The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra

The following article is from the Winter, 1997 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.


by H. H. the Dalai Lama

and Alexander Berzin 325 pp. #GEKATR 18.95 March

In this book, the Dalai Lama gives brilliant commentaries on the mahamudra root text and auto-commentary by the First Panchen Lama. This treasury of practical instructions contains extensive teachings on the nature of mind, the development of shamata, sutra and tantra levels of mahamudra, and the compatibility of Dzogchen and anuttarayoga tantra.

The following excerpt is a presentation by the Dalai Lamas on the First Panchen Lama's autocommentary.

Visualizing Ourselves as a Buddha-form

If, for whatever reasonlack of time, sickness, travel and so forthwe need to abbreviate our practice, we must be careful not to omit fulfilling the main purpose in tantra of visualizing ourselves in the aspect of a Buddha-form. In general, that purpose is to stop the mind from giving rise to ordinary appearances and apprehending things as existing in the ordinary manner in which they usually appear. The ordinary manner in which things appeal' is as if they existed truly and inherently, findable at the place where they appear to be. Therefore, nti matter how abbreviated our practice maybe, we visualize ourselves in the aspect of a Buddha-fomi by first withdrawing the mind from ordinary appearances.

This does not mean that ordinary appearances of true and inherent existence actually exist in the place where they appear to be existing independently of the mind to which they appear in this manner, and that we simply withdraw our attention from them in the manner of becoming inattentive or ignoring them. Neither does it mean to realize that ordinary appearances of true and inherent existence do not occur or exist at all and to withdraw from them in the manner of denying their conventional existence. Rather, we withdraw the mind from letting these ordinary appearances arise. We do not literally collect ordinary appearances back into the mind like collecting trash back into the trash bin from which it has spilled. We stop the mind from its ordinary appearance-makingfrom its letting things appear as if they existed truly and inherentlyby focusing on their voidness, the total absence of their existing in this fantasized, impossible manner.

If, after ascertaining voidness, we were to leave this understanding aside and, forgetting about it, thinking of ourseves as truly and inherently existent, but now in the aspect of a Buddha-form, and resume apprehending ourselves to exist in the way we appear to exist, but now in this new shape and form, this would not do. There would have been no purpose in doing the voidness meditation. Rather, having dissolved our ordinary appearance-making and withdrawn our mind into a state of focus on voidness, we try to gain as stable an understanding of the voidness of true, inherent existence as deeply as we can. Then, without losing awareness, we have one part of this mind that understands voidness arise in the aspect of a Buddha-form. In this way, the arising of this Buddha-form is the play or emanation of the mind that understands voidness.

Ordinarily, the mind gives rise to phenomena on two levels that occur simultaneously, mixed together like milk and water. One is ordinary, impure appearance-makingthe mind's giving rise to conventional phenomena as if they were truly and inherently existent. The other is pure appearance-makingmind's giving rise to conventional phenomena as simply what they are, dependently arising phenomena. When the mind is accompanied by ignorance or unawareness of voidness, it apprehends the impure appearances it gives rise to as truly existing in the manner in which they appear to exist.

Although the pure and impure appearances of anything are ordinarily mixed together like milk and water, they are not of the same entitythey do not always come, by nature, in the same package. They canbe separated in the sense that when we stop impure appearance-making by removing the instincts of unawareness of voidness that cause our mind to fabricate them, we are left simply giving rise to conventional phenomena purely in the way that they actually exist. The conventional and deepest levels of truth about all phenomena, on the other handtheir pure conventional appearance as something that dependently arises and their lack of existing in any fantasized and impossible wayare of the same entity and always come in the same package in the sense that they are always both valid with respect to everything. They cannot be cognized simultaneously in one moment of mind, however, until we have removed the obstacles preventing this, which again are the instincts of unawareness of voidness. These instincts constitute, then, the obstacles with respect to knowable phenomena and they prevent omniscient awareness.

Here, in our practice of tantra, when we stop our mind's ordinary appearance-making, we focus on voidness with that aspect of mind that is valid for apprehending phenomena of the deepest level of truthnamely the voidnesses of all phenomena. On this level, our apprehension of voidness is not with straightforward, non-conceptual perception with which, in addition merely to achieving, we have thoroughly familiarized ourself over a long course of repeated meditation. Although, because of that, we are unable to have our mind focus directly on both the conventional and ultimate levels of truth in the same moment of awareness and, when our mind gives rise to conventional appearances, stop its impure appearance-making from occurring mixed with its pure appearance-making, nevertheless we try to do both, at least in our imagination. As an aid, we have the aspect of our mind that cognizes conventional phenomena cognize ourselves not in our usual form, but in the form of a Buddha. At the same time, we try to remain aware, at least indirectly, of the voidness of that pure appearance by accompanying our appearance-making mind with the discriminating awareness that perceives all appearances to be like an illusion. We refer to this as having the mind that understands voidness give rise to an appearance of a Buddha-form.


When the mind is accompanied by ignorance or unawareness of voidness, it apprehends the impure appearances it gives rise to as truly existing in the manner in which they appear to exist.

Just as previously we took as a basis for labeling me our aggregates appearing in their ordinary fashion, likewise here, once we have gained a certain stability in visualizing the pure appearance of this Buddha-form, we take this appearance as the basis for labeling me. The mental labeling of me on the basis of an appearance of a Buddha-form generated and accompanied by discriminating awareness of its voidness, is what we call setting the pride or establishing the dignity of ourselves as a Buddha-form.

This entire procedure of withdrawing the mind from its ordinary appearance-making, focusing on voidness with that understanding of voidness generating a pure appearance, and taking that pure appearance as the basis for mentally labeling me is exactly the same whether we practice tantra as a male or a female. Furthermore, as the mind that realizes voidness understands that all appearances, whether ordinary or pure, are equally devoid of existing truly and inherently as male or female, the gender of the practitioner doing the visualization and the gender of the Buddha-form visualized make no difference on the deepest level. Therefore, both male and female practitioners of tantra can visualize either the appearance of a male or female Buddha-form and equally take either as the basis for labeling me. Visualizing ourselves in this manner, while reciting the appropriate mantras, then, are the main points on which to focus in our tantric practice no matter how much we abbreviate it. ä_æ

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