Mahāmudrā (Sanskrit; Tibetan: ཕྱག་ཆེན་, Wylie: phyag chen, THL: chag-chen, contraction of Tibetan: ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོ་, Wylie: phyag rgya chen po, THL: chag-gya chen-po) literally means "great seal" or "great imprint" and refers to the fact that "all phenomena inevitably are stamped by the fact of wisdom and emptiness inseparable".
The name also refers to a body of teachings representing the culmination of all the practices of the Sarma schools of Tibetan Buddhism, who believe it to be the quintessential message of all of their sacred texts. The mudra portion denotes that in an adept's experience of reality, each phenomenon appears vividly, and the maha portion refers to the fact that it is beyond concept, imagination, and projection. The practice of Mahāmudrā is also known as the teaching called “Sahajayoga” or “Co-emergence Yoga”. In Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the Kagyu school, this is sometimes seen as a different Buddhist vehicle (yana), the "Sahajayana" (Tibetan: lhen chig kye pa), also known as the vehicle of self-liberation. 
The usage and meaning of the term mahāmudrā evolved over the course of hundreds of years of Indian and Tibetan history, and as a result, the term may refer variously to "a ritual hand-gesture, one of a sequence of 'seals' in Tantric practice, the nature of reality as emptiness, a meditation procedure focusing on the nature of Mind, an innate blissful gnosis cognizing emptiness nondually, or the supreme attainment of buddhahood at the culmination of the Tantric path."
According to Jamgon Kongtrul, the Indian theoretical sources of the mahāmudrā tradition are Yogacara Tathagatagarbha (Buddha-nature) texts such as the Samdhinirmocana sutra and the Uttaratantra. The actual practice and lineage of mahāmudrā can be traced back to wandering mahasiddhas or great adepts during the Indian Pala Dynasty (760-1142), beginning with the 8th century siddha Saraha.
Saraha's Dohas (songs or poems in rhyming couplets) are the earliest mahamudra literature extant, and promote some of the unique features of mahamudra such as the importance of Pointing-out instruction by a guru, the non-dual nature of mind, and the negation of conventional means of achieving enlightenment such as samatha-vipasyana meditation, monasticism, rituals, tantric practices and doctrinal study in favor of mahamudra 'non-meditation' and 'non-action'. Later Indian masters such as Padmavajra, Tilopa, and Gampopa incorporated mahamudra into tantric, monastic and traditional meditative frameworks.
It has been speculated that the first use of the term was in the c. 7th century Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, in which it refers to a hand gesture. The term is mentioned with increasing frequency as Buddhist tantra developed further, particularly in the Yogatantras, where it appears in Tattvasaṁgraha and the Vajraśekhara-tantra. Here it also denotes a hand gesture, now linked to three other hand mudrās—the action (karma), pledge (samaya), and dharma mudrās—but also involves "mantra recitations and visualizations that symbolize and help to effect one’s complete identification with a deity’s divine form or awakening Mind (bodhicitta)." In Mahāyoga tantras such as the Guhyasamāja tantra, it "has multiple meanings, including a contemplation-recitation conducive to the adamantine body, speech, and Mind of the tathāgatas; and the object-—emptiness-—through realization of which 'all is accomplished,'" and it is also used as a synonym for awakened Mind, which is said to be "primordially unborn, empty, unarisen, nonexistent, devoid of self, naturally luminous, and immaculate like the sky."
