Kalsang Tso and the Group Chod Practice
Some Chod practitioners such as Kalsang Tso were very willing to talk to me about the process they went through to learn the music involved with Chod. She began her journey with a one-month class taught by Lopon Gyaltsen that had seven other students. At the time that she first began learning she had only gone through Lung, the second of the three steps you need to do before beginning to practice Chod. Despite this, she was allowed to begin learning; however, they did focus more upon the physical sides of the practice such as singing and playing the instruments. During this learning process the first thing that she and the other students were taught was the melody. They were expected to learn the melody aurally and to memorize it; they never had any kind of musical notation off of which to read.
After quickly learning the melodies, Kalsang Tso and the other students were taught how to use the instruments—namely the damaru and the bell. The process for learning the instruments was not entirely separated from that of learning the melody, as she and her fellow students were expected to sing the melody while learning how to use the instruments. They were never allowed to practice with only one instrument—they always had to use both the damaru and the bell
and sing as well. There was not individual instruction on each instrument. In fact, there was not a long period of formal instructions on how to use the instruments at all. The Lopon from whom Kalsang Tso was learning gave some simple instructions on how to sit up straight and how to hold the instruments correctly and then expected the students to begin singing and playing. For the most part, the Lopon would allow her and the other students to begin playing
without instructing them and then correct their mistakes after they had finished. Upon some occasions the Lopon would have some students demonstrate for the class and give them feedback on their performance. Through this method, Kalsang Tso was able to learn quite effectively. During this one month of class, Kalsang Tso was not taught to use the kangling because, at least in her practice, one is not allowed to use the kangling until after receiving the Supreme Empowerment. She did later receive the Supreme Empowerment, which came with the added stipulation that those who receive
it must practice Chod at least once a month. Her opportunities to practice came in the form of group practices initially led by Lopon Gyaltsen on the 10th and 25th of each month in the Tibetan calendar. In her tradition, these days are known as Guru Rinpoche day and Dakini day respectively. The group practice is still ongoing, although it is now led by a chant master rather than the Lopon.
I was fortunate enough to get to sit in on part of one of these group practices, which took place on the 9th of November. In addition to calling this a group practice, Kalsang Tso also referred to it as a Ganachakra or “Tantric Feast” (tsog kyi ‘khor lo). Attending this practice provided a helpful
opportunity to see the continued process of learning and maintaining skills in the actual setting of active Chod performance. At this particular practice there were probably around 70 people present, arranged in rows in a large room with many small tables and cushions that were all aligned towards the front of the room. Towards the front of the room, in front of a shrine, were massive piles of food that served as material offerings that would also factor into the various visualization that the practitioners would do. Most of these offerings seemed to be packaged snack food or fruit.
Both men and women were present, but it seemed like there were more women than men. Almost everyone present had the basic instruments used in Chod—the damaru, bell, and dorje, although many did not have a kangling. About 20 people did have their own kangling with them. Everyone also had some form of the text off of which they would read. Most people had the long rectangular texts in Tibetan, but some also had wire-bound books with the Tibetan script, some sort of phonetic writing, and an English translation. One person even seemed to be reading the text off of their cellphone. Nearly everyone present appeared to be a local, or at least not a westerner, and everyone also seemed to be a practitioner. There was only one other westerner present besides myself, and he also appeared to be watching.
The practice began around 1:00 pm when the chant master entered, at which point everyone stood up and many people did prostrations. The chant master began to sing and play and everyone followed his example. People seemed to occasionally glance at the chant master, but most seemed relatively focused on their texts and seemed to know what to do without much guidance. The playing and chanting was almost hypnotic as a listener, perhaps it is a similar experience as a practitioner. Everyone had incredible posture and played uniformly with everyone else—they all turned their damaru the same way and hit the bell in the same direction. They were all in unison.
It was an awe inspiring sight. Amusingly, it seems that I was not the only one with that opinion, as a number of monks would walk into the room and record the performance or take some photos on their cellphones. I stayed at the practice for several hours but had to leave before it was completed. I was told that it lasted until about 7:00 pm for a total length of about six hours.
The Chant Master and His Lessons
In addition to sitting in on the group practice attended by Kalsang Tso, I was also able to sit in on two classes taught by the Chant Master. These classes were arranged much like the group practice, with a number of small tables and cushions arranged in rows facing the front of the room where there was a slightly raised dais for the Chant Master to sit upon. At each of the two practices that I was able to attend there were perhaps around 16 people. There was a more even distribution between men and women, which changed slightly between the two classes as different people were in attendance. This was a much less formal kind of class than that which Kalsang Tso undertook, and it seemed to be open to the general public.
These classes seemed to be aimed more at westerners than at locals or experienced Buddhist practitioners. The classes themselves were led by the Chant Master, but they were translated by a westerner who spoke English. The classes were even ‘advertised' as being taught in English. At each of the classes I attended, around one half to two thirds of the class appeared to be a foreigner, mostly westerners. There were some people from in and around Nepal who introduced themselves to me, but they seemed to be in the minority. It is interesting to think about whether this changed the sort of teaching approach that the Chant Master took in leading the classes. Would he have taught differently if he had been leading a group of monks?
