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The Buddhist Chöd tradition transmitted by Machik Labdrön is consonant with conservative movements in the period, in that it is grounded in orthodox Buddhist teachings, particularly an explicit dependence on the Prajñāpāramitā corpus. Chöd was also heterodox in its organization, with a non-partisan orientation toward the significance of the lived experience of the practitioner. Chöd is often connected with the Zhijé teachings of the South Asian teacher, Padampa Sangyé, probably due to the fact that some historical materials suggest that Machik Labdrön received teachings—although not necessarily Chöd—from Padampa Sangyé. By the time it became popular to refer to the Eight Great Chariots of the Practice Lineages (sgrub brgyud shing rta chen po brgyad), Zhijé and Chöd were considered linked. These “chariots” are the following lineages: 1) Snga ‘gyur Nyingma; 2) Kadam; 3) Kagyü; 4) Zhangs pa Kagyü; 5) Sakya; 6) Zhijé and Chöd; 7) Dus ‘khor or Sbyor drug (Kālacakra); and 8) Orgyan bsnyen sgrub. Unfortunately, the origins of this classificatory schema are somewhat obscure. The taxonomy is popularly considered to be a means for identifying the various lineages of teachings that were

transmitted from India to Tibet; however, this transmission aspect seems to be a somewhat later development. The arrangement is often identified with Jamgön Kongtrül’s editing schema as featured first in the Treasury of Knowledge (Shes bya kun khyab)33 and also used as an organizing principle for the Treasury of Instructions. In the Treasury of Knowledge, Jamgön Kongtrül credits the Nyingma treasure revealer, Phreng bo gter ston Shes rab ‘od zer (aka. Prajñāraśmi, 1517-1584), for the initial classification of schools.34 Unlike several of these lineages, most notably the schools of Nyingma, Kagyü, Sakya and Kadam, Chöd did not retain

its independent status. It is often claimed that Chöd is found in all four of the dominant schools-- Kadam (both alone and in relation to Geluk), Sakya, Nyingma and Kagyü. However, there is scant evidence for a “Sakya Chöd,” unless one wants to draw parallels between Sakya Ku sā li’i tshogs bsags practice and the Chöd offering of the aggregates.35 Even if one were to do this, it 33 Vide Harding’s translation of Kongtrul’s Treasury of Knowledge. It is interesting to note that Padampa Sangyé, as the source for Zhijé and Chöd, is the only Indian in this lineage (2007, 27).

34 In email correspondence, Matthew Kapstein noted that his student Marc-Henri Deroche is working on Phreng bo gter ston’s root text, together with Mkhyen brtse dbang po’s commentary. Kapstein says that Deroche has not yet found an earlier classification, but agreed with me that, given the work of ‘Gos lo tsa ba ad Dpa’ bo gtsug lag, similar classifications were circulating. 19th century work has been done on this topic by scholars such as Zhe chen rgyal tshab, in his text Pad ma dkar po.

35 For example, Sarah Harding claims that “Chöd is practiced widely in one form or another in all sects of Tibetan Buddhism as well as in the Bön tradition” (2003, 47). Similar statements are made by others, including Gyatso (1985, 337), Savvas (1990, 41; 145; 165), and Edou (1996, 53). E. de Rossi-Filibeck, although remarking that “[t]he

doctrine of gCod was received, even if with adequate adaptations, by the other schools of Buddhism,” has a more nuanced perspective which does not substantiate the existence of Chöd in Sakya: “[t]he gCod teaching (man ṅags [sic] precepts and ñams len practice) was accepted by the bKa’ brgyud pa, by the Karma pa, a branch of the same school, by the Jo naṅ pa, by the Śaṅs pa and by some rÑyiṅ ma pa traditions not only, standing by the authority of

appears that this practice of the Kusali offering probably began with Lce Bstan ‘dzin phrin las, who was born in the 18th century and composed the text, Nā ro mkha' spyod ma'i ku sā li'i tshogs bsags dang 'brel bar gnyis 'dzin 'khrul ba gcod pa'i man ngag.36 The Sa skya Ngor chos ‘byung does mention Chöd, but its dates are difficult to determine since it was composed between the 16th and early 18th centuries (it was published in 1705).37

