What is Chod

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Chöd (Tibetan: གཅོད, Wylie: gcod lit. ‘to sever’ Tibetan: གཅོད་སྒྲུབ་ཐབས་ gcod sgrub thabs; Sanskrit: छेद साधना cheda-sādhana; both literally “cutting practice”, pronounced chö (the d is silent).), is a spiritual practice found primarily in Tibetan Buddhism. Also known as “Cutting Through the Ego,” the practice is based on the Prajñāpāramitā or “Perfection of Wisdom” sutras which expound the “emptiness” concept of buddhist philosophy. According to Mahayana buddhists, emptiness is the ultimate wisdom of understanding that all things lack inherent existence. Chod combines prajñāpāramitā philosophy with specific meditation methods and tantric ritual. The chod practitioner seeks to tap the power of fear through activities such as rituals set in graveyards, and visualisation of offering their bodies in a tantric feast in order to put their understanding of emptiness to the ultimate test.

A form of Chöd was practiced in India by Buddhist mahāsiddhas, prior to the 10th Century. However, Chöd as practiced today developed from the entwined traditions of the early Indian tantric practices transmitted to Tibet and the Bonpo and Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayāna lineages. Besides the Bonpo, there are two main Tibetan Buddhist Chöd traditions, the “Mother” and “Father” lineages. In Tibetan tradition, Dampa Sangye is known as the Father of Chöd and Machig Labdron, founder of the Mahāmudra Chöd lineages, as the Mother of Chöd. Chöd developed outside the monastic system. It was subsequently adopted by the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Chöd, as an internalization of an outer ritual, involves a form of self-sacrifice: the practitioner visualizes their own body as the offering at a tantric feast. The purpose of the practice is to engender a sense of victory and fearlessness. These two qualities are represented iconographically by the victory banner and the ritual knife. The banner symbolizes overcoming obstacles and the knife symbolizes cutting through the ego. The practitioner may cultivate imaginary fearful or painful situations since they help the practitioner’s work of cutting through attachment to the self. Machig Labdrön said: “To consider adversity as a friend is the instruction of Chöd”.

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Chödpa as ‘Mad Saints’

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Sarat Chandra Das, writing at the turn of the 20th Century, equated the Chöd practitioner (Tibetan: གཅོད་པ, Wylie: chod pa) with the Indian avadhūta, or ‘mad saint’. Avadhūtas are renowned for expressing their spiritual understanding through ‘crazy wisdom’, inexplicable to ordinary people. Chöd practitioners are a type of Mad Saint particularly respected, feared or held in awe due to their roles as denizens of the charnel ground. According to tibetologist Jerome Edou Chod practitioners were often associated with the role of shaman and exorcist:

“The Chö[d]pa’s very lifestyle on the fringe of society – dwelling in the solitude of burial grounds and haunted places, added to the mad behavior and contact with the world of darkness and mystery – was enough for credulous people to view the Chödpa in a role usually attributed to shamans and other exorcists, an assimilation which also happened to medieval European shepherds. Only someone who has visited one of Tibet’s charnel fields and witnessed the offering of a corpse to the vultures may be able to understand the full impact of what the Chöd tradition refers to as places that inspire terror.”


In Chöd, the adept symbolically offers the flesh of their body in a form of gaṇacakra or tantric feast. Iconographically, the skin of the practitioner’s body may represent surface reality or maya. It is cut from bones that represent the true reality of the mindstream. Commentators such as Tsultrim Allione have pointed out the similarities between the Chöd ritual and the prototypical initiation of a shaman, although she identifies an essential difference between the two in that the shaman’s initiation is involuntary whilst a Chodpa chooses to undertake the ritual death of a Chod ceremony. Traditionally, Chöd is regarded as challenging, potentially dangerous and inappropriate for some practitioners.

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Ritual objects


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Practitioners of the Chöd ritual, Chödpa, use a kangling or human thighbone trumpet, and a Chöd drum, a hand drum similar to but larger than the ḍamaru commonly used in Tibetan ritual. In a version of the Chöd sādhana of Jigme Lingpa from the Longchen Nyingthig terma, five ritual knives (phurbas), are employed to demarcate the maṇḍala of the offering and to affix the five wisdoms.


