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On Chöd Drums

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The Chöd drum first appeared in the teachings of Machig Labdrön in the 11th century, with no known antecedents in either the Tibetan or the Indian traditions. However, it is certainly closely inspired by the Indian damaru, and shares its name in most sadhanas and commentaries. The damaru originated on the Indian subcontinent, with the first known examples of small, two-sided hourglass drums dating back to the early Harappan civilization in modern-day Pakistan.[i]These drums have historically held a close association with the god Shiva, representing both the construction and destruction of the universe. The two sides of the damaru are considered to symbolize the masculine and feminine in both the Indian and Tibetan traditions, and Hindus revere it as a source of power – the energetic unification of Shiva and Shakti. As one of Shiva’s accouterments, however, it is usually depicted hanging from his triśūla or trident, representing the passivity of the masculine aspect in the Hindu tradition.[ii] Though in his manifestation as Nataraja, the “Lord of the Dance,” Shiva plays the damaru ecstatically, symbolizing the stable masculine rhythm – the beat of the passage of time – that underlies the feminine melody, which when united represent the ecstatic union of Shiva and Parvati and produce the fabric of the universe.[iii]

The small Buddhist damaru (ཌ་མ་རུ་) bears many similarities to the ancient Indian damaru, though the shape evolved slightly from an elongated hourglass shape in to a slightly more compact form, reminiscent of the shape of the supreme tantric damaru fashioned from the joined skulls of a pubescent boy and girl. This precious bone implement, often found in depictions of wrathful deities, represents the ripening of red and white bodhicitta (on all levels). This is the supreme tantric drum, which would have traditionally been fashioned from bones and skins collected by the practitioner at a charnel ground. The specific indications and qualifications for use are described in many traditional commentaries and instrument guides, but most of these guidelines have been sacrificed in recent times in favor of more readily available resources. Many commercial skull damarus today (an odd concept) are fashioned from skulls pulled out of the river or stolen from cremation grounds, if they’re in fact human and not ape.

The Chöd drum, like the smaller damaru, is played with the right hand (the method hand) swinging the two beaters from side to side, with the simultaneous beats representing the unity of samsara and nirvana. Inside any traditionally crafted damaru are hand-written mantras, including the seed syllables of the male and female Buddhas on their respective sides. The bell of the drum is covered with a skin – usually goat, but sometimes snake skin is used – that goes through a treatment process involving burial with various herbs and minerals (like copper) before it receives designation as a trin pag or “cloud skin” (སྤྲིན་ལྤགས་). In personal drum procurement, it’s best to beware of the commercial Chöd drums that clearly skip this step and instead paint the skins green using conventional paint, depleting the skin of natural oils and functionally destroying it’s living qualities.

The drum itself is considered to be the abode of the Dakini, and the sound that it produces is the very sound of impermanence. From the drum’s handle falls a tail made of five-colored silk, representing the Five Dakinis and the practitioner’s power over the five elements. The tail is traditionally adorned with various ornaments that the practitioner collects, including:

A melong or ritual mirror representing the dang energy, the dharmakaya level of the nature of mind. Like the nature of mind, the mirror itself has no qualities, but it has the capacity to reflect infinite phenomena.[iv] This is placed in the center of the tail, beneath the cloud-scroll design at the top.

Yerka (གཡེར་ཀ), small bells representing the laughter of the dakinis.

Human hair. In some traditions, it is said that the drum should be adorned with the hair of a Dakini and the hair of a corpse. In the Dudjom tradition, it lists the hair of a Dakini, the hair of a demoness, and the hair of a very powerful woman.

Strips of predator skin. Traditionally this would include tiger and leopard skin, but scarcity due to poaching has made this practice highly unadvisable (if it ever was really advisable…). Some contemporary lamas recommend using faux animal skins.

A conch shell ring around the handle.

Three stone beads on the cord between the tail and the drum handle: gZi bead, turquoise, and amber representing dominion over the Lha/Devas residing above the earth, the Nyen residing on the earth’s surface, and the chthonic Lu/Nagas residing below the earth.

Additional ornaments would be added at the discretion of the Chödpa and each individual tradition.

Unlike the tantric damaru, the Chöd drum is not traditionally crafted from skulls. Rather, the sacred wood of the sengdeng tree (acacia catechu) is used, with colors ranging from pale brown to the very auspicious yellow or red, reflecting variances in quality and rarity. Some modern drums are intricately painted, often with vignettes of the Eight Charnel Grounds or with skulls in varying stages of decay.

It has become increasingly difficult to find authentic Chöd damarus in the marketplace, with many commercial manufacturers forsaking tradition for frugality. Many are produced with lesser-quality woods like the popular sissoo wood (dalbergia sissoo) and skins are painted or conventionally dyed. In general, Bhutan seems to be the most consistently reliable source of Chöd damarus, as the craft is still tightly held and well respected. Otherwise, select families in Nepal still hold this art with tremendous integrity, and their Chöd drums can be quite exquisite.

As for size, it is generally advised that a practitioner’s drum should fit in the crook of his or her arm when the fingers are touching the waist. Some traditions prefer larger drums, some prefer smaller, but most vary in size between eight and sixteen inches.

