Chod – Cutting Through the Ego
Yangthang Rinpoche, Hawaii 1991
Many texts have been written for the practice of chod and many treasure finders have revealed chod practices. All chod practices share certain characteristics which should be known. Since we are striving to gain buddhahood by following buddhist doctrine rather than non-buddhist doctrine, it is important for us to know the origins of buddhist practices. Chod and dzogchen are the sacred teachings of Lord Buddha who taught 84,000 different categories of teachings classified into nine systems of sutra and tantra. Chod belongs to both sutra and tantra.
Sutra contains both hinayana and mahayana and each vehicle contains a system of view, meditation and action. Chod is a mahayana practice and from the sutra point of view, Chod is an expression of the philosophical view of the Prajnaparamita Sutra or on Transcendental Wisdom. This sutra is a discourse on the wisdom of the two types of identitylessness: identitylessness of self and identitylessness of meanings or appearances.
Identity of self refers to identifying the five aggregates as a truly existent “I” or self, and identity of appearances refers to identifying external appearances, such as form, sound, smell, taste, touch etc., as truly existing appearances outside the self or other than the self. From the absolute point of view, there is no truly existing self: the identified self is simply a mental grasping to a self. Similarly, there are also no truly existent external appearances; but rather, external appearances are illusory, like dreams. These two forms of grasping are the source of all dualistic appearances. Realizing that both the self and objects are not truly existent is the meaning of the wisdom of the two types of identitylessness.
The mahasiddha Arya Deva taught that chod means to sever or cut the root of dualistic mind which is ignorance, and its offshoots, the five conflicting emotions. Specifically, the two extremes of expectation and disappointment must be eliminated: the expectation of attaining enlightenment or the fear of not attaining it; the hope for something positive and the fear of something negative. Severing this type of hope and fear means cutting through the grasping at identity. Sever or cut means “to cut” as in “cut down a tree”; in this case, transcendental wisdom is cutting through the root of clinging to identity. There are two approaches to cut through this grasping to identity. One is based on studying the vast and extensive scriptures and then applying what is learned in order to achieve realization. The other way is to use the power of faith and devotion combined with the Lama’s blessings so that realization can be transferred to and realized by the mind of the disciple. These are the ways of attaining the view of chod according to sutra.
The Lord Shakyamuni Buddha turned the wheel of dharma three times; the second and third turning of the wheel of dharma represented the Mahayana teachings. During the second turning, the Buddha taught that all living beings possessed the foundational buddha nature (tatagatagarba), and the empty (sunyata) essence of buddha nature was emphasized. During the third wheel, the Buddha revealed the luminous or lucid nature of buddha nature and later, when the Buddha revealed the mantra system, he taught the indivisibility of emptiness and luminosity. Chod follows the fourth presentation in which emptiness and clarity, according to the Middle View, are integrated. The object of refuge is inseparable from self-originating awareness (rigpa) and the view of one’s own nature is understood to be the indivisible integration of emptiness and clarity. The view of chod according to mantra is the union of emptiness and luminosity which culminates in the view of dzogchen.
Once the view of the two forms of identitylessness has been attained, then maintaining the view is called meditation. Maintaining the view for the duration of one’s life is the meditation. While practicing, there will be times in your experience when, because of the blessings of the lama and because of your own understanding and contemplation of the teachings, you will feel very certain about the view in meditation, as though it were fully realized. This is not it; this is the mind progressing with the view. You must continue to meditate and maintain the view for many years. When you actually do have direct perception of the wisdom of identitylessness there is never any change; then you become a yogin. In Tibetan, yogin is “naljorpa” and “nal” refers to one who has had a direct perception of dharmata and “jor” means someone who has actualized the power of this view. Until this goal of “naljor” is reached, you must continue to practice. The external conduct or behavior of chod practice refers to the practioner’s uncontrived appearance: the hair is never cut, the clothing is natural or white and the practioner has certain instruments such as the larger damaru drum, bell and thighbone trumpet. These instrument serve a special purpose but there is no time to explain this tonight.
The internal conduct of chod practice is the development of the compassionate aspect of bodhicitta as a result of realizing identitylessness. At this time, compassion is constantly present and wells up as one sees the sufferings and predicaments of all sentient beings who have not realized identitylessness. This is known as great compassion. It is also the essence of dharmakaya or nature “as it is.”
