Mahamudra in the Kagyu Tradition

 Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje

Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje

Mahamudra, the ‘great seal’, is one of the two principal streams of practice in the Karma Kagyu tradition. The other is the Six Yogas of Naropa, a set of ‘completion stage’ practices. Introducing his teaching on mahamudra at the shedra in Manchester in December last year, Lama Jampa explained that both of these practices can only be done after completion of all the foundation practices and vajrayana preliminaries (Tib: ngondro), as well as some accomplishment of deity (yidam) practice. Although mahamudra is therefore clearly an advanced practice, it is extremely inspiring to hear about it, even as a beginner on the path.  This is because its truth is already present as a seed within our mind stream, so there is a sense in which one can begin to relate with it right away.

What is mahamudra?

In his book ‘Garland of Gold‘, Lama Jampa says that mahamudra, which can be translated as ‘great seal’, is the ultimate teaching of vajrayana, transmitted by Buddha Vajradhara, the embodiment of the dharmakaya, the true nature of reality. Mahamudra is presented in terms of three phases – basis, path and fruit – though in reality these are one. The fruit, Lama Jampa explains, is simply the recognition of one’s buddha-nature mind. He quotes the Indian siddha, Saraha:

‘Mind itself is the one seed of everything,
Both samsara and nirvana flow from it.
To that which, like a wish fulfilling gem,
Grants all wishes I prostrate.’

Lama Jampa presented a comprehensive introduction to mahamudra when he was invited in 2015 to teach at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute, New Delhi. Read a transcription here

The text that the Lama began to teach in Manchester in December 2017, ‘Pointing the Finger at the Dharmakaya’, is one of three manuals of practice of mahamudra composed by the Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje (1555 – 1603).

Lama Jampa taught part of this text in the late 1990’s but this is the first time he will be giving it in full. He taught the longer text, ‘Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance‘, in 1983 and again more recently in 2011. And, going further back, he was already beginning to give these teachings to students informally as early as 1975, the year he founded Kagyu Ling in Manchester.

The practice of mahamudra is not unique to the Karma Kagyu, as it was transmitted in the supreme yoga tantras from Buddha Vajradhara. What is special about the transmission in the Kagyu is that here there is a ‘sutra’ transmission of mahamudra, found in the discourse (sutra) teachings given by Shakyamuni Buddha. Hence, in this tradition there is a union of the tantric and sutra teachings. This unified stream of teaching is called the ‘simultaneously arising and joining mahamudra’.

At the time of Indian and early Tibetan masters such as Marpa and Milarepa, instruction on how to practise the mahamudra was given orally direct to disciples. The stages of practice as set out by Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje in his three manuals are a distillation of the original oral teaching passed down from master to disciple up until that time. The manuals present the teaching in a systematic way, from the four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma, through the preliminary practices of the ngondro, to the main practices of calm-abiding and insight meditation that together lead to the experience of mahamudra.

At the shedra on 6th and 7th December last year, Lama Jampa explained the sections of the text dealing with the common foundations (the four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma) and the first three of the four ngondro practices. He will resume his teaching of the text in February and conclude it in July. See the Dechen website for details.