Tag Archives: Gangama

Already in India, the teaching styles of Mahāmudrā were quite diverse. There is a bewildering multitude of terminology like “mental inactivity” (yid la mi byed pa), “innate yoga” (lhan cig skyes sbyor), “ordinary consciousness” (tha mal gyi shes pa), or “natural mind” (gnyug ma[ʼi sems]). This posting will look at some aspects of the “natural mind” in Gampopa’s writings. We will see that, like the innate yoga, the natural mind practice uses thoughts for realizing the dharmakāya, yet it seems that it does so (at least at Gampopa’s time) in a more radical way. Future research may show that subsequent masters like Jigten Sumgön might have combined both into a single approach.

However, before I investigate Gampopa’s instructions on the matter, I would like to make a few remarks about translating esoteric instructions. My main point is that there is something not right when the terminology of such instructions is treated as if we are reading a philosophical debate or a more systematized form of a text. Esoteric instructions in the Kagyüpa tradition, especially those pointing out the nature of the mind or teaching mahāmudrā practice, are often spontaneously spoken words recorded by disciples or sketchy notes that reply to questions from disciples. Sometimes they are delivered in the form of poetry or song. Characteristic for them is the use of colorful metaphorical language (“space,” “light,” etc.), sometimes in the form of similes (“like a rainbow”). These metaphors are done an injustice when we translate them like the technical terms they sometimes turn into in the later literature of systematical treatises and commentaries. Such powerful metaphors as “clear light,” which originally illustrates the unobstructed quality of the mind, then turns into the abstract noun “luminosity,” and a term like “innate,” which refers to inborn qualities, morphs into such a terrible linguistic monstrosity as “co-emergent.” Translated like that, they are not metaphors anymore; they have solidified from a once-dynamic metaphor to a cold technical term. To use such technical terms when translating esoteric instructions is, in most cases, a mistake.

When we read a scholarly work, its technical language is often well-explained and specified by definitions. Although these explanations and definitions may vary between traditions or even from scholar to scholar, the scholarly activity of analyzing, defining, and teaching makes it often relatively easy to analyze and translate such terms. On the other hand, esoteric instructions are often brief to the point that they even seem cryptic. Their colorful terminology is much harder to pin down. Such texts virtually avoid definitions. They are on the spot compositions spontaneously delivered by experienced masters, often to remedy a problem in the meditative practice of their disciples. However, even though the terms are sometimes literally the same as in more technical texts, we should never make the mistake in our translations to define esoteric language through later technical terminology. That would be like putting the cart before the horse: The mahāmudrā instructions of the early Kagyüpa masters precede their more technical explanations of later generations. Therefore, translations of such texts should reflect the original and powerful metaphor, not the technicality of a philosophical debate.

That being said, let us have a look at the term “natural [mind]” (gnyug ma[ʼi sems]) as it appears in numerous esoteric instructions of Gampopa. To understand this key term in Gampopa’s system, we must carefully read it in the context of the teachings in which it occurs. Looking at more than fifty occurrences of the term in Gampopa’s instructions, we find it often in close vicinity of such terms as these:

– ordinary consciousness (tha mal gyi shes pa)

– nature of the mind (sems nyid)

– innate gnosis (lhan cig skyes pa’i ye shes)

dharmakāya (chos sku)

– true reality (de nyid)

– sameness (mnyam pa nyid)

– unerring emptiness (stong pa nyid ma nor ba)

All these are terms pertaining to the level of the absolute truth. Accordingly, when we find descriptions of the qualities of the natural mind, we find that it

