Welcome to the Charnel Ground

Chöying Khandro takes us on a tour of Chöd, where we visit the places we don’t want to go and offer ourselves up to the things that frighten us the most.

By Choying Khandro

Intergalactic Rom-Com, 2020. Painting by Aaron Johnson.

My son died unexpectedly when he was sixteen. In the charnel ground of my grief, Chöd cracked open the hope and fear at the core of my wounded heart. There is also a collective charnel ground of chaos and fear; there, too, Chöd pierces like a laser beam through the core of karmic patterns and calls us home to who and what we truly are.

The Buddha has been called the first doctor, but Machik Labdron (1055–1149), the founder of this unique system of practice, may have been the first true psychotherapist. Born fifteen hundred years after the time of Buddha in the remote snowy mountains of Tibet, Machik established Chöd—an amalgam of her own realization, contemporaneous Buddhist teachings (particularly Prajnaparamita wisdom teachings), and elements of indigenous practices—when she was still a young woman. Literally meaning “cutting” or “severance,” the aim of Chöd is to uproot self-grasping, the fundamental cause of suffering.

Any disowned or not thoroughly processed parts of ourselves become obstacles in our lives.

Chöd is the only Buddhist tradition to have originated in Tibet, and also the only tradition among the eight major “chariot” traditions in Tibet to have been founded by a woman. It was influenced by the Shije (or Zhije) tradition. Founded by the Indian master Padampa Sangye (d. 1117), Shije means “to purify or pacify suffering.” Machik received Shije teachings from Padampa but took them a step further, teaching the more radical approach of not only pacifying suffering but willingly inviting in any difficult and painful energies in order to cut their root directly, spontaneously, and naturally.

The practice entails a uniquely maternal approach of embracing, nurturing, and giving, with the ideal expressed in the phrase “feeding, not fighting.” The implications of this approach are immense and require us to embrace a paradigm shift in how we perceive and work with the psychological and existential residues that affect our experience of everyday life.

In Chöd, we call these residues “gods and demons,” but we could just as easily call them “trauma.” Machik described them in detail: what they look like, how they feel, and how they can be freed. Going to the charnel ground of our psyche, the places that frighten us, we can meet and liberate gods and demons by uprooting, dissolving, and seeing their true nature. The premise of Chöd is to “make the unconscious conscious.”

There are many expressions of this practice, but Milarepa spoke of Chöd as having three dimensions: outer, inner, and secret.

Outer Chöd: Wandering in The Charnel Ground

Outer Chöd refers to its physical expression. We physically wander in the charnel ground, or cemetery, roving the places that provoke fear and anxiety in us. As we do so, we imagine offering our own body—that to which we are most attached—to others, especially to disturbing beings. This challenging practice makes us confront the core of our grasping. In a scary place, Chöd practitioners use the fear that inevitably arises to see the object of negation or grasping, to test our realization, and to enhance our understanding of reality or emptiness. We cut through the doubt in our minds by seeing its true nature.

The concept of “charnel ground” is important here. Though literally a place where dead bodies are left to decompose or be eaten by vultures, it more broadly implies any fear-provoking place or a place where spirits tend to reside. In psychological terms, a “charnel ground” is any situation we don’t want to face or place we are unwilling to go. At the edge of the charnel ground, we renounce worldly concerns.

Chöd began as a lineage of wandering yogis and yoginis, with traditional Chöd practitioners, or Chöd-pas, spending their lives as wandering beggars in abandoned ruins, solitary caves, charnel grounds, or next to rivers or natural springs. Thus, Machik never established an institutional framework for the Chöd lineage during her lifetime.

Inner Chöd: Training in Fierce Tonglen

The heart of Chöd is tonglen, the practice of taking on the suffering and pain of others and in return offering love and compassion. We also practice tonglen to confront the forces within us that create so much struggle and conflict, completely reversing our ordinary tendency to protect ourselves. Usually, we want happiness and pleasure, so we suppress pain and avoid seeing the suffering. In tonglen practice, we resist that urge to escape; whatever arises, we stay in the energy of that discomfort. We breathe in discomfort, and we breathe out relaxation. That’s the practice. Slowly, that practice translates to our daily lives so that when difficulty arises, on the spot, we do this internal tonglen.

In the context of Chöd, tonglen becomes an even more intense practice—we invite difficult parts of ourselves and others (the “gods and demons”) and offer them the most precious thing with which we identify: our human bodies. We do this by envisioning taking our body, chopping it up, and offering it to them. It’s hard to explain how visceral and profound this process can be. I call Chöd “fierce tonglen” or “extreme tonglen.”

This practice challenges the ego’s grip. Machik taught that there are no demons outside of our minds, although they manifest externally; so, in our practice, we start by working with the demons in our minds. Once a safe container is established, this dimension of Chöd can be used effectively not only for existential healing of our sense of a separate self but also for psychological healing from trauma.