The general format of each class was an hour long session, but the specifics changed from class to class. Unlike in Kalsang Tso's experience, there was a lot of attention paid to the instruments individually. During the first class I attended, the Chant Master spent a good deal of time going over the particular things to watch out for when playing the damaru—being sure to keep your hand balanced, your body straight, the drum rotating smoothly, etc. He
demonstrated this with an empty hand and then with the damaru by itself. Following this, he asked the class to attempt to make the correct motion either with an empty hand or with a damaru if they had one. He watched as people went through the motions and called upon several people to demonstrate individually, after which he gave some feedback and criticism. Following this demonstration, he then did a similar small lesson with the bell, before demonstrating both together and asking the class to attempt the motion with him.
In terms of practice, much of it had to occur outside of the classroom, since this class met at most once a week. The Chant Master made it clear that it was ok to practice with just the damaru or just the bell and to take a break from one and work on the other if your hand got tired. He furthermore made no mention of chanting or singing when he was working with the instruments. This is a stark departure from the experience of Kalsang Tso, where she was required to use both instruments at once and sing while she played them. The students in the Chant Master's class obviously had learned the melody for the chanting—seemingly before learning the instruments— as they ended the first class by chanting and going through the text, trying to play the instruments as they had just learned. They were not, however, required to sing while practicing or discouraged from practicing with only one instrument.
The second class I attended was similarly structured, with the difference being that the class began by chanting and reciting the text while attempting to play the instruments. It was followed by a small lesson on the damaru and bell, similar to what was done in the first class I attended. This class, as well as the first one, ended with a period of time for students to ask questions about the practice or the playing. Several students asked questions about the instruments and others asked about the specifics of the text. There was no real focus on the visualizations during these two classes. Perhaps this was because most of the students had not yet received an empowerment. It was announced, however, that a Rinpoche would be visiting the monastery soon who would be able to give them the empowerment that they needed to truly practice Chod. Much like the initial lessons that Kalsang Tso took, these classes seemed to focus more on the initial physical activity involved in Chod, albeit with different methods and rules
Kalsang Ngodub's experience learning Chod came under the tutelage of Lama Tsering Wangdu Norbu Rinpoche, who used to be in Boudha. Kalsang Ngodub described Lama Wangdu as an expert and was happy to talk to me about his experience learning how to use the instruments. Unlike some of the others Chod practitioners I spoke with, he received his Wang, Lung, and Ti from the Lama who taught him. Furthermore, he actually learned to play the instruments before learning the melodies. He briefly related how Lama Wangdu once told him that “without the instruments you cannot sing.” This led to the particular order in which he learned.
During the learning process, he rarely received explicit direct instruction from the Lama— that was not how he taught. Rather, the Lama would teach by first demonstrating just a little bit with the instruments and then having the students try. He would then go around and correct mistakes. For the most part, the music was learned by watching and listening to the Lama; however, he did see musical notation for the kangling upon occasion. More rarely, Kalsang Ngodub said that there were sometimes small bits of instructions that were written down that could be followed for the instruments other than the kangling. Once he had learned the basic forms of playing the instruments, he was introduced to the various ways of playing them, which differs depending upon the specific meditation.
Anonymous 5 was also willing to explain the process they went through to learn the instruments and melodies of Chod practice. Before beginning to learn any of the music, they first received an empowerment from a Rinpoche and had the meaning of Chod and its texts explained by a Lama—essentially going through the threefold process of Wang, Lung, and Ti. Following these three steps, they began to learn the music from the Chant Master who I was also able to speak with. The first thing they were taught was the melody. This occurred before they learned to play the instruments. After they had learned how to chant the melody, they moved on, adding the instrumental practice.
The Chant Master's technique for teaching the instruments involved demonstrating how to make the correct motions to play the instruments with an empty hand. He first demonstrated how to use the damaru by going through the motions and explaining the important parts of the practice such as which way to swing the damaru when you begin. He then proceeded to show the correct motion with which to play the bell, once again using an empty hand. Following this,
he proceeded to demonstrate with the actual instruments. Once his demonstration was complete, he proceeded to have Anonymous 5 and the rest of the class split up into groups and practice—at first just using the instruments without singing. The Chant Master came around and corrected them when they were making mistakes. He also informed them that it was acceptable to practice with one instrument at a time, but that this should only be done for a short time—soon you should begin using both as well as singing.
Being able to hear of Anonymous 5's experience learning from the Chant Master is interesting in that it reveals itself to be relatively similar to what I witnessed. The Chant Master still had them practice with an empty hand and then attempt to use one instrument at a time. He also, unlike some other teachers, did not make them sing and play at once or make them use both instruments. It is noteworthy that the way he taught non-westerners and westerners did not differ in any significant aspects. Perhaps this reveals that there is no compromising of standards or pedagogy, no matter who is learning.
Thoughts on Pedagogy
It is interesting to see the differences in how various Chod practitioners learned the music involved with their practice. It is intriguing to notice that some underwent the empowerment and the rest of the rituals needed to fully practice Chod before they began learning, while others were allowed to learn how to chant the melodies and play the instruments before they were fully inducted into the practice itself. Another major difference that makes itself clear between different teachers and traditions is the order in which the various musical components get learned. For some, it was an absolute necessity that you know the melodies before you play the instruments, while for others it was the exact opposite. Beyond this binary difference, there were also intriguing differences of opinion about whether or not the melody needed to be sung while playing the instruments or if the instruments could be practiced individually or needed to be learned and played at once. If nothing else, these different experiences and various pedagogies make clear that Chod is a complex and to a degree an individualized and evolving practice. The specifics vary from practitioner to practitioner, teacher to teacher, and tradition to tradition.
