Mahamudra is the ultimate Buddhist meditation which started in India and flourished in Tibet, and teaches you to rest naturally in the essence of your own mind. Mahamudra is the highest form of meditation in Tibet, it’s an advanced meditation practice from the Tibetan Buddhist School of Kagyu. It came into Tibet via the Mahasidhi tradition from India which focused on meditation and self-realisation. This means that it emphasised actual personal experience in meditation, rather than scholarly or intellectual understanding of the process. In Tibet, the Kagyu tradition where Mahamudra meditation is embedded is often called the practice lineage.
Maha-mudra is usually translated as Great-Seal but that’s boring and doesn’t say much. My translation is the Ultimate-Meditation which is closer to the truth in my opinion. Some masters claim that Mahamudra contains within it all the other meditations and is the most complete and powerful meditation there is.
Mahamudra changed my life. Not in the way that the hyperbole click bait titles of everything on Facebook claim that, “This will change your life forever” – it actually did change my life.
The Path of No Action
I was a Tibetan Buddhist monk living in a Buddhist centre on the Sunshine Coast Australia diligently practising my meditation and ritualistic routines every morning and night and studying with my Guru the rest of the day, until one day while on library duty I was looking through a box of old books that had been hidden away. I was told they were from another tradition and too advanced for most people. But the forbidden fruit was too enticing for me and when I was alone in the library I began to eagerly read them, and even smuggled one back to my retreat cabin to read the contraband material.
One line from a famous Mahamudra text made me question my whole spiritual practice and planted the seed for me to eventually hand back my robes and continue on a completely different path, often called the path of no action. That one line
that changed everything was from a teacher called Tilopa, a 10th century mahasiddhi who is meant to be the first teacher of Mahamudra:
The truth that transcends the intellect will not be seen by means of the intellect. The point of non-action will not be reached by means of deliberate action. If you want to achieve the point of non-action transcending thought, sever the root of mind itself and rest in naked awareness!
Rest in Naked Awareness
That might not seem that fantastic or life-changing but it has two things that completely contradicted my current focus of spiritual attainment at that time. Firstly I was studying a lot, and I mean a lot. People often don’t realise the extent to which Buddhists study and dissect the teachings for greater clarity, understanding and to be able to fully achieve what’s written. And then I found these words by a revered Tibetan Master that said the intellect can never understand the truth.
Secondly, I was doing a lot of accumulation of good karma or what we called ‘merit’, which I was being taught is absolutely essential to achieving enlightenment. This accumulation of merit involved reciting Buddhist prayers, paying homage to former masters, bowing to Buddha statues, bowing to my teacher, being compassionate to others, lighting candles on the altar, and so on. There was so much to do to get your good merit. My good friend Sean Wardell and I often joked about the merit system being like a rewards card that you swiped to get your merit when you performed a virtuous action, but the statement by Tilopa said that actions will never get you there.
So that above line I quoted said that you cannot get to enlightenment with intellectual study or with good actions – all you needed was to rest in naked awareness. So of course I became very interested in exactly what this naked awareness was.
Turn the Light On
Another point that changed my whole way of thinking was the idea of instant enlightenment. Up until that time I was obsessed with accumulating merit with the idea that sometime in the very distant future (usually you were told thousands of lifetimes later) I would have enough merit to create the causes of my enlightenment. So the idea that I could get it straight away was very appealing, especially to someone as lazy as I am. Another passage from Tilopa reads:
Though darkness gathers for a thousand eons.
A single light dispels it all.
Likewise, one moment of sheer clarity
Dispels the ignorance, evil and confusion of a thousand eons.
This made complete sense to me as I didn’t have to believe in future lifetimes or anything that was slightly dubious to my Australian upbringing. I just had to turn the light on to get rid of the darkness. What could be simpler? There is even a line that because there are no specific actions to be done you may as well stay home and enjoy the company of your wife, which is what I do these days. Mahamudra is a spiritual practice for everyday people who have not got the luxury of living in a retreat.
The Truth of No-Self
Mahamudra offers the spiritual path of a simple meditator. In Tibetan it’s called the path of a Kusali as opposed to the path of a scholar, called a Pandita in Tibetan. A Kusali’s practise is the art of simplicity and is uncomplicated and, above all, relaxed.
Even though I kind of enjoyed the Buddhist studies and still do as a hobby, this new approach suited my Australian Zen-like easy-going nature, and also suited my animosity toward religion and all the rubbish they teach is necessary to be happy and fulfilled. It seemed to me that this simple approach was the way to go and took me on a path to cut through all the religious non-sense and teach simple truths and meditation methods that can actually help.
Mahamudra is the ultimate Buddhist meditation because it cuts to the heart of the matter. One of the main teachings and central themes of Buddhism is the idea of no-self. All Buddhist mindfulness meditations are based around realising no-self or what later became known as emptiness. The made-up and constructed idea of a separate and autonomous person is just a fiction, so when you see through the false identity you are free from all the trouble and suffering that’s caused by believing in something that’s not true. Mahamudra naturally rests in the truth of no-self.
Mahamudra says that the truth of no-self or the truth of emptiness is actually who you are before you fabricate a false identity, so just relax and be the truth of who you are and stop making stuff up. Relaxing in the truth of your being cuts the root of all the ignorance that causes suffering and liberates you without effort. There are no other added ingredients required.
