Legitimation and Innovation in Tibetan Chöd


A review of Making the Old New Again and Again: Legitimation and Innovation in the Tibetan Buddhist Chöd Tradition, by Michelle Janet Sorensen.

Encompassing intellectual history, philosophical analysis, text criticism, and theoretical interventions into understanding how tradition functions, Michelle Sorensen’s dissertation presents an extensive survey of the history, development, and transmission of Chöd in Tibet from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. Chöd (gcod), literally ‘to cut’ or ‘to sever,’ is a meditative ritual centered around visualization that aims to overcome, i.e. ‘sever,’ attachment to the self. Sorensen’s study not only excavates the details of the overlooked early history of this practice, but also provides a new way to think about the means used to introduce innovation into Tibetan practice and philosophy while retaining the appearance of uniformity with prior tradition. Similarly, the dissertation, in a taking a fresh look at Machik Labdrön (Ma gcig labs kyi sgron ma, c. 1055-1149), the woman customarily considered the ‘founder’ (albeit with contested and contradictory meanings of ‘founder’) of Chöd, tackles the paradoxical portrayals of her within Tibetan Buddhism’s highly masculine hegemonic order. Further, Sorensen also develops a convincing account of how Chöd came to be seen as inextricably linked with Mahāmudrā. The goal of the dissertation is to do historical and theoretical justice to each of these factors, offering a corrective to previous scholarly studies of Chöd, which have tended to offer accounts of the ritual that render it amorphous and ahistorical, eliding distinctions in how the practice has been understood and practiced by different lineages at different times. Sorensen’s study, on the other hand, endeavors to ascertain and critically examine the particulars of Chöd’s early spread and adoption. At stake is the author’s intention to demonstrate the ways that the qua tradition (and by implication I think all traditions) depends on its simultaneous instability and continuity.

The Introduction briefly reviews and reveals not only the shortcomings of older nineteenth and twentieth century Western scholarship on Chöd but also the lacunae in contemporary scholarship and in Tibetans’ own historical record. But, the Introduction is explicit that the dissertation’s principal concern is with remedying these lapses and so, aside from this succinct assessment of current views, it does not set out to analyze the received history in Tibet or to tackle the genealogy of Western (mis)representations. Rather, the Introduction clearly sets forth some of the particular conceptual problems that motivate the dissertation’s corrective purpose—namely, the paradoxical claims found in the tradition that Chöd was both transmitted to Machik by the Indian Padampa Sangyé and that it was the first practice tradition initially founded in Tibet and then brought to India; the related paradox that Machik was taught Chöd by her Indian teacher and that she was herself its originator; the presumption that Chöd has always been considered a Mahāmudrā practice; and the relation between the sūtric and tantric aspects of Chöd. Underlying such an array of issues is Sorensen’s objective to offer a ‘thicker description’ (p. 19) that will demonstrate both how the practice is continuous with traditional Buddhist teachings and how it was able to authenticate and legitimate its innovations to that tradition.

The body of the dissertation is divided into three sections. The first section focuses on the period of the Second Dissemination (phyi dar) of Buddhism to Tibet in order to both portray the milieu during Machik’s life that allowed her to “participate in the regeneration of canonical Mahāyāna teachings while remaining independent of strict institutional or doctrinal affiliations” (p. 26) and to describe the context for the dissemination and development of Chöd from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries. The second section considers the philosophical context and underpinnings of Chöd, which is embedded in both exoteric and esoteric theory and practice, that is, Chöd’s relation to and initial formulation in dependence upon mainstream Mahāyāna sūtric Prajñāpāramitā literature, as well as on the tantric understandings of the body and mind that drive the efficacy of the practice. Finally, the third section analyzes six texts attributed to Machik Labdron and two commentaries by the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorjé (Rang byung rdo rje, 1284-1339) – all eight of these are, for the first time, critically translated and annotated in the appendices – and discusses the way that Mahāmudrā philosophical views had, by the fourteenth century, become integrated into the texts, such that the Chöd of the Kagyu school came to be understood as grounded in Mahāmudrā. These three areas are covered over the course of six chapters. Especially laudable is that, woven through these chapters, Sorensen manages to not only cover the major historical and philosophical developments of Chöd, but also to analyze Machik’s unique situation as a woman adept and the ‘anti-legitimation’ strategy she employs as a means to ‘position her teachings as both integrating and transcending their Sūtra and Tantra antecedents’ (p. 22).

