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The Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra

Originally published as
H. H. the Dalai Lama and Berzin, Alexander. The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra. Ithaca, Snow Lion, 1997

Order this book directly from Snow Lion Publications

Part III: A Discourse on A Root Text for Mahamudra

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Dharamsala, India, June 1978
translated by Alexander Berzin
July 1996

1 Introduction and Preliminaries

Introductory Remarks

Everyone wishes to be happy and not to suffer. Whether we are rich or poor, young or old, highly educated or illiterate, we all have this same hope and aspiration. A religious person uses spiritual means to attain this goal, while someone who does not accept religion uses whatever methods he or she can find. Whether our suffering is great or small and whether the happiness we strive for is deep or shallow, we each work in our own way, trying to apply the most profound methods we can. In a spiritual context, we strive to eliminate our problems and unhappiness not just temporarily, but completely; and we work to achieve not merely a small amount of fleeting happiness, but a solid and lasting one. Our intention is not limited. We seek methods that can eliminate all suffering completely and bring about total, everlasting joy.

Why have we come here today? We do not seek food or clothing. We are not seriously lacking any material necessities for this life. Despite language difficulties, we have come because of our keen interest in attaining to mental happiness in this spiritual context. Such happiness, however, cannot be gained through receiving blessings or inspiration from a lama or by the grace of the Three Jewels of Refuge. If that were possible, happiness would be very easy to achieve. But, as the Buddhist teachings explain, our happiness depends on our karma, namely our impulsive or intentional actions. Thus karma depends on mind and whether or not we have controlled or tamed our mind. Therefore, in the end, our happiness or suffering depend on us.

There are many different pathways or methods to tame the mind. Regardless of which we follow, the process entails many stages. Furthermore, in accordance with the means employed, the nature varies of the tamed state we achieve. The nature of the ultimate level of tamed mind is one in which the disturbing emotions and attitudes, their instincts and all obstacles preventing omniscience have been overcome completely and definitely. Only an ultimate or complete path that has method and wisdom as a unified pair, inseparable by nature, can lead us to such an ultimate state of tamed mind. Mahamudra offers one such unified path.

In general, method and wisdom inseparable by nature means both being inseparably together at all times. We can accomplish this, for example, by always having a method held by wisdom and a wisdom held by method. This means always apprehending method within the context of wisdom and wisdom within the context of method, without either of the two ever being absent.

But, not only do we need both method and wisdom always present, we need both complete in the same entity or package, namely in one moment of mind with a single manner of apprehension of its object. Practicing in this way is a special feature of tantra and entails many stages. Although practicing with this ultimate type of inseparability is the principle aim, our root text on mahamudra discusses this topic mainly from the sutra perspective. There we utilize a method and wisdom that are different entities – in other words, that have different manners of apprehending their object. Consequently, they must be cultivated separately and then combined into one. This is the main point the text discusses.

What is method within the sutra context of method and wisdom as a unified pair? It is a dedicated heart of bodhichitta, based on love and compassion. It apprehends its object, enlightenment, with the intention to achieve it in order to benefit others. Compassion, as its basis, apprehends its object, the suffering of others, with the wish to remove it. Wisdom, on the other hand, is a correct view that understands voidness – the absence of fantasized, impossible ways of existing. Even if it is aimed at the same object as method, it apprehends that object as not existing in an impossible way. Its manner of apprehending its object and that of compassion are not at all the same. Therefore, we need to actualize these two, as method and wisdom, first separately and then join them together. Even if we speak about the mahamudra that is method and wisdom inseparable by nature in the ultimate tantric sense, the first stage for its realization is understanding the abiding nature of reality, the same as in the practice of sutra. As this is the case, we must gain decisive understanding of the correct view of voidness before we can possibly practice tantric level mahamudra.

Although the voidness that is to be ascertained on the sutra and tantra paths is exactly the same, the methods for meditating on it can differ widely. For this reason, the great masters of old in Tibet have explained several distinct methods for gaining decisive understanding of voidness. Among them, even the works of Tsongkhapa contain varied methods for ascertaining the nature of reality. The present work by the First Panchen Lama, entitled A Root Text for the Precious Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra: The Main Road of the Triumphant Ones, explains a special, uncommon way to gain decisive understanding of a correct view and meditate on voidness. Although these teachings come specifically from Tsongkhapa , the First Panchen Lama composed this text to clarify them since several slightly different manners of explanation arose as their oral teachings were transmitted down the lineage.

The Fifth Dalai Lama has said we can do without the name “Kagyu” in the title and just call it the “Gelug tradition of mahamudra.” Yongdzin Yeshey-gyeltsen, Gungtangzang and others have followed his advice. I wonder what his reason might have been? But, then again, it is not necessary for me to come up with an explanation for everything. Let us therefore proceed directly to the text.

