Machig Labdrön, the founder of Chöd, taught there is no view we can’t cut through, no perspective we can’t let go of. Charlotte Z. Rotterdam shares three verses by Machig that we can carry with us in our daily lives.
I was first drawn to the teachings of Machig Labdrön—the great eleventh-century Tibetan yogini—for her unflinching insistence on turning toward that which we find most repulsive or frightening. This view—so clearly different from the human default response of avoiding or rejecting the ugly and threatening aspects of life—reminded me of my early childhood, when I spent time in the autopsy lab with my mother, a pathologist, watching with great fascination a skull being sawed and a belly cut open to remove brain and organs. There was an odd peacefulness in the autopsy room, where the intensely eerie became quite ordinary. These childhood images have come in handy as I practice Chöd, Machig’s renowned practice in which we visualize making a vividly descriptive offering of our bodies to satisfy the needs of all beings—particularly the most demonic ones.
Machig’s verses remind us of ways in which the absolute view of emptiness and radical compassion can be woven into the fabric of our practice.
Beyond transforming the morbid into the mundane, however, lies a profound teaching on compassion and radical inclusivity. Ultimately, Machig is suggesting that it is only by meeting and even nurturing whatever we consider most “other” that true liberation can be attained. As long as there is someone or something “out there,” we are held in the prison walls of our own dualistic thinking. We continually find ourselves in a defensive posture, holding up the fort of our particular beliefs and values against the enemy on the other side. This is how we can understand one of Machig’s poignant sayings: “With a loving mind, cherish more than a child the hostile gods and demons of apparent existence, and tenderly surround yourself with them.” It’s really our internal and external demons, those most difficult aspects of our experience, that show us where we have created a boundary between self and other—where we have demarcated a line between our territory of tightly held belief systems, sanctioned behaviors, and comfortable familiarity, and the unknown wilderness of all that we reject.
In the view that Machig espouses, true freedom lies in the lived realization of non-separation. When we cherish our demons, this true liberation begins to become palpable. Her teachings on severance (the literal translation of Chöd) are about cutting through the fundamentally mistaken notion of self-identity in which I set myself over and apart from all that is “not me.” The heart essence of Chöd and the ultimate severance, Machig suggested, is recognizing the nature of mind: the ineffable, luminous, groundless ground of being. This is the end and beginning point of Machig’s teachings, drawing from the rich tradition of the Prajna Paramita, transcendent wisdom.
I’ve come to love Machig’s teachings not just for the colorful richness of the practices she formalized or the complexity of her philosophical texts, but for the directness and evocative fierceness of her insights, which point us directly to the nature of mind. I’ve been collecting short phrases of teachings which can function much like the famous Lojong slogans, which serve as a guide for householders to integrate spiritual practice into everyday life. Machig’s verses, drawn from works ascribed directly to Machig, similarly remind us of ways in which the absolute view of emptiness and radical compassion can be woven into the fabric of our practice and our daily activities. I offer the following reflections on a few verses I find key to Machig’s overall teachings and particularly helpful in my own life and practice (all translations by Sarah Harding, in Chöd: The Sacred Teachings on Severance, Tsadra Foundation, Shambhala Publications, 2016).
“Without asserting any notion of view about the unimpeded arising of anything unbiased experience dawns as basic space. The supreme severance is no view.”
One of the first dharma teachings I received was on “view, meditation, and action,” the path that guides us from the wisdom of emptiness to its compassionate manifestation in life. View lays the ground for all that follows. What we believe to be basic human nature or the fundamental nature of things informs the decisions we make, the actions we take. View is critical. Are we defined by basic goodness or are we fundamentally flawed?
View is how we make sense of our world, what we consider most true or right. As such, views offer us security. There is much solace that comes in knowing what we believe. Holding a view gives us ground. But this is also how view becomes solidified. Our world and experiences are plastered with labels of good and bad, right and wrong, “for me” and “against me.” There’s little room for freshness or movement. Fundamentalist ideologies are built on a view that has become concretized and unmoving.
