A Spacious Path to Freedom: Practical Instructions on the Union of Mahamudra and Atiyoga

There are times that I just sit back and wonder “What the hell am I doing reviewing this book?”  I mean, seriously, walking from a Zen practice into a book on Mahamudra is like walking from a simple, focused and minimalistic sitting room into a room full of stoned Keibler Elves puking multi-colored streamers.  Its like going from a Scotch on the rocks to a Mai-Tai laced with LSD.  Its like strolling out of an accountant’s convention in WallaWalla Washington and falling smack-dab into Mardi-Gras.

Are you picking up the comparison yet?

Anyway, the book, “A Spacious Path to Freedom: Practical Instructions on the Union of Mahamudra and Atiyoga” was a fantastic (although dense at times) and illuminating (but sometimes difficult) read.  The manner in which the concepts were presented was convoluted and difficult to follow at times.  It took me the first chapter to really get used to the presentation.  The book is a translation of a text by Karma Chagme (who illustrates everything through reference to sutras that I *blush* never heard of) with commentary from Gyatrul Rinpoche.  Unlike some of the commentaries that I have read in the past however these commentaries were interspaced throughout the text rather than at the end of each chapter or as footnotes.  This took me some time to follow well enough to garner an understanding of the information.  The combination of the two was both whimsical and blunt delving into the Dharma.  You may giggle a bit at first but the message hits home.

“Spacious Path” is a book that required a second reading to gain an appreciation of the insightful wisdom within.  Some texts simply require more experience and practice before any benefit is gained.  I found myself skipping over much of the primary text and diving almost exclusively into the commentaries.

The commentaries by Gyatrul Rinpoche were wonderful.  Being a noob (and at times a boob) when it comes to the Vajrayana practices of deity visualization and other such esoteric craziness, it was a pleasure to read his personal and pragmatic take on, what to an outsider like myself, topics that can seem very ethereal and (frankly) somewhat loopy.  His conversations with the reader are well-grounded, logical and approachable to novices.  In particular the chapters “The Cultivation of Quiescence” and “The Cultivation of Insight” provided a base of study familiar to those with a Zen inclination…

By training the body through the practice of the adhisaras [Buddhist physical excersises ~ The Management] – in this case, sitting in the proper posture, with the proper mudras – although you are ostensibly working with the body, you are indirectly subduingand stabilizing your mind.”

Commentary on the process of deity visualization and practice were similarly presented and expounded upon.  It was a refreshingly simply and unique presentation of a practice that it misunderstood and challenging. 

For those unfamiliar with him here is a bit on Gyatrul Rinpoche from the Tashi Choling Center for Buddhist Studies

Venerable Gyatrul Rinpoche was born in 1924 in China near the Tibetan border. At the age of 7 he was recognized to be a tulku, or consciously reincarnated teacher, by the great meditation masters Chokyi Lodro and Tulku Natsog Rangdrol. Rinpoche was trained at Payul Dhomang Monastery in eastern Tibet by such adepts as Sangye Gon, Tulku Natsok Rangdrol, Payul Chogtrul Rinpoche, and Apkong Khenpo. Rinpoche spent many years in solitary retreat with his root guru Tulku Natsog, moving from one isolated location to another. In 1959, with the Communist invasion of Tibet, Rinpoche fled to India, where he lived for 12 years. Then, H.H. the Dalai Lama and H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche requested Gyatrul Rinpoche to move to the West to teach the Dharma. In 1976, Rinpoche was appointed as H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche’s spiritual representative in America.

Traveling to many countries over the past 30 years, Rinpoche has touched the hearts of thousands of people and founded many Buddhist centers. These include Tashi Choling, Orgyen Dorje Den in the San Francisco Bay area, Norbu Ling in Austin, Texas, Namdroling in Bozeman, Montana, and a center in Ensenada, Mexico.

The take home mesage is that this book was not as “practical” as the title suggested but it provided a fun forray into a realm of pratice with which I have had very little experience.  Perhaps not the best book to jump into with no experience since the topics covered seemed to be more applicable to direct teaching rather than in a the form of a do-it-yourself book.  However, with more experience, I am sure the more subtle teachings become apparent. 

However frustrating and challenging the first time round though, I feel that this book is ripe for another go-around in a year or two.  Maybe after I am abit more versed in some of the topics.  So this book is definitely recommended for more those more advanced (or at least better educated non-practitioners) in Vajrayana practice and not some shitty little Zennie like myself.

