The mahamudra approach sounds easy but is actually advanced

Jul 9, 2022



Dear Venerable,


I hope you’re healthy and doing well!


I am writing to you to ask if you could please give me your commentary on an excerpt of Tilopa’s Doha, the Ganges Mahamudra:


Practitioners of Mantra and of the Paramitas

Vinaya Sutra, the Pitakas, and so on,

Will not see clear light Mahamudra

By way of the tenets of their scriptures.

Because of their assertions, clear light is obscured, not seen.


Conceptual vows degenerate the meaning of samaya.

No activity in the mind, free from desire,

Naturally arisen, naturally extinguished, like designs on water,

Only if we stay in nonabiding and no observation,

We don’t transgress samaya and are a lamp in darkness.


Beyond observed objects, mind’s nature is luminous.

With no path to travel, keeping to the Buddha path,

Accustomed to no object of meditation,

One attains unexcelled enlightenment.



Dearest N,


No, I’m afraid I cannot give a commentary on these lovely words!


But all I do know is that this is how the dzog chen and mahamudra people talk. In Lama Yeshe’s commentary on mahamudra it’s like that (Mahamudra: How to Discover Our True Nature; Wisdom Publications).


Lama quotes a nice story about Milarepa’s debates with the geshes. 


“The famous Tibetan yogi Milarepa is a good example. He didn’t study any philosophy, but because of his mahamudra meditation he had gained total understanding of all dimensions of reality. The intellectuals, who’d studied for years and years, would come to debate with him, and he always knew the answers. He blew their minds!


“They’d ask him, ‘Do you know Vinaya?’ This subject, which covers all the vows for monks and nuns, has so much detail, is so sophisticated, so complicated, and in the monastery we study and debate it for at least four years. ‘No!’ said Milarepa. ‘I don’t know anything about Vinaya, non-Vinaya! If my mind is subdued, if I conquer my ego and touch universal reality, that’s my Vinaya.’ The Tibetan word for Vinaya is dulwa, and it means ‘to subdue the mind.’ His answer is super!”


I suppose the essence of what Tilopa is saying is that everything else is conceptual and you can’t see the truth that way. And that makes sense.


Don’t you agree?






I do agree perfectly.


It’s similar to a story Geshe-la once told us about a learned scholar meeting his guru, a siddha, who didn’t have any intellectual knowledge. He began to throw at him Pramanavarttika quotes trying to make him engage in debate. At that point the siddha remained silent and entered his left ear without shrinking his size, nor enlarging the size of the scholar’s ear. The scholar was deeply humbled and bowed to his teacher.


Tilopa himself directly realised mahamudra after 12 years of continuous meditation, in which he pounded sesame seeds and served a prostitute. He received experiential instructions from his four teachers, but never engaged in accumulating intellectual knowledge. 


I guess this is the difference between scholars and meditators: they first learn the theory of swimming on dry land and then maybe try out the water eventually, and they later jump directly into the water and learn how to swim as a consequence of that. But both end up swimming. Does this make sense?



Yes, exactly as you say, N.


The example I like to use is learning to play Bach. Can you imagine being able to simply go to the piano and intuit that amazing music!


And then what that tells me is that, of course, the person who is able to do that has clearly done it before; it’s in their midstream; they’ve already familiarized themselves with all those complex theories, the concepts — obviously in past lives. If we don’t factor that it, then it’s like Milarepa was just like that with no previous causes. Not possible!


It’s a dependent arising like everything else, and clearly depends upon causes. So in the end we can’t escape the process of starting with the concepts, which lead to the experience.


I watch on YouTube sometimes those 6-year-olds playing music! To think that they can just “do it” is naive. Of course, there’s no explanation in the West. But it’s logical he’s done it before. He’s learned the theories. He’s squeezed his brain, as Lama Yeshe says.


Therefore we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s self-existent: oh, just sit in the nature of the mind and truth will reveal itself.






I guess this is what I have trouble understanding: the siddhas as well as the Zen masters tracing themselves back to Mahakasyapa say that mahamudra cannot be realised through working with concepts, it can only be directly experienced. I mean, what point is there to know by heart all the bodhisattva stages, to know the subtleties of tenets, to speak about the union of emptiness and appearance, and so on, if one doesn’t translate this knowledge into a mode of being? It’s like becoming the best music theory teacher without actually playing the piano. 


Even more so if one becomes attached to intellectual knowledge and holds it as supreme. Also, they say, even the word “mahamudra” can never express mahamudra because Mahamudra is beyond any conceptual boundary and so it’s utterly inexpressible.


So how can a conceptual mind act as a cause for a non-conceptual mind? How is it possible that just through studying one can have a direct insight? This doesn’t make much sense to me.





Mind is mind is mind, gross or subtle, doesn’t matter. It seems to me utterly logical that you can start with a theory and end up with a direct experience: that’s how we learn every day! You start with the recipe, the theory, it’s just words. But the way our mind works, because we live at the conceptual level we have start there. Then those theories go from the head to the heart as you practice making that cake. 


We learn everything like this!


Much love,




I guess what I meant is that if I sit debating, for instance, bodhicitta for 3 years, that’s not bodhicitta. Only if I sit debating with a mind that’s already practicing great compassion would that mind truly transform.


So it’s more a question of direct experience, bringing the result into the path directly and practicing, failing, practicing again that can bring the actual result, and not just discussing it and forming concepts about how it is superior, inferior, to be attained in 3 million eons, this and that. 


I’m thinking that genuinely, sincerely practicing one sentence of, say, the Bodicharyavatara, is more valuable than knowing the Bodhicharyavatara by heart, yet not translating those words into everyday life. Even one ounce of practice is more valuable than treatises of theory.


Like when Naropa was asked by Vajradakini: “you know all the words, but do you understand their meaning after all this studying?” He said “yes” and the dakini began crying because she knew he was lying. Then Naropa admitted to not understanding the meaning and she urged him to seek Tilopa.


What do you think, Venerable Robina? Would you agree?



Absolutely, that’s the point. Yes! As Lama would say, if you think the picture of the pizza is actually the pizza, you’re in big trouble!


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