Mahāmudrā: Part Six


Avalokiteśvara. Gilt Copper. North-Eastern India: Late Pāla Style. 12th Century. Published: von Schroeder, Ulrich, 2009. The Jokhang Bronzes




I respectfully bow at the feet of my peerless guru, lord of that which pervades

everywhere, master of those with actual attainment, who expounds the all-pervasive

nature of everything, the great seal of reality, mahamudra, inseparable from the

diamond-strong sphere of mind that is beyond speech.



Commenting on the opening verse (see above) of A Root Text for The Precious Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahāmudrā, Geshe Doga distinguishes between subject and object Mahāmudrā:

The first line of the Tibetan verse, which doesn’t correspond with the order of the English translation, is the line that includes “Mahamudra the great seal of Voidness, the all-pervasive nature of all things.” This line presents the object Mahamudra, which is the voidness or emptiness itself–the pervasive nature of all things. As presented here, emptiness pervades all existence, and so it is the nature of all things. This accords with other teachings. For those of you who remember, within the four categories of Prajnaparamita or perfections, one is the natural perfection which is emptiness. It is presented here in the same way: the nature of all things is voidness or emptiness.

The all-pervasive nature of all things is Mahamudra, literally translates as the great seal of voidness. The connotation of seal is that is that phenomena cannot exist other than in the nature of voidness and therefore voidness is ingrained in all existence. The word “great” has the connotation that by seeing or understanding the nature of all phenomena, which is the voidness or emptiness that is prevalent in all phenomena, one achieves great realisations and great states. That is why it is called ‘great’. So the literal translation of Mahamudra is maha meaning great and mudra meaning seal.

The second line in the Tibetan verse relates to “indistinguishable” and “beyond all words” which is the diamond-hard voidness of the mind. This line presents subject Mahamudra. Of the two, subject Mahamudra and object Mahamudra, the primary is subject Mahamudra which is the wisdom realizing emptiness. This is represented in the second line as “the diamond hard voidness of the mind.”

Using “indistinguishable'” in the second line indicates that both the object and the subject are indistinguishable in single-pointed concentration on emptiness. The diamond hard voidness of the mind is the direct perception or realization of emptiness within the metal continuum of an arya being who is in meditative equipoise. In the state of meditative equipoise, the object (emptiness) and subject (wisdom realising emptiness) is said to become indistinguishable, just like pouring water into water. The wisdom realising emptiness within an arya being in meditative equipoise is further referred to as ‘diamond hard’ as it is indestructible. That state is also beyond all words, meaning that that bliss realizing emptiness is beyond all words, or inexpressible.

A mundane analogy to illustrate how it is inexpressible is the sensual, pleasurable taste of the sweetness of sugar or molasses. We can taste that molasses or sugar is sweet, but it is hard to describe that sweetness. We cannot really comprehend the experience of sweetness unless we actually taste something sweet ourself, nor can we impart that experience to someone else unless they also taste it. Likewise, the immaculate bliss experienced by an arya being in meditative equipoise focusing on emptiness is beyond all words, or inexpressible.[1]

For more on this topic see earlier post titled Empty Words.

According to the auto-commentary on the root text, in order to gain the direct perception of the ultimate nature of mind, which is emptiness, one must first “accumulate extensive merit.”[2] It is not possible otherwise. But, as Geshe Doga explains, in order to realise the ultimate nature of the mind (which is emptiness) it is likewise “necessary to first perceive the actual [conventional] nature of the mind, which is its clarity.”[3] Geshe Doga continues:

The teaching further explains that one just first develop single-pointed concentration followed by calm abiding on the basic nature of the mind, which is its clarity. Using that as a focus, one can then gain the realisation of the ultimate nature of the mind. To be more specific, perceiving the ultimate nature of the mind begins at a basic level, which is to focus on the clarity of the mind. Gaining calm-abiding on that, one then uses that clarity for gaining the realisation of the ultimate nature of the mind.[4]

This sequence, progressing from emphasis on the conventional nature of the mind to emphasis on the ultimate nature of the mind, indeed, not any mind, but our mind, is an especially prized feature of the Mahāmudrā tradition and indicates the crucial emphasis on meditational experience from the very outset. It is a prime example of generating the view (a precise understanding of voidness) on the basis of meditation (mental quiescence) and contrasts to those situations (also perfectly legitimate) where the student, otherwise inclined, initially develops an intellectual understanding of voidness and then proceeds to develop mental quiescence in order to stabilise and push their experience beyond the conceptual into the non-conceptual.  It is as though, according to the first sequence, or approach, we are invited and encouraged to jump straight in.

