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Transmission lineages

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by Michelle Janet Sorensen

Broadly speaking, in discussions of the transmission and reception of Buddhist Chod and its lineages, several categories reappear. Perhaps the most common form of classification is the distinction between the “Pho” (“Male”) lineage and the “Mo” (“Female”) lineage; a variant on this is that of the “Pha” (“Father”) and “Ma” (“Mother”) lineages. Often these lineages are identified with the teachings passed from Padampa Sangye (as the “father”) and those from

Machik Labdron (as the “mother”). These complementary lineages reflect the complex integration of Machik's teachings with Buddhist traditions, as I discuss further below. Two sources that employ these categories are Go Lotsawa's The Blue Annals and Dharmasengge's Zhije and Chod History. These classifications are sometimes complemented by what is referred to as the “Gnyis med brgyud,” or “Non-dual lineage.” Another template for organizing lineages is that of the “Sras” (“Son” or “Offspring”) and “Ston” (“Teacher”) lineages.

Another prevalent model of establishing Chod lineages is based on a taxonomy of the Buddhist vehicles of teaching (yana; theg pa). In this classification, Chod is divided into “Sutra Chod” (mdo gcod), “Tantra Chod” (rgyud gcod) and “Sutra/Tantra Chod.” A fourth lineage category sometimes mentioned in this context is that of the gter ma (“treasure”) textual corpus. Sutra Chod refers to the Paramitayana teachings that are grounded in the Prajnaparamita. Sutra Chod emphasizes the influence of Padampa Sangye and stresses techniques of stabilization and pacification of the mind. In contrast with the Paramitayana teachings of Sutra Chod, the Mantrayana aspect of Tantra Chod seems to be derived from *anuttaratantra (bla na med rgyud) teachings. Tantra Chod incorporates Generation Stage (bla na med rgyud skyed rim) and

Completion Stage (rdzogs rim) practices. Tantra Chod traces its transmission lineage from Vajradhara in the dharmakaya form of Yum Chen mo, the Great Mother Prajñáparamitá, through the sambhogakaya as bodhisattva Tara, from whom Machik, as nirmânakâya, received direct transmission. Machik's synthesis of Sutra Chod and Tantra Chod is referred to as the “combined Sutra/Tantra Chod.” I will be discussing some of the ways in which Chod teachings are philosophically contextualized within Sutra and Tantra categories in the next chapter. In my analysis of lineage sources below, I will discuss how several of these lineage categories inflect the development of the Chod tradition.


In this section, I will provide a brief survey of “chos ‘byung,” that is, “dharma histories” (literally, “the arising of dharma”) that include sections on Chod. The genre of “chos ‘byung” includes literary texts that provide details of oral and/or written transmissions of teachings. While chos ‘byung often provide extensive lineage information, they are not comprehensive. Information about who received what teaching from whom is often scant, though these

texts will sometimes mention certain details about the transmission, such as the place where the transmission was given, when it was given, who was present, and the particular occasion that precipitated the transmission. For my purposes, these texts record and map useful information on teaching lineages, which is important for charting processes of legitimation and renewal of Chod from the perspective of a particular figure or institution. Deb ther sngon po (late 15th to early 16th centuries)

The earliest discussion of Machik and Chod for which we can approximate a date is contained in The Blue Annals (Deb ther sngon po) by Go Lotsawa Zhonnupel (‘Gos lo tswa ba Gzhon nu dpal, 1392-1481; Karma Kagyü), a chos ‘byung composed in the late fifteenth century (1139-62). In the section on Chod, Zhijé is

not foregrounded (in contrast to other sources which characterize Chod as a branch of Zhijé). This source contains a relatively brief biographical sketch with some lineage information as well as information on teachings that Machik received; it also mentions other figures who were key to the early development of Chod. The transmission lineage of Buddhist Chod from this text will be outlined in the next section of this study. Sections other than the one explicitly discussing Chod have also provided me useful information for the broader genealogical study I am constructing.