– cannot be seen, pointed out, or expressed

– has no basis or support, and no labels can be attached to it

– has no tendency toward anything and no aim

– is not produced from causes and conditions

– is like a dream or an illusion

In Buddhism, these descriptions through negation are typical for something belonging to the sphere of the absolute truth. After all, absolute truth is beyond the sphere of the mind and cannot really be expressed in words. The experience of the natural mind is therefore like a dream or an illusion, not because it is false, but because it cannot be expressed. Gampopa says that it is like the happiness of a young girl and the dream of a mute person—both the girl and the mute person cannot express their experience. However, there are also a few descriptions in positive terms. The natural mind is also described as genuine, fresh, and simple, and it is explained to possess clarity and bliss. The descriptions through negation tell us what the natural mind is not, and the positive descriptions provide us with some kind of an idea of how it feels when such a mind is recognized. Nevertheless, these are not precise definitions as we can find them in scholarly works. Such a mind seems to escape all attempts of precise linguistic expression.

In some instructions, however, Gampopa provides several interesting statements about the natural mind that can provide us with a clearer idea of what it is. First of all, he describes some preliminary steps for attaining it. Accordingly, an essential preliminary practice is to cut off all kinds of thoughts pertaining to subject and object, or, in other words, to the apprehending and the apprehended. This places the natural mind in the vicinity of the teaching that all phenomena are nothing but mind: If there is no thought about subject or object, then there is no idea of an apprehending mind and an apprehended thought or object. This is the state in which one must dwell, namely a state of nonduality, in order to experience the natural mind. However, this is not a state of total emptiness or nothingness. Gampopa says (vol. 6, 8r, all quotes are from the Derge edition):

The essence [of the natural mind] is not nonexistence but to be separate from all arising and ceasing. The result [of the natural mind] is that nonexistence of arising and ceasing, the dharmakāya.

Therefore, thoughts are not merely cut off. Instead, one dwells in the realization that the thought that arises has no place where it originates from, no space where it dwells, and nothing into which it finally disappears. Moreover, Gampopa explicitly says (vol. 27, 9r): “Thought is the path of the natural mind.” But how does that fit with the many other passages where he speaks in the context of the natural mind of “nonthought” and “cutting off all thoughts?” A crucial passage may be the following, where Gampopa explains two systems of taking thoughts as the path. The first part of the passage says (vol. 10, 47v):

What is the difference between the natural [mind] (gnyug ma) and the innate yoga (lhan cig skyes sbyor, Skt. sahajayoga)? Innate yoga [also] takes thoughts as the path. Thoughts have two aspects: good thoughts and bad thoughts. Whichever arises, the thought is taken as the path by understanding it as a blessing. Thus, concerning the roaming in samsara, one roams because one has not recognized thoughts. There is no fear of samsara since one has made thoughts the path.

This is a very abbreviated explanation of the innate yoga. He states that thoughts are understood as a blessing, but he does not explain here how thoughts are used for practice. Elsewhere, Gampopa is more explicit and thus, before we continue with the above quote, let us briefly look into some other passages. In an instruction on innate yoga, Gampopa says (vol. 19, 17r):

All phenomena of the whole world are one’s mind. Come to a definitive decision [about that], thinking that the mind is without origination. Rest serenely inside yourself without evaluation. Remain without evaluating “this is fresh,” “it exists,” or “it does not exist.” Rest without hesitation, like a swallow enters its nest. “Unfabricated:” remain free from blocking or establishing, as the garuda soars in the sky. “Loosely:” remain without exertion. Have a smooth attentiveness that has abandoned all the activities of a person and remain [like that]. “Remain:” remain without blocking faults and establishing qualities. Remain lose and utterly without fabrication. Like that, be without focussing and rest at ease. Thereby, with a clear and unobstructed essence of the consciousness, loosen [the mind] through relaxation within complete purity, and practice! If relaxation is best, practice is best. If it is medium, practice is medium. If it is low, practice is low; it is impossible that it is any other way than that. Within dwelling like that, pacify any proliferating thought! This is like a cloud adventitiously rising in the sky that is pure by itself: It arises from the sky, and in the end, it dissolves back into it, yet it dissolves into the sky itself, and it is of the sky’s nature. An adventitious thought may arise, but it arose from the innate nature of the mind itself. In the middle, it remains, but it remains as the innate nature of the mind itself. In the end, it dissolves, but it dissolves into the innate nature of the mind itself. Know it to be not beyond the innate nature of the mind itself and practice [like that].

