Chö is a very expedient Mahayana Buddhist practice primarily aimed at reducing and eliminating one’s sense of ego or attachment to oneself, using the tactics of fear and selfless giving. It is an extension of the practice of Perfection of Wisdom teachings on non-self. It evolved from Indian Buddhist practices outside the mainstream monastic institutions and reached its full form in Tibet through many spiritual adepts, the most notable of them being the female spiritual figure Machik Labdron.
Chö, which literally means ‘cutting off’, uses the techniques of fear and practice of giving as a way to ‘cut off’ one’s attachment to self. In Buddhist psychoanalysis, of the many things people possess and cherish, they are most attached to our body. They live in constant fear of either damaging or losing it. Thus, the most powerful practice of giving is also giving the gift of the precious body. In the Jātaka tales, we find the Buddha sacrifice his body many times for the sake of others.
The Chö practice uses people’s intense attachment to the body and the fearing of losing it as paths to enlightenment by giving the body away as a gift. It puts the practitioners in the most fearful situation and takes away from them what they cherish most as a radical spiritual therapy to test their courage and ability for self-sacrifice and selfless giving. In this process, the practice helps the person overcome the inner demon of self-love.
Subjects Tibet and Himalayas
To carry out Chod practice effectively, the practitioner adopts an eerie solitary venue for practice, such as a cremation ground or haunted place. The practitioner also chooses a fearsome time such as middle of the night when harmful spirits are said to roam. This is done to enhance the perceived threat to the body. At such place and time, the practitioner conceptually dismembers one’s body into pieces and throws a feast for the spirits. It is essentially a radical and daring psychotherapy to reduce attachment to oneself and one’s body.
There are many traditions of Chod practice but most of them take the practitioner through standard process of visualisation. Firstly, the practitioner visualises his or her corporeal body being beheaded and the skull being turned into a huge bowl. This is then filled with one’s body, which is turned into delicious nectar through visualisation. Then, one invites the enlightened beings, the spiritual protectors and all sentient beings including the harmful spirits to enjoy the feast of nectar. This distribution of the corpse as nectar to both higher and lower beings is known as Kargyed (དཀར་འགྱེད་) or white/vegetarian distribution. Then, one can visualize a various kinds of materials of enjoyment arising from the corpse and make such offerings to the Buddhas and the sentient beings. This is known as Trhagyed (ཁྲ་འགྱེད་) or varied distribution. Then, sometime a practitioner would make offering of raw blood and flesh without visualizing them as nectar. That would be called a Margyed (དམར་འགྱེད་) or red/non-vegetarian distribution. If one gives away pus, faeces and diseases to beings who consume such things, it is a Nagyed (ནང་འགྱེད་) or dark distribution.
The Chod practice may involve the visualisation of the practitioner as a Buddha or deity depending on the Chod tradition. In Bhutan, the most well known Chod practices are those based on Dudjom Lingpa’s Trhoema, Jigme Lingpa’s Khandro Gyejang or Karmapa Rangjung Dorji’s Chodtshog Rinchen Trengwa. The sessions of Chod practices can be varied: some are short sessions while others can last for several ways. Some dedicated practitioners of Chod practice live in haunted solitudes for years practicing the conceptual giving.
The most important thing to remember while doing Chod is to remember that it is not really a ritual for worldly achievements or to elongate one’s life, to get good health or to become rich. The ultimate aim of Chod is to cut one’s own attachment or ego to reach enlightenment. In the process of giving away one’s body to spirits, one many enjoy good health or appease harmful spirits as a result of giving but Chod is essentially a practice to let go of one’s attachment to oneself.
Thus, Milarepa puts the essence of Chod in three forms: To cut off oneself from the world and live in solitary is the outer Chod. To cut off and give away one’s body as food to the spirits is the inner Chod. To cut off and do away with one’s ego is the ultimate Chod.
One must make sure that the Chod practice challenges one’s sense of attachment and ego. It should take one out of the normal situation to put one’s spiritual abilities to test. Otherwise, there is every risk that the practice becomes an empty ritual performed in the comfort of temple halls in large groups or even turn into a musical entertainment or recreational pastime. A Chod practitioner must take it beyond religious ritual to the point of hurting one’s ego. One may end the practice with the prayer that oneself and others follow the path of non-self and selflessness and reach Buddhahood, where all fetters of the self are full cut off.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, founder of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why we do what we do.