The Sanskrit term mahāmudrā, which might be translated as "great seal," refers to a Buddhist doctrine describing the underlying nature of reality, the consummate practices of meditation, and the crowning realization of buddhahood. Although important for all of the later Tibetan sects, including the Sa skya (Sakya) and Dge lugs (Geluk), mahāmudrā became principally associated with the many branches of the Bka' brgyud (Kagyu). The mahāmudrā tradition began with the Indian mahĀsiddhas, or great adepts, including Tilopa (988–1069), NĀropa (1016–1100), and Maitrīpa (ca. 1007–1085), and was disseminated in Tibet by such early Bka' brgyud masters as Mar pa (Marpa, 1002/1012–1097), Mi la ras pa (Milarepa, 1028/40–1111/23), and their followers.
According to the sixteenth-century Bka' brgyud exegete Bkra shis rnam rgyal (Tashi Namgyal, 1512–1587), the doctrine is called great seal because, "Just as a seal leaves its impression on other objects, so mahāmudrā, the ultimate reality, leaves its imprint upon all realities of saṂsĀra and nirvĀṆa." It is a seal because it refers to "the inherent character or abiding reality of all things" (Namgyal, p. 92). The term in Tibetan, phyag rgya chen po (pronounced chagya chenpo) literally translates the Sanskrit and is traditionally explained in numerous ways. According to the Phyag chen thig le (Sanskrit, Mahāmudrātilaka; The Seminal Point of Mahāmudrā), phyag symbolizes the wisdom of emptiness and rgya the freedom from things of saṃsāra. Chen po stands for their union.
Mahāmudrā is commonly taught under the tripartite rubric of ground (in the sense of foundation), path, and fruition. This approach was summed up by the great nineteenth-century reformer Kong sprul Blo gros mtha' yas (Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye, 1813–1899) in the following way: "Ground mahāmudrā is the view, understanding things as they are. / Path mahāmudrā is the experience of meditation. / Fruition mahāmudrā is the realization of one's mind as buddha" (Nalanda Translation Committee, p. 83). Ground mahāmudrā expresses the primordially pure nature of the mind that normally goes unnoticed; it is likened to a jewel buried in the ground. Path mahāmudrā represents a wide variety of meditation practices. These can follow a systematic approach—as exemplified in numerous texts by the ninth Karma pa, Dbang phyug rdo rje (Wangchuk Dorje, 1604–1674)—incorporating preliminary practices (sngon'gro) with those of mahāmudrā serenity (śamatha) to still the mind, and mahāmudrā insight (vipaśyanā) to recognize the mind's nature. The practice of path mahāmudrā may also incorporate seemingly simple instructions such as resting free from exertion within naked awareness itself. Fruition mahāmudrā is the final result, the realization of phenomenal appearances and noumenal emptiness as nondual. This is not something newly produced, but rather the recognition of what is termed ordinary mind (tha mal gyi shes pa), the mind's innate clarity, purity, and luminosity. Such recognition is often described in vivid terms as being indestructible, youthful, fresh, shining, and experienced as great bliss.
Some Bka' brgyud scholars have divided mahāmudrā literature into two streams: sūtra mahāmudrā and tantramahāmudrā. The former, based on Indian texts such as the Uttaratantra-śāstra (Treatise on the Unexcelled Continuity), describes a system centered primarily upon the cultivation of the six pĀramitĀ (perfections) without the need for specific tantric initiation or practice. This approach—exemplified in the Thar pa rin po che'i rgyan (Jewel Ornament of Liberation), a text composed by Mi la ras pa's celebrated disciple Sgam po pa (Gampopa, 1079–1153)—was strongly criticized by Tibetan writers such as the renowned scholar Sa skya PaṆdita (Sakya PaṆḌita, 1182–1251). Tantra mahāmudrā is an approach in which the practices of anuttarayoga, or highest yoga tantra—such as those belonging to the system known as the Six Doctrines of Nāropa (Nā ro chos drug)—are used as a means for realization.
Bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho (Dalai Lama XIV) and Berzin, Alexander. The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahāmudrā. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1997.
Dorje, Wangchug. The Mahāmudrā Illuminating the Darkness of Ignorance, tr. Alexander Berzin. Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1978.
Nalanda Translation Committee. The Rain of Wisdom. Boston: Shambhala, 1980.
Namgyal, Takpo Tashi. Mahāmudrā: The Quintessence of Mind and Meditation, tr. Lobsang P. Lhalungpa. Boston: Shambhala, 1986.
Sgam po pa. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, tr. Herbert V. Guenther. London: Rider, 1959. Reprint, Boston: Shambhala, 1971.