Machik's Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chod

The following article is from the Winter, 2003 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

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Machik's Complete Explanation is the most famous book of the teachings of Machik Labdron, the great female saint and yogini of 11-12th century Tibet, now finally translated in its entirety into English. Machik developed a system, the Mahamudra Chod, that takes the Buddha's teachings as a basis and applies them to the immediate experiences of negative mind states and malignant forces. Machik's unique feminine approach is to invoke and nurture the very demons that we fear and hate, transforming those reactive emotions into love. It is the tantric version of developing compassion and fearlessness, a radical method of cutting through ego- fixation.

"Sarah Harding's masterful translation is a real gift to students of Chod and this extraordinary woman teacher. It provides much new material including intimate question and answer sessions between Machik and her disciples. The translation has such a fresh living quality you almost feel you are receiving teachings directly from Machik Lapdron herself."—TSULTRIM ALLIONE, author of Women of Wisdom and founder of the Tara Mandala Retreat Center

"In this remarkable work Sarah Harding has combined her well-honed translation skills with her own practice experience to give us the most complete, detailed, lucid, and well-contextualized study to date of the meaning and practice of Machik's Chod."—JAN WILLIS, author of Dreaming Me

"A clear translation of a standard Tibetan handbook on the history, practice, and theory of a striking meditation system that is unique to Tibetan religion. The book provides much else besides, not the least of which is an array of Tibetan cultural conceptions about the body, society, and divinity. The translation is complemented by a balanced introduction aimed at lay students and practitioners of meditation alike."—JANET GYATSO, author of Apparitions of the Self

"An important contribution to an understanding of Tibet's most innovative female saint, revealing her vast diversity of teachings that place Chod squarely in the mainstream of tantric Buddhist meditation. Harding's translation deftly reveals new and rare biographical, anatomical, philosophic, and meditative lore essential to understanding the tradition as a whole."—JUDITH SIMMER-BROWN, professor at Naropa University and author of Dakini's Warm Breath

"Sarah Harding's magnificent translation of this key work of Machik Labkyi Dronma, Tibet's most famous yogini, opens up for Western practitioners the startling world of Chod practice: severing the devil of ego-fixation. This meditation manual explains how the rich symbology of tantric yoga can be used in a disturbingly effective way to transform one's life."—STEPHEN BATCHELOR, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs

Sarah Harding is the translator of Creation and Completion. She teaches at Naropa University.

Here are three short excerpts from Machik's Complete Explanation.

Life as a Recitation Chaplain

At the age of sixteen, Lapdron and her sister went before Lama Drapa. He asked Bumey if this was the sister who was so skilled with letters. She replied that it was, and he said, "Well then, we'll see if she compares to my recitation chaplain." He had a monk whom he called Gya Parchin Drukgyur ("Paramita Six Mode") who could recite in one day four volumes of the Perfection of Wisdom in One Hundred Thousand Verses by reading in six voice modulations. One day this monk and Lapdron began reciting at the same time, and when Gya Drukgyur had finished four volumes, Lapdron had finished all twelve by reading in eight voice modulations. Drapa said, "Oh my, this lady surpasses Gya Drukgyur by two modes. I won't find anyone nearly as good as she. I will make this little lady my official reader."

Bumey then said, "Ahdron, shouldn't we two practice and go to the heavenly realm of Kechara?" But Lapdron said, "I, for one, am not going. Sentient beings need help. If you wish to go, then quickly become accomplished and go enjoy heaven. I will meet you there when I have finished my work for beings here." So Tontso Rinchen Bum practiced for three years and went to the heavenly realm without leaving any physical remains behind.

Drapa Ngonshechen could see that Lapdron was a worthy recipient and gave her the reading transmission (lung) for the Many Sutras, the Perfection of Wisdom in One Hundred Thousand Verses, Ten Thousand Verses and Eight Thousand Verses, and many minor sutras, along with extensive explanations of their meanings. She became learned in the meanings contained in the great commentary of the One Hundred Thousand Verses, and the lesser commentaries on everything from the Ten Thousand Verses right down to the Single Syllable Sutra. Extraordinary realizations about them arose in her mindstream, and she offered these realizations to the lama. He was extremely pleased and said, "Jomo (great woman), you have completely assimilated the extensive, middle, and short versions of the prajnaparamita and so have attained mastery over the sutras. Even for me it would be difficult to comprehend them to such a degree."

He presented her with a hat of maroon felt with lotus design applique' on the outside and lined with white on the inside, shaped like a ten-petaled lotus flower, with five even pieces of brocade in five colors on the back, and to the left and right. He also offered a complete set of the finest outer and underclothes, along with a pair of small boots. Lama Drapa invited her to take her seat on three stacked cushions spread with a new carpet, and then made his request: Please stay here for four years and be my recitation lama.

Sitting there with focused eyes, she donned the headdress. She was resplendent, all covered in blue and red silks down to her waist. The lama said, "When this Little Ponmo (female leader) wears this small hat, she is beautiful," and henceforth all the people called her Jomo Little Hat.

Six Kinds of Gods and Demons

"Machik-la," said Gangpa, "you have described the characteristics of those devils. But is the term 'gods and demons' also applied to these devils, or does it refer to something else?"

"Listen, son. 'Gods and demons' refers to those devils but can definitely refer to something else as well. There are six categories: (1) gods and demons as designated by worldly people; (2) gods and demons by their essential mode of being; (3) gods and demons superimposed on observable phenomena; (4) gods and demons that are natural or coemergent; (5) gods and demons of inevitable karmic forces; and (6) the ultimate, absolute gods and demons.

"In each of those categories there are so-called gods and so-called demons. In the ultimate category, the [distinction between] god and demon is definite, whereas in the former [categories] it is not definite; a god may be a demon or a demon a god.

Gods and Demons Superimposed on Observable Phenomena

These are worldly beings, such as the celestial mentsun, that are somewhat inclined to virtue and move the spirit of ordinary women and men, inspiring them to report on all the profits and problems of the world. Also, when many paranormal things of different sorts occur, such as flowers and crops suddenly sprouting in the unseasonable wintry cold, or nonhumans practically displaying their forms openly and making many predictions, or visible rainbows and figures, people say that it's spiritual powers, or it's sacred, or it's a god, or it's glory. They superimpose [these ideas] and make it into a god. This is called a superimposed god. In the same manner, when out-of-season snakes and frogs and such appear in the wintertime, and many other weird and frightening sights occur, such as the appearance of unseasonable otters and large pir in the summer eating a lot of creatures, or fish flopping on the dry land, and frightening, dreadful, ugly shapes appearing before the eyes and many other strange and disconcerting sights occur, they are said to be demons that will cause problems. Since the name 'demon' is superimposed on them, they are called 'demons superimposed on observable phenomena.'

"Though these are held to be definite gods and demons in the customs of worldly people, in the tradition of Chod those mere sights are not believed to be gods or demons. In the functional sense, the mere observable phenomena are not called gods and demons. Those gods and demons of observable phenomena are just worldly superimpositions. Therefore, Chod practitioners don't exalt them or fixate on them. [When practitioners] rest in great equanimity, help and harm are incapacitated and liberated in their own ground. Chod practitioners who don't understand this and are embroiled by concepts of mere sights as gods and demons are in violation of my dhanna system and have discarded the purpose of Chod. Develop definite understanding of the meaning, son, and then practice it!

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