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Conduct and Beneifit of Chod by Yangthang Rinpoche

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The Lord Shakyamuni Buddha turned the wheel of dharma three times; the second and third turning of the wheel of dharma represented the Mahayana teachings. During the second turning, the Buddha taught that all living beings possessed the foundational buddha nature tatagatagarba, and the empty sunyata essence of buddha nature was emphasized. During the third wheel, the Buddha revealed the luminous or lucid nature of buddha nature and later, when the Buddha revealed the mantra system, he taught the indivisibility of emptiness and luminosity. Chod follows the fourth presentation in which emptiness and clarity, according to the Middle View, are integrated. The object of refuge is inseparable from self-originating awareness (rigpa) and the view of one’s own nature is understood to be the indivisible integration of emptiness and clarity. The view of chod according to mantra is the union of emptiness and luminosity which culminates in the view of dzogchen.

Once the view of the two forms of identitylessness has been attained, then maintaining the view is called meditation. Maintaining the view for the duration of one’s life is the meditation. While practicing, there will be times in your experience when, because of the blessings of the lama and because of your own understanding and contemplation of the teachings, you will feel very certain about the view in meditation, as though it were fully realized. This is not it; this is the mind progressing with the view. You must continue to meditate and maintain the view for many years. When you actually do have direct perception of the wisdom of identitylessness there is never any change; then you become a yogin. In Tibetan, yogin is "naljorpa" and "nal" refers to one who has had a direct perception of dharmata and "jor" means someone who has actualized the power of this view. Until this goal of "naljor" is reached, you must continue to practice.

The external conduct or behavior of chod practice refers to the practioner’s uncontrived appearance: the hair is never cut, the clothing is natural or white and the practioner has certain instruments such as the larger damaru drum, bell and thighbone trumpet. These instrument serve a special purpose but there is no time to explain this tonight.

The internal conduct of chod practice is the development of the compassionate aspect of bodhicitta as a result of realizing identitylessness. At this time, compassion is constantly present and wells up as one sees the sufferings and predicaments of all sentient beings who have not realized identitylessness. This is known as great compassion. It is also the essence of dharmakaya or nature "as it is."

The secret conduct of chodpractice is called "thulshuk" or uncontrived conduct. This means fearlessness and abstinence from expectation and disappointment, even the hope for enlightenment and realization of identitylessness; also, the fear of falling into lower samsaric realms. When "thulsuk" is perfected, the practioner is known as a thoroughly pure practioner of secret chod.

These benefits fall into three categories: temporal, intermediate and ultimate.

 The first temporal benefit is called "shijay" meaning to pacify, particularly to pacify the suffering of beings in the three worldly planes who have taken birth in a physical body that is not strong and healthy, a body that is afflicted with illness or incomplete faculties. Through chod pratice, the yogi is able to transform a non-conducive condition into the path which ultimately leads to liberation very quickly and actually the yogi uses the power of negative karma to overcome habitual instincts and realize dharmata. This is called "using an adverse condition to be set free."

Another temporary benefit of chod practice is accumulating merit. Chod is a powerful means of accumulating merit because one is practicing the generosity of offering one’s body. This practice is popular among beggars or retreatants who have given up everything and live isolated in the mountains. They have nothing concrete to offer, no possession at all, except for their body. So they invite the lamas, meditational deities, dakinis, dharma protectors and lesser gods and spirits to come and partake of their body. In this manner, they accumulate tremendous merit.

While practicing chod, from the external point of view, gods and demons will appear; from the inner point of view, these gods and demons are simply one’s own conceptual proliferations that are out of control. Through realizing identitylessness, both the external and internal problems cannot harm the practioner and the practioner feels comfortable. Ultimately, the practioner establishes himself (herself) in the state of the primordial mother, Prajnaparamita.

During chod practice, we should integrate the sutra chod, which is transcendental wisdom with the essence of the profound path of mantra. This can be expressed in a threefold manner: external, inner and secret practice. The external practice of chod is to go to a qualified lama and receive the complete instructions on how to do every aspect of the practice. Then one abandons all worldly concerns, particularly, the eight worldly dharmas. One goes off to frightening and dangerous places such as burial or charnal grounds and to terrifying places where most people would not go. In Tibet, there were a hundred such places on the route the chod practioners would travel. They would spend some time in each one and then move to the next. At each place there were lots of spirit. These places are the exact type of place where external chod should be practiced because when one goes to these types of places, one calls out to the gods and spirits and asks them to create magical displays and deceptions so that the practioner can apply the view of chod.