The Importance of Language
The words that people use to describe the world are often indicative of the way that they think. Someone's choice of language can hold a wealth of meaning—meaning that can lie hidden in the implications of their word choice, perhaps hidden even from the person who said it. Word usage can reveal a matter of perspective; one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter. Both of these words could describe the same activities, yet one is undoubtedly negative, while the other is assuredly positive. Noticing that someone chooses one word over the other enables you to gain some insight into their perspective. It is important to pay attention to the words that people use to describe their practices. The words people use to describe Chod are therefore of the utmost importance for understanding how Chod practitioners understand their own practice. Language is a reflection of how we think.
Readers should perhaps take this analysis of language with a grain of salt. First of all, none of the people I spoke with were native English speakers, which could color their word choice. Furthermore, changing words in Buddhist practice is to a large degree an impossible thing to do, for to change a word changes the meaning of the practice in a significant way. It is therefore “incorrect” to change words. These things being said, it is still interesting to see the words people use, particularly when they felt strongly about not using an alternative word. Maybe some of these phrases are not strictly correct, but the practitioners still felt strongly about them. This means that if nothing else the word choice is important in light of the ways that the various practitioners I spoke with think about their practice. Where it was given to me, I have also provided the Tibetan words to which the practitioners I spoke with were referring and thinking about, although they spoke English with me.
“To Cut” or “To Change”
As a practice, Chod is described as a form of meditation wherein the practitioner tries to sever or cut attachment to the self. Chod itself is said to mean “to cut” or “to sever.” Almost any book about Chod would tell you this near the beginning if not on the first page or front cover. When I began my research I had no doubts about the link between ideas of “cutting” or “severing” and Chod; however, as I began speaking to several Chodpas some of them told me
their own ideas about the language. One man named Sonam Dorjee, who is an experienced Chod practitioner, made the observation that in his opinion “cut” is a bad word to associate with Chod and that maybe the word “change” is better. His line of reasoning was that Chod is more complicated than simply severing attachment. In his words, attachment gets changed into the opposite of attachment during Chod practice, it is not simply cut.
After hearing this opinion relatively early on during my research I made sure to pursue this line of thought with other Chod practitioners, asking them what word they believed would best describe Chod and then asking their opinions on the other options that had been presented to me. For instance, Kalsang Tso asserted that the purpose of Chod is to cut away the self, but when queried about Sonam Dorjee's opinion decided that she too thinks that “change” is a better word than “cut”. Her reason for agreeing stemmed from her understanding that “when something is bad you need to make it good”—which is more like
“changing” than “cutting.” In this statement, it seems like there is an implicit reflection of the basic idea of Vajrayana practices—that you take something negative and turn it into something positive, that you transform it with the understanding that from one thing the opposite can arise, that you face your negative passions and transform them. Conceptualizing Chod as “changing” rather than simply “cutting” is perhaps a reflection of these basic ideas of Vajrayana or Tantric practices—learning how to experience the impure as pure. Maybe this basis for Vajrayana practice is so instilled into the minds of some Chod practitioners that it shapes how they think about and describe the practice itself.
While some felt that “change” was a better word than “cut” to describe Chod, there were a number of Chod practitioners who disagreed. For instance, Kalsang Ngodub, a Chod practitioner who has been practicing for 15 years, was adamant that Chod means “to cut.” He asserted that Chod could not possibly be described as “to change” for the simple reason that if it was “to change” then the Tibetan word would not be Chod (gcod). He presented further reasoning by saying that Chod has been called Chod and been held to mean “to cut” for centuries by the great masters of the practice—that is not something that we can
simply change. Further expounding upon this line of reasoning, he described “cut” as a “good straight word”' that will help avoid confusion. In his opinion, this is important because you ought not to be careless with the Dharma or it can hurt future generations—if the words were changed now, then future generations who wanted to practice Chod would not be receiving the same teachings as accurately and it could confuse and harm them. His belief that “cut” is a better word than “change” to describe Chod seems to stem in part from a belief in the wisdom of the more accomplished adepts and an attachment to the importance of literal translation of the Tibetan words.
Kalsang Ngodub's stance was mirrored in some ways by that of Anonymous 5. Much like Kalsang Ngodub, they also were quick to point out that Chod is the practice of cutting away the self or the ego and that therefore “to cut” is a good phrase to describe Chod. When asked for their opinion on the idea that “change” might be a better word than “cut,” Anonymous 5 described how change was not a good match for Chod and pointed out that “change” can be either good
or bad, you cannot tell from the word alone. In their view, Chod is definitively about “cutting.” It is a practice meant to take a part out of you—you take away the ego and the negative parts of yourself during the meditation. They paralleled Kalsang Ngodub's reasoning in saying that the Lamas they have spoken to all say “cut,” not change. It is intriguing to note that the close association of change with Tantric practice seems to be less prevalent in this view. As Anonymous 5 seemed to indicate, their conception of Chod perhaps centers around removing the negatives of self and ego rather than transforming them, although perhaps they remove them via transformation—offering up the body in a feast to deities and spirits.
