From Chod to Feeding Your Demons - A Western Approach to Tibetan Tantra
Religious Studies 4990
December 14th, 2018
Feeding Your Demons, a Western adaptation of the Tibetan tantric ritual known as Chod, has altered the rituals, institutional restrictions, and pedagogical method employed in the traditional Chod teachings of Machik Lapdrön. These alterations are expressed primarily in Feeding Your Demons—FYD’s only descriptive and liturgical guide—written by Lama Tsultrim Allione, the practice’s founder. When compared structurally to Machik’s Complete Explanation, a text considered “one of the most comprehensive written texts extant within the Chöd tradition,” it is evident that FYD has changed the soteriological dimension of Chod.
This alteration, and especially the changes in pedagogy, are accentuated in FYD’s function within Tara Mandala, Allione’s retreat center. Transformations of the soteriological dimension indicate that Allione has altered the traditional teaching and practice, and thereby innovated a pragmatic Western version of Chod with a telos more concerned with psychological and physiological well-being than buddhahood. Nevertheless, Allione manages to transmit traditional Buddhist teachings through teachings at Tara Mandala and practices described in Feeding Your Demons.
The Origins of Chod and an Introduction to Machik Lapdrön
The traditional practice of Chod is typically traced to the eleventh-century Indian Buddhist master, Pa Dampa Sangye. According to tradition, Sangye transmitted the “Pacification of Suffering” practice lineage to Tibet. Chod is considered a component of that system, and thus, is typically considered to have also been transmitted to Tibet by Sangye at this time.
The practice of Chod was then codified and disseminated in Tibet by Machik Lapdrön and sKyo bSod-nams bLa-ma, two of his Tibetan students. The details regarding Sangye’s relationship with Machik, who is widely considered the primary codifier and transmitter of Chod, vary. Some sources regard Machik as a tantric consort of Sangye, while others describe her as Sangye’s student but do not mention consortship. Despite this uncertainty, Sangye is broadly considered the founder of Chod in Tibet, with Machik as its primary disseminator.
Recently, scholars have argued that Machik developed Chod independent of Sangye. According to Machik’s traditional hagiography, Machik began to study and understand the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras at a young age. While studying the sections on māra, “a special realization arose within her. … and the knot of self realization was released.” This experience is said to have formed the basis for her Chod teachings. In conjunction with the notion that she developed this insight independent of Sangye, scholars have questioned the historical legitimacy of Machik’s supposed association with Sangye and Chod’s origination in India.
This is not to suggest that Chod developed autonomous of cultural influences, for most scholars recognize that Chod was influenced by indigenous traditions linked to Tibetan shamanism. Kollmar-Paulenz, however, has noted scant historical evidence for Machik’s association with Sangye and Chod’s association with India. This has led her to conclude that Machik’s relationship with Sangye was projected on her to legitimize Chod as being of Indic origin and proceeding from a male. Whether Machik founded Chod or not, her role as the primary disseminator, codifier, and symbolic representation of the source of Chod’s contemporary and ancient use merits further analysis of her method and the manner in which FYD has drifted from its traditional roots.
Machik’s Chod: Initiation and Guru Yoga
Machik’s Chod practice is a seven-step meditation method aimed at enacting the bodhisattva vow, “severing” the root causes of human suffering, and realizing the true nature of the mind. The culmination of this telos occurs in the fourth and sixth steps when the practitioner metaphorically severs her body. To assist the practitioner in carrying out this telos, Machik provides preliminary rituals that ensure the practitioner is prepared to carry out this offering and requires permission from a certified guru. In addition, Machik provides a rubric by which the practitioner can monitor her progress, conceptualized as the four māras: four attachments that must be overcome to “sever” the root causes of human suffering.
As a form of Tibetan tantra and Guru Yoga, ritual initiation into Machik’s practice required extensive training in her teaching lineage and explicit permission from Machik, who occupied the role of guru. In her writings, Machik commented that Chod requires “one who has comprehended my dharma system and wants to pursue freedom through this Mahayana mind,” representing both an intellectual and moral requirement. The abstract nature of the various meditative visualizations necessitates an experienced teacher’s instruction, in order to ensure the student comprehends the symbolic nature of the apparently violent ritual of cutting one’s body.
