Monday, November 7, 2011

Chod Practice in the Bon Tradition: Tracing the Origins of Chod in the Bon Tradition

Book Review: Chod Practice in the Bon Tradition: Tracing the Origins of Chod in the Bon Tradition, a dialogic approach cutting through sectarian boundaries by Alejandro Chaoul  (Snow Lion Publications 2009)

The haunting yet beautiful melodies of chod practice being chanted with bells, damaru drum, and thigh bone trumpet can be compelling to hear. There are many different specific lineages and sadhanas of chod in the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon. The word ‘chod’ means- ‘to cut off’ - and specifically refers to severing one’s ego and cutting through all delusion to access a state of unconditioned wisdom. The practice typically involves the calling of enlightened beings, gods, spirits, and demons and visualizing offering to them one’s body cut up into pieces and also cooked into a soup.

In a forward Yongdzin Lopon Tenzin Namdak compares Buddhist and Bon versions of Chod:

“The Chod practice according to the Buddhist tradition is said to be originally based on the Prajnaparamita while that of the Tibetan Bon rests upon Tantric practices. However, in both traditions the Chod practice is performed in a manner which has more in common with Tantra than Sutra, and in both traditions it is known as a very effective and powerful practice bringing the practitioner a strong experience of profound generosity as well as liberation from self-grasping, the root of Samsara. It is, then, a forceful tool for developing one’s practice and as such, makes up one of the Four Generosities of the Bon tradition which are practiced on a daily basis.”

According to a forward by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche:

“The core purpose of chod is to turn fear into a path of liberation. The practitioner actively seeks out fearful experiences, using fear as an opportunity to visualize cutting apart one’s own physical body, symbolizing the cutting of the ego, and thus cultivating wisdom. The practitioner further visualizes transforming the body into an offering that satisfies all beings, thus cultivating generosity and detachment.”

Chod is meant to be practiced in frightening places such as cemeteries and charnel grounds and preferably after dark. Other good places to practice it are in places where spirits are said to dwell such as crossroads and where streams meet or in remote woods, mountaintops, or caves. One needs first to summon one’s own fears before they can be cut through. I have even heard it referred to as ‘cemetery yoga.’ The author notes the words of the famed teacher Namkai Norbu Rinpoche:

“By summoning up what is most dreaded, and openly offering what we usually most want to protect, the chod works to cut us out of the double blind of the ego and attachment to the body.”

First one is encouraged to master the practice in a peaceful environment then go out to a frightening place to practice. The Tibetan lamas I have witnessed doing the practice were very good at it – not so easy as the drum and bell can be difficult to play especially with speed changes and the chant melodies are challenging as well. Playing the chod drum requires a subtle mastery of wrist action and gets difficult after five or ten minutes as the wrist gets sore. So mastery takes frequent long playing. The bell in Bon, called the silnyen (or shang) is different than the ghanta bell used in Tibetan Buddhism. The striker is made of wood and the broad and mostly flat bell is played upside down. The thighbone trumpet is used to call the spirits and the drum and bell to realize the union of emptiness and appearance. The four classes of guests are summoned: the enlightened beings, the protectors, those in need of compassion, and those to whom one owes karmic debts.
The practitioner practices powa, the ejection of consciousness, through the top of the head as a goddess – usually Troma – the black Vajrayogini, but sometimes as the red dakini Kalpa Zangmo in the Bon tradition. The goddess then chops up the body and places the pieces in the skull as the cauldron for the soup. The chopping and offering is similar to the Tibetan sky burial excarnation offerings to vultures. One cannot help also noticing the chopping up of the body being similar to the shamanic motif of the visionary experience of being dismembered which is common as a visionary shamanic initiation experience. Machik Lapdron, the woman who is said to have founded the chod lineages in Tibet came from a family background of both Buddhism and Bon shamanism. Shamanism in the Bon tradition is said to be of the external vehicle, or the causal vehicle which is less refined than the tantric vehicle which chod falls under. Shamanic dismemberment forms a model for the rite and is not experienced as one might in a visionary sense but rather is visualized as a means of compassion for those benefiting from the offering. The use of the drum and other instruments is also common to shamanic trance induction as is ecstatic dancing which is also employed in Bon chod. Interestingly, Machik Lapdron is not given in the Bon chod lineages so this opens the possibility of alternative origins for the practice. Milu Samlek, a legendary Bon practitioner who wrote commentaries on the Bon Mother Tantras is associated with the Bon Chod practice. The author criticizes Jerome Edou’s book – “Machig Labron and the Foundations of Chod” – where it is stated with authority that Machig created the chod rite based on the Prajnaparamita Sutra teachings and on Padampa Sangye’s method of – Pacification of Suffering. Certainly there is a relationship between Prajnaparamita and Chod (as Machik was also said to be a master of the Prajnaparamita) as the paramita of generosity is emphasized in Chod to arrive at realization of the paramita of discerning wisdom. In the Bon tradition there are chod lineages based on all four of the (Tantric) Activities of Enlightened Beings: pacifying, enriching, overpowering, and subduing. Edou’s book, which I read years ago,  de-emphasized the shamanic influence on the practice, and mentioned the offering of the body to be more inspired by the offerings of oneself to starving beings given in the Jataka Tales of the past lives of Buddha. Also of interest is Gyatso’s note of very ancient Tibetan lore of ascension up the ‘mu’ ladder and sky door which she thinks is reminiscent of Powa – although it may be more of an astronomical ascension cult idea similar to similar ideas in ancient Persia and surrounding areas.

