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Chöd (Tibetan: གཅོདWylie: gcod lit. 'to sever'[1]), is a spiritual practice found primarily in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon.[2] Also known as "Cutting Through the Ego,"[3] the practices are based on the Prajñāpāramitā or "Perfection of Wisdom" sutras, which expound the view "emptiness".

According to Mahayana Buddhists, emptiness is the ultimate wisdom of understanding that all things lack inherent existence. Chöd combines prajñāpāramitā philosophy with specific meditation methods and tantric ritual. The chod practitioner seeks to tap the power of fear through activities such as rituals set in graveyards, and visualisation of offering their bodies in a tantric feast in order to put their understanding of emptiness to the ultimate test.[4]

Nomenclature, orthography and etymology

Wylie: gcod sgrub thabs and Sanskrit छेद साधना chedasādhanā both literally mean "cutting practice".

In Standard Tibetan, the pronunciation of gcod is IPA /tɕøː/.

Indian Antecedents

...Chöd was never a unique, monolithic tradition. One should really speak of Chöd traditions and lineages since Chöd has never constituted a school.[5]

A form of Chöd was practiced in India by Buddhist mahāsiddhas prior to the 10th century.[6] The two practices of Chöd in Buddhism and in Bon are distinct lineages.[2]

There are two main Chöd traditions within Buddhism, the "Mother" and "Father" lineages. Dampa Sangye is known as the "Father of Chöd" and Machig Labdrön, founder of the Mahamudra Chöd lineages, as the "Mother of Chöd".

Bön traces the origin of Chöd to the Secret Mother Tantra, the seventh of the Nine Vehicles of Bon practice. There are four distinct styles of Chöd practice.[2]

Chöd developed outside the monastic system. It was subsequently adopted by the monastic lineages. As an internalization of an outer ritual, Chöd involves a form of self-sacrifice: the practitioner visualizes their own body as the offering at a ganachakra. The purpose of the practice is to engender a sense of victory and fearlessness.[citation needed] These two qualities are represented iconographically by the victory banner and the ritual knife. The banner symbolizes overcoming obstacles and the knife symbolizes cutting through the ego. The practitioner may cultivate imaginary fearful or painful situations since they help the practitioner's work of cutting through attachment to the self. Machig Labdrön said, "To consider adversity as a friend is the instruction of Chöd".[7]

Chödpa as 'Mad Saints'

Sarat Chandra Das, writing at the turn of the 20th Century, equated the Chöd practitioner (Tibetan: གཅོད་པWylie: chod pa) with the Indian avadhūta, or "mad saint".[8] Avadhūtas - called nyönpa in Tibetan Buddhism - are renowned for expressing their spiritual understanding through "crazy wisdom" inexplicable to ordinary people. Chöd practitioners are a type of Mad Saint particularly respected, feared or held in awe due to their roles as denizens of the charnel ground. According to tibetologist Jérôme Édou, Chod practitioners were often associated with the role of shaman and exorcist:

The Chö[d]pa's very lifestyle on the fringe of society - dwelling in the solitude of burial grounds and haunted places, added to the mad behavior and contact with the world of darkness and mystery - was enough for credulous people to view the Chödpa in a role usually attributed to shamans and other exorcists, an assimilation which also happened to medieval European shepherds. Only someone who has visited one of Tibet's charnel fields and witnessed the offering of a corpse to the vultures may be able to understand the full impact of what the Chöd tradition refers to as places that inspire terror.[9]


Tibetan Board Carving of Vajrayogini Dakini

In Chöd, the adept symbolically offers the flesh of their body in a form of gaṇacakra or tantric feast. Iconographically, the skin of the practitioner's body may represent surface reality or maya. It is cut from bones that represent the true reality of the mindstream. Commentators such as Tsultrim Allione have pointed out the similarities between the Chöd ritual and the prototypical initiation of a shaman, although she identifies an essential difference between the two in that the shaman's initiation is involuntary whilst a Chodpa chooses to undertake the ritual death of a Chod ceremony.[10] Traditionally, Chöd is regarded as challenging, potentially dangerous and inappropriate for some practitioners.[11]

