Teaching on Chöd – Dorzong Monastic Institute, October 2012
Today His Holiness commenced a historical three-days of Chod teachings, conferring the empowerment for the first time ever. Hosted by His Eminence the 8th Dorzong Rinpoche at his institute in the Kangra Valley near Dharamsala, the Dharma transmission drew an international audience of practitioners from several dozen countries, as well as nuns from across the Himalayans.
"I have been enthusiastic about the Chod practice from a young age, but have had few opportunities to do formal sadhana practice, and this is the very first time I am giving the empowerment, and am very pleased to have the opportunity to do so today."
The empowerment that His Holiness conferred in the morning was based on the Opening the Door to Space text by the 3rd Gyalwang Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje. Following the main portion of the visualization-based initiation, His Holiness offered a torma empowerment to the event's hosts His Eminence the 8th Dorzong Rinpoche and Chogyal Rinpoche, followed by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and Lama Tsultrim Allione, who had initially requested the Chod empowerment from His Holiness and whose Tara Mandala organization sponsored the event.
In the afternoon session, the Gyalwang Karmapa commenced teaching based on a Guiding Instruction text by the 8th Gyalwang Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, which outlines (among other things) a weeklong Chod retreat. As an entry point into understanding the practice of Chod, His Holiness discussed Chod—a Tibetan verb that means to cut or sever—in terms of what is to be cut and what does the cutting. Otherwise, there is the danger that we leave Chod practice at the level of mere ritual. What we aim to cut with Chod practice, he explained, are the four Maras and in particular the Mara of self-grasping or fixation. What we cut this with is the prajna or wisdom that realizes essencelessness, or lack of self.
After the initial introduction, His Holiness turned to the topic of renunciation, or "definite emergence"—the clear understanding that all samsara, or cyclic existence, is suffering in nature, and the wish to definitely emerge from that. The Gyalwang Karmapa cautioned against assuming samsara is something external and separate from us. Samsara includes not only the world around us, but also exists within us and is produced by our own troubled emotional state. Addressing the largely Western audience, His Holiness noted that there is a tendency to confuse subtle forms of suffering with pleasure. As a result, we end up exerting ourselves greatly, chasing more suffering. Quoting the 8th Gyalwang Karmapa, His Holiness stated that all authentic independence is happiness, while all lack of freedom is suffering. He went on to explain that this authentic independence is something to be cultivated and an attitude that can be developed, focusing on freedom from karmic cause and effect and emotional disturbances.
Although outer conditions have a minor part to play, they cannot secure our happiness. For that, he said, we must look within.
With the morning light streaming in to the assembly hall from the east, the Gyalwang Karmapa offered teachings in the morning, while in the afternoon, at the special request of His Holiness, the audience had the privilege of receiving teachings on Chöd from His Eminence the 8th Dorzong Rinpoche.
His Holiness opened the day with a discussion of the qualities that make disciples worthy recipients of the Dharma. He then resumed the explication of the 8th Gyalwang Karmapa's guiding instructions for seven-day Chöd retreat. During the second day of the retreat outlined by Mikyo Dorje, the focus is on compassion. In that context, His Holiness explored the distinction between immeasurable compassion and great compassion, while underscoring the need to train in both. Immeasurable compassion refers to the immeasurable number of sentient beings, whereas the greatness of great compassion refers to the fact that not a single being is left out. As such, the focal point is different, the Gyalwang Karmapa explained.
We may cultivate compassion for all beings on this planet, and this would be a form of immeasurable compassion, since there are numberless humans, animals and other sentient beings on this earth. With great compassion, there is a quality of absolute inclusiveness, such that it expands outward to any world where beings have a mind and therefore experience pain and wish for happiness. When we are training in great compassion, we must guard against becoming indifferent to the suffering of any other being. For example, His Holiness observed that we might pass a cage with many chickens crammed into it on the way to slaughter without connecting from the heart with their suffering. If we train first in the mind of definite emergence or "renunciation," we are effectively training ourselves in compassion for ourselves and developing our ability to genuinely empathize and connect with others who are suffering. To that end, the Gyalwang Karmapa recommended to begin meditating on compassion with specific objects, rather than a nameless, faceless mass of "all sentient beings." His Holiness particularly stressed the importance of cultivating compassion, because it is the presence of unbearable compassion that makes the "swift path" of tantra swift.
On the third day of the Chöd retreat, the object of meditation is refuge. His Holiness cautioned against confusing "taking refuge" with "going for refuge." Taking refuge in the sense of pleading and supplicating with an impoverished attitude is not the point. Rather, we go to refuge in order to bolster our desire and commitment to achieve Buddhahood. As such, the Gyalwang Karmapa explained that when we go for refuge, we should understand that we are going to the state of the objects of refuge. The fourth and fifth days of the Chöd retreat are devoted to bodhichitta and the mind that relinquishes body and possessions alike, or tong sem.
