Mahāmudrā Part One



Illustration: First Panchen Lama, Losang Chökyi Gyältsen, 17th C Tibet, gilt metal, private collection. Published on Himalayan Art Resources. Author of “A Root Text for the Precious Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra: The Main Road of the Triumphant Ones” which will be the root text of a series of consecutive posts. 


 When reciting the “Praise to Śākyamuni Buddha” we reach a verse to help our understanding of the meaning of illusion:

A star, a defective view, a butter lamp,
An illusion, a drop of dew, or a bubble,
A dream, a flash of lightening, a cloud—
See causative phenomena as such. [1]

Here, after the mention of star, there is reference to “a visual aberration” (or “a defective view”) or rab rib in Tibetan. It means a mistake in vision, mistaken vision. But rab rib is not used for every mistaken vision or illusion. That is why I choose not to translate it as “mind” but as “defective view.”[2] In the Mādhyamika teachings, for example, illustrations are given such as “like hair dropping into food” due to hazy motes in the eye.

The point is that it refers to seeing the designs and views of things that are not actually there.[3] A modern example is when you go to the optometrist and get drops in the eye that make your vision go all hazy. Blurry. Letters or people do not appear very clearly. They appear indistinctly—that is rab rib. So in the verse, rab rib refers to the defective view holding causative phenomena to be inherently existent. It is a defective view because it holds or sees things (like the hairs in soup for the person with diseased eye organs) which aren’t actually there.[4]

But further qualification is needed here. Earlier I discussed how a magician can transform the audience’s senses so that there is the magical appearance of a beautiful palace, or man, or woman, or Mercedes, or island with beach, or very high waves, many stories high. However, such illusory visions are not rab rib in the sense just given above of “blurry.” This is because, although they are illusions and hallucinations, they are clear, whereas rab rib refers to vision that is unclear.


What we must take from this discussion is how to distinguish exactly how inherent existence appears to us. It is not a case of things appearing blurry or foggy or indistinct, but the opposite. This is actually why the example of a magician is used: he conjures whole magically-created cities of illusions, beaches, beautiful buildings and so forth and they appear very clearly.[5] Yet, although very clear, they are not true. In the same way, all forms appear to the eye sense consciousness very clearly, as inherently existent, but in reality they do not exist in this truly or really existent manner. Likewise with sounds that appear when you listen; an inherently existent voice, for example, appears very clearly. When we go to the toilet we experience inherently existent smell. That is a very good example of gag cha—the object to be refuted.[6] When someone farts after eating lots of radish or some other food and makes a very bad smell, that’s a very good time for meditation on emptiness. It’s one of the excellent moments for meditating on mahāmudrā. The mahāmudrā of bad smell.[7]


So when we eat chili, the real hotness existing from its own side is the object to be refuted. When we eat honey (it seems) there is a real sweetness from its own side. It is not sweet merely labeled by your mind, but it appears as not merely labeled by your mind. There is not the slightest question in your mind that such a real sweetness or hotness is one hundred percent true. To question whether it is true or false does not even enter your mind.[8] Right now, we are sitting on a very hard cushion on the floor, or perhaps it is soft instead? Whatever the case this tangible object doesn’t appear as merely labeled by your mind although it only exists in this way—one hundred percent no doubt!

Everything here, the brocades, the lights, even the flies buzzing around and jumping and bumping into things—all appear as real from their own side. Not the slightest doubt!


This canopy above me [bla re] with all its colors is nothing than what is merely labeled by mind but when you look up, it appears as something entirely else. Something totally other than reality. With each petal of each flower, all these auspicious signs, this yellow cloth, it is the same. Nothing appears to us in accordance with reality. Not even the slightest atom of such a reality exists.


