen-pa). The First Karmapa was a direct disciple of Gampopa, while Drigungpa was the disciple of another of Gampopa’s disciples, Pagmodrupa (Phag-mo gru-pa).

  • In terms of the Hinayana tradition of the shravakas (listeners), mahamudra is the state of nirvana (total release) without any residue of physical or mental aggregates.
  • In the Mahayana sutra tradition of the bodhisattvas, it is the single taste of voidness and compassion.
  • In the Mahayana tantra tradition of the anuttarayoga class in general, mahamudra is the manifestation, on the subtlest level of clear light mind, of the deep awareness (ye-shes) that is a blissful awareness arising simultaneously with a non-conceptual awareness of voidness.
  • In the specific context of the anuttarayoga complete stage (rdzogs-rim) practice of tummo (gtum-mo, energy-heat), mahamudra is the above-mentioned deep awareness spontaneously established through mere recollection of voidness, upon familiarity with methods such as tummo.

According to Go Lotsawa (‘Gos Lo-tsa-ba gZhon-nu dpal), a contemporary of Pagmodrupa, there is only one mahamudra – namely, the definitive, non-conceptual deep awareness of voidness itself.

In this text, however, the Fourth Panchen Lama explains a twofold division of mahamudra into sutra and tantra, first the latter in brief and then the former in detail.

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.

According to A Mudra Drop (Phyag-rgya thig-le), the hidden etymology of “phyag-rgya chen-po,” the Tibetan term for “ mahamudra,” is as follows. “Phyag” signifies the deep awareness of voidness; “rgya” indicates liberation from all samsaric phenomena; and “chen-po” implies “unified pair” (zung-‘jug, Skt. yuganaddha) – namely, the unified pair of voidness and appearances. We need to understand the tantra presentation of mahamudra in terms of this etymology.

In order to practice the mahamudra of the tantras, you must first receive purely the four empowerments (dbang, initiation) into the highest classification of tantra, anuttarayoga. Then, it is essential to keep the purity of the bodhisattva and tantric vows you have taken and to uphold the closely bonding practices (dam-tshig, Skt. samaya) you have promised to follow. In addition, you must have gained proficiency in the first stage of anuttarayoga practice, the generation stage (bskyed-rim), to the point at which you have gained stability in its practice. This entails purifying your body, speech, and mind through meditation on the mandala and mantras of a Buddha-figure (yidam, meditation deity) in accordance with the instructions of a fully qualified tantric master.

The vajra-body (rdo-rje lus) corresponds to your subtle physical body when used for tantric practice. It contains 72,000 energy-channels (rtsa, Skt. nadi), eight of which are major. Of the eight, the most important is the central energy-channel (rtsa dbu-ma, Skt. avadhuti, sushumna), which runs parallel to and slightly in front of your spine. Channel-knots normally block the central channel so that energy-wind (rlung; Skt. prana) cannot pass into or through it.

The visualizations of the generation stage activate the subtle energy system. Once activated, then on the second stage of anuttarayoga practice, the complete stage, you employ various methods to unblock the channel-knots and to cause the energy-winds to enter, abide, and dissolve in the central energy-channel. The purpose is to gain a deep awareness of voidness with the resulting blissful subtle consciousness.

A conceptual cognition of voidness with this blissful subtle consciousness is called a model clear light mind (dpe’i ‘od-gsal, approximating clear light). When you fully dissolve all the energy-winds so that you achieve the subtlest level of consciousness, blissful non-conceptual cognition of voidness with it is called an actual clear light mind (don-gyi ‘od-gsal).

Various traditions give different names to these subtle and subtlest levels of mind when they have blissful cognition of voidness. These include the definitive level short syllable “a” (nges-don a-thung), the non-dissipating drop (ma-bshig-pa’i thig-le), the non-contriving mind (ma-bcos-pa’i sems), the primordial mind (gnyug-sems), and so forth. These are all synonyms.

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 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.”

According to another hidden etymology of the term mahamudra, “mudra” means absolute necessity or prerequisite, something without which there is no reaching of an endpoint. “Maha” means great understanding. Thus, the term mahamudra implies that for gaining either liberation or enlightenment through the shravaka, pratyekabuddha, or bodhisattva paths, there is no method other than one based on non-conceptual cognition of voidness.

There is no difference between voidness cognized by tantra methods and that by sutra ones. The difference lies in the level of mind that non-conceptually cognizes it. With the anuttarayoga tantra methods, voidness is non-conceptually cognized by the subtlest level of consciousness accessed by causing the energy-winds to enter, abide, and dissolve in the central energy-channel. With the sutra ones, it is non-conceptually cognized by a grosser level of mind.

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 expositions of the lineage masters.

Although the natures of primary consciousness (rnam-shes) and the mental factors (sems-byung, subsidiary awarenesses ) that accompany it are the same, “knowing mind, face to face” in mahamudra focuses mainly on recognizing the nature of primary consciousness.

  • A primary consciousness cognizes merely the essential nature (ngo-bo) of what a phenomenon is. For example, eye consciousness cognizes a sight as merely a sight.
  • A mental factor cognizes the same object as the primary consciousness it accompanies does and cognitively takes it in special ways. Some perform functions that help principal awareness to take an object, such as attention and concentration. Others add an emotional flavor to the taking of the object, such as compassion or anger.