Our demons are good clues for where we have solidified our view. My demon of always staying busy arises out of my view that it’s only through doing that I am worthy. The external demon or enemy shows us where we draw a solid line between acceptable and unacceptable, right and wrong (often, of course, with reasonable justification.) When Machig suggests we tenderly surround ourselves with our demons, she is inviting us into greater awareness of the views we hold, particularly the ones we cling to.
And here, in this radical teaching, Machig suggests we release all view, presaging the great fourteenth-century mystic Longchenpa who noted that “the best view is no view.” The supreme severance—that is, the ultimate thing to let go of – is our attachment to any particular view, however spiritual, grand, or correct we may imagine it to be. It’s an invitation to abandon the solid ground that beliefs grant us.
Any one view, of course, is limited, necessarily partial, incomplete. As long as we espouse any one perspective, we have lost access to others; we find ourselves caught in a game of proving and disproving. But ultimate truth, the absolute view, is beyond any particular view; otherwise, it too would be partial. Ultimate truth is empty. There’s a wonderful saying that “truth has no handles.” Truth, the ultimate view, gives us nothing to grasp, nothing to stand on. It refuses to give us solid ground. Cut away your ground, says Machig. And perhaps in the space that remains, we can rest in a view that is beyond concept, beyond perspectives, is in fact “no view” at all.
This might remind us of the famous Prajna Paramita mantra—Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi swaha—which cuts through any kind of view regarding the nature of reality: eternalism, nihilism, inclusivism, exclusivism. And where are we left? Bodhi, awakening. So be it.
Machig leaves us at the threshold of the Great Mother, Prajna Paramita, the groundless ground of being. On one hand, this is incredibly terrifying; our handles, our labels, our identity and cherished beliefs are swept away, obliterated. But there’s also immense liberation here, supreme liberation. We no longer have to defend truth. We don’t need to hold up the rickety foundation of some worldview we’ve been cobbling together our whole lives. When view is gone, we can open our arms into vast, open space, the Great Mother, in which everything is allowed (welcomed, in fact) not because it’s right or wrong, for or against us, but simply because it is.
To awaken is to experience reality as it is. The haiku poets had it right all along, offering a glimpse of the universe in the sublime particularity of any one thing. I notice the sunlight on my page, the chirp of the midday crickets, the distant whirr of a plane overhead. To cut through all views is to put on the eyes of the universe. Ultimately, we become all things. Like Avalokiteshvara with his one thousand arms and eyes, we see more, engage more. We are willing to step into another’s shoes. And another’s. From here, all views are accessible, all perspectives can be explored, all possibilities for action and non-action arise.
In daily life we may continue to cloak ourselves in one view or another, take on a just cause with vehemence and fervor. But view now becomes a skillful means. We ask ourselves: which view is most helpful, most beneficial? Which view is needed in this situation to promote the best action? And then we let it go, like a useful but temporary tool. Once we release—or sever, as Machig would suggest—any idea of a “correct view” we have access to all views as means.
I cannot end these reflections without pointing to the irony inherent in this verse. Supreme severance must include letting go even of any attachment to “no view,” the ultimate dharmic view. At some point on our path, we may have a sense that we “got it.” There’s an aha, and however subtly, we grasp, we hold, we want to retain that knowing. But even that seeming perfection of wisdom we must release and sever. This is a dharma beyond words, beyond preservation and solidification. This verse, if it is to mean anything, is written with self-erasing ink. We may put it in our pocket, but when we pull it out all we see is white paper, open space.
I can’t imagine that we can ever fully “grasp” this teaching; that itself would go against its prime message. But it can serve as an ongoing reminder. What can I release? What happens when I let go of this view? Do I feel the ground falling from beneath my feet? Can I relax into that unknown space and still return to my path in the world, my work, my responsibilities? Perhaps with a mind more flexible, a heart more open.
“Carry the load of appearing conditions. If you don’t carry the load of all phenomena, the remedy of peace and happiness can’t liberate you.”
