Mahamudra Meditation: A Guide

how to do mahamudra meditation

Mahamudra is an ancient and powerful Buddhist tradition that originated in India and has since spread across Asia and the West. The name, which translates to Great Symbol, refers to the wisdom of emptiness, which is considered the true nature of the mind. Through Mahamudra meditation, one can relax into the emptiness, clarity, and awareness of ever-present Buddha wisdom. The practice of Mahamudra encourages individuals to be genuine, relaxed, and aware in every situation, accepting and appreciating their true selves. It is divided into three parts: ground Mahamudra, path Mahamudra, and fruition Mahamudra, each providing a different perspective on the mind and world. To begin the practice, one must first learn about Mahamudra with an open mind, reflect on and personalise that knowledge, and then put it into practice by simply sitting and becoming one with Mahamudra.

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Ground, path and fruition Mahamudra

Mahāmudrā, or the "Great Seal", is considered the essence of the Buddha's teachings in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The practice is also sometimes referred to as the highest and most profound teaching of the Buddha. The Mahamudra lineage can be traced through the "far-lineage" and the "near-lineage". The former traces the lineage from current holders of this lineage back to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, while the latter traces it back to the Indian mahasiddhas, who are also considered part of the "far-lineage" as they received teachings from human teachers of the "far-lineage".

The nature of your mind is the primordial Buddha. However, not realizing this has caused you to fall under the power of confusion and the torture of acceptance and rejection called saṃsāra. This is universally accepted as the ground. When confusion arises, simply sustain the naked inner glow of ordinary, empty awareness and meet the natural state beyond help and harm — this is the path. When there is no distraction, an all-pervasive evenness beyond hope and fear is experienced; wisdom strengthens, compassion wells up, and both saṃsāra and nirvāṇa are actualized — this is the fruition.

The Five-fold Profound Path of Mahamudra, or the "Possessing Five", is the main Mahamudra system in the Drigung Kagyu lineage. The five "folds" of this path are:

  • Bodhicitta: The altruistic intention of liberating all sentient beings from samsara.
  • Yidam: Visualizing oneself as a supremely enlightened being.
  • Guru-yoga: Seeking union with the wisdom-mind of the Teacher.
  • Mahamudra: Actual engagement of Mahamudra.
  • Dedication: Perfect dedication of one’s virtues.

Before engaging in these practices, one must focus on foundational practices, including establishing the "Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind":

  • The good fortune of obtaining a precious human birth.
  • The universality of impermanence.
  • The infallible workings of cause and effect.
  • The nature of samsara as unsatisfactoriness.

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The meaning of Mahamudra

The practice of Mahamudra is an experience of the mind that is completely free and joyful, no matter what life brings. It is divided into three parts: ground Mahamudra, path Mahamudra, and fruition Mahamudra. Ground Mahamudra is a fundamental view of the basic reality of the mind and the world. Path Mahamudra is the actual meditation practice, and fruition Mahamudra is a description of what the path leads to.

Mahamudra teaches special techniques for looking at the mind to see its true nature. When one looks inside with a clear and steady focus, the mind appears transparent, spacious, and open. It feels like something is there, but there is no “thing” to be found. Thoughts and emotions are vivid yet elusive, and sights and sounds that seem real also evade our grasp when we search for their true identity. This recognition of the flowing, open, and spacious quality of all our experiences is the emptiness side of the wisdom of emptiness.

When we look at our minds, we also see a luminous, clear, and creative energy that is the source of our compassion and joy. There is also a quality of wakefulness and all-encompassing awareness. This is the wisdom side of the wisdom of emptiness. When we recognise the union of this brilliance, awareness, and open, transparent space, that is the recognition of the wisdom of emptiness, or the true nature of the mind. This is the experience of the wholeness of the mind, the union of space, compassion, and awareness, which is called Mahamudra.

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The three characteristics of mind

Mahamudra meditation is a Buddhist tradition that originated in India and is known for its simplicity. The practice involves being genuine, relaxed, and aware in every situation in life, and accepting and appreciating oneself. It does not require any change in lifestyle.

Mahamudra is divided into three parts: ground, path, and fruition. Ground Mahamudra is a view of the basic reality of the mind and the world. It is important to understand the three aspects of ground Mahamudra—emptiness, clarity, and awareness—through conceptual mind first, and then through the process of reflection, making it more experiential.

Emptiness

The emptiness of the mind can be seen as infinite space with no limit, form, colour, or shape. It is like an open, transparent space, and when we look for it, there is no "thing" we can find. Our thoughts and emotions are vivid, yet they melt away as soon as we notice them. This is the emptiness side of the wisdom of emptiness.

Clarity

The mind also has a vivid clarity, an infinite and vast luminosity, which is the radiance of emptiness itself. It is like a wide, clear sky filled with light. This experience of space with light is the experience of great compassion and loving-kindness, or unbiased great love beyond concept. It is the compassion aspect of the mind.

Awareness

The mind has the quality of panoramic and discriminating awareness. It is the wakeful aspect of the mind, the sharp, penetrating intelligence (prajna) that sees through any confusion and perfectly understands the world. It is the wisdom side of the wisdom of emptiness.

When we recognise the union of brilliance, awareness, and open, transparent space, that is the recognition of the wisdom of emptiness, or the true nature of the mind. In such a moment, we experience the wholeness of the mind, the union of space, compassion, and awareness, which is called Mahamudra.

