The following is a rough translation of a spooky Tibetan story that was shared on the popular Tibetan-medium site Khabdha. It tells the tale of three ngakpa – non-monastic, non-celibate tantric yogi sorcercers – who engage in the special exorcistic meditation of Chöd, and end up encountering a very dangerous demoness (more specifically, a yakshini or alluring female nature spirit, associated with the granting of power, riches, and sickness). I hope you will read it and be careful the next time you are practicing yoga in the wilderness!
Besides being quite chilling and engaging, the story is also noteworthy for other reasons. It reminds us for one, how Tibetan Buddhist yoga is a lot more human thigh-bone trumpet and visions of demons than Lulu Lemon, coconut water and gym memberships, and points to the awe and fear with which the Tibetan practice of Chöd – particularly in its solitary, and itinerant iterations – continues to be held. As part of the Chöd (gcod) or ‘severance/cutting’ offering rite practitioners visit terrifying, haunted locations, where, through complex ritual choreographies of visualization, liturgy-singing, dancing, and drumming, they work with the energy of their fear of annihilation by meditatively disengaging from their body, severing their investment in a constructed self, and offering their ‘corpse’ up to be eaten by beneficent as well as hungry, suffering demonic beings, which they have summoned. As I mention in another post about the practice, gcod not only pacifies these demons – themselves ultimately displays of Mind and a product of self-grasping like all phenomena – but also powerfully severs the practitioner’s attachment to their self-importance and allows them to develop profound compassion, generosity and fearlessness.
The story below is noteworthy, however, for how it reminds us that just because spirits are empty, illusory displays from the vantage-pointless vantage-point of ultimate non-dual reality, that does not mean that they do not appear to be real at the conventional level, and do not act in the world of apparent phenomena (after all, your and my own sense of self is likewise an ultimately empty, illusory display but many people still take your and my actions in the world pretty seriously). Chöd (and the story below!) is thus interesting for how, on one level, it is a teaching about the ultimate non-reality of demons, of all those terrifying projections that haunt us, but on another, serves to demonstrate just how potent and devastating, how perilous, those demons can be. On a separate note, with its descriptions of the three brothers’ divvying up of familial and religious duties, the story that follows also provides some small insight into ngakpas’ time-management strategies, and the everyday familial, socio-economic dimensions of Tibetan yogic practice.
Here follows the translation:
A story of how three Chodpa exorcists tamed a Yakshini [i.e. Female ‘Harm-Giver’ or local land spirit (gnod sbyin mo)] – By Tenpai Nyima
“Long ago in a big nomad region in Amdo there was a family with three brothers. Not only were all three brothers very religious, but they devoted themselves exclusively to the practice of meditation. One day the three brothers heard that a very holy lama was supposed to be coming to their area to give an empowerment for Chöd practice. After discussing whether or not they should go to receive the empowerment, and having agreed that they should, the three brothers went on their way. All those receiving the empowerment were required to visit one hundred mountain, one hundred spirit-haunted, and one hundred charnel-ground power-places as part of the practice. The three brothers vowed to do so and applied themselves to accomplishing the profound Chöd empowerment they had received. Now, as they had promised, they had to travel to a rugged and isolated spirit-haunted spot, but as the three brothers well knew, travelling to such a place was not at all easy.
When one practices Chöd, as is customary in the Chöd tradition, one must visit various power-spots that are home to all sorts of harmful demons, like nyen, tsen, döndre and so on. Since if all the brothers went to practice at the same time there would be difficulties for the family, the brothers resolved that they would not go all at once, but would go in stages one by one, with one brother going only after the previous one had accomplished the practice. The other two brothers rendered service to the one practicing. For one week, the youngest two went to whichever demon-haunt the oldest brother went and kept his camp in order and made sure that he had enough provisions. After the week was up the two returned home to see to things, and then after a week the middle brother went to check on the oldest one. When he returned to the place his older brother was, a fear unlike anything he’d felt before spontaneously came upon him. He approached the tent carefully but he heard nothing at all and everything appeared quiet. He called to his older brother in a quiet voice: “I’ve come to bring you food.” But no one gave an answer at all. Then, feeling afraid, he opened the tent door and looked inside. There he saw his older brother dead, with blood coming out of his nose.
