THE TIBETAN PRACTICE of Chöd, literally translated as cutting, is a meditative practice, but not one done sitting quietly and comfortably on a cushion inside a shrine room. Instead, this meditation is purposely performed in frightening places, such as cemeteries and charnel grounds. Singing, dancing, and playing special bone instruments, the chöd practitioner, or chöpa, visualizes the dismemberment, cooking, and finally offering of one’s own body as a banquet to an assembly of demons, spirits, and sentient beings. The contemporary Tibetan Lama, scholar, and chöd master Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, describes the aim of the practice in his book The Crystal and the Way of Light: “By summoning up what is most dreaded, and openly offering what we usually most want to protect, the chöd works to cut us out of the double bind of the ego and attachment to the body. In fact the name chödmeans “to cut”; but it is the attachment, not the body itself, that is the problem to cut through.”
Chöd is attributed to the eleventh-century female Tibetan teacher Machig Labdron and the teachings of her teacher, the Indian Pandit Padampa Sangye. Over the centuries, chöd practice has filtered into many different lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. It also exists in the Tibetan Bön religion. Bön predates Buddhism in Tibet, and the two traditions have influenced one another greatly over the centuries. In Bön, chöd is traced to a different source, a relationship still being explored by historians and yet to be reconciled. What is clear is that chöd is a Tibetan practice that, despite its shocking nature, works in many different ways for many different practitioners.
According to Machig’s Mahamudra Chöd teaching, also called the teaching With the Object of Cutting Demons, “A demon actually is anything which obstructs one’s progress toward enlightenment…. Therefore, loving friends and relatives can become demons insofar as they obstruct one’s liberation. Especially, there is no greater demon than one’s self-grasping. As long as one has not cut this self-grasping, then all the demons are standing around with their mouths wide open.” One’s perception of demons depends on one’s capacity as a practitioner: they can be perceived as existing outside of oneself or as part of oneself. Through this practice, one can recognize those obstructions or demons and use them as a bridge to reconnect to one’s own nature, cutting the veils of one’s ego—the self-grasping demon. By feeding the demons, and utilizing generosity as a means to cut the root of ignorance—self-grasping—the chöpa clears away all obstacles to the understanding of one’s true nature. It is only by cutting the self-grasper, the most powerful of demons, that one can free oneself from all obstacles and reconnect to one’s natural state of mind, one’s enlightened nature.
What follows could be understood as a generic template common to all chöd traditions. Before performing the practice in the terrifying environment, the chöpa is taught at a peaceful site, such as a monastery, a dharma center or one’s own house. Once sufficiently trained, seated at night in a charnel ground or some other desolate spot, the chöpa blows a trumpet made from a human thigh-bone, calling all the spirits to invite them to the feast. Playing a bell and a damaru, a two-headed drum traditionally made from human skulls, he aims to enter and abide in a calm and fully aware meditative state of mind. In this state, he visualizes expelling his consciousness from his body, the former becoming a deity (most often a female one) and the latter a corpse from which the guests will feast. In the visualization, the deity severs the cranium and then chops the corpse in pieces, placing the flesh, blood, and bones inside the cranium, which becomes a cauldron. Over a low fire, the flesh, blood, and bones are cooked into nectar that satisfies all the desires of the enlightened and non-enlightened guests—Buddhas and bodhisattvas, demons and spirits, wrathful protectors and sentient beings alike. In other words, no being is excluded from this offering. After this offering—usually called a “white feast”—a second offering of a visualized “red feast” of just raw flesh, blood, and bones is offered for the more carnivorous guests, in a manner reminiscent of the Tibetan custom of “sky burial,” in which a corpse is chopped up for consumption by vultures. As the goal is to satisfy all these guests, the offerings are made in the way of a banquet—some guests may want to choose from the white banquet and others from the red.
The visualized offerings are endless, in that they suffice no matter how many guests come or how big their appetite is, and infinite, in that they transform into whatever the guests desire. As he concludes this unique offering, the chöpa feels that all the desires of every guest have been thoroughly satisfied, in both quantity and quality, and that everything one has to offer has been given. This aspect of generosity in the offering of one’s body is crucial in the chöd practice. The practitioner employs his body to finally cut the attachment to it. The body becomes the tool that the practitioner uses to play the instruments, to dance and chant vigorously, and at the same time it is the object of offering. This offering is also a “gift ofdharma” where the practitioner’s altruistic intention is that the guests feel so satisfied by the banquets that they do not want to harm anyone anymore, and instead see the benefit for themselves of developing the altruistic mind of enlightenment, or bodhichitta.
Like most Tibetan Buddhist and Bön teachings, chöd has different levels of understanding according to the different lineages and practitioners. One way of approaching the meaning of the practice is to look at what it is that different practitioners understand is being “cut.”
If what is cut is perceived as actual demons, in the sense of external natural forces or illnesses in the form of malignant spirits, one could say it is a shamanic perspective—in other words, the practitioner is in direct communication with the spirit realm and uses the chöd practice to communicate with those beings and be free from the disturbances they can provoke.
From the standpoint of the essential teachings of the Buddhist sutras, sometimes called the path of renunciation, it refers to cutting negative emotions or hindrances to practice by means of abandoning them, offering them up, and acting in accordance with Buddhist teachings on ethics, such as the Prajnaparamita, or Perfection of Wisdom sutra. In theJataka Tales, a collection of folktale-like stories of previous births of the Buddha, there are “gift of the body” tales in which bodhisattvas in the form of animals sacrifice themselves for the good of others. These can also be seen as sutric inspirations for the chöd practice. As Buddhist scholar Reiko Ohnuma writes, “Perhaps what these stories attempt to suggest is that the Buddha’s gift of dharma to living beings should emotionally be experienced as equivalent to someone who slices up his own body and gives his flesh away.”
In the tantric view—the path of transformation based in the esoteric practices of Vajrayana Buddhism—chöd refers to cutting and cooking one’s body, usually considered defiled, and alchemically transforming it into pure nectar that becomes a wonderful offering even to enlightened beings. The flesh, blood, and bone are said in many texts to represent the ignorance, attachment, and hatred respectively that are also transformed through this practice.
In the Dzogchen, or Great Perfection, view, the path of self-liberation based in the ancient teachings of Bön and the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, it refers to cutting through the root of the thought process, in other words, cutting off the “demon” of self-grasping and remaining in that non-dual state of self-liberation.
That it is pan-Tibetan and encompasses all these views—the shamanic, sutric, tantric, and dzogchen—is a beautiful aspect of this intricate and often misunderstood practice. Chöd addresses issues for everyone, no matter what walk of life or perspective she or he is coming from. Everyone is fed—no one is excluded. And as for its efficacy, the late Gelug teacher Zong Rinpoche asserted that it is “like taking a jet plane to Enlightenment rather than walking.”
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.