This is the main part of the subject of mahāmudrā. The point is not that you have to close your eyes. Rather, it means you have to concentrate intently, precisely, on the meaning of the reality. In reality, what is the I? What are actions, objects, forms, sounds, smells, taste, tangible objects, colors, shapes, all these objects around here and on top of that, hell, enlightenment, saṃsāra, nirvāṇa, lower realms, upper realms, the realms of happy transmigratory beings, happiness and all our problems? In reality they have no existence apart from how they are merely imputed by mind.

Meditate on this meaning. Meditate in reality, in this reality. Keep the concentration for as long as possible in this reality. And when meditating on the I and some experience comes, according to the mahāmudrā teachings, and as the great yogi Saraha explains, “Let go, let go, let it go. Relax the mind.” What this means is don’t cling to this truly existent I. Let it go.[9] And when you actually let it go, you see the emptiness of that I.

The most important meditation is to always be aware that everything—subject, action and object—is not true. In reality everything is empty. All the time be aware of the reality: everything is empty. What exists is only what is imputed.

Once you are aware that everything is empty you don’t apprehend things as true and you stop clinging to them. Then there is no need for the rising of attachment—the cause of saṃsāra. The craving that ties you has no base upon which to occur. It is the same with anger and any other delusion. Generating the wisdom realizing emptiness eliminates the ignorance which is the root of saṃsāra and therefore all suffering. All karma and delusion is ceased. All the problems occurring between life and death such as old age are stopped. Death, rebirth, old age, sickness and all the other sufferings also. That experience of freedom which is liberation, or nirvāṇa, is achieved.


You must develop this wisdom realizing emptiness in conjunction with the method which is the skillful Mahāyāna means of bodhicitta. With bodhicitta you gain great purification and accumulate infinite merit. If you are following the pāramitāyāna path (the path of the perfections) you practice the six pāramitās (generosity, morality, patience, joyous effort, concentration and wisdom) on this skillful basis. Then you generate the five paths and the ten bhūmis (grounds) in order to cease even the subtle obscurations of mind. Practicing integration of method and wisdom together in this way causes you to achieve the dharmakāya and rūpakāya, the unification of the completely pure holy mind and holy body of an enlightened being. This unification is enlightenment.

It is similar with those who practice Tantrayāna (Tantric Vehicle). On the basis of the wisdom realizing emptiness and bodhicitta, you engage in the skillful means of tantra. By practicing the generation and completion stages of highest yoga tantra, on the basis of bodhicitta and the wisdom realizing emptiness, you can achieve enlightenment in one brief lifetime of this degenerate time. Then quickly you can liberate all sentient beings from their obscurations and sufferings and lead them to enlightenment.




Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] See FPMT Retreat Prayer Book, 192. This verse originally comes from sūtra. SeeVajra Cutter Sūtra, 27. When interpreting its meaning it is necessary to note how, according to the Prāsaṅgika, uncompounded phenomena (such as uncompounded space, emptiness, true cessations, nirvāṇa etc.) are also devoid of true existence as they are only established in dependence “on another.” See Hopkins, Final Exposition, 96–99, and Pabongka, Liberation, 647. For a comprehensive commentary of all nine similes, see Tegchok, Insight, 243–61.

The breadth of meanings of “rab rib” is evidenced by the dictionary definition: indistinct, blurred, obscured, darkness, dimness, faintness, mist, glimmer, not clear, confused, troubled, mist, dimness, glimmer, twilight, dusk; hallucination.” See dictionary. For further direct commentary  by Lama Zopa Rinpoche see Sun of Devotion Stream of Blessings. Edited by Gordon McDougall, Boston: Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archives, 2016, 67-8.

[2] Jan Westerhoff also translates rab rib as “visual distortion” and notes that it “translates the Sanskrit term timira originally used by Candrakīrti. It refers to a specific eye disease nowadays known as myodesopsia, sometimes also referred to as vitreous floaters.” Twelve Examples, 41.


