Chöd (Tibetan: གཅོདWylie: gcod lit. 'to sever'[1]), is a spiritual practice found primarily in Tibetan Buddhism. Also known as "Cutting Through the Ego,"[2] the practice is based on the Prajñāpāramitā sutra. It combines prajñāpāramitā philosophy with specific meditation methods and a tantric ritual.


Nomenclature, orthography and etymology

(Tibetan: གཅོད་སྒྲུབ་ཐབས་ gcod sgrub thabs; Sanskrit: छेद साधना cheda-sādhana; both literally "cutting practice"), pronounced chö (the d is silent).

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.[3]

A form of Chöd was practiced in India by Buddhist mahāsiddhas, prior to the 10th Century.[4] However, Chöd as practised today developed from the entwined traditions of the early Indian tantric practices transmitted to Tibet and the Bonpo[citation needed] and Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayāna[citation needed] lineages. Besides the Bonpo, there are two main Tibetan Buddhist Chöd traditions, the "Mother" and "Father" lineages. In Tibetan tradition, Dampa Sangye is known as the Father of Chöd and Machig Labdron, founder of the Mahāmudra Chöd lineages, as the Mother of Chöd. Chöd developed outside the monastic system. It was subsequently adopted by the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Chöd, as an internalization of an outer ritual, involves a form of self-sacrifice[5]: the practitioner visualizes their own body as the offering at a ganachakra or tantric feast. The purpose of the practice is to engender a sense of victory and fearlessness.[citation needed] These two qualities are represented iconographically by the dhvaja, or victory banner and the kartika, or ritual knife. The banner symbolizes overcoming obstacles and the knife symbolizes cutting through the ego. Since fearful or painful situations help the practitioner's work of cutting through attachment to the self, such situations may be cultivated.[6] Machig Labdrön said: "To consider adversity as a friend is the instruction of Chöd".[4]

Chödpa as Avadhūta

Sarat Chandra Das equated the Chöd practitioner (Tibetan: གཅོད་པWylie: chod pa) with avadhūta:

"ཀུ་སུ་ལུ་པ ku-su-lu-pa ¿ is a word of Tantrik mysticism, its proper Tibetan equivalent being གཅོད་པ gcod-pa, the art of exorcism. The mystic Tantrik rites of the Avadhauts, called Avadhūtipa in Tibet, exist in India."[7]

NB: ¿ = kusulu or kusulupa (Sanskrit; Tibetan loanword) that is studying texts rarely whilst focusing on meditation and praxis. Often used disparagingly by pandits.

Avadhūtas, or 'mad saints,' are well known for their 'crazy wisdom.' Chöd practitioners (chödpas) are a type of avadhūta particularly respected, detested, feared or held in awe due to their role as denizens of the charnel ground. Edou says they 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."[8]


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. Iconographicallyally, 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. Some commentators see the Chöd ritual as cognate with the prototypical initiation of a shaman.[citation needed] Traditionally, Chöd is regarded as challenging, potentially dangerous and inappropriate for some practitioners.[9]

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 sādhana of Jigme Lingpa from the Longchen Nyingthig terma, five ritual knives (phurbas), are employed to demarcate the maṇḍala of the offering and to affix the five wisdoms.[10]

Key to the iconography of Chöd is the hooked knife or skin flail (kartika). A flail is an agricultural tool used for threshing to separate grains from their husks. Similarly, the kartika symbolically separates the bodymind from the mindstream.[11] The kartika imagery in the Chöd ritual 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.[12]

Bone ornaments

A recurrent theme in the iconography of the Tibetan Buddhist tantras is a group of five or six bone ornaments[13] ornamenting the bodies of various enlightened beings who appear in the texts. The Sanskrit includes the term mudrā, meaning "seal".[14] 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:[15]

  • the wheel-like[16] crown ornament (sometimes called "crown jewel"),[17] symbolic of Akṣobhya and mirror-like pristine awareness[18]
  • the earings[19] representing Amitābha and the pristine awareness of discernment[20]
  • the necklace[21] symbolizing Ratnasambhāva and the pristine awareness of total sameness[22]
  • the bracelets[23] and anklets[24] symbolic of Vairocāna and the pristine awareness of the ultimate dimension of phenomena[25]
  • the girdle[26] symbolizing Amoghasiddhi and the accomplishing pristine awareness[27]
  • The sixth ornament sometimes referred to is ash from a cremation ground smeared on the body.[28]

