The ways in which Chod both follows and reconsiders Buddhist traditions of analyzing and valuing the body can be seen clearly in the context of dehadana—the offering of one's own body. Chod dehadana (lus sbyin) assimilates itself to a long Buddhist history of body offering, and it provides innovative perspectives on this practice. As the Buddhist virtuous act par excellence, dehadana has long held a vital place in Buddhist literature. In general, the
act of giving (sbyin; dana) is constitutive of Buddhist communities: non-renunciants (or lay people) traditionally give alms and clothing to renunciants (or monastics), and in turn lay donors receive dharma teachings from religious specialists. Buddhist discussions of dehadana reiterate this social nature of dana by emphasizing that it is an act to be performed for the welfare of others. Dehadana serves others both in a mundane way—the practitioner physically provides another with something she requires—and in a supramundane way—the practitioner performs the act as part of the process of becoming an enlightened being in order to help others also become enlightened.
In early Buddhist texts, dehadana narratives reflect two different (but not mutually exclusive) intentions. The first is the role of dana in the development of merit. In such examples, dehadana is practiced with the aim of a good rebirth for oneself or another. Perhaps the most striking example of dehadana in early Buddhist literature is the Jataka story recounted by Arya Surya, wherein Sakyamuni Buddha, in a previous incarnation, accumulates merit
through the ultimate act of generosity: offering his body to a starving tigress about to eat her cubs. This exemplary dana is echoed in numerous other Buddhist teachings, including the story of Dharmaraksita cutting the flesh of his thigh and offering it to a sick man who needs it for medicine. Analogously, Naropa is asked by his teacher Tilopa to make an offering of a mandala, but he lacks any grain, sand or water to construct one, so he uses his
own flesh, limbs and blood. The twenty-eighth chapter in the mgur ‘bum of Milarepa describes him performing a practice that has overtones of Chod: a visualized body offering with the aim of gaining merit and repaying debt. The category of narratives illustrating dehadana as merit generation includes acts driven by the bodhisattva motivation of great compassion. This category of stories can also encompass actions with sacrificial overtones and elements of bhakti (devotion or worship).
The second important intention in the practice of dehadana is the development of wisdom defined by a teleology of nirvana, or liberation from suffering. Narratives in this category include such actions as renunciation of attachment to self and mental purification. An exemplary canonical instance of this type of motivation occurs in the Astasahasrika Prajhaparamita and the Prajhaparamita-Ratnagunasamcayagatha, when the Bodhisattva Sadaprarudita, with the
aim of attaining the perfection of wisdom and skill in means, dismembers himself so that his body parts can be devoured by a mara. In the Cariyapitaka, the offering of one's limbs is characterized as the perfection of giving (danassa-parami), while the gift of one's whole body or life for the sake of another is characterized as the fulfillment of the perfection of giving (parami-purayim). Santideva describes the usefulness of his kusali's, or beggar's, body as an offering in the Siksasamuccaya, and Dpal sprul Rinpoche returns to this theme in his chapter on Kusali Chod in the Kun bzang bla ma'i zhal lung
(The Words of My Perfect Teacher). The Narayanapariprccha epitomizes the intention involved in all of these examples: “The Bodhisattva must think thus: ‘I have devoted and abandoned my frame to all creatures. . . . Any beings who shall require it for any purpose, it being recognized for a good, I will give hand, foot, eye, flesh, blood, marrow, limbs great and small, and my head itself, to such as ask for them.'” In this type of discourse, the donation of one's body as a paradigmatic offering represents a union of the motivations of merit generation and liberation.
As a paramita, dana exemplifies the ideal of a symbiosis of wisdom and compassion. In paramita paradigms, dana is generally designated the first perfection, and it is distinguished by the fact that it is intended to be of immediate and direct benefit to others. Dana-paramita (sbyin pa'i pha rol tu phyin pa) corresponds with the first stage of the career of the bodhisattva, and as the “perfection of giving,” it is sometimes characterized as the “lowest” of the perfections. When dana-paramita involves the gift of the body, however, it is frequently represented as the paramount perfection. We see such an evaluation in the Nidanakatha, where the Bodhisattva Sumedha makes a resolution before Dipankara to master the ten perfections that lead to the
realization of an enlightened being. Upon accomplishment of these perfections, he recites the following words: “The Perfections are the sacrifice of limbs, the Lesser Perfections are the sacrifice of property, the Unlimited Perfections are the sacrifice of life.” In this articulation, the offering of the body supersedes all of the other perfections.