Opening Homage, Praise and Promise To Compose

In order to establish instincts for a connection with the Sanskrit language through a process of dependent arising, the text begins with the Sanskrit praise,

Namo mahamudraya: Homage to mahamudra, the great seal of reality.

The text then continues,

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 “the great seal of reality, all pervasive nature of everything” refers to voidness as an object of mind. This object, voidness, and that which takes or apprehends this as its object, namely a mind with a correct view understanding voidness – referred to here as the “ diamond-strong vajra sphere of mind” – are inseparable. Not tainted by even the slightest trace of discordant appearance-making, or “dual appearances,” the two are totally of one taste, like water mixed with water.

If we explain on a level common to sutra and tantra, the “diamond-strong vajra sphere of mind” refers to mind as mere clarity and awareness. If we explain in connection exclusively with tantra, it refers to simultaneously arising, primordial clear light mind – in other words, the subtlest, primordial clear light mind that arises simultaneously with each moment of experience. Mahamudra discusses voidness as an object inseparably in the same package as one of these two levels of mind understanding a correct view of voidness. Furthermore, just as the nature of all phenomena that exist, and which mind can thus produce an appearance of, is that they are devoid of existing in a truly inherent manner, likewise the nature of inseparable voidness and the mind understanding it is that it too is devoid of existing truly and inherently. Inseparable voidness and the mind understanding it, therefore, is always in the same package as the voidness of that inseparability.

Not only is there an inseparability of voidness and the mind understanding it – with that inseparability likewise being devoid by nature – there is an additional aspect of inseparability. In mahamudra meditation, mind is taken inseparably as both the object apprehended by mind as being devoid by nature and the mind that is apprehending it as such. Thus when we say that mahamudra entails, on the tantra level, simultaneously arising clear light mind and, on the sutra level, deep awareness realizing voidness, we must understand each within the context of all these types of inseparability. The author offers prostration respectfully at the feet of the guru who expounds the methods for actualizing all this.

Of the body, speech, mind, enlightening influence and good qualities of the guru, the author offers prostration specifically to the speech of the guru. From among all the activities of the guru’s speech explaining extensive pathway minds, the reference here is specifically to the speech that explains deep awareness understanding voidness, the all pervasive nature of everything.

Next comes the author’s promise 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.

Voidness as an object of mind is the same in both sutra and tantra, however the mind taking voidness as its object is different in each. Although this text occasionally refers to the mind that ascertains voidness in accordance with the tantra teachings, it mostly explains the sutra approach to this topic. It does so, however, with the aim or purpose of leading up to the tantra presentation of the mind that meditates on voidness.

The sutras here refer to the prajnaparamita sutras concerning far reaching discriminating awareness, or the “perfection of wisdom” – specifically the hundred thousand, twenty thousand and eight thousand stanza recensions. The tantras refer primarily to The Guhyasamaja Tantra concerning the assembly of hidden factors that bring us to enlightenment. There are also guideline texts written by greatly learned and highly realized Indian masters which can help us understand the meanings of these sutras and tantras. The most outstanding of these for understanding the prajnaparamita sutras is A Filigree of Clear Realizations by Maitreya, while for The Guhyasamaja Tantra, there are the works of Nagarjuna, for instance The Five Stages [of the Guhyasamaja Complete Stage], and so forth. The author has gathered together and condensed the essence of all these guideline texts and composed this work.

Although the Gelug-Kagyu lineage of mahamudra explanation comes from Togden Jampel-gyatso, a direct disciple of Tsongkhapa , nevertheless the First Panchen Lama specifically mentions fatherly Dharmavajra and his spiritual offspring. This is because Dharmavajra was a very highly realized master who not only attained a single-pointed state of a unified pair, but also received a pure vision of Tsongkhapa and composed The Guru-Yoga of the Foremost Three-Part Composite Being.

The Common Preliminaries

The actual body of the text begins,

For this, there are the preparatory practices, the actual methods and the 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.

Mahamudra meditation entails preparatory practices, actual methods and concluding procedures. As preparation, we first take refuge, or safe direction in life in order to distinguish our practice from non Buddhist paths. Then, to differentiate what we are doing from more modest vehicle, or hinayana paths, we regenerate and enhance our dedicated heart of bodhichitta.

Without taking refuge, we cannot be considered a Buddhist. Thus we take safe direction in life from the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha, not just merely with words, but from the depths of our heart. We do this with a profound sincerity gained by understanding the good qualities of the Three Jewels of Refuge which are all based on reason. In this way, we ensure our confident belief in this source of safe, sound and positive direction.

Primarily we take refuge in the attainment of the Three Precious Gems that we shall manifest in the future and which we commit ourselves now to attaining. In other words, we actively put the safe direction in our life of working to achieve this goal. Specifically, we put the vast vehicle, or mahayana safe direction in our life – a direction in which all the vast qualities are complete in this goal in addition to, above and beyond, the more modest direction of hinayana.