To a packed assembly hall, in the second afternoon session His Eminence Dorzong Rinpoche offered a masterful overview of the historical transmission of Chöd in the various lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. Rinpoche went on to cut to the essence of Chod practice, relating it to the nature of mind and the distinction between samsara and nirvana. As Rinpoche taught, he drew on quotes from masters ranging from the great Indian logician Dignaga to Tsangpa Gyare, the founder of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage in which Rinpoche himself is an important lineage holder.
Many audience members commented on the combination of profundity and clarity that marked Rinpoche's presentation. His excavation of the difference between samsara and nirvana was particularly striking to many. "When we become free of conceptual elaborations, that is nirvana," Rinpoche stated. "As long as we are apprehending a difference between subject and object, that is samsara."
For the third consecutive day, around a thousand disciples of His Holiness the 17th Karmapa made their way from the surrounding valley and mountainsides back to Dorzong Monastic Institute. Sited on a hilltop and nestled amidst pristine forest as far as the eye can see, the exquisitely painted main shrine hall of Dorzong Institute offers an ideal setting for this historical Dharma transmission by His Holiness on Chöd practice. The skilled hand of the 8th Dru-gu Choegyal Rinpoche, a highly accomplished artist, was everywhere in sight both in the elaborately painted main shrine hall and throughout the institute's grounds.
The first topic for today's session was a history lesson. Recounting key events from the remarkable life of Machig Labdron, the Gyalwang Karmapa stated that Machig Labdron was taught by her mother to read. Gyalwang Karmapa recollected that his own father had made a conscious choice to teach all of his own children to read, including the girls. His family's valuing of education for girls was anomalous and considered unnecessary according to local values. His Holiness said that his sister—who is now present with him in India and was in fact attending the teaching—also excelled as a young girl at reading Tibetan.
As the Gyalwang Karmapa detailed Machig Labdron's spiritual accomplishments, he made it clear that hers was a tradition of direct experience of Prajnaparamita. Although she had many male disciples as well as female, His Holiness observed that her Dharma system was extremely beneficial for women.
As he resumed the commentary on the 8th Gyalwang Karmapa's instructions for seven-day retreat, His Holiness turned to the practice of offering the body (Sanskrit: dehad?na; Tibetan: lüjin), which is the meditation theme for the sixth day of the weeklong retreat.
From time to time, His Holiness switched into English to clarify a point or elaborate on the translation. Throughout the three days, the humorous interplay between the English translator, Tyler Dewar, and His Holiness has served as an expression of the joy shared by lama and audience.
Cautioning that until one has attained the bodhisattva's bhumis, one is not literally enjoined to offer one's body, the Gyalwang Karmapa described an occasion from a past life of Buddha Shakyamuni, when he cut off his head and offered it to someone who had asked for it. The Gyalwang Karmapa then laughingly interjected that if we say someone first cut off his own head and then gave it, the wording of this just sounds wrong.
Widening the scope of what might initially be understood as lüjin, His Holiness stressed that in this practice we train ourselves in giving everything—including the merit and karmic fruits that come from giving. Doing so, he explained, helps us cut our clinging to self.
Sharing with the audience his personal vision of this practice, His Holiness described it as letting go and extending to see ourselves as part of all sentient beings. "What we take to be us and what we take to be others are not two separate things," he said. "Our body, speech and mind and the body, speech and mind of other sentient beings are not two separate things."
Chöd practice prepares us to transform our relationship to the five psycho-physical aggregates that ordinarily form the basis of what we think of as "I." When we do the practice fully, he explained, these five aggregates that were previously the focus of our self-fixation are no longer seen as "I" or "mine." As such, the result of successful Chöd practice is to sever the self-fixation that is the root of all our suffering.
As the 8th Gyalwang Karmapa's description of the seven week retreat drew to a close, so too did these three extraordinary days of empowerment and teachings by the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa. The final day of the retreat, like the final portion of the session, is devoted to dedication of merit. We dedicate in order to ensure that our practice takes us in the direction we want to go, His Holiness explained. Surely no one in the audience at that moment wished to go anywhere at all, as both organizers and His Holiness uttered many warm words of thanks. Thus drew to a close this historical occasion, when His Holiness the 17th Karmapa for the first time in this lifetime transmitted a practice in which the Gyalwang Karmapa has been an important lineage holder since the 13th century.