[See: Primary Minds and the 51 Mental Factors]

“Knowing the mind, face to face” (sems-kyi ngo-sprod) literally means “meeting the face of the mind.” “Meeting the face of someone” is also the way in which Tibetan expresses “being introduced to someone.” The texts of the great lineage masters, together with the inspiration and instructions of your spiritual master, can lead you to “meet the face” of the nature of your own mind. In this sense, they can “lead you to know the mind, face to face."

There are two levels of knowing the nature of mind face to face. One refers to knowing the superficial nature of mind, face to face, which means its conventional, operative, functional nature – in other words, what it is. The other refers to knowing, face to face, mind’s deepest nature – how it exists, its voidness. This distinction accords with the Madhyamaka presentation of the two truths about anything: superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, relative truth) and deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa, ultimate truth).

The reference to lineage masters in the text refers to masters from the two lineages of the Gelug-Kagyu tradition of mahamudra. The distant lineage (ring-brgyud) passes from Buddha through the great Indian mahasiddhas and the early Kagyu masters of Tibet to Je Tsongkhapa. The near lineage (nye-brgyud) passes from Manjushri directly to Tsongkhapa and down the line of his successive disciples who mastered and transmitted these teachings. The important point here is the necessity for the lineage of a teaching to be unbroken in order for that teaching to be vital, relevant, and effective.

From the point of view of individually ascribed names, there are numerous traditions, such as those of the simultaneously arising as merged, the amulet box, possessing five, the six spheres of equal taste, the four syllables, the pacifier, the object to be cut off, dzogchen, the discursive madhyamaka view, and so on.

The tradition known as “simultaneously arising as merged” (lhan-cig skyes-sbyor) traces from Gampopa. The teachings of this Kagyu tradition of mahamudra entail initial practice of four preliminaries (sngon-‘gro, “ngondro”). The four are prostrating while taking safe direction, Vajrasattva purification meditation, mandala offering, and guru-yoga. This is followed by meditation for developing a stilled and settled state of mind (zhi-gnas, Skt. shamatha, mental quiescence) having absorbed concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin, Skt. samadhi). Then comes meditation for developing an exceptionally perceptive state of mind (lhag-mthong, Skt. vipashyana, special insight) with the realization of voidness. These practices aim for the attainment of a unified pair – namely, the nondual attainment of a Buddha’s Corpus of Forms (gzugs-sku, Skt. rupakaya, form body) and Corpus Encompassing Everything (chos-sku, Skt. dharmakaya). According to the tantra system, the attainment of this unified pair comes from realization of a blissful awareness arising simultaneously as merged with a deep awareness of voidness. According to the sutra system, it comes from realization of appearances arising simultaneously as merged with voidness.

The amulet box (ga’u-ma) tradition traces from Kedrub Kyungpo Naljor (mKhas-grub Khyung-po rNal-‘byor), the founder of the Shangpa Kagyu Tradition. The Gelug tradition derives its practice of the protector Six-Armed Mahakala from Shangpa Kagyu. Its explanation of mahamudra describes the meditation combining a blissful awareness and a deep awareness of voidness as similar to the process of joining the front and back halves of an amulet box.

The possessing five (lnga-ldan) tradition is found among all the Dagpo Kagyu lineages. The twelve Dagpo Kagyu lineages trace from Marpa, through Jetsun Milarepa, to Gampopa, after whom it is named. The twelve derive either from direct disciples of Gampopa, or from direct disciples of Gampopa’s disciple Pagmodrupa. The possessing five tradition is especially discussed in the songs of one of Pagmodrupa’s disciples, Drigungpa Jigten Gonpo. Je Tsongkhapa studied the possessing five tradition with one of his main teachers of bodhichitta, Drigung Channgawa (‘ Bri-gung sPyan-nga-ba Chos-kyi rgyal-po), a great master from the Drigung Kagyu school.

According to this set of teachings, mahamudra is like a lion and its practice without the oral tradition of possessing five is like a lion robbed of its sight. Mahamudra possessing five, then, refers to the following five practices done in conjunction with mahamudra:

  1. bodhichitta meditation,
  2. visualization of yourself as a Buddha-figure,
  3. firm conviction in and appreciation of your spiritual mentor’s good qualities and kindness,
  4. nonconceptual meditation on voidness,
  5. prayers of dedication

The tradition of the six spheres of equal taste (ro-snyoms skor-drug) originated with Rechungpa (Ras-chung rDo-rje grags-pa), who, like Gampopa, was a direct disciple of Jetsun Milarepa. Rechungpa hid these teachings as a treasure text (gter-ma, “terma”). They were discovered and made known by Drogon Tsangpa Gyare (‘Gro-mgon gTsang-pa rGya-ras), who, together with his Guru Lingrepa (gLing Ras-pa Pad-ma rdo-rje), founded the Drugpa Kagyu Tradition. Lingrepa was a disciple of Gampopa’s disciple, Pagmodrupa. The six spheres of equal taste refer to practices for transforming six normally adverse conditions into paths for developing deep awareness of appearance and voidness. The six are:

  1. distorted conceptions,
  2. disturbing emotions and attitudes,
  3. sickness,
  4. harm from gods and spirits,
  5. suffering,
  6. death.