The topics of dana-paramita and dehadana feature prominently in Santideva’s teachings to Buddhist practitioners on the bodhisattva path. In his Bodhicaryavatara, Santideva advises that, “[a]t the beginning, the Guide prescribes giving vegetables and the like. One does it gradually so that later one can give away even one's own flesh. When insight arises that one's own flesh is like a vegetable, then what difficulty is there in giving away one's flesh and bone?” (1997, 80). In the Siksasamuccaya, Santideva draws from a variety of sources in his discussion of physical sacrifice, suffering and the gift of
the body. Here the gift of the body is also seen to contain all other perfections. This comprehensive potential of dana-paramita is illustrated in Santideva's citation of the Sagaramati Sutra in the Siksasamuccaya In this passage, a bodhisattva mahasattva is challenged by Mara and his entourage. This bodhisattva reflects on his attachment to his body in innumerable previous incarnations, which inspires a revaluation of his body as a vehicle of compassion. This passage also emphasizes the gift of one's body as the consummate perfection. Dehadana is identified with each of the other six paramitas, as the renunciation of one's body is equated with the Perfection of Giving, the offering of the body for the benefit of others with the Perfection of
Conduct, enduring the dismemberment of the body for the sake of others with the Perfection of Patience, maintaining the belief in the law of karma and an ambition to enlightenment with the Perfection of Strength, the maintenance of mental stability during the dissolution of the body with the Perfection of Meditation, and the understanding of the impermanence and emptiness of all compounded things (including one's own body) with the Perfection of Wisdom. Reiko Ohnuma (1998, 2000, 2007) has argued that such Buddhist didactic and narrative texts reveal ambivalent attitudes toward the offering of the body.
According to her interpretations, dehadana is extreme behavior, overvaluing compassion and selflessness at the expense of wisdom and moderation. In Ohnuma's reading, gift of the body narratives reveal a tension between “selflessness” and “assertion-of-self” (the latter considered to anathema to Buddhist doctrine): “[t]he bodhisattva who gives his body away is supposed to be a paragon of ‘selflessness,' yet at the same time, his deed constitutes the ultimate ‘assertion of self.' Underlying this conflict is a more general tension between the Buddhist rhetoric of selflessness and its need to assert an individual and autonomous self capable of effecting its own salvation” (2000, 67). Moreover, Ohnuma argues that such narratives also reveal a conflict
between wisdom and compassion. According to Ohnuma, the radical act of compassion of offering one's body would suggest the disregarding of a more skillful action guided by wisdom, especially if such wisdom includes an understanding of the non-duality—and thus equality—of self and other. In acts of giving one's body, Ohnuma maintains that “[t]he bodhisattva's insistence on favoring others over himself (and thus making a clear distinction between himself and others) may, in some contexts, suggest a lack of the wisdom that realizes the selflessness of all beings, and a lack of the equanimity that treats all beings (including oneself) the same” (2000, 67).
I would argue that there is another way to understand such narratives that would be more in accord with their intention and context. Rather than illustrating “the bodhisattva's insistence on favoring others over [oneself],” these narratives emphasize one's interconnection with others and one's concern for and responsibility to the other, a counterpoint to our habitual mode of self-preservation and self-interest. For example, in the section on “guarding introspection” in Santideva's Bodhicaryavatara, a teaching on maintaining a mind free from pride is followed by a discussion of the appropriate
attitude toward and use of the body. Santideva decries the human habit of vulgar self-protection and ego-clinging and enjoins the analysis of one's own body and its ultimate emptiness as an antidote to this behavior. He advocates that the practitioner come to his own understanding in the following way: “First, with your own intellect, peel off this sheath of skin, and with the knife of wisdom, loosen the flesh from the skeleton. Breaking the bones, look
inside at the marrow and examine for yourself, ‘Where is the essence here?' If searching carefully this way, you do not see an essence here, then say why you are still protecting the body today” (1997, 54). Even while considering its foulness and impermanence, Santideva emphasizes the value of the body as food to sustain other beings and the value of embodiment to facilitate action: “If you will not eat it, as impure as it is, and if you would not drink the blood nor suck out the entrails, then what will you do with the body? However, it is proper to guard it for the sake of feeding the vultures and the jackals. This wretched body of humans is an instrument for action” (1997, 54). This dialectical relationship between the usefulness and uselessness of the
body is echoed in Machik's writings on Chod when she emphasizes that it is the Negative Force of pride that is the fundamental cause of suffering and spiritual malpractice. This pride is located in the body, a metonym for the complete human being in its positive and negative potentiality. It is our own individual pride and ego-clinging that obscure from us the truths not only of our impermanence, but also of our inherent interconnectedness and interdependence with other beings, and hence our responsibility to them. Overcoming pride also entails overcoming ideas of the body's uselessness, as the practitioner's body in Chod is revalued as literal and metaphorical food for others.
