Gampopa's Mahāmudrā: View, Meditation, Conduct Open Access

Bhuchung, Tenzin (Summer 2021)

Permanent URL:


Despite a plethora of meditative traditions and techniques, contemporary practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism are nearly unanimous that the pinnacle of meditative practice can be found in the profound yet simple instructions of the Mahāmudrā (literally, “Great Seal”) lineage. Although this lineage is brought to Tibet by his lineage masters, Gampopa (1079–1153), a twelfth-century Tibetan scholar and adept, departed from the tradition of his teachers by transmitting the Mahāmudrā teachings publicly, and outside the tantric context, to such an extent that it became the most important defining feature of his Dhakpo Kagyu tradition. 

This dissertation is the first book-length work on Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā, presenting it through the traditional rubric of view (lta ba), meditation (sgom pa) and conduct (spyod pa). The first chapter explores main features of Gampopa’s Non-Tantric Mahāmudrā and contextualizes it within the greater Indo-Tibetan Tantra and Sūtra traditions. The second chapter expounds on Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā view. It demonstrates that establishing the nonduality of the innate mind and its phenomenal appearances constitutes an important feature of realizing the ultimate view of Mahāmudrā. It also argues that Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā view amounts to a synthesis of the Yogācāra and the Madhyamaka view on the ultimate. The third chapter explores Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā meditation referred to as the yoga of coemergence (lhan cig skyes sbyor) that offers techniques to help sustain the ultimate nature of the mind nonconceptually in meditation.

Gampopa’s nonconceptual approach to philosophical view and meditation raises the question of the role of ethical practices, such as compassion, that are conceptual in nature. This issue emerges as a raging debate between “sudden” (cig car ba) and “gradual” (rim gyis pa) approaches in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. The fourth chapter therefore delves into the conduct or ethical foundations that Gampopa deems necessary for Mahāmudrā practice and its realization.The fifth, concluding, chapter offers a short consideration of Gampopa’s Non-Tantric Mahāmudrā view and meditation as well as their foundational ethical conduct, ending with a brief discussion on their potential contribution to future research in religious studies and phenomenology.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – Introduction to Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā1

1          Situating Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā Tradition  1

2          Gampopa’s Life and Works   3

3          Research Methods and Sources          8

3.1       Primary Textual Sources        11

3.2       Secondary Sources     20

4          Gampopa’s Non-tantric Mahāmudrā  26

4.1       The Tantric Context of Mahāmudrā   29

4.2       The Indian Context of Non-tantric Mahāmudrā         32

4.3       Common Instructions for Non-tantric and Tantric Mahāmudrā        39

4.4       Non-tantric Mahāmudrā Contrasted with Tantric Mahāmudrā          42

5          Our Path Ahead          45

Chapter 2 – Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā: The View       48

1          Reconstructing Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā View          48

1.1       Structure of the Chapter         59

2          The Three Aspects of Appearance of the Mind         62

2.1       Clarity: The Nature Aspect of the Mind         63

2.2       Diversity: The Characteristic Aspect of the Mind     64

2.3       Non-Arising: The Essence Aspect of the Mind          65

3          The Unity of the Three Aspects of Appearance of the Mind66

3.1       The Unity of Coemergent Mind And Coemergent Appearances       68

4          Summarizing Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā View74

4.1       Direct Perception of Ultimate Reality as Natural Mahāmudrā          75

4.2       The Innate Mind as the Mahāmudrā View     79

4.2.1    Nonduality of the Innate Mind and Phenomenal Appearances          83

5          Key Mahāmudrā Concepts and Issues            86

5.1       The Two Truths and Their Unity: Resonance with Madhyamaka     86

5.2       Mahāmudrā As a Synthesis of the Yogācāra and Madhyamaka Schools      92

5.3       The Ultimate and the Limits of Language to Express the Ultimate   97

5.4       The Mahāmudrā View of Ultimate Reality in Relation to Implicative or Non-Implicative Negation          102

5.5       Buddha nature and Mahāmudrā Ultimate Reality      105

6          Conclusion      108

Chapter 3 – Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā: The Meditation           111

1          Introduction    111

2          Contextualizing Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā Meditation Within The Perfection of Wisdom Tradition113