An example of this type of practice, with reference to distorted conceptions, is transforming whatever you hear into a mantra, whatever you see into the form of a Buddha-figure, and whatever you cognize into an awareness of appearance and voidness. Such practice may be undertaken only after receiving an anuttarayoga tantra empowerment. Its purpose is to eliminate compulsive attraction and attachment to ordinary appearances.

The four syllables (yi-ge bzhi) tradition, found widely among the various Kagyu lineages, derives from Maitripa, who together with Naropa were the main Indian spiritual teachers of Marpa. It explains mahamudra in terms of the hidden meaning of the four syllables of the Sanskrit word amanasi (yid-la ma-byed-pa), which means “not taking to mind” or “not paying attention (incorrectly).” The four syllables connote:

  1. cutting down to the foundational root state of the conventional mind,
  2. gaining certainty with the methods for quieting and settling the mind in concentration,
  3. severing the mind’s connection with points where it can deviate into conceptual cognition of true existence and into destructive states,
  4. transforming the mind into the nature of pathways of deep awareness.

The pacifier (zhi-byed) tradition traces from the fatherly Padampa Sanggye, a South Indian master who was also a disciple of Maitripa as well as of the long-lived Nagarjuna. Its name derives from a passage in The Heart Sutra (Shes-rab snying-po, Skt. Prajnaparamitahrdaya Sutra) that the mantra of prajnaparamita (far-reaching discriminating awareness) is the pacifier of all suffering. Its philosophy is purely Prasangika-Madhyamaka, in accordance with Nagarjuna’s teachings, and its specific sutra points are based on Nagarjuna’s Anthology of Sutras (mDo-rnams kun-las btus-pa, Skt. Sutrasamuccaya).

The cutting-off (gcod, “chod”) tradition consists of the functional teachings of the pacifier tradition. According to these, you can cut off all bonds tying you to continued rebirth with suffering in samsara through the practice of first separate and then combined meditations on voidness and bodhichitta. This tradition originally had as its philosophic base the Prasangika-Madhyamaka teachings. In later times, all the Tibetan Buddhist tradition adopted its methods and varied the emphasis in its philosophic base accordingly. It has two main lineages. The father cutting-off lineage traces from Padampa Sanggye himself to Kyoton Sonam Lama, (sKyo-ston bSod-nams Bla-ma), while the mother cutting-off lineage traces from Kyoton Sonam Lama to the motherly Machig Labdron (Ma-gcig Lab-sgron).

The dzogchen (rdzogs-chen, great completeness) teachings were introduced into Tibet by Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) and Vimalamitra, and are the specialty of the Nyingma Tradition. One etymology of the term dzogchen is that “dzog” (completeness) refers to all phenomena – those that appear and exist in either samsara or nirvana – being complete (in the sense that they do not need conventional existence added or true existence taken away) and thus already perfect according to a correct view of voidness. “Chen” (great) refers to the great liberation from samsaric existence and its suffering that the realization of voidness brings.

The discursive madhyamaka view (dbu-ma’i lta-khrid) refers to the understanding of the Prasangika-Madhyamaka teachings of Nagarjuna on voidness expounded by Jey Tsongkhapa and transmitted in the Gelug Tradition that he founded.

Nevertheless, when scrutinized by a yogi, learned in scripture and logic and experienced (in meditation), their definitive meanings are all seen to come to the same intended point.

Mahayana divides Buddha’s words into interpretable (drang-don) and definitive teachings (nges-don). The former are not to be taken literally, but rather are expressions of Buddha’s skillful and effective means used to lead disciples to deeper and more profound understandings. Thus, they require interpretation by a spiritual master to bring disciples to the intended realization. Teachings of definitive meaning, however, require no further interpretation. They may be taken literally as the deep significance toward which disciples are being led. All the previously mentioned traditions teach the same intended meaning, namely the deepest understanding of voidness, which is Buddha’s definitive teaching. All Buddha’s other teachings are interpretable and lead to this deepest understanding.

By realizing how all Buddha teachings are noncontradictory skillful means for attaining liberation and enlightenment through the non-conceptual cognition of voidness, you avoid the serious error of abandoning your safe direction in Dharma by advancing sectarian views.

And so for this (sutra tradition of mahamudra), out of the two methods, namely seeking a meditative state on top of having gained a correct view (of voidness) and seeking a correct view on top of a meditative state, (I shall explain) here in accordance with the latter method.

The division of mahamudra meditation methods into two general categories is only with reference to the sutra system. These two divisions are drawn according to whether absorbed concentration in meditation for developing a stilled and settled state of mind (shamatha) is attained before or after gaining an understanding of voidness. The first method is to attain a correct understanding of voidness first and then develop shamatha totally absorbed on voidness. The second method is first to attain shamatha focused on an object other than voidness and then to develop a correct view of voidness and apply shamatha to focus on it.

As for a proper place conducive for practicing shamatha meditation, Maitreya has explained in A Filigree for the Mahayana Sutras (mDo-sde rgyan, Skt. Mahayanasutralamkara) that it needs to have the following five conditions:

  1. an easily available supply of food and water,
  2. the approval and blessings of your spiritual mentors or of great masters of the past who have meditated there,
  3. a secluded, quiet location with a congenial climate,
  4. other meditators nearby for inspiration
  5. all the necessary instructions and texts about the practice.