The secret conduct of chodpractice is called “thulshuk” or uncontrived conduct. This means fearlessness and abstinence from expectation and disappointment, even the hope for enlightenment and realization of identitylessness; also, the fear of falling into lower samsaric realms. When “thulsuk” is perfected, the practioner is known as a thoroughly pure practioner of secret chod.
These benefits fall into three categories: temporal, intermediate and ultimate. The first temporal benefit is called “shijay” meaning to pacify, particularly to pacify the suffering of beings in the three worldly planes who have taken birth in a physical body that is not strong and healthy, a body that is afflicted with illness or incomplete faculties. Through chod pratice, the yogi is able to transform a non-conducive condition into the path which ultimately leads to liberation very quickly and actually the yogi uses the power of negative karma to overcome habitual instincts and realize dharmata. This is called “using an adverse condition to be set free.”
Another temporary benefit of chod practice is accumulating merit. Chod is a powerful means of accumulating merit because one is practicing the generosity of offering one’s body. This practice is popular among beggars or retreatants who have given up everything and live isolated in the mountains. They have nothing concrete to offer, no possession at all, except for their body. So they invite the lamas, meditational deities, dakinis, dharma protectors and lesser gods and spirits to come and partake of their body. In this manner, they accumulate tremendous merit.
While practicing chod, from the external point of view, gods and demons will appear; from the inner point of view, these gods and demons are simply one’s own conceptual proliferations that are out of control. Through realizing identitylessness, both the external and internal problems cannot harm the practioner and the practioner feels comfortable. Ultimately, the practioner establishes himself (herself) in the state of the primordial mother, Prajnaparamita.
During chod practice, we should integrate the sutra chod, which is transcendental wisdom with the essence of the profound path of mantra. This can be expressed in a threefold manner: external, inner and secret practice. The external practice of chod is to go to a qualified lama and receive the complete instructions on how to do every aspect of the practice. Then one abandons all worldly concerns, particularly, the eight worldly dharmas. One goes off to frightening and dangerous places such as burial or charnal grounds and to terrifying places where most people would not go. In Tibet, there were a hundred such places on the route the chod practioners would travel. They would spend some time in each one and then move to the next. At each place there were lots of spirit. These places are the exact type of place where external chod should be practiced because when one goes to these types of places, one calls out to the gods and spirits and asks them to create magical displays and deceptions so that the practioner can apply the view of chod.
If you are a practioner of a high view, there will be many gods and spirits who surround you and you will have an opportunity to perform the various chod visualizations and test how strong your view really is while you are having the frightening experiences of all these spirits and demons. This practice is maintained while going from place to place and if everything is going well, the demons and spirits will follow you all day and night and you will have an opportunity to constantly apply the view. In order to get pass any overwhelming fear, one shouts “phat!” very loudly and other sounds to bring oneself back to the view of realizing that the frightening display arises only from the mind, i.e. the gods and spirits which seem very real are only the display of one’s mind and nothing else. Under these most trying circumstances, one can test the realization that external appearances arise only from the mind; the normal reaction is suppressed through employing the splendor of the view. This is what the chod practioner must accomplish so that gradually, as the view deepens, the gods or spirits cannot be harmful. This is the external practice of chod.
The internal practice is to simply relax in a natural state and remain in the view while all mental phenomena, such as displays and visions, are occurring. A chod practioner would probably spend their entire life in cemeteries and uncertain places; he (she) would not return to the household and live comfortably, but for the most part, would spend their life in retreat. Westerners probably will not have an opportunity to do this. Therefore, as chod practioners who are also householders, we must try to reduce, little by little, our attachment to our household and the world. We can try to eliminate attachment to our situation while remaining in our situation, without leaving it. When we are in retreat, the more we meditate on identitylessness by doing chod and the more we actualize the awareness of the view through practice, the more we will be able to easily give up our body.
In fact, there are four sessions that are preformed daily for giving up the body and there are four different ways of doing this according to visualizations which are very profound for developing the realization of identitylessness. The first is the white feast which is the offering of one’s body through a specific meditation in the early morning dawn. The second is the mixed feast which is the offering of the body to the guests at noon time. The red feast is offered in the evening and the black feast if offered after 9pm. There are different visualizations for these four feasts according to different traditions such as Chagdud Rinpochay, Dudgom Rinpochay, Nyingtik and so on. The main point is always the same: one visualizes oneself as the Black Yogini, Troma Nakmo and then ejects one’s consciousness from the body with the sound of phat and then transforms the corpse into different offerings for the feast. If you understand the basic view, you can understand all the various practices.