Now, the circumstances of the older brother’s death were frightening but totally obscure. In line with his previous vows, the older brother decided to stay at the camp. After a week, the youngest brother came to look after his middle brother. As he neared the camp, an unbearable feeling of fear and panic, unlike any he’d experienced before, came over him. Not daring to open the tent, he called out his middle brother’s name in a loud voice. But no one answered. Even more afraid, he opened the tent door suddenly. Looking inside, he saw his older and middle brother alike with blood coming out of their noses, dead. When he carefully examined the tent he discovered there were indistinct letters written in blood on the outside. Of these letters, something that looked like “The milk isn’t fit for drinking” was all he could make out.
Not only was the youngest brother unable to make sense of the matter, but its significance seemed to be quite esoteric. Now the youngest brother was left alone, with no idea what to do. Both his older brothers were dead – he really wanted to know the cause of his brothers’ deaths but given that he had little more than “don’t drink the milk” to go on, he really had no clear way of knowing how his brothers had died. So he stayed right there and practiced. He divided his practice into six day and night sessions. He chanted for three successive days and three successive nights. From the first day until the seventh day, there were no movements or disturbances at all and everything seemed quite still. On the evening of the seventh day after the sun had set, he applied himself to the practice of Chöd. His practice session done, he went to sleep and focused his attention on the practice of dream-yoga. A little after falling asleep, hearing a woman singing he woke up. However, when he got up, not only had the sun risen but it was already almost afternoon. Although he was astonished that the sun could have come up after he’d slept for such a short time, he applied himself to his Chöd practice as usual.
After a little bit, voices and a great clamour seemed to fill the valley. Going outside his tent, when he looked he saw that a nomad raising a horn and a woman singing with a beautiful voice who were herding some cattle and sheep were approaching. After a little while the nomad family erected their tent close to his own. “Now I have neighbors,” he thought. “Which isn’t really so unfortunate – after all, both my older brothers have died so what’s so bad about having someone to console and aid me in my sorrow?” Thinking this, he again applied himself to his practice. A little while later the singing woman came to him. “Ngakpa-la (Esteemed tantric practitioner), please have some of this milk that I’ve just collected,” she said. The chöpa, greatly pleased, took up the milk but when he started to drink he suddenly remembered the cryptic message “the milk isn’t fit for drinking” and started to wonder. The women who’d given the milk became nervous. “This woman’s really a demoness!” he thought and threw the milk back in her face. With a great cry the woman disappeared without a trace. The demoness’ magic illusion destroyed, it changed back to nighttime and everything was again quiet. Now at last he realized clearly that his two older brothers had died because of the demoness.
I heard this ghost-story when I was little from an old ngakpa. I confirm that everything I heard was put down in writing without any fabrication by me, Tenpai Nyima (‘Sun of the Teachings’) from America otherwise know as Tabdun Wangpo (Lord of the Seven Horses, i.e. the Sun)”
The abovementioned tension between the conventional and literal reality of demons (or any-thing for that matter), between Chöd’s significance as a practical rite of exorcism/expiation and as an ascetic, contemplative discipline for exorcising oneself of ‘self’ delusion and misleading conceptuality, is a key and fascinating feature of the rite and the above story. In the tale, the last of the brothers is only able to defeat the demonness when he realizes that though her power to harm is ‘real’, she and the illusion she weaves is not. Chöd requires that practitioners imagine that their body is a corpse and to then imagine that this is transformed into an inexhaustible offering given to beings. And yet Chöd’s efficacy in cutting through self-grasping depends on the ‘realness’ of one’s performance of self-excision, requires the fuel of genuine feelings of self-dissociation and fear to impact and transform the practitioner. How ‘real’ then, ought we to let the demons of Chöd be?