The necessity of prior training and Chod’s position as a form of Guru Yoga is further suggested in Machik’s Complete Explanation. According to the text, Machik’s son, Tonyon, received a vision in which an emanation of Machik ordered that he go to Machik—who was on retreat—to discover the “root meaning” of Machik’s practice lineage. Upon arrival, he sees Machik as an embodiment of Vārahī. Throughout the narrative, Machik’s transcendent status is described in a variety of forms, all of which demonstrate that Tonyon recognizes Machik’s position as a Buddha, a necessary perception for the practice of Guru Yoga. Thus, from its inception, Chod functioned as an esoteric practice, available exclusively for experienced tantric practitioners.
The Four māras as a Gauge for Progress and Method for Attaining Buddhahood
The practitioner's long-term involvement in the path is not only an institutionalized aspect of Tibetan tantra but is also necessary for attaining buddhahood. As stated above, one role of Machik’s method is to instruct the practitioner in the true nature of the mind. The aim of this instruction is to help the practitioner sever the root causes of human suffering, conceptualized as the four māras.
Each māra represents an obstruction to enlightenment that is progressively severed as one attains bodhisattva levels, which begins with the realization of no-self and ends with the attainment of all the qualities embodied by a Buddha. These realizations and paths through which the practitioner must advance, are not fledgling accomplishments, but fruits of persistent and long-term practice. Since the māras represent stages of development and transformation, although not necessarily in a sequential order, we shall describe each.
The first māra to be severed is the material demon, defined as attachment to an object's appearance and quality. This attachment is problematic because the appearance and attributes of perceived objects are inherently empty and thereby illusory. Clinging to them increases one’s ignorance with regard to the true nature of reality and drives saṃsāra. According to Machik, the realization of the inherent emptiness of an object’s appearance and quality, resulting in one’s ability to sever the material demon, can only take place when one has attained at least the first bodhisattva level. This level is referred to as “Perfect Joy” and cannot be attained until one is on the third of the five paths—the “Path of Seeing.” Reaching this level, however, is considered to take “incalculable eons.” Therefore, the process of severing just the first māra is a result of eons of striving on the bodhisattva path.
The second māra, the immaterial demon, refers to the human tendency to cling to thoughts that arise within the mind. This clinging is linked with the deluded habit of labeling and judging one’s thoughts, which produces either positive or negative emotional reactions. Machik bifurcates these reactions as gods: thoughts that produce pleasure, or demons: thoughts that produce pain. According to Machik, the dualistic labeling of one’s thoughts is harmful because it creates the idea that one’s mind can be either good or bad depending on its current state. In actuality, however, it is an empty space in which any thought can naturally arise.
Thus, the immaterial demon clouds one’s ability to realize the true nature of the mind and must be severed. According to Machik, this demon can be severed on the path of application, which is the lesser stage of the first path—the path of accumulation. Unlike the other māras, severance of the immaterial demon does not result in the attainment of bodhisattva levels. Rather, it marks one’s commitment to enter the path towards buddhahood. The realization of this commitment, engaging in aspirations to eventually cultivate the necessary qualities to attain buddhahood on the fifth path, further demonstrates the long-term commitment of Chod practitioners.
The third māra, the demon of exaltation, is not severed but is used as an instrument to sever the fourth māra, the demon of inflation. Machik describes the demon of exaltation as a “mental attachment in which one delights and exalts,” referring to the pleasure that arises as one progresses on the path. This attachment is contingent on one’s ability to cognize his progress, referred to as reflexive awareness. Reflexive awareness, however, is also necessary for developing buddhanature, and therefore, cannot be severed. As the practitioner cognizes his progress, self-inflating emotions arise which block the development of the necessary qualities for attaining the final nine bodhisattva levels. As the practitioner learns to use his cognizant ability to apply Machik’s teachings, however, he can sever the demon of inflation. This demon, described as ego-fixation, is considered the root of all impediments to enlightenment. Once severed, the practitioner attains the fifth and final path, where he attains all Buddha qualities.
