The Sound of Vultures’ Wings

Read a brief of The Sound of Vultures’ Wings: The Tibetan Buddhist Chöd Ritual Practice of the Female Buddha Machik Labdrön , by Jeffrey W. Cupchik. and an exclusive excerpt courtesy of its publisher, SUNY Press.

By Jeffrey W. Cupchik

Constance Kassor’s review from the Spring 2024 Buddhadharma:

The Chöd tradition developed by the female Tibetan adept Machik Labdrön in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is a practice aimed at cutting (chod) one’s attachment to the idea of a self through ritualized meditative practices that involve specific musical elements. While the historiography, translation, and hagiography of Chöd practice has received a fair amount of attention from Western scholars, its musical and performative aspects have not been studied to the same degree. The Sound of Vultures’ Wings: The Tibetan Buddhist Chöd Ritual Practice of the Female Buddha Machik Labdrön , by Jeffrey W. Cupchik, fills this gap by examining Chöd through the lens of ethnomusicology. In researching this volume, Cupchik apprenticed with recognized Chöd masters in order to better understand the functions of music in the practice. The resulting findings suggest that this ritual music was not composed in spontaneous moments of masters’ realizations as previously believed, but in ways that would enhance the meditative experience of practitioners. [Please note that the text from which this excerpt derives makes use of endnotes and diacritical; these are not represented in this excerpt.]

The Excerpt: “Chapter 3: The Sound of Vultures’ Wings

Ritual Mapping the Chöd Practice 

The Role of Music in Chöd: Paradoxical Claims? 

During the oral transmission of a Chöd ritual, the lama might adopt a strong  rhetorical stance, insisting that music is not the central point of the practice.  Instead, the lama will gently affirm that one should, in contrast, place the  mind’s focus on increasing one’s level of bodhicitta, and attaining a deeper level  of realizing the nature of mutual interdependence and emptiness. According  to a preeminent twentieth-century exponent of the ritual practice, Kyabje  Zong Rinpoche, former head of the Ganden Chöd Tradition, one does not  need the music in order to practice Chöd. Pala (Ven. Pencho Rabgey) echoes  this sentiment when he tells me legends of Chöd adepts (including his own  teacher, Geshe Trinley) who found it just as effective to sit in a cemetery (a  “sky burial” site in Tibet) at night to perform a silent meditation, thinking  through the process of a sadhana, mentally performing all the visualizations  in each step, and in this way reaching attainments.  

Yet, it is also the case that every Chöd lama implores their students to  learn the melodies and instruments correctly, and some lamas may quietly  display disappointment when this has not been sufficiently achieved. Although  seemingly paradoxical, both positions have their validity. My interest in the  musical aspects of Chöd stems, at least partly, from this apparent contradiction.  Since musical performance is a constant and complex feature of the ritual  practices, we may ask: “What are the functions of music in the Chöd ritual?”  Or, to put it differently: “How do the various aspects of the music ritual  performance assist one in the meditation practice?” Zong Rinpoche notes  that the study and practice of Chöd involve cultivated musical training and  an appreciation of musical symbolism, style, and execution.

Zong Rinpoche’s pedagogical advice given to practitioners during a  Chöd transmission is highly instructive in several ways. He states: 

It is important to remember that the Chöd melodies are not the  compositions of chanting beggars, but the wisdom of Buddha  in actuality. For that reason, reciting Chöd authentically, to  the original melodies, creates great merit. In the same way, the  Guru Puja must be kept pure. If the melodies degenerate, the  authenticity and blessings will be lost. Some of the melodies used  in this Chöd system are those composed by Machik Labdrön  herself, particularly the section on the body being cut up. This  melody was inspired by the sound of the flapping wings of vultures  arriving at a “sky burial” [emphasis added].

Sound Images of Vultures and Tone Painting 

The last point is arguably the most important from an ethnomusicological  perspective, implying, as it does, that one of the composition techniques  used in Chöd meditation practice rituals is tone painting. Tone painting is  the name given to a technique of composition whereby culturally relevant  musical gestures are combined—in melody, instrumentation, and rhythm—to  conjure up an image in the mind of the listener. To put this another way, a  composer evokes an image musically through culturally understood semiotic  gestures. Often naturalistic imagery is depicted, such as the elements and  forces of nature.  