“To Perform” or “To Practice”
How is it that you would describe the action of undertaking Chod? Would you say ‘I do Chod?' Would you say ‘I practice Chod?' Would you say ‘I perform Chod?' Each of these phrases would make sense to the listener, but each might imply something different. When we speak of ritual practice in English, the idea that you “perform” a ritual seems to be fairly common. If I were to describe someone currently engaged in Chod, I believe the most natural thing for me to say would be something like ‘they are performing Chod.' In many instances, people like the ethnomusicologist Jeffrey Cupchik also use the word
“perform” in association with Chod. This perhaps is indicative of an implicit bias or fascination on the part of the writer with the musical or performative aspects of Chod. Oftentimes it seems that the use of the word “perform” when discussing ritual practices hints that we think that there is
something performative about the practices themselves. It is not just something you do, but is something that is—in some way—a performance. It is perhaps associated with music, dance, or some other performing art. Those writing about Chod who are not interested in the music might use a different word such as “do” or “practice.” What is interesting is to see what words Chodpas use to describe themselves undertaking the practice. This can help provide some insight into how they think about Chod on a subconscious level.
Much like when asked about using “change” instead of “cut,” the Chod practitioners I was able to speak with gave a variety of answers. For Kalsang Tso, the choice of word was fairly obvious. She indicated that she would most often say “perform Chod” (gcod stangs ba), and shied away from the phrase “do Chod.” She thought that “do Chod” was not a phrase she would use very often; however, she seemed thoughtful about using the phrase “practice Chod.” After thinking about it, she asserted that she would probably say “perform” most commonly and noted that she thinks most other people use that word as well. This choice of words might seem to indicate that when she thinks about Chod she thinks about it as a performative experience. Given that the music is what first attracted her to the practice, perhaps this makes some sense.
Anonymous 5 had a different opinion than Kalsang Tso. When they were asked about what word they would use to describe the process of Chod meditation, they quickly said that they would say “practice Chod” (gcod nyams ling). They felt that the word “perform” did not fit as well. They made the interesting statement, however, that they felt that a more experienced Chodpa would be more likely to say “perform” rather than “practice.” On the other hand, a
student would be more likely to say “practice,” not “perform.” Based upon their own observation, they seem to consider themselves more of a student than a fully independent practitioner. Given the fact that Anonymous 5 has only been doing Chod for around two years, perhaps this makes sense. It is also interesting to note that Kalsang Tso, who has been practicing Chod longer, felt more comfortable using the word “perform.”
This emerging binary between student and experienced practitioner is complicated slightly by the words of Kalsang Ngodub, who has been a Chod practitioner for 15 years. Like Anonymous 5, he too indicated that he would say “practicing Chod,” an opinion that was further shared by Sonam Dorjee. Kalsang Ngodub thinks that “perform” is a poor choice of word. Interestingly, when I first mentioned the word “perform” and the Tibetan phrase gcod stangs ba that Kalsang Tso had mentioned, he blurted out something about singing and chanting—it made him think of the music involved in the practice. If nothing else, this
indicates that word choice does indeed matter and has some implicit meaning, but it also clearly indicates that to him, the music is not the key aspect of Chod. If it was, then given his association with the word “perform,” it seems likely that that is the word he would choose to use. Instead, he chooses to remain with the term “practice.” Interestingly, he was able to provide a reason for using this term—he said that “practice” is a good word because practicing is the most important part of Chod. In saying so, he illustrates beyond a reasonable doubt that the choice of words used to describe one's Chod practice is indeed a way to peer into the thought process of the mind. Word choice is shaped by the way one conceptualizes the world around them. Some of Ter Ellingson's work provide another lens through which to view the word choice of “perform” or “practice.” In his dissertation, which examines the ritual music of Tibetan Buddhism more broadly, he writes that ritual music is more complicated than a mere production or performance of sound. Ritual music
in Tibetan Buddhism, which could include the music in Chod, includes the concept of music that is mentally produced but not physically present. The whole of the music, which is given as an offering (mchod pa), is more than the sum of its parts. The music is different from the sounds that are heard and is different in unique ways to each performer. The music, viewed as a musical offering, can be understood in terms of the body, voice, and mind—the physical, vocal, and mental dimensions. The instruments and performers' bodies are the physical dimension, the sounds produced during the performance are the auditory part, and the meaning and mentally produced music are the mental part; it is these three parts put together that are the true “music” that is offered.
Given this way of conceptualizing music in the ritual practices of Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps the use of the word “perform” is better than the word “practice.” I hesitate to assert that one word is correct or better than the other, particularly since some of the Chod practitioners felt that “perform” was not a good word to use, but it seems that the implications of “perform” fit better with the idea that there is a mental component of the music. Ellingson writes that “every ritual performance includes instrumental music, since instruments and their sounds are always mentally projected, whether or
not they are physically present.” If the music used in ritual practice has an important part of it that is purely mental, a part that allows the music itself to be considered greater than the sum total of its parts, then perhaps Chod, as a practice that prominently features music, is more intertwined with the mental production of music than it might at first seem. If this is true, if the mental component of music is always present and ever important, then it
is an indispensable and indivisible part of Chod. The visualizations a Chod practitioner does are the most important part of the practice, but perhaps the mental production of music is almost equally as important. The music cannot be dismissed. If this is the case, if the mental production of music is always a key part of utilizing music in ritual practice, then the word “perform,” which implies the production of some type of performance—be it music, art, or dance, is the better word to use.