In addition, for the successful development of absorbed concentration in shamatha meditation, it is essential to keep strict ethical self-discipline. This not only eliminates mental distraction, but also leaves you with few needs. Peaceful contentment with a simple life is a further condition conducive for this type of meditation.

On a seat conducive for mental stability, assume the sevenfold bodily posture and clear yourself purely with a round of the nine tastes of breath.

For mahamudra practice, arrange a meditation platform made of wood, raised three or four inches from the ground. Underneath it, place reeds of kusha grass with their tips pointing toward the center. On top of the platform, place a cushion with its back slightly raised. Either on or beneath this cushion, arrange grain in the auspicious design of a swastika.

The sevenfold posture is that of Vairochana, the Buddha-figure with whom to identify in order to purify your aggregate of form. The seven parts of this standard meditation posture refer to the positions of the legs, hands, spine, mouth, head, eyes, and shoulders. Sit in the vajra position, known in hatha yoga as the full lotus posture, with your feet crossed and locked, resting upon the opposite thighs. Rest your hands on your upturned feet, with the left hand beneath the right, and with the thumbs touching, forming a triangle at the level of your navel. Keep your spine straight as an arrow to allow the currents of energy-wind in your body to flow freely through the energy-channels without impediment. Keep your lips relaxed, not pursed, and teeth not clenched. Have your tongue gently touch your upper palate to retain saliva, so that your mouth does not become dry, and to prevent drooling. If there is excessive saliva, you may swallow, but this position of the tongue should minimize salivation.

Bend your head slightly forward and down. If it is raised too high, you will be able to see too much and your mind will wander. If it is bent too low, you will become dizzy. Keep your eyes half-open, focused loosely on the vicinity of the tip of your nose, without straining them in an unnatural cross-eyed position. If they are wide-open, again you will see too much and will easily become distracted. If they are closed, your mind tends to become dull and you may fall asleep.

Hold your shoulders straight back and even, at the same level as each other. This is also essential for the proper unimpeded passage of energy-wind through your body. In addition, keep your elbows slightly bent, leaving a small space between your body and arms for ventilation.

This sevenfold meditation posture is often referred to as the eightfold one by adding the method of breathing. In meditations other than specific ones involving the breath, breathe through your nose quietly, not forcefully or unnaturally. Have your in-breath be of the same length as your out-breath, with neither of them too deep or too shallow, and do not hold your breath.

The practice of the nine tastes of breath is extremely effective for reducing mental wandering and disturbed states of mind. Close your left nostril with your left ring finger and breathe in slowly through the right nostril. Without pausing, change hands, close your right nostril with your right ring finger, and breathe out slowly through the left nostril. Repeat this sequence three times and then repeat three times more, but this time breathe in through your left nostril and out through the right. The last three rounds are in and out through both nostrils.

The nine tastes of breath may be practiced with or without the following visualization of the energy-channels. Visualize your body empty like a balloon. If you have received a tantric empowerment for a particular Buddha-figure, you may in addition visualize your form as that of the figure; otherwise, you may not.

Visualize your central energy-channel as parallel to and slightly in front of your spine, hollow, the thickness of a medium-sized bamboo, white on the outside and red on the inside. Its upper end curves like an umbrella handle, passing over the crown of your head and ending between your brows. Its lower end is four finger-widths below your navel. Visualize your right energy-channel (ro-ma, Skt. rasana, pingala) as red in color, the thickness of a stalk of wheat, starting six finger-widths below your navel, running close to the central channel and ending at your right nostril. Visualize your left energy-channel (rkyang-ma, Skt. lalana, ida) as white in color, the same thickness and length as the right one, and ending at your left nostril.

When doing the first three breathings in through your right nostril and out through the left, visualize the bottom end of your right energy-channel inserted into the bottom end of the left. When you breathe in, imagine your breath in the form of white cleansing rays of light passing down your right energy-channel and accumulating in the left, in which the energy-wind of the disturbing emotion of longing desire (‘ dod-chags, Skt. raga) is blocked and frustrated. When you exhale through your left nostril, visualize your longing desire leaving you in the form of black rays of light.

During the second three breathings in your left nostril and out the right, imagine the bottom end of your left energy-channel inserted into the bottom end of the right. When you breathe in, visualize your breath in the form of white light passing down your left energy-channel and accumulating in the right in which the energy-wind of the disturbing emotion of anger and hostility (zhe-sdang, Skt. dvesha) is blocked and frustrated. When you exhale through your right nostril, imagine your anger leaving you in the form of black light.

During the last three breathings in and out both your nostrils, visualize the bottom ends of both your left and right energy-channels inserted into the bottom end of the central energy-channel. When you breathe in, imagine your breath in the form of white light passing down both right and left energy-channels and accumulating in your central one in which the energy-wind of the disturbing emotion of naivety (gti-mug, Skt. moha, closed-mindedness) is blocked and frustrated. When you exhale, visualize your naivety leaving you from between your brows in the form of black light.

Once you have completed a round of nine tastes of breath, do not repeat it with further rounds. If the first round fails to eliminate your gross mental wandering, another method is as follows. Breathe in and out both nostrils silently, not forcefully, with your in-breath the same length as your out, and without holding your breath. Concentrating totally on your breathing, count in your mind each round of in- and out-breaths as one for twenty-one rounds. As it is normally difficult to concentrate on even one thing at a time, by concentrating both on breathing and on counting, little room remains for extraneous thoughts.