Although later authors like Jigten Sumgön go into more details, this should suffice here. The meditative practice described here is characterized by being both relaxed and attentive. Arising thoughts are to be pacified but not by blocking them, but by understanding that the thought arises from and dissolves back into mind itself, and between that, while it remains, it is none other than the mind itself. This is often explained through the example of waves and the ocean: The waves are not different from the ocean itself. Understanding it like that, Gampopa’s disciple Phagmodrupa, who was Jigten Sumgön’s root guru, says about the innate yoga (vol. 2, p. 288):

The rainbow of duality disappears in space. The emerging of thoughts and getting involved in them disperse like clouds. In this fine palace of spontaneous victory, the person of the natural mind who is free from proliferation sits cross-legged on the seat beyond thoughts.

And elsewhere very clearly (vol. 4, p. 292):

Thoughts arise in the essence of the natural mind, but like the darkness at daybreak, they disappear by themselves.

Garchen Rinpoche has pointed out that this innate yoga practice of mahāmudrā is a training, but when one dwells entirely without thoughts as described in Tilopa’s Gangama Mahāmudrā, that is the result. Probably to point out the difference between the training and the result, Gampopa, from the perspective of the natural mind, stated these critical words to those who practice the innate yoga (continuing the above passage of vol. 19, 17r):

Because you take thoughts as the path, the thing to be cut off and the means of cutting off are perceived as two, and there is no end to thoughts. A thought that arises is recognized. However, that one that arises may be recognized, but if you do not perceive the essence, you are not up to the task! When a chance to perceive [the essence] arises, that is it! There is no other chance to perceive [the essence]!

The point is here that a practitioner of the innate yoga may dwell in a state where mind and thoughts are like the ocean and its waves, but the actual task is to perceive in that arising thought the “essence.” Gampopa teaches explicitly that apart from thoughts, there is no other way to realize the dharmakāya! Gampopa’s disciple, Lama Zhang, also taught that one must take thoughts as the path. He said (vol. 8 of the 2004 edition, pp. 566‒67):

Following after afflictions or thoughts one is an ordinary person, abandoning or stopping them, one is a Hīnayānist, purifying and transforming them with mantra, mudrā, and samādhi, one is [a practitioner of] the outer mantra. Here, through the endeavor of bad thoughts, one is not spoiled. By looking at the essence of an arising thought, thoughts subside for those in whom experience arises, and something is inevitably added to their experience. For those in whom realization arises, there is nothing to subside.

And he quotes the “precious guru” (Gampopa?):

If one does not use thoughts for one’s favor, the time when gnosis arises will never come. A fire whose firewood is discarded is like a lotus on dry ground. If you know how to use thoughts in your favor, all outer and inner obstructions become aids for meditative practice.

Thus, what is that essence of thoughts? There is an interesting passage in the collected works fo Marpa Lotsāva, where he says (vol. 2, 211‒12):

Just that essence of thoughts (rtog pa’i ngo bo) is the “self of phenomena” and the “self of the person.” If you know the nature of thoughts to be clear light, then they stop by themselves.

Thus the self of phenomena—the belief that phenomena have an independent existence—and the self of the person—the belief in an independent existence of the self, like a soul—are here likened to thoughts. This is undoubtedly an interesting remark and deserves further investigation. I believe that the point here is that, like thoughts, the self has no origin, abiding, and cessation. Since the self shares these characteristics with the thoughts—the very thing with which we identify ourselves so much—realizing the essence of thoughts will cause the realization of the self: There is no identifiable essence. Therefore, the essence, the true nature of the self or natural mind, can be realized by understanding thoughts. Once one has realized the essence, thoughts and mind are realized as having no origin, abiding, and cessation—they are the dharmakāya. Gampopa actually explains this in the continuation of the above-quoted passage on the difference between the natural mind and the innate yoga (vol. 10, 47v):