Ritual objects

Practitioners of the Chöd ritual, Chödpa, use a kangling or human thighbone trumpet, and a Chöd drum, a hand drum similar to but larger than the ḍamaru commonly used in Tibetan ritual. In a version of the Chöd sādhanā of Jigme Lingpa from the Longchen Nyingthig, five ritual knives are employed to demarcate the maṇḍala of the offering and to affix the five wisdoms.[12]

Key to the iconography of Chöd is the kartikā (Tibetan: གྲི་གུ,་སྐྱི་གྲིWylie: gri gu, skyi gri), a half-moon blade knife for skinning an animal and for scraping hides. The practitioner symbolically uses a kartika to separate the bodymind from the mindstream in ritual.[13]

Kartika imagery in Chöd rituals provides the practitioner with an opportunity to realize Buddhist doctrine:

The Kartika (Skt.) or curved knife symbolizes the cutting of conventional wisdom by the ultimate insight into emptiness. It is usually present as a pair, together with the skullcup, filled with wisdom nectar. On a more simple level, the skull is a reminder of (our) impermanence. Between the knife and the handle is a makara-head, a mythical monster.[14]

Bone ornaments

A recurrent theme in the iconography of the Tibetan Buddhist tantras is a group of five or six bone ornaments[15] ornamenting the bodies of various enlightened beings who appear in the texts. The Sanskrit includes the term mudrā, meaning "seal".[16] The Hevajra Tantra associates the bone ornaments directly with the five wisdoms, which also appear as the Five Dhyani Buddhas. These are explained in a commentary to the Hevajra tantra by Jamgön Kongtrul:[17]

  • the wheel-like[18] crown ornament (sometimes called "crown jewel"),[19] symbolic of Akṣobhya and mirror-like pristine awareness[20]
  • the earrings[21] representing Amitābha and the pristine awareness of discernment[22]
  • the necklace[23] symbolizing Ratnasambhāva and the pristine awareness of total sameness[24]
  • the bracelets[25] and anklets[26] symbolic of Vairocāna and the pristine awareness of the ultimate dimension of phenomena[27]
  • the girdle[28] symbolizing Amoghasiddhi and the accomplishing pristine awareness[29]
  • The sixth ornament sometimes referred to is ash from a cremation ground smeared on the body.[30]

Origins of the practice

Sources such as Stephen Beyer have described Machig Labdrön as the founder of the practice of Chöd.[31] This is accurate in that she is the founder of the Tibetan Buddhist Mahamudrā Chöd lineages. Machig Labdrön is credited with providing the name "Chöd" and developing unique approaches to the practice.[32] Biographies suggest it was transmitted to her via sources of the mahāsiddha and Tantric traditions.[6] She did not found the Dzogchen lineages, although they do recognize her, and she does not appear at all in the Bön Chöd lineages.[6] Among the formative influences on Mahamudrā Chöd was Dampa Sangye's 'Pacification of Suffering'.[33]

The transmission of Chöd to Tibet

There are several hagiographic accounts of how Chöd came to Tibet.[6] One spiritual biography asserts that shortly after Kamalaśīla won his famous debate with Moheyan as to whether Tibet should adopt the "sudden" route to enlightenment or his "gradual" route, Kamalaśīla used the technique of phowa to transfer his mindstream to animate a corpse polluted with contagion in order to safely move the hazard it presented. As the mindstream of Kamalaśīla was otherwise engaged, a mahasiddha by the name of Padampa Sangye came across the vacant "physical basis"[34] of Kamalaśīla. Padampa Sangye, was not karmically blessed with an aesthetic corporeal form, and upon finding the very handsome and healthy empty body of Kamalaśīla, which he assumed to be a newly dead fresh corpse, used phowa to transfer his own mindstream into Kamalaśīla's body. Padampa Sangye's mindstream in Kamalaśīla's body continued the ascent to the Himalaya and thereby transmitted the Pacification of Suffering teachings and the Indian form of Chöd which contributed to the Mahamudra Chöd of Machig Labdrön. The mindstream of Kamalaśīla was unable to return to his own body and so was forced to enter the vacant body of Padampa Sangye.[35][36]