In canonical accounts, the gift of the body is exercised within the economy of karma. The merit gained through dehadana is determined by the purity of the intention of the one making the offering, the value of the gift, and the worthiness of the recipient. Therefore, it is traditionally of great importance to select the recipient for the gift of the body. By performing dana-paramita, the giver can eventually reap the benefits of mental purification, a good
rebirth, and even enlightenment. When one offers one's own body in an act of dehadana, one can quickly attain such benefits. However, generally speaking, one must have already accumulated great merit over numerous lifetimes and cycles of rebirth in order to make this offering. Unlike in Chod teachings, in Buddhist literature from the jataka tales to the songs of Milarepa, dehadana as the supreme act of giving is frequently
represented as an exemplary act by a bodhisattva who is accumulating merit and wisdom through the deed. From renunciation in the Pali traditions, to the spirit of enlightenment in the Mahayana traditions, to creation and completion in the Vajrayana traditions, offering the body is the vehicle for spiritual development and attaining enlightenment. As the danaparamita par excellence, the gift of the body is the most costly and precious possession that one can offer. In fact, some teachers have claimed that the offering of the body is simultaneously an offering of Dharma: through the act of dehadana, one is also offering a teaching of impermanence. Rather than viewing the gift of the body as
an exceptional act by an exceptional being, Chod is a system that theoretically provides any Buddhist practitioner with the ritual technology to emulate bodhisattva models of the perfection of giving and to gain immediate benefits. Chod thus aligns itself with traditional Buddhist ideas of dehadana, but adapts this practice to make it available to all.
To provide a sense of the ritual technologies for the practitioner's efficacious offering of the body, I will briefly describe elements of a typical Chod practice. As in other Buddhist Tantric techniques, recommended preliminaries for these practices include developing skill at both calm-abiding (zhi gnas; samatha) and insight meditation (lhag mthong; vipasyana). As in earlier Buddhist teachings, many Chod dehadana practices emphasize renunciation, purification, and self-transformation through the accumulation of merit and the exhaustion of demerit. Rather than suggesting that one must wait to accumulate adequate merit before offering the gift of the body, however, Chod provides the opportunity for immediately efficacious offering of the body through techniques of visualization. Using a technique which echoes the traditional Buddhist teaching of the of the mind-made body (manomayakaya), the practitioner engages in visualizations which allow her to experience the non-duality of agent and object as she offers her body.
The process of giving the body as a means of attainment is commonly articulated in Chod practice texts (sgrubpa; sadhana). These practice texts exhibit the framework of mature Tantra sadhana, including the stages of generating bodhicitta, going for refuge, meditating on the four immeasurables, and making the eight-limbed offering. Generally speaking, the main section of a developed Chod sadhana has three components. The first two—a transference of consciousness (nam mkha’ sgo ‘byed) practice, and a body mandala (lus dkyil) practice—have distinctly purifying purposes. The Chod transference of consciousness practice has parallels with other Buddhist practices called “’pho ba." In this part of the visualization practice, the practitioner's consciousness is “ejected" from one's body through the Brahma aperture at the crown of one's head. At this time, one's consciousness can be visualized as becoming identical with an
enlightened consciousness, which is embodied in a figure such as Machik, Vajrayogini (Rdo rje rnal byor ma) or Vajravarahi (Rdo rje phag mo). In the body mandala practice, the practitioner identifies the microcosm of her body with macrocosms of the mundane and supramundane worlds. In this first stage of this transformation, the practitioner identifies with an enlightened being, thus overcoming attachment to her own body-mind aggregates and purifying them through this non-attachment. In the second stage, the practitioner can extend this identification: the practitioner identifies the microcosm of her body
with macrocosms of the mundane and supramundane worlds. The body mandala (lus dkyil) stage also allows the practitioner to reconceptualize her body as expanding through space and time and becoming indistinguishable from the realm of the supramundane, or the Dharmadhatu (chos kyi dbyings). Through the process of reconstructing her identity, the practitioner is able to see herself as the ultimate source of offerings for all sentient beings. The third part of the core practice of Chod is the offering of the body, which can take many forms depending on the particular practice text. In the fifth text of The Great Explanation collection of teachings attributed to Machik, there is a discourse between Machik and Tonyon Samdrub on the method of giving
the body (Lab sgron 1974, 144-230). The first step is the purification of the body, which involves transforming it into offerings that will please the members of one’s dharma community, including one’s bla ma, yi dam, and dakinis and dharma protectors. Next, the practitioner transforms her body into valuable goods in order to recompense all of the karmic debts she has accrued through innumerable lives. The transformation of one’s body into substances to meet the needs and desires of one’s guests recalls more traditional Indic offering practices (mchod pa; pwja). For example, in such practices within
Mahayana Buddhist traditions, one makes offerings to buddhas and bodhisattvas, sometimes including the enlightened beings in the lineage of teachings one has received. As John Makransky explains, “[b]y following the ritual format, a practitioner generates the purest motivation to give the very best substances to the highest object: the supreme field of karmic merit (punyaksetra, tshogs zhing), the buddhas” (1996, 314). Chod dehadana adapt these
practices by using the practitioner’s own body as the vehicle of generating merit. Machik explains that many people, because of their habits of ego-clinging, are incapable of sufficient acts of dana to mitigate their negative karmic acts. Acting as a surrogate, the Chod practitioner visualizes donating her own body with the intention of liberating others from negative karmic retribution, as well as to repay kindnesses that she herself has received. As Machik states, “I give this body . . . as compensation for the karmic debt incurred from beginningless time to the final moment.” This third component of the offering emphasizes one's act of charity in assisting all sentient beings to become free from suffering and to attain enlightenment. The practitioner generates the following thought: “I give up my body in order that all sentient beings, throughout the three realms, that
are clinging and attached to the self give up their ego-fixations.” This component has several different stages according to the different types of sentient beings that are being addressed. The body takes different forms according to the desires of the recipients, who can be benign, wrathful and/or beatific beings. In Chod practice, this offering of the body provides the vehicle for cutting through attachment to self. Through techniques of visualization, the body is transformed into a sign of abundance: one's own body, given its inherent emptiness, is visualized as multifarious attractive things that fulfill the needs and desires of all sentient beings.
