Introduction to Mahāmudrā and Buddha-Nature

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Introduction to Mahāmudrā and Buddha-Nature
Morten Ostensen
Original content written for the Buddha-Nature Project.

For the Kagyu tradition, the lines of transmission of the Ratnagotravibhāga and the Mahāmudrā teachings converge with the Indian teacher Maitrīpa. In terms of the former, Maitrīpa is believed to have extracted the treatise along with the Dharmadharmatāvibhāga, another of the so-called Five Dharma Treatises of Maitreya (byams chos sde lnga), from a stūpa after receiving instructions from Maitreya in a dream. This story and the instructions Maitrīpa supposedly received are recounted by Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim in his Theg chen rgyud bla ma'i gdams pa, a text the author claims in the colophon to have copied from the original.[1] This text presents the narrative of Maitreya granting Maitrīpa Mahāmudrā-style pointing-out instructions on the nature of mind based upon the Ratnagotravibhāga. However, considering that Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim didn't create his version of the text until sometime in the thirteenth century, the work does not provide ample proof, in and of itself, of Maitrīpa's rediscovery of the two treatises, especially considering that he doesn't mention either of the works in any of his extant writings, while it is referenced by one of his teachers, Jñānaśrīmitra.[2] Nevertheless, it is the lineage passing from Maitrīpa to Ānandakīrti, who gave it to Ratnākaraśānti before traveling to Kashmir, where he passed it on to Sajjana, that is considered the de facto line of transmission of the treatise for the Kagyu. As Gö Lotsāwa states, "neither the Uttara[tantra] nor the [Dharma]dharmatāvibhāga was spread in India before the time of Lord Maitrīpa."[3]

      As for Maitrīpa's Mahāmudrā teachings, his works are more readily connected with a pāramitā-based synthesis of sūtra and mantra that represented a non-tantric approach, in that it did not require formal empowerment for its transmission. Often referred to as the "Mother" prajñāpāramitā, this particular trend sought to align the Madhyamaka doctrine of emptiness with the direct perception of true reality (tattva) as the basis for the practice of Mahāmudrā typified by the notion of mental nonengagement (amanasikāra). This mode of instruction would eventually take root in Tibet, where it was styled "Sūtra Mahāmudrā," which was systematized and championed by the famed Kadampa turned Kagyu master Gampopa. And while there are obvious links to non-tantric scriptures, such as the Prajñāpāramitā scriptures and the Samādhirājasūtra, it is Gampopa who is routinely quoted from an unknown source as claiming that "the basic text of this mahāmudrā of ours is the Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra (Ratnagotravibhāga) by Venerable Maitreya."[4] Though the evidence of this association seems rather thin based on the available literature, this oft-repeated declaration certainly lends weight to the importance of the Ratnagotravibhāga for the Kagyu Mahāmudrā tradition. It is an assertion that is repeated by Jikten Gönpo, who stated, "Mahāmudrā is [taught on the basis of] the Mahāyānottaratantra [Ratnagotravibhāga]."[5] And considering that the Kagyu famously characterize this work as "a bridge between sūtra and tantra," buddha-nature theory came to form a crucial linchpin that held the various trajectories of the tradition together.