Lama Ole Nydahl – Introduction to Mahamudra

Lama Ole Nydahl teaching in 2010

Lama Ole Nydahl teaching in 2010

This teaching was published in 2001 in edition 9 of the magazine “Buddhism Today”

Buddhism Today Vo.9

Buddhism Today Vol.9

Any observation of the outer and inner worlds refers one to mind. Only mind is constantly and truly present, although not as a “something.” Consciousness is like space, unchanging and timeless, while its objects are conditioned. Both the outer world and beings’ inner states appear, change, and disappear. Only the experiencer is timeless, limitless, and everywhere.

The Great Seal, Mahamudra in Sanskrit and Chag Chen in Tibetan, was taught by Buddha to fully awaken mind’s potential and to seal its enlightened nature. Whoever rests in the radiance of the mirror while enjoying its images, and recognizes the indestructibility of the ocean beneath the play of the waves, has reached this goal.

The path there is a steadily increasing experience of richness and the bliss which enlightenment makes permanent. It already begins to manifest in short and weakened forms during the moments when no habits or expectations distract mind. Also non-meditators may taste some of this power during the free fall before the parachute opens or on a fast motorcycle, and all (hopefully) know it from sexual union. It appears in a flash when sneezing, as the joyful “a-ha” at a new and striking insight, or when one shares in the goodness or joy of others. Meditation, however, is the concise and scientific way to make this state permanent. In particular, the three “old” or “red hat” schools of Tibetan Buddhism, which focus on the Diamond Way practices of view and transformation, can make such moments into a lasting experience. Even a short exchange with a holder of the Great Seal of awareness can set off this maturation process, but a close friendship with him, or one’s co-operation in his groups is always the most effective method. In meditation, as in life, one will then experience a growing and joyful oneness with phenomena until suffering and frustrations are definitely seen as something unnecessary and odd.

Lama Ole Nydahl teaching in 2010

Lama Ole Nydahl teaching in 2010

“Space is joy.” “Any event is mind’s free play.” “Using one’s body and speech to evoke beings’ enlightened potential.” During the 2500 years since Buddha’s death, such statements of insight and intent have hinted at the boundless spiritual wealth of the Buddhist accomplishers. They point to the goal and ways of the Great Seal, and the skillful handling of such means enable independent people to also help others. While avoiding intellectual and emotional pitfalls, the resultant insights confirm both what is relative, the way, and absolute, the goal, as being in essence joy. Among the frequently moralistic or superficial offers presented on the spiritual market today, such teachings must exert a growing attraction.

Enlightenment is the full development of all qualities and abilities of beings, including the indispensable faculty of reason. The steps toward this state cannot be airy-fairy or exotic. 700 years ago, Karmapa knew that. Simply bathing in the artistic power or varied repetitions in the following psychologically effective twenty five verses will not be sufficient. Without critical analysis, several levels of meaning will be recognized too slowly. Thus I sometimes choose commentaries that are eye opening and confrontational to a world which is trying to stay blissfully unaware of difficult facts. The critical view thus developed, sharpens the understanding of the text, which again bestows a mature overview of the world and the ability to handle daily situations.

Every development in Buddhism starts from a critical analysis of the present conditions. This allows one to understand, in an unshakable way, that the present moment offers the most precious and amazingly rare conditions, and that one can actually steer one’s life consciously towards liberation and enlightenment.

First, only very few people around the world have the chance to meet Buddha’s full teachings from an educated, free, and empowered position, and only a fraction of these beings actually use their luck.

The second understanding focuses on the impermanence of everything outer and inner. One may die at any moment and only the space-awareness of mind is always and everywhere present. This makes mind vitally important and one recognizes the reasons for practicing here and now.

The third observation centers on cause and effect, (Skt. karma, Tib. lae). At every moment, beings’ thoughts, words and actions lay the seeds for their future. As the results will have the same emotional color as their cause, it pays to be very attentive.