Machik’s description of the sequential extirpation of the four māras as the soteriological aim of Chod further solidifies Chod’s nature as a practice for experienced tantric practitioners and highlights its function as a gauge for personal progress. According to Machik, progress along the path is categorized as least, middle, and excellent success. These categories describe the various types of reactions that a practitioner should have as a result of frightening situations and disturbing emotions. Although all Chod practitioners will ideally fall somewhere along this spectrum, it is evident from Machik’s description of the prerequisites for demon severance, that Chod is exclusive to and only beneficial for experienced tantric practitioners.
The Esoteric Nature of Machik’s Chod, its Role as a Method for Attaining Buddhahood, and Function as a Gauge for Progress
The institutionalized esotericism of Chod, its function as a gauge for progress along the path, and the telos of buddhahood, is reflected in the seven steps of Machik’s Chod. The first, preparatory vows regarding one’s commitment to the bodhisattva path, ensure the practitioner is prepared to figuratively sever ego-fixation, symbolized as the severing of her own body. Machik instructs the practitioner to first choose a “haunted place,” which most likely refers to a charnel ground. In this demon infested environment, the practitioner can effectively invite demons to the ritual and test her progress along the path to buddhahood.
Machik then introduces the “eight objects of the resolve”: “antagonizing enemies, harmful obstructors, disruptive conditions, karmic bad spirits, body bad spirits, bad spirits of the haunted places, your primary father, your primary mother,” for which the practitioner must dedicate her practice. This refers to the practice of arousing bodhicitta, here conceptualized as vowing to attain enlightenment for the benefit of the eight objects of the resolve. Thus, from the ritual’s inception, Machik is preparing the practitioner to sever ego-fixation, driven by compassion for the eight objects of the resolve, while providing a framework in which the practitioner can gauge her progress on the path.
As the resolve to attain enlightenment for sentient beings dominates the practitioner’s mental faculties, he affirms the bodhisattva vow by taking refuge individually and collectively for the benefit of the eight objects of the resolve. According to Machik, taking refuge—which traditionally marks one’s identity as “Buddhist”—affirms that the practitioner “can definitely gain refuge from the suffering of cyclic existence.” Since this is a collective action—meaning, it is done in conjunction with the eight objects—it affirms that one’s telos is refuge from cyclic existence not just for oneself, but also for the eight objects.
Taking refuge also must be done in the presence of one’s guru, who officiates in giving the vows. The act of taking refuge, therefore, affirms again the aim of buddhahood as a means of realizing the bodhisattva vow. Machik’s second step instructs the practitioner in the nature of the mind through a visualization of the Three Jewels and the Four Immeasurables, both of which are normative non-Tantric elements of Buddhist discourse. Visualization of the Three Jewels: the Buddha, dharma, and sangha has five parts: the Outer, Inner, Secret, Suchness, and Intimate Jewels. Each represents a visualization or instruction in the nature of the various Jewels, helping the practitioner conceptualize the forces that will propel her along the bodhisattva path.
Although certain aspects of taking refuge reflect the traditional method—affirming one’s acceptance of the doctrines and the salvific teachings of the Buddha, the sangha and the dharma—some aspects reflect the telos of Chod and tantric Buddhism. The Outer Three Jewels follow the general model of traditional refuge, but represent the sangha as Machik Lapdrön in the form of a dākinī and the teachings of the Buddha as exclusively Mahāmudrā Chod. These changes are of little import, they simply contextualize the traditional meaning of the dharma and sangha in terms of Chod, raising Machik to the level of a Buddha.
