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TitleMahamudra - The Method of Self-Actualization
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Mahamudra-The Method of Self-Actualization

Herbert V. Guenther

In the Jungle of unknowing
Roam the deer of subJect-obJect;

From the bow of action-and-appreciatio11.
I shoot the arrow of reality.
There die the fictions of the mind;
I eat the meat of non-duality
And taste it as pure bLiss-

This is Mahamudra realization.


B UD D HIS M not only professes to be a "middle" way but also
emphasizes a "middle" view, which implies more than the mere

avoidance of extreme judgements of eternalism and nihilism by which, in
the Indian context, the two postulates of eternal existence a parte ante and
eternal non-existence a parte 'post were indicated. '-'Middle" is a term for


sunyata. the open dimension of Being, that becomes less open and vibrant
with potentialities to the extent that the fictions and postulates g>of cate­
gorical thinking gain prominence. The "middle" view then is the
ability to perceive this open dimension, which is ineffable in the sense
that words, just like concepts, change it and turn it into something other
than it is, something else like it and yet something different from it
itself. Another aspect of the "middle" view is that in it "the whole of
the world is seen as a unity, a single rich live reality, which in no way
implies a loss of ability to recognize the concrete. Let us take the percep­
tion of a painting. The moment we approach it by declaring it to be
"realistic", "surrealistic" or otherwise, we have cut ourselves off from the
possibility of seeing it in its uniqueness. Instead of seeing it we merely
apply our classifications, comparisons, evaluations and other utilitarian
purposes. In fact, we impoverish ourselves by taking the demands of
categorical - thinking as ultimates, rather than understanding them as
symptoms or pressures towards fuller perception and appreciation. The
"middle" view, which perceives that which is in its intrinsic uniqueness,
is contrasted with "error" (tr'til-pa, 'khrul-pa) which means not to perceive
some aspect, but merely to select one attribute, to reject others and to
distort still others. Lastly, the "middle" view is a moment of highest
happiness and fulfilment and it is with reference to such a great experi­
ence that the term "mahamudra" is used. To bring - about this vivid

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6 The Tibet .tournaI

awareness is the aim of the various instructional methods that developed
in course of time. However, it is not enough to have a vision of fulfil­
ment, it is equally necessary to act on the basis of this vision, which
means to be more perceptive in all one's dealings in life. It is here
that the idea of the "way" reveals its meaning as a process of self­
actualization whigh is inseparably connected with the "middle" view,
just as the "middle" view is an incentive to self-actualization. In
other words, "self-actualization" becomes an aid to full awareness and
culminates in it; on the other hand, full awareness facilitates self-actualiz­
ation. In the one case, the full vision of reality is still a more or less distant
goal, in the other, we retrace our progress from the valley to the peak
through the fullness of awareness. These two aspects are represented in
the Siitras and Tantras respectively.

"Although there are many ways of dealing with mahamudra, two
(are prominent) according to the division of (the texts into)
Siitras and Tantras. The latter (discuss) the (feeling) of bliss and
radiancy as they develop out of empathy in one's being. This is
the Mahamudra of Saraha, Nagarjuna, Naropa, Maitripa, the
quintessence of the un surpassable Tantras as taught in the' realiz­
ations' and 'songs'. The former is the meditation on the open
dimension of Being as taught 111 the prajnaparamitas and allied
literature." 2

The openness of Being which is said here to be the content of the
meditative practice, is not an utter blankness, but something that is
vibrant with life, because paradoxically it is nothing and yet something,
a presence which is not a presence of something. The attention to the
openness of Being is similar to the perception of an aesthetic object whose
richness is an infinitude of possibilities; and the aesthetic experience of it
can be a continuous delight. The attention to this openness, which is
usually termed "meditation", is actually an intense and searching way of
looking. The highest form of excitement generated by this process is felt
as bliss, by which we understand on the one hand the elimination of any

. distorting elements such as a limiting and classificatory concept or an
emotion, and, on the other, the awareness of what there is as a unique
instance. This is also the definition of Mahamudra by Pa-ma kar-po
(Padma dkar-po):

