CHOD AS SÜTRA AND TANTRA
by Michelle Janet Sorensen
Though I have here tried to illustrate how Chod both authenticates itself in terms of and innovates on extant Tantra practices, it is crucial to note that from its inception, Chod sought to harmonize Sutra and Tantra elements. In order to explain this interconnection, I will elucidate the homonyms of the
Tibetan terms “gcod” and “spyod.” In what is often considered the “root text” of Chod, The Great Poem on the Prajnaparamita^000 Aryadeva the Brahmin explicitly discusses the philosophy of the Prajnaparamita and suggests a new way of thinking of how one focuses on and actually practices the teachings of the Prajnaparamita. Aryadeva provides what might be considered the seminal use of “Chod” as a technical term and provides a functional etymological analysis of the term:
To cut through the root of mind itself, And to cut through the five poisons of mental afflictions, And because all extreme views, mental formations during meditation, And anxiety, hope and fear in activity (“spyod”), And pride, are severed (“gcod”), This is the definition of “gcod.”
In this composition, Aryadeva juxtaposes the homonymic terms “spyod” and “gcod.” The term “gcod” literally means “to cut” or “to sever,” and Chod teachings aim to assist the student to cut through the habit of self-grasping. The term “spyod” means “to practice” or “to experience.” The Chod tradition of Machik is most commonly referred to as “Gcod yul,” but there are numerous occasions when it is referred to as “Spyod yul.” The frequent occurrence of these
homonyms within texts might be due to the oral nature of many of the teachings or scribal errors. However, these terms are elaborated in various Tibetan historiographical sources, demonstrating Tibetan consciousness of the ways these terms illumine each other in the context of Chod. As a functional etymology, I would propose that “gcod”—to cut—draws attention to the tantric components of Chod, while “spyod”—to practice—draws attention to the sutric components. While the difference between the two homonyms intimates a distinction between the two threads of Chod, their application in various texts reinforces the interdependence of Tantra and Sutra lineages of Chod.
In the earliest extant treatise on Chod, the 15th century The Blue Annals, Go Lotsawa Zhonnupel suggests that “spyod yul” emphasizes the practical aspects of the Chod system which are grounded in the Prajhaparamita. He claims that the Chod system is sometimes known as “spyod yul” because Maitri[pa], a South Asian siddha (1012-1097) who was a teacher of Marpa, has said that “in the Prajhaparamita there are practices conforming with Mantra[[[yana]]].” Further consideration of these homonyms might help us think more about how the complex relationship between Sutra and Tantra aspects of Chod is reflected in the terms used to define the tradition.
Many accounts of Chod foreground practices in which one visualizes cutting through one's own body. As Aryadeva's poem emphasizes, however, the ultimate aim of Chod is to cut through mental afflictions (nyon mongs, klesa), “to cut through the root of mind itself.” This trope of “cutting” through the root of mind can be traced to early Buddhist texts. For example, in the fifth century Pali text, the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa writes that the “relinquishment by means of cutting off takes place in the one who cultivates the supermundane path leading to the destruction of contaminations.” In The Blue Annals, Go Lotsawa Zhonnupel cites Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosa (V.34) as another fifth century Indic source for Chod: “Emotional reactions are generated from holding on to tendencies (phra rgyas), from the presence of external objects, and from inappropriate mental activities.” Go Lotsawa's commentary then links the Abhidharmakosa to the system of Chod: “What should be cut are emotional reactions. If these emotional reactions are generated from tendencies, and objects, and mental fabrications of inappropriate mental activities, when the yogin has contact with an object, habitual tendencies (bag chags) are taken on. It is called ‘Gcod yul' because one precisely cuts through the emotional reactions preceded by the mental fabrication of inappropriate mental activities and objects.”