Practicing the four feasts throughout the day is a means of accumulating tremendous merit. The main reason is that since there is nothing in the world that we are more attached to than our body, then it stands to reason that offering the body is a powerful source of merit. From the time we were born until now, most of our efforts have been directed to the sustenance and nourishment of our body and so we cherish it very deeply. We feed it the best foods we can find, we care for it, we want it to be healthy, we adorn it with clothes and all the things that we spend time and effort to make. Therefore, the body is more precious to us than any other precious possession. Offering a material object such as an elephant, horse or mountain is a source of merit; offering one’s son or wife is a hundred times greater because they are more dear to us; offering one’s own body is a thousand times greater because there is nothing more precious to us than our body. The great bodhisattvas of the past who realized emptiness were even able to physically give part of their body to beings who were suffering or were in need. This is only because they had truly realized identitylessness. Without this realization, it is absolutely inappropriate to give any part of one’s body because as soon as you try to offer your body, you will start to feel pain or illness and immediately develop regret. The moment you regret the deed, the merit will be lost. This is why one visualizes offering one’s body – it has the same benefit with no regret and so the chod practice is based only on visualization, mental activity – there is no physical offering of the body. In fact, it’s all considered to be artificial, if you have a lot of material possessions and never express generosity and then just visualize that you’re giving the body – this is considered hypocritical, because offering the body is also meant to be done because one has nothing else to give. And so the main point is eliminating grasping or cherishing the body and the self.
We offer the body to the objects of refuge, lamas, meditational deities, dakinis and protectors. We also imagine that it is offered to the gods and spirits and to many other beings to whom we owe karmic debts. So we actually invite all these beings to whom we still owe something to come and take whatever they want. However, we are mainly offering to the Three Jewels and thereby accumulating merit and purifying obscurations.
In the inner chod practice, one transforms the body into anything which is excellent or edible and invites the guests to partake of the feast in any way they wish. If you are uncertain about this and you are not really imagining that they are devouring the feast, then you are just playing a game with the gods and spirits whom you have invited. In order to practice you must have great compassion for all beings, our previous mothers and just let them take what they want in any way that they want. At first, it won’t be like this; we won’t be able to actually give up the body so easily, but by meditating again and again, slowly we will be able, in the actual presence of gods and spirits, to give up our body easily and certainly. When this happens, the mind is purified of obscuration and merit is accumulated; one has understood the meaning of inner chod, which is the giving up, through generosity, of our attachment to the five aggregates. Absolute chod, or the real meaning of chod, is to understand clearly that all confused perceptions arise from grasping to self. Until we have been able to sever the root of confusion, confusion will persist. For example, gods and spirits are an aspect of confused perception, and so in our chod practice, if we believe that gods and spirits really exist, then we will never be able to sever the source of that appearance. This is where many practioners deviate. They may be invited by sponsors or patrons or by a sick person to come into the home and do a pratice to get rid of spirits or illness. These misguided practioners will go and view the demonic force possession or the spirit in the house as an enemy, a truly existing entity, and then with a mind of aggression and even anger towards the entity, they will try to strike it, kill it, eliminate it through exorcism of the external enemy. They will play their damaru very fiercely and blow the thighbone trumpet intensely and say, “”Phat!” and this and that and roll their eyes back. But without having a focus on the source of that phenomenon, they will never kill that enemy or penetrate it because it didn’t arise from that. In fact, anger is what created it. It arose from grasping to self; the belief that it’s there is what created it. Until the fire is gone, there will be smoke.
In the famous story of Milarepa, when he left his cave to go out momentarily and then came back, he found that the demoness of the rock had entered his cave and had assumed five utterly terrifying emanations. Milarepa was so amazed to see these demons in his cave that he couldn’t even step into the doorway. He was filled with terror and began reciting the mantra of his meditational deity as fast as he could, and this made it worse. The demons got bigger and greater and then he began meditating upon self nature as the deity and it got even worse. Then he started wrathful mantras and this also didn’t work. Finally, in desperation, he remembered the pointing out instructions given by his lama – that all phenomena arise from the mind and that all appearances are just one’s own projection. Then he entered into the awareness of the nature of emptiness, the nature of mind, and immediately they were gone – vanished – no more. This is the well known story of Milarepa eliminating the demoness of the rock from his cave, once and for all. Until we realize that phenomena are the projections of our mind, then we can expect that wherever we go, there will always be demons, spirits and problems.