Because of its dramatic representation of cutting through the body to offer it as food, Chod dehadana has frequently been misinterpreted as an exotic and esoteric practice with its roots in indigenous shamanic traditions. Due to the limited access of early ethnographers to Tibetan culture and Chod practice in particular, emphasis has been placed on the elements of Chod that were most visible, accessible and “translatable.” Early researchers were likely drawn to specific practices due to the accoutrement of musical instruments and singing, and they often seemed compelled by the apparently “shamanistic” content
of these practices. Western presentations of Chod have thus tended to represent body offering practices such as the White Offerings (dkar tshogs) and Red Banquets (dmar tshogs) (introduced in the early twentieth century through the work of Alexandra David-Neel and Walter Y. Evans-Wentz with Kazi Samdrup) in a sensational fashion, stressing their macabre elements rather than contextualizing and historicizing them in relation to Buddhist traditions. Contemporary
scholars have continued to insist on the exotic and “shamanistic” character of Chod praxis. However, when we return to the Tibetan sources attributed to Machik (including the texts I have translated and discuss in detail in the last chapter), the Chod practice of offering one's body does not appear as exotic or excessive. While Machik does develop new techniques for liberation from suffering, she also emphasizes the correlations of her praxis with orthodox Buddhist teachings.
Machik's intentions to assimilate her teachings to traditional Buddhist ideas and to develop an innovative praxis are evident in The Distinctive Eightfold Supplementary Section, which is often taken to be one of the teachings that Machik gave to the Indian scholars who came to investigate her teachings. Such attribution suggests that this is one of the earliest texts documenting Machik's system of Chod. Although it does not contain all of the elements that come
to be associated with later Chod sadhana, it usefully illustrates somes of the core elements of the praxis. As in the other foundational discussions of the Chod practice of visualizing the offering of one's body as food for sentient beings, the phrase used for giving away or offering the body in this text is
“phung po gzan du bskyur,”38 that is, to toss away (bskyur) one's aggregates as food (gzan). The relation between the usefulness and uselessness of the body is highlighted here: the body-mind aggregates are to be considered as unnecessary garbage that one needs to abandon, while the description of the visualization also emphasizes the value of the body which is offered.
According to The Distinctive Eightfold Supplementary Section, the practice has three parts: a preliminary meditation on cultivating compassion and loving-kindness; the main practice of giving one's body, which is possessed of the six perfections; and the conclusion of dedicating the merit one has generated through the practice to the unsurpassed spirit of enlightenment. The preliminary meditation requires the practitioner to generate compassion for all sentient beings, paying special attention to beings that have caused harm to (gnod byed) or obstructed (bgegs) the practitioner. During this meditation, the practitioner cultivates the intention to offer her body and visualizes those to whom she will offer her body.
In the main part of the practice, the practitioner visualizes her body as very large; with an envisioned sword of wisdom, she cuts through her neck and makes her body an offering to the harmdoers (gnod byed), satisfying them all according to their particular desires for meat, blood or bones. By visualizing her body as totally consumed, the practitioner's mind will no longer be attached to concerns about the past, present or future. Instead, she can dwell in a
natural state of open awareness: “the mind (sems) does not hanker after the past, does not anticipate the future, and does not notice the present. You rest softly and very loosely. Then, meditatively cultivating compassion you give your body as food; the mind rests in the state of reality (gnas lugs). In that way, visualize the tip of day and the fading away of night cycling (khor ro ro) in turn (re mos).” For the conclusion of the practice, the practitioner recites a variation on the traditional Buddhist statement of going for refuge and dedicating the merit of her actions, repeating three times: “I myself go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha until enlightenment. By the merit of the actions including the giving of myself for the benefit of
beings, may I attain buddhahood.” At this point in the teaching, there is the imperative to the practitioner: “Your activity should be comfortable!” The Chod practitioner must be advanced enough in her practice that the practice of visualizing the distribution of one's body as food should be helpful on the Buddhist path and not a further obstruction or distraction.