(Alexandra David-Neel, in Tibetan dress, with a kangling or human thigh-bone trumpet, a prominent ritual instrument used in the practice of Chöd fastened at her waist)
One of the earliest observers (and non-native practitioners) of chöd was the French explorer Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969). David-Neel described chöd as “a drama enacted by a single actor” revolving around a “dreadful mystic banquet” (David-Neel 1971 : 148-166). David-Neel provides an account of an encounter with a chöd practitioner in Tibet, who she worries has taken his practices too literally, and may drive himself to injury and madness if he continues to practice so boisterously and with such palpable fear of actually being ‘eaten alive’ by demons, which David-Neel knows are all in his head. David-Neel describes the scene. A man had recently died in the area where she was staying and David-Neel decides to spend the night in contemplation near the site where the man’s corpse had been cut up earlier that day as food for vultures as part of a traditional Tibetan ‘sky burial’ (see here for another post that examines the connections between sky burial and Chöd more closely). She explains what happened next, and how she herself was mistaken for a demonness summoned by the rites of severance, as follows:
“The moon was nearly full and beautifully lit up the immense plain extending from the foot of the hills which I skirted to other distant ranges. Nocturnal tramps in these solitudes have a peculiar charm. I could have walked for joy the whole night, but the cemetery, my goal, was less than an hour’s march from my camp.
As I neared it I suddenly heard a strange sound, at the same time hoarse and piercing, that broke the perfect stillness of the desert. It was repeated several times, rending, it seemed, the calm atmosphere in which the sleeping steppes lay. Then the rhythmic beating of damaru [drum] followed. This language was clear enough to me. Some one — no doubt one of the lama’s disciples — had gone to the place and performed chöd near the corpse. The configuration of the land allowed me to reach unnoticed a small hillock and to hide myself in a cleft sheltered from the moonlight. From there I could perfectly observe the celebrant of chöd. He was the lean, sickly looking trapa [monk] to whom I had offered medicine. He wore his usual ragged naljorpa [yogi] dress, a garnet-coloured pleated skirt, a yellow chemise with wide sleeves and a red sleeveless waistcoat of a Chinese shape. But now the monastic toga was thrown over it and though as shabby as the rest of the clothes, its folds imparted a dignified and impressive mien to the tall emaciated monk.
When I arrived, the young ascetic recited the mantra of praise to the Prajñãpãramitã.
” O Wisdom that is gone, gone, gone to the beyond, and beyond the beyond svâhâ! .. ”
The monotonous dong, dong of the deep-voiced drums became slower and finally ceased, the young ascetic seemed sunk in meditation. After a while he wrapped himself more tightly in his zen. The kangling in his left hand, the damaru lifted high in the right and beating an aggressive staccato, the man stood in a challenging attitude, as if defying some invisible enemy. “I, the fearless naljorpa,” he exclaimed, “I trample down the self, the gods, and the demons.” His voice sounded still louder! “Ye lamas, spiritual teachers, Heros, Khadomas, by thousands, come join me in the dance!” Then he began the ritualistic dance, turning successively towards the four quarters, reciting ” I trample down the demon of pride, the demon of anger, the demon of lust, the demon of stupidity.” Each exclamation ” I trample down ” was accompanied by actual stamping and ritual vociferations of “tsem shes tsem!” which grew louder and louder, till the last ones were thundered out in truly deafening tones.
He rearranged his toga, which trailed on the ground, and having put aside his damaru and the bone trumpet, he spread the tent, seized a peg in one hand, a stone in the other one, and drove home the pegs while chanting the liturgy. The tent stood there now, a puny thing made of a thin cotton fabric that had once been white and appeared grayish under the moonlight. It was ornamented with the words Aum, A, Hum, cut out in blue and red material and sewn on its three closed sides. Several frills of the five mystic colours — red, blue, green, yellow and white — hung from the little roof. The whole thing was faded and shabby. Apparently agitated by disturbing thoughts, the lean ascetic looked at the pieces of the corpse scattered on the ground and then turned his head as if inspecting the surroundings.
