A Study on Chöd Practice
Dear friends around the world,
Since the time of the previous Buddhas, enlightened beings have manifested numerous bodhicitta actions to be an example of Buddhahood to lead sentient beings onto the path of liberation. These enlightened beings’ actions and activities later became different Mahayana Buddhist practices, teaching us the way to achieve Buddhahood with that bodhicitta motivation to liberate oneself and all sentient beings from the state of suffering.
One of the practices that helps to cultivate bodhicitta is giving. When practitioners put giving into practice, the subject of their giving is usually the needy, the poor, the sick and, less often, animals. What is rare and easily forgotten is giving to unseen and formless beings. As they are also sentient beings stuck in a cyclic existence determined by karma, they are like any one of us and they too will know hunger, pain, joy, sadness and fear.
For those who practise giving to humans, animals and spirits, the offering of food is the most common. What is incredible is that there exists a Tibetan tantric meditation practice known as ‘Chöd’, in which a practitioner can even offer their own body to unseen beings. The word ‘Chöd’ (Wylie: gCod) means ‘cutting off’ and the practice involves visualising one’s body transformed into food and other desired objects for unseen beings to enjoy. In this meditation, the practitioner not only offers food to practise giving but also engages in the practice of non-attachment, cutting the self-grasping and self-cherishing mind, or that sense of ‘I’ and ego that bind us in the cycle of endless deaths and rebirths. This is done by visualising our own body being offered up as food to feed the hungry stomachs of unseen beings like hell beings, demons and spirits. To be able to engage in such a wrathful visualisation and having the mind to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others, holding them more dear than ourselves, involves the cultivation of the Buddha’s nature – bodhicitta.
The Chöd practice was established in the 11th Century by the Tibetan yogini Machig Labdron but in truth, the spirit of Chöd practice existed before Machig Labdron was born. According to the Jatakas, Buddha Shakyamuni himself demonstrated the spirit of the Chöd practice in his previous lives. In one of Buddha Shakyamuni’s previous lives, he sacrificed himself by feeding himself to a hungry tigress in order to save her young cubs. In another life, Buddha Shakyamuni was the ‘Bodhisattva Monkey’, who was the king to a group of monkeys and sacrificed himself to save his group from being harmed by fruit-pickers.
The yogini Machig Labdron (1055-1149), considered the founder of the Chöd, showed exceptional signs of an extraordinary being from a very young age. Even before her birth, there were already indications that the child inside her mother’s womb was special. When others her age were still preoccupied with childish things, the young Machig Labdron already displayed well-developed spiritual gifts. At 8 years of age, she was able to recite the Prajnaparamita sutra. By the time she was 20, Machig Labdron had already renounced material comforts, luxuries, and high society that had been offered to her.
A particular event in Machig Labdron’s life laid the foundation of the Chöd lineage. Once when Machig Labdron was in a profound state of samadhi, a fierce naga king decided to attack her. Not only did Machig Labdron not fight back, she instead offered her body as food to the nagas. That surprised and moved the fierce nagas and instead of harming her, they swore to protect and assist Machig Labdron. This is exactly how Machig Labdron spreads the Buddha’s teachings, which is by demonstrating pure compassion and bodhicitta. Machig Labdron’s qualities and activities are indeed the perfect example of The Three Principal Paths.
After Machig Labdron established the Chöd practice in Tibet, it spread widely across the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, becoming especially popular in the Nyingma and Kagyu sects. This has led some to think that the Chöd practice is less important within the Gelug sect but this is absolutely not the case. From Lama Tsongkhapa, the Chöd practice was passed down to many prominent Gelug lamas, for example Gyalwa Ensapa, Mochog Rinpoche, His Holiness Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche and then all the way to His Holiness Kyabje Zong Rinpoche, who revived and spread the Chöd lineage far and wide. My precious root Guru, His Holiness Kyabje Zong Rinpoche is considered the contemporary lineage holder of the Chöd tradition within the Gelug lineage.
Practitioners of Chöd would traditionally engage in their meditations and rituals in cemeteries. Cemeteries in India and Tibet are very different to those in the West. Unlike the West where bodies are buried or kept out of sight, in Tibet and India, corpses are chopped up and left exposed to the elements, in order to feed the wild animals as a final act of creating merits for the deceased. Hence these cemeteries can be terrifying places full of violent energy.
It is said that during the Chöd ritual, the spirits will come when they are summoned and those with the third eye will be able to perceive their frightening forms or sounds. According to Kyabje Zong Rinpoche, the reason for performing Chöd in such environments “is not only to realise emptiness but also to develop bodhicitta. Having offered our body to the spirits, there is no longer any need to care about it. We should really visualise our blood as an ocean for the spirits to drink, our body as food for the spirits to eat. It is for the sake of all mother sentient beings that we give up our body. ‘Exchanging self for others’ in a graveyard is a very powerful method for developing bodhicitta because all attachment to the body ceases.”
We should not be too afraid. We must train the mind carefully. Whatever appears to us, our mind should remain calm. We may see images and hear sounds. Developing fear, our hair may stand up and we may want to flee. But it is precisely at this moment of fear that we should search carefully for the “I” that is afraid. We should then give up this “I” by offering our body to our fears and mixing our mind with space. In this way, we will find that the “I” does not exist and we will realize emptiness.
I am presenting to you below “A Study of The Profound Path of gCod” by Carol Diane Savvas in PDF format. Part One of the thesis provides a general introduction to Chöd practice, while Part Two includes a translated Machig Labdron text titled The Eight Extraordinary Chapters as well as Chapter Five of the famous text Namshll Chenmo. Part Three consists of several translations of more recent texts by Lama Tsongkhapa, Panchen Lobsang Chokyi Gyeltsen, Thu’kwan Lobsang Chokyi Nyima, Dharmabhadra and Kyabje Zong Rinpoche. Ms. Carol Savvas had the great fortune to learn about Chöd under many erudite lamas, one of whom was none other than my Guru, His Holiness Kyabje Zong Rinpoche.
You may download and read Part One of this file below but Part Two and Three are ONLY for practitioners who have received the appropriate initiation to carry out this practice. Those who have not received the proper initiatory rites are strongly discouraged from reading and visualising any of the teachings described. I placed the text here for the convenience of initiated practitioners, as the texts can be openly found in Tibetan monasteries. May you create the causes to receive this sacred lineage and practice in the very near future. Thank you.