Having thoroughly separated out muddied states of awareness from lucid ones, then, with a purely constructive mind, direct (toward your root guru) your taking of safe direction and the reaffirmation of your bodhichitta aim. Meditate next on a profound path of guru-yoga and, after making hundreds of very strong, fervent requests, dissolve your (visualized) guru into yourself.

Guru-yoga is basic to all Tibetan traditions of Buddhism. For mahamudra meditation, the performance six times each day of a Six-Session Yoga (Thun-drug) is the most commonly practiced form of guru-yoga. Followers of the Gelug Tradition often perform as well An Offering Ceremony to the Spiritual Masters (Bla-ma mchod-pa, “Lama chopa,” “The Guru Puja”) by the Fourth Panchen Lama.

[See: Extensive Six-Session Yoga, Abbreviated Six-Session Yoga – Literal Translation and The Guru Puja]

Make fervent requests to your guru for inspiration and success in your practice while reciting the mantra of his Sanskrit name. For this, in the Gelug Tradition, you usually recite the “migtsema” (dmigs-brtse-ma) verse of Tsongkhapa, within the framework of Hundreds of Deities of Tushita (dGa-ldan lha-brgya-ma), while visualizing your root guru in the form of Tsongkhapa.

[See: Hundreds of Deities of Tushita]

Followers of the Kagyu traditions recite similar verses, while visualizing their spiritual masters in the form of Vajradhara or of Marpa, Milarepa, or Gampopa.

While performing guru-yoga and making fervent requests, visualize your root guru before you. At the conclusion of this essential preliminary, imagine him coming to the top of your head, sitting there facing the same way as you do, and then sinking to your heart and dissolving. Feel that your body, speech, and mind have merged indistinguishably with those of your guru.

Absorb for a while unwaveringly in that state which is without the gurgle-gurgle of appearance-making and appearances (of “this” and “not that.”) Do not contrive anything with thoughts such as expectations or worries. This does not mean, however, that you cease all attention as if you had fainted or fallen asleep. Rather, you must tie (your attention) to the post of mindfulness in order not to wander, and station alertness to be aware of any mental movement.

After these preliminaries, formally begin the meditation by concentrating without the slightest mental wandering, single-pointedly on an unstructured or undetermined state of mind. This is a state of mind devoid of any preconceptions, doubts, wishes, or aspirations for either temporary or ultimate purposes concerning either the future or the past. This does not mean, however, that you cease all conscious attention as if you were asleep or had fainted. Rather, fix your attention (yid-la byed-pa) unwaveringly focused on its object, an unstructured state of mind, while holding it firmly with the mindfulness (dran-pa) that never lets go. In addition, set your alertness (shes-bzhin) the task of watching from a distance to check that your mindfulness maintains its hold and that your attention remains focused. In other words, keep your alertness constantly prepared to sense any mental wandering (rnam-g.yeng), dullness (bying-ba, “sinking”), or flightiness of mind (rgod-pa, mental agitation).

[See: Concentration Terminology]

In general, there are four categories of objects of focus to use in meditation:

  • pervasive objects of focus (khyab-pa’i dmigs-pa),
  • objects of focus for cleansing one’s behavior (spyad-pa rnam-par sbyong-ba’i dmigs-pa),
  • objects of focus with knowledge (mkhas-pa’i dmigs-pa),
  • objects of focus for cleansing oneself of disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs-pa rnam-par sbyong-ba’i dmigs-pa.

[For more detail, see: Objects of Focus for Developing Shamatha and Vipashyana]

(1) Pervasive objects are so named because they pervade or include all objects of focus in the other three categories. They refer to visualized objects focused on conceptually either with or without discursive thought (rnam-rtog) about them. In the former case, they are visualized objects focused on while trying to achieve vipashyana and thus analysis accompanies the focus, for example analysis of their nonstaticness or of their voidness. In the latter case, they are the same visualized objects, but when focused on while trying to achieve shamatha and thus without any accompanying analysis. Thus, each object in the following three categories may serve as an object of focus for either shamatha or vipashyana, depending on whether analysis by discursive thought accompanies the focus.

[See: Discerning (Analytical) and Stabilizing Meditations]

(2) Objects of focus for cleansing one’s behavior are for cleansing behavior dominated by a specific disturbing emotion or state of mind. For example, to eliminate behavior based on longing desire or attachment, you focus on some aspect of a visualized corpse as an example of ugliness or dirtiness. Analysis of the ugliness or dirtiness of the body may or may not accompany the focus. To eliminate behavior based on anger, you focus on a friend, enemy, or neutral person with an accompanying attitude of wishing him or her to be happy and to have the causes for happiness.

(3) Objects of focus with knowledge are objects such as the five aggregates when focused on while knowing something about them. For example, with the four close placements of mindfulness (dran-pa nyer-bzhag bzhi, four close mindfulnesses), you focus on your body while knowing its uncleanliness or ugliness, on your feelings of happiness or unhappiness while knowing their problematic nature, on your mind (primary consciousness) while knowing its nonstaticness, and on all phenomena (subsidiary awarenesses other than feelings of happiness, or all five aggregates) while knowing their lack of a truly existent “me.”

