Chod as a tantric practice consists of the following essential ingredients:
A. The Blessing of the Lineage
In Tantric Buddhism lineage, meaning an unbroken line of proper transmissions of the teachings, is essential to practice and realization. This is because what is transmitted is not just the words but something spiritual and special. Through proper transmissions the blessings of all the generations of teachers are bestowed on the disciples. Without such blessings no one can even enter the invisible gate of Tantra. Tantric practices without the blessing of lineage may be likened to automobiles out of gas.
In Tantric Buddhism lineage is always emphasized and the teachers are revered as the root of blessings. In Sutra-yanas the importance of lineage is often overlooked by scholars who lack interest in practice and ordinary Buddhist followers. This is probably the main reason why in Tantric Buddhism blessings can often be directly sensed by practitioners while in Sutra-yanas such experiences are less frequently encountered.
All tantric practices derive their special effectiveness from the blessing that is transmitted through the lineage. In the case of Chod, the blessing from Machig Labdron is the source of such blessings. All other teachers that form the various lineages of Chod are also indispensable to the continuation of these lineages; without their accomplishments and devoted services to the Dharma, the teachings would not be still available today. Therefore, we should remember their grace and always hold them in reverence.
To a practitioner who is fortunate enough to have received the blessings of a lineage, the meaning of lineage becomes his devotion, with all his heart and soul, to carry on, to preserve and transmit the teachings for all generations (of disciples, the real beneficiaries,) to come.
B. The Wisdom of Recognition and Transformation
Self-clinging is the fundamental hindrance to Enlightenment and the fundamental cause of transmigration in samsara. Although it is the main obstacle for a Buddhist practitioner to eradicate, its subtle nature and elusive ways are beyond easy comprehension. Even the very attempt to attack or reduce self-clinging might very well be indeed an expression of egocentrism, if the motive is limited to self-interest. Facing the dilemma of an invisible enemy who is possibly lurking behind one's every move, it amounts to an almost impossible task! Thanks to the wisdom insight of Machig Labdron, the root of self-clinging has been singled out to be the body. Once this is made clear, and the body being a concrete object, the remaining task is much simpler, though not easier.
According to the wisdom insight of Machig Labdron, the real demons are everything that hinders the attainment of liberation. Keeping this wisdom insight in mind, on one hand, all judgments based on personal preferences and interests should be given up, and on the other hand, all obstacles and adversaries could be transformed by one's efforts into helping hands on the path toward liberation. For example, a gain could be a hindrance to liberation if one is attached to it, while an injury could be a help to liberation if one uses it to practice tolerance, forgiveness and compassion.
Applying this wisdom insight to the root of self-clinging, the body, Machig Labdron formulated the visualization of Chod, and thereby transformed the root of hindrance into the tool for attaining compassion and liberation.
C. Impermanence and Complete Renunciation
The body is the very foundation of our physical existence. Even after it has been recognized to be the root of self-clinging, it is still very difficult to see how to treat it to bring about spiritual transcendence and liberation. Destroying the body would certainly end the possibility of further spiritual advancement in this life but not necessarily the self-clinging. The fact that beings are transmigrating from life to life attests to this. Ascetic practices may temporarily check the grip of physical desires over spiritual clarity and purity, but transcendence depending on physical abuse can hardly be accepted as genuine liberation. The Buddha had clearly taught that the right path is the middle one away from the extremes of asceticism and hedonism.
A fundamental and common approach of Buddhist teachings is to remind everyone of the fact of Impermanence. All things are in constant changes, even though some changes are not readily recognizable. The change from being alive to dead could occur at any moment and could happen in just an instant. Keeping impermanence in mind, one can clearly see that all our attachments to the body are based primarily on wishful thinking. To be ready for and able to transcend the events of life and death one needs to see in advance that all worldly possessions, including the body, will be lost sooner or later. Hence, a determination to renounce all worldly possessions is the first step toward spiritual awakening and liberation. Chod as a Buddhist practice is also based on such awareness of impermanence and complete renunciation. In fact, many Chodpas adopt not just the ritual practice but also a way of life that exemplifies such awakening. Many Chodpas are devout beggars or wondering yogis who stay only in cemeteries or desolate places and do not stay in one place for more than seven consecutive days.
The offering of the body through visualization in a Chod ritual is an ingenious way to counter our usual attitude toward the body; instead of possession, attachment, and tender, loving care, the ritual offers new perspectives as to what could happen to the body as a physical object and thereby reduces the practitioners' fixation with the body, enlarge their perspectives, and help them to appreciate the position of the body on the cosmic scale. Chodpas would fully realize that the body is also impermanent, become free from attachment to it, and ready to renounce it when the time comes. When one is ready to renounce even the body, the rest of the worldly possessions and affairs are no longer of vital concern, only then can one make steadfast advancement on the quest for Enlightenment.