The Inner and Secret Jewels, however, denote tantric ideals that are conducive towards the telos of Chod. The Buddha of the Inner Jewel represents an instruction to meditate on one’s own mind as a deity, characteristic of the tantric notion that one can expedite the process of buddhahood through visualizations. The sangha of the Inner Jewel instructs the practitioner to identify as a shramana: “an incarnate spiritual practitioner,” further institutionalizing Chod within classical Buddhist discourse. The Buddha of the Secret Jewel affirms the tantric nature of the practice, insofar as attributes generally considered obstacles to attaining buddhahood can be used—rather than suppressed—on one’s journey towards nirvana by insisting that “the five poisons and all afflictive emotions” can translate into wisdom. Thus, the Inner and Secret Jewels reaffirm Chod’s function as preparation for buddhahood.
The Suchness and Intimate Jewels further provide insights into the nature of the mind. Also, they ground Chod’s nature as a form of Guru Yoga. The dharma and sangha of the Suchness Jewel represent the inherent nature of the mind as empty. In addition, they symbolize the ability of wise practitioners to distinguish the true nature of reality to guide others to buddhahood. The Buddha and dharma Jewel instruct the practitioner to consider his guru as a Buddha and the guru’s words as the dharma, an element of Guru Yoga considered to help the practitioner emulate his guru’s Buddha qualities. The affirmation of the practitioner's role in guiding sentient beings to buddhahood, along with the doctrine that one’s guru is considered a Buddha, also demonstrate the telos of buddhahood and Chod’s nature as a form of Guru Yoga.
The final significant aspect of Machik’s second step is generating the Four Immeasurables—love, compassion, joy, and equanimity—which reaffirms the necessity of outward compassion for effective Chod practice. In addition, it instructs the practitioner in the doctrine of emptiness. The first three immeasurables, which cause the practitioner to consider the reasons why she must attain buddhahood on behalf of the eight objects of the resolve, aid in giving rise to bodhicitta. The fourth immeasurable trains the practitioner in the empty nature of both herself and the eight objects of the resolve. The realization of this empty nature conflates the eight objects of the resolve and the practitioner into one.
This realization, in turn, jettisons the practitioner's responsibility to receive enlightenment for herself and all sentient beings—since neither inherently exist—replacing this desire with “the great conceptlessness that is without any clinging.” Thus, the final instruction of Machik’s second step reaffirms Chod’s focus on compassion towards sentient beings while instructing the practitioner in the empty nature of reality as preparation for ego severance and attainment of buddhahood.
Machik’s third step instructs the practitioner in the nature of the mind. This teaching is conceptualized as paying homage and making an offering to the Eight Branches. This offering is made for the cessation of suffering on behalf of all sentient beings. The Eight Branches: lamas, yidam deities, buddhas, the sacred dharma, the sangha, and the dharma protectors, are sacred tantric beings, considered to be endowed with the ability to assist the practitioner on the bodhisattva path.
The offering, an offering of, form, sounds, thoughts, happiness, and suffering, is done with the intent of drying up “the ocean of cyclic suffering” of all sentient beings. Both the offerings to the Eight Branches and all sentient beings, however, are considered “nonreferential.” This means, they are not ultimately real. In other words, there is really no “offerer” and no “offering” because neither have an inherent existence. Thus, the purpose of these offerings is realizing the empty nature of samsaric phenomena. This reaffirms the aim of buddhahood, which is said to be brought about, in part, by realizing the doctrine of emptiness.
In the fourth step, the practitioner visualizes the concept of emptiness by separating the body and mind in preparation for metaphorical body severance in a ritual called powa. Experienced tantric practitioners can separate the body from the mind conceptually, a method which Machik labels “without a support.” The method for less developed tantric practitioners, “with a support,” consists of visualizing one’s consciousness as an egg and then mentally transferring it away from the body. These two powa methods function as a practical indicator of progress. This step also demonstrates the essential role that the realization of emptiness plays in Chod. For the separation of consciousness, which allows the practitioner to sever ego-fixation, is dependent on visualizing emptiness.