In the same text, Machik provides an elaboration of the three parts of the practice. In the preliminary practice, Machik emphasizes that the generation of compassion and loving-kindness by the Chod practitioner will provide an antidote to aggression, thereby “pacifying negative influences, male negative influences (pho gdon), illness, pain and discomfort.” In the main practice, through visualizing the offering of one's body as food, the Chod practitioner
produces an antidote for desire and attachment, thereby “pacifying infection, exhaustion, and female negative influences (mo gdon).” And in the concluding part of the practice, resting in one's natural state becomes an antidote for delusion, whereby “naga negative influences (klu gdon) and illnesses accompanied by depression” are pacified. Machik's elaboration of the practice makes clear that her novel techniques for offering the body are grounded in traditional Buddhist ethics. Machik also associates her body offering praxis with the philosophical tradition of Prajhaparamita by arguing that the giving of one's body as food is a realization of the six paramita or perfections of behavior. Not only does the giving of one's body exemplify the perfection of giving, the act contains within itself the other five perfections: it exemplifies the perfection of moral discipline because one gives the body for the sake of sentient beings; it exemplifies the perfection of forbearance because one gives the body without anger; it exemplifies the perfection of perseverance because one gives the body again and again in visualized practice; it exemplifies the perfection of concentration because one practices the visualization without distraction; and it exemplifies the perfection of wisdom because one rests in the state of reality and emptiness.
In the same text Machik also links her praxis with canonical Buddhist narratives by distinguishing two modes of giving one's body as food through an example that evokes King Sibi's donation of one of his eyes to a blind Brahman as recounted in the Sibi Jataka. In the first mode, the practitioner is encouraged to generate compassion toward sentient beings with eye illnesses by imagining that she is experiencing such an illness herself. Grounded in that compassion, she should generate the intention to give her own eyes in order to remedy the eye illnesses of others. In the second mode, the practitioner is instructed to visualize eighty thousand types of obstructors (bgegs) arising in front of her to whom she gives her eyes; her mind then rests without any
thought. Machik instructs the practitioner to repeat these two modes of practice, substituting other body parts such as her hands: she repeats the process of generation of compassion, intention of offering, visualization of the recipients and the offering, and attainment of the state of resting her mind in non-thought. By practicing these two modes of giving her body as food, the practitioner is able to deepen her psychophysical experience of compassion through affective association of herself with the other who is suffering and through personifying obstructions as worthy recipients of her offerings. This
cultivation of compassion allows her to attain non-attachment and clear awareness of her mind in its natural state. In this early sadhana, some aspects of the practice of giving away the body as food differ from later descriptions of the practice. There is no distinct element of separating the mind and body, usually referred to as “nam mkha’ sgo ‘byed” or “’pho ba” in Chod practices. Perhaps more notably, the recipients of the offering do not include Dud, the “Negative Forces” that become a central characteristic of Chod practices (as I discuss further in the next chapter).
Rather, the recipients in The Distinctive Eightfold Supplementary Section are primarily “harmdoers” (gnod byed), “obstructors” (bgegs), and those that have a need for a distinctive body part, such as one who suffers from an eye illness. In addition, the practice is aimed not at “cutting through the Negative Forces, or Dud,” but at pacifying male, female and naga negative influences (pho gdon, mo gdon and klu gdon).
While this early sadhana teaching does not include all of the elements that later become associated with the Chod practice traced back to Machik, it does illustrate the essential philosophical and ritual aspects of Chod body offering. The text not only echoes Prajhaparamita teachings by explicitly linking the offering of the body to the six perfections, but it also develops the dynamic of grounding one's aspirations for enlightenment in one's embodied experience. This elemental practice contains the pith of Chod praxis—the ritual support for cutting through attachment to the embodied self and
discriminative mental functioning to achieve liberation from suffering. In Chod, the paramita of the gift of the body is highlighted through the visualization of the body as a sign of abundance. This offering is presented in its most ideal and idealized form: one's own body, due to its inherent emptiness, is visualized as transformed into multifarious pleasing things to fulfill the desires of all sentient beings, while simultaneously providing the vehicle for cutting through attachment to self.