Dam pa'i chos kyikhor lo bsgyur ba rnams kyi byung ba gsal bar byed pa mkhas pa'i dga' ston (mid-16th century) This source is attributed to Dpa' bo Gtsug lag ‘phreng ba (1503-1605, Karma Kagyü); its composition has been dated to 1545-1565. This history is traditionally considered reputable, but it does include hagiographical materials. As well as providing a brief outline of the philosophical underpinnings

of the tradition, it provides a brief biographical sketch of Machik and information on transmission lineages. The Mkhas pa'i dga' ston describes a Chod lineage from Padampa Sangye to Sma ra ser po and then Smyon pa be ro, as well as one from Kyoton Sonam Lama to Machik Labdron; in addition, it divides the transmission from Machik into “the Student or Instruction lineage” (slob brgyud) and “the [[[spiritual]]] Son lineage” (sras brgyud). This text does mention that Machik met Padampa Sangye, but does not explicitly say that she received Chod teachings from him (1369-1371). Chos ‘byung bstan pa'i padma rgyas pa'i nyin byed81 (late 16th century)

This history, composed between 1575 and 1580, has a short entry on Chod by ‘Brug pa Padma dkar po (1527-1592; ‘Brug pa Kagyu). Although the tradition is mentioned, it is not discussed in much detail. This work mentions transmissions of Chod (“spyod” rather than “gcod”) teachings by Padampa Sangye to Sonam Lama and Rma ra ser po, and it provides a short biography of Machik, including the names of her major students. Chos ‘byung ngo mtshar rgya mtsho (early 17th century)

Zhab drung Ngag wang Nam gyal (1571-1626) of the Stag lung Kagyu tradition initially composed this treatise in 1609; it is said to have been reedited by Ngag wang Ten pai Nyi ma (b. 1788). The section on Chod is even briefer than in other sources and provides no new information. It is worth mentioning if only to demonstrate a continuation of historical awareness of the Chod tradition.

Dam pa'i chos kyi byung tshul legs par bshad pa bstan pa rgya mtshor ‘jug pa'i gru chen zhes bya ba rtsom ‘phro kha skong bcas (17th century) The tenth abbot of the Sakya monastery of Ngor, Dkon mchog lhun grub (1497-1557) left this chos ‘byung unfinished at his death. It was rediscovered by the 25th abbot, Sangs rgyas phun tshogs (1649-1705), who resumed work on it and completed it in 1692; it was published in 1705 at Sde dge. It is most

remarkable for being a Buddhist history that emphasizes the Sakya pa lineages, while also including a discussion of Chod. This Sakya chos ‘byung describes the transmission of the “Pho Chod” and “Mo Chodlineages. It mentions the transmission of the pith of the Chod collection (gcod skor gnad) to Sonam Lama and Sma ra ser po (of Yar lungs) from Padampa Sangye in Gtsang on the latter's third visit to Tibet. According to this text, on Padampa Sangye's fifth trip he travelled to Dingri (Ding ri) and taught the collection of Chod transmissions; this teaching was twofold and would be transmitted as Pho Chod (following Sma ra ser po) and Mo Chod (following Machik).

58 ‘Phags yul rgya nag chen po bod dang sog yul du dam pa'i chos ‘byung dpag bsam ljon bzang (18th century)

Written by the head of Dgon lung byams pa gling, Sum pa mkhan po Ye shes dpal ‘byor (1704-1788, Geluk pa), this text provides an elaboration on earlier accounts of the Chod tradition. Kollmar-Paulenz (1988, 30-31, n. 52; original source reference 375, 22-23) points out a passage explicitly acknowledging the direct transmission of Chod teachings on the four Negative Forces according to the Prajhaparamita from Padampa Sangye to Machik; as is discussed

earlier in this chapter, this connection is not easy to establish definitively. This chos ‘byung provides an important example of intersections between historical and biographical materials, as Kollmar-Paulenz has also noticed (1993, 13). Along with a biography of Machik, a lineage of “Mo Chod ” is briefly traced. Kollmar-Paulenz (1993, 14) observes that one unusual component of Ye shes dpal ‘byor's chronology is that the Chod tradition precedes the Zhije tradition, contrary to other accounts.