Though still connected there to creation-stage maṇḍala practice, it is more often related to completion-stage meditations involving the manipulation of mental and physical forces in the subtle body so as to produce a divine form and a luminous, blissful, nonconceptual gnosis. In the completion-stage discussions in such Tantric systems as the Hevajra, Cakrasaṁvara, and Kālacakra, mahāmudrā has three especially important meanings. First, it may refer to a practitioner’s female consort in sexual yoga practices. Second, as before, it is one of a sequence of mudrās corresponding to various Buddhist concepts, experiences, and path-stages. Here, though, it usually is the culmination of the series, a direct realization of the nature of Mind and reality that transcends and perfects other, more conventional seals, including those involving actual or visualized sexual yoga. Third, Mahāmudrā by itself connotes the ultimate truth, realization, or achievement of yoginī Tantra practice: the great seal that marks all phenomena and experiences; a synonym for suchness, sameness, emptiness, space, and the goddess Nairātmyā (no-self); unchanging bliss beyond object and subject, shape, thought, or expression; and the ultimate gnostic attainment, mahāmudrā-siddhī.
Thubten Yeshe explains: "Mahāmudrā means absolute seal, totality, unchangeability. Sealing something implies that you cannot destroy it. Mahāmudrā was not created or invented by anybody; therefore it cannot be destroyed. It is absolute reality".
All of the various Tibetan mahāmudrā lineages originated with the Mahasiddhas of the Pala Empire of 8-12th century India. The earliest figure is the tenth century poet yogi Saraha, and his student Nagarjuna (not to be confused with the earlier philosopher). Saraha's collections of poems and songs, mostly composed in the apabhramsa language are the earliest Indian sources for mahāmudrā teachings, aside from the Buddhist tantras.
Other influential Indian mahasiddhas include Tilopa, his student Naropa and Naropa's consort Niguma. Tilopa's "Ganges Mahāmudrā" song is a widely taught short mahāmudrā text. Niguma is an important source for the Shangpa Kagyu lineage.
Tilopa's pupil Maitripa became the principal master of mahāmudrā in India during his time and most lineages of mahāmudrā are traced from Maitripa. Maitripa was a very influential figure of the eleventh century, a scholar and tantrika who widely taught the Ratnagotravibhaga, a text which is widely seen as bridging the sutric Mahayana and Anuttarayogatantra views. He composed commentaries on the buddhist dohas, and his works include a collection of 26 texts on "non-conceptual realization" (amanasikara), which are a key Indian source of mahāmudrā teachings that blend sutra and tantra and teach an instantaneous approach to awakening.
"Mahāmudrā, that which is unified and beyond the mind, is clear yet thoughtless, pervasive, and vast like space. Its aspect of great compassion is apparent yet devoid of any nature. Manifesting clearly like the moon in water; It is beyond all terms, boundaries or center. Polluted by nothing, it is stainless and beyond hope and fear. It cannot be described, like the dream of a mute."
One of Maitripa's students was the Kadam scholar Atisha, who taught mahāmudrā to his pupil Dromton (1004-63) who decided not to make mahāmudrā a part of the Kadam tradition. Another pupil of Maitripa, Marpa Lotsawa, also introduced mahāmudrā to Tibet and his disciple Milarepa is also a central figure of this lineage. Another important figure in the introduction of mahāmudrā to the area is Vajrapani, yet another student of Maitripa. His student, Asu, also was a teacher of Rechungpa (1084-1161), one of Milarepa's pupils.
Indian sources of mahāmudrā were later compiled by the seventh Karmapa Chos grags rgya mtsho (1454- 1506) into a three-volume compilation entitled "The Indian Mahāmudrā Treatises" (Tib. Phyag rgya chen po 'i rgya gzhung). This compilation includes the above three collections, along with the Anavilatantra and texts that teach a non-tantric "instantaneous"approach to the practice by an Indian master named Sakyasribhadra.
Mahāmudrā is most well known as a teaching within the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. However the Gelug and Sakya schools also practice mahāmudrā. The Nyingma school and Bon practise Dzogchen, a cognate but distinct method of direct introduction to the principle of śūnyatā. Nyingma students may also receive supplemental training in mahāmudrā, and the Palyul Nyingma lineage preserves a lineage of the "Union of Mahāmudrā and Ati Yoga" originated by Karma Chagme.