If you are a practioner of a high view, there will be many gods and spirits who surround you and you will have an opportunity to perform the various chod visualizations and test how strong your view really is while you are having the frightening experiences of all these spirits and demons. This practice is maintained while going from place to place and if everything is going well, the demons and spirits will follow you all day and night and you will have an opportunity to constantly apply the view. In order to get pass any overwhelming fear, one shouts "phat!" very loudly and other sounds to bring oneself back to the view of realizing that the frightening display arises only from the mind, i.e. the gods and spirits which seem very real are only the display of one’s mind and nothing else. Under these most trying circumstances, one can test the realization that external appearances arise only from the mind; the normal reaction is suppressed through employing the splendor of the view. This is what the chod practioner must accomplish so that gradually, as the view deepens, the gods or spirits cannot be harmful. This is the external practice of chod.

The internal practice is to simply relax in a natural state and remain in the view while all mental phenomena, such as displays and visions, are occurring. A chod practioner would probably spend their entire life in cemeteries and uncertain places; he (she) would not return to the household and live comfortably, but for the most part, would spend their life in retreat. Westerners probably will not have an opportunity to do this. Therefore, as chod practioners who are also householders, we must try to reduce, little by little, our attachment to our household and the world. We can try to eliminate attachment to our situation while remaining in our situation, without leaving it. When we are in retreat, the more we meditate on identitylessness by doing chod and the more we actualize the awareness of the view through practice, the more we will be able to easily give up our body.

In fact, there are four sessions that are preformed daily for giving up the body and there are four different ways of doing this according to visualizations which are very profound for developing the realization of identitylessness.

The first is the white feast which is the offering of one’s body through a specific meditation in the early morning dawn. The second is the mixed feast which is the offering of the body to the guests at noon time. The red feast is offered in the evening and the black feast if offered after 9pm. There are different visualizations for these four feasts according to different traditions such as Chagdud Rinpochay, Dudgom Rinpochay, Nyingtik and so on.

 The main point is always the same: one visualizes oneself as the Black Yogini, Troma Nakmo and then ejects one’s consciousness from the body with the sound of phat and then transforms the corpse into different offerings for the feast. If you understand the basic view, you can understand all the various practices.

Practicing the four feasts throughout the day is a means of accumulating tremendous merit. The main reason is that since there is nothing in the world that we are more attached to than our body, then it stands to reason that offering the body is a powerful source of merit. From the time we were born until now, most of our efforts have been directed to the sustenance and nourishment of our body and so we cherish it very deeply. We feed it the best foods we can find, we care for it, we want it to be healthy, we adorn it with clothes and all the things that we spend time and effort to make. Therefore, the body is more precious to us than any other precious possession. Offering a material object such as an elephant, horse or mountain is a source of merit; offering one’s son or wife is a hundred times greater because they are more dear to us; offering one’s own body is a thousand times greater because there is nothing more precious to us than our body.

The great bodhisattvas of the past who realized emptiness were even able to physically give part of their body to beings who were suffering or were in need. This is only because they had truly realized identitylessness. Without this realization, it is absolutely inappropriate to give any part of one’s body because as soon as you try to offer your body, you will start to feel pain or illness and immediately develop regret. The moment you regret the deed, the merit will be lost. This is why one visualizes offering one’s body - it has the same benefit with no regret and so the chod practice is based only on visualization, mental activity - there is no physical offering of the body. In fact, it’s all considered to be artificial, if you have a lot of material possessions and never express generosity and then just visualize that you’re giving the body - this is considered hypocritical, because offering the body is also meant to be done because one has nothing else to give. And so the main point is eliminating grasping or cherishing the body and the self.

We offer the body to the objects of refuge, lamas, meditational deities, dakinis and protectors. We also imagine that it is offered to the gods and spirits and to many other beings to whom we owe karmic debts. So we actually invite all these beings to whom we still owe something to come and take whatever they want. However, we are mainly offering to the Three Jewels and thereby accumulating merit and purifying obscurations.

In the inner chod practice, one transforms the body into anything which is excellent or edible and invites the guests to partake of the feast in any way they wish. If you are uncertain about this and you are not really imagining that they are devouring the feast, then you are just playing a game with the gods and spirits whom you have invited. In order to practice you must have great compassion for all beings, our previous mothers and just let them take what they want in any way that they want.

At first, it won’t be like this; we won’t be able to actually give up the body so easily, but by meditating again and again, slowly we will be able, in the actual presence of gods and spirits, to give up our body easily and certainly. When this happens, the mind is purified of obscuration and merit is accumulated; one has understood the meaning of inner chod, which is the giving up, through generosity, of our attachment to the five aggregates.

Absolute chod, or the real meaning of chod, is to understand clearly that all confused perceptions arise from grasping to self. Until we have been able to sever the root of confusion, confusion will persist.