"The openness of Being rich in most excellent potentialities is
termed Mahamudra, because it offers unchanging bliss, in which
there is complete elimination (of disturbances) and complete
intrinsic awareness (of what there is)."J

The association of this bliss with radiancy is highly significant.
Radiancy is an aspect of excitation in living organisms. In the highest
form of pleasurable excitation we literally light up with pleasure, shine
with joy, and glow with ecstasy. Such radiancy is most noticeable in the

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Mahamudra-The Method of Self-Actualization 13

That the Karmamudra is also a cognitive situation, is clearly stated by

"The reason for speaking of the awareness within (the situation
presented by the Karmamudra, which is itself an illustration, as
an analogy, is that the discriminative-appreciative function
refers to the analogy character of spontaniety. Since this function
is (executed by) the Karmamudra, the awareness engendered
by her, derives from a number of conditions and approximates
and comes close to love, it is set up intentionally and comes from
a woman of the human world. "13

In brief, through the discriminative-appreciative function we are
able to perceive in a love-motivated way and can successfully overcome
need-motivation. In this transition a new meaning is revealed, and this
new meaning cannot but have a significant impact on the beholder.
This impact is termed mudra in $anskrit and ch'ag-gya-[ma] (phyag­
rgya-[ma]) in Tibetan.

Pa-ma kar-po explains the term as follows:

"The term mudra has the double meaning of 'to seal'
and of 'not to go beyond?' _ "14

More exhaustive is Bhitakarma:

"Ch'ag-gya has the meaning of 'sealing' and of 'not going
beyond'. It means to seal bodily, verbal, and mental (acts) by
spontaneity ; to seal what is seen and heard by unoriginatedness;
to seal this experience by non-mentation; and to seal the inten­
tional character of the experience by devotion and compassion.
The self-manifestation of bliss and openness does not pass beyond
(its) non-duality."15

The last sentence in this quotation reiterates Mi-l-a ra-pa's (Mi-la-ras­
pa) definition:

"Ch'ag: the indivisibility of bliss and openness.
Not to go beyond it: gya."16

Bhitakarma's description clearly points out that in aesthetic ex­
perience the whole being of the person who has this experience, is
brought into action, and that this action is spontaneous rather than
deliberate and forced. Spontaneity is characteristic of the creative life,
which is not just a problem-solving or product-making quality. Sponta­
neity radiates throughout the pers

on, "and like radioactivity, hits all life.

It is effortless, without a priori expectations about what ought to be there,

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14 The Tibet Journal

what must be there, or what has always been there. The world-"that
which is seen and heard"-just is in aesthetic experience; it has not been
originated by some transcendental hocus-pocus, nor is its experience
contrived by "mentation" which is essentially the process of controlling,
inhibiting, repressing and suppressing. The reaction to the world is one
of "devotion and compassion". Devotion is the surrender of the ego
before the experience which is felt as something great (maha), and com­
passion is to feel in sympathy with the validity of what there is; compas­
sion is the opposite of sentimentality, which is grounded in selfishness;
and just as sentimentality is ego-centred, so is compassion other-centred,
this other-centredness being indicated by the "intentional" character of
the experience in the text quoted above.

Karmamudra, which emphasizes karma as the passing delight in the
physical contact with a woman, does not mean that the physical act is
the main concern. The very use of the symbolic term Karmamudra,
instead of the blunt diction of a "woman", should put us on guard. Too
often a symbol is misunderstood for a sign, but whether the images of
experience are understood· as signs or symbols is decisive for man's further
development: either there is growth and fulfilment or there is repression
and stagnation. As a· situation Karmamudra is descriptive, both of the
within and the without. Both the within and the without are inextrica­
bly fused. The way in which the man sees the woman in the external
world indicates the way in which he sees himself. Moreover, it is wrong
to assume that a situation is something static; a situation is a momentary
manifestation of the life process. Hence Karmamudra serves as a function
to transform, extend, and deepen man's awareness not only of himself
but also of his place in nature. The attempt to express this adequately
always fails, because that which is to be expressed can never be more
than hinted at by the finite symbols of the phenomenal world. Therefore,
to remain on the level of literaiism, to see in the Karmamudra nothing
else but a woman's arousing man's sexual passion and possessiveness is
both a disparagement and a misconception. The moment we seem to
possess something it breaks in our hands, the pleasurable excitement drops
to freezing-point if not below it.