Bstan ‘dzin gyi skyes bu rgya bod du byon pa'i ming gi grangs (18th century) Another eighteenth-century (1777) Geluk pa history was composed by Klong rdol bla ma Ngag dbang blo bzang (1719-1794). This text has a couple of passing mentions of Machik and Chod. The most notable element of this brief account of Machik's life is that Ngag dbang blo bzang explicitly claims that Machik was a student of and in a consort relationship with Padampa Sangye. This claim continues to be repeated by contemporary Western and Tibetan individuals from this point forward; however, given that Ngag dbang blo bzang doesn't cite his sources, we are not sure of its provenance or veracity.

Bde bar gshegs pa'i bka' dgongs ‘grel bstan bcos ‘gyur ro cog par du sgrub pa'i tshul las nye bar brtsums pa'i gtam yang dag par brjod pa dkar chag yid bzhin nor bu'i phreng ba (18th century)

This text is part of the collection by Dkon mchog ‘jigs med dbang po (1728-1791; Geluk pa), the eleventh Khri of Bla brang bkra shis ‘khyil, who was recognized as the second incarnation of ‘Jam dbyangs bzhad pa. The version I have accessed is in the Co ne'i bstan ‘gyur gyi dkar chag yid bzhin nor bu'i phreng ba, which includes a section on Chod in the third chapter entitled “Bstan ‘dzin rnams kyi bstan pa ji ltar bskyangs pa'i le'u,” with a subchapter entitled “Bod gangs can gyi ljongs su bstan pa ji ltar dar ba'i tshul” (folia 142b-143a).

Grub mtha' shel gyi me long (late 17th - early 18th centuries)

This text was composed by Thu'u bkwan Blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma (1738-1802; Kadampa; Dga' ldan Geluk) and completed in 1802. This source has one chapter on Zhije which includes information on Chod and echoes The Blue Annals. The section on Chod focuses on its doctrinal tradition with a survey of the lineages and its general philosophical teachings, view and practice.

Bstan pa'i snying po gsang chen snga 'gyur nges don zab mo'i chos kyi byung ba gsal bar byed pa'i legs mkhas pa dga' byed ngo mtshar gtam gyi rol mtsho (n.d.) The Snga ‘gyur chos ‘byung is mentioned by Kollmar-Paulenz (1993, 16-17), but I have not been able to locate a copy anywhere. It is attributed to the late-18th/early-19th century Nyingma author Gu ru kra shi, a.k.a Stag sgang mkhas mchog ngag dbang blo gros. According to Kollmar-Paulenz, there is a short passage on Brgyud pa'i gcod kyi skor (folia 111b3-112b4), but it is of little value since it only repeats information, including a short biography of Machik, that is obtainable from other sources.

Theg pa'i sgo kun las 'dus pa gsung rab rin po che'i mdzod bslab pa gsum legs par ston pa'i bstan bcos shes bya kun khyab (mid-19th century) This study by the great Kagyu (and “rismed’) scholar Jamgon Kongtrul (1813-1899) is dated by Gene Smith (2001, 237) to 1863-1864. In this work, Chod is

considered to be a branch of the Zhije tradition associated with Padampa Sangye, although Kongtrul elsewhere (for example, in his Treasury of Instructions [[[Gdams ngag mdzod]]] collection and in his commentary on Chod practice) classifies Chod as independent of Zhije. Often referred to as “encyclopedic,” this source includes factual data as well as narrative elaborations often included in hagiographical sources to contextualize Chod from a Kagyu perspective. The section on Chod is reminiscent of the information provided in The Blue Annals. However, it does include relevant citations from source materials

(including The Great Speech Chapter and Le'u lag texts I have translated and included as appendices to the present study) and Kongtrul's interpretation of these sources. Kongtrul cites the Zab don thugs kyi snying po by Smin gling lo chen Dharma sri (1654-1718, Nyingma) on the topic of choosing an appropriate location for the practice of certain Chod visualizations.

