By Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

THE SUBJECT OF OUR TEACHING is the Mahamudra prayer. However, since we have only four opportunities to meet to discuss the Mahamudra prayer, we really don't have sufficient time for an elaborate and detailed teaching. Therefore, I feel that it might be most beneficial to extract the main points from the prayer and share that within our limited time of four days, so that it can be of some value to you.

Generally speaking, you all know that Buddhism is condensed into three vehicles, known as the three yanas, or that sometimes the teachings of Buddhadharma are taught according to four different aspects of the practices. Whether the teachings are presented one way or the other, what is to be conveyed is the understanding of truth, the ultimate nature of Dharmata. Since this is the aim of all the teachings, each tradition tries to define the ultimate nature of Dharmata. Some are very direct, giving a full and complete description of it, while other traditions, unable to convey its full meaning, convey only a fraction of the ultimate Dharmata. So, in this manner, different traditions vary in their abilities to convey this understanding of truth, though all seek to do so.

With the idea being to convey this ultimate nature, Mahamudra does indeed convey the ultimate nature of Dharmata. Again, it must be understood that, when we talk about the three vehicles, they are dependent upon one another. One cannot possibly understand the highest point without starting from the lesser vehicle. In short, regardless of which vehicle one practices or studies, the only goal is to realize, to manifest and to bring to fruition the true Dharmata. But the approach or presentation of each vehicle may be different. Just because the presentation is different, one should not assume that they are not dependent upon each other. It seems that some people are attached to the more elevated names, such as Mahamudra, the Great Symbol, or Maha Ati, the Great Perfection. But even if one is practicing Hinayana or Mahayana practice, the entire goal is to actually realize the ultimate Dharmata.

So the main point here is to realize the nature of mind, or that ultimate state of Dharmata; that is the whole point here. Again, in different vehicles it is approached differently because of different methods of arriving at this state of realization. There are many methods or techniques, but all traditions begin with the basic method of shamatha practice or sitting meditation. From this practice one builds concentration, and then comes to realize and to experience the nature of mind. Using this method, when one has developed concentration (or, as it is sometimes known, the awareness of the fullness of the mind) it is the development of this concentration that leads one to realize the nature of mind.

But our real subject tonight is the Mahamudra teaching. The whole idea of the Mahamudra teaching is very profound. To give you the etymological definition, Mahamudra in Tibetan is chak-gya chenpo--chak-gya meaning mudra or symbol and chenpo meaning great. A mudra is a symbol of a characteristic, like the seal of a powerful king, for example. When a powerful king makes a rule and puts his seal on the rule, everyone is subject to follow that rule; no one can escape the rule, because the king has put his seal on it. Similarly, no sentient being is beyond Dharmata, or the nature of mind; all sentient beings are subject to it. Therefore, it is like the seal of a great king in that sentient beings cannot escape from the nature of mind, Dharmata.

What I'm really trying to convey here with this example is that not only all beings but all phenomena are within the scope of clarity, emptiness, and luminosity, not beyond them. So, having explained the idea of "mudra," why is there then the word "maha," meaning "great"? In general language, the word implies that a person or thing is greater than someone or something else that is inferior. Similarly, this very nature of the mind being supreme, being the highest or ultimate, it is hence called the "mahamudra" or "great symbol."

Let us now look more closely at the Tibetan word for mudra, chak-gya. The word chak implies that whatever vehicle one is studying, even if one tries to reason everything out logically and intellectually, one will find that all phenomena have no true identity, but are rather of the nature of emptiness. This nature of being empty, without true identity, is conveyed here with the Tibetan term chak. (Let me mention that when we speak of any subject involving the idea of emptiness, there is often some misunderstanding. Emptiness here does not mean the absence of things or the denial of things. The word "emptiness" is simply used to express the idea that there is no true or concrete identity in existence; it is not a denial of existence.)