As Rumi says, “What you are seeking is what is doing the seeking.” You are what you are searching for. Just learn to stop fabricating stories about who you are and rest in the unfabricated truth. Stop selfing and start being. Selfing is the ongoing action of creating a false self identity.
Mind as Empty Space
There are several methods to discover your own nature. Mahamudra uses self-enquiry to look inquisitively at your nature to see what you can find by turning your attention around and asking yourself questions like: What is the colour of my mind? What shape is it? Does it make a sound? These questions help you to discover that it’s actually formless and space-like without any boundaries whatsoever. Another method is by gazing into the sky, which triggers the experience of inner space, your actual true nature.
Mahamudra is also a new orientation to time and space because usually we try to make effort for a result and we are always so familiar working with forms and materials, but Mahamudra is actually your immediate and immaterial true nature and always has been, therefore just like space it is taught that:
Mahamudra has no causes.
Mahamudra has no conditions.
Mahamudra has no methods.
Mahamudra has no path.
Mahamudra has no result.
There are some pointers to what this feels like, or looks like. Unlike the total negation of something, Mahamudra points toward the luminous nature of your mind as the truth. This something is actually nothing, which is slightly paradoxical, but it’s not completely nothing. It’s the actual knowing and aware aspect or yourself that is being pointed to, which is so obvious and so close it is easily overlooked as insignificant or irrelevant, but in actuality this luminous or naked awareness is the very essence of Mahamudra or the truth of being a Buddha. Adyashanti, who is a favourite modern non-dual Zen teacher of mine, calls it radiant emptiness. If you look anywhere else for Buddha you will not find it.
The Union of Emptiness and Awareness
Mahamudra is the unfettered experience of the union of emptiness and awareness.
So as a meditator you notice that without even trying there is a natural awareness present and then upon a little more probing and self-reflection you notice that this luminous awareness is completely space-like or invisible. Boom! That’s it! That’s Mahamudra. Rest in that luminous space-like aware emptiness and the masters say there is no other practice necessary and nothing else left to be done. Like the great Buddhist master Dilgo Kynste Rinpoche says:
Banish all hope and fear and rest in the unshakable certainty that the eternal simplicity of awareness is itself all that needs to be done to be an Awakened Being. That is the Perfect Way of Meditation, in which peace, love and wisdom will flourish without effort.
Another point is that this recognition is not just done sitting down in meditation, it’s meant to be remembered all day long, approaching situations with a new and fresh perspective by simply resting in the naked luminous awareness, which as it turns out is very adept at handling all situations. It has wisdom, compassion and sensitivity to the present moment which when you learn to rely on and trust it takes care of everything.
The Great Unborn
A Zen master discovered the same truth and called it the great unborn, which just emphasises the naked and not newly created aspect, it is never born because it has been there forever. Therefore look within to what has always been there and is there right now. Unborn is another way of saying eternal. Zen master Bankei urged us to:
…conclusively realize that what’s unborn and marvelously illuminating is truly the Buddha Mind.
Mahamudra is often described as resting in the natural state. It is natural because it’s not ‘man made’, it is the natural essence of our being. Therefore just rest loose and without effort and be yourself. This can can be accomplished both on and off the meditation cushion, but becomes truly transformative when you can bring this relaxed natural state into every part of your life.
I don’t want to detract from the original translation when I call Mahamudra the ultimate meditation. Mahamudra means the great seal and it is like a seal in the sense it is present in every single moment. You can seal every moment with the recognition of the ever-present empty luminosity. In fact every experience you have implies a naked awareness at its core. The luminous naked awareness is actually impossible to see directly, like an eye cannot see itself, but when you are conscious of any experience whatsoever, whether it’s something you are seeing, hearing or even thinking, those very experiences imply that there must be awareness behind them to even be conscious at all.
Another radical aspect to Mahamudra is that just like it is not created through any actions, not even through meditation, it also cannot be destroyed or tarnished through bad behaviour.
Milarepa was one of the most famous and respected Tibetan Buddhist Mahamudra masters and he started his life as a ‘black magician’ who would harm and even kill lots of people. He went on to learn Mahamudra, become enlightened and actually travelled around Tibet teasing and laughing at people who were making effort through study and religious practice, telling them those practices will get you nowhere. Teasing and laughing at people may not sound very enlightened, but when you read his teachings they have a powerful effect on you to give up all effort and just rest in your own nature. Even though he was a killer and did all sorts of misdeeds, his Mahamudra nature was waiting for him to awaken to.
This gives hope to all of us normal everyday people who have not had perfect lives, but still have a shining luminous awake nature waiting to be discovered whenever we are ready to realise it.
Just Be at Ease
I hope these ideas inspire you as much as they do me and enlighten your meditation practice and daily life so as to gain confidence to rest in your true nature of empty luminosity which has its own wisdom and love built in. Relax, stop stressing and just be at ease within effortless presence, and realise your nature is already perfect. You simply have to stop torturing yourself with fabricated ideas or opinions of what’s expected of you and realise you are totally enough already; you are complete and whole.
I will finish with the simple Mahamudra instructions from great modern master Sogyal Rinpoche:
Not moving from natural presence of awareness.
Not fabricating any states of mind.
Stop all effort altogether and rest.
Rest in the great peace of natural awareness.