Clear Light of Bliss: The Practice of Mahamudra in Vajrayana Buddhism


Clear Light of Bliss

Practice of Mahamudra in Vajrayana Buddhism

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso



Introduction and Preliminaries

It is very pleasing to have this opportunity
to explain the method for practising Vajrayana Mahamudra according to the
Mahayana tradition. This explanation will be given under three main headings:

1 An introduction to the general paths

2 The source of the lineage from which
these instructions are derived

3 The actual explanation of the instructions
possessing this lineage


In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of
Life, Shantideva says:

By depending upon this boat-like human

We can cross the great ocean of suffering.

Since such a vessel will be hard to
find again,

This is no time to sleep, you fool!

Samsara is like a vast ocean, for just
as an ocean gives rise to waves, so rebirth in samsara gives rise to suffering.
At the moment we have a precious human body, which is the best vessel for
crossing this perilous ocean of samsara. If we were to waste this precious
life without taking full advantage of it we would be extremely foolish.
We would be like the adventurer who had to wait a long time to find a boat
that would take him to a treasure island but who, having finally found
one, fell asleep instead of taking immediate advantage of it. How foolish
he felt when he awoke to discover that the long-awaited vessel had been
washed away and that he was still without a means of travelling to the
island! Similarly, at this time we have found a boat-like human body that
can transport us to the island of full enlightenment, or Buddhahood. If
instead of taking advantage of this body we were to waste it on the meaningless
activities of this life, that would be most tragic. It will not be easy
to find another opportunity like this in the future.

The highest of all possible human goals
is the attainment of complete enlightenment, an ultimate state of peace
in which all obstacles obscuring the mind have been removed and all good
qualities such as wisdom, compassion, and skilful means have been fully
developed. However, we cannot reach this ultimate goal merely by waiting
for it; we need to use the appropriate methods to take us there.

What are the methods for attaining
the peace of full enlightenment? They are the paths of Sutra and Secret
Mantra; there is no third method. Of these two, the techniques revealed
in Secret Mantra are superior to those revealed in the Sutras. Not only
is Secret Mantra the supreme path to full enlightenment, it is also extremely
rare. As Je Tsongkhapa said, the teachings of Secret Mantra are even rarer
than the Buddhas because, although a thousand founding Buddhas will appear
during this Fortunate Aeon, only the fourth (Buddha Shakyamuni), the eleventh,
and the last will teach the paths of Secret Mantra.

At the moment we have a great opportunity
to practise these rare and beneficial teachings, so it is important that
we develop a strong intention to practise them purely. If the Mahayana
teachings were to vanish from this world we would have no opportunity to
become a Buddha. Therefore, while we still have access to these precious
teachings we should apply ourself to them assiduously and try to gain some
experience of them.

The etymology of Secret Mantra is as
follows. ‘Secret’ indicates that these methods should be practised discreetly.
If we make a display of our practices we will attract many hindrances and
negative forces. This would be like someone talking openly and carelessly
about a precious jewel they possessed and, as a result, attracting the
attention of thieves. ‘Mantra’ means ‘protection for the mind’. The function
of Secret Mantra is to enable us to progress swiftly through the stages
of the spiritual path by protecting our mind against ordinary appearances
and ordinary conceptions.

The Secret Mantra practices and scriptures
are also called the ‘Vajrayana’, in which ‘vajra’ means ‘indestructible’
and ‘yana’ means ‘vehicle’. In this context, ‘vajra’ refers to the indivisibility
of method and wisdom, where method is spontaneous great bliss and wisdom
is the unmistaken understanding of emptiness. Method is the cause of the
Form Body of a Buddha and wisdom is the cause of the Truth Body. The union
of method and wisdom that is the union of spontaneous great bliss and emptiness
is unique to Secret Mantra, and is the quickest way to attain the two bodies
of a Buddha.

Je Tsongkhapa explained that an authentic
Secret Mantra practice must possess four attributes, known as the ‘four
complete purities’. These are: complete purity of place, complete purity
of body, complete purity of enjoyments, and complete purity of deeds. The
practice of these four complete purities was not revealed in the Sutra
teachings, but is to be found only in Secret Mantra. Secret Mantra is distinguished
from Sutra by the practice of bringing the future result into the present
path. For example, even though we have not yet attained enlightenment,
when we practise Secret Mantra we try to prevent ordinary appearances and
ordinary conceptions of our environment and instead visualize our surroundings
as the mandala of a Deity. In the same way we prevent ordinary appearance
of our body, our enjoyments, and our deeds and, in their place, generate
ourself as a Deity, visualize our enjoyments as those of a Buddha, and
practise performing enlightened deeds. By doing such practices we can attain
the resultant state of Buddhahood very rapidly. These four practices are
essential for both the generation stage and completion stage of Secret
Mantra and thus they form the foundation for the teachings presented in
this book, such as the instructions on inner fire (Tib. tummo).

