Machig Labdron, in her previous life was an Indian man who made the unusual choice to take rebirth as a woman in Tibet. She was inspired primarily by the Prajnaparamita, the Great Mother. The Perfection of Wisdom, that is the manifestation of the ultimate feminine. Unlike other female saints of Tibet, she was not a lama’s consort, a nun, or a hermit. But she is a mother who nurtured the spiritual life of her children. And she was a self-styled beggar woman.
In fact she was the only Tibetan, male or female, who was the progenitor of a peculiar tradition that spread back into the Buddhist motherland of India, a cause for great national pride in Tibet. And she left a tremendous legacy of her own teachings.
Machig Labdrön lived a long, fruitful life from around mid 11-12th centuries. It was a time of great renewal of the Buddhist teachings in Tibet, the second spreading of dharma from India. Most of the major schools of the new tradition were being seeded at this time.
She was contemporary with some of their great founders. Her system of Chöd, together with Dukngel Zhije, was recognised as one of the Eight Great Chariots of the practice lineages. Machig herself was recognized as a Dakini, an emanation of Tara and of the Great Mother, Prajñaparamita.
Starting as a young girl, she learned to read extremely well, and her first “job” was to recite the Prajñaparamitas Sutras.
But she did more than reading, she understood. While reading through The Prajnaparamita in One Hundred Thousand Verses (Twelve volumes), she comprehended its meaning. Intellectual understanding was not enough. However she was also admonished by Sönam Lama, her primary spiritual guide. She did as the lama instructed, doing her recitation practice while contemplating the meaning. While on the chapter concerning devils, she suddenly understood.
A special realization arose within her unlike anything before. Suddenly she was free of all mental elaboration. And the knot of self-fixation was released. The sun of transcendent knowledge and the realization of non-self arose and dispelled even the sound “darkness of self-fixation.” She suddenly “got it.”
In particular, she understood the chapter on evil, or Mara. And therein lies the germ of her famous teachings on Chöd, the Vajrayana enactment of the prajnaparamita. And it is here that Labdrön, the woman and Machig, the dakinı of timeless wisdom merge.
Although the notion here of evil is definitely the sense of ego-fixation or spiritual death, it is not unrelated that her eventual practice is associated with more “real” demonic spirits. For the outer and inner mind and its perceptions, they are never so separated as we tend to believe.
Machig was the direct disciple and a tantric consort of a great Indian saint, Padampa Sangye. He is also credited with founding the entire Chöd system.
The specialness of Chod
“Machig-la, in what ways is this dharma system of yours, this Chod, more profound and significant than other teachings?”
“Listen, son. My dharma system, Mahamudra Chod, is much better than other teachings. Its meaning of crucial significance is very profound. It is an uncommon, distinctive dharma doctrine, teaching of esoteric instruction, unlike the others. This teaching is the marrow of all religions, the pinnacle of all vehicles, the most sublime essence of all sutra and tantra rolled into one.
The teaching that liberates the four devils in their own ground is the supreme method to forcefully eliminate the five poisons. It is the axe that cuts the roots of the green tree of ego-fixation. It is the army that decisively averts the battle of cyclic existence. It is the force that conquers the eighty thousand kinds of obstructing forces.
It is good medicine that overcomes 404 kinds of disease. It does not come to fruition at a much later time; rather it is an instruction for complete awakening in one life and in one body. Unlike any other dharma system, this Sacred Dharma Chod is this yoginı’s special teaching."
Chöd is first and foremost a method for releasing the fixation on the intrinsic reality of a self and of phenomena. Chöd is distinctive in its radical methods of intensifying obsession and inducing emotional upheavals and apparitions of fear, the better to observe and sever them.
In the various rites of Chöd in every tradition into which it was assimilated, she is envisioned surrounded by the Great Mother, Vajrayogini and a retinue of Dakinis and Buddhas.