As I was saying, to understand the mind through logic and reason--through the practice of what is called reflecting upon the mind--one gets to a point where one cannot pinpoint it or put one's finger on past, present, or future thoughts. That is what we are trying to express; when one does the practice, one will come to a point of realizing that. So that is the sense of chak in the context of Mahamudra. Now gya, the second syllable, expresses the wisdom aspect of the mind, which all sentient beings possess by nature, and beyond which, as I mentioned before, they are not able to go. According to Gampopa, chak expresses the birthless nature of all phenomena, while the fact that no phenomena can exceed this nature is expressed in the second syllable gya. In short, Mahamudra can be described as the wisdom that is beyond grasping and clinging.

Now, one can present Mahamudra in different ways. For example, it can be presented as ground Mahamudra, path Mahamudra, and fruition Mahamudra. When it is explained in even more detail, it can be explained as the Four Yogas of Mahamudra, each of which has this threefold classification, thus yielding a twelve-fold Mahamudra. Explanation of this twelve-fold classification seems quite elaborate, but, generally speaking, the idea of ground Mahamudra is quite similar to the Madhyamaka explanation of relative and absolute truth. What ground Mahamudra refers to is the luminous energy aspect of the mind that is within every sentient being. Having understood the ground this way, one listens to and contemplates the teachings and then applies them in meditation. This is the path aspect of Mahamudra. Doing so, one becomes clearer about the whole idea of luminosity and the experience of meditation progresses. Having listened and contemplated, one gradually develops consistency in practice until one eventually reaches the point of understanding the vipasyana experience, which is learning to rest the mind in its natural state. In other words, through long, consistent effort, one is actually maturing and ripening the basic emptiness and luminosity of the mind.

Thus, the purpose of explaining the Mahamudra teachings is to help everyone understand and realize their own innate nature not something new or extra. In order to understand this innate nature, which has always been within, one listens to and contemplates the teachings and applies them through meditation, which brings about the realization that this quality has always been there; one is not acquiring something new.

What one needs to do in order to realize this luminous wisdom energy of the mind is to eliminate the obscurations, or kleshas, which one has been accumulating from beginningless time. Through eliminating these obscurations, one comes to the fruition of realizing the luminous wisdom mind. To eliminate or transform these kleshas is very difficult. Why? First of all, we have become familiar with these conflicting emotions since beginningless time. In a sense, these kleshas have been friends of ours for a very long time. Since they have been friends of ours for such a long time, it is very hard to abandon or give them up immediately. Therefore, tremendous training is required to transmute these kleshas.

Generally speaking, it is very difficult to separate the nature of the mind from the mind's own obscurations, because of how they bond together; it seems that there is really no separation between the two. In order to understand the difference, one needs to listen to many teachings. Getting the appropriate information is required. One needs to listen and contemplate, to get enough intellectual feedback, so to speak, to meditate upon that and, having really understood it, to eliminate the confusion once one has grasped the actual realization of wisdom itself. That is the ultimate perfection of realization, free from obscuration, which is known as fruition.

The degree to which one individual can understand a teaching depends on his or her depth of comprehension of this wisdom. Whether it is a Mahayana teaching or a Madhyamaka teaching, the aim is to express the ultimate nature of Mahamudra. If an individual lacks this depth of wisdom, then even if given the highest teaching the individual will not grasp the meaning. Therefore, it is said that there are no meaningless or senseless teachings of the Buddha. They all have meaning and all make sense, if we can only comprehend them.

This has been a very brief explanation of the word Mahamudra, or chak-gye chenpo in Tibetan. I have described how all the vehicles of Buddhism are aimed at expressing the ultimate nature of Dharmata. Having understood this, the most effective way to approach the realization of Mahamudra is to depend on one's practice and to perfect it, and in this way to progress to the actual realization of Mahamudra. I hope that gradually, in future meetings with you, I can give more detailed teachings on how to approach the path and fruition based upon the Mahamudra prayer.


Taken from a teaching given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in August 1989 at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, New York.