In life, when confronted with something we wish to avoid—for example, the grief we feel when somebody dear to us dies—we tend to shut down, find ways to distract ourselves, or dissociate. Healing comes from connecting with the experience so it can be naturally processed. Any disowned or not thoroughly processed parts of ourselves become obstacles in our lives. They are our “shadow.” If those unprocessed feelings are not safely liberated or integrated, they become karmic blockages.

According to Machik, anything that obstructs progress toward enlightenment is a demon, while gods are entrapments that merely come in an attractive or appealing guise; gods and demons are two sides of the same coin. Put simply, “life” is a god, and “death” is a demon—although they coexist, we have very different responses to them.

Demons are personified as Mara, an expression of the sense of struggle spiritual seekers face in trying to be fully awake on the path. We, like the Buddha, must face Mara. Machik taught that unless we liberate Mara, awakening is impossible. But how do we approach such a task?

Buddha defeated Mara not by shooting an arrow but by realizing the emptiness of self and phenomena and resting in true nature. He loosened his self-identification and rested in the ultimate nature of mind. Chöd directly addresses the true nature of our afflictive mental states (our maras) and their root, ego-fixation, at both relative and absolute levels. Practitioners take up both: realizing the true nature—emptiness—and working compassionately with phenomena.

Chöd and Tibetan demonology describe different classifications of demons. One is the demon of “karmic debt.” The function of this demon is to act as a karmic debt collector who appears in various forms to extract payment from us. We pay for any disowned or unprocessed debt by being fully present, welcoming in pain, and giving love in return. If we can experience each moment openly, there is no karmic debt.

It is essential to note, however, that we do not “do” tonglen. The ego is incapable of doing tonglen; tonglen requires a shift in the identification of the agent who is “doing.”

First, we must shift our identification from ego to deep awareness, from identification with the suffering ego to buddhanature. In the context of Chöd ritual, this happens when we separate consciousness from the body. This part is called phowa, the transference of consciousness. Here, we rest in deep awareness of nonduality, as if space has merged into space, without reference points. From that point of deep awareness beyond the small self, the rest of the ritual—offering the body, offering dharma, and so forth—unfolds. If we are immersed in our ego identification, tonglen doesn’t work. A drowning mother cannot save a drowning child.

Secret Chöd: Resting in True Nature

Secret Chöd is resting in deep awareness, or rigpa, to use the Dzogchen term. In Mahamudra terms, that would be resting in the nature of mind, or the “innate mind of clear light” in the Highest Yoga Tantra of Vajrayana.

In the context of Chöd ritual, just after separating our consciousness from our body as described above, our awareness merges into the absolute expanse of totality—dharmadhatu, dharmakaya, or buddhanature—as if space were merged into space, water mixed with water. This is secret, or hidden, Chöd.

If we practice Chöd genuinely with the three aspects of renunciation, compassion, and emptiness, we may not need any other practices. Jamgon Kongtrul, the great nineteenth-century Tibetan teacher, said that Mahamudra and Chöd are synonymous in the sense that Mahamudra’s essence is the core of Chöd practice: “Mahamudra Chöd presents the enlightened perspective of the middle turning of the wheel of dharma”—that is, the teaching of emptiness—“in conjunction with the Mantrayana activity for training in awareness.”

Chöd is the fusion of emptiness and compassion, or emptiness and awareness, or emptiness and luminosity, clarity, and consciousness. It is a direct method for cutting through the root of samsara, requiring mastery of view and method as well as other practices.

The genuine inquiry into one’s entire fabric of experienced reality required by true engagement in Chöd gives rise to fear and confusion. An external demon appears to us. An overwhelming feeling or a heaviness in our bodies consumes us. It is through this experiential engagement with our own minds that we experience movement and transformation.

Chöd challenges our old patterns and presents a radical paradigm shift of giving, especially to our demons, like a mother offering her body to her troubled and starving child. It offers a potent and much needed tool for meeting the personal and collective challenges we face in the modern age, a path to complete awakening beyond conditioning.

It is time for us to make a radical shift in restoring our relationship to ourselves, to others, to all beings, seen and unseen without exception, and to the world. In that light, Machik’s emphasis on altruism toward nonhuman spirits, especially hostile beings and meek spirits, is powerful. The practice of Chöd unveils and strengthens our immense capacity to be present with whatever arises, no matter how difficult it may be, without shutting down. We become increasingly courageous and caring for all things, human and nonhuman, while waking up to what is. Our hearts are cracked wide open and we become fearless bodhisattvas to the world.

Choying Khandro

Choying Khandro

Chöying Khandro received the transmissions of both the Ganden and Machik Dakini Ear-Whispered Chöd lineages from her root teacher, the Ninth Khalkha Jetsün Dampa. Based in Springfield, Oregon, she is the founder and spiritual leader of Dakini’s Whisper, an international, online community whose mission is to integrate ancient wisdom into the individual and shared journey of dedicated, contemporary practitioners around the world. She has an MA in oriental philosophy from Waseda University in Japan and an MA in Buddhist studies from the University of Michigan and is also trained in body-oriented disciplines