Gampopa Sönam Rinchen (1079-1153), a Kadam monk who was a student of the lay tantric yogi Milarepa, is a key figure in the Kagyu tradition. He is responsible for much of the development of Kagyu monastic institutions and for recording the teachings of the lineage in writing. He synthesized the Mahayana Kadam teachings with the tantric teachings he received from Milarepa and developed a unique system of mahāmudrā which he often taught without tantric empowerment, relying instead on guru yoga.
Mahamudra is defined by Gampopa as "the realization of the natural state as awareness-emptiness, absolutely clear and transparent, without root". Gampopa also states that mahamudra is "the paramita of wisdom, beyond thought and expression." Gampopa taught mahamudra in a five part system to his disciples, one of his most well known disciples, Phagmo Drupa (1110-1170) became a very successful teacher who continued to teach this five part system and eight "junior" kagyu lineages are traced to him. This “Five-Part Mahāmudrā” system became one of the main ways that Mahāmudrā was transmitted in Kagyu lineages after Gampopa.
The tradition which follows Gampopa is called Dakpo Kagyu. A key Mahāmudrā author of this tradition is Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, well known for his Mahāmudrā: The Moonlight. Karma Kagyu Karmapas like the ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje also composed important Mahāmudrā texts. A development of these later mahāmudrā writers is the integration of the common Mahayana teachings on samatha and vipasyana as preliminaries to the practice of mahāmudrā.
The Kagyu lineage divides the mahāmudrā teachings into three types, "sutra mahāmudrā," "tantra mahāmudrā," and "essence mahāmudrā," in a formulation that appears to originate with Jamgon Kongtrul. Sutra mahāmudrā, as the name suggests, draws its philosophical view and meditation techniques from the sutrayana tradition. Tantric mahāmudrā employs such tantric techniques as tummo, dream yoga, and ösel, three of the Six Yogas of Naropa. Essence mahāmudrā is based on the direct instruction of a qualified lama, known as pointing-out instruction.
The particular Kagyu propensity to blend sutric and tantric traditions of mahāmudrā became a point of controversy in 13th century Tibet. The possibility of sudden liberating realization and the practicing of mahāmudrā without the need for tantric initiation or empowerment was seen as a result of this blending as well as a development stemming from Sino-Tibetan influences.[note 1]
According to Klaus-Dieter Mathes, the Kagyu tradition sought to base their teachings in Indian works:
Later Bka´ brgyud pas defended their not specifically Tantric or sūtra mahāmudrā tradition by adducing Indian sources such as the Tattvadaśakaṭīkā or the Tattvāvatāra. These belong to a genre of literature which the Seventh Karmapa Chos grags rgya mtsho (1454–1506) called “Indian mahāmudrā-Works” (phyag chen rgya gzhung).
Dr. Mathes investigated the practice described in these mahāmudrā works and found that it is not necessarily Tantric. In Saraha's dohās, it is simply the realization of Mind's co-emergent nature with the help of a genuine guru. Maitrīpa (ca. 1007– 085) uses the term mahāmudrā for precisely such an approach, thus employing an originally Tantric term for something that is not a specifically Tantric practice.
It is thus legitimate for later Kagyupas to speak of Saraha's mahāmudrā tradition as being originally independent of the Sūtras and the Tantras. For Maitrīpa, the direct realization of emptiness (or the co-emergent) is the bridging link between the Sūtras and the Tantras, and it is thanks to this bridge that mahāmudrā can be linked to the Sūtras and the Tantras. In the Sūtras it takes the form of the practice of non-abiding and becoming mentally disengaged, while in the Tantras it occupies a special position among the four mudrās.