Lama Yeshe, Kopan, 1982

Lama Yeshe, Kopan Monastery, Nepal, 1982. Unknown photographer, retouching by David Zinn.

As Lama Yeshe explained to his Mahamudra retreatants:

The Mahamudra teaching is the universal reality of shunyata.[5] Old students have heard many times of shunyata−well, then this is not much different you know. Mahamudra is not so much different. But the particular Mahamudra characteristic is emphasis on how: how to experience shunyata. How to experience shunyata rather than explaining what is shunyata−communicating? So the mahamudra has a sort of technical integration into the experience of shunyata. That’s why Mahamudra teaching is considered very powerful. In the ancient time of Lama Tsong Khapa and Atisha they would not teach it publicly, to teach it was very special you know, rare, to only rare students.[6]



In his Mahāmudrā commentary, Geshe Doga strongly emphasized the vital importance of not attempting to skip the following prerequisites in a bid to somehow jump straight into successful calm abiding meditation on the clarity of the mind:

We may be keen to meditate, but without having first done the preliminaries there will not be much progress. Even though one sits in the right  posture and so forth and tries to enage in meditation there won’t be much of a feeling from that. If, however, having done the preliminaries mentioned here, adopting seven or eight point posture of Vairochana, generating the refuge and bodhichitta, performing a guru yoga practice, and dissolving the guru into oneself then one will notice there is a tremendous difference compared with the practice of meditation without having done the preliminaries. The point does not just relate to those who are interested in clam aboding meditation, as these preliminary practices are important for any practice or meditation that one wants to do.[7]


For this reason, I am presenting Geshe Doga’s presentation of the preliminaries in full. This includes the root verses.

Verse Fourteen of the Root Text reads:

Sitting on a comfortable meditation platform in the sevenfold posture,
you should rid yourself of defiled thoughts
and extraneous mental activity by first practising the nine breathings



Geshe Doga’s commentary:

We begin by adopting the sitting posture to the best of our ability. Then we can start focus on the breathe. One of the main points about breathing is that it has to be silent and effortless. One must reach a state where the breathe flows naturally. This means it should not be labored in any way and be very gentle. It should also be “balanced” meaning that both inhalation and exhalation are neither longer nor shorter than the other.

There are three specific points about the breathe. It should not be laboured or unbalanced, and not involve a tactile physical sensation at the nostrils when you are breathing in and out. If you feel the breathe at the nostrils when since that feeling is associated with the tactile consciousness it can cause the mind to become distracted; if you notice a tactile sensation it can become a distraction. The main reason for regulating the breathe is because the entire focus on the breathe must be done with the mental consciousness. As we need to be focusing on the mental image of the breathe, one needs to regulate the breathe so that it becomes suitable for mental consciousness to focus upon, rather than the physical breathe itself.

The seven or eight point[8] postures for meditation are called the postures of Buddha Vairochana because they are the concentration meditative posture of Vairochana. There is also the tantric explanation, which is that adopting Buddha Vairochana’s meditative posture now, implants the imprint to actually achieve Vairochana’s enlightened state in the future.

One of the main features of tantric practice is to take the resultant state into the practice at the time of the causal state, which in this case means that adopting the postures of Buddha Vairochana now becomes the cause to achieve the resultant state of Buddha Vairochana later.[9]



Geshe Doga’s commentary continues:

Verse fourteen states that “you should rid your yourself of defiled thoughts and extraneous mental activity by first practising the nine breathings.” The nine breathings refer to the nine round breathing technique. We will explain that in a minute. But there is also the practice of settling down the disturbing conceptual states of mind through regulating the breath and just focusing on the natural breathing. These breathing techniques are specifically relevant for bringing about a settled and clear state of mind.

As another commentary explains, the reason we need to settle down and regulate the breathing is because the breathe, or air element, is closely related to our mind. Due to this close relationship, the clarity of the mind is affected when the wind (our breathing) is not regulated or cleared. Thus, in order to achieve a clear state of mind one adopts the technique of regulating one’s breathe.

We should combine the technique of regulating our breath with an awareness of the state of our mind. When we engage in the practice of focusing on our breath, we need to maintain an awareness of what is happening in the mind as well. The meditation practice of focusing on the breath becomes a Buddhist practice when it is combined with the following visualisation.