Echoing the Siksasamuccaya, the offering of the body in Chod is seen as the essence of Buddhist Dharma. In The Great Explanation collection of Machik's teachings, one of Machik's avatars, referred to as the “Mother” of Chod, states that “the condensed meaning of all Dharma, the root meaning of practice, is the meaning of offering and charity of the body.” As with other examples of dehadana in the Buddhist canon, the offering of the body in Chod exemplifies the renunciation of all attachments and the purification of all mental obscurations. The paramita of the offering of the body is explicitly foregrounded,
which provides the central motif for the ritual technology of Chod. But in Chod, the abstract ideal of dehadana is realized in practice: the practitioner visualizes giving her body in order immediately and actually to attain the merit and wisdom suggested in earlier gift of the body Buddhist narratives. In Chod, as in its Buddhist antecedents, attachment to the body is a metaphor for attachment to a belief in one's self as individual and permanent. Such a belief is also intimately interconnected with one's discrimination of oneself from other sentient beings. The offering of one's own body is a strategic antidote for a self-construct that fosters ego-clinging and results in mental afflictions and habitual behaviors that perpetuate one's suffering. The gift of the body in Chod also benefits the innumerable beings to which one makes the offering. The systematization of Chod thus provides practitioners with
ritual technologies for offering the body in order to help all beings attain enlightenment. By enacting the gift of the body within the context of visualization, the Chod system not only avoids the dangers of excessive acts of sacrifice, but also provides a ritual technology to emulate the bodhisattva example of offering one's body. In order fully to understand the significance of Chod praxis, it is crucial to appreciate that Chod is grounded in the core Mahayana principle of bodhisattva motivation. This bodhisattva motivation arises from
bodhicitta, the desire to attain enlightenment in order to help all other sentient beings themselves to overcome suffering. According to the teachings of Chod, the examples of bodhisattvas who have offered their own bodies are not to be taken as abstract ideals, but rather as concrete models for action. This revaluation can be seen in Machik's explanation of the special quality of the Chod system in The Great Explanation. Rather than gradually transforming oneself over many lifetimes, as in Pali and Mahayana Buddhist practice, the Chod practitioner “is" an enlightened being in the practice. Machik explains that the results of the practice “do not come to fruition at a much later time; rather [[[Chod]]] is an instruction for complete awakening in one life and in
one body." In the Chod body offering practice, merit is not understood as gradually accumulated through various bodies and lives but immediately generated, reflecting the Vajrayana orientation of Chod. As Machik emphasizes, once “the living body that is held so dear" is “cast away without a thought as food for demons, then fixation on the self of this interim body will be severed spontaneously. . . . Abiding within the state of emptiness, unborn cognizant awareness hidden in the basic sphere of the sky is unimpeded and automatically, innately free." Through Chod practice, the practitioner is able to manifest herself in innumerable bodies as an enlightened being through innumerable temporal and spatial realms, bringing relief from samsara to innumerable sentient beings.
All levels of Tibetan Buddhist Chod, whether Sutra or Tantra, whether outer, inner, or secret, whether generation or completion stage, are designed not only to cut through the habitual tendencies and afflictions of the mind, but also to accumulate wisdom and merit. While the Chod system is most remarkable in its singular technique for eradicating self-grasping, the motivation to cut self-grasping is a fundamental—and fundamentally—Buddhist one. This root motivation can be traced through various precedents for the visualization of the offering of one's own body to a gathering of sentient beings. As we have
seen, the combination of bodhisattva motivation and merit generation in the offering of the body is evident in some of the earliest Buddhist texts. Chod teachings often explicitly invoke such precedents. For example, Machik Labdron is recorded as remarking, “previously Buddha Sakyamuni actually gave his head, limbs, appendages and so forth, to whomever desired without hesitation. Are contemporary practitioners not aware of this precedent? Or do they . . . not appreciate the injunctions in the Buddha's speech?” Machik's rhetorical questions acknowledge the Indic antecedents and bodhisattva motivation of
Chod. Rather than transforming the body through the act of giving, as in the Pali and Mahayana models, in Chod the body is transformed in the act of giving. Thus, dehadana within the context of the Chod teachings is an act of self-transformation through the imagined sacrifice of one's body: a revolution of one's self grounded in the usefulness of one's embodiment.
The methodology and praxis of Chod represent a complex theorization of relationships among psychophysical constituents—including embodiment, consciousness and sub-conscious modes of being. Moreover, embodiment in Chod praxis cultivates and is cultivated by the reciprocal relation between an awareness of the impermanence of one's being and the development of wisdom and compassion. In dehadana practices associated with Tibetan Buddhist Chod, we see a dialectical
relationship between the uselessness and usefulness of the body. Chod teachings stress that mortal embodiment is the door to understanding human being. The habitual illusion of a unified self—independent and enduring—is often located in one's identification with a stable body. Yet it is exactly this paradox that generates the potency and efficacy of Chod praxis. As I will elaborate in the next chapter, the heuristic visualization and cutting of the body also involves the “cutting away” and “offering” of the mind to facilitate analytical-experiential awareness and the dismantling of ego-grasping. Further, one
cannot attain liberation from habitual grasping of the unified self by rejecting the body. The Chod practitioner requires a sustained attention to being in the body as a condition of becoming human. In order to cut through one's individual mode of self-grasping, it is important to understand the exact nature of the constructed self that is the subject and object of attachment, including its embodied gender identity and corresponding lived experiences.
While Chod practices are obviously rooted in Buddhist philosophical discourses, the offering of the body in Chod can also speak to Western philosophical conversations. As a complement to considering Chod reinterpretations of the Buddhist praxes of gift of the body from a historical perspective, Chod can also be read in terms of contemporary theoretical ideas about “body,” “gift,” and “sacrifice.” Chod interweaves these three concerns in ways that provoke one to reconsider each of the terms in itself and in relation to one another. In Chod dehadana, the body is the ritual agent of giving and the gift itself; the body is also the material and the site of the ritual. The offered body can be seen as a commodity within a system of economic exchange, but the transmuted body also transcends systems of exchange.