Origins of the practice

Sources such as Stephen Beyer have described Machig Labdrön as the founder of the practice of Chöd.[29] 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.[30] Biographies suggest it was transmitted to her via sources of the mahāsiddha and Tantric traditions.[4] She did not found the Dzogchen lineages, although they do recognize her, and she does not appear at all in the Bön Chöd lineages.[4] Among the formative influences on Mahamudrā Chöd was Dampa Sangye's 'Pacification of Suffering'.[31]

The transmission of Chöd to Tibet

There are several hagiographic accounts of how Chöd came to Tibet.[4] One spiritual biography[32] 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, transferring 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"[33] 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.[34][35]

Third Karmapa: systematizer of Chöd

Chöd was a marginal and peripheral sādhana, practiced outside traditional Tibetan Buddhist and Indian Tantric institutions with a contraindication as caveat of praxis upon all but the most advanced practitioners. Edou[36] foregrounds the textual exclusivity and rarity of the early tradition. 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 a very important systematizer of Chöd teachings and significantly assisted in their promulgation within the literary and practice lineages of the Kagyu, Nyingma and particularly Dzogchen. It is in this transition from the outer charnel ground to the institutions of Tibetan Buddhism that the rite of the Chöd becomes more imaginal, an inner practice, that is, the charnel ground becomes 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 on Chöd consisting of redactions, outlines and commentaries amongst others:

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]

Key elements of the Practice

Chöd literally means "cutting through". It cuts through hindrances and obscuration, sometimes called 'demons' or 'gods'. Examples of demons are ignorance, anger and, in particular, the dualism of perceiving the self as inherently meaningful, contrary to the Buddhist doctrine of no-self.[40] The practitioner is fully immersed in the ritual: "With a stunning array of visualizations, song, music, and prayer, it engages every aspect of one’s being and effects a powerful transformation of the interior landscape."[41]

Dzogchen forms of Chöd enable the practitioner to maintain primordial awareness (rigpa) free from fear. Here, the Chöd ritual essentialises elements of phowa, gaṇacakra, pāramitā and lojong[42] gyulu, kyil khor, brahmavihāra, ösel and tonglen.[43]

Chöd usually commences with phowa in which the practitioner visualises their mindstream as the five pure lights leaving the body through the aperture of the sahasrara at the top of the head. This is said to ensure psychic integrity of, and compassion for the practitioner of the rite (sādhaka).[citation needed] In most versions of the sādhana, the mindstream precipitates into a tulpa simulacrum of the dākinī Vajrayoginī. In the body of enjoyment[44] attained through visualization, the sādhaka offers the ganacakra of their own physical body, to the 'four' guests: Triratna, ḍākiṇīs, dharmapalas, beings of the bhavachakra, the ever present genius loci and pretas. The rite may be protracted with separate offerings to each maṇḍala of guests, or significantly abridged. Many variations of the sādhana still exist.[45]

Chöd, like all tantric systems, has outer, inner and secret aspects. They are described in an evocation sung to Nyama Paldabum by Milarepa:

External chod is to wander in fearful places where there are deities and demons. Internal chod is to offer one's own body as food to the deities and demons. Ultimate chod is to realize the true nature of the mind and cut through the fine strand of hair of subtle ignorance. I am the yogi who has these three kinds of chod practice.[34]

The Chöd is now a staple of the advanced sādhana of Tibetan Buddhist traditions. It is practiced worldwide following dissemination by the Tibetan diaspora.