However, the term “spyod” is also frequently used to indicate the Sutra basis of Tantra practices, suggesting the complex interrelationship between “Tantra” and “Sutra” Chod. Dpa' bo Gtsug lag phreng ba, in his 16th century history, the Chos ‘byung mkhas pa'i dga' ston, analyzes the terminology of “gcod” and “spyod.” According to him, the term “gcod yul” refers to the directly received oral instructions of Chod, and literally refers to
“accomplishment.” “Spyod yul” refers to the complementary Chod practice of a bodhisattva mahasattva, one that integrates the six paramitas. Dpa' bo Gtsug lag phreng ba directs our attention to the connection between Chod and its Indic precedents in the Paramitayana, the vehicle of the bodhisattva. He also suggests that the term “gcod” invokes the oral lineage of Chod, with a tantric emphasis on “accomplishment.” By using the term “man ngag,” or “secret oral teachings,” and by emphasizing their direct connection with Machik, Dpa' bo Gtsug lag phreng ba inflects the term “gcod” with tantric meaning.
Thu'u bkwan's 18th-century study of the Tibetan grub mtha', or philosophical systems, likewise presents an analysis of the “spyod yul/gcod yul” terminology. According to Thu'u bkwan, the system is called “Chod” “because by means of compassion, loving-kindness and bodhicitta, one cuts through one's
own selfish activity; with the view of emptiness, one cuts the roots of cyclic existence.” Thu'u bkwan posits that Chod is also called “spyod” “because one practices on the path of knowledge and liberative technique, the practice of the bodhisattva.” In Thu'u bkwan's presentation, “spyodyul” invokes the non-dual lineage of “Sutra Chod”: “spyod yul” refers to the union of the “lineage of liberative technique” and the “lineage of knowledge.” In contrast, “Gcod yul” corresponds with the Tantra lineage of Chod.
In his 19th century Zhije and Chod History, Dharmasenge observes that when the Chod practitioner engages in the bodhisattva practice of aspiration and application without abandoning sentient beings, Chod is known as “spyod yul.” This observation highlights the Mahayana bodhisattva commitment of Chod. Dharmasenge's discussion of “gcodyul” echoes Aryadeva's The Great Poem when he writes that the system is known as “bdud kyi gcod yul” because by means of
it one “directly cuts through all ropes of arrogance” and “abides in the realm of the unchanging absolute, the freedom from the elaboration of the four alternatives and the eight extremes.” Dharmasengge's interpretation of Chod within the context of the “unchanging absolute” emphasizes the connection of Chod with a deeper level of understanding of the Prajhaparamita teachings, wherein conventional and ultimate truths are sublated. Dharmasengge reinforces this perspective when he subsequently equates “Gcod yul” with “de kho na nyid,” or “thatness.”
Despite this tradition of commentary, contemporary Western scholars such as Jerome Edou and Janet Gyatso tend to minimize the gcod yul/spyod yul relationship. Gyatso remarks that gcod/spyod is merely a pun (1985, 324), while Edou posits that “one should differentiate the generic term ‘chod' that refers to cutting through the ego and its emotional entanglements (and in this sense would seem as ancient as Buddhism itself),” and the Chod system
articulated by Machik (1996, 10). Edou cites a rare thirteenth century rnam thar of Machik's which insists that “‘[a]lthough numerous Buddhas and mahasiddhas did appear in this country [[[Tibet]]], [prior to Machig] no tradition existed about how to transform the aggregates into a food offering and thereby to satisfy [the gods and demons] with flesh and blood.'” With his insistence on the uniqueness of the term “Chod” within the tradition systematized by Machik (following on similar claims attributed to Machik herself), Edou implicitly discounts the “spyod/gcod” interrelation.
By attending to the two aspects of spyod yul/gcod yul, writers from Àryadeva the Brahmin to Chokyi Sengé draw attention to the Sutra and Tantra lineages of Chod. “Spyod,” “to practice,” reflects the Sutra presentation of Chod: the bodhisattva practices, informed by bodhicitta, of accumulating the merits of wisdom and compassion. “Gcod,” “to sever,” reflects the Tantra aspect wherein visualization and embodied techniques are deployed. At the same time, these writers also emphasize the intertwined nature of these two components. The complete Chod praxis incorporates both Sutra and Tantra elements, both spyod and gcod.