Our meditation practice may offer us experiences of great bliss, clarity, or emptiness—referred to as the nyams, or tantalizing effects of practice. Suddenly, in the midst of what seems like a hurricane of modern living, we discover solace, a glimpse of genuine peace, the sweet taste of happiness that is beyond any normal conception of “happy” or “sad.” Often, these experiences can feel more real or genuine, more true to the basic state, than the confused turmoil of ordinary life. We may find ourselves yearning for a life that consists only of these rarefied encounters. Ah yes, to leave the world of electric bills, traffic jams, and dirty laundry—to make for the hills and the romantic cave where we happily renounce the comforts of modern life for the clear air of awakened mind! I’m guessing we’ve all had moments of considering some great escape. There’s certainly no lack of texts that urge us to find a remote mountain top or overhanging cliff where we can leave the sorrows of samsaric life behind.
In no uncertain terms, Machig warns us not to avoid what we might consider mere “appearances,” the phenomena of everyday life. This verse is the bodhisattva’s call, the invocation of great compassion, of living with an open heart, awake to the full spectrum of human being-ness. “To carry the load” means to take on the whole package of pains and joys; it means not to turn away from ourselves or from others in all our beauty and ugliness. At times, the “appearing conditions” will be the succulent taste of a fresh raspberry dissolving on your tongue, the nurturing touch of a loved one, the well-deserved satisfaction of an accomplishment. Do not turn away. At other times, the conditions that appear will break our heart—the final words of a dying friend, the unresolved conflict with a loved one, the brutal memories of history, the burning hatred of political vitriol, the heart-wrenching images of unnecessary suffering. Do not turn away. If our path is to be honest, we must hold it all, without hesitation.
Spiritual life is not a remedy against ordinary life; the point is not to get away from anything. True liberation necessarily includes everything, all aspects of inner and outer experience, however unpleasant these may be. True happiness and peace arise only when we’ve had the courage to look under every stone of our lives. We are only truly fearless when we can walk down the dark alleys of our psyche and look our deepest fears in the eyes.
To “carry the load” means to take responsibility, not just for what we’ve done or not done, but for the whole catastrophe of beingness. It means to see ourselves as always inevitably involved, as oppressors and as oppressed in the ongoing dynamics of justice and injustice, power and privilege, pain and suffering. There’s no way out, no escape. There’s no cosmic pause button.
But we can “carry the load” in different ways. I remember as a child looking at the large metal statue of Atlas on New York’s 5th Avenue, carrying the globe on his shoulders: his head heavy, back bent forward, his immeasurably strong arms holding aloft a world that would crush him. We often move through our lives like this, continuously burdened by the real or imagined baggage of our destiny, our responsibilities imposed by ourselves or others. The chore of life. Buddhism offers us an alternate image, that of Prajna Paramita, the Great Mother, who gives birth to all things in her womb of totality, holds all beings in her arms, boundless, ever-nurturing, ever-present. She is described as space, a vastness that can hold all things because it itself is no-thing. Space is all-inclusive but does not experience this totality as heavy or oppressive. To “carry the load of appearing conditions” as Prajna Paramita is to recognize ourselves in the infinite space of interconnectedness with all beings. But this interdependence is empowering, enlivening. We hold all things and we are profoundly held.
I’ll go even one step further to suggest that it’s in diving into appearing conditions that the happiness and peace we may search for in the spiritual life are to be found. We recognize the ground of being when we become intimate with the emanations of the ground of being. Appearing conditions reflect the multiplicity of the ground—the innocent smile of a baby, the red eyes of grief, the hardened lips of anger. There’s no one way that the ground manifests, but all ways lead to the ground, however tender or raw the journey may be. To carry the load of appearing conditions is to recognize all phenomena as portals to the experience of awakened heart. This is Machig’s invocation to keep our heart–minds open, over and over again. That happiness and peace we strive for is actually always right here, not rarefied but hidden like an open secret in the nooks and crannies of daily life, buddhas winking at us as we pass them on the street.