The final part of the fourth step and the entire sixth step is the culmination of all prior rituals and visualizations: the severing of one’s body. As the mind and body of the practitioner have been separated through powa, the practitioner visualizes himself as a blue dākinī, holding a curved knife and trident. The practitioner then proceeds to sever his body, visualizing it as an offering to “the lama, Three Jewels, yidam deities, heroes, dākinīs, and dharma protectors.” In the sixth step, similar rituals are repeated and divided into five steps. In the first, the severed body becomes an elixir, falls into a skull cup, and is offered to sacred tantric figures, including one’s own guru.
In the second, the practitioner visualizes his body as samsaric enjoyments, devoured by all beings that hold karmic debts: personal mistreatments that have not yet been repaid in the karmic cycle. In the third, the body melts into an elixir that is offered to all sentient beings, liberating them from their sufferings. In the fourth, the practitioner visualizes his body as an offering for shidaks and nāgas, each of which are subdued and offer to assist the practitioner along the path by diverting obstructions to enlightenment. In the fifth, the practitioner transforms into a Buddha called Black Tröma, a transition that enables the practitioner to gather the god-demons, again severs the body, and offers it to all god-demons.
The various visualizations of cutting the body, as explained by Machik in steps four and six, represent the telos of Chod: enactment of the bodhisattva vow, severance of ego-fixation, and realization of emptiness as a means of attaining buddhahood. The practitioner effectuates the bodhisattva vow by offering her body to the gods, demons, and sacred tantric beings and by pursuing enlightenment on their behalf. The severance of one’s body symbolizes an offering of one’s most prized possession, the sacrifice of which, embodies the essence of Mahayana bodhicitta. The visualization of this sacrifice aims to eradicate ego-fixation: the notion that one contains a permanent self. The realization that one is without self dissolves the natural dichotomy of self and other, ushering in the realization that all phenomena are inherently empty. With this realization, the practitioner attains buddhahood, fulfilling her initial vow.
Feeding Your Demons: A Liturgical Explanation and Comparison with Machik’s Chod through an Interview with an Authorized FYD Teacher and a Close Textual Analysis Feeding Your Demons, Allione’s published guide to her adaptation of Chod, considers Machik’s teachings the original source of Chod and claims that FYD is somewhat based on Machik’s method. FYD, however, reflects a different soteriological aim, resulting in an alteration of rituals, institutional restrictions, and pedagogical method. Although Allione upholds a number of tantric ideals, expressed in non-Buddhist terms sensitive to Western culture, their telos, as conveyed by Machik, is absent.
The introductory phase of FYD mirrors the bodhisattva vow, however, Allione replaces the Buddhist terminology and excludes the tantric prerequisites. Allione invites the practitioner to examine his motive and make an altruistic intention. She suggests that it be done “for the benefit of all sentient beings” and claims that one’s engagement with FYD can benefit others. To an extent, this invitation is a veneer of the bodhisattva vow for a practice that requires no “knowledge of Buddhism or of any Tibetan spiritual practices.” However, the removal of required initiatory rites and prior tantric experiences necessitates an alteration in Chod’s telos, a shift from buddhahood to relief from one’s psychological and physiological challenges.
The practice of arousing bodhicitta, conceptualized as vowing to attain enlightenment for the benefit of others, cannot be carried out without engagement with other beings. In Machik’s method, bodhicitta is aroused through interactions with and offerings to sentient beings. Allione emphasizes the need to establish an altruistic intention in order to benefit others, but her practice does not involve engagement with others. Lopön Chandra Easton—the Assistant Spiritual Director and Lead Authorized Teacher at Allione’s retreat center, Tara Mandala—explains the realization of this intention as the “know the one, know the many” approach; that by understanding oneself, engagement with others improves. The inclusion of this intention, according to Easton, is indeed a classic Buddhist notion, but altered to help both Buddhists and non-Buddhists reduce egocentrism rather than attain buddhahood.