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Origins of the practice

Chöd was a marginal and peripheral practice, and the Chodpas who engaged in it were from outside traditional Tibetan Buddhist and Indian monastic institutions, with a contraindication against all but the most advanced practitioners to go to the cemeteries to practice Chod. Texts concerning Chod were both exclusivie and rare in the early tradition.school. Indeed, due to the itinerant and nomadic lifestyles of practitioners, they could carry few texts.

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Machik Labdron


Machig Labdron is among the best loved of Tibetan saints, along with her contemporary. Milarepa, and the eighth-century female saint. Machig Labdron became a great teacher and tantric yogini who founded the system of Mahamudra Chod, which transforms negative mind states and frightening forces into great love and compassion, and cuts away the self- grasping, self-cherishing. She was the physical mother of three children, all of whom became great adepts and played a significant role in transmitting their mother’s practice lineage down to the present day.

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Pa Dampa Sangye


Padampa Sangye (known in India as Paramabuddha) was from southern India, and traveled widely in India, Tibet and China, until his death around 1117 AD. It is widely believed that Padampa Sangye was an incarnation of  the 8th century monk Kamalashîla, one of the early teachers of the Dharma in Tibet.

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Third Karmapa: systematizer of Chöd


Rangjung Dorje, 3rd Karmapa Lama, (1284–1339) was an important systematizer of Chöd teachings and significantly assisted in their promulgation within the literary and practice lineages of the Kagyu, Nyingma and particularly Dzogchen. It is in this transition from the charnel grounds to the monastic institutions of Tibetan Buddhism that the rite of Chöd became an inner practice; the charnel ground became an internal imaginal environment. Schaeffer conveys that the Third Karmapa was a systematizer of the Chöd developed by Machig Labdrön and lists a number of his works in Tibetan on Chöd. Amongst others, the works include redactions, outlines and commentaries.

Chöd was a marginal and peripheral practice, and the Chodpas who engaged in it were from outside traditional Tibetan Buddhist and Indian monastic institutions, with a contraindication against all but the most advanced practitioners to go to the cemeteries to practice Chod. Texts concerning Chod were both exclusivie and rare in the early tradition.school.[36] Indeed, due to the itinerant and nomadic lifestyles of practitioners, they could carry few texts. Hence they were also known as kusulu or kusulupa that is, studying texts rarely whilst focusing on meditation and praxis:

The nonconventional attitude of living on the fringe of society kept the Chödpas aloof from the wealthy monastic institutions and printing houses. As a result, the original Chöd texts and commentaries, often copied by hand, never enjoyed any wide circulation, and many have been lost forever.


Rang byung was renowned as a systematizer of the Gcod teachings developed by Ma gcig lab sgron. His texts on Gcod include the Gcod kyi khrid yig; the Gcod bka’ tshoms chen mo’i sa bcad which consists of a topical outline of and commentary on Ma gcig lab sgron’s Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa zab mo gcod kyi man ngag gi gzhung bka’ tshoms chen mo ; the Tshogs las yon tan kun ‘byung ; the lengthy Gcod kyi tshogs las rin po che’i phrenb ba ‘don bsgrigs bltas chog tu bdod pa gcod kyi lugs sor bzhag; the Ma lab sgron la gsol ba ‘deb pa’i mgur ma; the Zab mo bdud kyi gcod yil kyi khrid yig, and finally the Gcod kyi nyams len.

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Key elements of the Practice

Chöd literally means “cutting through”. It cuts through hindrances and obscurations, sometimes called ‘demons’ or ‘gods’. Examples of demons are ignorance, anger and, in particular, the dualism of perceiving the self as inherently meaningful, contrary to the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. The practitioner is fully immersed in the ritual: “With a stunning array of visualizations, song, music, and prayer, it engages every aspect of one’s being and effects a powerful transformation of the interior landscape.”

