Machig Lapdron is one of the most renowned and beloved ofTibetan women mystics. She is said to be an incarnation of Yeshe Tsogyel, the eighth-century consort of Gum Padma Sambhava who brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet. There are many biographies of Machig, but this one is the longest and most complete that I have seen.
In the '"Life of Yeshe Tsogyel,"1 Padma Sambhava predicted that Yeshe Tsogyel would be reborn as Machig Lapdron; her consort, Atsara Sale, would become Topabhadra, Machig's husband; her assistant and Padma Sambhava's secondary consort, Tashi Khyidren, would be reborn as Machig's only daughter, and so on. All of the important figures in Tsogyel's life were to be reborn in the life of Machig Lapdron, including Padma Sambhava himself, who would become Phadampa Sangye.
Naturally there is no way to prove these connections scientifically, and for a Westerner it may seem strange that family trees are cited through reincarnation lineages rather than blood lines, but many Tibetan hagiographies (sacred biographies) commence with a history of the incarnations going back hundreds of years. Even the biography of Machig begins rather disconcertingly with the biography of a man. It turns out that this man is in fact the preceding incarnation of Machig. The extraordinary switchover into the body of a girl in Tibet from a yogi in India, through the intercession of dakinis, is an exceptionally supernatural occurrence. It is not that he dies, but rather that his consciousness is transferred to Tibet. At the end of the story we return to his body, which has remained unchanged for fifty or more years, in a cave in Southern India. In order to understand this kind of story, we must surrender our Western frame of reference, which limits our ideas of what is possible and what is impossible, and understand that, at higher levels of spiritual development, the material world can be manipulated by the consciousness, and many things become possible. In this story we find people flying through the air, cremated bodies producing sculptured forms, and vaiious other psychic phenomena. Having witnessed some of these phenomena myself, I ask the readers to put aside their ideas of the limits of the mind and body, and open themselves to further possibilities.
In Tibet and India yogis developed the mind and body while we were concentrating on scientific discoveries. We achieved our own mirades with the development of television, telephones, airplanes and so on, which two hundred years ago would have seemed equally fantastic and miraculous. Meanwhile, the Tibetans were working in the laboratory of the mind, developing themselves in the silent recesses of mountain retreats and caves. Considering the time and concentration that went into their research and training, the "miraculous" phenomena which have resulted are not so very strange.
Machig Lapdron was an integral part of the great renaissance of Buddhism which occurred in the eleventh century in Tibet. During this time there was a great deal of exchange between Tibet and the scholarly and yogic schools of India, which later ceased as Buddhism died out in India, shortly after Machig's time. There were many religious pilgrims traveling around and to Tibet, India, and Nepal. This prompted cultural and spiritual developments, and it must have been a very exciting time to have lived in Tibet.
In order to give an idea of what the Mahamudra ChOd is, I will start with a short explanation of this practice, which is the primary teaching that Machig Lapdron is famous for.
The philosophical basis for the Chöd is the Prajna Paramita Sutra. Machig was thoroughly immersed in this teaching from childhood, because she became a professional reader at an early age, and the most popular text to be read was this sutra. Professional readers were people who could read very quickly. They were sent out to the homes of lay devotees to read through a text a certain number of times. The logic behind this was twofold: first, the hearing of a text would be beneficial to the householders immersed in worldly preoccupations, and secondly, the recitation of such a text would cause the accumulation of merit. Because the Buddhists believe that every act has a certain result, a positive act causes the accumulation of positive results, and therefore a kind of stockpile of good karma could be accumulated by having sacred texts read aloud. What was considered important was the number of times something was read rather than understanding the meaning therefore the faster the reader was, the better. In this way the patron could accumulate more merit in less time and have to spend less on maintenance and gifts for the reader. Machig, from a very young age, was an extraordinarily fast reader, and so she was highly valued as a professional reader. She probably repaid her teacher by being his reader.
It was not until she made contact with Lama Sonam Drapa, who questioned her understanding and told her to reread her texts, that she gained real insight into the teaching. This, combined with her contact with Phadampa Sangye, master of the School of Pacifying Suffering (sDug bsngal zhi byed), led her to a real understanding of the teachings - intuitive as well as intellectual.
The Prajna Paramita is a very profound philosophical doctrine, and 1 will just outline the main ideas in it in order to clarify the Chöd. First we start off with the confused egocentric state of mind. This state of mind causes us to suffer, and so, to alleviate the suffering, we start to practice meditation. What happens in meditation is that the speedy mind begins to slow down and things begin to settle, like the mud sinking to the bottom of a puddle of water when it is left undisturbed. When this settling has occurred, a kind of dear understanding of the way things work in the mind takes place. This understanding is prajna, profound cognition. Then, according to Buddhist doctrine, through the use of this prajna, we begin to see that, in fact, although we think that we have a separate and unique essence, or self, which we call the 'ego,"' when we look dosely, we are a composite of form, sense-perceptions, consciousness, etc., and are merely a sum of these parts. This realization is the understanding of sunyata, usually translated as emptiness, or voidness. it means there is no self-essence, that we are "'void of a self."' If we are void of a self, there is no reason to be egocentric, since the whole notion of a separate ego is false. Therefore we can afford to be compassionate, and need not continually defend ourselves or force our desires onto others.