Secret Mantra has four levels: Action
Tantra, Performance Tantra, Yoga Tantra, and Highest Yoga Tantra. Action
Tantra principally emphasizes external actions, Performance Tantra places
equal emphasis on both external and internal actions, Yoga Tantra principally
emphasizes internal actions, and Highest Yoga Tantra is the supreme class
of Tantra.

All four levels of Secret Mantra transform
great bliss into the spiritual path, but the methods of transformation
differ according to the level being practised. In Action Tantra the meditator
generates bliss by looking at a visualized goddess, and then transforms
that bliss into the path. In Performance Tantra the meditator generates
bliss by exchanging smiles with the goddess, and in Yoga Tantra by holding
hands with her and so forth. In Highest Yoga Tantra the meditator generates
bliss by imagining sexual embrace with a consort and, at advanced stages,
by engaging in actual embrace; and then transforms that bliss into the
spiritual path. It should be noted, however, that it is very difficult
to use great bliss as a method for attaining enlightenment, and if we are
able to do so we have indeed attained a formidable accomplishment. As the
great Mahasiddha Saraha said, ‘Everyone is excited by copulation but very
few can transform that bliss into the spiritual path.’

Generally, Buddhism teaches that attachment
is a delusion that is to be avoided, and eventually abandoned, but in Secret
Mantra there is a method for transforming attachment into the path. However,
to practise this method we must be very skilful. In this practice we use
attachment to generate great bliss and then use that mind of great bliss
to meditate on emptiness. Only if we can do this is it a transformation
of attachment. Attachment itself cannot be used directly as a path because
it is a delusion, and even in Secret Mantra it is finally to be abandoned.
In authentic Secret Mantra practice, the bliss generated from attachment
meditates on emptiness and thereby overcomes all the delusions, including
attachment itself. This is similar to the way in which the fire produced
from rubbing two pieces of wood together eventually consumes the wood from
which it arose.

For those who are unskilful, or whose
minds are untrained, such practices of transformation are impossible. For
this reason, the Yogis and great meditators of the past have said that
to attain the realizations of Secret Mantra one’s mind should first be
controlled by training in the Sutra stages of the path. Without building
this firm foundation there is absolutely no way to attain a pure experience
of Secret Mantra.

Revealing these instructions of Secret
Mantra can be dangerous for both the Spiritual Guide and the disciple,
if either is not properly qualified. At the very least, they should both
have an appropriate motivation. A Teacher should reveal these methods only
out of the great compassionate intention to spread the holy Dharma for
the benefit of others. To reveal these methods out of attachment to the
happiness of this life wishing to achieve fame, gifts, and so forth would
be a cause for taking rebirth in the deepest hell.

It would also be dangerous for the
disciple to receive the empowerments and instructions of Secret Mantra
if he or she did not strive to keep the vows and commitments; wished only
an increase in reputation, possessions, and so forth; or merely desired
to collect information for academic purposes. Any of these, or similar
worldly motivations, would result in nothing but future suffering.

It is very important, therefore, that
both the Spiritual Guide and the disciple have controlled minds and an
impeccable motivation. Even though we may call ourself a Buddhist and take
refuge in the Three Jewels every day, these alone are insufficient qualifications
for the practice of Secret Mantra. We also need to generate the highest
of all motivations the precious mind of bodhichitta and dedicate ourself
solely to benefiting others. Therefore, whenever we meditate on Secret
Mantra we should begin by generating bodhichitta while reciting the following

For the sake of all sentient beings

I shall drink the nectar of this instruction

So that I may attain Buddhahood within
this life

Through the profound path of Secret

There now follows an introduction
to Mahamudra in general and to this text in particular. Mahamudra is a
Sanskrit term composed of two parts: `maha’ meaning `great’ and `mudra’
meaning `seal’. In the Sutra Mahamudra system, great seal refers to emptiness.
In King of Concentration Sutra Buddha says:

The nature of all phenomena is the
great seal.

Here, `nature’ refers to the ultimate
nature of all phenomena, which is their emptiness, or lack of inherent
existence. This emptiness is called the `great seal’ because phenomena
never move from the state of lacking inherent existence. In general, all
Buddhists assert four views:

1 All products are impermanent

2 All contaminated things are the
nature of suffering

3 All phenomena are selfless

4 Only nirvana is peace

Because these views are irrefutable,
they are called the ‘four seals’. Of these, the third is known as the ‘great
seal’. Since emptiness is the nature of all phenomena it is called a ‘seal’,
and since a direct realization of emptiness enables us to accomplish the
great purpose complete liberation from the sufferings of samsara it is
also called `great’.

In the present text, Mahamudra meditation
is explained not according to the Sutra system but according to the completion
stage of Highest Yoga Tantra. In this system ‘great’ refers to spontaneous
great bliss and ‘seal’ refers to emptiness. Therefore, in Secret Mantra,
Mahamudra is the union of spontaneous great bliss and emptiness.