He seemed hesitating and, heaving a deep sigh, he passed his hand twice or thrice over his forehead. Then, shaking himself as if summoning up his courage, he seized his kangling [human thigh bone trumpet], blew loudly a number of times, first slowly, then accelerating the rhythm as if for an exasperated summons, and entered his tent. The nocturnal landscape that had been animated by the performance recovered its serenity. What was I to do? The naljorpa, I knew, would not leave his tent before daybreak. Nothing more was to be seen. I was not in a meditative mood, I might as well go away. But there was no hurry. I continued to listen.
At intervals, I heard a few words of the ritual, then low indistinct muttering and moaning. It was useless to remain there any longer. I moved cautiously out of my hiding-place. Then, as I took a few steps forward, I heard a low growl. An animal quickly passed in front of me. It was a wolf. The noise made by the naljorpa had kept it away and now,
since all was silent, it had ventured to approach the feast laid there for those of its kind.
As I began to round the hillock, and climb down, a sudden exclamation stopped me.
” I pay my debts! ” shouted the naljorpa. ” As I have been feeding on you so feed upon me in your turn! “Come, ye hungry ones, and you that ungratified desires torment! “In this banquet offered by my compassion, my flesh will transform itself into the very object of your craving. “Here, I give you fertile fields, green forests, flowery gardens, both white and red food, clothes, healing medicines! . . . Eat! eat! . . . ” The excited ascetic blew furiously his kangling, uttered an awful cry and jumped on his feet so hastily that his head knocked against the low roof of the tent and the latter fell in on him. He struggled a while under the cloth, and emerged with the grim, distorted face of a madman, howling convulsively with gestures betokening intense physical pain.
Now I could understand what chöd means for those who work themselves up until they are absolutely hypnotized by its ritual. No doubt that the man felt the teeth of some invisible ghouls in his body. He looked around him in all directions and addressed unseen bystanders as if he had been surrounded by a host of beings from other worlds. Most likely he beheld some kind of ghastly vision. The sight was deeply interesting. But I could not look at it with complete indifference. This poor fellow would kill himself with his dreadful ritual. I had discovered the secret of his sickly appearance and why he had deemed my medicines of no avail in his case. I felt most anxious to awaken him from his nightmare. Yet I hesitated because I knew that my intervention would go against the established rule. Those who have engaged in such training must fight it out unaided.
As I remained undecided, I heard the wolf growling again. It had stopped on the top of the hillock. From there, as if petrified, and in an attitude of intense terror the animal looked fixedly in the direction of the tumbledown tent as if it, too, beheld some appalling sight. The naljorpa continued to groan in agony. I could not bear it any longer. I rushed towards the poor mad fellow. But, as soon as he caught sight of me he called to me with a vehement gesture, shouting:
“Come, angry one, feed on my flesh . . . drink my blood! . . .
This was too absurd indeed! He took me for a ghost! . . . In spite of the pity which I felt, I nearly laughed. “Do be quiet,” I said. “There are no demons here. I am the reverend lady-lama whom you know.” He did not appear even to hear my voice but continued to address me in the words of the ritual. I thought that the toga in which I was wrapped gave me, perhaps, a somewhat ghost-like aspect. So throwing it on the ground I spoke again. “Now, do recognize me!” It was of no use. The poor novice was utterly out of his mind. He stretched his arms towards my innocent zen and addressed it as if it were a new-comer among the troop of phantoms. Why had I not let him alone and gone away without interfering with his performance! I had only made things worse. As I pondered over the matter the young man, who was staggering round his tent, stumbled on one of the pegs and fell heavily to the ground. He remained immobile as if he had fainted, and I watched him to see if he would get up, but I did not dare to approach, for fear I should frighten him even more.
