from the article written by Alta Brown, Ph.D.
and published in The Mirror in 2005
Dear Sangha Members,
Since some of us practice chöd every week, at both Marpa House and the Shambhala Center, I thought it might be useful to explain what we are doing.
You have probably heard the rumor that we call the demons with our thigh-bone trumpets, we feed them with our bodies, and we sing loudly, dance and laugh a lot. It’s all true. It is entirely reasonable to ask why we would want to do this.
In order to answer this question, I need to explain exactly what Machig Labdrön, who originated this practice, meant when she told her students to call the demons. She taught in the cultural context of eleventh-century Tibet, and she used language that could be understood in that culture, at that particular time. The Tibetan term Machig used is actually god/demons, lhadra. The beings we call when we practice can be considered to be either gods or demons, depending on whether they harm us or help us.
There are two kinds of god/demons: our own versions of passion, aggression, and ignorance, which appear as demons and other beings, like us, that inhabit the six realms. The Tibetans are quite aware of beings whose bodies we can’t ordinarily see. They regularly offer the hungry ghosts the scent of burning foods, and they employ chöd to work directly with “demons” that they believe cause insanity by possessing the minds of beings in the human realm. They also understand that when we die, we arise in the bardos with a mental body that can experience a great deal of suffering if it is confused and stuck. As it suffers, it can inflict suffering on beings in other realms.
The chöd practitioners are particularly concerned with the beings who are terribly angry and intend to do harm. Machig has taught her students that as chöd practitioners, we don’t erect protection circles or send the demons away. We not only invite them in, but we offer them our most precious possession, the body that anchors us in the human realm. Of course, we offer our body in its enlightened form, visualized as the nectar of bodhichitta.
As Khenpo Tsering has reminded us, we can’t offer our body if we are still in it. For this reason, we practice powa in order to emanate as Vajrayogini. It is in this form that we offer the feasts. We offer a white feast, in which our body becomes nectar, but we also offer a red feast for the beings who are very angry and malicious. The beings who come to the red feast are not vegetarians. They like blood, flesh, and bones. To accommodate them, we magically transform the appearance of the nectar into a very rich lake of blood, a mound of glistening fat, and a pile of gleaming bones. The essence of this offering is exactly the same as that of the nectar, but for this feast we speak the visual language of the “demons.”
After we have completed the feasts, we finish with short Chenrezig, Amitayus, and Sukhavati practices. We sit and then dedicate the merit.
When I have been asked to describe chöd in a short phrase, I explain that it is vajrayana tonglen. It is tonglen because we invite various forms of negativity to enter us in a most complete and intimate manner, and we breathe out bodhicitta as the environment of the feasts. It is vajrayana tonglen because it is totally non-conceptual and absolutely direct. Chöd bypasses the mediation of concepts completely and is, instead, directed towards the experience of luminosity.
Though Khenpo Tsering always reminds us that chöd “is not about you,” when we give everything, all that is left is the experience of the mind that shines. This is what we offer to beings, and it is inexhaustible and is the essence of bliss. We call all the beings of the six realms, and especially the “demons,” to the various feasts in order to feed them enlightened mind and, in this way, to release them from their suffering.
This probably sounds like such an advanced practice that it should be secret. Actually, it doesn’t make much sense to invite all the beings of the six realms to the feasts and then limit the practitioners who can hear it.
Anyone can listen to this practice. As chöd practitioners, we invite everyone to come and listen. In fact, anyone can come and dance with us while we sing the guru yoga that follows the first two feasts.
Though everyone is invited to listen, it is necessary to receive the chöd empowerment in order to do the practice.