Musical Depictions, Literary Concordances 

Machik Labdrön’s melody was composed for the section of the “actual  practice” of the ritual, in which there is the vivid visualization of separating  consciousness from the body and then preparing the body for transformation  and distribution. This enables the practitioner to visualize the pulling-up  and flapping of vultures’ wings more effectively with each rising two-note  gesture displaying a short-long rhythm. The transcription  indicates an initial upward moving sequence of successively higher starting  pitches of a two-note ascending melodic gesture, characterizing the first  half of the melody. This is answered by the “gliding” and “settling down”  of the vultures characterized by the pitch contour in the second half of the  melody. The palpable mental image that Machik Labdrön evokes through musical gesture enhances the mood that the practitioner cultivates in the  process of visualization. There is a dramatic transformation taking place as  she prepares first to separate her consciousness from the body, and then to  distribute the old body to all invited guests. The practitioner will utilize this  image in meditation when the dakini, whose identity is the practitioner’s  own transformed consciousness, is visualized flaying the old body.  

Melodic Parameters 

The melody has to obey the conventions of the genre (it must match the  musical language and syntax of the other melodies in the sadhana) and  also uniquely mark the imagined event with culturally appropriate musical  gestures. It demands artistic skill to distill the essence of an abstract idea  into a concrete image, that is, to evoke an image, or scene, with a single  melodic line, just as it requires skill to condense the essence of a large  written work into a précis, abstract, or sound bite. 

In a Chöd sadhana, the musical texture is largely homophonic: one main  melodic line is dominant, while other musical parts (played by instruments  or sung) enhance, accompany, or support it. There is, however, an important  caveat with respect to this categorical designation. Although a Chöd sadhana  requires only one sung melodic part in each meditation section, either in  unison or at the octave, the musical texture in toto retains the melodic  dominance of the voice—singing or chanting the liturgical poetry—and  pitched instruments that influence the melodic texture. Moreover, a melody is always rhythmic and has directionality, phrase structure, and certain  pitches of importance, as well as shifting centers of pitch importance. In  Chöd performance, the two-line stanza refrain usually comprises  two  sung musical phrases: a first phrase that departs from the home tonal area  to a related tonal area, and a second phrase that returns from this related  tonal area to the home tonal area. A Chöd sadhana is usually designed so  that a musical phrase can be expressed within one exhaling breath.  

Performing Sonic Iconography: Visualizing Music in Chöd Practice 

When the composer has such restricted room for the creative realization of  visualization, a limited palette with which to paint a portrait of the meditative  event, it requires single brush strokes in an austerely constructed sequence.  With the melody aptly evoking the ascribed symbolic image, the repetitions  of the melodic refrain act as the ideal canvas for the specific details of the  poetic text-based meditative visualizations.  

Machik Labdrön’s melody aids the practitioner’s meditation because  it depicts the vultures’ actions through musical imagery. The sophistication  of the composer’s technique should be remarked upon here. The composer  attempts to depict the psychology of fear associated with the onset of violent  thunderstorms (in the case of Vivaldi); and, in the case of Chöd, fear and  vulnerability along with the feeling of attachment to the body as vultures  arrive and circle above. The Chöd composer paints a scene that evokes an  emotional response in the adept. Vultures fly confidently and prepare to  land with four or five graceful flaps of their wings. Correspondingly, the  melody depicts this confidence with a soaring sequence of melodic leaps  and a rapidly reached melodic climax on the sixth syllable of the first line of the two-line melody, with the rest of the melody heard as a dénouement.  The music has five melodic leaps in an ascending sequence, followed by  a descending contour. Each melodic leap sounds like a flapping of wings;  altogether, it sounds like an arc of determined, focused action.  