While forms of Chöd praxis have been assimilated into a number of different Tibetan schools, Machik often explicitly characterizes her teachings and herself as outside of contemporaneous institutions and doxological debates. David Jackson (1994, 35-37) cites a discussion between Sgam po pa and the Dge bshes Brgya yon bdag on the inferiority of five other contemporaneous Tibetan Buddhist traditions—Dzokchen, Mtshan nyid, Pha rol tu phyin pa, Sngags pa and Kadam. All these traditions are superseded by Sgam po pa’s Mahāmudrā tradition, which is “outside the standard textually expounded Buddhist doctrines” (35). Machik employs similar rhetoric when she dismisses a range of traditions in The Great Speech Chapter: The nihilist has knowledge of the non-existent object; the absolutist has knowledge of the changeless object; the śrāvaka has knowledge of the perceiver and perceived object; the pratyekabuddha has knowledge of the emptiness of dependent relations; the Mind Only

student has knowledge of his mind’s own knowledge; the Madhyamaka student has knowledge that is freed from elaborations; the Father Tantra student has knowledge of bliss, clarity and winds; the Mother Tantra student has knowledge of bliss, emptiness, and extensive offerings; students of skillful means and wisdom have knowledge of nonduality; students of Mahāmudrā have knowledge of transcending the mind; students of Dzogchen have knowledge of the great primordiality.38 the source, by the same dGe lugs pa” (1983, 48).

36 The Ku sa li’i tshogs bsags versions I have located are as follows: ku sA li'i tshogs gsog by Phag mo gru pa rdo rje rgyal po (1110-1170, Phag mo Bka’ rgyud); nA ro mkha' spyod ma'i ku sA li'i tshogs bsags dang 'brel bar gnyis 'dzin 'khrul ba gcod pa'i man ngag by Lce Bstan 'dzin phrin las (b.18th c., Sakya); Ku sa li’i tshogs bsags by Dpa’ sprul O rgyan ‘jigs med chos kyi dbang po (1808-1887, Nyingma); and Ku sa li’i tshogs bsags by Ju Mi pham rgya mtsho (1846-1912, Nyingma). 37 For more about this work, see the section on chos ‘byung in relation to Chöd included in this present study. 38 “chad pas cang med yul du rig / / rtag pas ‘gyur med yul du rig / / nyan thos gzung ‘dzin yul du rig / / rang rgyal rten ‘brel stong par rig / / sems tsam rang rig sems su rig / / dbu ma spros bral yin par rig / / pha rgyud bde gsal

However, in this context, Machik does not claim that Mahāmudrā is superior—as does Gampopa (Sgam po pa)—nor does she claim that Chöd supersedes all other Buddhist teachings. Rather, she refers to the Great Mother—Prajñāpāramitā—as the ground of all, and she posits that “as for all knowledge, it is knowledge of the knowledge of objects. Subjects are without identity (de nyid min). Lacking an object, the mind is without knowledge; one is fettered by knowledge of whatever is known.”39 Through the objectification of classes of teachings, the mind is restricted. Rangjung Dorjé, who wrote the earliest extant commentary on this text by Machik (which I have

translated in an appendix to this study and address further in a later chapter), chooses to interpret Machik’s observation from his own doctrinal standpoint. Although Rangjung Dorjé agrees with Machik in cautioning against the myopia that can arise from adherence to tenet systems, he augments his gloss of this passage with a reference to Tilopa in order to privilege the Mahāmudrā perspective. Tilopa maintains that although vehicles including Mantra, Pāramitā, Vinaya, Sūtra, and Abhidharma have their own textual traditions and tenet systems, they all embody the luminosity of the Mahāmudrā; however, adherents of the various systems are blinded by their own prejudices and are unable to see the luminous Mahāmudrā.40 By reading

rlung du rig / / ma rgyud bde stong rgyas ‘debs rig / / thabs dang shes rab gnyis med rig / / phyag chen blo las ‘das par rig / / rdzogs chen ye yin chen por rig” {14/463}. 39 “de ltar rig pa thams cad ni / / yul du rig pa’i rig pa yin / / yul can rnams ni de nyid min / / yul med sems la rig pa med / / gang rig pa yi rig pas bcings” {14/463}. 40 “de skad du yang / te lo pas / sngags su smra dang pha rol phyin pa dang / / ‘dul ba mdo sde mngon pa la sogs pa / / rang rang gzhung dang grub pa’i mtha’ yis ni / ‘od gsal phyag rgya chen po mthong mi ‘gyur / zhe ‘dod byung bas ‘od gsal ma mthong bsgrubs / / zhes bshad pa ltar” {74/522}.

“Moreover, as is said by Tilopa, ‘Mantra expressions, pāramitā, vinaya, Sūtra, abhi[[[dharma]]] ([[[chos]]] mngon pa), and the like, as each has its own textual tradition and tenet system, the luminous Mahāmudrā will not be seen; one is not able to see the luminosity because of one’s own wishes.’ In that way it is explained.” Rangjung Dorjé continues:

“yul / yul can du rig pa’i don de ma yin la / yul / yul can bden med du gyur pas / rig bya rig byed gnyis med du gyur pa ni / chos nyid de bzhin nyid yin no zhes pa’o” {74/522}.

