Mahamudra is the principle meditation of the Kagyu Lineage. This is a meditation of practitioners, not scholars or logicians. Briefly, it involves looking directly into the mind to understand the true nature of reality.
Mahamudra meditation is particularly appropriate for modem students because this meditation does not require taking monastic ordination or doing extensive retreats. This form of meditation has come down to us from the mahasiddhas of India who were carpenters, university professors, kings, fishermen, and common laborers. They practiced this meditation while having families and engaging in their daily work and were able to reach enlightenment with this meditation.
Thrangu Rinpoche is one of the foremost practitioners of mahamudra meditation and has spent the last 40 years teaching Dharma. He has transmitted the teachings of Mahamudra to the Tibetan lamas at Rumtek monastery and also to Western students around the world, Not only is Thrangu Rinpoche a practitioner of these teachings, but he is also recognized as one of the greatest living scholars of the mahamudra tradition. Thrangu Rinpoche used Tashi Namgyal’s The Moonlight of Mahamudra as a guide for this teaching. The choice of this book was actually that of His Holiness, the Sixteenth Karmapa. Thrangu Rinpoche gave five sets of teachings on this vast text to help clarify it for his students at five yearly Mahamudra Retreats at Big Bear in California.
For the first time all five teachings have been condensed into one book with a complete glossary, notes, bibliography, and index. Any student wanting to understand these profound teachings will find that they are described in detail and that Thrangu Rinpoche’s commentary is extraordinarily clear.
Two thousand five hundred years ago the Buddha began delivering a remarkable set of teachings. He taught that instead of relying on a god, one can attain true, permanent happiness by simply examining and working with one’s own mind. This message is as true today as it was then; we are engulfed by material wealth in our modern times, yet we are not any more happy or secure. The root of this unhappiness is that our mind keeps looking outside and grasping at external things trying to achieve some measure of happiness. This is futile because to achieve any measure of stability in our life, we must look inward. Looking inward is done through meditation.
The fundamental form of meditation that is common to all schools of Buddhism is shamatha and Vipashyana meditation. Thrangu Rinpoche has given extensive teachings on this form of meditation which can be found in his book, The Practice of Tranquillity and Insight. This basic meditation is so important that it is also covered quite comprehensively in this book on mahamudra meditation.
There is another major kind of meditation, which is fairly specific to the vajrayana school of Buddhism, and this is mahamudra meditation. This meditation is the examination of the mind itself in what is called “looking directly at the mind.” While this is a deceptively simple idea, it is an extremely complex and advanced form of meditation that requires years of practice to develop an extraordinarily clear and stable mind through extensive shamatha and Vipashyana practice. Mahamudra meditation and shamatha and Vipashyana practice are interlinked and complement each other.
We may ask who has practiced this mahamudra meditation. The answer is that it was most extensively practiced by a large number of ordinary and extraordinary people in India in the second through twelfth centuries. Some of their stories have been recorded under the title of The Eighty-four Mahasiddhas which may be found in Keith Dowman’s Masters of Enchantment. These mahasiddhas were cobblers, weavers, arrow makers, and even kings, who carried on their ordinary life and also simultaneously practiced mahamudra meditation and achieved complete enlightenment in one lifetime. What is relevant to our age is that in the West most Buddhist practitioners lead very busy and demanding lives and do not have long periods to devote to shamatha and Vipashyana meditation, but can practice mahamudra meditation while they are making a living and raising a family.
Mahamudra meditation has been practiced in Tibet since the twelfth century, particularly by the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. The practice of this meditation has allowed thousands of individuals to reach enlightenment. This meditation of looking at the mind has also been practiced by Nyingma practitioners in the form of Dzogchen meditation, with equal results. This meditation is therefore a very powerful meditation.
In order to practice mahamudra, one has to understand it. This then leads to the question of how many of the hundreds of manuals and texts on mahamudra can one study to understand this topic properly. As Thrangu Rinpoche points out, most of these manuals are strict instructions on what to do, with little or no explanation about why one does it. This method of simply doing what one’s lama says is not very compatible with the Western way of learning. Most people reading this book are well educated and have been trained to ask about the reasons for doing what one is told to do. Fortunately, Tashi Namgyal, a great scholar and meditator in the seventeenth century, wrote a detailed explanation of both the fundamental reasons behind mahamudra meditation and its practice which he called The Moonlight of Mahamudra. This book has been translated into English by Lobsang Lhalungpa under the name of Mahamudra:
The Quintessence of Mind and Meditation. This book is over 400 pages long which leads to a problem because the sheer completeness and length of the book can overwhelm the practitioner wanting to understand Mahamudra.
In 1990 Thrangu Rinpoche decided to introduce mahamudra meditation to his Western students. He did this by giving a commentary on Tashi Namgyal’s book in five different mahamudra retreats which were held at Big Bern Lake, in California. He also gave mahamudra teachings to the Namo Buddha Summer Seminar held in Oxford, England and Glasgow, Scotland. This was particularly fortunate because Thrangu Rinpoche holds the highest degree of Buddhist studies and was asked by the Sixteenth Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu lineage, to set up the curriculum for the lamas of the Kagyu lineage. The Kagyu lineage is the same one that Tashi Namgyal belonged to. Since Thrangu Rinpoche is not only an eminent scholar of Buddhism, but is also recognized as having the realization of the practice of mahamudra, he is well qualified to write this book. In addition, Thrangu Rinpoche is very familiar with teaching Westerners, having taught thousands of Westerners in over thirty countries in the past decade and a half.
In the first mahamudra retreat in Big Bear, Thrangu Rinpoche gave a general overview of the whole subject. This teaching is being published separately. In the following four years Thrangu Rinpoche went into great detail on the practice of mahamudra. The present book is actually a compilation of lectures given in the second and third Big Bear retreats.
In this book we do not follow the headings and chapters of the original text because this would have become too unwieldy, but we do give the page numbers in Tashi Namgyal’s book so the reader can follow the book along if desired. We also included a glossary of important Sanskrit and Tibetan words relevant to mahamudra because some of these words are translated differently in other works.
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