Khedrup Gelek Pelzang, 1st Panchen Lama identified a number of mahāmudrā lineages, according to their main practices for achieving mahāmudrā. In his teachings on the First Panchen Lama's root text and auto-commentary the 14th Dalai Lama delineated the Kagyu practice lineages as follows:
The Gelug school's mahamudra tradition is traditionally traced back to the school's founder Tsongkhapa (1357- 1419), who was said to have received oral transmission from Manjushri, and it is also traced to the Indian masters like Saraha through the Drikung Kagyu master Chennga Chokyi Gyalpo who transmitted Kagyu Mahamudra teachings (probably the five fold Mahamudra) to Tsongkhapa. Jagchen Jampa Pal (1310-1391), a prominent holder of the 'jag pa tradition of the Shangpa teachings, was also one of the teachers of rje Tsongkhapa.
However, a specifically "Gelug" Mahamudra system was only recorded at the time of Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen, 4th Panchen Lama (sometimes named the "1st Panchen Lama", 1570-1662), who wrote a root Mahamudra text on the "" () and its auto commentary (the Yang gsal sgron me, "Lamp re-illuminating Mahamudra"), which is still widely taught and commented upon. Before this work, Gelug writings on Mahamudra tended to follow orthodox Kagyu teachings. This text and its auto commentary have become a central work on Mahamudra in the Gelug school. The current 14th Dalai Lama and Lama Yeshe are some of the modern Gelug figures which have written commentaries on this key Gelug Mahamudra text.Highway of the Conquerors: Root Verses for the Precious Geden [Gelug] Kagyu [Oral] Transmission of MahāmudrādGe-ldan bka'-brgyud rin-po-che'i phyag-chen rtsa-ba rgyal-ba'i gzhung-lam
The Panchen Lama Chökyi Gyaltsen, himself was influenced by Kagyu teachings, and wished to imitate great siddhas like Milarepa and Sabaripa. He names various Mahamudra and Dzogchen lineages in his text, and comes to the conclusion that "their definitive meanings are all seen to come to the same intended point." Chökyi Gyaltsen also sides with the Kagyu school against Sakya, arguing that there is a sutra level of Mahamudra. However, in his account, sutra Mahamudra is particularly associated with a gradual path and his presentation of insight practice (vipasyana) is uniquely Gelug.
Yongdzin Yeshe Gyaltsen (also known as Khachen Yeshe Gyaltsen, tutor of the 8th Dalai Lama, 1713–93) composed a commentary on Chökyi Gyaltsen's Mahamudra text, entitled "The Lamp of the Clear and Excellent Path of the Oral Tradition Lineage" (Yongs-'dzin ye shes rgyal mtshan). He also comments on Mahamudra in the context of Lama Chopa Guru Yoga.
Following the great Sakya exegete and philosopher Sakya pandita (1182-1251), mahāmudrā in the Sakya school is seen as the highest tantric realization, which means that mahāmudrā practice is only taken on after having been initiated into tantric practice and practicing the creation and completion stages of deity yoga.  In his "A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes" (Sdom gsum rab dbye), Sakya Pandita criticized the non-tantric "sutra" mahamudra approaches of the Kagyu teachers such as Gampopa who taught mahāmudrā to those who had not received tantric initiations and based themselves on the Uttaratantrasastra. He argued that the term mahāmudrā does not occur in the sutras, only in the highest class of tantras and that only through tantric initiation does mahāmudrā arise: "Our own Great Seal consists of Gnosis risen from initiation." According to Sakya Pandita, through the four empowerments or initiations given by a qualified guru, most practitioners will experience a likeness of true mahāmudrā, though a few rare individuals experience true mahāmudrā. Through the practice of the creation and completion stages of tantra, the tantrika develops this partial understanding of bliss and emptiness into a completely non-dual gnosis, the real Mahamudra, which corresponds to the attainment of the Path of Seeing, the first Bodhisattva bhumi.
In Sakya, this insight known as mahāmudrā is described variously as "the unity of lucidity and emptiness, the unity of awareness and emptiness, the unity of bliss and emptiness" and also "the natural reality (chos nyid gnyug ma) which is emptiness possessing the excellence of all aspects."