After a while he moved and I deemed it better to withdraw before he looked at me again. I decided to inform the lama of what was happening to his disciple. Though I guessed that the latter often went into such a state while performing chöd, and probably his teacher did not ignore it, still he might be particularly mad tonight. Rabjoms could send the other trapa to fetch him and spare the poor young man several hours of suffering. As I had failed in my attempt to help him directly, I did not see any better way. I went down to the thang [plain]. All the way I continued to hear, at intervals, the sound of the kangling to which the howling of the wolf sometimes made answer. Then the noise gradually decreased until I heard it no more, and I plunged with delight into the great silent peace of the desert…”
David-Neel subsequently visits the practitioner’s guru in his retreat cave and quizzes him about the potentially dangerous literal-ness of the initiate’s chöd practice:
The feeble light of a small altar lamp, a tiny star on the slope of the hill, indicated the lama’s dwelling-place. I avoided the tent where his attendant was likely to be asleep and climbed up quickly to the cave. Rabjoms Gyatso was seated cross-legged, in meditation. Without moving, he only lifted his eyes, when I opened the curtain and addressed him. In a few words, I told him in what condition I had left his disciple.
He smiled faintly.
“You appear to know chöd, Jetsunma. (Jetsunma, “reverend lady.” A very polite term of address for a nun of high rank. One says also, Jetsun Kushogs.) Do you really? . . .” he inquired calmly. “Yes,” I said, ” I have practiced it too.” He did not reply.
After a while, as the lama remained silent, and seemed to have forgotten my presence, I
tried again to appeal to his pity.
“Rimpoche,” (Rimpoche, “precious one.”, A very polite word to address a lama.)
I said, “I warn you seriously. I have some medical knowledge; your disciple may gravely injure his health and be driven to madness by the terror he experiences. He really appeared to feel himself being eaten alive. “No doubt he is,” answered the lama, with the same calm, “but he does not understand that he is himself the eater. May be that he will learn it later on. . . .”
I was about to reply, arguing that the poor novice might, before that time came, give other candidates for secret lore the opportunity of performing chöd before his own corpse. Perhaps the lama guessed what I was about to say, for without allowing me time to utter a word, he added, slightly raising his voice:
“You seem to imply that you have had some kind of training in the ‘Short Path’ [Tantric Buddhism]. Did your spiritual teacher not inform you of the risks and did you not agree that you were ready to run these three: illness, madness and death? . . . “It is hard to free oneself from delusion,” he continued, ” to blot out the mirage of the imaginary world and to liberate one’s mind from fanciful beliefs. Enlightenment is a precious gem and must be bought at a high price. Methods to reach tharpa (Tharpa. Supreme liberation.) are many. You may follow another one, less coarse than that suited to the man whom you pity, but I am certain that your way must be as hard as that of my disciple. If it is easy it is a wrong one.
“Now, pray, go back to your camp. You may come to see me tomorrow in the afternoon if you wish to.” It was useless to add another word. The ideas expressed by the lama are current among Tibetan mystics. I bowed my parting “good night” and returned to my tent.
The next afternoon, I availed myself of the permission which Rabjoms Gyatso had given me to pay him a visit, and during the few days that I still spent at that place, I saw him again several times. He was not a great scholar, but had a rather deep insight into a number of subjects and I was glad to have met him. Inborn tendencies to distrust and incredulity prevent me from granting full faith to the many dreadful stories told by Tibetans regarding the practice of chöd. I persist in believing that such a dramatic performance as that which I chanced to witness is exceptional. Yet the feeling of being devoured during the celebration of this rite, and the wasting away of the novices, are not very rare occurrences. I have personally known two
or three cases of the kind beside that related above, and like Rabjoms Gyatso, the masters of these unfortunate candidate naljorpas also decline to reassure their disciples by disclosing to them the subjective nature of their sensations. Moreover, as I have already mentioned, a number of mystic masters hold that these sensations are not in fact always entirely subjective…