Dzogchen forms of Chöd enable the practitioner to maintain primordial awareness free from fear. Here, the Chöd ritual essentialises elements of phowa, gaṇacakra, pāramitā and lojonggyulu, kyil khor, brahmavihāra, ösel and tonglen.

Chöd usually commences with phowa in which the practitioner visualises their mindstream as the five pure lights leaving the body through the aperture of the sahasrara at the top of the head. This is said to ensure psychic integrity of, and compassion for the practitioner of the rite (sādhaka). In most versions of the sādhana the mindstream precipitates into a tulpa simulacrum of Vajrayoginī. In the body of enjoyment attained through visualization, the chodpa offers the tantric feast of their own physical body, to the ‘four’ guests: the three jewels, the dakinis, the protectors’ beings of the bhavachakra, the ever present genius loci and hungry ghosts. The rite may be protracted with separate offerings to each maṇḍala of guests, or significantly abridged. Many versions of the chod sādhana’ still exist.

Chöd, like all tantric systems, has outer, inner and secret aspects. They are described in an evocation sung to Nyama Paldabum by Milarepa:

External chod is to wander in fearful places where there are deities and demons. Internal chod is to offer one’s own body as food to the deities and demons. Ultimate chod is to realize the true nature of the mind and cut through the fine strand of hair of subtle ignorance. I am the yogi who has these three kinds of chod practice.

The Chöd is now a staple of the advanced sādhana of Tibetan Buddhist traditions. It is practiced worldwide following dissemination by the Tibetan diaspora.

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Western reports on Chöd practices

Chöd was mostly practised outside the Tibetan monastery system by chödpas, who were yogis, yogiṇīs and ngagpas rather than bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs. Because of this, material on Chöd has been less widely available to Western readers than some other tantric Buddhist practices. The first Western reports of Chöd came from a French adventurer who lived in Tibet, Alexandra David-Néel in her travelogue Magic and Mystery in Tibet, published in 1932. Walter Evans-Wentz published the first translation of a Chöd liturgy in his 1935 book Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. Anila Rinchen Palmo translated several essays about Chöd in the 1987 collection Cutting Through Ego-Clinging: Commentary on the practice of Tchod.[citation needed] Giacomella Orofino’s piece entitled “The Great Wisdom Mother” was included in Tantra in Practice in 2000 and in addition she published articles on Machig Labdrön in Italian. In 2009, Tsultrim Allione, a recognised incarnation of Machig Lapdron published a book entitled Feeding Your Demons, describing a 5 step practice inspired by the Chod practice she has studied since the early 1970s.


  1. Primary Sources
  • Machik Labdron: Machik’s Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chod (Tsadra Foundation), Snow Lion Publications (June 25, 2003) Translation by Sarah Harding

Secondary Sources

  • Allione, Tsultrim (1984/2000). “The Biography of Machig Labdron (1055-1145).” in Women of Wisdom. Pp. 165–220. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-141-3
  • Allione, Tsultrim (1998). “Feeding the Demons.” in Buddhism in America. Brian D. Hotchkiss, ed. Pp. 344–363. Rutland, VT; Boston, MA; Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.
  • Benard, Elisabeth Anne (1990). “Ma Chig Lab Dron.” Chos Yang 3:43-51.
  • Beyer, Stephen (1973). The Cult of Tara. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03635-2
  • Edou, Jérôme (1996). Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. 
  • Harding, Sarah (2003). Machik’s Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-182-0
  • Kollmar-Paulenz, Karenina (1998). “Ma gcig Lab sgrn ma—The Life of a Tibetan Woman Mystic between Adaptation and Rebellion.” The Tibet Journal 23(2):11-32.
  • Orofino, Giacomella (2000). “The Great Wisdom Mother and the Gcod Tradition.” in Tantra in Practice. David Gordon White, ed. Pp. 396–416. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Stott, David (1989). “Offering the Body: the Practice of gCod in Tibetan Buddhism.” Religion 19:221-226.
  • Lawrence, Leslie L. (2002) “Csöd” ISBN 963-8229-76-4

External links





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