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Machig Labdron & the Foundations of Chod

by Jerome Edou

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Edou's book is an explanation of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Chöd – that is, “severance” or “cutting through the ego” – and its historical development. Machig Labdrön is the source of the Chöd lineages of Mahāmudrā (the ‘Great Seal’ tradition), a substantial fraction of those extant. Most Tibetologists presume she was a historical figure; she probably lived from 1055 to 1153. Edou weaves material from several of her biographies into his explanation of the practice. The book ends with a translation of two chapters from her best-known biography that are richer for his prior presentation.

“Machig’s Chöd tradition is a dramatization and a synthesis that utilizes all the resources of the mental sphere, combining into a single doctrine the ultimate teachings of Mahāmudrā, tantric visualization techniques, and the vast pantheon of primordial forces, local gods and demons that inhabit the imagination of the Tibetan people. This appears to be the main function of Chöd: to serve as a link between the highest metaphysical vision and the popular religion” (page 76).

According to the view of the biographies, Dampa Sangyé, an Indian pandit, brought Chöd to Tibet during the second propagation of teachings from India. Machig Labdrön was at the heart of the spread of new translations and cultural development. She received transmission of practices from living and visionary sources, and passed to her students techniques that became the various Chöd lineages. Chöd developed outside the monastic system and was eventually institutionalized. It never constituted its own school – there are distinct traditions across all the Tibetan systems.

The hagiographic detail of her biography is not particularly interesting. It follows the familiar pattern of visionary accounts of Tibetan adepts: birth in a noble family, unusual and paranormal accomplishments from within the womb and throughout childhood, visionary experiences and initiation into particular practices and attaining the highest siddhis (miraculous accomplishments). More interesting are descriptions of the early practitioners, chödpas. These were ‘lay’ yogis with wandering and often outrageous lifestyles, living in caves and moving from one charnel ground (open air cemetery) to the next.

Conceptually the Chöd system developed from Prajñāpāramitā; ‘perfection of wisdom’ philosophy that contains the Heart Sutra – ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’. “In the chöd terminology, [the] notion of the reality of a self is the most powerful demon of all which must be cut down by the realization of emptiness” (page 28). Edou suggests that specific rituals such as the symbolic offering of one’s body grew out of the Bodhisattva ideal, where the emptiness of self is the ground for compassionate action.

The Chöd rite is dramatic. It uses instruments such as the drum, human thighbone trumpet and bell, all inherited from Indian Tantra. The practitioner visualises the dismemberment of their body and transforms it into a food offering. Mental and emotional afflictions are seen as demonic forces that must be conquered and annihilated. The most powerful of these ‘demons’ is the attachment to a real and permanent self. In other words, the demons are internal, not external. Chödpas consider negative conditions and adversity as friends. They generate and face frightening apparitions. They seek situations and locations that invoke fear and emotional disturbance so as to cut through them as they appear. In this way, they become fearless, eliminating the most salient obstacle to a realised state of mind.

Edou has no strong line of argument. The value of the book is in the information presented, but it falls down in its style. I learnt much from reading – but it wasn’t an enjoyable experience. Frequently I re-read a passage to be sure of the meaning. Long descriptions of lineage transmission unnecessarily repeat information already succinctly presented in a flow chart. His writing lacks clarity.

Nonetheless this is a must read for anyone interested in learning about, or practising Chöd. It’s a book that, after an initial read, one might return to and use as a reference for understanding the practice in its historical context. ( )
  AwberyWhite | Feb 11, 2010 |
A superb overview of Machig Labdron, the female Tibetan adept, and the Chod (gCod) practice that she founded and popularized. ( )
  chamekke | Jan 22, 2006 |
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