ANTI-LEGITIMATION AND INNOVATION
In works attributed to her, Machik frequently positions Chod in relation to established Sutra and Tantra traditions, though she claims groundbreaking status for her own teachings. A distinct element of Machik's Chod teachings is that she does not explicitly depend on a commentarial figure or figures; rather, she directly references traditional Buddhist teachings, most importantly the Prajnâpâramitâ corpus. This situates her in the ongoing Mahayana
debate regarding the exoteric gradual process of realization gained through the cultivation of perfections, or pâramitânaya, in relation to the esoteric expedient practice of arcane techniques classified as “mantranaya.” Yet this position is complicated because her teachings are obviously affected by *anuttaratantra teachings as well as the popular ideologies of phyag pa chen po and Dzokchen. Her The Great Speech Chapter employs technical *anuttaratantra words (e.g. shugs ‘byung) as well as myong tshig (lhan ne lhang nge lham me) experiential language which is associated with phyag chen and Dzokchen words.
As Matthew Kapstein has noted (2000, 120), Machik's claims for innovation were not unusual in the struggles for legitimacy during the period of the later spread (phyi dar) of Buddhism in Tibet: “[i]n the contest for authority within the Tibetan religious world, the crafting of a distinctive vision that at once established both the personal virtuosity of the author and his (or in rare cases, her) mastery of what was sanctioned by tradition became a fundamental means of self-representation” (2000, 120; 249 n. 171). Kapstein is specifically referring to Machik as the “rare case” here, and she
established the authority of Chod through this combination of virtuosity and mastery. Not only does Machik legitimate her teachings through both Sutra and Tantra traditions, but she also stakes a claim for the innovations of her teachings.
One of Machik's strategies for simultaneously authorizing her teachings and asserting their originality is her paradoxical legitimation through what might be called “anti-legitimation.” Perhaps the most obvious example of this is seen in the final chapter of The Great Explanation collection, which is of the
lung bstan, or “prophecy,” genre. This text relates a dialogue between Machik and one of her female students, Bsod nams rgyan, on the future of the Buddhist Dharma and Machik's teachings on Chod. At the end of this discourse, Machik is asked about the distinctive nature of her teachings. She first explains that her teachings are not particularly distinctive, since they are grounded in Buddhist Dharma and her comprehensive knowledge: “The meaning of my dharma system is not especially dissimilar from other [systems], either Sutra or Tantra, that have arisen from the instructions of the Buddhas. As for the meaning of
those things that are associated with the treatises and the completely pure personal instructions of the learned ones, there is nothing not known by me; there is nothing in the meaning of any such outer or inner dharma teachings, moreover, that is discordant with me.” However, she does note that the language she uses in her teachings may appear unusual because her dharma system uses dissimilar language to traditional teachings, and because she does not
rely on citations to explain or legitimate her teachings: “In addition, because I have not depended on the words of whichever previously-existing authoritative teachings or commentaries (sngon byung gi bka' bstan chos gang gi tshig), nor do I mention any root teachings or authoritative transmissions, whatever dharma system explained by me, lacking the essence of previously-existing words of the authoritative teachings and commentaries, has no interpolations (lhad ma zhugs pa rnams).” Machik posits that it is this lack of dependence on explicit citation of previous Buddhist teachings that
legitimates her own teaching as uncorrupted and uniquely hers. She acknowledges the role of citing authoritative texts in the legitimation of teachings, but points out that this would undermine the innovative nature of her own teachings: “words of Sutra and Mantra that have come from previous Sutras and
Tantras as well as authoritative teachings and commentaries, from the many authoritative transmissions (lung grangs nas), these words have become powerful as authoritatively true. Even though whatever dharma system came about would be concordant with my dharma system, it is not really the dharma system explained by me.”
Machik claims that scholastic learnedness will not qualify one to be a dependable transmitter of her system, but rather her disciples should be evaluated by the degree to which they benefit others: “Many authoritative transmissions on the words of the Sutras and Tantras by future learned ones will be dharma
compositions composed in concordance with my dharma system; however, if they were definitively concordant with the complete purity of my dharma system, then there would be many more benefits for my teachings.” Machik asserts that she is explicitly creating a dharma system for which her texts will be foundational; her teachings are consonant with the traditional teachings of Sutra and Tantra, but they move beyond a mere recapitulation of those dharma teachings to create an original tradition.