(4) Objects of focus for cleansing oneself of disturbing emotions and attitudes are for cleansing all of them together, not just specific ones. There are two varieties: objects for merely weakening the legacies (sa-bon, seeds, tendencies) of the disturbing emotions and attitudes, and objects for ridding oneself of them from their roots. In the former case, you focus on each of the rebirth states and the disturbing emotions and attitudes occurring with them. While doing so, you regard the lower ones as having a grosser mistaken basis and the higher ones as having a subtler one. In the latter case, you focus on the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths.

[See: The Sixteen Aspects of the Four Noble Truths]

Mahamudra meditation, however, does not employ any object of focus from these four general categories for developing absorbed concentration. Instead, for developing a stilled and settled state of shamatha, it uses the mind itself as an object of focus. This, however, is suggested only for people of great intelligence as a way to develop absorbed concentration for use in mahamudra meditation in either the sutra or tantra system.

Firmly tighten (the hold of your mindfulness) on that which has the essential nature of clarity and awareness and behold it starkly.

The instruction for meditation is to fix your attention on the nature of the mind itself as a nonstatic phenomenon having the ability to produce cognitive appearances (clarity) and validly cognize them (awareness).

In general, according to the Sautrantika tenet system, your mind can cognize or can know things in seven ways. Two of them are valid (tshad-ma), but with three of them, you can apprehend (rtogs-pa) something correctly. With a valid way of cognizing, you have a fresh, non-fraudulent (gsar-tu mi-bslu-ba) awareness of something validly knowable. With apprehension, you cognize an object both accurately and decisively. Through straightforward cognition (mngon-sum, bare perception), you have valid non-conceptual cognition of nonstatic objective entities (rang-mtshan). An inferential cognition (rjes-dpag) is of static metaphysical entities (spyi-mtshan) and arises by relying on a valid line of reasoning. With subsequent cognition (bcad-shes), you apprehend correctly what you have already done so through either of the two previous valid ways of knowing. Although such awareness is non-fraudulent, it is still invalid because it is not fresh.

With the other four ways of knowing, you do not even apprehend your object correctly. With presumption (yid-dpyod), you jump to a correct conclusion either for no reason, a wrong one, or even a right one but without understanding why. Although a validly knowable object may appear to you, with non-determining cognition (snang-la ma-nges-pa, inattentive perception), you are not fully aware of it. With indecisive wavering (the-tshoms), you are unable to decide about what appears to you; and with distorted cognition (log-shes), you grasp things incorrectly.

The Prasangika tenet system does not assert subsequent cognition as a way of knowing something, since each moment in a stream of continuity of cognition of an object lacks truly established existence. Thus, because each moment of cognition freshly arises, Prasangika does not include “ fresh” as a criterion for a cognition to be valid. Moreover, Prasangika redefines bare cognition as “straightforward cognition.” It is a cognition that arises without directly relying on a line of reasoning. According to this formulation, straightforward cognition may be either conceptual or non-conceptual.

Thus, by understanding the difference between the valid and invalid ways in which your mind cognizes things, focus on the nature of your mind as something that, changing from moment to moment, can nevertheless have a fresh and non-fraudulent awareness of whatever cognitive appearance it produces.

Whatever thoughts might arise, recognize them as being that and that. Alternatively, like a dueler, cut the thoughts off completely, wham-wham, as soon as they occur.

Firmly tightening your attention, try to distinguish this bare nature of your mind as clearly and starkly as possible, and focus on nothing else.

When extraneous thoughts arise while trying to concentrate, the method suggested here is to recognize them merely for what they are. This means simply to distinguish and identify, “This is mental wandering,” “This is mental dullness,” “This is flightiness of mind.” Having recognized these thoughts for what they are, do not pursue them any further or analyze them. Instead, return immediately to concentrating on the object of meditation. Alternatively, like your opponent in a duel, cut thoughts off immediately as soon as they occur.

Once you have completely cut these off and have settled (your mind), then, without losing mindfulness, relax and loosen up.

Finally, when you have eliminated all extraneous mental activity and your mind is settled in a cleared state, continue the meditation in a relaxed and natural manner. Concentrate on the mind as something that gives rise to the mental appearances that dawn and can validly cognize them. Do not let your mindfulness or remembering of this slacken.

To meditate properly, you need strong concentration internally, while your mind is externally relaxed and joyous. If you are too tense, you will experience flightiness of mind. If you are too relaxed, you will experience mental dullness. Therefore, like the strings of a guitar, have your mind be neither too high-strung nor too loose.

As has been said, “Relax and loosen its firm tightness and there is the set state of mind.” And elsewhere, “When mind itself, ensnared in a tangle, loosens up, there is no doubt that it frees itself.” Like these statements, loosen up, but without any wandering.
When you look at the nature of any thought that arises, it disappears by itself and an utter bareness dawns. Likewise, when you inspect when settled, you see a vivid, non-obstructive bareness and clarity. (This is) well known as “the settled and moving (minds) mixed together.”

These two methods, then, are (1) observing your thoughts and seeing them disappear into the clear bareness of your mind, and (2) analyzing your mind and coming in this way also to its bare clarity.

