THE GREAT SEAL
Etymologically, Mahamudra is a combination of two Sanskrit words: maha, or great, and mudra, translated in this context as seal. In ancient times, seals were the only way to confirm the authenticity of, say, a royal command. If a monarch sent an order to an outlying province to execute a corrupt minister, that message would have to bear his personal seal. 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 is 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 creation of personal karma created over thousands of lifetimes. It’s okay to have a mind-body system, our guru would say with a laconic grin, but not one that is forced upon you. As for Emptiness, it is an inadequate translation of the Sanskrit word Shunyata, the fecund void from which all things manifest. 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 friends, for instance, and all 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.
These are excerpts from the introduction I wrote on Mahamudra:
Imagine you own a sword fashioned of pure diamond which can slice through to the blazing heart of reality. This sword, however, is sheathed in layers of ignorance and is your own mind, your own consciousness. The poisons that dull it are delusions about the ultimate nature of reality, poisons that begin to form from our first moments of consciousness, when we begin to see all things as fixed in their nature—beautiful and ugly, cruel and kind, good and bad. Feelings spring forth from this world-view. We learn to like and dislike, to desire and to push away, to crave and to seek escape. This gives rise to an uncontrollable stream of thoughts, often resulting in heedless words and actions. Then, when our physical body dissolves back into the elements, our mindstream lives on, impregnated with the seeds of these habitual patterns (known as vasanas or samskaras). We are forced to take birth again, and the great wheel makes another turn. We suffer, age and die, again and again and again, trapped in defective worlds of our own creation.
Is there a way out of this madness? Yes! If we transform the way we think, speak and act, the movie of our relative life transforms too: Karma metamorphoses into a benevolent producer intent on giving us a blissful role, using her power to create a paradise for us to play within. Karma is compelled to act in this manner because the world is “empty”, because there is no base reality, because it is our thoughts, words and actions alone that fashion our reality.
Mahamudra is the systematic stripping of ignorance that all of us must undertake at some point in our eternal timeline. If we succeed in eliminating poisons that incline us to perceive ugliness instead of beauty, we are in a position to construct heaven. The stakes are incredibly high—eons of suffering if we don’t clean up the mess, luminous immortality if we do.
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who vows to help us strip away the unreal from the real, so we can rest in the peace and bliss of our immortal Self!