This two-volume publication explores the complex philosophy of Mahāmudrā that developed in Tibetan Dwags po Bka’ brgyud traditions between the 15th and 16th centuries CE. It examines the attempts to articulate and defend Bka’ brgyud views and practices by four leading post-classical thinkers: (1) Shākya mchog ldan (1423‒1507), a celebrated yet controversial Sa skya scholar who developed a strong affiliation with the Karma Bka’ brgyud Mahāmudrā tradition in the last half of his life, (2) Karma phrin las Phyogs las rnam rgyal (1456‒1539), a renowned Karma Bka’ brgyud scholar-yogin and tutor to the Eighth Karma pa, (3) the Eighth Karma pa himself, Mi bskyod rdo rje (1507‒1554), who was among the most erudite and influential scholar-hierarchs of his generation, (4) and Padma dkar po (1527‒1592), Fourth ’Brug chen of the ’Brug pa Bka’ brgyud lineage who is generally acknowledged as its greatest scholar and systematizer. The work is devoted to clarifying how each of these authors attempted not only to establish the continuity of Bka’ brgyud Mahāmudrā doctrines and practices with authoritative Indo-Tibetan traditions of exegesis (bshad lugs) and praxis (sgrub lugs) but also to defend them against charges of incoherence and even heresy (chos min, chos log) in an intellectual climate increasingly dominated and riven by sectarian exclusivism and religious conservativism. Against detractors who had raised questions about the Indian provenance of certain Bka’ brgyud Mahāmudrā doctrines such as Sgam po pa’s “White Panacea” (dkar po gcig thub), and also doubts about whether such teachings should even be considered Buddhist at all, the four authors stood united in promoting this tradition as a way firmly grounded in insights and methods of Indian Buddhist third turning sūtras, the tantras, and the spiritual songs (dohā) and instructions (upadeśa) of the Indian mahāsiddhas. Sgam po pa’s Mahāmudrā is presented as a path that distils from these traditions the most direct and effective means of reaching the Mahāyāna goal of spiritual awakening for the sake of oneself and others.
Post-classical Mahāmudrā exegetes generally viewed the rapprochement between Mahāmudrā and certain anti-foundationalist strains of Indian Madhyamaka philosophy — specifically, the *Prāsaṅgika (“Consequentialist”) and Apratiṣṭhāna (“Nonfoundationalist”) systems — as central to their philosophical aims. They framed this synthesis in terms of the reconciliation of affirmative (cataphatic) and negative (apophatic) styles of thought and discourse. This is discernable in our four authors’ attempts to reconcile two basic models of truth or reality (satya) that had long been discussed and debated by Indian and Tibetan Buddhist scholars: (1) a differentiation model based on robust distinctions between conventional and ultimate truths (saṃvṛtisatya and paramārthasatya) and their associated modes of cognition and emptiness, and (2) an identification or unity (zung ’jug : yuganaddha) model of the two truths and their associated modes of cognition and emptiness. Whereas the differentiation model was typically aligned with a strongly innatist view of the ultimate (buddha nature, the nature of mind, or the nature of reality) that underscored its “sublime otherness” (gzhan mchog) from all that is conventional and adventitious, the unity model, predicated on the view of a common ground uniting all conditioned and unconditioned phenomena, emphasized the pervasiveness of the ultimate and its immanence within the conventional in order to indicate how the ultimate permeates the mind-streams of individuals in bondage.
In a similar vein, these scholars sought to chart a middle way between opposing Indo-Tibetan dogmas regarding the nature of reality which had become aligned with positive versus negative appraisals of the ultimate, as exemplified by the heated inter-sectarian disputes between Tibetan Other-emptiness (gzhan stong) and Self-emptiness (rang stong) views that had erupted in the fourteenth century. If advocating a “middle path beyond extremes” (mtha’ bral dbu ma’i lam) meant avoiding the postulation of a metaphysical absolute beyond time, matter and the entire nexus of dependent arising, a view they attributed to the Jo nang school, it also meant circumventing the kind of unwarranted deprecation of ultimate reality that they saw as the undesirable result of taking the ultimate to consist in sheer emptiness (stong pa rkyang pa) — a complete absence of anything whatsoever — that was the scope of a nonaffirming negation (med dgag), a view they associated mainly with the Dge lugs pa school. It is in light of the shared concern of these post-classical thinkers to ply a middle course between eternalist Gzhan stong-based and nihilist Rang stong-based currents of Buddhist thought within the framework of an affirmative yet resolutely anti-foundationalist approach to goal-realization that we can broadly characterize their primary philosophical orientation as a “Mahāmudrā of the Middle Way”.
This work is divided into two volumes: the first offers a detailed philosophical analysis of the authors’ principal views and justifications of Mahāmudrā against the background of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist doctrines on mind, emptiness and buddha nature; the second comprises an annotated anthology of their seminal writings on Mahāmudrā accompanied by critical editions and introductions. These two volumes are the result of research that was generously funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) from 2012 to 2015 under the supervision of Prof. Klaus-Dieter Mathes. The project was entitled “‘Emptiness of Other’ (Gzhan stong) in the Tibetan ‘Great Seal’ (Mahāmudrā) Traditions of the 15th and 16th Centuries” (FWF Project number P23826-G15).