Still it is through the Karmamudra that we can widen our horizon,
because she herself participates in a wider reality. In man's life, the
woman is the unique opportunity he has to see something more than he
usually cares to see. This wider reality is Dharmamudra, or, as stated in
other texts, Jnanamudra, which is said to be the non-duality of bliss
and openness. For it is through the delights culminating in ecstatic
bliss that we give ourselves over to experience of openness. In this ex­
perience, whatever is seen has lost its postulational character of being
something standing in contrast with, or being in direct opposition to,
something else. To understand things vividly does not mean to obliterate
something and to elevate something else into an eternal principle, but
to accept and to appreciate whatever appears spontaneously and not to

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22 The Tibet Journal

SahajayoginI Cinta, and the "songs" as three cycles of Dohas by
Saraha. On t hese see H.V. Guenther, The Royal Song oj Saraha. A
Study in the History oj Buddhist Thought. University of Washington
Press. Seattle a nd London, 1969.

3. " Jo-bo Naropa'i khyad-chos bsre-'pho'i gzhung-'grel rdo-rje- 'chang­
gi dgongs-pa gsal-bar byed-pa" by Padma dkar-po, foI . 86b. (In the
following thif> text will be abbreviated as A) .

4. "Theg-pa'i mchog rin-po-che'i mdzod", fo1. 60b seq. (In the fol­
lowing this text will be abbreviated as Thg) .

5. Thg 60b.

6. ibid. , rigs is _a t erm of many meanings. It also refers to a person's
life-sty Ie.

7. ' Jo-bo Naropa'i khyad-chos bsre-'pho'i khrid rdo-rje'i theg-par
brgod-pa'i shing-rta chen-po", foI. 61 b. (In the following this title
will be abbreviated as B) .

8. A fol 58b.

9. "bSre-'pho'i lam-skor-gyi thog-mar lam dbye-bsdu", foI. 1 1 9a. (In
the following this title will be obbereviated as C) .

1 0. Thg fo1. l O l a.

1 1 . A fo1. 6 1 a.

1 2 . "SekoddeSa�ika", p. 56.

1 3 . "Mudra-catura-tika-ratna-hrdaya" (bsTan-'gyur, rGyud-'grel vol .
Mi, fo1. 332b of the Peking edition) .

1 4. "Phyag-rgya chen-po'i man-ngag-gi bshad-sbyar rgyal-ba'i gan­
mdzod", fo1 . 26a. (In the following this title will be abbreviated
as D) .

1 5 . "Mudra-catura-tlka-ratna-hrdaya," fo1. 326a.

1 6. D fo1. 25b.

1 7. A fo1. 86b.

18. " Sekoddesa�ika," p. 56.

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19. A fol . 6 1 a.

20. C fol. 1 19b.

Mahamudra-The Method of Self-Actualization 23

2 1 . Dharmakaya (chos-sku) is a term for man's absolute existential value
and the very fact of his being. (In Tantrism fact and value are
inseparable, · only described fact and postulated value can be sepa­
rated from each other) . As an absolute existential value Dharmakaya
underlies and gives sustenance to man's feeling of his relationship
to life as an individual . His positive feeling towards life is termed
Sambhogakaya (longs-sku) and his value as an individual is termed
Ninnanakaya (sprul-sku) . As facets of absolute value and being both
Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya share in Dharmakaya as its mani�
festation (Rupakaya) . Their interrelationship can be shown graphi­
cally as follows:

Dharmakaya =absolute, intrinsic value
Rupakaya =manifest extrinsic value as
Sambhogakaya= empathetic value
Nirmanakaya = (re) presentative value

22. B fo1 . 9ab.

23. sGam-po-pa, "Collected Works", vol . Sa, fol . lOb.

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