Remarkably, there is but one literal reference to “vultures” (rgod po)  in this sadhana. The reference is found, in fact, during the meditation  section where this melody of “cutting the body” is sung. This makes sense  in terms of the logical structure of the ritual, as this is the precise moment  when the Chöd practitioner’s consciousness is transferred up and into the  lama’s heart and the body is left on the ground. While the practitioner’s  consciousness has subsequently emerged from the lama’s heart as a dakini,  vultures would arrive to attend to the body at this moment and no other.  The sadhana’s liturgical text proceeds as follows, in translation:  

v.3 From the pathway of the supreme channel,

I eject [my mind] into the guru-deity’s heart [above].

phat.! phat.! phat.! phat.! Phat.!

v.4 My old body falls down, abandoned,

Appearing whitish and oily, it covers a billion worlds.

v.5 phat.!

My mind emerges from the heart of the guru-deity,

in the aspect of a d. ākinī holding a curved knife.

v.6 Like a vulture circling above meat, holding the curved knife,

[I swoop down and] from the crown to the groin, I cut.11

The poetic structure of this subritual in the sadhana should be noted.  The two-line musical refrain recurs ten times. Thus, there are ten verses (each  two-lines in length) to which this melody is sung. Five verses precede the  cutting of the body, while five are sung to the cutting, transforming, and  preparing of the body for distribution. The end of the third verse is the  commencement of the “transference of consciousness” practice, while the  fifth verse concerns the consciousness emerging from the heart of the lama.  Clearly, this melody traverses several transformative experiences. From the  beginning of the “actual practice” (the first three verses), when the subtle  consciousness is recognized and is brought upward through the central channel (beginning from the navel chakra up through to the heart, throat,  head, and crown chakras) and ejected out of the body through the crown  aperture, until the moment after the tenth and final verse of the same sub ritual (when the “white offering” substances are purified and prepared for  distribution), the same melodic refrain sustains the practitioner’s meditations  by depicting the image of vultures arriving and awaiting the dakini’s work  to be completed. 

It is consistent with the need to go to scary places that the “tone  painting” refers to the manner of vultures arriving at a sky burial site where  they await the disposal of a carcass (the practitioner’s own freshly dead  body). While this may be gruesome and even terrifying to imagine, both  this Chöd sadhana’s poetry and its musical liturgy require the practitioner  to think along these lines with respect to the predicament of the body.  The idea is to work with the ego’s normatively strongly felt association of  the “I” with the body. By working with this habitual tendency to protect  the self, observing the way in which the “self-grasping” occurs with respect  to the body, it exposes the sense of relationship with this body as “self.”  Because the sadhana’s written liturgy and melody have both been composed  by adepts in the Chöd Tradition to assist the practitioner in gaining realization through the meditative process, it is instructive to consider what they  wish the practitioner to experience through visualization in the context of  music performance.  

The melody and written liturgy together conjure up an entire scene for  the practitioner, the moment when her consciousness exits the old body and  she returns to it as a dakini in order to actualize the practice of generosity  (sbyin pa), first of the six perfections (paramitas) in the Prajnaparamita Sutra 

(Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra), by distributing the old body she formerly identified with as her “self.” This melody is meant to evoke a scene that makes her feel vulnerable during the arrival of the vultures and other scavengers, and she is faced more profoundly with her own attachment to the body  which she has not completely been able to let go of.  

This is the moment for which the Chöd ritual is created.

From The Sound of Vultures’ Wings: The Tibetan Buddhist Chöd Ritual Practice of the Female Buddha Machik Labdrön , by Jeffrey W. Cupchik. We thank SUNY Press for providing this excerpt, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

For more on the latest dharma books, read this issue’s edition of Buddhadharma on Books. Or see more excerpts and other digital exclusives for Buddhadharma readers here.

Jeffrey W. Cupchik

Jeffrey W. Cupchik is an ethnomusicologist specializing in Buddhist studies, ritual music, and anthropology of religion. He has spent over twenty years studying Tibetan language, music, culture, and religion in Tibetan communities in India, Nepal, Tibet, Canada, and the United States.