FYD operates within a five-step framework, the first two steps of which are “Find the Demon” and “Personify the Demon and Ask What it Needs.” Through these steps, the practitioner identifies and locates the phenomena blocking her inner freedom. Similar to Machik, Allione classifies these obstructions as gods and demons; demons being “anything that blocks complete inner freedom” and gods being obsessive longings. For Allione, both gods and demons represent personal challenges that impede personal well-being, such as illness, addiction, and mental illness.
She also categorizes the potential obstructions as outer, inner, elation, and egocentric demons, mirroring the four fold categorization described by Machik. Allione’s description of gods, demons, and their various manifestations, however, are aimed at assisting the practitioner overcome and identify her personal ailments. Machik’s description of gods, demons, and the four māras functions to exemplify the “I” vs “other” binary that one must sever and to help the practitioner track her progress. In addition, these categories help the practitioner visualize the connection between demon severance and the cultivation of Buddha qualities.
In the “Find the Demon” step, the practitioner chooses the ailment he will address, locates where its presence is felt in his body, and observes the sensations that arise in conjunction with this psychological or physiological challenge. At the culmination of this process, the practitioner should be able to identify a number of the demon’s characteristics, such as its color, texture, temperature, and smell. In the “Personify the Demon and Ask What it Needs” step, the practitioner visualizes the demon in quasi human form to establish an interpersonal connection with her ailment. This is followed by the questions: “What do you want from me? What do you need from me? How will you feel if you get what you need?” which are aimed to uncover how the practitioner can overcome his demon.
The third and fourth steps, “Become the Demon” and “Feed the Demon and Meet the Ally,” are aimed at resolving the problem causing the practitioner's suffering. In the third step, the practitioner positions herself in a chair that was previously set up for the demon, imagines that she is the demon, and answers the previously posed questions. In the fourth, the practitioner separates her “awareness from the body”—similar to powa but without the meditation on emptiness—and observes her body dissolve into a nectar. This nectar embodies the answer to the question “What do you need from me?” and upon consumption of the nectar, the demon either dissolves or transforms into an ally. An identical process of asking questions and an imaginatory embodying of the ally then begins, with the practitioner asking the questions: “How will you help me? How will you protect me? What pledge or commitment do you make to me? How can I gain access to you?” After asking and answering the questions, the ally dissolves into the practitioner, transferring the energy the demon held back to the practitioner.
The salient feature of FYD, as described in these steps, is the process of feeding one’s demon to address the root cause of one’s suffering. Allione argues that typical Western approaches for suffering remediation only address the superficial conflict by attempting to eradicate negative symptoms. However, Allione argues that identifying an illness’ underlying need and feeding it can release the energy the disease is harboring and cause it to diminish.
Allione demonstrates the common Western attitude towards demon extermination by recounting the story of Hercules. According to Western mythology, Hercules battled a multi-headed demon known as Hydra. Hercules attempted to kill Hydra by chopping off its heads, but each time he severed one, two grew back. Finally, Hercules burnt the heads of Hydra into stubs, leaving one immortal head. Hercules then severed the mortal neck connected to the head and buried it in the ground. According to Allione, this story demonstrates the “monster-slaying heroic mentality that so enthralls and permeates Western literature and society.” Rather than address the demon, Hercules merely suppressed it, leaving it buried away to later resurface.
Allione demonstrates her approach to conflict resolution through a narrative about a FYD practitioner named Zoe, who was addicted to drugs. She tried to fight her addictions through rehab but relapsed. Through feeding her demon, Zoe realized that drugs filled a self-confidence void that stemmed from a rough childhood. When she did FYD to address this demon, the demon told her that it needed peace, so she fed it peace in the form of nectar. According to Allione, this narrative shows that rather than eradicating one’s addiction through medicine or fighting one’s urges, the addict should address the underlying need driving his addictions.
