Widely regarded as an emanation of Prajnaparamita the Great Mother of all the Buddhas, Aryatara, and Kharchen Yeshe Tsogyal, Machig Labdrön rightly takes her place in history beside eleventh and twelfth century Tibetan patriarchs such as Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, Milarepa, Desheg Dampa, Gampopa, and so on. However, she alone is credited with being the mother of an independent stream of Dharma in Tibet inspired by her visions of Tara and other deities. For this reason, Machig Labdrön’s teachings are considered to be unique amongst the eight practice lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. While never forming an independent school, the principles of Machig’s teachings were widely and enthusiastically adopted, especially amongst the Kagyu and Nyingma sects. Colleges for studying Chöd existed in Tibet until 1959, where students would gradually, over many years, first learn the liturgical melodies of Chöd by heart and later learn the instrumentation, dances, and ancillary rites.
In addition, major recensions of her work were prepared and augmented by such masters as the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, Longchenpa, Dorje Lingpa, Karma Chagme, and so on. There has also been a tradition of continuous revelations of Chöd practice cycles from the fourteenth century until the present day. While not connected directly with the traditions that stem from Machig Labdrön, the Bonpo tradition also has several traditions of Chöd that are widespread and popular in that school.
Indeed, the practice of Chöd with its 108 springs wandering retreat created the foundation for a vibrant culture of itinerant mendicants and healers known as chödpas who wandered Tibet. In order to sever attachment to home, family, and friends, chödpas moved from valley to valley, village to village, sacred place to sacred place, charnel ground to charnel ground, staying only for brief periods in small tents and under trees before moving on. They would camp in groups, but only as close as the sound of a kangling could reach, practicing in charnel grounds where wild animals prowled and one could hear the eerie sound of corpses freezing at night and thawing in the morning.
The appearance of chöpas was often dramatic, from wandering naked dressed only in shells, feathers, and ornaments of bone and conch to wearing the full garb of the traditional Tibetan ngakpa. But just as often, the garb of the chödpa was the unassuming garb of the Tibetan chuba worn by lay men and woman all over Tibet and Kham. Ubiquitous however was the khatvanga staff and chöd tent, as well as the famed chöd drum and kangling, a trumpet made of a human femur.
Chödpas came from all walks of life and were both monastics and lay people. Chödpas were famed for their courage in dealing with the hazards of removing dead corpses from villages decimated by smallpox, anthrax, and other terrible diseases that would plague Tibet. They often were involved in the activity of preparing corpses for sky burial and a number of such rituals exist within the broad corpus of the literature of the Chöd tradition. These itinerant mendicants also acted as spiritual healers and exorcists, often brought in to treat people with serious illnesses when the conventional protocols of Tibetan Medicine had run their course. In particular, chödpas were famed for dealing with spirit-related illnesses and demonic possessions of all kinds.
The behavior of these wandering chödpas was grounded in what is known in Vajrayana teachings as tulshuk, a type of strict ascetic discipline adopted either for a period of time or for life. Many famous people in the history of Tibetan Buddhism adopted this conduct, wandering the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas for years, such as Ayu Khandro, Shabkar Tsogdrug Rangdrol, Nyala Pema Duddul, Do Khyentse, and many others.
Today scores of chödpas still travel throughout Tibet and the Himalayas as they have done for a thousand years, frequenting dangerous power places to challenge their sense of self and overcome their fear of demons, internal and external. Following the profound intimate instructions of Mahamudra and the Great Perfection, such chödpas remain for years in isolated retreats and attain the ultimate result of Buddhadharma, the famed rainbow body.
This article, written for the First International Chöd-Zhije Conference, initiated by Lama Tsultrim Allione and hosted by Tara Mandala in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, July 12-16th, 2017 by Ācārya Malcolm Smith is ©2017 Malcolm Smith.
Featured image of Machig Labdrön, courtesy of Rangjung Kunchyab Rime Ling.
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