Finally, one understands the wisdom of going a way of common growth. It becomes increasingly evident how all beings aim for transient kinds of happiness while trying to avoid suffering. Enlightenment, however, is the most formidable happiness of all and can neither disappear nor dissolve. Closing one’s mind to its richest potential through laziness or a lack of imagination would be a grievous mistake. Whoever remains on a conceptual level, where one experiences being one’s body and owning one’s possessions, finds little support in old age, sickness and death, and has no power to benefit others.

Lama Ole Nydahl teaching in 2010

Lama Ole Nydahl teaching in 2010

These four thoughts engender a search for values which can be trusted. Here, only space has the quality of being indestructible, everywhere and always. Though frequently misunderstood by the immature to be a “nothing” or something “missing,” space is clearly no vacuous black hole. It is much more like a container which holds, communicates between, and makes possible all beings and events. Its essence is immediate intuitive insight, its nature is playful joy, and its expression is active compassion which benefits beings. It manifests in peace-giving, enriching, fascinating, and powerfully protective ways. Shunning the politically correct, it aims to know the world and bring lasting benefit to cultures and beings. Disturbing feelings, taken seriously by their victims, are transformed on the way to enlightenment and become mirror-like, equalizing, discriminating, experiential, and all-pervading wisdoms. Buddha (Tib. Sangye) embodies the whole accomplishment and this is why his state is the first and absolute refuge.

The second rare and precious entity or refuge is the way which brings beings to this state. Called Dharma in Sanskrit and Chö in Tibetan, his teachings consist of 84,000 pieces of information and methods. Contained in 108 inch-thick books, they make it possible to advance at the desired speed.

The third refuge (Skt. Sangha, Tib. Gendun) is one’s friends on the way, especially the beings who see life as a dream and have the strong wish to benefit others (bodhisattvas). Each Diamond Way Buddhist center surely has noble women and men on this level.

If one wants to use the exceedingly fast Diamond Way, a fourth refuge becomes necessary. It unites the former three and anchors them in life. This is the teacher (Skt. guru, Tib. lama). To avoid confusion or rumors, he must live transparently as a monk, a lay person, or an accomplisher. He must keep his promises and personal bonds, have life experience, and represent Buddha’s body, speech and mind in a meaningful way. His ability to bring confidence or blessing is very important. He must have a real transmission into and experience of the special methods of the Diamond Way (yidam, deep breathing, Great Seal or Great Perfection) and also be surrounded by a field of enlightened protectors. The latter will also extend to his students and make every experience into a step on their way.

In the “Words of the Elders of the Order,” Theravada or Southern Buddhism, most take refuge to end or limit their own suffering. The meaning of this act increases immensely, however, if one has the ‘Great Way’ or Mahayana motivation of quickly developing the power to benefit others. Driven by this strong wish, compassion and wisdom arise and one will move towards the amazing methods of the Diamond Way.

Such a transference of one’s values from what is conditioned and relative to the level of the absolute and timeless is the second necessary step on Buddha’s way. One secures the future work with one’s mind and works on from a broad platform.

After deciding to progress along the Diamond Way, two approaches appear. Some mobilize the massive time and energy needed to enter directly into the Four Basic Practices, the so-called Ngondro. Others prefer visits to their centers, some meditation, increasing Buddhist views and fitting occasional courses into their daily or yearly schedules. Both approaches are good and as soon as a certain degree of maturity has been reached, three ways are open to those who have completed the Four Basic Practices and two of these to the ones who have not. They build on the qualities inherent in mind and utilize its ability to do, to know and to be inspired.

Statues of Naropa and Marpa carved from rhinocerous horn by the 10th Karmapa

Statues of Naropa and Marpa carved from rhinocerous horn by the 10th Karmapa

The first of these, that of the Way of Methods, the hero Marpa brought across the mountains to Tibet around 950 years ago. He received it from the accomplisher Naropa while the Muslim invaders were destroying the culture and freedom of northern India. With its focus on deep breathing and the energy-channels in the body, it can only be used after the Four Basic Practices; parts of these practices have limited relevance today. The indispensable year long preparations, which the Tibetan economic system permitted, are not possible for people who are active in modern life. The Westerners who wish to enter extended and mostly celibate retreats are often absorbed by their own affairs and this tendency rarely changes afterwards. Also most of the practices are classified as secret and are not generally available. Except for the phowa and clear light meditations, teachings for conscious dying and pervasive awareness, one can hardly teach the Way of Methods to unprepared people in good conscience. Too many bodily and mental hindrances may ensue. Whoever risks it anyway, and some rinpoches have ignored a thousand years of experience and published secret teachings, often those of other lineages, only benefit their students for a short period.