If [the essence, i.e.] the “I” is not perceived [as it is], thoughts have no end. Through that, you possess the defect of endlessness with regard to that [arising of thoughts]. The “I” is [in truth] at the beginning unborn, in the middle without remaining, and at the end without cessation. It is without an essence to be identified. Its nature is uninterrupted. Its charateristics are beyond the mind. Now, from the perspective of mantra, with respect to the characteristics, even the buddhas of the three times do not perceive it. With respect to the absence of characteristics, it is uninterrupted at all times. From the perspective of the perfections,  there is nothing to be removed from the “I” and there is not the slightest thing to be added. Watch perfectly the perfect purity! If you see the perfectly pure, you are free. Here, the perfectly pure is the “I.”

This essence, the perfectly pure self, the “I,” is, of course, the “natural mind” (gnyug ma), or dharmakāya. Thus, thoughts are used to attain the state of nonthought, just as firewood is completely burned up in a fire.

Tilopa’s famous Gangama Mahamudra‒according to tradition taught by Tilopa to Naropa at the banks of the River Ganges and later transmitted to Marpa Lotsawa‒has been translated before, e.g., by Trungpa, Tiso and Torricelli, Brunnhölzl, and Khenpo Thampel.

Why now another translation? The answer is: because we have different texts.

More then a decade ago I started collecting manuscript editions of the Gangama, that is, text editions that were written by hand and transmitted outside of the “official” canon (i.e., the Tibetan Tangyur). I soon noticed that these paracanonical manuscripts contained a text that differed in many ways from the canonical version of the Peking, Derge, Narthang, and Cone Tangyur editions of the same text.

The greatest surprise for me was to discover the vast extent of structural intervention undertaken by the redactors of the canon. The paracanonical (manuscript) versions are structured as follows (numbers refer to the lines of the Tibetan text):

1‒4: advice to listen
5‒29: introduction to the nature of the mind through the examples of space, clouds, and the sun
30: view
31: conduct
32‒37: meditative practice
38‒47: pledges
48‒52: benefits of practicing this path
53‒55: defects of not practicing like that
56‒59: practice of relying on the guru and renunciation
60‒66: ascertaining the result of view, meditation, and conduct
67‒79: abandoning distractions in the solitude
79‒86: benefits of such practice
87‒100: practice of the individuals of highest capacity
101‒104: types of individuals
105‒113: practice of the individuals of lower capacities
114‒118: results and qualities

One of the key features of this structure is that the text directly introduces with 25 lines the nature of the mind. The key feature of the structure of the canonical version as found in the Tangyur, on the other hand, is that the text teaches first a gradual teaching of 28 lines before it offers an introduction to the nature of the mind. The redactors of the canon thus have changed the very nature of the text, turning this teaching of the Indian Siddha tradition into a mainstream “gradual path” type of teaching (lam rim).

Secondly, the paracanonical manuscript tradition presents the Gangama as a text with irregular numbers of syllables per line, generally nine or eleven, but occasionally also seven and thirteen. This allows for a natural expression as we find it in many instructional texts on mahamudra, such as the poetical and spontaneous songs of the mahasiddhas and also in many of Jigten Sumgön’s songs and instructions. The editors of the Tangyur, on the other hand, have changed this into a uniform pattern of nine syllable verses with mostly four lines, thereby streamlining it to fit the style of other versified teachings.