Khensur Jampa Tegchok likewise gives the example of “falling hairs” to illustrate “visual aberration” (as rab rib is translated there). He explains the simile’s purpose: “A person with this ailment may have a clean bowl in front of him but see fine hairs falling into it. The appearance of falling hairs is true for the person who has that illness and to whom the hairs appear. However, it is not true from the perspective of somebody whose sight is unaffected by such an illness. If it were true in general, then even people who are not afflicted by that illness would have the appearance of falling hairs, which is clearly not the case.” Insight, 246. Thus, this becomes an analogy for the way things appear to the mind of ignorance: “Likewise, to a consciousness contaminated by ignorance or its latencies, the object appears truly existent, and for that contaminated consciousness, the object truly exists as it appears” (ibid., 247).

[3] Lama Zopa Rinpoche frequently employs this classic analogy of floating, dropping,  falling or dripping hair: “Rab rib means there is no falling hair but [you] see hair falling in your food, even though there is no hair. That is hallucinated view.” Note: “hallucinated” is used here as equivalent of “defective”. Unedited transcript simultaneous with teaching given at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore, March 2013. See  

[4] Khensur Jampa Tegchok emphasises how communal criteria enabling distinction between erroneous and non- erroneous perception are necessarily involved:  “Think about it: A person with an eye disease feels very strongly that falling hairs are there. For him the very fact that he can see them so clearly seems proof that they exist. We need to reason with this person, saying, ‘Look, if it were true that falling hairs are present the way they appear to you, then everyone else should be able to see them. Somebody whose eyes are healthy should be able to see those hairs falling even more clearly than you do. Yet this is not the case, Not only does she not see the hairs more clearly, she does not see them at all!’” Insight, 247.

In Entry to the Middle Way, Candrakīrti writes, “Under the influence of ophthalmia one mistakenly perceives hair, a double moon, the eyes on a peacock’s tail, or flies. In a similar way, when the mind has fallen under the influence of the problem of delusion, a naive person develops reified concepts in association with all manner of composite things. Without a doubt, naive people ought to be aware that volitional action finds its source in delusion, so that when delusion is eliminated, such action does not take place. The wise comprehend emptiness and are liberated, for they have burned away this thick cloud of delusion with the sun of their noble minds.” See Huntington and Wangchen, Emptiness of Emptiness, 169–70. See also Westerhoff, Twelve Examples, 41, 45. Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche also employs the example of (apparently) inherently-existent buzzing and bumping flies, thereby linking, via a comic flight path as it were, his commentary to Candrakīrti’s seminal account.


In Clear Words, Candrakīrti further expounds the analogy: “Those with an optical defect see the forms of hairs, flies, gnats, and other such things which are not real, but even with instruction from someone with healthy eyes they are not capable of realizing the intrinsic nature of these hairs—that is, they are incapable of not seeing them as a person with healthy eyes does not see them. Rather, they only reflect, on the basis of instruction from those with healthy eyes, that [the hairs] are illusory. When they are treated with the medicine of direct perception of emptiness, which reverses the damage of their optical defect, and they acquire the eyes of a buddha, then they realize for themselves the reality of [those hairs, etc.]—by nonrealization.” See Huntington and Wangchen, ibid., 211, note 123.

See also Tsongkhapa’s explication of the cataracts analogy in terms of how it might be possible for ordinary beings (considered in general because there will be exceptions i.e. those who don’t yet understand the profound meaning of emptiness by understanding “speech teaching such”) to “realise suchness” even though still polluted by “the cataracts of ignorance” according to which things appear (like falling hairs) to really exist. Hopkins, Tsong-Kha-Pa’s Final Exposition, 255-7. 

[5] Khensur Jampa Tegchok draws out the analogy’s vital implication. Still dealing with the “appearance” of nonexistent falling hairs, he writes, “Although there are no hairs falling as they appear to that visual perception affected by this illness, the appearance of falling hairs does exist. Likewise, although things appear truly existent to a mind contaminated by ignorance or its latencies despite the fact that things are not truly existent, that appearance does exist. This is important: In terms of the simile, the appearance of hair falling exists, even though the falling hairs do not. Likewise, the appearance of true existence to our everyday consciousnesses exists, even though there is no true existence.” Insight, 247. This has immediate bearing on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s point above that the conjured magician’s illusions “appear very clearly” even though they are not true. Is it the case then that their very clarity persuades us they are real? We know this is the case in a psychotic or drug-induced hallucination wherein the real and the imagined are seamlessly merged. Hence the pernicious nature of the cognitive dilemma regarding clarification of the unreal from the real. 