(Thus,) no matter what thought arises, when, without blocking it, you recognize (that it is) a movement (of mind) and have settled on its essential nature, (you find) it is like the example of the flight of a bird confined on a boat. As is said, “Just as a crow having flown from a ship after circling the directions must re-alight on it ...”

To fix on the nature of a train of thought that has arisen while meditating does not mean blindly letting your mind wander along this train of thought. Nor does it mean making a deep analysis of the void nature of the distraction. Having identified what has arisen in your consciousness, and where it might lead you, merely concentrate on it. For instance, if while meditating your nose begins to itch, this particular method is to concentrate on the itch, but not to scratch it. Scratching is to follow the distracting train of thought. By merely concentrating on the itch, it will eventually disappear and thus you will have returned to your original object of focus, your mind as something that can produce mental appearances of things and validly cognize them.

There are six ways, in fact, in which the mind can become settled into a state of total absorption (mnyam-bzhag).

  1. Settling like the sun unobscured by clouds, your mind is cleared of all obstacles such as mental wandering, dullness, and flightiness.
  2. Settling like an eagle soaring high in the sky, your mind meditates smoothly without applying effort.
  3. Settling like the movement of the ocean caused by the wind, your mind can only be ruffled on the surface of its concentration, but never in its depth.
  4. Settling like a small child looking at murals in a temple, your mind never looks at the details of its wandering, but simply seeing the rough form of its distraction, goes on with meditation.
  5. Settling like a bird flying in the sky and leaving no trace, no matter what feelings of pleasure, pain or indifference you experience, these leave no trace on your mind which simply goes on meditating without attachment.
  6. Settling like coarse wool softening when soaked in water, your mind becomes relaxed and flexible absorbed in meditation, with the previous tensions of anger and attachment having decreased.
From cultivating such (methods as these, you realize that,) since the essential nature of the totally absorbed mind is a lucidity and clarity, unobstructed by anything, and not established as any form of physical phenomenon, it is, like space, an utter bareness that allows anything to dawn and be vivid. Nevertheless, although the actual nature of mind may be seen straightforwardly, with exceptional perception, to be like that, it cannot be taken as a “this” and be (verbally) indicated.

No matter how clear and concentrated a state of mind you achieve with primary consciousness, it is not considered an actual still and settled state of shamatha unless it has also been grasped with the subsidiary awareness known as a sense of physical and mental fitness (shin-sbyangs, flexibility). With its attainment, which comes automatically as the result of training your mind through the nine stages of settling the mind (sems-gnas dgu), you gain great flexibility to use your absorbed concentration limitlessly for constructive purposes.

[See: Achieving Shamatha]

The great meditators of the Snow Mountains are practically of a single opinion in proclaiming that this setting (of the mind) at ease, not cognitively taking (as a “this”) anything that arises, is a guideline instruction for putting within your grasp the forging of Buddhahood. Be that as it may, I, Chokyi Gyaltsan, say that this method is a wondrous skillful means for beginners to accomplish the settling of their mind and is a way for knowing, face to face, (merely) the superficial nature of mind that conceals something deeper.

It is a common mistake to think that when you have eliminated your gross mental dullness, you have attained shamatha and are practically enlightened. Although this elimination is a great accomplishment, it can be a misleading and a potentially dangerous state, since you may sink into blank-mindedness.

As for the methods that can lead you to know, face to face, the actual (deepest) nature of mind, I shall now set out the guideline teachings of my root guru, Sanggye Yeshe, who (as his name literally means) is (the embodiment of) the Buddhas’ deep awareness. Assuming the guise of a monk clad in saffron, he has eliminated the darkness enshrouding my mind.
While in a state of total absorption as before, and, with a tiny (portion of) awareness, like a tiny fish flashing about in a lucid pond and not disturbing it, intelligently inspect the self-nature of the individual who is the meditator. It is just as our actual protector for refuge, the highly realized Arya Nagarjuna, has said, “An individual is not earth, not water, nor fire, nor wind, not space, not consciousness. Nor is he or she all of them. Yet what individual is there separate from these?

Labeling a striped rope as a snake and a network of constituent elements as an individual person are the same in so far as both are imputations or projections of a mental label onto a basis for labeling. They differ, however, in that there is no conventionally existent snake present when a rope is labeled a “snake,” but there is a conventionally existent person, accumulating and experiencing the effects of karma, present when a network of constituent elements and consciousness. To understand this difference is extremely crucial.