“Don’t search, don’t practice; rest in your nature”
How much of our day is consumed with one search or another—the quest for the better life, the better partner, the better work, the better idea, or maybe only the better cup of tea. We define ourselves, in great part, by what we search for; our searches drive us, inspire us, and too often taunt us, torture us. Of course, our modern economy and the global marketing complex are built on and designed to promote this propensity for continual searching. We search because we have a sense of something, an inkling of something that will provide fulfillment, ease, wholeness, however small or large. But it’s always “out there,” isn’t it? We’re never quite there. We’ve never arrived just yet. Maybe soon, just around the corner. That’s the hook of the search: the promise that we’re almost there. Machig says quit it, stop the search. Let it go. Just stop.
But then what? What am I then? Who am I then?
Lest we think that her invitation relates to samsaric existence only, Machig continues by suggesting we release the spiritual quest as well: “don’t practice.” For years I have been working at establishing a daily practice. I have carved out that precious early morning time before the sun rises, my time of practice. And I love my practice. It sustains me, it rewards me, it feeds me. Yet even our practice can take on a quality of searching—seeking the more profound insight, the more transcendent experience, the more sustained concentration. Even the notion of practice invokes a sense of practicing for something, as though some day that real event will finally happen. There’s a subtle form of aggression that can arise as we set our mind to freeing itself. The path can become hardened, solidified in its one-pointedness. “Don’t practice,” says Machig. But what then? What of my much-loved sadhanas, my early morning affair with my cushion, my toolbelt of methods to work with my mind?
The question is: what remains when we stop searching, when we stop practicing? What remains when I release the tight grip on my path, whether external—with its sweet promise of accomplishment and meaning in the human world—or internal, providing a refuge for heart and mind? At first there is perhaps the subtle tightening of fear. I’m being asked to drop the complex identity package I’ve spent my whole life assembling. Maybe there’s even a feeling of void, loss, meaninglessness. But here, Machig says “rest.” Rest in what remains when we let the reins drop; rest in the open space after all the juggling balls have fallen to the ground. We release, surrender, relax back again and again. We come to rest in the vast embrace of our true nature. Again, we see Machig’s deep roots in the teachings of the Prajna Paramita—the image of the Great Mother, the groundless ground. We relax back into our nature, open and vast, all-encompassing, all-pervasive. Always already there. Not to be searched for, because it is not ever somewhere else. Not to be practiced, because it is already present.
This may sound like some grand mystical experience, and to some extent it is. But we can rest in our nature in any moment. I like remembering this verse when I’m doing the dishes. Don’t search. I notice the miniature purple orchids blooming at my window. Don’t practice. I feel the hot water running over my hands. Rest in your nature. The silver pan drips glistening in my hand.
And what of our life’s path? Do we stop our searching? Do we stop practicing? No, probably not, and maybe never. But we can let go a bit. Perhaps our searching can be more like a child’s play of hide-and-seek rather than the serious quest for a holy grail. Perhaps when we stop searching we can enjoy both the finding and the not-finding. Perhaps we can appreciate the richness of curiosity for its own sake. To rest in our nature is to be alive to whatever our lives offer us in each moment. We are playing hide-and-seek with our buddhanature and we can be sure that we will find it again and again, sometimes in the most unlikely places. In the face of someone we thought we despised, in the turn of circumstances we never thought we’d encounter, in the detour that took us off our programmed path. And how liberating is that!
To rest in our nature means to trust our basic nature, to trust our inherent wakefulness, wholeness. This is primordial worthiness, or “primordial self-esteem,” as Lama Tsultrim describes it. We don’t need to prove ourselves worthy of our lives. After all, it is the desire for approval, from others and from ourselves, that drives so much of our searching. If we can rest, over and over again, we can begin with worthiness as our starting point in whatever we endeavor. You are the ground of being. As the ground of being, what will you do? What will you manifest? What will you dream?
This essay was written in part during a retreat supported by a grant from the Hemera Foundation.