Machig Labdron emphasizes that the offering of the body in Chod practice is an act of great compassion for all beings, especially toward the practitioner's creditors and enemies. Great compassion knows no partiality, hence the distinction of friends and foes, or relatives and strangers does not apply. Great compassion transcends all attachments to the self, hence all one's possessions, including the body, may be offered to benefit others. In every act of visualized offering of the bodily parts, the practitioner is converting an unquestioned attachment into an awaken determination to sacrifice the self for the benefit of all. In short, this is the ultimate exercise in contemplating complete self-sacrifice for achieving an altruistic goal.
Chod is a practice that kills two birds with one stone. On one hand, the attachment to the body and self would be reduced through the visualized activity of dismemberment; on the other hand, the visualized practice of satisfying all beings, especially one's creditors and enemies, through the ultimate and complete sacrifice of one's body would nurture one's great compassion. When the attachment is weakened, the wisdom of non-self would gradually reveal itself. Consequently, Chod develops wisdom and compassion simultaneously in one practice; or to put it in another way, Chod is a practice that nurtures the unification of wisdom and compassion.
In Buddhism Bodhicitta refers to the ultimate unification of wisdom and compassion, the Enlightenment, and to the aspiration of achieving it. Therefore, we may say that Chod stems from the Bodhicitta of Machig Labdron, guides practitioners who are with Bodhicitta through the enactment of Bodhicitta, and would mature them for the attainment of Bodhicitta.
Only when one is completely devoted to the service of all sentient beings can one gain complete liberation from self-centeredness. Just as a headlong plunge takes a diver off the board, complete devotion to Dharma and complete attainment of liberation happens simultaneously. Only when considerations involving oneself is eradicated, will an act in the name of the Dharma become indeed an act of Bodhicitta, of Enlightenment. Developing Bodhicitta in place of self-centeredness is the effective and indispensable approach to liberation from self, and Chod is the epitome of this approach.
E. Meditation Stability and Visualization
The visualization practice of Chod is not an act of imagination. Were it just imagining things in one's mind, there is no guarantee that such practice would not drive one insane. To practice Chod properly one should have some attainment of meditation stability so that the visualizations are focused and not mixed with delusive and scattered thoughts or mental images. Indeed, Chod should be practiced as akin to meditation in action.
To be free from attachments to the body, we have seen above that destroying or abusing it would not do. It is the great ingenuity of Machig Labdron to recognize that attachments being mental tendencies can be properly corrected by mental adjustments. Visualizations performed by practitioners with meditation stability could have the same or even stronger effects as real occurrences. Furthermore, visualizations can be repeated over and over again to gradually overcome propensities until their extinction.
Using visualization in Chod practices the body remains intact and serves as a good foundation for the practitioner's advancement on the path to Enlightenment, while the attachment to the body and all attachments stemming from it are being chopped down piece by piece.
Visualizations performed in meditation stability is a valid way of communication with the consciousness of beings who are without corporeal existence. Hence Chod visualizations as performed by adepts are real encounters of the supernatural kind. They could yield miraculous results such as healing of certain ailments or mental disorders that are caused by ghosts or evil spirits, and exorcism that restores peace to a haunted place.
The five essential ingredients as stated and explained above constitute the key to the formulation of Chod as a Buddhist tantric practice. A thorough understanding of the significance of these essentials is both a prerequisite to and a fruit of successful Chod practices.
3. The Benefits of Chod Practice
Enlightenment is of course the ultimate goal of Chod practice. Machig Labdron revealed her vast spiritual experiences by indicating signs of various stages of realization in Chod. These teachings are still well preserved in Chod traditions. Through the References listed at the end of this work serious readers may find some of these teachings.
In addition to the fruits of realization as indicated above and the application of spiritual power to healing and exorcism as mentioned earlier, there are other benefits that may be derived from Chod practice. Chod practice can help booster the courage and determination to devote one's whole being to practice, beyond considerations of physical well-being and life, thereby achieving complete renunciation and significant realization. Chod practice could help total removal of subconscious hindrances that are most difficult to become aware of because these would surface only when challenged by grave situations like dismemberment.
In a dream state I sensed the relaxing effect of Chod; those joints of my body that were tense became relaxed when a curved knife cut through them. The tension in our mind is enhanced by our underlying concept of the body. By removing the mental image of the body through Chod the tension is reduced. The natural state of one's body exists before the arising of concepts, and hence, to return to it one needs to transcend the grip of conceptuality.
Many kinds of death are horrible to normal thinking; through practicing Chod it is possible to go beyond attachment to physical existence, and have enough spiritual experiences to understand that whatever the manner of death may be they are just different ways to exit from the physical existence. Such a broad perspective would enable one to remain serene in facing unthinkable tragedies. Such an understanding would make it easier to tolerate, forgive and forgo vengeance.