Another interesting choice of words occurred when people described Chod as a process of severing the self. There were two words that often recurred here—some people said Chod was a process of cutting out the “self,” while others said that it was a process of cutting out the “ego.” For instance, Sonam Dorjee repeatedly used the word “ego” when discussing his Chod practice. As a way of illustrating his point he described the cutting out of the words “I,” “my,” and “mine” as key steps in cutting out the ego. He did not seem to mean this literally, but the meaning is clear. Those words which are possessive and
indicative of the self are problematic. Anonymous 5 also explicitly used the word “ego” most of the time, although they occasionally used the word “self” as well. Kalsang Ngodub used both “self” and “ego” almost interchangeably and echoed Sonam Dorjee when he said that “ego is the existence of ‘I.'” He went further and spoke on the issues of pride as well. On the other hand, Kalsang Tso seemed to most often use the word self.
To a degree these two words, “ego” and “self,” can be used to mean the same thing; however, it is interesting to observe that the word “ego” often has connotations of pride around it and is less encompassing than the “self.” Along these lines, it is worth pointing out that Kalsang Ngodub explicitly called out pride as a specific issue to watch out for. The majority of Chod practitioners that I spoke with used the word “ego” more often than the word “self.” This might indicate that there is some preference for characterizing the self and attachment to the self that is cut out as “ego” rather than just as “self.” Ego, which has negative connotations, is better suited to the conceptualization of the practice as cutting out a problematic and negative attachment to the self.
This idea of problematic attachment to the self, tying hand in hand with pride, is worth considering in the context of a statement made by Kalsang Ngodub. When asked if he would call himself a Ngakpa, a type of Tantric practitioner, or a Chodpa, he responded by saying neither— he would call himself a ‘beggar.' In his opinion, he is not advanced enough, not realized enough, to merit the term Chodpa. I noticed during other interviews, that some others shied away from identifying themselves as Chodpas as well. They were far more likely to identify themselves as students than as Chodpas. There is a sort of humbleness present that I suppose is understandable, given the aim of Chod to allow one to sever attachment to the self or ego. The use of the more ‘negative' term of “ego” perhaps makes sense as a way to implicitly identify that which is being cut away through Chod as a problematic form of attachment.
The ethnomusicologist Jeffrey Cupchik spent some time learning and investigating Chod, arriving at the conclusion that the melodies and rhythms found in the practice “enhance the meditation process by eliciting specific emotions that aid the ritual practitioner in experiencing transformative insights into a given section of a Chod ritual.” He goes on to write that it is the music in Chod that functions as the primary method through which the Chod practitioner
attains a specific emotional state. This purposeful emotional state is key in that it accompanies the visualizations used during Chod and can help lead to meditative insights. Cupchik continues this line of thought structurally by likening Chod to a Catholic Mass. He puts forth the idea that Chod can be examined as a sort of liturgical ritual that is formally divided into sections, each of which has a musically appropriate setting for the liturgical text. The melodies sung in Chod are said to purposefully stress key words and syllables and function as part of an “emotional arc” that underpins the narrative and purpose of various sections of the ritual.
To put his claim more simply, Cupchik argues that the music is more complex than a simple melody accompanying a meditative practice; it is uniquely suited to the ritual. In his view, the music is specifically tailored to each section of a Chod ritual in order to make the practitioner feel whatever emotion is most conducive to the practice—each melody evokes a mood that is appropriate to the meditation. The music goes even further than simply creating specific
emotions by serving to reinforce the attachment to the self in order that the practitioner may be aware of it and sever it more completely. For instance, Cupchik asserts that the strange echoes and eerie sounds that reverberate through the air when a practitioner sings help elicit feelings of exposure and insecurity, much as the choice of a ‘frightful place' (nyen sa) to perform the meditation does. Feelings of insecurity make people seek to protect themselves. In Chod, this reaction to insecurity allows the self to be drawn forth and the practitioner made aware of it, perhaps in order that they may attempt to sever attachment to it.
Cupchik's argument is compelling and makes sense, particularly when he points out the how the technique of tone painting—where musical gestures conjure up images in the mind of the listener—is used in the music of Chod. His central point in this regard boils down to the idea that music of Chod makes the practitioners enter an emotional state that is conducive to the goals of the meditation practice. Others have argued similarly, making the assertion that
the melody played on instruments like the kangling during Chod are an “acoustic expression of the emotional character of its generating mantra”—hinting that the music reflects the emotion of the words that are chanted or sung. The question remains, however, of whether or not the Chod practitioners themselves feel that the music is key to the practice in this sense. Do they feel that the music helps to shape their emotional makeup during Chod? Do they
believe that it is a key accompaniment to the visualizations or is it something that the practice could do without? Speaking with various Chod practitioners about their thoughts on the music and its link with emotion elicited a variety of responses. One of the most interesting ideas to emerge was a sort of distinction between beginning practitioners or those initially drawn to the practice and more experienced Chodpas. What was even more certain, however, was that there was no clear yes or no response to whether or not the music is important as a tool to stir the emotions of the practitioner. This is a gray area.