And in a move that might be described as “legitimation through anti-legitimation,” Machik notes that there is not even one word of authoritative Buddhist teaching in her system: “In the Dharma teaching as actually explained by me, moreover, as for the actual words from whatever historical words of the Buddha, commentaries or treatises, there is not even one.” This lack of authoritative language paradoxically makes her teaching authoritative because it
contains no erroneous references. This absence of explicit reference to traditional sources also makes her system distinct: “As for the discordance with the completely pure meaning of the words of the Buddha, commentaries and treatises, there is not even as much as one-hundredth of a hair's amount of error. Likewise, because the Dharma system as actually explained by me is not a meditative [system] by means of authoritative quotations, the particular
distinctions of my Dharma system from others should be understood in that way, Sons and Daughters.” This suggests that her system is legitimate and authentically in line with buddhavacana because it is in accordance with the “completely pure meaning of the words of the Buddha,” and this can be established through noting the benefits of her teachings rather than through “authoritative quotations.” As I will discuss in chapter six of this study, in his commentaries on Machik's
As I noted above, as a very young child, Machik was renowned as a “reader” of the Prajhaparamita Sutras, and following her death she was often represented as an embodiment of the goddess of wisdom, Prajnaparamita. The Prajhaparamita texts are foundational in the Buddhist philosophical canon and contribute to the central Mahayana Buddhist teaching of stong nyid (sunyata), or emptiness of any inherent nature in conditioned things, and the logical entailment of
the equation of form with emptiness and emptiness with form. The Buddhist teaching of emptiness emphasizes that modes of representing bodies are not independently existing, but are conditioned products that can be perceived through conceptual analysis and thus are not identical with the lived experience of human being. In Buddhist thought the theory of emptiness is complemented by that of rten cing ‘brel bar ‘byung ba (pratityasamutpada) or interdependent co-arising which is the reality of all things: there is nothing which exists independently of conditioned relationships with other things, including
conceptual designations. In the Buddhist episteme, the net or web of interdependent co-arising is a rhetorical trope to emphasize becoming, to augment the rhetoric of the Middle Way which denies the two extreme views of being/absolutism and non-being/nihilism: understanding of actuality is dependent on comprehending non-duality, interdependent co-arising, and the emptiness of emptiness. Chod employs strategies akin to Madhyamaka philosophical methods, grounded in meditations on emptiness in order to transmute attachment and aversion into a view of how things truly are in reality (yathabhutadarsana). This
process requires an explicit cultivation of the “self” in order to see its constructed nature and thus its emptiness. In Chod praxis, one generates attachment and fear of harm to oneself through practicing in extreme circumstances: severe physical environments or disturbing mental states. By exaggerating the conditions in which one becomes most attached to a sense of self, it makes the analysis and realization of the self as empty more efficacious.
One can assume that Machik's profound familiarity with the Prajhaparamita literature greatly contributed to the development of Chod. In fact, it is critical that the methodology and praxis of Chod is interpreted in the context of the tradition of the Prajhaparamita to counter the way in which Chod is often represented in Western studies: as an unduly exotic ritual which advocates the “renunciation” of the body. Such readings perpetuate the cognitive
formulations of the West, including that of a self that possesses a mind and a body. The technique of “offering” one's “self,” discriminated into psycho-physical constituents, supports the process of cultivating an awareness of one's modality as necessarily interconnected with the processes of other modalities, and ultimately an intuitive appreciation of the non-dual nature of emptiness.
As I explain more fully in the next two chapters, Chod praxis unites the analytical articulation of the constructed nature of conventional existence, as laid out in the Sutra literature of the Prajhaparamita, with embodied experiential awareness supported by the methodology and praxis of Tantra teachings. Chod meditation techniques assist in cultivating compassion as a complementary experiential process, as a “cognitive responsiveness,” to the teachings of the
Prajhaparamita. Complementing the Sutra tradition, which risks becoming over- intellectualized, “Tantra Chod” provides the practitioner with an embodied exploration of a teaching that elucidates the means of developing one's human potential. The practice of Chod cultivates liberative techniques (thabs; upaya) with the complements of wisdom (ye shes; prajha) and compassion (snying rje; karuna) as generated by the impulse to enlightenment (byang chub sems; bodhicitta).