This is why Milarepa taught that if one believes in the existence of an external spirit then it will be harmful; it’s through that belief that there is a truly existing spirit that harm is produced by that spirit. On the other hand, if one understands that it is only the display of the mind, then the demon is eliminated and harm or nonconducive circumstances are avoided. Realizing the empty nature of mind is the meaning of chod; severing or cutting through the wrong concept, one is set free from harm. If one is unable to practice chod, then many obstacles and illness will be experienced as well as deviations on the path because one’s mind is the demon. If one realizes the nature of mind, then the demon immediately becomes the deity and the deity gives spiritual attainments. This is totally dependant on recognizing the play of the mind. If we cannot recognize phenomena as the play of the mind, and we hold to phenomena as being true in themselves, then spirits will increase and keep on increasing.
These days, there are many practioners who claim to have all these powers in their chod practice and most of it is based on the different demons they have exorcised etc. For the most part, they probably haven’t been able to eliminate any of the inner demons, the demon of the mind, and so their inner demon keeps growing too. They have no understanding about the absolute meaning of chod and their mind is blessed with demonic energy or inflated pride in their practice. They become more arrogant, more attached to cyclic existence and they fall deeper into the mud of samsara. They receive offerings which they consume for their own purpose and this means that the demon has actually gotten hold of their mind. At first, it is an external demon, but the more it is produced, the more it becomes an inner demon and then a major obstacle.
If one is practicing chod correctly, pride and arrogance lessen, attachment to compulsory attractions, worldliness, samsara and its eight worldly concerns decrease. As the eight worldly dharmas fall off, one is only thinking about dharma. For most of us, this is difficult. Even in the context of chod practice, we keep on generating our attachment and aversion, which is the very thing that is meant to be eliminated. How does this work? For example, if we were going to do an exorcism for someone, usually it is someone we like, a relative or friend, a student or patron. So one goes there and makes the triangle to catch the demon; makes the effigy and goes through the ceremony in a state of anger towards the enemy and attachment towards the one who is being defended. In fact, in real chod practice, one should have no attachment or aversion; one should have compassion for both enemy and friend because from countless past lifetimes until now, both have been unable to realize the profound meaning of chod or even to meet with dharma and actualize it in a significant fashion. Both have been wandering the three realms of cyclic existence.
Through realizing that all appearances are empty, compassion spontaneously arises and the demons and spirits are pacified. This is the only way. If one has anger or attachment, not only does it not bring any benefit, but it makes the situation worse. Therefore, the main point is to realize identitylessness and allow compassion to arise spontaneously. This is why Milarepa taught that these days, most practioners of chod develop some power through the force of their meditation and mantra recitation and yet they use that potency in an external fashion and so it develops into demons and other types of incorrect perceptions.
“My tradition is not like this. My tradition is to use the potency of one’s practice and one’s miraculous abilities to turn inwardly and to apply it to the real enemy which is grasping to self; to sever or cut the cord of self-grasping through uncontrived conduct, thus eliminating the four demons: external demons – gods and spirits; internal demons – five conflicting emotions; the demon of bliss and pleasure and fourthly, the demon which is the source of them all, grasping to self. These four are to be eliminated by turning one’s potency inwardly.”
We should follow this advice and our chod should be the tradition of inner application so that we can eradicate the root of the problem. These are the main points for the practice of chod. There are various texts and visualizations. It is most important to know that to really practice chod as has been explained, is very difficult – the visualizations are difficult, really doing the practice is difficult, travelling to charnel grounds is difficult, giving up one’s body and just being a wandering ascetic is difficult etc. At least, try to do the practice as a householder. Ideally we should receive an empowerment, a full commentary and then do a chod retreat. We should always keep in mind that according to the tradition of Machik Lapdron and Yeshay Tsogyal, chod is the practice of generating compassion for the gods and spirits. Keep in mind that compassion is the key.
In a chod retreat, performing the four feasts is recommended, offering the body four times throughout the day and then dedicating the merit for the liberation of all beings. After the white feast in the morning, it’s very good to offer a peaceful smoke offering, i.e. burning and offering the three sweet substances and the three white substances making an abundance of juniper smoke so that all the peaceful spirits can come and partake. After the red feast at night, make the offering of wrathful smoke, putting a little bit of fresh meat with blood. It doesn’t have to be a lot; just a little. At all times and in all situations, a chod practioner should try to simply watch the reactions of the mind, particularly fear, expectation and disappointment and to view them in emptiness; to see that otherwise it is a demon arising from the mind. This will bring great benefit.