In order to reinforce and develop the understanding of egolessness and in order to develop compassion for all sentient beings, Machig developed the Chöd practice. In this practice, after various preliminaries, the practitioner performs the offering of the body - this is the essence of the Chöd practice. 'Chöd'" (gCod) literally means '"to cut,' referring to cutting attachment to the body and ego. First the practitioner visualizes the consciousness leaving the body through the top of the head and transforming itself into a wrathful dakini. This wrathful dakini then takes her crescent-shaped hooked knife and cuts off the top of the head of the body of the practitioner. This skull cup is then placed on a tripod of threeskulls, over a flame. The rest of the body is chopped up and placed into the skull, which is vastly expanded. Then the whole cadaver is transformed from blood and entrails into nectar, which is then fed to every conceivable kind of being, satisfying every kind of desire these beings might have. After all beings have taken their fill and been satisfied, the practitioner reminds himself or herself that the offerer, the offering process, and those who have been offered to, are all 'empty,'" and seeks to remain in the state of that understanding. The ritual ends with further teachings on the true nature of reality~ and some ending prayers for the eventual enlightenment of all beings.
Through this process, four demons are overcome. These are demons connected to the ego. It was when she understood the true nature of demons as functions of the ego by having reread the Prajna Paramita texts, that she began to formulate the Chöd. Before going on to explain the ritual instruments and so on, I would like to discuss these four demons. This explanation is based on oral explanation given by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche.
The first demon is called '"the Demon that Blocks the Senses."' When we think of a demon, we generally think of an external spirit which attacks us, but Machig realized that the true nature of demons is the internal functioning of the ego. This particular demon manifests when we see or experience something with the sense, and the senses get blocked and we get fixated on the object. For example, when we see a beautiful woman or man, as soon as we see this person the perception is blocked by the desire to possess that person. The process of perception stops, and we try to meet that person, and so on. So this is one process that must be overcome by meditation. If we are in a state of true meditation, perception occurs without this fixation with, or attachment to, the objects perceived.
The second demon is '"the Demon which Cannot be Controlled."' This is the thought-process which just runs on and on. The thought-process takes over, the mind wanders from one thing to another, and our awareness is completely lost in distraction.
The third demon is '"the Demon of Pleasure.'" When we experience something pleasurable, like eating something delicious, we become attached to this delicacy and we want to get more and avoid anything which stands between us and the object of pleasure. This does not mean that pleasure is in itself demonic, but rather that our attachment to it becomes a hindrance to remaining in a state of clarity. For example, a meditator might have an auspicious dream, which is a sign of progress, but then '"the demon of pleasure"' comes into play and he gets very attached to the dream. Or someone else might experience a period when everything goes well, he feels good physically, and so he tries to continue this good period endlessly, but it must always end in change and is therefore disappointing to us.
The fourth demon is "'the Demon of the Ego."' The ego is that with which we condition our world. It rests on the principle of '"self'" and '"other"' which causes a blockage in awareness and a lot of suffering for oneself and others.
Fundamentally, all four demons are thought-processes which block a state of clear, unattached awareness, and they all grow out of the process of ego-fixation and the lack of prajna, with the consequent misunderstanding of emptiness. The Chöd practice seeks to do away with these demons
The Chöd practice employs four methods to make sound: the human voice, the drum, the bell and the human thighbone trumpet. The drum is the size of the circle created when the hand is placed on the hip; it is similar to the drum used by Siberian shamans and by the Bon priests in the native Tibetan religion. It is double-faced, symbolizing the masculine and the feminine, with two little balls hanging from strings on either side. When the drum is played, these little balls hit opposite sides of the drum, symbolizing the inseparability of absolute and relative truth. The drum makes a deep rhythmic march-like beat, and is accompanied by a bell, the symbol of the primordial space of the feminine, which is held in the left hand. At the point when the transformed flesh of the practitioner is offered to the demons, the thighbone trumpet, which is said to summon the demons, is sounded, making an eerie whining sound. The whole practice is sung, the tunes varying according to the tradition the practitioner has learned from. Each melody has its own history developed by Chöd practitioners (called Chödpa) after many years of practice. The overall effect of these sounds combines to make a deeply sonorous, moving chant, with a beautiful melody. The use of sound is an integral part of the Chöd practice, creating a vibration within the body which would not be there if the practice were merely recited silently.
The Chöd was traditionally practiced in frightening places such as under lone trees (which were thought to be inhabited by demons), and in cemeteries (as we see, for example, in the biography of A-Yu Khadro). The direct encounter with one's fears and the transcending of them through the understanding of the true nature of demons is the essential point of the Chad practice. Tibetans are so afraid of demons that many are afraid of the Chöd practice, and it is considered very secret. I once met a nun who, in her youth, had gone into a cave to practice the ChOd. She saw something that made her so afraid that she had to do nine years of Amitabha practice (the peaceful Buddha of the Western Paradise) to recover, and when I met her she was very old and was still a bit mad.
The training for the Chöd took place in colleges founded specifically for this study. It took at least five years. Towards the end of the training the students would be sent out in groups and finally alone. Chodpas were always called in when there were epidemics of infectious diseases, such as cholera. They took care of the corpses, chopping up the bones and conducting the funeral ceremony, apparently impervious to infection. Sometimes Chödpas would be called in for exorcisms.
Chöd practitioners wore cast-off clothes, would eat the food of beggars, and lived in places most people disdained to go to. All of this is based on the example of Machig Lapdron, who lived in this way, paying no heed to conventional limitations of dress and behaviour. Chöd practitioners would travel alone or in groups, practicing the Chöd in appropriate places along the way. A-Yu Khadro followed the teachings of Mathig Lapdron and lived the life of a Chödpa for many years.
This biography is from the Pungpo Zankur Gyi Namshe Chodkyi Don Sal.
The story is as it was told to her disciples by Machig at their request. It was compiled by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye, at the request of Choje Kunga Jamyang in the nineteenth century. Although it claims to be written by Machig herself, it is probably a composite of several biographies which Jamgon Kongtrul found in his extensive research of ancient texts.