According to the author, in Tibet there are wandering chod practitioners (chodpas) often on pilgrimages who sometimes perform the practice for others for healing and to bring good fortune and pacification of spirits. He mentions that it can be like a form of street art where small amounts of money are offered to the traveling chodpas. Apparently, it is also thought that some of these practitioners are more performers for money who have learned the technical parts of the practice in order to earn a little extra money and so are in essence imposters with ulterior motives. According to the author, chod is not a mainstream practice and is especially not common among monastics.

The pre-Buddhist shamanic traditions in Tibet were both at odds with the early arrival of Buddhist practices from India and at the same time merged with those practices. According to Bon tradition, in contrast to Tibetan Buddhism, India was not the source of the teachings but the ancient Tibetan Kingdom of Zhang Zhung and earlier from places further west such as ancient Khotan and Tajikistan, part of both Persian and Turkic empires in different times. Of course it is also possibly that other Buddhist oriented kingdoms in central Asia could have influenced Bon as well. The author notes that whether practices are considered shamanic or institutionalized Buddhism in Tibet they both share the ideal of the mahayana form of compassion for all beings as well as the goal of spiritual enlightenment. The author also makes the comparison of chod as a tantric practice and shamanism, noting that tantra and shamanism share several similarities, one being means of communication and interaction with the unseen realms. Such connections are associated with healing in both shamanic traditions and in chod. Chodpas are more like wandering yogis, generally unconventional, and can be at odds with monastics in style. Since the wandering yogis practice non-attachment this can be a point of similarity to a strictly monastic Buddhist who would also idealize renunciation, but in a different way. Bon is generally more inclusive of shamanic practices than Buddhism and so one can find them more represented in Bon.

The author notes several studies and articles mentioning chod among academics such as Snellgrove, Per Kvaerne, and Geoffrey Samuels and academic-practitioners such as Edou, Janet Gyatso, Sarah Harding, Tsultrim Allione, and John Reynolds. Reynolds noted the idea among Bonpos as “Bon”, with a meaning similar to “Dharma” being a Primordial tradition, never considered to be sectarian and exclusive to any cultural situation. In this sense – spiritual traditions can be considered more inclusive of one another with much more overlap than is typically noted. Though Bon and Buddhism had been at odds at several junctions in the past – one may also suspect that less politically motivated practitioners (Vairchana, the 8th century translator is given as an example) would have seen no major contradictions between the two traditions. Also of interest is the possibility as Reynolds suggested that the word “bon” comes from an Iranian/Sogdian word “bwn” meaning dharma. This reinforces origin from pan-central Asia – such as Tajikistan. In essence the Bon tradition also encompasses the early Bon which is seen as the basic folk tradition of the region which includes shamanism in forms much like extant traditions in Siberia.

In Bon, chod can be traced back to the Mother Tantras, particularly to the Secret Mother Tantras. In Bon and Buddhist Tantric traditions there is often a classification of Outer, Inner, and Secret to denote both degree of accessibility and degree of refinement. The Mother Tantras are said to emphasize the so-called Completion Stage practices – where visualizations are merged with emptiness by being dissolved. The Father Tantras apparently emphasize Generation Stage practices where visualizations are developed, particularly visualizing oneself as the deity. The Secret Mother Tantras are said to emanate ultimately from the primordial Buddha Kuntuzangpo. This Buddha of the dharmakaya (truth body essence realm - also called bon ku in the Bon tradition) is also the primordial Buddha of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. A more recent Bon school called New Bon is an amalgamation of Bon and Nyingma.

The author goes through the origins, lore, and terma traditions regarding the Bon Mother Tantras as well as some of the Chod practices deriving from them. He provides an overview of a section of the tantras called – ‘Commentary of the Fearful Place within the Sun of Compassion of the Mother Tantra.’ Here there is mention of the six means of expediency as well as the six powers, or enlightened senses: life, knowledge, cutting, understanding, awareness, and clarity. Cutting is the one emphasized in chod where one cuts through the delusion of ignorance. One goes to frightening places in order to directly experience the illusory nature of phenomena. As in many tantric texts the methodology and underlying theory is explained in great detail. The author notes that in modern Bon this section provides much of the theory for Chod. He notes that although there are several Chod Sadhanas, a short one composed by the venerated Shardza Rinpoche in the 19th century is probably the most popular. This one is called – ‘The Laughter of the Skygoers.’ Here the red dakini Kalpa Zangmo is visualized as oneself cutting, cooking, and offering the feasts. The author gives a composite translation of this sadhana in an appendix.

The author also gives the function of the instruments: the drum, the bell, and the thighbone trumpet. He also gives some lore regarding them and mentions that using bone and skulls as part of the instruments can enhance the frightening aspect.

As a few endnotes the author notes other things worthy of investigation such as the female nature of source and awareness in these traditions. Here he quotes Harding referring to mahamudra and dzogchen:

“Here the mother refers to the primordial ground of being, the abiding nature of luminous awareness.”

This quote is quite similar to a quote in the chod sadhana given in the book.

The comparison between chod and sky burial is another possible investigation where it may be that these practices influenced one another.

Philosophically, chod is concerned with cutting the source of demons which is said to be the demon of self-grasping:

“It is the king of demons, and it has four ministers: the believer in self-existence, the thinker of suffering of birth, the thinker of suffering of sickness, and the thinker of suffering of old age and death. Reflections of these come as visible demons that harm oneself and others.”

This book is an important study of a subject about which not much has been written from an academic standpoint. Since the author is a long-time practitioner of Bon and its chod he gives it a good whirl with much sincerity.

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