The text that I present here as the main text is taken from the Oral Transmission of Cakrasamvara and the Oral Transmission of the Dakini, both edited and arranged by the great Drukpa Kagyü master Padma Karpo (1527‒1592). According to the tradition, these teachings were received by Tilopa directly from the Dakinis when he was staying in Uddiyana. Tilopa transmitted them to Naropa and the latter to his Tibetan disciple Marpa Lotsawa, who passed them on to Milarepa. At this point, there is some confusion that was recently cleared up in an article by Marta Sernesi (2011). According to her, people have confused this oral transmission (or, as she calls it, aural since that is closer to the meaning of the Tibetan word snyan, “ear”) with the Nine Instructions of the Formless Dakini. The story of Milarepa receiving only five of these instructions from Marpa and sending his disciple Rechungpa to India to bring back the remaining four has actually nothing to do with the transmission of the Oral Transmission of Cakrasamvara (or the Oral Transmission of the Dakini, which are alternative terms) itself since the Nine Instructions are only supplemental teachings to the actual Oral Transmissions. Larsson (2012: 86) and Quintman (2014: 41) still repeat the mistake, and this shows once again how dangerous it is to take such legends at face value. In truth, in the writings of the Oral Transmission, it is clear that the transmission from Marpa to Mila has been complete.

Sernesi also points out that the Oral Transmission of Cakrasamvara or the Dakini are (alternative) names for the teaching, and the Oral Transmission of Rechung and Oral Transmission of Ngendzong, who was the other cotton clad yogi to receive the transmission from Mila, are names for particular lineages in which the instructions were transmitted. There also appears to be a further lineage through Gampopa and Phagmodrupa (Larsson 2012: 88), the Oral Transmission of Dakpo, possibly with abridged or essential instructions (Sernesi 2011: 180, n. 2).

The Oral Transmission of Cakrasamvara contains teachings by Vajradhara, Vajrayogini and other Dakinis, Tilopa, Naropa and other Indian masters, as well as by Marpa, Milarepa, and later disciples. According to Padma Karpo’s introduction and catalog of the Oral Transmission of the Dakini (mKha’ ’gro snynan brgyud kyi dpe tho, Torricelli 2000: 361), the Gangama Mahamudra is the first text of the collection (as arranged by him), and it is its essential instruction.

Of the already existing translations of the Gangama, Trungpa Rinpoche’s and Tiso and Torricelli’s are made from the canonical version of the Tangyur. Brunnhölzl’s translation is based on a paracanonical transmission as it appears in the 5th Shamarpas’s commentary. Within the paracanonical transmission, I observed two groups with the Shamarpa’s and the rGya gzhung manuscripts on the one side and the Oral Transmissions on the other (this is described in the introduction to my edition). The Shamarpa’s commentary and Brunnhölzl’s translation show some particular features that I pointed out in the introduction to my translation of the Oral Tradition manuscripts. The commentary of H.H. Drikung Kyabgön Chetsang Rinpoche is based on my edition of ten paracanonical and four canonical editions. Khenpo Thampel’s translation of the root text, however, seems to be based on a canonical version.

My translation and the accompanying edition are not supposed to present a definitive edition or translation of the Gangama. I aim above all to document the hitherto neglected Oral Transmission and to make the many interesting variant readings of the different manuscript families visible.

You can download my translation and edition in the downloads section in the lower part of the right column of your screen: “Tilopa: Gangama Mahamudra (Translation)” and “Tilopa: Gangama Mahamudra (Edition of Tib. text).” Enjoy!


For bibliographical references to the other translations, see my translation of the Oral Tradition.

Larsson, Stefan (2012) Crazy for Wisdom: The Making of a Mad Yogin in Fifteenth-Century Tibet, Leiden: Brill.

Sernesi, Marta (2011) “The Aural Transmission of Samvara: An Introduction to Neglected Sources for the Study of Early Bka’ brgyud,” Mahamudra and the Bka’ brgyud Tradition, Andiast: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies.

Torricelli, Fabrizio (2000) “Padma dkar-po’s Arrangement of the ‘bDe-mchog snyan-brgyud,’ East and West, 50(1/4), 359-386.

Quintman, Andrew (2014) The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa, New York: Columbia University Press.