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Discourse on the Main Points of Dharma, Based on the First Panchen Lama’s Root Text for the Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche I
Barnet, Vermont, USA, August 1982
Translated by Alexander Berzin
Edited by Lucy Costa and Alexander Berzin

Part II: Commentary on the Text

Session Nine: Various Types of Seal and Questions

Mahamudra, the Great Seal of Reality, in the Kagyu Tradition

There are many different ways of explaining mahamudra, the great seal of reality. Different traditions, like the Kagyu, the Sakya and so forth, have many different names and systems of terminology, but they all come down to the same point.

When you talk about the “great seal,” that word “seal” is mudra in Sanskrit, and there are four of them that are usually discussed. Drigungpa, the founder of the Drigung Kagyu tradition, had a special way of explaining these four seals. First of all he describes them in the system of the listeners to the teachings, the shravakas. For the shravakas, when you speak about having this seal with which the body, speech and mind are never separated from their vows, this is called their seal of behavior or karmamudra. When you have the seal with which you realize the fact that persons have no true identity, this is the seal of preventive measures or dharmamudra for the listeners. To be completely free of all disturbing attitudes is the seal of their close bond, the samayamudra. To have no remainder left of the aggregates factors of your experience, or your aggregates, is the mahamudra, the great seal of nirvana for the shravakas.

When you speak about these four seals with respect to bodhisattvas, dedicated beings, then not having their three gateways of body, speech and mind separated from the six perfections, or far-reaching attitudes, is their seal of behavior, karmamudra. To see things like illusions and completely free from all mental fabrications is their seal of preventive measures, their dharmamudra. Not allowing themselves ever to be tarnished by stains of selfishness is a seal of close bond for them, samayamudra. To see that voidness and compassion are of one taste is mahamudra, the great seal for them.

In terms of tantra, the hidden measures to protect the mind, then relying on a partner to help transfer them to higher states of realization would be their seal of behavior, their karmamudra. Never to be separated from having the energy-winds and consciousness joined together is their seal of preventive measures or dharmamudra. Never to allow the close bonds with the practices and vows to degenerate is the seal of the close bond for them, their samayamudra. And to make manifest the deep awareness that is simultaneous with each moment is their great seal of reality, their mahamudra.

Within the context of the teachings on tummo, which is the inner flame of the subtle energy heat at the navel, doing the various physical exercises in order to get the energy-winds in motion and under control is the practice of the seal of behavior, or karmamudra. To gain a very blissful deep awareness based on this is the seal of preventive measures, or dharmamudra. To have no attachment toward that blissful consciousness is the seal of the close bond, samayamudra. The spontaneous fulfillment of all purposes would be the great seal mahamudra.

The nonconceptual deep awareness of voidness, voidness being the absence of all fantasized, impossible ways of existing, can also be described as the mahamudra or great seal. And how is that derived? When you look at the syllables that make up the Tibetan word for mahamudra, chaggya chenpo (phyag-rgya chen-po), the first syllable “chag” stands for the deep awareness of the absence of all fantasized, impossible ways of existing, the deep awareness of voidness. The second syllable, “kya” stands for liberation from all uncontrollably recurring phenomenon of samsara and the “chenpo,” meaning “maha” or “great,” stands for the unity of these.

Furthermore, all of one’s practices from the beginning steps of taking a safe and sound direction in life, all the way up to reaching the fully enlightened state of a Buddha, all of these things are included within the sphere of this great seal of reality or mahamudra.

The actual textual sources for the teachings on mahamudra found in tantra are in the texts known as the Seven Texts of the Mahasiddhas, mahasiddhas being the adepts with actual attainments. There’s a text by the great master, Mahasukha, called Establishing the Hidden Factors. Then there’s a disciple of Mahasukha, whose name is Anangavajra, and the text that he wrote is called Establishing Method and Discriminating Awareness. The next text was written by his disciple, King Indrabhuti, and it’s called Establishing Deep Awareness. His wife or queen, Lakshmikara, wrote a text called Establishing Non-discordance. The next text, by Dombi Heruka, is entitled Establishing What Simultaneously Arises. Then the next one is by the master Darikapa and is called Establishing the Very Nature of the Reality of the Great Hidden Factors. Lastly, there’s another text by a female practitioner, the Yogini Chinto, who wrote Establishing the Very Nature of the Reality of What Follows from Becoming Clear about Functional Phenomena.

