Chöd: A Powerful and Transformative Practice to Joyful Freedom

by Cristina Sanchez

Founded by Machig Lapdron in the eleventh century, the Mahamudra

of Chöd is considered to be the first authentic Tibetan Buddhist practice.

Even more remarkable and inspiring is the fact that the founder was a

woman. For centuries Buddhism was being introduced to Tibet via male

Indian scholars and pandits. Machig Labrön (1055-1153) established the

unique and revolutionary practice of Chöd based on the Prajna Paramita

sutra and her numerous pure visions, tantric and oral instructions.

Confronted with much skepticism, Machig Lapdrön rigorously defended its

authenticity against the challenges of the greatest Indian acharyas of the day

before a large audience of practitioners. Having successfully defended the

Mahamudra of Chöd as an authentic and valid Mahayana practice, Chöd

quickly spread throughout Tibet and into India and Nepal. Chöd would later

find its way into three of the four main lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, being

propagated primarily, but not exclusively, by these lineages. There are two

main lineages of Chöd within the Gelug tradition, the Ganden Ear-Whispered

Lineage and the Dakini Ear-Whispered Lineage.

Chöd literally means “to cut,” referring to cutting our attachment to

the body and ego. In this practice we get to the core of our self-grasping

mind, the very root of samsara. Like many tantric sadhana practices, Chöd

begins with Refuge and Bodhichitta, and contains the 7-Limbs and Mandala

Offering practice, praises to the lineage gurus, and ends with a dissolution

into emptiness followed by a dedication. The central and unique practice of

Chöd is the ejection of one’s own consciousness into the heart of a wrathful

dakini. Emerging as this wrathful dakini, we then engage in an elaborate and

ceremonial offering of one’s remaining body, which is now devoid of our

consciousness, and hence free of our attachment. We transform and offer our

body in three distinct phases, first as nectar to our Gurus, the Buddhas,

bodhisattvas, yidams and protectors in order to invoke their blessings,

protection and teachings. Secondly, we transform our body into all things

material in order to satiate all beings’ desires and wishes, effectively paying

off any karmic debts and removing hindrances to our path. Finally, we offer

our body in the form of flesh and blood to those beings that would enjoy such

an offering. We give freely without clinging or fear or revulsion to all beings

with a pure motivation. Here we are instructed to invite and engage with our

demons, understanding that they are intrinsically connected to our ego.

Rather than doing battle with our demons or ignoring our demons, we

welcome them and feed them to complete satisfaction, thereby transforming

them into our most powerful allies.

One of the most special features of Chöd is the singing and drumming

of the traditional melodies. These unique melodies have their own history

and power having been developed by past Chödpas (practitioners of Chöd),

and even by Machig Lapdrön herself. As contemporary Chödpas, we must

honor the tradition brought to us through an authentic lineage and learn

these melodies and drumming patterns to maintain their validity. Herein lies

one of the most daunting parts of learning Chöd. You don’t have to be a

musical person to practice Chöd. There is no need to have prior experience

with singing or drumming. All that is required is a deep commitment and

willingness to persevere. Having been composed by realized masters, the

melodies themselves carry tremendous benefit and powerful blessing

energy. Furthermore, the deep rhythmic beat of the drum is trance inducing.

New students to Chöd quickly fatigue from drumming but with repeated

practice they can gain access to deeper energetic states where the drum

literally drums itself as if floating on one’s prana or chi. The meditative

benefits of this experience cannot be over stated. Mahamudra of Chöd, with

its unique combination of singing and drumming and various visualizations,

is a powerful practice that almost certainly yields transformative results

when practiced regularly. In H.E. Zasep Rinpoche’s words “There is no self

other than the concept of “self”. No one has found “self” in the past, not even the

Buddhas. Meditating on no “self” while beating the drum is a wonderful way to

experience shunyata.”

I received my first Chöd initiation in the Ganden tradition from H.E.

Zasep Rinpoche in Toronto in 1997. Rinpoche had received the initiation

from H.H. Zong Rinpoche, who, like Je Pabongkha Rinpoche, had received it

from Ven. Mochog Rinpoche. Like most people new to the practice, I was very

excited and intrigued while feeling overwhelmed and intimidated.  At that

time, there were no regular practitioners of Chöd that I could access in order

to learn the traditional melodies and drumming. In 1999 I met briefly with a

couple of students of H.H. Khalka Jetsun Dampa in Dharmsala, India, who

kindly instructed Matthew and me on the drumming technique. It wasn’t

until 2002 that we would get our hands on an audio recording by H.H. Khalka

Rinpoche and a few of his students that I was able to really apply myself to

learning the melodies. Since then I have maintained a daily Chöd practice and

have done several retreats on Chöd as well. Under the incredibly skillful

guidance and care of H.E. Zasep Rinpoche and also of Miya Shimada, from

whom I have learned the melodies to several Chöd sadhanas, Chöd has

become the cornerstone to my dharma practice. I have had the great good

fortune to practice Chöd in such Holy places as the Boudnath stupa in Nepal

and Mount Kailash and lake Manasorovar in Tibet.

There are as many approaches to Chöd are there are Chödpas. We

practice Chöd to deepen our realization of the three principle paths;

renunciation, bodhichitta, and wisdom realizing emptiness. We do this

practice as a profound form of tonglen, or taking and giving. We do this

practice as lojong, in order to transform our painful circumstances into

opportunities for spiritual growth. We do this practice to weaken the

stronghold of our self-cherishing minds to bring real lasting freedom and

happiness to our lives. We do this practice to meet head-on our dark shadow

side with courage and determination in order to heal and to awaken. I myself

began practicing Chöd with a strong devotional motivation, as a guru yoga,

with a deep and sincere trust in my teachers and in the lineage. In my mind,

learning the traditional practice was a daunting task and I felt that all my

efforts, regardless of their outcome, were much like Nongdro practice, not

unlike reciting 100,000 mantras or doing 100,000 prostrations. I trusted that

with continued application and devotion, my practice would naturally

develop and that inspiration and blessings would flow. Indeed they have!

Like all tantric practices, there is a science and logic to Chod. There is also a

deep and mysterious unfolding that occurs, just as it should on any

profoundly transformative spiritual journey.

If you have received the initiation for Ganden Chöd and would like to

practice, please join us! We meet every Tuesday evening from 7-8:30 PM at

Gaden Choling. If it’s too difficult to come in person, please join us via Skype.

Our Skype address is “Bigskymind1”.