“It is said that, ‘objects and subjects are not the aim of enlightened knowing (rig pa’i don). There is no duality of knowable objects and knowing subjects because objects and subjects are without true existence; things themselves (chos nyid; dharmatā) are exactly like that/thatness (de bzhin nyid; tathāta).’”

Machik through Tilopa, Rangjung Dorjé incorporates Chöd into Mahāmudrā, a move which acts as a precursor to the institutionalization of Chöd into the Kagyü tradition. In another teaching attributed to Machik, the tenth chapter of The Great Explanation, which takes the form of a lung bstan or prophetic text, the author takes a stronger iconoclastic

position. In her replies to questions posed by one of her spiritual daughters, Machik claims that her system simultaneously is consistent with all dharma teachings as well as independent of both Sūtra and Tantra teachings and commentaries. She first states that “the meaning of my Dharma system is not especially dissimilar from other [systems], either Sūtra or Tantra, that have arisen from the instructions of the buddhas. . . . There is nothing in the meaning of any such outer or inner Dharma teachings, moreover, that is discordant with me.”41 Here she emphasizes that her

teachings are essentially buddhavacana and thus not to be distinguished from the authoritative teachings of the buddhas. However, as I will discuss further in the next chapter, her strategy for establishing the authority of her teachings requires her to situate herself within the authoritative lineage of the buddhas and simultaneously to acknowledge her innovative contributions. In the same section of The Great Explanation, Machik notes that her teachings are distinctive because they do not rely on direct quotations from scholarly commentary, but rather reflect the meaning

of the dharma without secondary interpolation. This is an example of how Machik legitimates her teachings through a strategy that verges on iconoclasm. In doing so, her discourse uses the dialectical relationship between ahistoricity and historicity: she acknowledges her reliance on and inheritance of the Buddhist teachings while foregrounding her unique position to interpret and transmit these teachings according to her particular historical situation. This tactic of negotiating ahistorical and historical components is a powerful factor in the survival of cultural 41 “Nga’i chos lugs ‘di don la gzhan dang mi ‘dra ba’i khyad par med sangs rgyas kyi bka’ las byung ba’i mdo rgyud gnyis dang. . . . nga dang mi mthun pa yang chos phyi nang gang gi don la med do”{Rnam bshad chen mo 404}.


Martin has characterized lay movements of the eleventh and twelfth centuries such as Chöd as “an ‘alternative second spread,’ in which lay spiritual leadership and potential were provided for.” Martin acknowledges that these movements often did not have a sustained lifespan: “for the most part they eventually either faded away or were absorbed into or directly opposed and defeated by the emerging monastic institutions” (1996a, 24). He further argues that

lay religious movements of the eleventh and twelfth centuries must be considered “in the light of different religious points of view about the ideal sources of authoritative guidance and blessing”: perspectives which emphasize individual personal experience along with proximity to or identity with enlightened beings often do not have the same authority as perspectives which are legitimated through a more formalized lineage of teaching transmissions (1996a, 47). Martin cautions against a common scholarly myopia: “Too often we assume that everyone in Tibetan culture did, or had to, share a single vision on these sorts of issues” (1996a, 47). Yet, given the difficulty of locating or dating source material, it is understandable that this area of study is less developed than that of the scholastic and monastic traditions.

In contrast to Martin, Davidson has a more ambivalent assessment of traditions such as Padampa Sangyé’s Zhijé and their assimilation into the Tibetan environment of the eleventh century. Davidson notes that Padampa Sangyé’s extant texts demonstrate an originality that bespeaks the influence of “Tibetan social realities and images” on them (2005, 246-9). But Davidson also writes of Zhijé as a “curious rubric” which includes a “highly differentiated 42 My thinking here has been influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s observations as presented in Peter Preuss’ 1980 translation of On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. Although Nietzsche does not explicitly theorize a dialectical relationship between ahistoricity and historicity, he does give material to think about the

relationship between the “historical,” “unhistorical” and “superhistorical,” with the latter two as “antidotes” to the former in the project of existence. As Nietzsche writes, “By the word ‘the unhistorical’ I denote the art and the strength of being able to forget and enclose oneself in a limited horizon: ‘superhistorical’ I call the powers which

guide the eye away from becoming and toward that which gives existence an eternal and stable character, toward art and religion” (1980, 62).

ideology and practice” with greater “inconsistency and discontinuity” than he has seen in his study of Tantra traditions.43 According to Davidson, the “sense of insubstantiality” was not limited to the teachings alone, but “extended to Padampa’s Tibetan disciples as well, for the holders of the several Zhiché traditions imitated Padampa himself and tended to wander hither, thither and yon all over Tibet, collecting odd scraps of teachings and practicing in disparate environments” and “were not motivated to construct long-lived centers” (op. cit. 249).44 The somewhat disparaging language used by Davidson is evidence of the critical attitude that remains prevalent in discussions of iconoclastic yogic traditions of Buddhism, even those that were popular and important. Conservative scholastic traditions have been more successful at defining orthodoxy and orthopraxy, even among contemporary scholars.