Discussions theorizing “the gift” are usually dated to the 1924 publication of Marcel Mauss' Essai sur le don (The Gift). Mauss' study examines the customs and practices of exchange among what he labels “archaic” societies, referring to communities including the Northwest American Indians, Melanesians and Polynesians. This work was influential in illuminating how gift exchange contributes to social organization and function in these specific cultures, as
well as providing theoretical constructs for the study of other cultures, including our own. Mauss argues that common exchange of everything between clans, households and individuals is the oldest known economic system and provides foundations for law and justice; he argues for the “return to the ever-present bases of law, to its real fundamentals and to the very heart of normal social life,” predicated on the self-aware citizen who is neither too subjective, too insensitive or too realistic (1966, 67). In Mauss' view, the economy of gift giving emphasizes the interdependence of social networks rather than encouraging the alienation of individuals.
In contemporary discussions of gift giving in Asia, we see a variety of interpretations of the economy of the gift. Maria Heim (2004) provides a survey of South Asian sources from roughly the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, including Hindu Dharmasastra anthologies (nibandhas) and Jain and Buddhist compendia (sangaha), emphasizing the social norms and moral duty of giving. Heim argues that the Indic concept of dana differs from Mauss' understanding of don, since the giver of dana does not expect reciprocity or obligation. As Heim notes in her discussion of the work of Thomas Trautmann (1981), although dana might not participate in an economy of mundane reciprocity, the act of offering suggests an expectation of gaining spiritual merit.
A different perspective on the expectation of supramundane reciprocity is argued by Kwangsu Lee, who provides a historical study of the intertwined practices of merit-making and donation within Buddhist communities in India from time of the Buddha. According to Lee, “[b]y c. 600 BC donations appear to have increasingly formed an important part of the new emergent economic order which was marked by remarkable technological growth, surplus production and a widening gap between the producers and the consumers. . . . The widespread notion of earning merit through donation was due mainly to the adoption of the Buddhist faith by Asoka” (1998, 78). In contrast to Heim, Lee emphasizes the role of gift giving in a developing market economy. Both Heim and Lee stress the ways in which the gift functions as a “commodity” in a system of exchange.
In Makransky's study of tantric practices, he also describes an economy in which an offering (puja) is given with the expectation of spiritual exchange: “With the development of tantric forms of Mahayana practice, puja constituted both a material offering ritual and a structured meditative visualization of boundless offerings to Buddhist deities whose presence was invoked and from whom blessings in the form of light and nectar were received. All such elements of Indian Buddhist practice were incorporated into Tibetan Buddhist offering practice and literature” (Makransky 1996, 313-14). Here the “guests” of the practitioner are sacred beings from whom the practitioner could “receive” a reciprocal gift: for example, karmic merit or blessings in the form of light
and nectar. In contrast, through Chod dehadana, one does not receive positive merit, but rather pays karmic debts. In most Chod sadhana, the body is sacrificed not to superior or supranatural beings, but to one's karmic debtors and harmdoers, as well as to one's cohort (parents, friends, teachers). A cultural theory of economy based on usefulness might help us to understand Chod dehadana, which uses the gift to revalue embodiment as a productive condition. On the other hand, the praxis of Chod resists the reification of the self as an object of economic value and exchange. As in the problem of the
usefulness and uselessness of the body, Chod praxis disrupts the existential and social categories of “productive” and “non-productive.” This dialectic between productive and non-productive in Chod gift of the body practice has intriguing parallels with Jacques Derrida's theories of the gift. For Derrida, if the gift is truly to be a gift, it interrupts or suspends economic exchange. It defies, or even denies, reciprocity or return. In order to be a gift, it must simultaneously be contextualized by economics while sublating economics: it must be “aneconomic” (Derrida 1992, 7). For Derrida, the gift qua given
gift is impossible: “If there is gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure” (1992, 7; emphasis in original). Within a Western philosophical context, Derrida writes of giving the gift of infinite love to finite others, engaging the
awareness of one's own finite self as an ethical actor: “the mortal thus deduced is someone whose very responsibility requires that he concern himself not only with an objective Good but with a gift of infinite love, a goodness that is forgetful of itself. There is thus a structural disproportion or dissymmetry between the finite and responsible mortal on the one hand and the goodness of the infinite gift on the other hand” (1995, 51). Derrida has called this gift of infinite love without expectation of reciprocity an “impossible gift.” This impossible gift reveals a rift within the system of market economies: it rejects common exchange valuation and commodification. It exists outside the perimeter of the cycle of economic exchange, sidestepping concerns of debt and obligation, reciprocity and return.
The gift of the body in Chod is another kind of impossible gift: as I explained above, it is only possible through visualization and narration. The body is conceived as an inexhaustible resource, perpetually renewable through one's bond to samsara, even as an enlightened being. The “gift” part of the “gift of the body” in Chod is what Derrida might refer to as a “pure gift,” that is, one that does not demand mundane reciprocity (even when offered in a group setting). It
does not even demand supramundane reciprocity; rather, it is a transformative inner act of self-making that imbues the self with a deeper moral sense and a more profound understanding of one's embodiment. Dana-paramita also might be considered a practice of pure gift giving in the context of moral training. The offering is a transformative gift within an economy dictated by the law of karma (including the possibility for transformation through the “payment” of “karmic debts” to others) and the corresponding capacity for yogic purification. On the other hand, Chod dehadana subverts the system of exchange that is constitutive of more conventional economies. This transformation of the gift of the body, in keeping with the bodhisattva vow and the project to become a bodhisattva or a buddha oneself, occurs through remembering and practicing one's responsibility to others—that is, in practicing compassion and loving-kindness.