The first chapter, “Historical Contexts,” characterizes and offers the historical background to the Second Dissemination (or what Sorensen calls the “Later Spread”), the period in which Chöd originated and was transmitted to the Tibetan schools that arose during that time. This provides necessary background for understanding Chöd, especially for those unfamiliar with the history of Tibetan Buddhism, and her coverage is effective. Most interesting here are her interventions into scholarly discussions about the nature of orthodoxy and orthopraxy in this period and questions about the degree to which the rhetoric of conservatism corresponded to the actual ability of an alternative or lay movement – especially one founded by a woman – to spread, at least initially, outside of institutional structures. Addressing the range of views on these matters held by, among others, Dan Martin and Ronald Davidson, Sorensen concludes that current academic discourse often remains beholden to traditional authority, such that “[c]onservative scholastic traditions have been more successful at defining orthodoxy and orthopraxy, even among contemporary scholars.” Given the excessive influence of these traditions on current research, Sorensen proceeds, in the second chapter, “Chöd Transmissions and Lineages,” to tackle early textual sources directly (including a wide range of Tibetan Dharma histories [chos ‘byung] and hagiographies [rnam thar]), in order to complicate the homogeneous picture of Chöd’s development so often taken for granted. Sorensen situates Chöd in terms of its likely Indian philosophical and tantric antecedents and identifies many of the key figures in the various transmission lineages of Tibet, carefully tracing their associated schools and institutional affiliations. Such attention to lineage demonstrates the instrumental role played by institutions in authenticating a teaching by establishing a pedigreed history. She also, briefly but significantly, addresses the persistent question of the relation between Padampa Sangyé and Machik and their respective Zhijé (pacification; T. zhi byed) and Chöd practices, as well as the limitations that conditioned the possibilities for Machik to be taken seriously as a teacher. This question gets to the heart of issues of legitimacy in Tibetan Buddhism, since it includes the problems of both Indian versus Tibetan origination as well as the status of women as teachers in the male-dominated Tibetan religious world.

The second section of the dissertation, addressing the philosophical bases of Chöd, is covered in Chapters 3, 4, and 5. Chapter 3, “Philosophical Contexts of Chöd,” begins with a discussion of Chöd’s explicit association with sūtric Prajñāpāramitā teachings. However, since Chöd originated during a period in which the relations between sūtric and tantric Buddhism in Tibet were still becoming established, the chapter quickly moves to focus on the tantric aspects of Chöd. Of course, this entails first offering some sense of just what tantra is, and Sorensen enumerates several of the classification schemes scholars have used to differentiate sūtra and tantra. She also positions David Germano’s understanding of the generation and perfection stages of deity yoga in terms of one’s relation to embodiment as the backdrop for finding a parallel between Chöd’s support for deity yoga and the way Machik is so often identified with Vajrayoginī. Through examining thang ga paintings, The Great Explanation collection, and a selection of practice texts, Sorensen establishes this parallel and shows that, though it ostensibly serves as a means for elevating the position of Machik, exceptional in being both an ‘ordinary woman’ and a lineage founder, in reality the identification functions to refigure Chöd as tantra, to displace Machik with a deity, and to diminish her status as philosopher and teacher by instead relegating her to an abstraction, an ahistorical supramundane goddess, rather than an actor in the hegemonically male world of Tibetan religious thought and influence. The chapter also includes an interesting discussion of the etymologies of the homonyms gcod and spyod (‘to practice’), using the recurrence of this wordplay in a variety of settings to demonstrate that, for all of Chöd’s associations with tantra, it also assiduously insists on the interrelationship of its tantric and sūtric elements. While some scholars have dismissed the relationship between these homonyms as mere pun, Sorensen takes seriously, and provides substantial evidence for, their intentional deployment as a marker of Chöd’s roots in both sūtra and tantra. Lastly, having shown how Chöd uses both sūtra and tantra to establish its legitimacy, the chapter proposes that Machik adopted a unique strategy of “anti-legitimation,” whereby she claims it is precisely her lack of explicit reliance on previous Buddhist teachings that establishes the authenticity of her teachings. By refusing to cite authoritative texts, her instructions are necessarily free of erroneous references and can distinctively capture the meaning of the Dharma by not falling into digressively scholastic issues of word choice or familiarity with sources. Instead, the truth of her teachings is to be discovered in the benefits they have for the practitioner. Coupled with her unique prowess as a reader of Prajñāpāramitā sūtras, this skepticism of the scholasticism to which sūtric teachings and practice are thought to be prone allows her teachings to be seen as simultaneously synthesizing and transcending the elements of sūtra and tantra that comprise Chöd.