According to Secret Mantra, Mahamudra
is divided into two stages: causal-time Mahamudra and resultant-time Mahamudra.
Causal-time is the time spent on the path leading to full enlightenment,
and so causal-time Mahamudra is the Mahamudra practised prior to the attainment
of Buddhahood. Resultant-time Mahamudra is the Union of No More Learning,
which is the actual state of Buddhahood.

Causal-time Mahamudra is divided into
two successive stages: the Mahamudra that is the union of spontaneous great
bliss and emptiness, and the Mahamudra that is the union of the two truths.
The first union occurs when the subjective mind of spontaneous great bliss
realizes emptiness as its object. The object, emptiness, is the same in
both Sutra and Secret Mantra; what differs is the mind realizing this emptiness.
It is the subjective mind of spontaneous great bliss that makes Secret
Mantra meditation superior to Sutra meditation. Realizing emptiness with
the mind of spontaneous great bliss is the quickest method for attaining
full enlightenment.

It should be noted that the spontaneous
great bliss of the completion stage of Secret Mantra is not the same as
ordinary pleasure experienced at the height of sexual embrace. Spontaneous
great bliss is experienced only when, through the force of meditation,
we cause the winds to enter, abide, and dissolve within the central channel
and, as a result, the white drop melts and flows through the central channel.
Using spontaneous great bliss to realize emptiness was the essential heart
practice of the great Secret Mantra Masters of ancient India such as Saraha,
Nagarjuna, Tilopa, Naropa, and Maitripa; and of the great Tibetan Masters
such as Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa, and Je Tsongkhapa. As in the past, so
today the Secret Mantra meditator’s supreme path to perfect enlightenment
is the union of spontaneous great bliss and emptiness.

The second stage of causal-time Mahamudra
is the Mahamudra that is the union of the two truths: the conventional
and the ultimate. In this context, the pure illusory body is known as conventional
truth and meaning clear light as ultimate truth. Assembling these two truths
simultaneously within one person’s continuum is known as the Mahamudra
that is the union of the two truths. This Mahamudra is the ripened fruit
of the Mahamudra that is the union of bliss and emptiness. Causal-time
Mahamudra therefore contains both a cause and a result. Through the force
of accomplishing this two-stage causal-time Mahamudra we will attain the
resultant-time Mahamudra, or actual Buddhahood possessing the seven pre-eminent
qualities of embrace. This concludes the explanation of the general paths
of Secret Mantra.


All the meditations included within
this present text come from Conqueror Vajradhara and the great Secret Mantra
Masters of ancient India. These techniques were passed from the Indian
Masters to the Tibetan Masters, and have been handed down to the present
day Teachers in an unbroken lineage from spiritual Father to spiritual

Although Mahamudra meditations were
practised by the ancient Indian Masters, the particular system of Mahamudra
presented here is a ‘close’ lineage transmitted by Conqueror Vajradhara
to the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri, who in turn transmitted it directly to
Je Tsongkhapa. Thus Je Tsongkhapa was the first human Master in this particular

The Gurus of the close lineage of Vajrayana
Mahamudra are as follows:



Je Tsongkhapa

Togdän Jampäl Gyatso

Baso Chökyi Gyaltsän

Drubchen Dharmavajra

Gyalwa Ensäpa

Khädrub Sangye Yeshe

Panchen Losang Chökyi Gyaltsän

Drubchen Gendun Gyaltsän

Drungpa Tsöndru Gyaltsän

Könchog Gyaltsän

Panchen Losang Yeshe

Losang Trinlay

Drubwang Losang Namgyal

Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsän

Phurchog Ngawang Jampa

Panchen Palden Yeshe

Khädrub Ngawang Dorje

Ngulchu Dharmabhadra

Yangchän Drubpay Dorje

Khädrub Tendzin Tsöndru

Dorjechang Phabongkha Trinlay Gyatso

Yongdzin Dorjechang Losang Yeshe

Dorjechang Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche

In recent times this lineage was held
by Trinlay Gyatso, more widely known as Phabongkha Rinpoche, who was an
emanation of the Tantric Deity Heruka. This great Lama was like the sun
of Dharma, illuminating the hidden meaning of both Sutra and Secret Mantra.
He passed the Mahamudra lineage to his heart Son, Yongdzin Trijang Dorjechang,
and it is through the kindness and authority of this holy Spiritual Guide
that this present text appears.

Prayers of Request to the Mahamudra
Lineage Gurus can be found in Appendix III. If we are sincerely interested
in studying and practising the meditations explained in this book, we should
receive the blessings of the Mahamudra lineage Gurus by offering a mandala
and reciting this prayer. Because successful practice depends to a large
extent upon the blessings and inspiration of the Spiritual Guides, the
wise student will not neglect this advice.

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