Check the state of one’s mind before beginning the practice, and if it is in a virtuous state, then begin by inhaling with the visualisation that all the good qualities of the buddhas and bodhisattvas are entering through the left nostril in the aspect of white light. As the white light enters into oneself it increases one’s virtuous mind, imbuing it with bodhichitta, love and compassion and faith and so forth. If one finds that prior to engaging in meditation practice the mind is in a bit of a disturbed state, then begin by exhaling and imagine that every kind of disturbed state of means leaves the left nostril in the form of black light. With the exhalation of black light, one imagines that all forms of negativities, disturbances, delusions, and obstacles that are the causes of suffering, are completely dispelled, abandoned and purified, never to occur again.

It becomes a much more significant practice if this visualisation accompanies the breathing. if we engage in this breathing technique and associated visualisation, inhaling and exhaling, over seven, eleven or twenty-one rounds, then we will notice that the mind becomes really settled and clear. Even though the breathing exercise is a widely practised technique, combining it with this visualisation makes the practice a unique Buddhist practice.

This technique of combined breathing with visualisation is explained in Vasubhandu’s Abhidharma [10] and other texts as well. Having explained the technique, we can now adopt the meditative posture again, and then focus on the breath while combining it with the visualisation. We can try to maintain our focus for at least seven rounds. Doing it diligently with full attention and focus makes it most meaningful.[11]

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Geshe Doga’s commentary continues:

The nine round breathing technique is specifically a tantric method that involves visualisation in the central channel that is accompanied by the right and left channel. Although this is a specific tantric practice the text mentions that using the nine round breathing technique without the particular visualisation can still be effective. On the other hand, if the technique involving the visualisation of the channels is not properly done, it is said that there could be complications and some danger. So to be on the safe side, we will adopt the simpler technique and not visualise the channels.

The reason it is called the nine round breathing technique is because it involves alternating between the right nostril, the left nostril, and both nostrils. One begins by breathing in through the right nostril and breathing out through the left-nostril three times. Then one breathes out through the left nostril and exhales through the right nostril three times. Finally breathe in with both nostrils and exhale through both nostrils three times, which makes it a total of nine rounds.

Do you think that you will be able to breathe in through the right nostril and out of the left nostril without physically closing your nostrils? At first you might find it hard to do that. So initially you can close the right nostril with your finder while inhaling to the left, and shut the left nostril while exhaling through the right. This technique of alternating breathing in through the right and exhaling through the left, ad breathing in through the left and exhaling out through the right and then using both nostrils, is a thorough technique that clears the air passages, allowing the breathe to flow freely in a regulated way. This makes the breathe very subtle and calm.

Because of the close relationship between the breathe and the air element, which in its gross form is the breathe, the mind becomes very clear and sharp when the breathe is regulated and flows freely. This then allows the mind to accurately focus on the chosen object. So the nine round breathing technique allows the mind to become clear, sharp and focused, ready to engage in the actual practice of meditation.[13]

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Verse Fifteen of the Root Text reads:

Sorting out your dull states of mind from the clear,
you should begin by taking refuge and developing
an enlightened attitude of bodhichitta with a pure and virtuous motivation.
You should then perform the profound meditation of guru yoga.
After making fervent requests a hundred times or more with intense faith,
you should visualise your guru as dissolving into you.

Geshe Doga’s commentary:

Adopting the technique of clearing the air passages and regulating the breath helps clear the mind or, as specifically states here, sort “out the dull states from the clear.” When one’s mind reaches the state of being clear and fresh, one can then transform it into the most virtuous states of mind, which are taking refuge and generating bodhichitta. To take full advantage of that clear and pure state of mind, it is good to do a glance meditation on the whole path.[14] Using that fresh clear state of mind will allow the mind to focus on those points easily.

Being able to cover the points of the entire path leading to enlightenment will definitely implant a very positive imprint on the mind. This concludes the prerequisites for the practice of developing calm abiding. As mentioned here [verse 15], the preliminary practices are adopting the right posture, engaging in the breathing meditation and taking refuge and generating bodhichitta. Then spend some time going over as many of the main points of the graduated path to enlightenment as possible as the utmost way to accumulate merit and engage in purification.[15]



Following the order of the root verses, the techniques for combining guru yoga practice with Mahāmudrā meditation will be the subject of the next post.





Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] Geshe Doga, Mahamudra: The Great Seal of Voidness: Commentary by the Venerable Geshe Doga. Translated by the Venerable Michael Lobsang Yeshe, Tara Institute Study Group, 19 August, 2008. 3.

[2] Geshe Doga, Mahamudra, 9 September, 2008. 5. The four Mahamudra preliminaries are: taking Refuge and Generating Bodhichitta; mandala offerings for accumulating extensive merit; purification utilizing methods such as The Declaration before the Thirty Five Buddhas and the Vajrasattva practice; Guru Yoga (making multiple requests to your root guru whom you recognise as inseparable from the buddhas of the past, present and future) in order to realise voidness. See H.H. The Dalai Lama and Alexander Berzin, The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra, 176. The Dalai Lama gives extensive explanation of the preliminaries in this context.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. Geshe Rabten indicates, via analogy,  a distinct advantage in developing meditation before the view:

Imagine a painting on a wall illuminated by candle. If a window is open the candle will flicker, making it difficult to distinguish the features of the painting, But if the window is closed the flame will remain steady, enabling us to see every detail clearly. Similarly, if we try to analyse voidness with a mind that has not achieved mental quiescence, it will be difficult to keep our concentration on the object for any sustained period of time since our mind will flicker like a candle. If, however, we have realised mental quiescence, our mind will be perfectly steady and able to concentrate on the object of meditation without any risk of distraction. in such a state it is considerably easier to analyse and thereby determine the nature of voidness.

See Rabten, Echoes of Voidness, 114. These are issues to be elaborated in future posts.

It is perhaps necessary to mention here that there are two Mahamudra classifications: sutra and tantra. As Geshe Doga details:

So to be specific, the difference between the sutra and the tantra mahamudra does not lie in the object−the emptiness−but rather the subject−the actual wisdom realizing emptiness−which according to sutra is a grosser level of mental consciousness compared to the wisdom realizing emptiness that is explained according to the tantra. According to the tantric teachings, the exalted wisdom realising emptiness is the clear light mind, which is further subdivided into example clear light and actual or meaning clear light. There is no other wisdom realising emptiness, which does not subsume into the sutra and the tantric explanation.

See Geshe Doga, Mahamudra, 14 October, 2008, 3.

In his root text, The First Panchen Lama Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen presents the tantric approach  first, to indicate, as he puts it in his Autocommentary, “that it takes up fewer words”! Ibid. The explanations that follow, in this and immediate future posts will be mainly sutric.

Geshe Rabten in his 1979 short commentary on Mahamudra based also on the Root Text, indicates that in “the sutra tradition, however, māhamudrā does not signify the subjective experience of voidness but the voidness itself” whereas, in the tantric māhamudrā does signify the subjective experience of voidness:

By using the special techniques of tantra the meditator is able to arouse an extremely blissful state of consciousness; when such a bliss-consciousness gains an intuitive realization of voidness it is called a seal, or mudrā. The bliss experienced in this state of direct intuition of voidness utterly transcends any kind of pleasure that can be enjoyed through the senses; nothing in the world can compare to it.

Geshe Rabten, Echoes of Voidness, 98.

He adds (and this might go some way towards explaining The First Panchen Lama Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen’s comment regarding taking up fewer words) “We should not imagine, however, that anyone who claims to be practising tantra has necessarily achieved this experience. This condition of the great seal, māhamudrā, occurs only at very advanced stages of the tantric path, and those who have achieved it cannot be separated from it. Whether such a person is meditating, making offerings or simply relaxing, these activities never cease to sustain and stimulate his blissful state of māhamudrā” (ibid).

It is necessary to note here that the clear nature of the ordinary mind is not to be mistaken for either the “example” or “meaning” clear light (which are referred to as the subjective mahamudra in the tantric context) as these pertain to completion stage practice of Highest Yoga Tantra. See Geshe Doga, Mahamudra, 21 October, 2008, 1.

Having said this, it is important to understand that the view of emptiness in both techniques is the same: according to the root text (verses 9-10) it is the wisdom realizing emptiness according to the Prajnaparamita sutras and the teachings of Nagarjuna. In terms of tenets this means the Prāsaṅgika [Consequentialist] view as this alone results in the accomplishment of the three vehicles: hearer, solitary realizer and bodhisattva. “Except for these methods there is no other path to liberation” the Panchen Lama says.