Ma gcig mkha' ‘gro snyan rgyud lam zab rgyun gyi rnal ‘byor bde bkod pa (19th century)

Written by Smon lam Mtha' yas rgya mtsho (b. 1863, Geluk), this historical survey is in a section of the text entitled Man ngag zab mo bdud kyi Gcod yul stan thog cig ma'i gzhung (291-436) in the Geluk Gcod tshogs compilation. This text includes an extended discussion of the transmission lineages that varies somewhat from other studies. The work also includes an analysis of the teachings that argues against any misunderstanding of their multiplicity and for a more uniform view of the tradition. One of the ways in which it homogenizes and legitimates Chod teachings is through its representation of the Chod lineage beginning with a prediction of the Buddha, then moving to the Dharma ruler Khri srong lde btsan, on to Padmasambhava, and then to Ye shes mtsho rgyal as Tara as Machik.

Snga 'gyur rdo rje theg pa gtso bor gyur pa'i sgrub rgyud shing rta brgyad kyi byung ba brjod pa'i gtam mdor bsdus legs bshad padma dkar po'i rdzing bu (late 19th-early 20th century)

Although this work, by the famous Nyingma scholar Zhe chen rgyal tshab Padma rnam rgyal (1871-1926, aka Padma dkar po), who was an esteemed student of Mi pham rgya mtsho, generally reviews familiar territory in its discussion of Chod, it does discriminate more categories of transmission lineages than other sources. As a contemporary Nyingma pa historical survey of Buddhist teachings, this source also indicates continued interest in Chod, albeit as a branch of the Zhije tradition.

Zhi byed dang Gcod yul gyi chos ‘byung rin po che'i phreng ba thar pa'i rgyan (late 19th-early 20th century)

This history of Zhije and Chod by Dharmasengge (aka Chos kyi seng ge, late 19th/early 20th century; Nyingma) is one of the most popular in circulation, probably due to its efforts at providing a comprehensive summary of the existing sources. However, even including this study, desirable details and dates regarding the development of Chod, such as the provenance of important texts and the identity of early figures in the transmission lineage, remain unavailable. Chos ‘byung kun gsal me long (20th century)

This recent historical survey (published in 1971) of the various religions of Tibet was written by the Bon scholar Dpal ldan tshul khrims (1904-1972). Chod is treated as a distinct tradition in this work, which reviews the materials from The Blue Annals and other sources.


Another important category of texts in assessing the lineage history and tradition of Chod is “rnam thar.” Rnam thar are life stories of remarkable spiritual persons, literally denoting stories of someone's “complete liberation.” Sometimes they are considered biographies, while at other times they are referred to as “hagiographies.” These sources can sometimes provide us with historical information, although by nature the genre is often more concerned with providing inspirational narrative than empirical veracity. These materials are useful for gaining an understanding of how their subjects are remembered by the authors and for how key figures in a tradition are positioned. There are several spiritual biographies (rnam thar) of Machik, which will be briefly listed and introduced here.

Phung po gzan skyur ba'i rnam par bshad pa las ma gcig lab sgron ma'i rnam par thar pa mdor bsdus tsam zhig (13th century) In his 1996 study, Jérôme Edou, brought attention to a rare Kagyü lineage gter ma text, the Phung po gzan skyur ba'i rnam par bshad pa las ma gcig lab sgron ma'i rnam par thar pa mdor bsdus tsam zhig attributed to Kunpang Tsondru Sengé (Kun spangs Brtson ‘grus seng ge, ca. 13th century). This manuscript

is written in dbu med script and consists of 519 folio pages. Edou calls it the most extensive account of the life of Machik; however, it is unclear whether he is evaluating it due to its length or due to its content, especially since it is subtitled a “rnam par thar pa mdor bsdus” or “brief summary.” Edou deduces that this text by Brtson ‘grus seng ge text is “undoubtedly the direct source” for The Great Explanation, although more study is needed in order to substantiated such a claim.