The hurt pride which follows failed attempts to use overly advanced methods, may hinder one’s approach to the Diamond Way in future lives. Among the meditations of tantric Buddhism, another name for the Way of Methods, are the union practices which, in particular, call for years of absorption, very special partners and long retreats. Using one’s body consciously to give joy to one’s dear ones, on the other hand, is a fine practice for all.

The Way of Insight was the gift of Marpa’s other main teacher, Maitripa. Though less enveloped by mystery, his conceptual and total methods are more useful in today’s world. By calming and holding mind, the oneness and interdependence of subject, object, and action become clear and intuitive insight arises. Some teachers give unstructured meditation right after refuge, teaching people to ‘simply’ meditate on mind. I consider this a big mistake. The very fact that this way is so easy to describe makes it prone to misunderstanding. Any spiritual progress necessitates a wide framework of teachings and is only useful with the right guidance and the basis of a massive accumulation of good impressions. Otherwise mind’s spontaneity easily degenerates into evaluating passing thought and its sun-like quality becomes a sleepy white wall. For that reason, in the meditation lineages of Tibet, such teachings were not given until the Four Basic Practices were completed. It is actually much more difficult to calm and clear mind without methods than it is to acquaint oneself with the main Buddha forms and learn their sometimes long and exotic sounding mantras.

The power of Maitripa’s teaching lies in its versatility. Based on a pleasant exchange with one’s surroundings, the methods require no strict retreats and are easily incorporated into one’s life stream.

The first part of the Way of Insight, called Shiné in Tibetan or Shamata in Sanskrit, calms and holds mind. All experience religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and parts of Hinduism, strive for this state through varying means, and perhaps, also faith religions occasionally reach similar depths of absorption in prayer. It is one source of extra sensory perception and miracles. Nearly any method may be used on the Way of Insight to quiet and focus mind. Some schools work with mental images, others avoid it. Some observe their mind through a slow, stork-like ritual kind of walk, or while chewing their food countless times. That most commonly used in the Theravada is the counting of one’s breath or the awareness of its passing at one’s nostrils. In the Great Way or Mahayana, one includes strong good wishes for all beings or focuses on recognizing the interdependent origination and fundamental “emptiness” of all phenomena. If the latter is experienced and not only “thought,” this insight is already Lhagtong in Tibetan or Vipashyana in Sanskrit and points to mind’s essence.

Lama Ole Nydahl teaching in 2010

Lama Ole Nydahl teaching in 2010

Also the building-up phase in the Diamond Way, Kye Rim in Tibetan, meaning the birth phase of the Buddha aspect, is a most effective kind of Shiné meditation. Here, mind receives the feedback of hologram-like figures of light and energy, so-called yidams, who mirror its enlightened qualities. The experience of such pure forms, female or male, peaceful or protective, single or united, and the ensuing confidence through the energy and blessing felt, have a total and profound effect. Their heart-vibrations (Skt. mantra, Tib. ngag) and the transformation of one’s inner and outer world into their perfect wisdoms and pure lands influence body, speech, and all levels of mind concurrently.

Yidam meditations bring countless methods to mind’s recognition of its own clarity, compassion, and wisdom. The bliss and thankfulness engendered when melting together with a Buddha aspect and through the dissolution of all form into timeless, limitless, but information-holding space must burn countless veils in one’s mind and sooner or later bring forth an all-encompassing consciousness. The resultant state of radiant awareness beyond concept or form is called Dzog Rim or the phase of perfection. It corresponds to the second step on Maitripa’s way.

