The Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist praxis of Chod
by Michelle Janet Sorensen
The Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist praxis of Chod (gcod; chedika) incorporates a variety of techniques for the development of compassion, wisdom, and the spirit of enlightenment. “Chod” is a Tibetan verb that can be translated into English as “to cut” or "to sever,” with a corresponding noun form of “cutting” or “severance.” Chod uses meditative practices of “cutting” through one's instinctual attachment to ego as techniques for liberation from the existential
suffering of cyclic existence (‘khor ba; samsara). A traditional Buddhist view is that attachment to ego, or “self-grasping” (bdag ‘dzin; atmagraha), is the root of ignorance (ma rig pa; avidya) causing mental afflictions (nyon mongs pa; klesa), which in turn generate suffering and perpetuate one's cyclic existence. This sense of one's own self, or ego, is reinforced by quotidian activities premised in constructs of “self” and “other,” and habitual practices that produce, and are produced by, emotional reactions rather than mindful activities. The techniques prescribed by Chod enable the practitioner to analyze
and become aware of the nature of the “ego” that is to be cut, including the aspects of consciousness that support and construct the ego. According to Mahayana Buddhist teachings, one's sense of an individual and independent ego arises from ignorance of the non-duality of subject and object. The praxis of Chod includes theories and methods for cutting through the aspect of consciousness that is characterized by self-grasping and discriminative thinking in order to realize the matrix of consciousness free from subject/object discrimination.
Chod practitioners use various techniques to achieve the aim of cutting the root of mind, including visualizations, meditations, recitations, physical movements and music. Chod methodology, in alignment with conventional Buddhist teachings, can be understood as two-fold. One aspect is akin to the Buddhist practice of calmly abiding through experiences of mental turmoil (zhi gnas; samatha); the other aspect can be seen as parallel to the Buddhist practice of meditative analysis of the constructed nature of one's experiences as dependent on one's mental conditioning and functioning (lhag mthong; vipasyana).
Using these two types of practice, the practitioner aims to deepen her understanding of the fundamentally empty nature of all phenomena. Buddhist Chod texts emphasize that Chod should be practiced in accordance with the ideal standpoint of the Mahayana bodhisattva, the ultimate aim being the liberation of all sentient beings from the realm of suffering. Thus, the perspective of the twofold bodhicitta—the relative consciousness of awakening which includes the aspiration and action toward enlightenment and the ultimate mind of awakening—is also central to Chod.
Chod texts frequently emphasize practicing in appropriate physical locations. Practitioners seek out sublime sites such as on mountain peaks, near rushing rivers, and in charnel grounds. Because the fear created by such situations generates attachment to one's life and identity, these locations exacerbate the self-grasping that Chod takes as its object. Generally speaking, such visualizations operate through the Buddhist logic of emptiness: by facing objects which cause fear and other obscurations and employing one's knowledge of the Buddhist teachings on the true nature of reality as fundamentally empty of
both subject and object, one builds one's capacity to release oneself from illusory appearances of self and other. Indeed, one's mind—with its habit of seeing reality in terms of subject and object, self and other—is itself the obstruction, the obstructor and the obstructed. Through Chod practice, the unenlightened standpoint that translates all experience into binary relationships of subject and object is replaced by insight into the interconnected relationship of all phenomena.
One Chod method of eradicating self-grasping is an offering of one's body to other sentient beings. One visualizes discriminating—or cutting—one's body into pieces. One then transforms these pieces into an abundance of offerings that will satisfy the needs and desires of all other sentient beings. This exemplary act of the perfection of generosity (danaparamita; sbyin pa'i pha rol tu phyinpa) is an enactment of the fundamental philosophy of Chod: the
cutting through attachment to the self to achieve liberation from suffering. At its most fundamental level, Chod provides an interpretation of Buddhist teachings on the persistence of suffering within the realm of samsara contrasted with the possibility for awakening oneself to the ultimate nature of reality and thus being capable of liberating oneself and others from this cycle of suffering. In line with mainstream Buddhist theory, Chod teachings correlate the conditions of suffering with the causes of fundamental ignorance and the subsequent habits of perpetuating a belief in an independent subjective self amidst a world of objective others.
Chod was first fully articulated by the female Tibetan philosopher-adept Machik Labdron (Ma gcig labs kyi sgron ma, ca. 1055-1149). The Chod praxis of Machik, grounded in the Mahayana Buddhist Prajhaparamita teachings, is directed toward cutting through ego-clinging and erroneous patterns of thinking. It was adopted by various monastic and lay lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and it also has a Bon corollary. The life story of Machik has been recounted in several different Tibetan biographies (rnam thar), including two complementary versions in The Explanation of Casting Off the Psycho-Physical Aggregates: Clarifying the Meaning of Chod, often referred to as The Great Explanation and attributed to Machik (Phung po gzan skyur gyi rnam bshad gcod kyi don gsal byed, or the Rnam bshad chen mo), a version in The Blue Annals (Deb ther sngon po) by Go Lotsawa Zhonnupel (‘Gos lo tswa ba Gzhon nu dpal), and a version in Dharmasengge's Zhije and Chod Dharma History (Zhi byed dang gcod yul gyi chos 'byung rin po che'i phreng ba thar pa'i rgyan). According to these sources, Machik was born in a village called “Tshomer” (“Mtsho mer”) situated in lower Tamsho (Tam shod) in E Gangwa (E'i Gang ba) of the Labchi (Labs phyi) region. Her father, Chokyi Dawa (Chos kyi zla ba), was the chief of Tshomer village; her mother, Lungmo Bumcam (Klungs mo ‘Bum lcam), gave birth to two other children: a son, Lotsawa Kheugang Korlodrag (Lo tsa tswa ba Khe'u gang ‘Khor lo grags) and a daughter, Bume (Bu med). Machik took an early interest in Buddhist teachings and became a student of Drapa Ngonshe (Grwa pa Mngon shes, 1012-1090). She would prove an able reader
of the Prajhaparamitasutra texts and would provide this service to lay persons on behalf of her teacher. Drapa Ngonshe eventually advised her to study with Kyoton Sonam Lama (Skyo ston Bsod nams Bla ma), from whom she received an initiation for the teaching named the “Cycle of Maya” (“phyir ‘khor ba'i l lam du sgyu ‘phrul”). Following an encounter with a peripatetic Indian yogi known as Topa Bare (Thod pa ‘Ba' re), she became his partner and bore three sons—Nyingpo Drubpa (Snying po Grub pa), Drubchung (Grub chung) and Yangdrub (Yang grub)—and two daughters—Kongcham (Kong lcam) and Lacham (La lcam). Later in her adult life, Machik returned to dressing as a spiritual practitioner with a shaved head and travelling to receive teachings. She eventually settled in a
cave at Zangri Khangmar (Zangs ri Khang dmar), where a community formed around her. Machik's principal male disciples included Gyalwa Dondrub (Rgyal ba Don grub, also known as Rgyal ba Grub che), who would become a principal lineage holder of her teachings.
