Going Beyond Mindfulness. The four symbolic signs (brda) of Mahāmudrā meditation
The prevailing topic in Karma Phrin las pa’s (1456-1539) commentary on Saraha’s Dohākoṣa are four steps of Mahāmudrā meditation that resemble the four mahāmudrāyogas. In Ḍākinī language, which is spoken in symbolic signs, they are called mindfulness (dran pa), beyond mindfulness (dran med), non-arising (skye med), and transcending the intellect (blo ‘das).
A lecture in the Buddhist Studies Lecture Series at Leiden University by Prof. Dr Klaus-Dieter Mathes, Head of the Department of South-Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Vienna, Austria.
In his commentary on Saraha’s Dohākoṣa, Karma Phrin las pa (1456-1539) repeatedly comments on various subjects in terms of the “four signs” (brda bzhi) of Mahāmudrā meditation, i.e., mindfulness (dran pa), beyond mindfulness (dran med), non-arising (skye med), and transcending the intellect (blo ‘das). These four signs can be already found in Vajrapāṇi’s Heart Sūtra commentary (D 3820; P 5219), where they are referred to as a means of attaining the supreme siddhi of mahāmudrā. Equating “beyond mindfulness” with sūtric amanasikāra (i.e., mental non-engagement), and “non-arising” with tantric amanasikāra (i.e., realizing a, i.e., non-arising), Vajrapāṇi aligns himself with his guru Maitrīpa (986-1063), who explains in his Amanasikārādhāra at length that the privative a of amanasikāra stands for anutpāda (“non-arising”), or emptiness. In Maitrīpa’s final analysis the letter a becomes luminosity and manasikāra self-empowerment (svādhiṣṭhāna). Such a positively understood emptiness can be also discerned in Maitrīpa’s Tattvadaśaka, where phenomena are not only circumscribed by alluding to the Heart Sūtra’s formula (form is empty; emptiness is form), but also described as giving rise to the experience of being luminous in the samādhi of realizing reality as it is (yathābhūtasamādhi).
It will be shown that Karma Phrin las pa follows Maitrīpa’s line of thought as he presents in several instances, after an outer and inner explanation, a secret explanation in terms of the four signs. Of particular interest is Karma Phrin las pa’s secret interpretation of Saraha’s dohā on gaṇacakra, namely “(1) eating, (2) drinking, (3) intercourse, and (4) summoning the assembly of adepts with plenty of food and alcohol,” all four of which tantric activities he elaborates in terms of the four signs. Thus, for example, when one is being mindful, manifold appearances are recognized as mind and thus “eaten.” Paradoxically, his secret commentary turns an esoteric tantric teaching into an exoteric (or “sūtric”) one.
Prof. Dr Klaus-Dieter Mathes is the head of the Department of South-Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Vienna, Austria. He is the co-editor of the 'Viennese Studies of Tibetology and Buddhism' (Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde) and a regular contributor to the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. His current research deals with the Tibetan reception of Yogācāra, Tathāgatagarbha, and Mahāmudrā. He obtained a Ph.D. from Marburg University with a study of the Yogācāra text Dharmadharmatāvibhāga (published in 1996 in the series Indica et Tibetica). His habilitation thesis was published by Wisdom Publications under the title A Direct Path to the Buddha Within: Gö Lotsawa´s Mahāmudrā Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga (Boston, 2008). Recent publications include A Fine Blend of Mahāmudrā and Madhyamaka. Maitrīpa's Collection of Texts on Non-conceptual Realization (Amanasikāra) (Vienna, 2015), The Other Emptiness: Rethinking the Zhentong Buddhist Discourse in Tibet (SUNY, 2019), and Mahāmudrā in India and Tibet (Brill, 2020, in print).
Buddist Studies Lecture Series
The Buddhist Studies Lecture Series is organised by Prof. Johnathan Silk, Professor of Buddhist Studies at Leiden University, with the support of the International Institute for Asian Studies.