Uniting and blessing the described ways of methods and insight, there exists the third and broadest approach to enlightenment – the Way of Identification with one’s teacher. This method is meaningful in all situations of life and 950 years ago Marpa’s teacher, Naropa, described its effects as comparable to meditation on 10,000 forms of energy and light. It utilizes all of beings’ qualities and is nourished by mind’s potential for enthusiastic intuition. Through its power of widening mind’s confidence in one’s teacher as the expression of one’s inherent potential, the fastest results are reached. This approach of identification may actually only be listed as an independent way because the 16th Karmapa gave it to Hannah and me and it is amazing that it didn’t happen before. Under the names of Lami Naljor (Tib.) or Guru Yoga (Skt.), it has always been the transformative power of the Kagyu lineage and more than ever it is the cornerstone of the idealistic new Diamond Way groups in the West. Meditations on one’s closest lama, Karmapa, and Buddha, as inseparable and mirrors to one’s mind, today help more students open up to the blessing of the lineage than any other practice. Devotion, however, can be dangerous and must always be combined with human maturity. Confidence in one’s teacher must never lead to dependency, humorless behavior, or compulsive imitation. The damage brought about by such tendencies is made amply clear by the frequent scandals in charismatic cults and sects. A lama has only one job to fulfill – helping his students into the fearless space which he himself has conquered, and thus making them independent. Within the freedom of unfiltered consciousness, one discovers the perfect qualities which were always inherent in everybody’s mind.

The development of awareness, energy, and identification described above should be grounded in the view of the Great Seal as soon as possible. Then they should be developed through the four levels of this absolute realization and always carried to its ultimate fruit. One insight alone transforms each event into enlightening experience, that of the interdependence of subject, object, and action. This highest view allows everybody to be close to life and responsible at the same time. Real maturity means being far-sighted, and fulfilling the real needs of beings by working with causes rather than catering to their superficial and changing wishes. Whoever can see the world as the flow of collective and private dreams, which it is, has no option but to work compassionately for the good of all beings.

Thus, whether one’s calming meditation enables mind’s limitless wisdom to appear, or one is driven by the feeling that space is joy, or if thankful devotion and confidence in one’s enlightened nature motivate one on the way of identification, all three ways lead to enlightenment, the fruit of the Great Seal.

Here is an overview of the four steps involved. Uniting basis, way, and goal, the first level is called one-pointedness. This describes a state where mind enjoys what is there. It is so filled with good impressions that it needs nothing from anywhere else.

Then follows the state of being non-artificial. Here, one naturally stops pretending, playing games, or behaving superficially. As the uniqueness of everything is so rich and evident, everything artificial will fall under the table.

Lama Ole Nydahl teaching in 2010

Lama Ole Nydahl teaching in 2010

At the third stage there follows the “one taste.” This is where the experiencer becomes conscious of itself behind the flow of experiences, and mind’s timeless mirror recognizes its radiant essence underneath the images it reflects. Also non-meditators sometimes experience the state where mind is radiant space. The search of so many for excitement shows the importance and meaning of self-arisen joy. Once obtained, on the inner and secret levels, it radiates through any conditioned experience and is never lost again.

The last and ultimate state was given a name that is actually a joke. As its essence is highest fulfilment, when the universe vibrates with laughter, it cannot be described with a serious face. Called “non-meditation,” it actually means “non-effort” because there is nothing further to be obtained. Here the intensity of ten thousand volts is felt in each cell of the body and one works ceaselessly for others without even thinking, “I do something for you.” Beyond our ordinary senses, one experiences mind through each atom.

Thus having become a Buddha, no separation in time or space is limiting or real. One acts from mind’s omniscience and benefits beings in a lasting way from the here and now. Thus all things become meaningful. Everything is mind’s free play. Every being is recognized to be a Buddha who only needs to discover his essence, and the world is actually a pure realm. This is real enlightenment, the state of the Great Seal.

This introduction to Chag Chen Monlam, twenty five verses composed by the third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje 700 years ago, may be read in its own right. It points to the nature of mind according to his instructions and is therefore rare and precious.

©2001 Diamond Way Buddhist Centers USA

Buddhism Today aims to be a living document of authentic Buddhist transmission for the lay person and yogi practitioner in the West. Online subscription to the magazine is available at the website: The photographs were taken in 2009 by Jes Roger Petersen and are held on the unofficial website

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