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Shamatha and vipashyana meditation

Shamatha and vipashyana are two qualities of the mind developed in tandem in Buddhist practice. Shamatha means "peaceful abiding" or "tranquility", and is also referred to as mindfulness or concentration meditation. Vipashyana, on the other hand, means "insight" or "clear-seeing", and is a practice to gain insight.

Shamatha meditation is the foundation of Buddhist practice and is an important introductory practice that leads to the practice of vipashyana. The purpose of shamatha meditation is to stabilise the mind by cultivating a steady awareness of the object of meditation. The traditional practice of shamatha uses different kinds of supports or anchors, and eventually leads to practicing without supports and meditating on emptiness itself in an open awareness. The seven-point posture of Vairochana is an ancient set of posture points that are said to align the physical body with the energetic body. The seven points are:

  • Hands in lap or on knees
  • Straight back
  • Widened shoulders to open the heart centre
  • Open mouth slightly with the tongue resting on the roof of the mouth
  • Eyes open, gazing about four finger widths past the tip of the nose

However, it is important to adjust this traditional posture to meet the needs of one's own body. The seven points of a more body-sensitive posture could be:

  • Sit on a cushion or a chair, stand, or lie down
  • Arrange hands in any way that is comfortable
  • Hold the back straight
  • Keep shoulders relaxed and chest open
  • Hold the head at a comfortable level
  • Keep the lower jaw slightly open
  • Keep the eyes closed or open

Instructions for a basic breathing meditation are as follows:

  • Adjust the body into a comfortable position, and start the practice by becoming aware of your breath. Notice the inhalation and exhalation.
  • As you notice the breath, continue to let go of thoughts as they arise. Each time you are distracted by a thought, return to the breath.
  • Eventually, as you exhale, become aware of your breath escaping and dissolving into space. Experience the same thing with the inhalation.
  • Slowing down, begin to allow your awareness to mix into open space with the breath on both the inhale and exhale.
  • To deepen the practice, begin to hold the breath after the inhalation for a few seconds before exhaling. By doing this, you are splitting the breath into three parts: inhalation, holding, and exhalation.
  • As you inhale, begin to chant "om" to yourself. As you hold, chant "ah". As you exhale, chant "hung". Chanting these sacred syllables is believed to support awareness and purify the mind.
  • As you continue with exhalation, relax more. Continue awareness practice, letting go of thoughts and returning to the breath. Do this for as long as you can.

Shamatha meditation allows us to experience our mind as it is. We are able to see that our mind is full of thoughts, some conducive to our happiness and further realisation, and others not. Over time, practicing shamatha meditation calms our thoughts and emotions, and we experience tranquility of mind. Eventually, this leads to a decrease in unhelpful thoughts and we are then ready to practice vipashyana, in which we develop insight into what "mind" is by investigating the nature of thoughts themselves.

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The benefits of Mahamudra

Mahamudra is a Sanskrit word meaning "great seal" and is an advanced system of meditation on the nature of the mind. It is a body of teachings found in Tibetan Buddhist schools, which includes methods for truly understanding the nature of our minds, leading to enlightenment.

The practice of Mahamudra can also bring about greater emotional balance, concentration, focus, stability and better overall health. Regular practitioners of Mahamudra meditation report a range of benefits, including improved cardiac health, greater brain coherence, improved sleep, and enhanced attention and focus. For example, studies have shown that practitioners of Mahamudra experience a more well-balanced Cardiac Autonomic Nervous System and an increase in Heart Rate Variability (HRV) during the practice, indicating better immunity to stressful situations.

Additionally, Mahamudra meditation can lead to a reduction in the need for medication for various ailments. For instance, among those suffering from depression who practised Mahamudra, 87% reported improvement, 25% reduced their medication, and 50% were able to stop their medication entirely. Similar results were seen for those with anxiety, insomnia, and a range of other chronic ailments.

Furthermore, Mahamudra meditation is said to bring about greater inner peace, improved emotional balance, greater mental clarity, increased energy levels, improved self-confidence, and better concentration and productivity. It is a powerful tool for spiritual growth and can help one transcend the limitations of the body and mind.

Frequently asked questions

Mahamudra is a contemplative Buddhist tradition that involves being genuine, relaxed, and aware in every situation in life. It is designed to help bring about a swift and unmistakable experience of the true nature of the mind.

The term Mahamudra translates to "Great Symbol", referring to the wisdom of emptiness, which is believed to be the very nature of the mind and of all phenomena.

To begin practising Mahamudra, you must first learn what it is with an open and interested mind. Then, reflect on that knowledge and personalise it so that it becomes your own experience. Finally, having digested the meaning, simply sit and become one with Mahamudra.

Mahamudra is divided into three parts: ground Mahamudra, path Mahamudra, and fruition Mahamudra. Ground Mahamudra is a fundamental view of the basic reality of the mind and the world. Path Mahamudra is the actual meditation practice. Fruition Mahamudra describes what the path ultimately leads to.

The two main types of meditation in Mahamudra are Mahamudra shamatha, or resting in the nature of the mind, and Mahamudra vipashyana, or clear seeing. The focus of attention in both these practices is the mind itself, rather than anything external.

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  • Aisha
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