A pragmatic perspective of the role of authority is also seen in definitions of Dharma as that which teaches the path to enlightenment, whether it is a text, a being, or something else. According to Lewis Lancaster, the special power of the words of the Buddha is supplemented by the awareness that these words are informed by yogic insights which are “open and available to all who have the ability and the desire to exert the tremendous effort needed to achieve [them],” and hence that such words themselves “need not be considered as unique or limited to one person in one time” (1979, 216). Thus the Dharma is embodied by the Buddha's speech while also transcending it.
As various Buddhist teaching traditions developed, many texts supplemental to the Tripitaka were recognized as authoritative by one or more of these traditions. Moreover, the burgeoning field of texts also produced novel strategies of justification of the authority of such texts, exemplified in such texts as the Saddharmapundarikasutra and the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita. Mahayana textual collections, even those edited in China and Tibet, were never discussed as “closed” canons, as were the collections of earlier schools. The construction of the identity of the Mahayana included not only the acceptance
of additional texts, but a gradation of the texts considered authoritative according to a logic which privileged the Mahayana texts as more comprehensive teachings of the Dharma than those found in the Tripitaka Sutras. It is a commonly-held view within the Mahayana tradition that the Mahayana Sutras were delivered by Sakyamuni Buddha himself, as is suggested by the distinctive preface, “Thus have I heard at one time, when the Buddha was teaching at [insert
location],” which has the rhetorical effect of legitimating such texts within the sutra-pitaka tradition, even though, as noted by Lancaster, there was no concern with the establishment of a canon. In relation to the use of the characteristic preface, Paul Williams observes that “source- critical and historical awareness has made it impossible for the modern scholar to accept this traditional account,” while reminding us that “it is not always absurd to suggest that a Mahayana sutra or teaching may contain elements of a tradition which goes back to the Buddha himself, which was played down or just possibly
excluded from the canonical formulations of the early schools” (1989, 29). In fact, some Mahayana traditions maintain that there was a meeting of monastics who followed the bodhisattva path, contemporaneous with the meeting of the First Council of the arhats, at which the Mahayana Sutras were recited and thereby authenticated, thus providing a legitimacy to the Mahayana Sutras equivalent to that of the sutra-pitaka and vinaya-pitaka.
Davidson states that, “[u]nfortunately for the Mahayanacaryas, establishing the Vimalasvabhava mythology was easier than getting the Mahayana-sutras accepted as the word of the Buddha” (1990, 309). This refers to the historical traditions of Bsod-nams rtse-mo and Bu-ston, which narrate that there was a Mahayana recitation parallel to the sravaka recitation, the former held at the cave of Vimalasvabhava, while the latter took place at Rajagrha (1990, 308). Davidson suggests that there was a direct correlation between the increase in popularity of Mahayana during the fourth to sixth centuries C.E. and the
increase in intensity of the polemics. The Mahayana defense was informed by eight legitimating reasons found in verse I.7 of the Mahayanasutralamkara, which Davidson (1990, 313) surveys as follows. The Mahayanasutralamkara reveals contemporaneous (and possibly abiding) anxieties through its careful refutations of various assertions, including that Mahayana is a false dharma, a later dharma, or a heretical dharma. The Mahayanasutralamkara also claims that proper cultivation of the Mahayana path, as the basis for the arising of all nonconceptual gnosis (sarvanirvikalprajnanasrayavena), functions as an
antidote for the various defilements (klesa); because only the word of a/the buddha can function as the proper antidote, Mahayana must be buddhavacana. Intricate justifications were developed for asserting that Mahayana doctrine was in fact buddhavacana, such as declaring that understanding only the literal meaning of the words of the Dharma does not substantiate a claim that the Mahayana is not buddhavacana. This argument was articulated into Mahayana
hermeneutical strategies, including those of neyartha and nithartha. Regarding the legitimation of the Vajrayana Tantra teachings, the general position according to the Tattvasamgraha is that the Buddha Vajradhatu taught the Tantras from Mount Sumeru in the period between his enlightenment as Vajradhatu and the period during which Sakyamuni Buddha (who may or may not be an incarnation of Vajradhatu ) taught.