It is important to note, however, that Easton considers FYD as a way to access the subconscious by observing mental imagery, as opposed to an intentional conjuring of visualizations as taught by Machik. For example, in Machik’s method the guru instructs the practitioner and gives intricate details with regard to the proper visualizations that will assist her on the bodhisattva path. In FYD, however, the practitioner is instructed to observe whatever arises from his subconscious. This difference highlights the telos of FYD, personal healing, as opposed to Buddhist realization. The visualizations are a way to expedite the process of attaining buddhahood and to effectuate the bodhisattva vow. The interactions with mental arisings have no exclusively Buddhist goal but are aimed at psychological and physiological well-being.
The innovation of “the ally” also demonstrates a significant drift away from traditional Chod. Its role as a source of healing, a transfer of energy that the demon has held from the practitioner in the form of an internal or external ailment, is not imitated in the traditional practice. Easton, however, does not consider the ally a new innovation. She connects the ally with a story described in Feeding Your Demons, where Machik subdues an army of nagas by offering them her body, who in turn become dharma protectors. She does recognize, however, that apart from this story the traditional method does not include an ally or the conversion of demons to personal supporters. Although the practitioner does pay homage to the Eight Branches in supplication for their support, the support is for Buddhist realization rather than personal healing. The ally, therefore, has no direct correlation with Machik’s method.
These differences beg the question of whether FYD should be considered Buddhist. Allione, in Feeding Your Demons, states that FYD “doesn’t require any knowledge of Buddhism or of any Tibetan spiritual practices.” She also says “I will not be attempting to teach Chod in its original form.” However, the notion that Allione—an officially recognized emanation of Machik who has received encouragement from the Dalai Lama to teach FYD—would teach, along with certified Lopöns, this practice with no intention of spreading the dharma, is questionable. Indeed, there are explicit Buddhist elements in Feeding Your Demons and in FYD certification trainings. The presence of these elements suggests that, although FYD does not uphold traditional Buddhist soteriology, it almost surreptitiously transmits Buddhist principles.
The doctrine of emptiness, that within samsaric phenomena there is no entity which can be defined as permanently existing, is clearly taught FYD. According to Allione, there are two principle benefits of FYD: improved well-being and resting in awareness as taught in the fifth step. In this step, called “Rest in Awareness,” the practitioner visualizes himself dissolving into emptiness, conceptualized as resting in the gap between one’s thoughts. According to Allione, this is the part of FYD that “takes us beyond the place where normal psychotherapy ends.” The purpose is to rid oneself of the natural dualistic perception of the world as “self” and “other” and attain one’s “true nature.” Allione does not explain this concept in Buddhist terms, nor does she expound on the phrase “true nature.” Nonetheless, she does emphasize this step as the “most important moment,” an emphasis that seems suspect for non-Buddhist practitioners.
Although the majority of narratives recounted in Feeding Your Demons stress therapeutic healing, one story in particular speaks of Buddhist realization. Allione recounts the story of Fred who came to her seeking help after being diagnosed with AIDS. By feeding the AIDS demon, Fred’s health steadily improved and he was able to reduce the associated fear and stress that previously dominated his life. However, by feeding his demon he also began to realize “the emptiness of this body” and was able to rest in the space of “no me, no demon.” The notion that there is “no demon” is not unique, any therapist could teach that one’s challenges are mind made and have no inherent essence. However, the idea that one is completely without a self and that one should not be attached to his body is a Buddhist notion associated with the doctrine of emptiness. The fact that this realization came from FYD reflects the transmittal of Buddhist concepts despite the absence of direct references to traditional Buddhist soteriology.
In addition to teachings on emptiness and stories of Buddhist realization recounted in Feeding Your Demons, Easton suggested that FYD could help one attain enlightenment. On first considering the question, Easton stated that FYD and traditional Buddhist are like “apples and oranges,” for FYD is “therapeutic practice” and Chod is a meditation practice, differentiating between their respective aims: personal healing and tantric visualizations aimed at Buddhist realization. She then suggested, however, that FYD could purify kleshas. In purifying kleshas, one could remove her ignorance with regard to the nature of reality, resulting in liberation.
