Mahamudra is a: - Synonym for 'enlightenment' - 4th Empowerment View - Principal view of the Sarma Traditions - a body of philosophical literature - an informal, unstructured, Indian Tantric Buddhist Tradition - Technique for teaching shamatha & vipashyana - Uncommon/esoteric vipashyana & associated tecniques
Mahamudra (great symbol, great seal, great gesture) is a Buddhist technical term arising from the Tantric Vajrayana literature of India. Over the past millennium and a half the term has taken on a variety of meanings. The first and most important meaning is that of a synonym for enlightenment, complete buddhahood. The Blue Annals text of the 15th century discusses mahamudra as a type of teaching and a tradition of lineage teachers.
In the Tantric theory of the Sarma Traditions (Sakya, Kadam, Kagyu, Jonang and Gelug) the term mahamudra refers to the view found with the 4th initiation in a major empowerment, such as Hevajra, Chakrasamvara, Guhyasamaja, Kalachakra and others. Each of the four initiations has a specific view. In the Hevajra system for instance the four views are: 1st initiation the Non-differentiation of Samsara and Nirvana. For the 2nd initiation the Union of Clarity and Emptiness. For the 3rd initiation the Union of Bliss and Emptiness. For the 4th initiation it is Mahamudra which also implies complete enlightenment.
So, in this way, because of the four initiations of a major empowerment, the term mahamudra is synonymous with the highest philosophical view in Vajrayana Buddhism of the Sarma Tradition and also synonymous with enlightenment itself. In the Nyingma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism the term 'dzogchen' is used to refer to the highest forms of training and the highest philosophical view.
The Eighty-four Mahasiddha system unique to the Sarma Tradition are the lists of the principal teachers of the mahamudra philosophy based primarily on the Hevajra, Chakrasamvara and Guhyasamaja Tantra systems. Some particular mahasiddhas of special mention with reference to their relationship to mahamudra are Saraha, Naropa, Dombi Heruka and Maitripa. There are of course many others.
Mahamudra has also loosely come to be known as an Indian Tantric Buddhist tradition (see Blue Annals: Mahamudra) with a heavy emphasis on a variety of textual teachings such as the dohas of Saraha, Ganga Mahamudra of Naropa, a host of miscellaneous mahamudra texts, along with many famous and not so famous Indian siddhas. The special characteristic of this informal tradition is the emphasis on the mahamudra philosophical texts and very little emphasis on the Tantra source literature such as the Hevajra, Chakrasamvara and Guhyasmaja. This tradition also does not have any kind of central administrative structure, hierarchy of teachers, or single lineage.
Textually the term 'mahamudra' is found in the Buddhist Tantric literature of India, the texts of Vajrayana Buddhism. All of the 'New' (sarma) Traditions of Tibetan Buddhism use the term 'mahamudra' and can be considered 'mahamudra traditions.'
It has been put forward and promoted in Tibet that there is also a Sutrayana form of mahamudra - Sutra Mahamudra. This was primarily taught by Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (1079-1153 [P1844]) and popularised within the Dagpo Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
With various Kagyu and Nyingma traditions the term mahamudra is very often used in the title of publications teaching the techniques for shamatha and vipashyana meditation.
The word mahamudra has taken on many different meanings and it is easy to be confused about the scope if the proper context is not understood or the particular technical definition used in a specific Buddhist practice tradition is not clearly defined.