Vajrayana or Tantric practices
Vajrayana or Tantric practices in Tibetan Buddhism are often misunderstood by those outside the community of Tantric practitioners. For many, the phrase might conjure up images of sex, death, and violence without much idea about how these things are actually utilized; however, far from being an outlet through which one can indulge in these passions, Vajrayana practices are more accurately conceptualized as a highly effective set of practices through which one can achieve enlightenment in as little as one lifetime. Vajrayana has been called the “Diamond Vehicle,” hinting at the idea of indestructibility
—as it is held that once you reach a certain point in these practices you cannot regress, and the “Lightning Vehicle,” as it is comparatively faster than other methods of reaching enlightenment. Part of the ethos of Vajrayana practice is the belief that the basic state of a human being is already like an enlightened Buddha state—a state from which most are simply distracted. Following from this belief, many forms of Vajrayana meditation and other Vajrayana practices involve visualizing yourself as if you are already enlightened. While thought of as highly effective, these practices are also believed to be dangerous methods that require special training and a special initiation in order for them to be used. Indulging in Tantric practice without the proper knowledge and understanding can result in extremely negative harm to the self.
One particular form of Vajrayana meditation is known as Chod (gcod). In its current form, this practices derives from the teachings of Machik Labdron (ma gcig labs sgron), who unified various knowledge from sources such as Pa Dampa Sangye into a technique known as the ‘Chod of Mahamudra.' Machik Labdron was a Tibetan woman who is often viewed as an emanation of Tara and the Great Mother Prajnaparamita as well as a dakirii , a female deity. She is notable for being the only Tibetan to teach a distinct tradition that spread back into India and for being a woman who founded an independent tradition. This tradition—Chod—is associated with the idea of severance. Through Chod, practitioners aim to sever one's connection to the self and compassionately offer their bodies as a feast to various deities, spirits, and other beings.
The practice itself is closely associated with the idea of prajnaparamita. Prajnaparamita can be defined as the recognition that there is no intrinsic essence to either self or phenomenon. Chod has in fact been described as the Vajrayana enactment of prajnaparamita. It is rooted in the philosophy of prajnaparamita, but draws practical methods and inspiration from Tantric practices. This makes sense, given that Chod is concerned with the recognition that one's fixations upon perceptions of the self as an intrinsic and absolute reality need to be severed. In actual practice, Chod has often been performed in what could be described as “scary” places. Graveyards, charnel grounds, cremation grounds, and places such as these have been frequented by Chodpas, Chod practitioners, often at night. These locales perhaps help to test the discipline of the mind by bringing fear and thus attachment to self to the forefront of the mind. Doing Chod in these places also parallels the accepted story of Machik Labdron's previous life in the time shortly before that life was ended and was reborn as Machik Labdron—
Considering the practice of Chod in Boudha, several questions present themselves. Who exactly are the Chodpas of Boudha? What form of Chod do they practice and how do they themselves conceptualize it? Amongst these practitioners, how were they taught to practice Chod and how were they taught to use the instruments involved? The ritual music in Buddhist ritual practices has been an oft overlooked realm of study, leaving space for interesting questions involving Chod and the music involved in the practice. How, for instance, does the use of instruments in Chod compare to their use during other rituals? How does one pick which bell or drum to acquire for use in the practice? Is there one established way of learning to use the instruments or does it vary from practitioner to practitioner? Is there one correct way to play the instruments or does it vary depending on what the practitioner is doing? Through this study, the practice of Chod as a whole will be examined and some of these questions may be addressed.
A further point of interest has to do with the words that people choose to use to describe their practice. At least in the largely English speaking culture of the United States, the idea of music, dance, or other performing arts is interestingly tied to the idea of performing a ritual practice such as Chod. In English, we speak of “performing a ritual” perhaps more often than we speak of “completing” or “doing a ritual.” This betrays a certain way of thinking about ritual practices— we “perform” them; they are performances of a sort. The phrases that people choose to use to describe something are often indicative of the way that they think about that thing. Maybe people do not necessarily say what they mean, but they likely mean what they say, which is perhaps equally telling. How is it that Chod practitioners think about and talk about their practice? Words matter.
Prior to Practicing Chod...
Prior to beginning to practice Chod, there is a tripartite sequence of events that potential practitioners are supposed to undertake. These three steps are called Wang (dbangs), Lung (lung), and Ti (khrid). Wang is the empowerment, which grants permission to wear certain clothing and play certain instruments used in Tantric rituals. There are different kinds of empowerments for different types of Chod. One particular type is the “Supreme Empowerment” (dbangs chen) received by Kalsang Tso, a Chod practitioner with whom I spoke, which granted her permission to use the kangling and wear the robes of a ngakma, a Tantric practitioner. Empowerments such as these are usually granted by Rinpoches or other experienced monks.
Lung is the second step, which follows the empowerment done during Wang, and is also involved with receiving permission to practice. Lung essentially involves a Lama, Lopon (blo dpon), or Rinpoche reading all of the texts involved in the practice to the prospective students. This does not take a very long time as it is a fast reading, and things are not explained. The explanation actually takes place as the third step called Ti. During this final part of the process, the older texts in particular are explained to the students. Completing this three-part process is necessary before one begins to perform Chod; however, it is not always necessary to complete all three before beginning to learn parts of the process such as playing the instruments. For
instance, Kalsang Tso received only a Lung of sorts when she first began to learn, but later received all three parts of this initiation process. In addition to this tripartite process, there is a certain body of actions referred to as the ‘preliminary practice.' This should ideally be completed before beginning to practice Chod, but it is sometimes acceptable to complete it as you continue the process. As an idea, the preliminary practice is meant to help you purify yourself. Among other things, it consists of actions such as doing prostrations—typically in quantities of 100,000 over a period of time—while chanting, making a mandala and doing 100,000 offerings, and reciting many different mantras—once more in quantities of 100,000.
Furthermore, before actually undertaking the meditation involved in Chod, one must be aware of the three parts to the meditation process—for lack of better terms, the introduction, the main section, and the conclusion. In the introduction, the person going to meditate must be sure that their motivation for doing the meditation is to be able to help people and bring them out of misery—in many ways it is an exercise in compassion. In the main section, one applies the concept of prajnaparamita in a more practical manner—by doing the meditation itself, and in the conclusion, the practitioner must be sure to dedicate their practice for the benefit of all sentient beings.