One practitioner related how they were drawn to Chod by the melodies, which they described as a “beautiful practice.” This practitioner. Anonymous 5, has been practicing Chod for about two years and was careful to caution me that they were not the most knowledgeable about the intricacies of the practice. In their opinion, the music has a great deal of effect upon them during the practice. In addition to initially being drawn to Chod by the music, Anonymous 5
said that they still feel emotions when performing Chod. After a moment of contemplation, they added that the emotions are more from the music than from the visualizations that are described in the text. That being said, Anonymous 5 went on to say that they believe that the emotion of the music, particularly the melody, matches the emotion of the text. After hearing their opinion, I described some of the ideas put forth by Cupchik, and they agreed with what he had to say.
Kalsang Tso, another Chod practitioner who has been practicing for about three years, also described how it was the music that first attracted her to the practice of Chod, saying that it caught her ear and was beautiful. There are a few melodies in particular that she feels are particularly beautiful. When asked if the music makes her feel some type of way during the performance of Chod, she described how some melodies—particularly those that she finds
extraordinarily beautiful—make her happy and how sometimes the music makes her feel sad. Some of the slower melodies even make her sleepy, but on the plus side they give her more time to visualize, which is good. The music found in Chod can make her feel certain emotions, but she believes that the feelings she gets from the music are separate from the ritual practice; however, emotions are not entirely separate from Chod.
Kalsang Tso went on to describe how the feelings she gets during the performance of Chod depend more on the words in the melody than on the music itself. For instance, when she sings of the suffering of sentient beings in samsara she feels sad. In her opinion, the music is an important part of Chod, but it is important because it is a traditional part of the practice and because of where it comes from—not because of how it makes you feel. It is important
because it came from dakinis and Rinpoches and has always been a part of the method of meditation. Contemplating her own practice, she made the observation that she thinks “you should feel it” when you do Chod—perhaps feeling purposeful or peaceful. You should not feel nothing, but the feelings, at least the important ones, do not come from the music. In Kalsang Tso's opinion, when you learn Chod you eventually get used to the music and it is no longer distracting—you end up focusing on the words and not the melody or musicality of it all. While the music can instill emotion, this emotion is not a key part of the practice.
One practitioner, Kalsang Ngodub, who has been practicing Chod for 15 years, had yet another opinion on the relationship between music and emotion in the practice of Chod. In some ways, his opinions mirror those of Kalsang Tso. For instance, he described how in his experience people who are not practitioners and are just seeing others practice Chod often feel emotions in response to the music. People who are just beginning to learn to perform Chod
often feel some emotions as well when they play the music, but eventually there should be no feelings—it should just be about the meditation. Kalsang Ngodub went on to describe how although when you first start practicing and learning you have emotions, you learn to cut them as you sever the self. According to him, once you have experience there should be no emotions during Chod.
It is interesting to notice the spectrum of opinions that emerged among the Chod practitioners with whom I spoke. Among those who discussed this issue with me, only one seemed to agree wholeheartedly with Cupchik's characterization of the music in Chod. The others were more circumspect in their linking of emotion and music as key facets of the practice—if they did not deny it outright. There is an interesting correlation that appears between how long
somebody has been practicing and how they think about emotions and the music. In this admittedly small group of people, the person who had been doing Chod for the shortest period of time felt that the emotions caused by the music were the most important to the practice. Those who had practiced longer either
still felt emotions from the music but believed they were not linked to the practice in a meaningful way or felt that emotions—from music or otherwise—had no place in Chod at all. This does not mean the Cupchik is wrong, but it may mean that the practitioners do not think about the music in Chod the way that he does. Perhaps the music still is an important method of making practitioners of Chod enter a certain emotional state at particular times, but it may be something of which they are not conscious.
In contrast to what Cupchik presents, some Tibetan Buddhist monks have even expressed concern about music's ability to stir the emotion. Rakra Tethong, a former Gelugpa monk who resigned from the monkhood after fleeing Tibet to help lead a group home for Tibetan children had some interesting thoughts on the
matter. He observes that in Tantric rituals, a category in which Chod could be placed, music and dance are very important. The players and dancers must show the nature of the deities in the ritual and be aware that the music is meant as an offering (mchod pa)—“an offering of the best that we have.” It is important to note, however, that Rakra Tethong expresses concern that is reminiscent of Saint Augustine's concerns about music in his Confessions, a concern that the beauty of music can be distracting and detrimental. He says:
“Of course, there can be real difficulties. For instance, if someone knows how to play very well on a stringed instrument, it sounds so sweet, so very sweet. And, if someone is trying to study or meditate, then—well, you know. Probably this is why stringed instruments aren't played in monasteries. And this is why even the Indian Buddhist Vinaya (monastic discipline) texts put restrictions on music, and don't allow monks to perform folk dances or folk songs. Still, it's funny that in some parts of Tibet, in some small monasteries, the monks were the best dancers and players of folk songs.”