 In chod, the principal meditational deity is Yeshay Tsogyal or Troma Nakmo, the Black Dakini as the female wisdom energy is involved in this practice. In some texts, the dakini is red or black, or at first red and then black; sometime she holds the curved blade in her right hand; sometimes the damaru in her right hand and a thigh bone in her left; sometime she is holding a curved blade in her right hand and a skull in her left. As a dakini she is the expression of divine wisdom; when she appears in red she is more peaceful and she appears in black, more wrathful. However the wrathfulness is the intensity of her compassion and isn’t anger. She is the mother or source of all buddhas called Prajnaparamita, or transcendental wisdom.

19 Sep `10, 4:57PM

The Essential Ingredients of Chod

Chod as a tantric practice consists of the following essential ingredients:

A. The Blessing of the Lineage

In Tantric Buddhism lineage, meaning an unbroken line of proper transmissions of the teachings is essential to practice and realization. This is because what is transmitted is not just the words but something spiritual and special. Through proper transmissions the blessings of all the generations of teachers are bestowed on the disciples. Without such blessings no one can even enter the invisible gate of Tantra. Tantric practices without the blessing of lineage may be likened to automobiles out of gas.

In Tantric Buddhism lineage is always emphasized and the teachers are revered as the root of blessings. In Sutra-yanas the importance of lineage is often overlooked by scholars who lack interest in practice and ordinary Buddhist followers. This is probably the main reason why in Tantric Buddhism blessings can often be directly sensed by practitioners while in Sutra-yanas such experiences are less frequently encountered.

All tantric practices derive their special effectiveness from the blessing that is transmitted through the lineage. In the case of Chod, the blessing from Machig Labdron is the source of such blessings. All other teachers that form the various lineages of Chod are also indispensable to the continuation of these lineages; without their accomplishments and devoted services to the Dharma, the teachings would not be still available today. Therefore, we should remember their grace and always hold them in reverence.

To a practitioner who is fortunate enough to have received the blessings of a lineage, the meaning of lineage becomes his devotion, with all his heart and soul, to carry on, to preserve and transmit the teachings for all generations (of disciples, the real beneficiaries,) to come.

B. The Wisdom of Recognition and Transformation

Self-clinging is the fundamental hindrance to Enlightenment and the fundamental cause of transmigration in samsára. Although it is the main obstacle for a Buddhist practitioner to eradicate, its subtle nature and elusive ways are beyond easy comprehension. Even the very attempt to attack or reduce self-clinging might very well be indeed an expression of egocentrism, if the motive is limited to self-interest. Facing the dilemma of an invisible enemy who is possibly lurking behind one’s every move; it amounts to an almost impossible task! Thanks to the wisdom insight of Machig Labdron, the root of self-clinging has been singled out to be the body. Once this is made clear, and the body being a concrete object, the remaining task is much simpler, though not easier.

According to the wisdom insight of Machig Labdron, the real demons are everything that hinders the attainment of liberation. Keeping this wisdom insight in mind, on one hand, all judgments based on personal preferences and interests should be given up, and on the other hand, all obstacles and adversaries could be transformed by one’s efforts into helping hands on the path toward liberation. For example, a gain could be a hindrance to liberation if one is attached to it, while an injury could be a help to liberation if one uses it to practice tolerance, forgiveness and compassion.

Applying this wisdom insight to the root of self-clinging, the body, Machig Labdron formulated the visualization of Chod, and thereby transformed the root of hindrance into the tool for attaining compassion and liberation.

C. Impermanence and Complete Renunciation

The body is the very foundation of our physical existence. Even after it has been recognized to be the root of self-clinging, it is still very difficult to see how to treat it to bring about spiritual transcendence and liberation. Destroying the body would certainly end the possibility of further spiritual advancement in this life but not necessarily the self-clinging. The fact that beings are transmigrating from life to life attests to this. Ascetic practices may temporarily check the grip of physical desires over spiritual clarity and purity, but transcendence depending on physical abuse can hardly be accepted as genuine liberation. The Buddha had clearly taught that the right path is the middle one away from the extremes of asceticism and hedonism.

A fundamental and common approach of Buddhist teachings is to remind everyone of the fact of Impermanence. All things are in constant changes, even though some changes are not readily recognizable. The change from being alive to dead could occur at any moment and could happen in just an instant. Keeping impermanence in mind, one can clearly see that all our attachments to the body are based primarily on wishful thinking. To be ready for and able to transcend the events of life and death one needs to see in advance that all worldly possessions, including the body, will be lost sooner or later. Hence, a determination to renounce all worldly possessions is the first step toward spiritual awakening and liberation. Chod as a Buddhist practice is also based on such awareness of impermanence and complete renunciation. In fact, many Chodpas adopt not just the ritual practice but also a way of life that exemplifies such awakening. Many Chodpas are devout beggars or wondering yogis who stay only in cemeteries or desolate places and do not stay in one place for more than seven consecutive days.

