Etymologically, Mahamudra is a combination of two Sanskrit words: maha, or great, and mudra, translated in this context as seal. In ancient times, minus the ease of communication that we take for granted, seals were the only way to confirm the authenticity of, say, a royal command. If an old world monarch sent an order to an outlying province to execute a corrupt minister before sundown, that message would have to bear his personal seal in order for it to be obeyed. And in the context of samsara or relative reality, Mahamudra is that seal of authenticity, for its characteristics are ubiquitous even in the tiniest aspect of samsara.
Samsara, our guru defined as the condition of being forced by the power of one’s own karma to repeatedly take on an impure body and mind; in other words, the minds and bodies we currently wear are the sole creation of our personal karma created over thousands of lifetimes. It’s okay to have a mind-body system, he’d say with a laconic grin, but not one that is forced on you.
As for Emptiness, it is an inadequate translation of the Sanskrit word Shunyata, the fecund void from which all things manifest, and for which no equivalent exists in the western philosophical paradigm. Why did western scholars use the word empty to describe Shunyata? Because the perception of an object depends on who is doing the perceiving — and it is therefore empty of having a fixed and permanent nature of its own. One man’s meat is another man’s poison….beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. These truisms refer to a great truth — that every pair of eyes that views an object is compelled to see it differently.
Why the word compelled? Because we are each literally forced to perceive an object in a particular way. Watch a movie with a couple of friends for instance, and all three of you might have a contrasting opinion – you love it, Keshav hates it, Anthea is bored. So the movie itself is essentially empty of having a fixed nature and is no more than a blank screen upon which each viewer projects his or her personal likes and dislikes.
This phenomenon holds true even when folks agree on a thing, for individual perceptions differ at least slightly. And when non-humans perceive the same object, there are no common labels: for instance, what a soaring hawk sees when he looks down at a patch of forest a human can only speculate upon.
Another critical teaching of eastern philosophy is that before we can see properly, we must first cultivate the right view, the correct filter through which to perceive the reality we inhabit. This view is critical particularly to the seeker of ultimate freedom.