The additional sources mentioned in the text for the tantra mahamudra teachings are The Three Core Volumes of Saraha, referring to his three collections of songs or dohas: The King Dohas, The Queen Dohas and The Commoner Dohas. All of these texts speak about these essential points of mahamudra. With respect to the sutra teachings on mahamudra, this will be the subject matter for tomorrow. Are there any questions?

Participant: Have any of these texts been translated into English?

Alex: Some songs by Saraha, called “The Royal Songs of Saraha,” have been translated, but I’m not really sure whether they are from these three collections or from other songs by him.

Participant 2: You mentioned that at early stages in concentration when you notice that you have many thoughts, this is a good sign. Why is that?

Serkong Rinpoche: It is helpful because you have to come to recognize what is the nature of thoughts. Since you need to recognize the nature of thoughts, then having these thoughts is not a bad thing. It’s something that is helpful for being able to recognize their nature. If you look at us now, most of us are quite mindless in the sense that we don’t really notice or pay much attention to the thoughts we have. So, in a sense, it seems like we don’t have any thoughts.

So when you first sit down and examine the mind and thoughts come up, then it’s something useful. It is, for instance, like when you are trying to identify a disease, in the Tibetan medical system they apply certain methods to make the disease come to a head so they can really see what the disease is and then treat it properly. Likewise, rather than being very mindless and not having much going on in your head at all, when you sit, it is good to first start having these thoughts come up, because then you get subject matter to work on to identify what the nature of thought is. When you walk around and you don’t think much of anything at all, that’s not very good because then you have no material to gain insight into. Whereas when you sit down, and try to concentrate, getting a lot of thoughts is something that can be helpful.

Participant 3: Is it helpful or harmless, or doesn’t it matter to know what stage of concentration you have reached?

Alex: Of the nine stages, you mean?

Participant 3: Yes.

Alex: Rinpoche says the question is a bit strange if you think about it, it is as if while you are in grammar school you asked, is it necessary to know what grade you are in. It’s pretty strange to want to know what grade you are in when you are in that grade. When you are in the first, or the second, or the third grade, of course you know you are in the first grade or second grade. So if you ask, is it necessary to know what grade you are in when you are in school, that’s pretty weird. So Rinpoche doesn’t quite understand what point you have in mind when you ask is there a necessity to know what grade you are in.

Serkong Rinpoche: If I ask you in grammar school, is it necessary to know what grade you are in while you are going to grammar school, what would you answer to my question?

Participant 3: I would give you a particular grade.

Alex: No, that’s not the question. The question is not which grade are you in, the question, which is what you asked, was, is it necessary to know what grade you are in? Is it necessary to know what grade you are in while you are attending grammar school?

Participant 3: It helps.

Alex: When you are in a grade, when you are in first grade or second grade, of course you know what grade you’re in.

Participant 3: So you know what room to go to. I’ll try and clarify that. If you….

Alex: Of course, you have to know which room in the building each of classrooms for each of the grades is in. That’s something else, but Rinpoche doesn’t understand at all what you are driving at with the question you are asking. Is it necessary to know what grade you are in while you are going to school? Of course you know what grade you are in.

Serkong Rinpoche: But if you ask, for instance, if when you reach third grade is it necessary to know that you’ve gotten to the third grade, then, yes, sure.

Participant 3: If you have attained a certain level of understanding and you fixate on that, does that mean that you lose your power of concentration over other things?

Alex: Rinpoche says what’s the point of sitting and focusing on the fact that now you are in the third grade?

