Pa Dampa Sangye, the “Father” of Chöd
Pa Dampa Sangye was a dark skinned South Indian saddhu who lived in the eleventh century. He came to Tibet and introduced a system of meditation called Zhi-jye, the pacification of suffering. The Zhi-jye teachings are founded on the doctrine of Transcendental Wisdom (Arya-prajna-paramita) and meditation. Dampa Sangye visited Tibet five times at widely spaced intervals and imparted teachings to disciples more numerous than all the stars visible in the night sky. He met with the poet-saint Milarepa toward the end of the latter’s life.
Pa Dampa Sanggye is said, according to one tradition, to have been the reincarnation of Bodhidharma (c. 560 AD) who introduced Zen Buddhism into China1. Another figure in history who is credited with representing an earlier lifetime of Padampa Sanggye is Kamalashila (c. 800 AD). Kamalashila was the disciple of the learned sage Shantiraksita. After the death of the latter, Kamalashila came to Tibet to carry on his master’s work.
During Kamalashila’s stay in Tibet a fierce debate grew up around a Chinese monk named Hwa-shang Mahayana, who was preaching very favorably amongst the Tibetan people. Hwa-shang represented the “Cittamatra” point of view, while Kamalashila taught the view known as “Madhyamaka-Yogacara.” It is hard to know from the differing accounts exactly who “won” this debate, but it is said that after the debate the Chinese faction poisoned Kamalashila, and he died in Tibet. According to the Ri-tro Chos, or Hermitage Instructions, of Karma Chagme, the consciousness of Kamalashila was then reborn in the far south of India amongst the dark skinned Tamil people. He grew up to become a very saintly Tamil sage and saddhu. It was in this form that he eventually returned to Tibet as the wisdom-master “Father” Dampa Sanggye.
When Pa Dampa Sangye came to Tibet, he found the people in the county of Tingri, which is near Mt. Everest on the Tibetan side, to be especially amenable to his instruction. He therefore settled in Tingri and established a school of Yoga practice there. A young Tibetan woman named Machig Labdrön (1055-1153) was one of those who became his disciple.
Machig and her guru Dampa Sangye are generally viewed as the founders of the Chöd system. However, it would appear that Chöd itself is a blending together of Pa Dampa Sangye’s teachings and Machig’s native inheritance. Pa Dampa Sangye taught Machig the rudiments of Mahamudra meditation. Fairly soon after her meeting with Pa Dampa Sangye, the Tibetan woman Machig Labdrön went to live in Central Tibet, where she took up residence in a lonely cave and set herself to practice meditation.
Following her guru’s instruction, she began by spending the first year completing the preliminary exercises (ngön-dro). Afterwards she went to a place called Zang-ri Khar-mar, which then became her residence for the rest of her life. It was there that she developed Chöd as a definite system of practice.
Another leading disciple of Pa Dampa Sangye was a Tibetan known as Kyton Sonam Lama. It was the latter who, we are told, would come and visit Machig in her cave residence, and pass along further teachings from the guru Dampa Sanggye to her. Through the interaction of these three, the Chöd system grew into an amazingly beautiful and profound method of spiritual development