Gods and spirits only come out at night when it’s dark; they are attracted to the smell of burning meat and blood. If you put some medicine, “dutsi men”, into the substances that you are burning, they will smell the dharma medicine and immediately bodhicitta will arise in their minds. Otherwise, they have only negative attitudes. Also, you must always recite OM MANI PAMAY HUNG after you make these offerings or offer your body. The final part of chod practice is the recitation of OM MANI PAYMAY HUNG; this brings tremendous benefit to all sentient beings. It is called liberation through hearing, and truly it is. So we should understand that the smell of the dharma medicine, hearing the sound of the mantra and also connecting with one’s own bodhicitta are very powerful practices. They should always be there. Finally, we should check up on ourselves every day, by investigating if, having practiced chod for sometime, our worldly concerns have decreased; if cherishing our body has decreased; if conflicting emotions have declined; if phenomena are perceived as truly and inherently existent; if gods and demons are regarded as real, etc. If you find that these things have decreased, then it means that chod is becoming the path and the path is really becoming the practice. If that is the case, you should always maintain Troma, the black dakini, as your meditational deity and repeat the mantra, trying to realize the essence of the path, receiving the blessings of the dakinis by increasing one’s own wisdom awareness. You should apply great effort in this direction, particularly if you are having these signs of accomplishment.
You should know that there are countless chod practices; basically one is found in every terma revelation. Also, take note that chod belongs to two lineages that are founded from the original translation school, the lineage of kama, as well as the lineage of terma. The lineage of kama is the original lineage of Buddha’s teachings that was brought to Tibet. Chod began with the second turning of the wheel of dharma when the Buddha taught transcendental wisdom, the Prajnaparamita. The principal scholar who commented on the second turning of the wheel of dharma was Nagarjuna and he wrote many commentaries on the nature of emptiness. His principal disciple was Arya Deva and from this lineage came Padampa Sangye who travelled to Tibet and met his main disciple, Machik Lapdron, a woman and famous emanation of Tara. He gave her all of the chod transmissions and she spread them throughout the land of Tibet. Up to now, the kama lineage has been passed in an unbroken line from teacher to disciple. First the disciple accomplished the teaching and then, as a teacher, passed it to the next disciple and so on. It’s a long lineage but it originated with the
The terma lineage was brought to Tibet by Guru Rinpochay. However, Guru Rinpochay is connected to the kama lineage because he studied in India and was an Indian saint who studied with Arya Nagarjuna and Arya Deva and then later brought the knowledge into Tibet, at which time he created the terma lineage, the lineage of revealed and rediscovered treasures. He taught his principal disciples and gave them practices until they themselves achieved realization and at that time, the ritual texts that he gave were either buried in their minds or in Tibet, in the earth, rocks, rivers, lakes and everywhere. Then he prophesied that each of these disciples would reincarnate over the centuries and reveal specific treasures that were pertinent to the sentient beings of that time.
These termas contain many different chod practices and they have been revealed according to the prophecies. Over time, we have found many terma chod lineages such as Chakgong, Nyingtik etc. Now these terma lineages are considered to be a little closer to us than the kama lineage because of Guru Rinpochay and his disciples and then the reincarnations of the discples who revealed the termas and passed them directly to us. So in the terma lineage there is no long line of teacher-disciple, teacher-disciple as found in the kama lineage. The terma lineage is considered to be very swift and very close; its blessings are very fresh and haven’t been watered down. Whatever lineage you meet, it will belong to both kama and terma lineages.
The most important thing to know is that all these are the teachings of the Buddha. Have no doubt. Sometimes we might think; “Oh, this is a practice that some lama has made up”; “It’s lamaism”; or, “It was made up in Tibet and brought here.” This is not the case at all. If the lama is a pure lineage holder, you can be certain that the practice that you are being given is a practice spoken by the Lord Buddha and this can be fully documented. In chod, the principal meditational deity is Yeshay Tsogyal or Troma Nakmo, the Black Dakini as the female wisdom energy is involved in this practice. In some texts, the dakini is red or black, or at first red and then black; sometime she holds the curved blade in her right hand; sometimes the damaru in her right hand and a thigh bone in her left; sometime she is holding a curved blade in her right hand and a skull in her left. As a dakini she is the expression of divine wisdom; when she appears in red she is more peaceful and she appears in black, more wrathful. However the wrathfulness is the intensity of her compassion and isn’t anger. She is the mother or source of all buddhas called Prajnaparamita, or transcendental wisdom.