The offering of the body through visualization in a Chod ritual is an ingenious way to counter our usual attitude toward the body; instead of possession, attachment, and tender, loving care, the ritual offers new perspectives as to what could happen to the body as a physical object and thereby reduces the practitioners’ fixation with the body, enlarge their perspectives, and help them to appreciate the position of the body on the cosmic scale. Chodpas would fully realize that the body is also impermanent, become free from attachment to it, and ready to renounce it when the time comes. When one is ready to renounce even the body, the rest of the worldly possessions and affairs are no longer of vital concern, only then can one make steadfast advancement on the quest for Enlightenment.

D. Bodhicitta

Machig Labdron emphasizes that the offering of the body in Chod practice is an act of great compassion for all beings, especially toward the practitioner’s creditors and enemies. Great compassion knows no partiality; hence the distinction of friends and foes, or relatives and strangers does not apply. Great compassion transcends all attachments to the self, hence all one’s possessions, including the body, may be offered to benefit others. In every act of visualized offering of the bodily parts, the practitioner is converting an unquestioned attachment into an awaken determination to sacrifice the self for the benefit of all. In short, this is the ultimate exercise in contemplating complete self-sacrifice for achieving an altruistic goal.

Chod is a practice that kills two birds with one stone. On one hand, the attachment to the body and self would be reduced through the visualized activity of dismemberment; on the other hand, the visualized practice of satisfying all beings, especially one’s creditors and enemies, through the ultimate and complete sacrifice of one’s body would nurture one’s great compassion. When the attachment is weakened, the wisdom of non-self would gradually reveal itself. Consequently, Chod develops wisdom and compassion simultaneously in one practice; or to put it in another way, Chod is a practice that nurtures the unification of wisdom and compassion.

In Buddhism Bodhicitta refers to the ultimate unification of wisdom and compassion, the Enlightenment, and to the aspiration of achieving it. Therefore, we may say that Chod stems from the Bodhicitta of Machig Labdron, guides practitioners who are with Bodhicitta through the enactment of Bodhicitta, and would mature them for the attainment of Bodhicitta.

Only when one is completely devoted to the service of all sentient beings can one gain complete liberation from self-centeredness. Just as a headlong plunge takes a diver off the board, complete devotion to Dharma and complete attainment of liberation happens simultaneously. Only when considerations involving oneself is eradicated, will an act in the name of the Dharma become indeed an act of Bodhicitta, of Enlightenment. Developing Bodhicitta in place of self-centeredness is the effective and indispensable approach to liberation from self, and Chod is the epitome of this approach.

E. Meditation Stability and Visualization

The visualization practice of Chod is not an act of imagination. Were it just imagining things in one’s mind, there is no guarantee that such practice would not drive one insane. To practice Chod properly one should have some attainment of meditation stability so that the visualizations are focused and not mixed with delusive and scattered thoughts or mental images. Indeed, Chod should be practiced as akin to meditation in action.

To be free from attachments to the body, we have seen above that destroying or abusing it would not do. It is the great ingenuity of Machig Labdron to recognize that attachments being mental tendencies can be properly corrected by mental adjustments. Visualizations performed by practitioners with meditation stability could have the same or even stronger effects as real occurrences. Furthermore, visualizations can be repeated over and over again to gradually overcome propensities until their extinction.

Using visualization in Chod practices the body remains intact and serves as a good foundation for the practitioner’s advancement on the path to Enlightenment, while the attachment to the body and all attachments stemming from it are being chopped down piece by piece.

Visualizations performed in meditation stability is a valid way of communication with the consciousness of beings who are without corporeal existence. Hence Chod visualizations as performed by adepts are real encounters of the supernatural kind. They could yield miraculous results such as healing of certain ailments or mental disorders that are caused by ghosts or evil spirits, and exorcism that restores peace to a haunted place.

The five essential ingredients as stated and explained above constitute the key to the formulation of Chod as a Buddhist tantric practice. A thorough understanding of the significance of these essentials is both a prerequisite to and a fruit of successful Chod practices.

Lama Yeshe chanted the Chöd sadhana at Istituto Lama Tsongkhapa in Italy in September 1983. Lama Zopa Rinpoche says about the Chöd sadhana: "Chöd cuts off the self-cherishing thought and ignorance, the greatest obstacles on the path to enlightenment. A brave way to exchange oneself for others and develop compassion, Chöd is also a quick method to realize emptiness. Without having these two, compassion and wisdom, there is no way to achieve enlightenment."

This practice strikes right at the heart of the selfish attitude. Rather than defend ourselves from potential harm-givers, here, we imagine offering our treasured bodies to those who would seek to harm us. We also give away body and mind to satisfy the needs of all beings. This forces the practitioner to examine carefully how we hold the "I" and thus presents a supreme opportunity to develop both wisdom and compassion simultaneously. Highly recommended for those with experience in lo-jong, or mind training, this technique is best practiced under the guidance of a teacher.