Third Karmapa: systematizer of Chöd

Chöd was a marginal and peripheral practice, and the Chodpas who engaged in it were from outside traditional Tibetan Buddhist and Indian monastic institutions, with a contraindication against all but the most advanced practitioners to go to the cemeteries to practice Chod. Texts concerning Chod were both exclusivie and rare in the early[37] Indeed, due to the itinerant and nomadic lifestyles of practitioners, they could carry few texts. Hence they were also known as kusulu or kusulupa that is, studying texts rarely whilst focusing on meditation and praxis:

The nonconventional attitude of living on the fringe of society kept the Chödpas aloof from the wealthy monastic institutions and printing houses. As a result, the original Chöd texts and commentaries, often copied by hand, never enjoyed any wide circulation, and many have been lost forever.[37]

Rangjung Dorje, 3rd Karmapa Lama, (1284–1339) was an important systematizer of Chöd teachings and significantly assisted in their promulgation within the literary and practice lineages of the Kagyu, Nyingma and particularly Dzogchen.[citation needed] It is in this transition from the charnel grounds to the monastic institutions of Tibetan Buddhism that the rite of Chöd became an inner practice; the charnel ground became an internal imaginal environment. Schaeffer[38] conveys that the Third Karmapa was a systematizer of the Chöd developed by Machig Labdrön and lists a number of his works in Tibetan on Chöd. Amongst others, the works include redactions, outlines and commentaries.

Rang byung was renowned as a systematizer of the Gcod teachings developed by Ma gcig lab sgron. His texts on Gcod include the Gcod kyi khrid yig; the Gcod bka' tshoms chen mo'i sa bcad which consists of a topical outline of and commentary on Ma gcig lab sgron's Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa zab mo gcod kyi man ngag gi gzhung bka' tshoms chen mo ; the Tshogs las yon tan kun 'byung ; the lengthy Gcod kyi tshogs las rin po che'i phrenb ba 'don bsgrigs bltas chog tu bdod pa gcod kyi lugs sor bzhag; the Ma lab sgron la gsol ba 'deb pa'i mgur ma; the Zab mo bdud kyi gcod yil kyi khrid yig, and finally the Gcod kyi nyams len.[39]