In Chod, the internalized act of offering the body as a gift can also be seen as a sacrifice. Following the work of Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss (1964), the agent in such an offering can be simultaneously identified with and distinguished from the victim. Hubert and Mauss' study of sacrifice is grounded in their interpretation of the Vedic soma sacrifice as a transformative act that desacralizes and resacralizes the subject (the one who realizes the benefits), the object/victim (without which/whom there could be no transformative effect), as well as the object/recipient of the offering (such as a deity who is sustained through the offering). However, it might also be considered that a transformative act is impossible in this context. The success of the Vedic sacrifice was determined by the success of sustaining the divine and maintaining order in the cosmos, so rather than transforming the subject and community, this type of sacrifice serves to perpetuate the status quo.
In contrast, Chod sacrifice is closely akin to “Dharma-sacrifice,” as expressed in the Vimalakirtinirdesa. Vimalakirti's teaching explicitly contrasts “Dharma-sacrifice” to other types of sacrifice and offerings, including Vedic sacrifices. Each of the elements of a Dharma¬sacrifice reflects a key Buddhist principle: great compassion and loving-kindness; the perfection of generosity (dana-paramita) and the other five perfections; and meditation on the three signs of emptiness, signlessness and wishlessness. According to this discourse, not only is the bodhisattva exemplary because of “his extreme
sacrifice," he is “worthy of offerings from all people, including the gods" (Thurman 1998, 40). This suggests that the Dharma sacrifice is situated within an economy of exchange, with the offerings of the bodhisattva being “worthy" of reciprocity. However, the text subsequently describes an offering made by Vimalakirti: upon relunctantly accepting a string of pearls offered to him by a householder, Vimalakirti distributes half of the pearls to the poor of the city and offers the other half to the Tathagata Dusprasaha, who emanates another universe which is manifest to the audience. Vimalakirti then makes a
speech which resonates with the observations of Derrida: “‘The giver who makes gifts to the lowliest poor of the city, considering them as worthy of offering as the Tathagata himself, the giver who gives without any discrimination, impartially, with no expectation of reward, and with great love—this giver, I say, totally fulfills the Dharma-sacrifice'" (1998, 41). As in Chod dehadana, a totally fulfilled Dharma-sacrifice is one that is “pure," without an expectation of reciprocity from its recipient.
Based on the The Great Explanation, some generalizations may be drawn regarding the strategies through which Chod refigures the gift of offering the body in three productive ways. First, as the sacrifice of the body is an internalized act in Chod, practitioners are able to avoid immoderate behavior while cultivating wisdom and compassion. Second, unlike traditional representations of dehadana wherein the gift of the body is performed by a highly-realized bodhisattva, in the Chod system the offering can be made by any practitioner since it is made through a contemplative visualization. Maximum merit for this
gift is determined not by the quality of the recipients, but by their virtual quantity and diversity. Chod praxis thus transvalues the attainments of the giver and the suitability of the recipient through the visualized offering of the body. Through identification with an enlightened being, the practitioner attains the capacity of a bodhisattva whose every act is characterized by great compassion, means and wisdom. As the practitioner’s body is transformed
into an abundance that completely fulfills the needs and desires of all sentient beings, all karmic debts are repaid, technically freeing the practitioner from the cyclic existence of samsara. Explicitly invoking earlier dehadana narratives, Chod provides techniques through which practitioners can alleviate the suffering of others in order that they may no longer find it necessary to commit actions that result in karmic demerit. Chod also allows the practitioner to make a sacrifice, in Vimalakirti’s terms, without any discrimination, impartiality, or expectation of reward.
Finally, rather than producing a sharp distinction between donors and religious experts, Chod rituals involve both lay and monastic Buddhists. In the context of Chod, dana is primarily conceived of as a transformation of the practitioner (lay or ordained), rather than a gift from non- renunciant to renunciants. The act of renunciation is thus also transvalued in Chod. Rather than being manifested through the tradition of renunciants dependent on gifts
from the lay community, renunciation in Chod occurs through the act of renouncing one’s own body. The success of the offering is also functionally independent of the response of a worthy recipient, so important in earlier discussions of dana. In this act of renunciation through offering of the body, giver and gift are explicitly identified. Since both the giver and the gift are consumed by the recipient, the offering of the body incorporates and is
incorporated by the other. This process thus encapsulates the attainment of non-attachment and the transcendence of self-other dualities. The transformation of the practitioner's self-identity through visualization thereby instills a sense of responsibility to others. Drawing on canonical representations of dehadana, Chod reconfigures and revalues such practices, and thereby makes offerings of the body accessible to all practitioners and expressive of an array of Buddhist teachings.