Phung po gzan skyur rnam bshad gcod kyi don gsal byed (ca. 14th century)

Given their inclusion as the first two chapters in the Phung po gzan skyur rnam bshad gcod kyi don gsal byed, which was itself included in a recently bound and easily accessible collection of three Chod texts entitled the Gcod kyi chos skor, as well as the fact that they have been translated at least three

times into the English language, these are probably the most popular rnam thar of Machik. The woodblocks for the edition of this text included in the Gcod kyi chos skor were commissioned by Lho pa sprul sku Nag dang mkhyen rab bstan pa'i dbang phyug (late 19th century; Geluk). This text is often referred to as the “Rnam bshad chen mo,” that is, the “Great Explanation.” There is another available edition of this text that is printed from woodblocks (n.p.; n.d).). I discuss this text in detail in the next section.

Ma gcig ma'i rnam thar (n.d.)

A blockprint of this work was obtained by Edou from Lang Gonpa, near Phyger, Dolpo (1996, x; 220), but it does not seem otherwise to be available. Edou claims that it differs substantially from the two biographies by Kunpang Tsondru Senge and Namkha Gyaltsen (Nam mkha' rgyal mtshan, 1370-1433). According to Edou, the manuscript is in dbu med script and lacks information regarding date or author; the text does state that it was edited at the request of Rin

bzang grags pa dbang phyug. This text is also entitled the Rnam thar mgur ma, referring to the spontaneous songs (mgur) attributed to Machik that are included in the text. According to Edou, this text includes a chapter describing Machik's conflict with her parents regarding her decision to devote herself to Dharma practice, and another chapter detailing Machik's travels to various places in order to practice Chod.109 Ma cig lab sgron rnam mthar pad ma dkar po'i phreng ba (n.d.)

This is a biography by Rgyal thang ri khrod pa mentioned in the Labrang dkar chag. I have not been able to identify this author, nor have I been able to locate a copy of this manuscript to date. Ma gcig gi rnam thar mdzad pa bco lnga pa (15th/16th century)

This spiritual biography about Machik and fifteen important deeds in her life was composed by Gshongs chen ri khrod pa Mkhas pa btsun bstan pa'i rgyal mtshan dpal bzang po (15th c., Shangpa Kagyu); it consists of twenty manuscript pages. Kollmar-Paulenz (1998, 12) dates this text (along with Gsongs chen ri khrod pa himself) to the 16th century and posits that it is the earliest datable rnam thar for Machik, but she suggests that it is derivative from earlier unknown sources. Given contemporary dating of Gshongs chen ri khrod pa to the 15th century, it might be more accurately dated to that century rather than the 16th century.

Gcod yul nyon mongs zhi byed kyi bka' gter bla ma brgyud pa'i rnam thar byin rlabs gter mtsho (19th-20th centuries)

This collection of biographies by the Nyingma pa author Rdza rong phu bla ma Ngag dbang bstan ‘dzin nor bu (1867-1940 CE) includes spiritual biographies of Machik and of various lineage holders. Ngag dbang bstan ‘dzin nor bu posits that Machik received Chod teachings directly from Padampa Sangye. Kollmar-Paulenz asserts that a comparison of the two twentieth-century texts by Chokyisengge and by Ngag dbang bstan ‘dzin nor bu suggests that Rong phu bla ma

used biographical material on Machik from sources including the verse biography of Gshongs chen bla ma discussed above and the recently discovered Ma gcig ma'i rnam thar. According to Kollmar-Paulenz, these different biographical elements “which probably date as far back as the 12th century have been lost over the centuries and we can only get glimpses of the diverse material in the few texts which have survived during the almost nine centuries since Machik's death” (1998, 13).

see also:What Do Buddhists Mean by Lineage?