While this is focused mainly stringed instruments, which have no part in Buddhist ritual music in general and Chod in particular, perhaps it betrays a more general uncertainty over the potential for music to be a distraction. Rakra Tethong, for instance, explicitly mentions that the sweet music of a stringed instrument could have an impact on someone's ability to meditate. It does not seem outside the realm of possibility then that the music in Chod could potentially have a similarly deleterious effect upon the focus of the meditation. Perhaps this is why, as Kalsang Ngodub said, experienced Chodpas no
longer feel emotions from the music. They manage to cut off the potential distraction while still using the music in the traditional role that it plays in Chod. Perhaps these alternate perspectives ought to temper the interpretation that Cupchik makes of the role of music in Chod. It is entirely possible that he is correct and the music in Chod shapes the emotional makeup of the Chodpa during the practice, but it seems important to note that some Chodpas and others involved in Tibetan Buddhist ritual music likely do not conceptualize of the music in that way.
The music of Chod is not the central part of the practice, but is perhaps central to the practice nonetheless. To examine any part of Chod, but particularly the music, is to become aware of the tug of various sources of ideas. Resting above it all are the main teachings of Chod, descending from people like Machik Labdron, which in many ways transcend tradition and lineage—the conception of Chod as an act of compassion and an act of severing attachment to the self is key and shared by all who practice it. At the same time, the multitude of various lineages and traditions make clear the extent to which the particulars of the practice vary. This was particularly clear to me in what various people told me about the music.
It would in many ways be easier if you could point to a damaru, ask what it means, and have every Chod practitioner tell you the same thing; however, the symbolism and specifics resting around the music of Chod vary from tradition to tradition if not from practitioner to practitioner. The various instruments used in Chod certainly mean something, but what exactly that meaning is differs for practically every Chodpa. The specific symbolic interpretations, the
specific method of playing the instrument, the various melodies that are sung—all of these things can be conceived of as both ancient, passed down from teacher to student, and relatively new, arising in the minds of practitioners during meditation. It is important to get a sense not only of Chod as a whole, but also of the practitioners that are involved. The different ways that they conceptualize and think about the practice, the ways it makes them feel, the language they use to talk about it, and the meanings they attach to different portions of the practice shapes their experience and the way Chod continues to function and evolve.
Almost everyone shares some basic conception of the practice itself and what the instruments stand to represent, but it can differ depending upon the specific message that they want to convey. Chod is by no means an unchanging and uniform monolith. There are various ways that music is played and used, different ways that the music is conceptualized and understood. The ways that people learn are different. The language that people use is different. The
ways that they think about Chod and the ways that they talk about it are different. While Chod is a practice where tradition is cherished and zealously followed, it is also a practice where the individual and the individual's conceptions, in his or her quest to cut away the self, are key.
Appendix A: Glossary of Tibetan Terms
Listed in order of appearance
rkang gling—the kangling, the human thighbone trumpet used in Chod dbangs—Wang, the empowerment one receives before being able to practice Chod lung—Lung, the reading of various texts that occurs before one is able to practice Chod khrid—Ti, the explanation of various texts that occurs before one is able to practice Chod dbangs chen—the Supreme Empowerment, one type of empowerment blo dpon—Lopon, a monk who presides over tantric rituals thod phur—kapala, a cup made from the top portion of a skull dug gsum—the three poisons in Buddhism: ignorance, attachment, and aversion bdud ‘joms gter gsar—Dudjom Tersar, a type of Chod practiced by Kalsang Tso khros ma nga mo—Throma Nagmo, a protector dakini referred to as ‘the Wrathful Dakini' or the ‘Black Wrathful Lady'
gtser gsar lus sbyin gcod—Tersar Lujin Chod, a type of Chod practiced by Anonymous 5 tshogs las rin po che'i phreng ba—Jewel Garland of the Chod Liturgy, a longer Chod practice that takes almost a whole day
brdung ba—a category of instruments that are ‘beaten'
‘khrol ba—a category of instruments that are ‘rung'
‘bud pa—a category of instruments that are ‘blown'
rgyud can—a category of instruments that are ‘stringed'
da chen—the ‘big damaru'
da chung—the ‘small damaru'
chos rgyal dril bu—a specific type of dril bu from the principality of Derge in Kham in eastern myang dril—a specific type of dril bu from India theg chon dril bu—a specific type of dril bu from Tibet
gzhal med khang—a ‘heavenly realm' sometimes referred to as “The Inconceivable Castle” zangs rkang—a substitute for the kangling often made out of copper with an end shaped like a crocodile mouth ra rkang—a substitute for the kangling often made out of rhinoceros horn shing rkang—a substitute for the kangling made out of wood
ca—a Tibetan letter: e dbyangs—a type of melody used in Tibetan Buddhist music that is subtle and highly effective bdag ‘dzin ma rigs pa—self-grasping ignorance bdag med rtogs pa'i shes rab—wisdom understanding selflessness
Appendix B: Rhythmic Patterns
My research was accomplished through a mix of reading numerous textual sources, conducting interviews, participant observation, and simple observation. I spent the majority of my time doing fieldwork conducting interviews with various Chod practitioners and shopkeepers in and around Boudha. I also spent a
good deal of time reading articles and books written by various ethnomusicologists, as well as various teachings and historical sources. When I met with the Chod practitioners, I had a small body of questions that I was prepared to ask based upon some textual research that I had already begun, but once I asked these questions I let the information that the practitioners gave me lead me down new paths. During subsequent meetings, when they were possible, I asked additional questions that had occurred to me and clarified information that I had already received.