Furthermore, to differentiate our practice from more modest paths, we regenerate and enhance our bodhichitta motivation – we re-dedicate our heart to achieving enlightenment in order to benefit all beings to the fullest extent. Without developing bodhichitta in addition to taking mahayana refuge, we may consider attaining arhatship as our supreme goal – in other words, becoming a liberated being rather than a fully enlightened Buddha. Consequently, we work merely for that more limited achievement. Even if we practice tantra, if we do so devoid of bodhichitta motivation, we are practicing what can only be counted as a more modest, or hinayana path. Therefore bodhichitta is the distinguishing feature of all pathway minds that lead fully to enlightenment.

Bodhicitta is essential not only in the context of mahayana, but is like a central tent pole for structuring and supporting all Buddha’s teachings. As Tsongkhapa has explained in A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path, “Hinayana practices are a necessary preliminary for developing a dedicated heart of bodhichitta. Training yourself with extensive mahayana actions of generosity and so forth is the commitment from generating bodhichitta and bonds you closely to it. Bodhicitta motivation makes you keenly interested in developing shamata and vipashyana. It moves you to achieve all states of samadhi, absorbed concentration, explained in the tantras.”

This precious bodhichitta is rare to find in the three realms of compulsive existence. It is the root that has given rise to all Buddhas’ teachings. Any amount of meditation on it is always beneficial. It is constructive for beginning, maintaining and completing our spiritual path to enlightenment. Its cause is excellent; its result is excellent and it is excellent by nature. It gives us both temporary happiness and lasting benefit. In all ways, it is like a wish granting gem. As soon as we develop this bodhichitta on our mind-stream, we quickly and easily finish strengthening the enlightenment-building networks of positive force and deep awareness necessary for attaining to Buddhahood. With that attainment, we are able, automatically and spontaneously, to fulfill, in the ultimate sense, the spiritual aims of ourselves and others.

Therefore we must adopt the safe direction in life of refuge and then dedicate ourselves with bodhichitta – and both not merely with words, but sincerely from our heart. We must certainly not be merely curious to gain simply an intellectual understanding of refuge and bodhichitta. Knowing what both of them specifically mean, we need to approach the two with the full intention of making them an integral, characteristic feature of our mind and heart – in other words with the full intention of transforming the state of our mind so that it has them as its combined nature. Thus, by keeping in focus the goal of the safe direction we commit ourselves to attain, we must strive to achieve a state of mind that has a combined nature of both refuge in that direction and the intention to attain Buddhahood through it for the benefit of all beings.

We are only able to transform the nature of our everyday mental state into one of combined refuge and bodhichitta when we have completely habituated ourselves to the way of thinking and feeling of each of them. This is not something we can accomplish in a day. As beginners, we need to make a concerted and sustained effort to work ourselves up to this goal consciously, becoming familiar with it in stages. To strive in this way is the meaning of having refuge and bodhichitta not merely as words, but from the depths of our heart. This is the preliminary for mahamudra shared in common with all other mahayana practices.

The Uncommon Preliminaries

As for the uncommon preliminaries, the text continues,

Then, since seeing the actual nature of mind is indeed dependent upon strengthening the enlightenment-building networks and purifying yourselves 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. In addition, make repeated, heartfelt requests to your root guru inseparable from all Buddhas of the three times.

“Seeing the actual nature of mind” refers here to directly understanding voidness itself. The text later discusses the conventional and deepest natures of mind. Although we also need to build up positive force and eliminate obstacles in order to see the conventional nature of mind, we have a special, stronger need to do so in order to see mind’s deepest nature of voidness. We cannot possibly realize it otherwise. Therefore, to purify ourselves of the negative force built up by our previously committed destructive actions and the downfalls from having transgressed our vows, we establish an enlightenment-building network of a hundred thousand repetitions of the hundred-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva and prostrations offered while reciting The Admission of Downfalls, also known as The Confession Sutra Before the Thirty-five Buddhas. These are the major methods for cleansing away obstacles.

In general, the “field” or focus upon which to direct our energy for building up this positive force is the Three Jewels of Refuge. Because the guru is the condensation or synthesis of these Three Precious Gems, we offer seven part practice – prostrating, presenting offerings, openly admitting to mistakes, rejoicing in positive deeds, requesting teachings, beseeching not to depart and dedicating positive force – not only to the field of the Three Jewels, but especially to the field of our supreme root guru who has the nature of all Buddhas of the three times. In addition to building up positive force and eliminating obstacles in this way, we also repeatedly make heartfelt requests to our own individual gurus for inspiration to develop a correct view understanding mahamudra according to its definition.