In an attempt to discredit any shamanic influence on the development of Chöd, some scholars have referenced the vast differences in use and construction between Himalayan shamanic drums (such as the dhyangro) and the Chöd damaru.Both traditionally and contemporarily in Himalayan shamanism, damarus have been used for puja and not for shamanic journeying, though shamans do occasionally use damarus in ritual.[v] Conversely, in cultures where the two lineages intersect, Buddhist tantrikas would not use a dhyangro on principle.

However, the use of the Chöd drum differs quite distinctly from the ecstatic musical punctuation of small damarus. The Chöd drum is played to a slow and steady beat, with occasional variations in rhythm used for certain sections of a sadhana or to punctuate transitions. This style of drumming is unique in Tibetan Buddhism, and seems to echo a more shamanic approach to musicality in this ritual. In the various forms of Himalayan shamanism, drum rhythms tend to arise from a kind of personal revelation, and act as a navigational tool for traversing the upper, middle, and lower worlds.[vi] This, of course, is neither the intent nor the method for the rhythms used in Chöd. However, monotone drumming has been widely observed to have the ability to engender trance states and create subtly altered states of consciousness, even though it may not independently produce the kinds of shamanic journeys with which other traditions seek to engage.[vii] Many practitioners of Chöd do report experiences of a trance-like state, speaking to the widely referenced “Chöd eyes” which are said to enable the practitioner to physically see diseases and non-human entities during the course of the ritual.[viii]

This fundamental difference in opinion pervades western scholastic opinions on Chöd. Originally labeled an exorcism rite by Walter Evans-Wentz, the first western Anthropologist to publish a translated Chöd rite in his famed book Tibetan Yogas and Secret Doctrines, western interpretations of the ritual have certainly been less than complete, with interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the spiritual, social, and psychological dynamics of the rite generally missing from academia. However, according to Jerome Edou, the practice of Chöd is solely rooted in the Indian Prajnaparamita literature and Tibetanized tantric Buddhist techniques, and any suggestion of shamanic inspiration should be viewed as ill-informed and reductionist.[ix]

In actuality, the truth seems to lie somewhere in the middle of these two extreme views. According to Namkha’i Norbu Rinpoche, Machig came from a family of Bön practitioners, which during the 10th and 11th century represented a syncretic and newly cohesive set of highly shamanic and animistic views and practices. This would make the theory of a shamanic influence highly plausible, and in fact quite likely. Additionally, the Tibetan Buddhist interpretation of “shamanism” can be effectively compared to the early Christian refutation of “paganism,” with the simultaneous reductionist denigration of the “wrong views” of various traditions synchronized with the appropriation of ritual methods and social attributes of those same systems. Anthropologist Geoffrey Samuel holds an interesting middle ground in the question of shamanic influence on Tibetan Buddhist practice, forsaking the often-derogatory connotations of the term for a more ecumenical and inclusive definition:

“…[[[Shamanism]] is] the regulation and transformation of human life and human society through the use (or purported use) of alternative states of consciousness by means of which specialist practitioners are held to communicate with a mode of reality alternative to, and more fundamental than, the world of everyday experience.”[x]

Samuel’s view asserts a distinction between “clerical” and “shamanicBuddhism in Tibet, with the latter rooted in pre-Buddhist animistic traditions that eventually fell to the wayside with the rise of monasticism in the centuries following the advent of the sarma/”new” school. Somewhat ironically, this same clerical influence largely aided in the preservation of Machig’s lineage, with the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje’s systematization of Chöd into works like the Tsogley Rinchen Trengwa (ཚོགས་ལས་རིན་ཆེན་ཕྲེང་བ་). While it is undeniable that this shamanic communion with the unseen world is merely of secondary importance in the grand scope of Chöd, it is equally undeniable that the temporal benefits of Chöd practice, such as curing disease and remedying environmental upset, was of vast importance to Tibetan pastoral nomadic societies. Working on this relative sense, the Chödpa’s drum was a vital tool for his or her ritual power, and for his/her function in their society. In today’s world, we may not have the same personal relationship with crops and weather systems, but the need is no less dire. With environmental disruptions arising en masse, we are increasingly faced with the reality that our lives and practice affect our environment, and that our environment affects our lives and practice. The Chöd drum as a ritual tool, then, has the potential to facilitate both an internal and external transformation in the way we relate with our environment.


[i] Beer, Robert: Encyclopedia, pg. 258.

[ii] Beer, Robert: Encyclopedia, pg. 258.

[iii] Shamanism and tantra in the Himalayas, pg. 214

[iv] Norbu, Namkha’i: Crystal and the way of light

[v] Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas, pg 214

[vi] Shamanism and Tantra, pg 215

[vii] Hart, Mickey and Frederic Lieberman. 1991. Planet Drum: A Celebration of Percussion and Rhythm. San Francisco: Harper.

[viii] Blazing Splendor, pg 119.

[ix] Edou, Jerome. 1996. Machig Labdron and the Foundations of Chöd. Ithaca: Snow Lion. Pg 10.

[x] Samuel, Geoffrey. Civilized Shamans. Pg 8.