Rabjoms Gyatso reminds David-Neel that every practitioner must follow the dharma according to one’s own propensities and at one’s own level and pace. David-Neel notes how the “masters of [such] unfortunate candidate naljorpas [i.e. yogis]…decline to reassure their disciples by disclosing to them the subjective nature of their sensations” (164). To be sure, chöd, like all Tantric meditative practices, is conventionally conceived of as possessing outer, inner and ‘secret’ aspects, more or less gross or literal dimensions of execution. In his comments on chöd practice contemporary lama Khenchen Thrangu cites the famous 11th century yogi-saint Milarepa, who explains these various levels of practice: ““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 [or the most ‘secret’] 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”
In their investigations on the subject, scholars Anya Bernstein and Alejandro Chaoul both make clear that degrees of chöd practice exist. Bernstein reports that chöd initiates in Dharamsala studying with the late, ninth Jebdzundamba lama typically engaged in safer, less intensive evening performances of indoor, group chöd for some four to five years before they might be evaluated to determine their readiness to engage in the more dangerous and demanding practice of chöd ‘in the wild’. David-Neel echoes Milarepa by acknowledging that the most refined, or subtle, esoteric execution of the rite is ‘recognizing the true nature of mind, and cutting through appearances’ but in contrast to other descriptions she seems to see isolated, outdoor pratice as a less sophisticated form of the pratice. She makes her admiration for outdoor group practice as performed by dedicated yogins living in encampments near Dzogchen monastery in Eastern Tibet clear later in the chapter:
However, far away from the sumptuous apartments of the [Dzogchen monastery] Lama tulku, isolated, small dwellings sheltered monks whose grave look and
mysterious demeanour matched the surrounding scenery more harmoniously. Some of these tsam khangs (Houses for recluses, see Chapter VII.) were inhabited by strict recluses who had intercourse with nobody. Among them, some aimed at obtaining supernormal psychic faculties or magic powers, while others were absorbed in mystic contemplations which — according to the views held in their sect — should lead them to spiritual enlightenment.
For long, the monastery of Dzogschen has been famous as a centre where secret methods of psychic training are taught and practiced. Those who have obtained the fruit of chöd may dispense with the theatrical side of the rite. Its different phases are, then, called to mind only, in the course of silent meditation, and soon even this exercise becomes unnecessary.
Nevertheless, either because they enjoy remembering through that performance the exertions of their novitiate days or for other reasons known to themselves alone, certain gomchens sometimes meet to celebrate chöd together. But, then, the dismal rite changes its character and becomes a mystic feast in which the exulting naljorpas rejoice over their utter freedom. I have had the rare opportunity of beholding some of these ascetics, tall men of Kham, clad in the picturesque garb of the hermits, their plaited hair falling to their feet. Under the starry sky, they danced to the strange music of hand-drums and femur-trumpets, in these majestic wilds which lay at the summit of our globe. On their ecstatic faces shone the proud joy of having trampled down the feelings that keep the mind feverish through hopes and fears, through ” the burning thirst,” ” the distressing race towards mirages.” And then they sank in endless meditations that kept them till late after dawn sitting crosslegged, the body erect, the gaze cast down, motionless, like stone images.
It was a sight never to be forgotten…”
In describing the maddened, torturous and ‘naïve’ practices of the sickly-looking and solitary monk chöd pa, and contrasting them with the dignified and celebratory mood of chöd performed by groups of seasoned yogis near Dzogchen monastery, David-Neel not only appears to reverse the trajactory of beginner-indoors-group, advanced-outdoors-solitary chöd practice mentioned above, but suggests orders or hierarchies of mastery associated with different degrees of ‘instrumentalization’ of the body and its affects in the work of spiritual transformation. Her attempts to intervene in the overly literal or too real performance of Chöd by the young monk who has abandoned attachment to his body ‘in the flesh’ and not just ‘in the imagination,’ raises the question of just how effective Chöd’s promise of self-transcendence may be when it is not put to the concrete test of exposing one’s body to the elements, to wolves, and physically dangerous places. Ultimately, in her account, David-Neel becomes her own sort of weird demoness after all, clinging to her own particular priorities and concepts: a curious blend of white-saviouress medical aid-worker and foreign observer-cum-exegete of native spirituality.
* For those keen to read a translation of another rumoured to be true Tibetan tale from the Khabda site about esoteric Buddhist practices, which features parallel reflections on the relative status of ‘literal’ versus imagined rites and emotions, see this other post on watching pornos in a Tibetan ‘monastery’.