"And just as an individual is not perfectly existent because he or she is (what can be labeled on) a conglomeration of six constituents, likewise none of the constituents are perfectly existent because each is (what can be labeled on) a conglomeration (of parts).” When you search and, like that, cannot find even a mere atom of a total absorption, someone totally absorbed, and so on, then cultivate absorbed concentration on space-like (voidness), single-pointedly, without any wandering.
Furthermore, while in a state of total absorption, (scrutinize your) mind. Not established as any form of physical phenomenon, it is a non-obstructive utter bareness that gives rise to the cognitive dawning and projection of a wide variety of things – a continuum of unhindered (unceasing) clarity and awareness, engaging (with objects) without discontinuity. It appears not to depend (on anything else). But as for the conceptually implied object of the mind that grasps (for it to exist as it appears), our guardian, Shantideva, has said, “What are called a ‘continuum’ and a ‘group,’ such as a rosary, an army, and the like, are falsely (existent as findable wholes).” By means of scriptural authority and lines of reasoning (such as this), totally absorb on the lack of existence established as things appear.
In short, as has been said from the precious lips of my spiritual mentor, Sanggye Yeshe, omniscient in the true sense, “When, no matter what has cognitively dawned, you are fully aware of it as (having its existence established merely by its being) what can be cognitively held by a conceptual thought, the deepest sphere of reality is dawning without need to rely on anything else. To immerse your awareness in the state of (this) dawning and totally absorb single-pointedly, oh, my goodness!” Similarly, the hallowed (fatherly Padampa Sanggye) has said, “Within a state of voidness, the lance of awareness is to be twirled around. A correct view (of reality) is not a tangible obstruction, O people of Dingri.” All such statements come to the same intended point.
At the conclusion (of your meditation), dedicate whatever ennobling, positive force has accrued from meditating on mahamudra, the great seal of reality, as well as your ocean-like network of constructive actions of the three times, toward great peerless enlightenment.
Having accustomed yourself like this, then no matter what has dawned as an appearance of a cognitive object to your sixfold network (of consciousness), inspect minutely its manner of appearance. Its manner of existence will dawn, denuded and distinctly. (This is) the essential point for having whatever has cognitively dawned being like what you recognize.

The venerable Maitripa has said, “The close examination of whatever dawns on your mind is the essential point of a correct view of voidness.”

In short, any object whatsoever that cognitively appears, such as your own mind and so on, make yourself certain about its manner of existence – don’t grasp at it (to exist in the manner that it appears) – and always sustain (that certainty).
When you know (one thing to exist) like this, (you see that) it applies uniformly to the self-nature of all phenomena of samsara or nirvana. Aryadeva has also given voice to that in saying, “Any seer of one phenomenon is the seer of everything. Any voidness of one thing is the voidness of everything.”
Before the face of proper, total absorption on the actual nature (of everything) like that, there is just the severance of mentally fabricated extremes regarding (everything of) samsara and nirvana, such as (inherent, findable) existence, (total) nonexistence, and so on. Yet after you have arisen, when you inspect, (you see that) the dependent arising of the functioning of what is merely imputedly existent, simply by names, undeniably and naturally still cognitively dawns, like dreams, mirages, reflections of the moon in water, and illusions.

All appearances of samsara and nirvana resemble mirages in the sense that their existence is established by mental labeling alone. Nevertheless, they differ from mirages since ordinary persons cannot distinguish that their mode of appearance differs from their actual mode of existence, while they can tell the difference in the case of mirages. In the fact that the existence of all things is established by mental labeling alone, be satisfied that things do exist conventionally. Persistence in making further analysis is counterproductive. This point is one of the main thrusts of the Prasangika-Madhyamaka view.

(When you realize simultaneously that) appearances do not obscure voidness and voidness does not make appearances cease, you are manifesting, at that time, the excellent pathway mind (that cognizes from the single viewpoint) of voidness and dependent arising being synonymous.
The speaker of these words has been the renuncient called Lozang Chokyi Gyaltsan, who has listened to much (teaching). By its positive force, may all wandering beings quickly become triumphant Buddhas through this pathway of mind, apart from which there is no second gateway to a state of serenity.
(Author’s colophon:) I have compiled these methods that lead you to know, face to face, the great seal of reality, mahamudra, at the repeated previous request of Gedun Gyaltsan, (who holds the monastic degree of) Infinitely Learned Scholar of the Ten Fields of Knowledge, and of Sherab Sengge from Hatong, (who holds the monastic degree of) Master of the Ten Difficult Texts. They have seen that the eight transitory things in this (world) are like dramas of madness and now live in remote solitude, following a sagely way of life and taking this pathway of mind as their essential practice. Further, many other disciples, who wish to practice mahamudra at its definitive level, have also requested me.
Moreover, (I have especially composed this text now since) the great triumphant Ensapa, the omniscient, majestic commander of the ennobling ones with actual attainment, has said in one of his songs of experience to instruct himself and others, “I have compiled the instructions concerning lam-rim (the graded stages of pathway minds) from the Kadam tradition, all the way from entrusting yourself to a spiritual teacher up through shamata and vipashyana. But, in the end, I have been unable to set out now, in written words, the ultimate guideline instructions for mahamudra, which are not included among these aforementioned pathways of mind and which are not well known at present to those of the Land of Snows.” Thus, what was not set down (in writing) at that time due to the power of its being restricted was intended for a later period.
Also, for example, in The Lotus Sutra, it was stated, “Because it is to be realized completely by the Buddhas’ deep awareness (Sanggye Yeshe), you could never say to those who would (prematurely) write about this method of their own accord that you are enlightened. If you ask why, it is because those who are protectors of refuge have regard for the times.”

Therefore, also in order for such prophesies as this to be fulfilled, I, the renuncient Lozang Chokyi Gyaltsan, who have not let degenerate the lineage of inspiration from those who have practiced straightforwardly this pathway of mind from the peerless Universal Teacher, the King of the Shakyas, down through my root guru, the omniscient Sanggye Yeshe, and who myself have become a member of this lineage, not letting the close bond of its practice be lost, and who uphold the quintessence teachings of the sutras and tantras, have compiled this at Ganden Monastery.