Participant 3: That’s why I’m asking, is it necessary to know that, because then you would lose….

Alex: No, Rinpoche is saying that simply because when you know you are in the third grade, it doesn’t follow that you are going to sit there and dwell on the fact that, “It’s really great, I’m in the third grade.”

Participant 3: But I could feel proud of my achievement.

Alex: Are you saying, that if you didn’t know what stage you were at, then you’d have nothing to feel proud about and, therefore, it’s better not to know what stage you’re at? What are you saying? Does anybody understand what he’s asking?

Participant 4: Are you trying to say that knowing what grade you are in, you know which particular aspect of the Dharma to approach, or which particular practice to employ?

Participant 3: Let me ask it in another way. Does an enlightened person know that one is enlightened?

Serkong Rinpoche: When you are enlightened you know everything, so obviously you also know that you’ve become enlightened, you’re omniscient. When you become enlightened you know absolutely everything, so obviously you would know that as well, it’s included in “everything.”

Participant 3: I think I better rephrase this whole thing.

Alex: Rinpoche says that’s a good idea. But maybe you are not allowed to think about it. I forbid you to think about that subject, Rinpoche says. [laughter]

Participant 3: Maybe you can tell me where I can find my mind?

Serkong Rinpoche: That’s a much better pursuit. If you actually went out and looked for it, as instructed, that would be better. It was because of going outside and looking for it that, on the basis of your experience, you decide it’s not outside but inside, then the investigation for it is much more real. It is not the same to just sit in your seat and say, “I know that the mind isn’t outside; it’s inside, it’s internal.”

Although you’ve come to the same conclusion, nevertheless there’s a big difference between actually going out looking for it and coming to that conclusion, or just smugly deciding, “I know it all and that that’s the way it is.” It would be very easy; anybody could just sit inside the house and realize that the mind isn’t something that’s outside, that it is internal. However, there’s a big difference between just smugly saying that, and actually going out to see for yourself and then coming back knowing it.

Participant 3: Is it possible to define what you are? Is it possible to say that you have particular characteristics, as if to say that the only way that you could perhaps define something is if it’s outside of yourself? For instance if I say that I’m stupid, can I really say that unless I’m standing outside?

Alex: When I say what you just said literally in Tibetan, it doesn’t communicate very well.

Participant 3: I take back the last ten minutes.

Alex: So is that all for today? One more question?

Participant 5: Rinpoche said that in mahamudra the way of developing concentration is to focus on the mind, but first you have to find the mind. So if you are sitting in meditation, and you watch your thoughts arise and let them go, and you see through them, finally if your thoughts are coming and you have a consciousness that knows what was launching these thoughts and you focus on that, would that be a way of finding the mind, to focus on that awareness?

Alex: That doesn’t come out very clearly in Tibetan. You are not focusing on alertness as the object of your meditation. Alertness is a function that is keeping watch on the meditation itself while you are focusing on the mind. But to do that is extremely difficult; therefore Rinpoche suggests something that’s easier than that. Rinpoche is suggesting a method of gaining concentration by visualizing the bodily form of a Buddha in front of you, and you will find that this is a much easier method to pursue for gaining a stilled and settled state of shamatha than trying to gain it by using the mind as the object of focus.

Rinpoche: The method to visualize a Buddha is to first visualize the form roughly. If you can just get the rough form going, start with that. Then, keeping this rough form going, try to fill in the details by focusing first on the hair in the middle of the Buddha’s brow and then, once the clarity of that comes in within the framework of a rough visualization, you go further and further down on the figure’s body, filling in more details with clarity. Go for the whole thing roughly first and then fill in the details. You shouldn’t visualize the figure too high up in the air because that will bring about a lot of difficulties, keep it at eye level. When you really get single-minded concentration on that type of object, then somebody can shoot a gun outside and you won’t even hear it.

Participant 6: When Rinpoche introduced that visualization, he said something about mirrors so that you would get a three-dimensional form, is that just to start the visualization, or what?