The Panchen Lama continues: “Therefore, following the wishes and teachings of Nagarjuna, I shall now explain in this discussion of mahamudra the methods and ways of introducing yourself to the true nature of the mind in according with the teachings of the gurus of the unbroken lineage.” Geshe Doga, Mahamudra, 21 October. 2008, 3.

[5] Śūnyatā (Sanskrit; Pali: suññatā; Tib: stong pa nyid), translated into English as emptiness and voidness. In broad terms, it refers to the absence, or lack, of true existence. Every phenomena is empty of existing truly, from its own side, or independently. Technically speaking, emptiness is a non-affirming negation because its realization suggests nothing other in its place: all that appears is the sheer lack of true or inherent existence. Buddhist tenets present its meaning variously and crucial debates are entailed. Lama Yeshe (like the Panchen Lama and Geshe Doga) is discussing from within a Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamaka (Skt; Tib: dbu ma thal ‘gyur pa) tenet. Also called the Middle Way Consequence School it is considered  the highest of all Buddhist philosophical schools. 

[6] Lama Yeshe, Mahamudra, 12-13. Lama Yeshe, also relying on the Panchen Lama’s Root text, indicates that he will first teach “the fundamental teaching” (by referring to the text) and then “try and go into the experiential teaching. We try. We are doing.” Ibid, 13.   Later, he indicates that the Panchen Lama’s root text is itself based on the oral teachings of Lama Tsong Khapa:

In all the oral teachings, lineages, we consider in the Gelugpa tradition the most important figure [is] the Panchen Lama Chökyi Gyaltsen. He is the expert on Lama Tsong Khapa’s tradition. He wrote this Mahamudra, the root text of Mahamudra on paper for the first time, Lama Tsong Khapa’s Mahamudra is not written on paper, no written root saying “This is the Mahamudra.” The Panchen Lama has written exactly the oral tradition of Lama Tsong Khapa and in this root text he explains the way of research or approach for realising the universal realty of consciousness” (ibid, 29).

[7] Geshe Doga, Mahamudra, 25 November, 4.

[8] The seven points are 1. Legs crossed in vajra or full-lotus position or whatever is comfortable if this is too difficult to manage; 2. Hands in meditation mudra resting in lap with right hand resting in the palm of the left, palm upward, with thumbs lightly touching forming a teardrop or flame shape at about the point of the navel; 3. Back straight to enhance clarity and alertness of mind 4; Eyes either closed (though this can induce sluggishness) or slightly open, gazing along the sides of the nose in soft focus to a point about a metre away 5; jaw relaxed and tongue on upper palette behind front teeth to allow saliva to drain without frequent swallowing; 6. Shoulders level; 7. Head slightly tilted so that gaze is towards the floor before you about one metre away. If we talk of eight points, the eighth, as Geshe Doga mentions, is the focus on the breathe itself.

[9] Geshe Doga, Mahamudra, 25 November, 1

[10] Abhidharmakośakārikā or Verses on the Treasury of Abhidharma. 

[11] Geshe Doga, Mahamudra, 25 November, 2008, 1.

[12] In relation to Naropa’s Six Yogas, His Holiness the Dalai Lama (also without detailing the channels and chakras etc.) demonstrates in a thirteen minute video the technique including physical mudras. Watch video.

[13] Geshe Doga, Mahamudra, 25 November, 2008, 2. For another account of the nine round breathing in the context of the preliminaries, see Dalai Lama, The Union of Bliss and Emptiness: A Commentary on the Lama Choepa Guru Yoga Practice. Translated by Thupten Jinpa. (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1988.), 37.

[14] As the word “glance” suggests, a glance meditation involves going swiftly but alertly over the broad subject of the lam rim (graduated path to enlightenment) without pausing to go into detail or elaboration. However, a glance meditation does not mean that one can dispense with the detail. Rather, it implies that one already intimately knows it and hence can peruse the entire topic as though glancing through a car window at an expansive passing view. You can also do a glance meditation within the body of a selected topic but again, the emphasis is upon how the various topics found embedded there and various meanings relate and flow from one to the next.

Famous short Lam Rim texts ideal for glance meditation are Lama Tsong Khapa’s  A Foundation of All Good Qualities and Three Principle Aspects of the Path Three Principle Aspects of the Path. See also A Glance Meditation on All the Important Points of the Lam Rim. See A Glance Meditation. See also.

[15] Geshe Doga, Mahamudra, 25 November, 2008, 2.




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