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The Nine Yanas
7. Yana of mahayoga
Skt. mahāyoga yāna
Tib. རྣལ་འབྱོར་ཆེན་པོའི་ཐེག་པ་
naljor chenpö tekpa
Wyl. rnal 'byor chen po'i theg pa
Read main article for nine yana overview
Three Outer Yanas Leading From the Origin
1. Shravaka yana
2. Pratyekabuddha yana
3. Bodhisattva yana
Three Yanas of Vedic Asceticism
4. Yana of kriya tantra
5. Yana of charya tantra
6. Yana of yoga tantra
Three Yanas of Powerful Transformative Methods
7. Yana of tantra mahayoga
8. Yana of scriptural transmission anuyoga
9. Yana of pith instruction atiyoga

Mahayoga (Skt. mahāyoga; Tib. རྣལ་འབྱོར་ཆེན་པོ་, naljor chenpö, Wyl. rnal 'byor chen po) — the first of the three yanas of powerful transformative methods according to the nine yana classification of the Nyingma school.

Mahayoga focuses mainly on the development stage (Tib. kyérim), and emphasizes the clarity and precision of visualization as skilful means.

Overview Given by Alak Zenkar Rinpoche[1]

The vehicle of mahayoga, or ‘great yoga,’ is so-called because it is superior to ordinary yoga tantra since all phenomena are realized to be a magical display in which appearance and emptiness are indivisible.

Entry Point

Once one’s mind has been matured through receiving the ten outer benefiting empowerments, the five inner enabling empowerments and the three secret profound empowerments[2], one keeps the samayas as they are described in the texts.


By means of extraordinary lines of reasoning, one establishes and then realizes the indivisibility of the [two] higher levels of reality, according to which the cause for the appearance of the essential nature, the seven riches of the absolute, is spontaneously present within the pure awareness that is beyond conceptual elaboration, and all relative phenomena naturally appear as the mandala of deities of the three seats.


When it comes to the path and the practice of meditation, the main emphasis is on the generation stage. In the practice of generation stage yoga, one sets up the practice through the three samadhis, ensures that the three of purifying, perfecting and ripening are complete within the visualization, and, once the visualization is complete, seals it with the instruction on the four nails securing the life-force. In the practice of the completion stage yoga, one activates the vital points of the vajra body, its subtle energies, essences, luminosity and so on.


One maintains elaborate, unelaborate and extremely unelaborate conduct.


In the short term one reaches the four vidyadhara levels, which are the results belonging to the path, and finally one gains the ultimate fruition, and reaches the level of the Vajradhara of unity.[3]


The teachings and practices of the Mahayoga belong either to:

The sadhana class itself is further subdivided into:

Mahayoga can also be divided into three classes:

  • Maha of Maha (Wyl. maha'i maha)
  • Anu of Maha
  • Ati of Maha

Texts of the Mahayoga

  • The tantra class contains eighteen tantras, of which the Guhyagarbha Tantra is the root tantra. (Nyingma Gyübum Dergé ed. vols. 9-14, Tingkyé ed. vols. 14-19)
  • The sadhana class has five main sections, corresponding to the five wisdom deities of the Kagyé, to which three sections corresponding to the three semi-worldly or worldly deities of the Kagyé are added. (Dergé ed. vols. 15-24, Tingkyé ed. vols. 20-33)
  • In addition, for the sadhana class, volumes 31 and 32 of the Tingkyé edition of the Nyingma Gyübum respectively contain the general tantras (Wyl. spyi rgyud) and the particular tantras (Wyl. sgos rgyud) associated with the original Indian terma recension of the Tantra of the Gathering of the Sugatas of the Kagyé (Wyl. sgrub chen bka' brgyad dbe 'dus kyi rgyud), from which the later Tibetan terma cycles of the Kagyé derive.[4]

The Lineage of the Tantra Class of Mahayoga

The lineage of these teachings starts in the Akanishtha heaven with the mind direct transmission of the Primordial Buddha Samantabhadra to the buddhas of the five families and sambhogakaya buddhas and bodhisattvas of their retinue such as the lords of the three families.

The lineage then continued through the sign transmission of the vidyadharas with Avalokiteshvara giving these teachings to the nagas, Manjushri to the gods and Vajrapani to the yakshas. Vajrapani also taught the human Licchavi Vimalakirti (Wyl. li tsa ba dri med grags pa)—one of the Five Excellent Ones of Sublime Nobility—at the summit of Mount Malaya.[5]

A central figure in the transmission of the Mahayoga teachings in our human world was King Dza who found on the roof of his palace the eighteen tantras of Mahayoga and a statue of Vajrapani.[6] After praying to Vajrapani, he was able to understand the chapter known as The Vision of Vajrasattva. He practised for six months, using that chapter and the statue of Vajrapani as the support for his meditation. He then had a vision of Vajrasattva, who blessed him so that he understood perfectly the meaning of all the tantras he received.[7]

Nyak Jñanakumara

King Dza also received the oral transmission of these teachings from the Licchavi Vimalakirti. The lineage was then passed on to the great siddha Kukkuraja, and then via Buddhaguhya to Vimalamitra and Padmasambhava, who taught them to their Tibetan disciples.[8]

Nyak Jñanakumara received the transmission of the Mahayoga teachings from both Vimalamitra and Guru Rinpoche; he collaborated in the translation of tantras of the Web of Magical Illusion and thus played an important role in the early transmission of the mahayoga lineage.

Alongside this long kama lineage is also the short terma lineage of Guru Rinpoche. Mahayoga teachings and sadhanas related to the Guhyagarbha Tantra have, for example, been revealed in the termas of Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa and Khenpo Jikme Phuntsok.[9]

An extensive chronological list of lineage holders of the Mahayoga, from Buddha Samantabhadra to the present day, can be found in Tulku Thondup's works. (see reference below)


  1. A Brief Presentation of the Nine Yanas by Alak Zenkar Rinpoche
  2. When relating to the four empowerments: the benefiting and enabling empowerments correspond to the vase empowerment, and the three secret profound empowerments to the last three of the four empowerments. Source: Ju Mipham Jampal Gyepa'i Dorje, Essence of Clear Light, trans. by Lama Chönam and Sangye Khandro of the Light of Berotsana Translation Group (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2010), pages 211-213.
  3. ‘Unity’ here means the unity of dharmakaya and rupakaya.
  4. Source: Gyurme Dorje, Guhyagarbha Tantra: Introduction, PhD.
  5. Based on a teaching of Khenpo Namdrol, 6 January 2012.
  6. According to Dudjom Rinpoche, King Dza was born 28 years after the parinirvana of the Buddha. According to Patrul Rinpoche, King Dza had his visions 28 years after the parinirvana of the Buddha.
  7. Based on the Kunzang Lamé Shyalung and teachings from Khenpo Namdrol.
  8. Source: Sogyal Rinpoche, Dzogchen & Padmasambhava.
  9. Based on a teaching of Khenpo Namdrol, 6 January 2012.

Further Reading

  • Jamgön Kongtrul, The Treasury of Knowledge, Book Six, Part Four: Systems of Buddhist Tantra, translated by Elio Guarisco and Ingrid McLeod (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2005), Ch. 18 Mahayoga.
  • Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, edited by Harold Talbott (Boston: Shambhala, 1999), pages 23-28.