The pedagogical approaches used when training non-Buddhist therapists to be authorized FYD instructors also reflect a conscious transmittal of Buddhism. According to Easton, the training program designed for those who want to become authorized teachers, whether as professional therapists or dharma teachers who can charge for their services, is called Kapala Training. This training, or any level of FYD teacher or practitioner training, does not require one to take refuge and become a Buddhist. However, in order to work as an authorized instructor, one must engage in two levels of Kapala Training.
These levels contain instructions in relative truth: truth related to modern therapeutic methods, aimed at psychological and physiological healing; and absolute truth: truth in accordance with Buddhist teachings, such as emptiness. The absolute teachings also emphasize Prajñāpāramitā philosophy and meditation, due to its role in Machik’s development of Chod. In addition to the training, one must complete one-hundred and eight hours of both FYD practice and Prajñāpāramitā meditation, and demonstrate one’s competency to Allione or an authorized Lopön. Thus, in order to teach FYD, whether as a secular or dharma instructor, one must receive training in Buddhist philosophy and meditation.
The necessity of undergoing Kapala trainings in order to become an authorized FYD instructor, the explicit teachings on emptiness in Feeding Your Demons, and the suggestion that one could reach enlightenment through FYD, suggest that FYD is not entirely secular. The non-secularity of FYD could demonstrate one of two things: that Allione is surreptitiously transmitting Buddhist principles and using a pragmatic description of ancient Buddhist techniques as a veneer; or, that it is impossible to remove Chod from its original cultural context and intended telos. Although I cannot comment on Allione’s intention, it seems that Chod is steeped in Buddhist philosophy and designed to assist practitioners on fulfilling the bodhisattva vow to the extent that any alteration could not utterly eradicate Buddhist elements.
Despite the relative impossibility of altering Chod to the extent that it no longer contains Buddhist elements, Easton’s mention of possible enlightenment and Allione’s suggestion that the “Rest in Awareness” step is the “most important moment” of the practice, is perplexing. These claims do not just represent an altered version of traditional Chod that has maintained its Buddhist elements. Rather, they reflect the goals of realizing emptiness and reaching enlightenment that are present in traditional Chod. It seems unreasonable that Allione and Easton would suggest that FYD can have results similar to that of Machik’s Chod practice.
This would seem unreasonable because FYD is void of Machik’s institutional restrictions, taking refuge and receiving explicit permission from an authorized guru. These restrictions function to ensure that practitioners are sufficiently prepared for Chod practice. Both the apparently violent ritual of cutting one’s body and the necessary intellectual and moral qualities to sever the four māras necessitate these restrictions. FYD, however, is void of all institutional restrictions. Thus, it would be irrational to suggest that a FYD practitioner, untrained in tantric methods, could attain levels of Buddhist realization typically considered exclusive to experienced tantric practitioners.
It also seems unreasonable that FYD could have results similar to that of Machik’s Chod practice due to it being void of elements related to Guru Yoga. The elements of Guru Yoga provide a method by which the practitioner can realize buddhahood. The practitioner is instructed to visualize Machik or one’s certified guru as a Buddha. This process is considered to transfer the qualities embodied by the Buddha to the practitioner. Easton, however, considers FYD a way to access the subconscious through observing mental imagery, as opposed to an intentional conjuring of visualizations. She makes this distinction based on their different soteriological aims, psychological and psychological healing as opposed to Buddhist realization.
Thus, the question remains to what extent FYD should be considered a “Buddhist” practice. From my textual comparison and interview with Lopön Easton, I conclude that FYD reflects a radically different practice than traditional Chod to the extent that it cannot be considered a rendition of Machik’s Chod practice. Although FYD does transmit Buddhist teachings, their associated goals are separated from traditional Buddhist soteriology to the extent that they cannot be considered traditional Chod. In addition, those elements that do reflect traditional Buddhist soteriology present a method of attainment that is removed from Machik’s method. However, FYD does represent an interesting development within the realm of American Buddhism. The shift away from institutional restrictions and goals explicitly related to traditional Buddhist soteriology could have a significant impact on the nature of Buddhism in the West.
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