Chod and Machig Labdron

February 7th 2009

More westerners. Today Allya and Paul Burke along with Maggie Smith arrived in the car and motorcycle parking lot in front of the monastery at tea time. Since the remaining empowerments of the day where restricted to people who’ve completed a ngondro practice, a huge mass of lay people were on their way to the other Tibetan camps. The dusty white four-by-four carrying the new guests had to creep through a crowd of a couple hundred Tibetans and revving motorcycles to get to the guest house. A cow was relieving itself in front of the truck as it came to a full stop. Asked later if the crowd had slowed their arrival much, Maggie cheerfully replied, ‘No more than anything else on the way here.’

Today we completed the dakini section of the Rinchen Terdzo, the section devoted to the feminine deities that are the root of enlightened activity. We finished with a flourish of practices for Tara, Vajravarahi, Guhyajnana (Secret Wisdom, a deity mentioned in the Magnetizing Chant done regularly at Shambhala Mountain Center), Mandarava, and Yeshe Tsogyal. The very last empowerment given in this section was for a chod practice of the Mingdroling tradition.

Chod practice is quite interesting. Generally speaking, the main visualization in the practice starts with an ejection of consciousness. One visualizes that one’s consciousness leaves one’s body of flesh and blood through the crown of the head, and one arises in a form of Vajrayogini. Then one imagines offering one’s ordinary body as divine food to all enlightened beings, all suffering beings, those with whom one had karmic debts, and all spirits and demonic forces who want do harm. This kind of visualization develops insight along with strength of compassion, and it helps one relate more sanely to fears and death. Sometimes advanced practitioners deliberately practice chod in frightening places like the charnel grounds where people are brought to die, and bodies are burned or fed to vultures. They say ghosts lurk around charnel grounds, so one is able to work directly with fear and confusion. Ultimately, all appearances in life are manifestations of mind and the idea of a ghost or demon vanishes with this insight. Chod practice in a charnel ground is somewhat a fast track to realizing the truth of that.

Chod, means to severe or cut. One cuts one’s idea of there being a self. Selfless is an unfamiliar concept in the greater western world. We aren’t used to entertaining the idea that beneath our day-to-day idea thoughts and activities, the underlying assumption of a ‘me’ being there is an unnecessary addition. The idea of selflessness doesn’t say nothing is happening, that there’s absolutely nothing there. But it does say that our assumption of the ‘me’ (or for that matter, something outside called ‘it’) as being unchanging, and somehow separate from everything else in the world, is a form of confusion. Selflessness as a teaching points out that what we think of as ‘me’ is not there, can’t be found, and that somehow we function anyway. We don’t need to rely on the idea of ‘me’. The cause of our suffering is due to basing our thoughts and actions on the idea of ‘me’. If this understanding is brought to bear both on ‘me’ as well as the rest of our experience, insight and capacity to help others will eventually start blazing like a bonfire.

Chod as a practice became popular because of Machig Labdron (1031-1129), the most famous female practitioner in Tibet after Yeshe Tsogyal. Her name means Only Mother, Lamp of Dharma. It is said that when she was a baby, a third eye visibly emanated from her forehead. This was not like a normal eye, but a sign of divinity and so people had great faith in her. Machig Labdron had great intelligence and one sign of this was that she had an incredible ability to read. A good reader can read aloud one volume of Tibetan text in a day. An exceptional reader can read aloud three volumes in a day. Machig Labdron was able to read twelve volumes a day. She could see the back and front of several pages at once. When she spent a month reciting the twelve volume, 100,000 verse Prajnaparamita sutra thirty times in succession she gained complete enlightenment. The Prajnaparamita sutras are the most thorough presentation of selflessness spoken by the Buddha in the mahayana tradition.

Machig’s achievement was unique in Tibetan history because it is difficult to attain complete realization in one life through Prajnaparamita, a mahayana method, rather than through relying on the vajrayana methods of visualization, mantra recitations, and so on. Machig combined her understanding of Prajnaparamita with the chod practice that she’d received from the Indian siddha Padampa Sangye and her teaching became so popular that it even was brought to India. It was only practice from the Tibetan tradition that was verified as valid by the India panditas, the most learned practitioner-scholars, of that era.

After the tea break, we entered the protector section of the Rinchen Terdzo. Protectors are the guardians around the environment of the dharma. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche gave a practice to his students to embody this principle called kasung. Ka means command or teachings, and sung means to protect. Kasung practice is about embodying the protection of the environment that the teachings arise in. What protects that environment is awareness, not weapons or aggression. For example, at a formal teaching, a few people doing kasung practice will sit at intervals in the perimeter of the shrine room while maintaining awareness of the overall situation as opposed to taking notes or listening exclusively. One of the slogans of the kasung is, “Victory Over War.” It’s all about creating an environment of warmth and decency.

The protector principle, besides being a practice, is also an experience. While gentle, occasionally the experience can also be sharp. One of the most direct experiences I’ve had of this occurred while loading food cartons into Karme Choling’s basement during the visit of His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in 1987. I was distracted and making up a loud, senseless rhyme as I stood receiving boxes part way down the stairs to the basement outside the house. I was near enough to Khyentse Rinpoche’s window to be a distraction, but ignoring that. Suddenly one of the steel storm doors became unbalanced and slammed straight down on the top of my head. I was not hurt, but my energy was cut completely. It was like being slapped awake.

While the door falling on me was pure coincidence, the resulting message was immediate in my mind, “Slow down.” Protector practice makes us more sensitive and available to that kind of connection. Such sensitivity is particularly important when engaging in meditative practices that work with the more subtle states of mind. One wants to avoid the sidetracks of aggression, self-absorption, grasping, and other neurosis because they can upset stabilization of compassion and insight. Working with the protector principle is a guardian for one’s development along and with being the general environment around the teachings.

The protector section of the Rinchen Terdzo is divided into two main parts which each have two sub-divisions. The main sections are the male protectors and the female protectors. The male protector principle sometimes is described as facing out, protecting from obstacles coming into the environment while feminine protector principle faces in and cares for the environment like a mother, sister or servant depending one’s development. Within the male protector section there are divisions of enlightened protector energies, and more worldly ones that are not a full expression of wisdom, but are still very potent and devoted to the teachings. The female protector section is primarily devoted to feminine enlightened protectors with a few other protectors brought in. This is followed by a short section related to Bon deities and protectors.

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