Chapters 4 and 5 are related in dealing with what Sorensen calls the ‘body-mind modality,’ with Chapter 4 attending to the role of the body and Chapter five to the role of the mind, in accomplishing the aims of Chöd practice. In Chapter 4, “Cutting Through the Body,” Sorensen shows how Chöd uses the body as an offering in a manner that allows it to both “assimilate itself to and distinguish itself from traditional Buddhist praxis” (p. 142). The chapter first delineates a number of paradigms of the body found in Buddhism, and ways and rationales by which the body is assessed as useful or useless. Sorensen then addresses the portion of Chöd that deals with the visualized dismemberment of the body and its offering (lus sbyin) to various high and low guests in order to pacify them and eliminate the obstacles they may cause or to please them and bring forth their blessings. This is often taken to be the central feature of Chöd and is the aspect that has created the most misunderstanding among both Western scholars and practitioners. But Sorensen makes clear that this feature of Chöd is best understood as a practice of giving or self-sacrifice and that, far from being an exotic ‘shamanic’ vestige of pre-Buddhist Tibetan practice, it is best understood as congruent with the long history of dehadāna (offering of the body), a theme and ideal found throughout Buddhist literature virtually from its inception. Moreover, contrary to Reiko Ohnuma’s assertions that the supererogatory nature of dehadāna stands in contradiction to the selflessness the act is meant to betoken, Sorensen argues that narratives of dehadāna are compatible with the goals of emphasizing interconnectivity and concern for the other. Chöd in particular, since it opens the possibility for anyone to visualize offering their body, draws on the dialectic between the body’s usefulness and uselessness and becomes a site for staking a claim to the continuity of Chöd with traditional practice, while introducing an adaptation that makes dehadāna available to all and not just to the most exceptional of beings.

Paralleling the preceding chapter’s focus on the body, Chapter 5 discusses Chöd’s techniques for “Cutting Through the Mind.” Since the mind is the basis for self-grasping, it is the ultimate root of the object to be severed. This chapter begins with a discussion of the philosophy of the Universal Base Consciousness (kun gzhi rnam par shes pa; ālaya-vijñāna) and its function as an “explanatory category” (p. 196, quoting Paul Griffiths) that provides for karmic continuity. Sorensen delves into some of the complexities of the Yogācāra philosophy from which the category originates and outlines its relevance for sūtric and tantric Chöd. Based on an essay by Jacob Dalton, she describes how tantra by the ninth century had become an internalized site of practice. This is not a metaphoric or psychologizing claim, but an assertion to be taken literally to refer to the interior of the practitioner’s body as the ritualized space for practice. For Chöd this means that cutting through the mind entails cutting through the mental aggregates via practices of internal yoga that correctly recognize how the bdud (‘negative forces’; Māra) have been mistakenly externalized and proceeding to re-internalize and then dissipate them.

