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Chagchen – The Great Seal

Chagya Chenpo (ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོ་) or Mahāmudrā, which literally translates as Great Seal, refers to a range of things including the topic of a very important and advanced meditation tradition well known in Bhutan. In its initial appearance in the early tantras in India, the term designated a hand gesture, which is a symbolic representation of the true nature of things. It also referred to the hand implements of the deities. In the later tantras, which are considered higher and more advanced, the term Mahāmudrā was used in the context of the four mudrās or seals alongside the seals of action (ལས་ཀྱི་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་), pledge (དམ་ཚིག་གི་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་) and dharma (ཆོས་ཀྱི་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་). In the yoginī class of tantras, it also refers to the spiritual consort for sexual yoga practice.

However, in its latest and most advanced use, Mahāmudrā refers to the ultimate nature of reality and the realization thereof. Like a royal seal which makes an order or document a binding royal edict, the ultimate nature of reality, as an innate characteristic of existence, binds all phenomena together. All things are bound by their ultimate nature of being empty, illusory and yet open and naturally present. It is this concept of Mahāmudrā as the innate and ultimate nature of one’s mind and all phenomena, and the corresponding meditation techniques, practices and experiences, which constitute the well-known and most revered tradition of Mahāmudrā in Bhutan and the Himalayas.

Mahāmudrā is practiced by all Himalayan Buddhist traditions although the Kagyupa school is most well known for the practice of Mahāmudrā. The essential teachings of Mahāmudrā are said to have been taught by the Buddha Vajradhara. In the most known lineage, Vajradhara taught Tilopa, who passed it down to the scholar Naropa, and he transmitted it to Marpa, who spread the teachings in Tibet. In another lineage, Vajradhara’s teachings were passed down through figures such as Saraha, Nāgārjuna, Śavaripa and Maitripa who passed it on to Marpa. Marpa taught the Mahāmudrā teachings to his disciples including Milarepa and the latter taught Gampopa. Gampopa synthesized the Mahāmudrā teachings in his technique of Mahāmudrā of Co-emergent Union (ཕྱག་ཆེན་ལྷན་ཅིག་སྐྱེས་སྦྱོར་) and Four Syllables (ཡི་གེ་བཞི་པ་). Similarly, Khyunpo Naljor, the founder of Shangpa tradition passed down the teachings through his Amulet Mahāmudra (ཕྱག་ཆེན་གའུ་མ་) tradition as did Jigten Gonpo through his Mahāmudrā of Fivefold Practice (ཕྱག་ཆེན་ལྔ་ལྡན་) and Tsangpa Gyarey through his Six Spheres of Equal Taste (རོ་སྙོམས་སྐོར་དྲུག་).

The core message of the Mahāmudrā teachings is the identification and actualization of the empty, luminous and blissful nature of the mind through the two practices of śamatha/zhiney (ཞི་གནས་) or calm abiding and vipaśyanā/lhagthong (་ལྷག་མཐོང་) or insight meditation. In the triad scheme of ground (གཞི་), path (ལམ་) and fruition (འབྲས་བུ་), the natural state of the mind, the innate Buddha is identified as the Mahāmudrā of the ground. The practices and experiences which bring out this ground reality as lived reality is the Mahāmudrā of the path, and the full actualization of the innate nature in the state of perfect enlightenment is the Mahāmudrā of fruition.

The famous Drukpa Kagyu scholar Pema Karpo explains Mahāmudrā of the ground, path and fruition through the four yogas (རྣམ་འབྱོར་བཞི་) or practices of single pointedness (རྩེ་གཅིག་), non-fabrication (སྤྲོས་བྲལ་), single taste (རོ་གཅིག་) and non-meditation (སྒོམ་མེད་). The entire spiritual path to enlightenment and Mahāmudrā practice is explained and laid out through these four inner yoga practices. The crux of Mahāmudrā practice in Kagyu school, like that of Dzogchen in the Nyingma school, is to free one’s mind from conceptual fabrication by dropping all thoughts of the past, present and future and laying bare the pristine awareness, which is true nature of the mind. It involves an effortless suspension of all thought processes as indicated by the dictum of the Four Syllables: amanasi, a Sanskrit term for non-mentation. Such actual meditation on Mahāmudrā is sought after undertaking the preliminary practices and through the help of an experienced teacher who would give the quintessential oral instructions.

Contributed by 

Karma Phuntsho (PhD)

Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.

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