The Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo (r. c. 618–50 CE) officially adopted Buddhism as the state religion during his reign, as cultural influences from neighboring countries began to spread in Tibet. His minister, Thomni Sambhota, was ordered to develop a system of written Tibetan, which became the language that carries the voluminous ancient Buddhist texts to this day. Sambhota translated only a few texts from Sanskrit in this newly developed written language, yet it was a monumental work that lay the ground for centuries of effort to translate the sacred scriptures into his native language. After Songtsen Gampo’s reign, it took a few generations before Buddhism took full root in Tibet. It was King Trisong Detsen (755–94) who invited Indian masters, such as Shantarakshita, to Tibet, and built the first Buddhist monastery. Shantarakshita ordained Tibetans as monks and created a monastic sangha in a land whose inhabitants had mainly practiced indigenous spirituality for as long as they could remember.
Shantarakshita met strong resistance from many Tibetans, who found Buddhism too foreign or in contradiction with their previous spiritual practice. He was unable to communicate with Tibetans, nor could they relate to him. To overcome this impediment, the king invited Guru Padmasambhava, who had the wisdom to know how to bring Tibetans to the Buddhist path. With Guru Padmasambhava’s effort, Tibetans began to embrace Buddhism and many became enlightened from practicing the Dharma. For a long time, Tibetans tended to look to India as their spiritual father and invited Indian masters as the source of the true Dharma, placing their trust in teachings and texts translated from Sanskrit. Eventually, Tibetans began to feel that their understanding and practice of Buddhism had matured and they grew out of this formative stage.
Tibetans not only brought Buddhism from India, they added more richness and a unique flavor. Chod is perhaps a good example that epitomizes such developments. Chod is a powerful practice that is quite distinct from other Buddhist practices. Although its source lies in the teachings of Indian masters, the 12th century female lama Machig Labdron (1055–c. 1150) developed chod as a system that later was embraced by all traditions in Tibet. She is revered by all and is the only woman who became a well-known founding mother of a complete system. It is said that her chod teaching made inroads into the land of India, the birthplace of the Buddhadharma. This turned out to be a historical event that marked a tectonic shift—until then, Indians had not embraced the teachings of Tibetan Buddhist masters, since their attitude was that Tibetans were simply their disciples.
It would be worthwhile to mention some authoritative chod liturgies that are used by many yogis: Karma Rangjung Dorje compiled chod texts into a sadhana or spiritual practice known as the Jewel Garland of Chod, which played a critical role in maintaining the chod lineage, keeping it pure from being watered down and degraded by the input of those who might not understand its depth. He was aware that chod’s profundity and that some of the radical methods could be easily misunderstood and misused. This is still a situation that needs attention while chod’s popularity continues. Dza Patrul Rinpoche showed a great deal of concern with regard to such issues, writing a satirical poem that ridiculed some of the misuses of chod. There are also more well-known chod sadhanas, such as Dakini’s Laughter by Jigme Lingpa, Do Khyentse’s Natural Liberation of Grasping, and Dudjom Lingpa’s Troma Sadhana.
Chod is considered the fusion between the wisdom of the Prajnaparamita sutras and tantric methodology. This is obvious by its emphasis on the doctrine of emptiness and its uses of techniques that are common in Vajrayana. Chod has been evolving since its beginning as it blends with different traditions. Many chod liturgies in the Nyingma tradition are based on Dzogchen; even their terminology is quite different from the chod liturgies of other traditions. Many of these liturgies are considered terma, or revelatory writings that trace their source from a realm beyond human intellect.
Chod employs an abundance of imagery and visualization to invoke our inner demons or kleshas (inner poisons), mainly attachment, fear, hatred, pride, jealousy, ignorance, and so on. Once they are brought under the light of our own awareness, one can use radical methods to cut through our identification with them. Practitioners visualize themselves as a deity, such as Krodha Kali, invite their own kleshas in the form of demons and ghosts, offer them a feast, then dissolve them with a sense of inner liberation where one is no longer chained by these forces. This turns out to be a very powerful method when done correctly.
An integral part of chod is to travel alone on a journey and camp out in different places in order to practice. On the journey, one can deliberately bring kleshas to the surface, see and face them in the spirit of compassion and courage, and let go of attachment to them. This is a powerful way to find inner liberation, and has been validated by countless testimonials throughout history. There are numerous inspiring stories of yogis who underwent inner transformation on such a journey.
More recently, chod has been gaining popularity outside of Tibet, especially in the West, where many are fed up with materialism and conventional religions. It is quite easy for people to conjure chod as the Dharma of a free spirit; they can even have a romantic image of themselves traveling on a road in the mountains, free from worldly concerns, and undergoing a powerful process of inner awakening.