A common schema used in the Kagyu school is that of Ground (buddha-nature, emptiness), Path (practice) and Fruition mahāmudrā (Buddhahood). The advice and guidance of a qualified teacher is considered to be very important in developing faith and interest in the dharma as well as in learning and practicing mahāmudrā meditation. Most often mahāmudrā (particularly essence mahāmudrā) is preceded by meeting with a lama and receiving pointing-out instruction. Some parts of the transmission are done verbally and through empowerments and "reading transmissions." A student typically goes through various tantric practices before undertaking the "formless" practices described below; the latter are classified as part of "essence mahāmudrā." Ngondro are the preliminary practices common to both mahāmudrā and dzogchen traditions and include practices such as contemplating the "four thoughts that turn the mind", prostrations, and guru yoga. According to one scholar, most people have difficulty beginning directly with formless practices and lose enthusiasm doing so, so the tantric practices work as a complement to the formless ones.
Another way to divide the practice of mahāmudrā is between the tantric mahāmudrā practices and the sutra practices. Tantric mahāmudrā practices involves practicing deity yoga with a yidam as well as subtle body practices like the six yogas of Naropa and can only be done after empowerment. After the preliminary practices, the Kagyu school's sutra mahāmudrā practice is often divided into the ordinary or essential meditation practices and the extraordinary meditation practices. The ordinary practices are samatha (calming) and vipasyana (special insight). The extraordinary practices include "formless" practices like 'one taste yoga' and 'non-meditation'. The tradition also culminates with certain special enlightenment and post-enlightenment practices. According to Reginald Ray, the "formless" practices, also called "Essence mahamudra," is when "one engages directly in practices of abandoning discursive thinking and resting the mind in the clear, luminous awareness that is mahamudra." The reason that preparatory practices and "form" practices like deity yoga and vipasyana are needed is because formless practices are quite difficult and subtle, and most practitioners are not able to enter into the simple essence of mind successfully without considerable mental preparation.
In the Dagpo Kagyu tradition as presented by Dagpo Tashi Namgyal, Mahāmudrā is divided into four distinct phases known as the four yogas of mahāmudrā (S. catvāri mahāmudrā yoga, Wylie: phyag rgya chen po'i rnal 'byor bzhi). They are as follows:
These stages parallel the four yogas of Dzogchen semde. The four yogas of mahāmudrā have been correlated with the Mahāyāna five paths (S. pañcamārga), according to Tsele Natsok Rangdrol (Lamp of Mahāmudrā):
Dakpo Tashi Namgyal meanwhile in his Moonlight of Mahāmudrā correlates them as follows:
According to Je Gyare as reported by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (Moonlight of Mahāmudrā):
According to Drelpa Dönsal as reported by Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (Moonlight of Mahāmudrā):
As in most Buddhist schools of meditation, the basic meditative practice of mahāmudrā is divided into two approaches: śamatha ("tranquility","calm abiding") and vipaśyanā ("special insight"). This division is contained in the instructions given by Wangchuk Dorje, the ninth Karmapa, in a series of texts he composed; these epitomize teachings given on mahāmudrā practice.
Often associated with the yoga of one-pointedness, mahāmudrā śamatha contains instructions on ways to sit with proper posture, called the seven point posture of Vairocana. The mahāmudrā shamatha teachings also include instructions on how to work with a mind that is beset with various impediments to focusing, such as raising the gaze when one feels dull or sleepy, and lowering it again when one feels overly excited. Two types of mahāmudrā śamatha are generally taught: śamatha with support and śamatha without support.
Mahāmudrā śamatha with support involves the use of an object of attention to which the meditator continually returns his or her attention. Wangchuk Dorje mentions that one can use a wide variety of supports, visual objects like a candle flame, but also sounds, a smell, etc.