Western reports on Chöd practices

Chöd was mostly practised outside the Tibetan monastery system by chödpas, who were yogis, yogiṇīs and ngagpas rather than bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs. Because of this, material on Chöd has been less widely available to Western readers than some other tantric Buddhist practices. The first Western reports of Chöd came from a French adventurer who lived in Tibet, Alexandra David-Néel in her travelogue Magic and Mystery in Tibet, published in 1932. Walter Evans-Wentz published the first translation of a Chöd liturgy in his 1935 book Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. Anila Rinchen Palmo translated several essays about Chöd in the 1987 collection Cutting Through Ego-Clinging.[citation needed] Giacomella Orofino's piece entitled "The Great Wisdom Mother" was included in Tantra in Practice in 2000 and in addition she published articles on Machig Labdrön in Italian.[46]

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. ^ Rinpoche, Yangthang (1991). "Chod - Cutting Through the Ego". Retrieved 2009-06-04. 
  3. ^ Edou, Jérôme (1996). Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. p. 7. ISBN 9781559390392.  (Emphasis preserved from print original.)
  4. ^ a b c d e Edou, Jérôme (1996). Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 9781559390392. 
  5. ^ Sanskrit: ātma-yajñā
  6. ^ "This practice strikes right at the heart of the selfish attitude. In the practice of Chöd, rather than imagining defending ourselves from potential harm-givers, from those perceived as enemies, we imagine offering our treasured body-minds to those who might seek to harm us. We also imagine making the same offering to satisfy the needs of all beings. This requires us to examine carefully how we hold the "I" thought, and that presents a supreme opportunity to develop both wisdom and compassion simultaneously." - current version of on 12/08/2010 at 3:54pm
  7. ^ 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)
  8. ^ Edou, Jérôme (1996). Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 9781559390392. , p.61
  9. ^ Eliade, Mircea (1989), "Histoire des croyances et des idées religieuses" Tome 3, § 316, Ed. Payot. ISBN 28881600
  10. ^ Jigme Lingpa (revealed; undated); Liljenberg, Karen (translator; 2006)The Longchen Nyingthig Chöd Practice "The Loud Laugh of the Dakini"
  11. ^ A Buddhist Guide to the Power Places of the Kathmandu Valley
  12. ^ Tantric Symbols
  13. ^ Sanskrit: aṣṭhiamudrā; Tibetan: rus pa'i rgyan phyag rgya
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ 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.
  16. '^ Tib: khor lo
  17. ^ Tib: gtsug gi nor bu
  18. ^ ādarśa-jñāna
  19. ^ Tib: rna cha
  20. ^ Skt: pratyavekṣaṇa-jñāna
  21. ^ Tib: mgul rgyan
  22. ^ samatā-jñāna
  23. ^ Tib: lag gdu
  24. ^ Tib: gdu bu
  25. ^ tathatā-jñāna
  26. ^ Tib: ske rags
  27. ^ Sansrit: kṛty-anuṣṭhāna-jñāna
  28. ^ 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
  29. ^ Beyer, Stephen (1973). The Cult of Tara. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03635-2 p.47
  30. ^ Thrangu, Khenchen & Klonk, Christoph (translator) & Hollmann, Gaby (editor and annotator)(2006). Chod – The Introduction & A Few Practices. (accessed: November 2, 2007)
  31. ^ Tib: zhi byed
  32. ^ namthar
  33. ^ kuten
  34. ^ a b Thrangu, Khenchen & Klonk, Christoph (translator) & Hollmann, Gaby (editor and annotator)(2006). Chod – The Introduction & A Few Practices. Source: [2] (accessed: November 2, 2007)
  35. ^ Tantric Glossary
  36. ^ 1996: 7
  37. ^ Edou, Jérôme (1996). Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. p. 7. ISBN 9781559390392. 
  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: [3] (accessed: Friday February 12, 2010), p.15.
  40. ^ Skt: anātma
  41. ^ Harding, Sarah (2003). "Preface". Machik's Complete Explanation Clarifing the Meaning of Chod. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1559391820. 
  42. ^ Thrangu, Khenchen & Klonk, Christoph (translator) & Hollmann, Gaby (editor and annotator)(2006). Chod – The Introduction & A Few Practices. (accessed: September 28, 2008)
  43. ^ Jigme Lingpa (revealed; undated); Liljenberg, Karen (translator; 2006). The Longchen Nyingthig Chöd Practice: "The Loud Laugh of the Dakini". (accessed: September 28, 2008)
  44. ^ Skt: sambhogakaya
  45. ^ Tantric Glossary:Chöd (September 29, 2008)
  46. ^ Allione, Tsultrim (2008). Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict. Little Brown and Company. p. 262. ISBN 978-0316013130. 

Further reading

Primary Sources

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 9781559390392. 
  • 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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