Of course, those positioned—voluntarily or not—outside of traditional lineages had reason to exercise skepticism regarding orthodoxy. Unfortunately, we do not know how explicitly competitive Machik was in such a melée; however, the continued transmission and spread of Chöd up to the present day speaks to her success as a charismatic figure. Machik was obviously adept at transmitting and interpreting traditional teachings in a sanctionable yet distinctive manner. In his discussion of authority and ambition during this period, Kapstein observes that “a distinctive vision that at once established both the personal virtuosity of the author and his (or in rare cases, her) mastery of what was sanctioned by tradition became a 43 Although Davidson undergirds his observations by pointing out that he has “spent several decades reading tantric

texts,” and his contributions to the Indic and Tibetan studies are vast, it is worth noting that he perpetuates the problematic claim that Machik was Padampa’s “most important female disciple” (2005, 290), with Chöd developing out of “ritual conversation” between the two. As I have pointed out elsewhere in this study, this claim cannot be adequately substantiated by sources.

44 Davidson states that “the highly differentiated ideology and practice included with Zhiché pushes the envelope [of

inconsistency and discontinuity] further than I can recall having previously seen. . . . Although Zhiché became a featured item in many teachers’ repertoires, it did not maintain a strong stable environment, a common occurrence among yogic traditions in late-eleventh-century Tibet. This was in great part because those attracted to such eccentric personalities tended to emulate their behavior and were not motivated to construct long-lived centers” (2005, 249).

fundamental means of self-representation” (2000, 120). Here Kapstein subtly points to the issue of gender exclusivity in lineage construction, and in a footnote to the above statement he explains that he means “her” to refer to Machik as “the best example” of the “rare case” of a female presence (2000, 249 n. 171). Yet, others, including Martin and Davidson, have posited that this environment was relatively hospitable to women practitioners of esoteric traditions. Davidson observes that, especially in contrast with India, women practitioners were important and “gained greater expressive power” from the eleventh to early twelfth century in Tibetan regions, “especially in Tsang Province where all these women either studied or lived” (2005, 293). Martin elaborates that “[c]onsidering their rarity in later times, women religious leaders and lineage holders were relatively much more common in the late 11th through early

13th centuries. This is particularly true of the early Zhi-byed-pa and Chöd schools, but one finds it also in a 13th-century Mahāmudrā lineage coming from Mitrayogin . . . and in some of the early Lam-‘bras transmissions” (Martin 1996a, 35 n. 29). Erberto Lo Bue suggests that the Nyingma tradition’s lack of power allowed it to support women as active participants; he further observes that “[t]he emphasis placed by Tibetan authors on the fact that, thanks to Ma-gcig Labssgron, Buddhist teachings were taken for the first and only time from Tibet to India seems to reflect a certain amount of national pride and a spirit of independence from canonical orthodoxy which are characteristic of the rNying-ma-pa and Bon-po traditions and differentiate themselves from other Buddhist schools in Tibet” (1994, 486).45 With the increasing dominance of conservative factions and male-dominated monastic institutions, female practitioners—as well as heterodox male practitioners—would become less influential and leave few historical traces. Davidson notes that as the political and cultural identity of Central Tibet developed into “a 45 Of course, whether or not it is a “fact” that Chöd teachings literally went from Tibet to India is not easy to establish.

paragon of Buddhist practice—eclipsing even India,” women tended to be suppressed and silenced rather than supported and empowered.46 Although Chöd traditions have managed to survive to the present, the heterodox environment in which they originally flourished was gradually replaced by a culture of maledominated orthodox institutions that have been effective in limiting women’s participation. At the same time, it must be appreciated that male commentators and practitioners have been central to the projects of transmission and innovation in Chöd traditions through their history. Because Chöd has been profoundly transformed from its origins in the teachings of Machik, it is vital to return to a close and critical reading of the sources available. Much work also remains to be done in understanding how Chöd was preserved and transmitted. Traditions such as Chöd

developed their own identities through an innovative elaboration of philosophical interpretations and ritual methodologies. They also incorporated elements that could be transmitted through popular culture, including hagiographical narratives, songs, and musical compositions (especially important to the continuing popularity of Chöd). The popularity of such elements among monastic and lay communities was directly connected to the success and longevity of the tradition. The transmissions of Chöd were disseminated through lay lineages and also were appropriated by monastic lineages: the profusion of its forms contributed to its cultural survival. 46 “But when Central Tibet became increasingly the focus of international interest and was held up as a paragon of

Buddhist practice—eclipsing even India—then Tibetans began to assume some of the unfortunate standards of behavior that called for the suppression of women in India” (Davidson 2005, 293).