Friday, April 14, 2017

Chöd: The Dreadful Mystic Banquet

Chöd is a spiritual practice found primarily in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism (where it is classed as Anuttarayoga Tantra). Also known as "Cutting Through the Ego," the practices are based on the Prajñāpāramitā or "Perfection of Wisdom" sutras, which expound the "emptiness" concept of Buddhist philosophy.

According to Mahayana Buddhists, emptiness is the ultimate wisdom of understanding that all things lack inherent existence. The chod practitioner seeks to tap the power of fear through activities such as rituals set in graveyards, and visualisation of offering their bodies in a tantric feast in order to put their understanding of emptiness to the ultimate test.

The first Western reports of Chöd came from a French adventurer who lived in Tibet, Alexandra David-Néel in her travelogue Magic and Mystery in Tibet, published in 1932:

Chöd is a kind of "Mystery" played by one actor only... and it has been so cleverly devised  to terrify the novices that one hears of men who have suddenly gone mad or died while engaged in its performance.

A cemetery, or any wild site whose physical  aspects awakens feelings of terror , is considered to be an appropriate spot. However, the place is thought even more suitable if it is associated with a terrible legend or if a tragic event has actually happened there quite recently.

The reason of this preference is that the effect of chöd , or kindred rites, does not depend solely on the feelings aroused in the mind of the celebrant  by the stern words of the liturgy, nor upon the awe-inspiring surroundings. It is also designed to stir up the occult forces, or the conscious beings which - according to Tibetans - may exist in such places, having been generated either by actual deeds or by the concentration  of many people's  thoughts  on imaginary events. 

It follows that , during  the performance of chöd , which I have  compared to a drama  enacted by a single actor, the latter may happen to see himself suddenly surrounded by players of the occult worlds who begin to play unexpected roles.  Whatever part autosuggestion and visualization may have in the production  of these phenomena, they are deemed excellent for the good result of the training; but the test proves too hard for the nerves of some apprentice naijorpas and it is then that the accidents that I have mentioned occur: of madness and death.

Like any other actor, the man who wants to perform chöd must first learn his role by heart. Then he must practice the ritual dance, his steps forming geometrical figures, and also turning on one foot, stamping and leaping while keeping time with the liturgic recitation. Finally, he must learn to handle, according to rule, the bell, the dorjee, and the magic dagger (phurba), to beat rhythmically a kind of small drum (dammer) and to blow a trumpet made of a human femur (angling).

A "Naljörpa" performing the rite of chöd in a forest said to be haunted by evil spirits

The task is not easy; I lost my breath more than once during my apprenticeship.

Lack of place prevents me from giving a translation of the text of chöd, in extenso... However, the essential part of the rite consists in a banquet which may be briefly described as follows.

The celebrant blows his bone trumpet, calling the hungry demons to the feast he intends to lay before them. He imagines that a feminine deity, which esoterically personifies his own will, springs from the top of his head and stands before him, sword in hand. 

With one stroke she cuts off the head of the naljorpa. Then, while troops of ghouls crowd round for the feast, the goddess severs his limbs, skins him and rips open his belly. The bowels fall out, the blood flows like a river, and the hideous guests bite here and there, masticate noisily, while the celebrant excites and urges them with the liturgic words of unreserved surrender: 

"For ages, in the course of renewed births I have borrowed  from countless living beings - at the cost of their welfare and life - food, clothing, all kinds of services to sustain my body , to keep it joyful in comfort and to defend it against death. Today, I pay my debt, offering for destruction this body which I have held so dear.

"I give my flesh  to the hungry, my blood to the thirsty, my skin to clothe those who are naked, my bones as fuel to those who suffer from cold. I give my happiness to the unhappy ones. I give my breath to bring back the dying life.

"Shame on me if I shrink from giving my self! Shame of you , wretched and demoniac beings, if you do not dare to pray upon it..."

This act of the mystery is called the "read meal." It is followed by the "black meal", whose mystic signification is disclosed only to those disciples who have received an initiation of high degree.

The vision of the demoniacal banquet vanishes, the laughter and cries of the ghouls die away. Utter loneliness in a gloomy landscape succeeds the weird orgy, and the exaltation aroused in the naljorpa by his dramatic sacrifice gradually subsides.

Now he must imagine that he has become a small heap of charred human bones that emerges from a lake of black mud - the mud of mystery, of moral defilement, and of harmful deeds to which he has cooperated during the course of numberless lives, whose origin is lost in the night of time. He must realize that the very idea of sacrifice is but an illusion, an offshoot of blind, groundless pride. In fact, he has nothing to give away, because he is nothing. These useless bones, symbolizing the destruction of his phantom "I", may sink into the muddy lake , it will not matter.

That silent renunciation of the ascetic who realizes that he holds nothing that he can renounce, and who utterly relinquishes the elation springing from the idea of sacrifice, closes the rite. 

Some Lamas undertake tours to perform chöd near a hundred and eight lakes, and a hundred and eight cemeteries. They devote years to this exercise, wandering not only in Tibet, but also in India, Nepal and China. Others only retire to solitary places for the daily celebration of chöd for longer or shorter time. 

Find the book Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel on the right bar of our site.

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