[6] Skt: pratiṣedhya; Tib: dgag’bya/gak-cha.

[7] The Dalai Lama similarly notes, “Gungtangzang has explained, in one of his Thousands of Songs of Meditative Experience, that if we do not try to poke, with a correct view of voidness, the appearances to which our mind conventionally gives rise, we cannot come to an accurate understanding of the madhyamaka view. In other words, we must involve or engage our understanding of voidness with whatever appearances our mind normally produces of things in each moment, now, and try to dislodge them. We do this by seeing that the mode of existence mind makes appear and implies actually to exist does not exist at all. If we set that fact aside, letting these appearances stand as referring to something real, and engage our understanding of voidness with something else, we cannot come to an accurate understanding of the madhyamaka view.” Gelug/Kagyü Tradition, 343.


[8] This is because, as long as we remain mired in ignorance, we have had no occasion—let alone opportunity—to do so. Things are accepted just as they clearly appear, that is—as “not merely labeled by your mind” as Lama Zopa Rinpoche puts it. The reader is alerted here to be wary of using “true-grasping” as a “yardstick for measuring whether something is true or false.” As Tegchok observes, if one were to do this, “we would have to say that everything that exists is false, because everything that appears to true-grasping appears to be truly existent, whereas in fact it is empty of true existence.” Therefore, “Everything is false in relation to true-grasping. However, determining whether a phenomenon is true or false is not done in relation to the true-grasping mind. It is done in relation to the wisdom of meditative equipoise of an arya. That mind directly and nonconceptually realizes emptiness.” Insight, 204.

[9] This is a famous quintessential mahāmudrā instruction. Lama Yeshe similarly instructs, in relation to a student named Scott, “Because of the conventional ego, superstition, the fantasy of conventional existence appears. But the ego mind doesn’t want accept these appearances as conventional; it wants to take them as absolute. But that’s not possible. That’s the way wrong thinking begins. The conclusion is that individually, each of these elements is not Scott, and the group, or combination, of them is not Scott either. For these elements to become Scott they have to be labeled, or named “Scott.” It depends on that. So the way Scott exists and functions is through the connection between this collection of elements and the label. Each time you check up in that way and find the non-existence of Scott [or yourself], you’re experiencing nonduality. So contemplate and let go. When the intuitive feeling of self arises once more and you change into a different space, do penetrative introspection, and when that feeling of self-existence disappears and the experience of nonduality comes, again, contemplate, let go. This truly is a very simple thing.” Edited from Mahamudra, 25.

Peljor Lhündrub similarly quotes Saraha: “If you let go of the mind bound by ordinary mental concerns, there is no doubt that you will be free.” See the Dalai Lama et al., Meditation on the Nature of Mind, 85.


Further, regarding cultivating “the natural state of the mind itself in a peaceful, easy, relaxed state without the slightest distraction,” Peljor Lhündrub quotes Urgyen Rinpoche:

Whatever conceptions arise, whether good or bad, confront them directly. Short sessions, but many in number, like water dripping into an empty house. Do not coerce the body and mind but allow them to settle loosely and easily. 

He glosses, “At this point…as soon as you have begun to meditate on the mind, the conceptions cease by being pacified into their natural state. Having been pacified into their nature state, the mind is automatically relaxed into nonconceptuality. Abiding single-pointedly in that state is what this system calls meditation” (ibid., 95–96). Thus, Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s own instruction (above), “Keep the concentration for as long as possible in this reality.”

dew drop on leaf magnified cropped




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