His grandson was Tonyon Samdrub (Thod smyon Bsam grub), known as the “snowman (gangs pa) residing on Sham po gangs”; the tradition of black-hat-wearing Chod practitioners known as “Gangs pa” originated with him. A second student, Khugom Chokyisengge (Khu sgom Chos kyi seng ge), would also become renowned for his transmission of Chod teachings.
According to several traditional sources, at some point fairly early in her career Machik met and received teachings from the Indian yogi Padampa Sangye (Pha Dam pa Sangs rgyas, d. 1117), the well-known teacher of Zhije, a Buddhist tradition of teachings focused on the pacification of suffering. It has become standard to attribute the transmission of the Chod lineage from Dampa to Machik, although there is little material evidence that such a transmission
took place. Frequently invoked in support of this argument is a prose work by Aryadeva the Brahmin, Dampa's maternal uncle, The Great Poem on the Prajhaparamita (Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa tshigs su bcad pa chen mo or the Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa man ngag), and considered to be a “root text” (gzhung rtsa) for several Chod lineages that would develop later. Alternate versions of the Chod transmission history suggest that the teachings were passed from Dampa to Machik's teacher, Sonam Lama, and then to her. However, such claims are at odds with another traditional claim, namely that Machik's system of Chod was the only Buddhist teaching transmitted from Tibet to India, rather than from India to Tibet.
Extant texts that are traditionally directly associated with Machik include The Great Speech Chapter, the textual tradition of the oral instructions of the profound Chod of the Prajnaparamita (Shes rab kyipha rol tuphyinpa zab mo gcod kyi man ngag gi gzhung bka' tshoms chen mo, or the Bka' tshoms chen mo), The Supplementary Chapter of Oral Instructions of the Prajnaparamita (Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa'i man ngag yang tshoms zhus lan ma, or the Yang tshoms),
The Quintessential Chapter of the Chod System of Negative Forces, The Instructions of the Prajnaparamita (Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa'i man ngag [s]nying tshoms chos kyi rtsa ba, or the Snying tshoms), The Common Eightfold Supplementary Section (Thun mong gi le lag brgyad), The Uncommon Eightfold Supplementary Section (Thun mong ma yin pa'i le'u lag brgyad pa), and The Distinctive Eightfold Supplementary Section (Khyad par gyi le lag brgyad pa). Of
these, The Great Speech Chapter is the only one that can presently be historically situated through the existence of an annotated outline and a commentary ascribed to the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (Rang byung rdo rje). In Rangjung Dorje's Commentary on the Great Speech Chapter (Bka' tshoms chen mo tikka), he mentions texts by Machik which may no longer be extant, including the Gnad thems, Khong rgol, Gsang ba'i brda' chos, as well as a Nang ngo sprod. Rdza rong bla ma also mentions the Gnad thems, Gsang ba'i brda' chos and Nang ngo sprod, adding the Gzhi lam slong in his study entitled Gcod yul nyon mongs zhi byed kyi bka' gter bla ma brgyud pa'i ram thar byin rlabs gter mtsho.
‘Phreng bo gter ston Shes rab ‘od zer (1517-1584) classified Chod as one of the “Eight Great Chariots, Lineages of Spiritual Accomplishment” (sgrub brgyud shing rta chen po brgyad), independent transmissions that have historically flourished in Tibet. This classification was later picked up by Jamgon Kongtrul (‘Jam mgon kong sprul lo gros mtha' yas, 1813-1899) and provided a guiding principle for his Treasury of Instructions. Unlike several of the others, most notably the tenet systems (chos lugs) of Nyingma (Rnying ma), Kagyu (Bka' brgyud), Sakya (Sa skya), and Kadam (Bka' gdams), Chod did not retain its independent status. It is often claimed that Chod is found in all four of the dominant tenet systems, i.e. the Geluk, Sakya, Nyingma and Kagyu; however, unless one wants to draw parallels between Sakya Ku sa li'i tshogs bsags practice and the Chod offering of the aggregates,
there is little evidence of Chod praxis in the Sakya tradition. Chod may not have survived as an independent tradition because it never developed an institutional apparatus; rather, it became assimilated into the prevailing tenet systems. One could argue that the development of an institutional apparatus is anathema to the internal logic of Chod, which, like other yoga or practice traditions, does not lend itself to regimented organization. Yet Chod does have a kind of independent status when one considers the existence of Chodpas—practitioners of Chod—for whom Chod is their principal practice.