That said, the style of the work and the amazing commentary sold me on Gyatrul Rinpoche and I am picking up “Naked Awareness: Practical Instructions on the Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen” and “Natural Liberation: Padmasambhava’s Teachings on the Six Bardos” for some future exploration into the wonderfully colorful world of “Shit I Don’t Understand!”



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6 thoughts on “A Spacious Path to Freedom: Practical Instructions on the Union of Mahamudra and Atiyoga

  1. John,

    I think it’s great that you should be looking at different traditions of Buddhism. I’ve learnt a great deal from my [very modest] studies of Ch’an.
    You may be interested in knowing where Mahamudra and Ch’an overlap. If you go to this page:


    and scroll down a little bit, you will see definitions of the three types of Mahamudra transmitted by the Kagyü lineage. There is evidence that this third type of Mahamudra, Essence Mahamudra, which is also known as “the singular sufficient white panacea” ( nooooo, not that), is derived from a Ch’an influence. This is a very controversial subject in Tibet, apparently, and is discussed a little here:


    David Jackson’s book, “Enlightenment by a Single Means: Tibetan Controversies on the Self-Sufficient White Remedy” looks a fascinating read:

    Anyhow, now you know as much about the Ch’an-Mahamudra connection as I do 🙂

    BTW, I’ve got “A Spacious Path to Freedom” on my bookshelf and is next on my list of books to read.


    • Great point there, Chris.

      Chogyam Trungpa touched on this in “Transcending Madness”, although he comes at it from a different angle:

      “I suppose you could say that Zen and Mahamudra are complementary to one another. Without the one, the other one couldn’t exist.”

      “…the Zen tradition seems to be based on the shunyata principle, which is a kind of emptiness and openness, absence of duality. The Mahamudra experience is a way of wiping out the consciousness of the absence: you begin to develop clear perceptions beyond being conscious of the absence.”

      • I’ve just started “A Spacious Path to Freedom” and it is looking very promising indeed.

        Very interesting that Chogyam Trungpa should have explicity pointed out the similarities between Mahamudra and Ch’an. His description seems to map Ch’an onto Rangtong and Mahamudra onto Shentong, wouldn’t you agree?

        As you will have read in the wikipedia article, Klaus Dieter Mathes is still teasing out the evolution of certain aspects of Mahamudra from the “Indian mahāmudrā-Works” (phyag chen rgya gzhung). It may be, therefore, that Mahamudra wasn’t necessarily retro-alimented by Ch’an but that they shared an earlier common source. This is not to deny that Ch’an and Chinese Buddhism had no influence on Tibetan Buddhism, however.

        Klaus Dieter Mathes has been kind enough to respond to an email of mine and has told me that he’s due to publish a book on “Maitripa which contains an English translation of the Dohakoshapanjika and the 25 Amanasikaara-Works”.

        It seems that Moheyan, the famous monk that “lost” the Council of Lhasa debate [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moheyan ], was defending the amanasikaara position (by denying the manasikaara position), at least according to this link [ http://kr.buddhism.org/zen/koan/Shiro_Matsumoto.htm ]. So very curious that this amanasikaara tradition should have originally been Indian anyhow and that elements of it should have been incorporated into Mahamudra practice.

        Another book to read when it comes out!!

        • I read it the same way you did, Chris – that Trungpa is mapping Ch’an to Rangtong view and Mahamudra to Shentong view.

          I thought it was interesting that he wrote on this as well.

          I’ve very much enjoyed those shorter pieces by Mathes and I will anxiously await his book on Maitripa.

  2. “…although you are ostensibly working with the body, you are indirectly subduing and stabilizing your mind.”

    Just as you saw a parallel with Zen with this passage, I also saw a parallel with the Theravada practices of Vipassana and Samadhi in meditation. The cultivation of quiescence correlates to Samadhi, the development of concentration, and the cultivation of insight correlates with Vipassana, or insight. The two go hand-in-hand.

    So at the core of all our practices, regardless of what tradition we follow, is the concurrent development of a concentrated mind by which we gain insight.

    Many years ago, I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead and I thought I had just been on a cross-country trip with Hunter S. Thompson. But I also was just a “kid” then. When I get through reading the Lotus Sutra and a commentary on it by Thich Nhat Hanh, I just may take a look at this tome.

    Thanks for the review!

  3. “Hung Mung slapped his buttocks,
    hopped about, & shook his head,
    saying, ‘I do not know! I do not know!'”
    ~Principia Discordia

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