Serkong Rinpoche: The point was just to introduce you to what the form would look like and to give an idea of what a three-dimensional image of a Buddha would be like. If you want to visualize His Holiness the Dalai Lama, if you’ve met him then it’s easy to visualize a three-dimensional live person. But if it’s with the Buddha and you have only seen paintings of Buddhas, it’s not that you visualize a flat painting of a Buddha; you have to visualize a three-dimensional live one. A way to enable you to get an idea of what that would look like is to use these mirrors to get a 3-D image, but once you’ve got that, you just try to imagine it in your mind’s eye.

Participant 6: I need a little bit more clarity on the relationship between sutra, mahamudra and tantra?

Alex: What do you have in the back of your mind that’s making you ask what relation do they have? I mean, you have two objects or two things; there can be many types of relations between them. You can ask do Rinpoche and I have a relationship and is it a relationship of knowing each other? Is it a relationship like one animal eating the other? Or one seeing the other? Or what do you mean by that? This word “relationship” is a funny word?

Participant 6: Well what I am assuming is that if mahamudra is the great seal of voidness, then is there also a sutra voidness and a tantra voidness?

Different Meanings of the Word “Mudra,” Seal

Serkong Rinpoche: Voidness is exactly the same in both sutra and tantra. There’s only one voidness, but in the various traditions people will describe the various seals of reality and all this terminology with different definitions. So as we discussed earlier, the shravakas, the listeners, have a presentation of four seals, and the bodhisattvas have another presentation of four seals.

Participant 6: So is that essentially the difference between them?

Serkong Rinpoche: If you are asking in terms of four different types of seals and the presentation of four seals in various texts and traditions, yes you are going to find different usages of those terms in different texts and traditions, and they’ll be referring to different things. So you have them used in different systems, as you will find out reading the literature. In a presentation of four seals you will find a presentation of a mahamudra as being one of the four, in which case it’ll have the meaning given in that particular system.

Participant 4: One simple question, could Rinpoche explain what a seal is?

Alex: Rinpoche says, didn’t he give the etymology for the two syllables for mudra, for a seal?

Participant 4: Chaggya-chenpo?

Alex: Didn’t Rinpoche go through all of that, what was the syllable “chag”?

Participant 4: Some kind of deep awareness of voidness?

Alex: And “chenpo”?

Participant 4: “Chenpo” is the unity of these?

Serkong Rinpoche: So that is what you should understand by the words “the great seal.” You have deep awareness of voidness and liberation from all uncontrollably recurring phenomena, and the unity of these two.

You can understand many different things from the word “mudra” or “seal.” There are the sealing gestures when you make the various hand gestures, the mudras; there are also the four seals of phenomena in terms of all collected phenomena involving non-staticness or change, and all uncontrollably recurring phenomenon involving problems, and so on. Then there’s also the presentation of the mahamudra, of mudra being voidness and when referring to voidness, then voidness is something that pervades everything, so it’s the nature that seals everything. There’s nothing that is beyond, nothing that escapes from having voidness as its nature. Then there’s also “seal” in the sense of like sealing wax, that you seal things with, you sign things with or attest to various things and, in this context, it means that there’s nothing that can transgress or go beyond that. So there’s nothing that goes beyond having voidness as its nature. There are many different ways to understand the term.

A seal would, therefore, be like the first syllable of chaggya-chenpo, implying what it’s talking about, and then the second, meaning that it’s sealed to that, it has to stick to that, so that fact is reality. That first syllable is also in the word for majordomo. A majordomo is an attendant who keeps stock or is in control of all the possessions of a household, someone who takes care of all of the possessions and keeps account of everything. The word for that in Tibetan is chagdzoe (phyag-mdzod). The first syllable is the same chag of chaggya and there it’s referring to all the possessions, and dzoe is either the treasury of that or, in terms of a person, someone who keeps control of the treasury of all of that. So when you are starting to look at the meaning of the syllables in the word, you can also look at other words that happen to include the same syllable within it.