I was fortunate to be able to sit in on the classes taught by the Chant Master and follow along with his instructions, albeit without the actual instruments. This helped to give me an appreciation for the amount of effort involved in learning how to do just the physical part of Chod, let alone the
visualizations. I was also incredibly fortunate to get to observe a group Chod practice that I was brought to, as well as some Chod that occurred around Boudha Stupa. My research coincided with the completion of repairs to the Stupa from the earthquake that occurred in 2015. Due to this fortunate alignment, I was able to witness several large group Chod performances on the stupa itself, coinciding with the ceremonies that marked the completion of repairs to Boudha Stupa.
I unfortunately did not and have not received an empowerment or other initiations into Chod, so I was unable to practice it myself and truly learn through doing the practice; however, with the exception of some secret things, the Chod practitioners I spoke with were happy to share their experiences and offer me their help. They showed me their resources, texts, instruments, and other items used during their practice. They showed me where people make some of these instruments as well. They gave me much more of their time than I would have expected. My discussions and interactions with the Chod practitioners along with my own reading and observations, made up the bulk of my research.
Appendix D: Project Advisor
Hubert Decleer received a B.A. in history and European literature from the Regent School in Ghent, Belgium, and a M.A. in oriental philosophy and history from the University of Louvain. Following this, he studied classical Tibetan and Buddhist studies under various tutors in Kathmandu, Nepal. He is a well-known researcher and thought of fondly by many. In addition to his own research, a book of research on Tibetan and Newar Studies entitled Himalayan
Passages has been published in his honor. Outside of his research, Hubert founded the Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples SIT program in 1987. Since then he has often served as its Academic Director, guiding it through nearly 30 years of success. He is currently the Academic Director for the program. Appendix E: Suggestions for Future Research
There is plenty that could still be done to do further research on Chod and its music in particular. My research ended up focusing more on the instrumental side of the music, but there is much that could be learned about the chanting and singing that is involved in Chod. Future researchers could possibly conduct fruitful research by recording and transcribing some of the melodies and then examining them for further evidence of tone painting and other
musical techniques, as Jeffrey Cupchik has done. If someone wished to continue focusing on the instruments, there are several questions that I was unable to focus on. It would be interesting to see if the instruments used in Chod are used in other ritual practices, and if so, how does their usage compare to their usage in Chod. Furthermore, one could examine further how music in Chod falls into the binary of music for Fierce and Peaceful deities, or perhaps the history of the various melodies used in Chod.
It could also be useful to zoom in further and be even more specific than I was. Perhaps examining one particular lineage or tradition of Chod or one particular practitioner might lead to some intriguing questions or information. Really focusing on the pedagogy and specific experiences of one teacher or
practitioner would be quite interesting and allow one to learn more about the specific practices than I was able to do. I would, in fact, recommend choosing one lineage or tradition, as dealing with the various histories of the different traditions is confusing and requires more information than I could gather while still focusing on other research questions. By focusing on one tradition, perhaps one might be able to become practitioner as well, not simply an observer. There is plenty that could be examined further with Chod, both with and without the music in particular in mind.
Appendix F: Interview Information
The following are some brief details about the interviews I conducted and observation opportunities I had during my research period. Kalsang Tso is a Chod practitioner who spoke with me a great deal and helped translate for me when I needed assistance. We had meetings on 11/4/16, 11/6/16, 11/14/16, and 11/24/16. She also took me to a group Chod practice on 11/9/16.
The Chant Master is a chant master at a local monastery as well as a Chod practitioner. I was able to attend Chod classes taught by him in October and November as well as meet with him and speak to him with the help of Kalsang Tso on 11/8/16.
Anonymous 1 is a shop keeper, who sells fake kangling, with whom I was able to speak on 11/7/16.
Anonymous 2 is a shop keeper, who secretly sells kangling, with whom I was able to speak with the help of Kalsang Tso on 11/7/16.
Anonymous 3 is a damaru maker with whom I was able to speak with the help of Kalsang Tso on 11/7/16. Nata is a European student and employee at a local monastery, where they sell various ritual instruments for the monastery. I was able to speak with them on 11/7/16.
Anonymous 5 is a Chod practitioner who learned from the Chant Master. I was able to speak with them on 11/8/16 and exchange some messages on 11/23/16. Kalsang Ngodub is a Chod practitioner with whom I was able to speak on 11/8/16. Hubert Decleer was my project advisor. I met and spoke with him on 11/23/16.
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Anonymous 2 (shop keeper) in discussion with the author via translator Kalsang Tso, Boudha, Nepal, November 7, 2016. Anonymous 3 (damaru maker) in discussion with the author via translator Kalsang Tso, Boudha, Nepal, November 7, 2016.
Nata (employee selling instruments at a monastery) in discussion with the author, Boudha, Nepal, November 7, 2016. Chant Master in discussion with the author via translator Kalsang Tso, Boudha, Nepal, November 8, 2016. Anonymous 5 in discussion with the author, Boudha, Nepal, November 8, 2016