One of the main techniques involved in Mahāmudrā śamatha with support is mindfulness of breathing (S. ānāpānasmṛti). Mindfulness of breathing practice is considered to be a profound means of calming the mind to prepare it for the stages that follow. For the Kagyupa, in the context of mahāmudrā, mindfulness of breathing is thought to be the ideal way for the meditator to transition into taking the mind itself as the object of meditation and generating vipaśyanā on that basis. The prominent contemporary Kagyu/Nyingma master Chogyam Trungpa, expressing the Kagyu Mahāmudrā view, wrote, "your breathing is the closest you can come to a picture of your mind. It is the portrait of your mind in some sense... The traditional recommendation in the lineage of meditators that developed in the Kagyu-Nyingma tradition is based on the idea of mixing mind and breath."
Shamatha without support or objectless meditation refers to resting the mind without the use of a specific focal point or object of concentration. According to Reginald Ray, in this practice "the eyes are open and one gazes straight ahead into space, directing one's mind to nothing at all."
In Gelug sutra mahāmudrā, the samatha techniques are similar to the Kagyu presentation.
The detailed instructions for the insight practices are what make mahāmudrā (and Dzogchen) unique in Tibetan Buddhism. In Mahāmudrā vipaśyanā, Wangchuck Dorje gives ten separate contemplations that are used to disclose the essential mind within; five practices of "looking at" and five of "pointing out" the nature of mind. They all presume some level of stillness cultivated by mahāmudrā shamatha. In retreat, each contemplation would typically be assigned specific time periods.
The five practices for "looking at" the nature of the mind are as follows:
The practices for "pointing out the nature of mind" build on these. One now looks again at each of the five, but this time repeatedly asks oneself "What is it?" In these practices, one attempts to recognize and realize the exact nature of, respectively:
The above practices do not have specific "answers"; they serve to provoke one to scrutinize experience more and more closely over time, seeking to understand what is really there.
In an actual meditation session, this involves, first of all, analyzing whether the meditator who has achieved tranquil equipoise actually can be found in an ultimate sense. Seeking the meditator both within and apart from the various elements, one encounters the meditator nowhere; seeking ultimacy in phenomena (dharmas), one encounters it nowhere. Thus, one comes to abide in a space-like awareness of the void nature of both the person and dharmas. Next (or, alternatively) one examines more carefully whether the mind itself can be found in an ultimate sense: it is discovered to have the conventional nature of a flow of awareness and clarity, but no ultimacy, no true existence. In short, one should recognize that any existent that arises, whether an object of the mind or the mind itself, is merely conceptual, is void and—as Chos rgyan quotes his guru, Sangs rgyas ye shes, as saying—”When . . . you are equipoised one-pointedly on that, marvelous!” (GBZL: 4a; trans. Dalai Lama and Berzin: 100; YSGM: 30b). In the period between meditation sessions (rjes thob), one should see all appearances as deceptive (sgyu ma), as existing differently than they appear, but one must at the same time recognize that their ultimate voidness does not preclude their conventional functioning, any more than conventional functioning gives them true existence.
The practice of ordinary meditation eventually leads one to the yoga of simplicity, which according to Gampopa, is "understanding the essential state of that awareness [of one-pointedness] as nonarising [emptiness], which transcends conceptual modes of reality and unreality." One sees all phenomena just as they are, non-conceptually, beyond extremes of existence and non-existence.
By meditating on the one taste of all things, the meditator will cognize the one taste of all these things. The diversity of appearances and nonappearances, mind and emptiness, emptiness and non-emptiness, Are all of one taste, undifferentiable in their intrinsic emptiness. Understanding and lack of understanding are of one taste; Meditation and nonmeditation are nondifferentiable; Meditation and absence of meditation are unified into one taste; Discrimination and lack of discrimination are one taste In the expanse of reality.
By perfecting this [nonmeditation] stage the meditator attains naked, unsupported awareness. This nondiscriminatory awareness is the meditation! By transcending the duality of meditation and meditator, external and internal realities, the meditating awareness dissolves itself into its luminous clarity. Transcending the intellect, it is without the duality of meditation and post-meditation. Such is the quintessence of mind. 
In the following chart a translation is given of the Tilopa's Six Words of Advice.