Moonbeams of Mahāmudrā

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Elizabeth Callahan
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala Publications, Inc.
    , March
     784 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Moonbeams of Mahāmudrā, presented here together with Mahāmudrā: Dispelling the Darkness of Ignorance, provides scholars of religion with the essential single volume of the quintessential practice of the Marpa Kagyu traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.  Best known as the volatile teacher of Milarepa, the Tibetan mountain hermit-folk hero, Marpa is responsible for bringing from India some of Tibetan Buddhism’s most precious practice lineages. Mahāmudrā may be foremost of these. There is no shortage of books available on mahāmudrā, which translates literally as “great seal” but whose range of meanings are many, and their intended audience tends to be ardent practitioners. Academics, particularly those with little grounding in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, should welcome this collection as much for the comprehensive nature of the two works translated as for the introduction to the topic that its translator, Elizabeth Callahan, provides.  The primary treatise, translated here as Moonbeams of Mahāmudrā, has been available to readers of English for more than thirty years under the title Mahāmudrā, The Quintessence of Mind and Meditation, but this heavily annotated version provides the critical apparatus to appreciate the depth of scholarship that the author, Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, brings to this practice manual.

Mahāmudrā is one of the important practice traditions brought from India to Tibet during the early years of the so-called Tibetan Renaissance of the 11th and 12th centuries. The transmission lines are legendary: the mahasiddhas (great tantric adepts) of late Indian Buddhism are among its progenitors, specifically Tilopa, Nāropa, and Maitrīpa. The Tibetan recipients are also seminal: Marpa the translator, Milarepa, and Gampopa. Callahan goes above and beyond her translator duties to provide an introduction that, though brief, traces these transmission lines and navigates the controversy surrounding Gampopa’s teaching of a form of non-tantric mahāmudrā to which the brilliant scholar Sakya Pandita (13th century) would object.

The book itself is, in large part, a defense of this central tradition of the Kagyu tradition against Sakya Pandita’s criticisms, and Callahan’s introduction serves to historicize this fact. Tashi Namgyal (16th century) offers an extensive rebuttal of Sakya Pandita’s concerns here in Moonbeams, and his copious references to Indian Buddhist texts counter his opponent’s claims that Kagyu Mahāmudrā represented a deviant admixture of sources. In brief, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s great conceits is its claim to a gradual path practice system drawn directly and only from the great Indian Buddhist monastic institutions, and the tradition’s founding myth is the royal expulsion of a Chinese Chan master teaching a form of instantaneous enlightenment representing the inverse of that gradual path.  The reality in both India and Tibet was much messier, as specialist literature untangles, and Callahan provides just enough material to contextualize the arguments presented within Moonbeams.

Moonbeams divides into two sections, both of which explain the cultivation of mental stillness (Skt. śamatha) and analytical insight (Skt. vipaśyanā). The former produces an extraordinary level of mental stability that serves as the basis for the latter, the mind’s laser-like deconstruction of any ostensible physical or mental foundation or essence. Together, these two provide the means for intuiting the emptiness, or lack of intrinsic reality, of all phenomena – that is, the “great seal” of all things. The first quarter of Moonbeams discusses the “common” meditative stability that combines these two in a way reflective of the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) philosophy of Nāgārjuna and his successors. The remainder of the treatise is dedicated to the “uncommon” instantaneous practice of this cultivation, which is claimed to be for the highly intelligent. In this practice, mental stability is less important, for those of greater intelligence are presumed to be able to intuit emptiness more easily and not require the deep stillness of śamatha.  For such skilled meditators, seeing through (vi-paś, literally, seeing apart, in the sense of analysis) phenomenal appearances as merely the workings of the mind causes the ongoing awareness of emptiness (again, the lack of intrinsic reality or essence) of all things, an awareness that must be guarded and refined. In a sense, then, there is a gradual aspect to this “instant” practice.

The two central features of Moonbeams – its attention to its historical context and its attention to the subtle workings of the mind – make this treatise the ideal source for scholars of religion.  Callahan does much to unpack the first feature in an accessible manner, and the second feature is apparent throughout the translation.  The second, as becomes obvious, requires an appreciation for mahāmudrā as form of practice, not simply an obtuse philosophy supported by textual references. Just as any practical skill anticipates consultation with competent instructors, so does mahāmudrā— as do other esoteric practices in the Indo-Tibetan tradition— hence the insistence on lineage and guru-disciple relationships in this volume and the tradition as a whole. Nevertheless, with this volume in particular, and with the translator’s capable introduction, scholars of religion should find this the most accessible, guru-less avenue into mahāmudrā practice available in English.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Edward Arnold is a doctoral candidate in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism in the Department of Religion at Columbia University.

Date of Review: 
January 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth M. Callahan is a Tibetan translator of the Kagyu tradition. She completed two three-year retreats in the Karma Kagyu tradition under the guidance of Kalu Rinpoche, is a student of Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, and has been a Tsadra Foundation Fellow since 2002.


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