See also


  1. "Chöd Teachings & Practice His Eminence Garchen Rinpoche January 1–5, 2011, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Chöd literally means "to sever." What we sever is not anything in the outside world, but rather we cut through our ego-clinging, which is the very root of our afflictive emotions and suffering." - current version of
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Chaoul, M Alejandro (2009). Chod practice in the Bon tradition. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 9781559392921. 
  3. Rinpoche, Yangthang (1991). "Chod - Cutting Through the Ego". Retrieved 2009-06-04. 
  4. Harding, Sarah (2003). Machik's Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chod. Snow Lion. p. 55. ISBN 1559398418. 
  5. Edou, Jérôme (1996). Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-55939-039-2.  (Emphasis preserved from print original.)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Edou, Jérôme (1996). Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 978-1-55939-039-2. 
  7. Edou, Jérôme (1996). Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. p. 43. ISBN 978-1-55939-039-2. 
  8. Sarat Chandra Das, Graham Sandberg & Augustus William Heyde (1902). Tibetan-English Dictionary with Sanskrit Synonyms. Calcutta, India: Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, p.20. Source: [1] (accessed: Tuesday February 9, 2010)
  9. Edou, Jérôme (1996). Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 978-1-55939-039-2. , p.61
  10. Alliance, Tsultrim (1984). Women of Wisdom. Snow Lion Publications. p. 128. ISBN 1559398949. 
  11. Eliade, Mircea (1989), "Histoire des croyances et des idées religieuses" Tome 3, § 316, Ed. Payot. ISBN 28881600
  12. Jigme Lingpa (revealed; undated); Liljenberg, Karen (translator; 2006)The Longchen Nyingthig Chöd Practice "The Loud Laugh of the Dakini"
  13. "Keith Dowman / Buddhist Guide to the Kathmandu Valley". Retrieved 2014-09-25. 
  14. Tantric Symbols
  15. Sanskrit: aṣṭhiamudrā; Tibetan: rus pa'i rgyan phyag rgya
  16. Kongtrul, Jamgön (author); (English translators: Guarisco, Elio; McLeod, Ingrid) (2005). The Treasury of Knowledge: Book Six, Part Four: Systems of Buddhist antra, The Indestructible Way of Secret Mantra. Bolder, Colorado, USA: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-210-X p.493
  17. Kongtrul Lodrö Taé, Disclosing the Secret of the Invincible Vajra: Phrase by Phrase Commentary on the Hevajra Tantra Two Examinations. Rumtex, Sikkim: Dharma Chakra Centre, 1981.
  18. Tib: 'khor lo
  19. Tib: gtsug gi nor bu
  20. ādarśa-jñāna
  21. Tib: rna cha
  22. Skt: pratyavekṣaṇa-jñāna
  23. Tib: mgul rgyan
  24. samatā-jñāna
  25. Tib: lag gdu
  26. Tib: gdu bu
  27. tathatā-jñāna
  28. Tib: ske rags
  29. Sansrit: kṛty-anuṣṭhāna-jñāna
  30. Tib: thal chen: Kongtrul, Jamgön (author); (English translators: Guarisco, Elio; McLeod, Ingrid) (2005). The Treasury of Knowledge: Book Six, Part Four: Systems of Buddhist Tantra, The Indestructibe Way of Secret Mantra Bolder, Colorado, USA: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-210-X p.493
  31. Beyer, Stephen (1973). The Cult of Tara. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03635-2 p.47
  32. Thrangu, Khenchen & Klonk, Christoph (translator) & Hollmann, Gaby (editor and annotator)(2006). Chod – The Introduction & A Few Practices. (accessed: November 2, 2007)
  33. Tib: zhi byed
  34. kuten
  35. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Thrangu.2C_Khenchen_2007
  36. "Tantric Glossary". Retrieved 2014-09-25. 
  37. 37.0 37.1 Edou, Jérôme (1996). Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-55939-039-2. 
  38. 1995: p.15
  39. Schaeffer, Kurtis R. (1995). The Englightened Heart of Buddhahood: A Study and Translation of the Third Karma pa Rang byung rdo rje's Work on Tathagatagarbha. (Wylie: de bzhin pa'i snying po gtan la dbab pa). University of Washington. Source: [2] (accessed: Friday February 12, 2010), p.15.

Further reading

Primary Sources

  • Machik Labdron: Machik's Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chod (Tsadra Foundation), Snow Lion Publications (June 25, 2003), ISBN 1-55939-182-0 (10), ISBN 978-1-55939-182-5 (13), Translation by Sarah Harding (Review by Michelle Sorensen)

Secondary Sources

  • Allione, Tsultrim (1984/2000). "The Biography of Machig Labdron (1055–1145)." in Women of Wisdom. Pp. 165–220. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-141-3
  • Allione, Tsultrim (1998). "Feeding the Demons." in Buddhism in America. Brian D. Hotchkiss, ed. Pp. 344–363. Rutland, VT; Boston, MA; Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.
  • Benard, Elisabeth Anne (1990). "Ma Chig Lab Dron.” Chos Yang 3:43-51.
  • Beyer, Stephen (1973). The Cult of Tara. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03635-2
  • Edou, Jérôme (1996). Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 978-1-55939-039-2. 
  • Harding, Sarah (2003). Machik's Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-182-0
  • Kollmar-Paulenz, Karenina (1998). “Ma gcig Lab sgrn ma—The Life of a Tibetan Woman Mystic between Adaptation and Rebellion.” The Tibet Journal 23(2):11-32.
  • Orofino, Giacomella (2000). “The Great Wisdom Mother and the Gcod Tradition.” in Tantra in Practice. David Gordon White, ed. Pp. 396–416. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Stott, David (1989). “Offering the Body: the Practice of gCod in Tibetan Buddhism.” Religion 19:221-226.
  • Lawrence, Leslie L. (2002) "Csöd" ISBN 963-8229-76-4

External links

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