2.1       Meditation, Its Meaning, and Two Broad Types       113

2.2       From Conceptual to Nonconceptual Understanding of Reality Through the Union of Calm Abiding and Insight and the Three Types of Wisdom          116

2.3       Gampopa’s Nonconceptual and Nondual Approach to Meditation   120

3          The Yoga of Coemergence: The Contemplative Technique of Integrating the Three Aspects of Appearance of the Mind121

3.1       Inducing a Nonconceptual Mental State by Focusing on the Nature of the Mind.    123

3.1.1    Nonconceptual Clarity and Its Significance for Meditation   123

3.1.2    Contemplative Techniques for Inducing Nonconceptual Clarity       124

3.1.3    Undistracted Continuity and the Noetic Quality of a Meditation that Sustains the Clarity of the Mind       129

3.2       Coemergence of Nonconceptual Clarity and its Non-Arising Essence          130

3.2.1    Nonconceptual Meditation as the Main Method for Inducing Direct Realization of the Emptiness of the Mind and Its Phenomenal Appearances   131

3.2.2    Unique Method of Sustaining Certainty of the Emptiness of the Mind Within a Nonconceptual State        133

3.2.3    Sustaining the Union of Nonconceptual Clarity and its Emptiness is Sustaining the Mahāmudrā State      135

3.3       The Coemergence of the Coemergent Innate Mind and Coemergent Phenomenal Appearances     136

3.3.1    Sustaining the Clarity Inherent in all States of Consciousness          138

3.3.2    Settling Phenomenal Appearances in the Form of the Six Modes of Consciousness in a Relaxed Manner139

3.3.3    Not Modifying Phenomenal Appearances in Meditation       140

3.3.4    Thoughts Experienced as Clarifying the Meditative State, Not as Distractions        141

4          Results of Mahāmudrā Meditation     144

4.1       Meditation to Realize Mahāmudrā and Meditation After Realization of Mahāmudrā          144

4.2       Method of Realizing Self-Liberation145

4.3       The Actual Process of Self-liberation of Negative Emotions Within a Meditative State      147

5          Analysis:  Uniqueness of Meditation148

5.1       Mind Focusing on Mind to Achieve Calm Abiding and Insight        148

5.2       A Method of Finding the View on the Basis of Meditation: Developing Insight Based on Calm Abiding  149

5.3       Authentic Union of the Two Truths and the Union of Method and Wisdom151

5.4       Inseparability of Meditation and Post Meditation Stage        155

5.5       A Unique Method of Dealing with Distractions        156

6          Conclusion      158

Chapter 4 – Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā: The Conduct   162

1          Introduction: Merging the Kadampa and the Mahāmudrā Traditions            162

2          The Necessity of Foundational Practices for Mahāmudrā Meditation           165

2.1       The Union of Method and Wisdom    167

2.2       Gampopa’s Four Dharmas      172

2.3       Scopes or Persons as an Essential Foundation for Mahāmudrā Meditation  179

3          The Self-Sufficient White Remedy, Instantaneous Practitioners, and the Question of Foundational Practices        183

3.1       Mahāmudrā as a Self-Sufficient Practice and Its Critics        183

3.1.1    Direct Realization of Mahāmudrā State as the Self-Sufficient White Remedy         191

3.2       Instantaneous Practitioners and the Question of Foundational Practices       197

3.2.1    Finding Meditation Within the View: A Meditation for Instantaneous Practitioners and the Significance of Guru Devotion         203

4          Guru Devotion            208

5          Conclusion      212

Chapter 5 – Conclusion: The Contribution of Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā        215

1          Concluding Remarks  215

2          Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā Tradition’s Contribution to the Contemporary Conversation on Mystical Experience     226

2.1       Unmediated Account of Mystical Experience           228

2.2       Mystical Experience Through the Perspective of the Constructivists            230

2.3       Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā State as an Instantiation of Soft Constructivism     235

3          Gampopa’s Mahāmudrā and Phenomenology: Reflections on Phenomenological Reduction          238

Bibliography   245

About this Dissertation

Rights statement
  • Permission granted by the author to include this thesis or dissertation in this repository. All rights reserved by the author. Please contact the author for information regarding the reproduction and use of this thesis or dissertation.
Subfield / Discipline
  • English
Research Field
Committee Chair / Thesis Advisor
Committee Members
Last modified

Primary PDF

Supplemental Files