Concluding the dissertation is Chapter 6, “Texts.” In this chapter, Sorensen introduces each of six texts attributed to Machik, and two commentaries by Rangjung Dorjé, the Third Karmapa, that she translates in the appendices, where they appear in English for the first time. We are reminded again that attention to these foundational texts is important in order to avoid the pitfalls of popular representations of Chöd and their exoticizing tendencies. Sorensen uses the chapter to convey some of the unique features of Machik’s teachings that had not been previously discussed, to describe some of the differences between Machik and Rangjung Dorjé’s understandings of Chöd, and to demonstrate how Mahāmudrā became so closely associated with Chöd. She shows that the commentarial tradition here, as throughout Buddhism, is the source both of conservation and of augmentation and innovation. Sorensen also reveals how Rangjung Dorjé’s reliance on canonical texts simultaneously legitimated Chöd, authenticating it as a Buddhist practice, and diminished Machik, relegating her to the status of Padampa Sangyé’s student.

This dissertation provides a comprehensive exploration of the early history and philosophy of Chöd and the sources from which these can be ascertained. Insisting on the importance of attending to the earliest strata of foundational texts and commentaries, Sorensen is able to demonstrate how the practice was understood and legitimated by Machik and how, along with altering elements of Machik’s teachings on Chöd, Rangjung Dorjé also adopted a different strategy for legitimating them, one which elevated the practice at the expense of its purported founder. In the course of her exhaustive investigation, Sorensen uncovers and explains a number of apparent contradictions in the representations of Machik and Chöd. She shows how Chöd is both consonant with earlier tradition while also introducing understandings and practices novel to Buddhism. Both innovating on tradition and in turn being innovated upon, the early development of Chöd reveals a spectrum of methods for adapting new teachings and practices to the established tradition. Moreover, Sorensen shows how different types of innovation require different strategies of legitimation, making a significant contribution to our understanding of how Tibetan Buddhist traditions negotiate change. Her study offers crucial insights into the roles of legitimation, authority, gender, and institution in such negotiations, and will prove a valuable resource for Tibetologists and Buddhist Studies scholars who are interested in Chöd specifically (for whom her new translations will be additionally valuable) as well as those interested in grappling with the legitimation strategies necessary for a tradition as ‘open’ and variable as Tibetan Buddhism. These insights also have some applicability outside of Buddhist Studies, in Religious Studies more generally, and portions of the dissertation could appeal to scholars interested in furthering their understanding of the strategies by which traditions navigate their positions as social forms that constantly change, though largely under the guise of unchangeability.

Susan Zakin
PhD Candidate, History of Religions
University of Chicago

Primary Sources

The listed sources have all been translated into English for the first time by Michelle Janet Sorensen in appendices to the dissertation.

Works by Ma gcig labs sgron (Machik Labdrön):

[1] The Great Speech Chapter, the textual tradition of the oral instructions of the profound Chöd of Prajñāpāramitā (Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa zab mo gcod kyi man ngag gi gzhung bka’ tshoms chen mo, or the Bka’ tshoms chen mo)

[2] The Supplementary Chapter of oral instructions of the Prajñāpāramitā (Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa’i man ngag yang tshoms zhus lan ma, or the Yang tshoms)

[3] The Quintessential Chapter of the Chöd System of Negative Forces, The Instructions of the Prajñāpāramitā (Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa’i man ngag snying tshoms chos kyi rtsa ba, or the Snying tshoms)

Works by Rang byung rdo rje (the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorjé):

[4] An Outline of the Great Speech Chapter of Chöd (Gcod bka’ tshoms chen mo’i sa bcad)

[5] A Commentary on the Great Speech Chapter of Chöd (Gcod kyi TIKA, or the Bka’ tshom chen mo’i ‘grel pa)

Dissertation Information

Columbia University, New York City. 2013. 569 pp. Primary Advisor: Robert A. F. Thurman.

Image: Gcod Tshogs Zhing, Spitok, Ladakh. Photo taken by Michelle J. Sorensen, 2006.


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