Political Theology

Biopolitics and Vajrayana Buddhism, Part 2 (Padraic Fitzgerald)

The following is the second installment in a three-part series.  The first installment was published on May 27, 2016 and can be found here.

Chod, the Rite of Severance

Chod, translated from Tibetan as meaning “severance”, is a ritual that focuses on interaction with supernatural entities. As such, one may postulate that Chod is a syncretist practice, as it shares similarities with the practice of Central Asian Shamanism, particularly as far as death meditation and envisioning of sacred dismemberment by supernatural entities are concerned[1]. Regardless of syncretic tendencies with shamanism, the ritual is commonly held to have been brought about by Macig Labdron, a Tibetan tantric practitioner who has been elevated to the status of a celestial bodhisattva due to her involvement in the rite’s inception, and whose wrathful form, the “Wrathful Black True Mother is the deity the practitioner seeks to embody within the ritual[2].

Another indicator of Chod’s shamanic roots is the use of ritual implements. A chodpa carries a plethora of ritual materials: a flute, a drum, apiece of human or animal flesh for subduing demonic forces, a piece of woven hair, a ritual bell, and a piece of Persian cloth. For the Chod rite, only two of these implements are truly necessary for the initiation and maintenance of the ritual; the damaru, a drum, and the kangling, a bone flute, often crafted from a human tibia; yet another part of the ritual which will aid the chodpa in his meditation on impermanence[3].

To begin, the chodpa drums at a rhythmic pace, and invites all sentient beings to accompany him in the space he has set aside for the rite. This invitation of drumming and incantation is then joined by the use of the kangling, the sounding of which serves as a clarion call to the sentient beings summoned and also as a tool to partially subdue the more malevolent entities present. The entities summoned consist of beings both intentionally invited such as Buddhas, wrathful deities, and hungry spirits. Demons are the uninvited guests drawn by the sounding of the damaru and kangling that are nonetheless welcomed and placated all the same[4].

As the chodpa drums and sounds the kangling, he begins a form of active meditation in which he visualizes all the sentient beings present and that they are to be representative of all the beings in the universe. In addition to representing all beings, the assembled entities are seen as recipients of karmic debt, which the chodpa seeks to repay in return for merit. While envisioning these entities, the practitioner chants an incantation that serves to dedicate the rite to all the visualized entities assembled while simultaneously expressing gratitude to them and their presence[5].

Once the chodpa visualizes the sentient beings to be present, he then begins the process of visualizing himself as a deity. Usually, the deity will be the wrathful form of the celestial bodhisattva Macig Labdron, the traditionally held founder of the Chod rite, known as the Wrathful Black True Mother[6]. Once visualized as this deity, the chodpa visualizes themselves as cutting up their corporeal body into millions of pieces by way of the deity’s sword. In one description of the ritual, the chodpa as the deity prepares his corporeal body for consumption by the otherworldly host in a very specific manner.

Visualized first is the severing of the top half of the skull. Then, the deity flenses the skin from the chodpa’s body and spreads it upon the ground. She is then visualized as dismembering the limbs, torso, organs, and bones; spreading them out onto the mat of flayed skin in the pattern of a great mandala[7].

The deity is then visualized as collecting the viscera and placing all pieces of the chodpa’s body inside the basin of his skull, thus severed from his corporeal body. His skull is then visualized as being used as a massive cooking pot by the practitioner visualized as the wrathful deity, from which she dispenses the chodpa’s body to the visualized entities summoned. Dispensing of the chodpa’s body to the assembled multitude from the chodpa’s skull signifies the endless compassion and good will that the chodpa expresses towards all beings[8]. Another aspect of the chodpa’s compassion is that the body parts being taken by the supernatural throng are visualized as transforming into the object that the given entity most desires, which could be the chodpa’s unchanged flesh, medicine, or a piece of clothing.

Whatever is desired, the body part visualized will become that thing[9]. While the chodpa is visualizing hisblack-dakini body being divvied up by Dorje Phagmo, they are continuously chanting, continuing the invitation addressed to all beings to come and partake of the visceral feast that has provided for their benefit. At the ritual’s height, the chodpa sees that the assembled supernatural host of wrathful deities, ghosts, and demons are illusions created from his own mind; they are simply “terror evoking illusions”[10].

At the height of the ritual, the chodpa envisions that the visceral gift of their own body pleases the assembled host to such a degree that they themselves are transformed by the compassion of the practitioner; the assembled male beings are held to become Avilokitesvara while the assembled female beings are held to become Tara, and all realms of samsara are held to be liberated by the practitioner’s boundless compassion[11]. As this vision is brought to fruition, the visualized, now deified host and the visualization of the practitioner as Dorje Phagmo may then be slowly dissipated and reabsorbed into the Chodpa as amorphous light, akin to the practice of deity yoga.

The performance of Chod is primarily concerned with accomplishing multiple ends; the gaining of merit for oneself and for all beings, the active meditation upon the impermanence of the body, the immanence of death, and general change. Active meditation upon these things serves to banish fear and clinging tendencies from the practitioner if carried out properly. The ritual can be performed for oneself, or it can be performed on behalf of others, mainly an individual who has died or for an entire group such as a village. The rite is often performed around the time of funerals in various parts of Tibet as a way to produce merit for the deceased in order to facilitate their rebirth in an auspicious realm.

An instance of Chod being performed on behalf of the deceased is described in Stan Royal Mumford’s work, “Himalayan Dialogue.” Within, a Chod ritual is performed on behalf of a woman named Samden at her funeral ceremony. In this setting, Chod reflects aspects of the other practices performed at a Tibetan funeral. Of note is the distribution of rice cakes to the people of the deceased’s village and other neighboring villages. The distribution of rice cakes symbolizes repayment of karmic debt.

Chod mirrors this and is karmic repayment to the supernatural realm. The practitioner will visualize dismembering themselves to feed a host of supernatural entities, mirroring the distribution of rice cakes in the realm of the living[12]. Further, Chod may also be performed as a sort of exorcistic or sacrificial ritual when a village is afflicted with a pestilence or inclement weather, things attributed to the Yullha, or local gods[13].

Chodpas, the yogic adepts specializing in the performance of Chod and rites of divination and exorcism are fascinating figures within the Tibetan Buddhist context, as they are initially trained in monasteries by monks learned in such rituals, but they themselves refuse to confine themselves to monastic life once their training is complete. Though a bit of a stretch, this can be seen as an emulation of what their practice is meant to accomplish, as they sever themselves from common Tibetan society and live as wandering yogis. They will live in the company of outcasts such as beggars and lepers and will also make their homes near charnel grounds or other places associated with death[14].

Chodpas, like their monastic brethren, serve as figures that may circumvent the traditional, Western oriented biopolitical regime. Since the general notion of biopolitics is primarily concerned with the preservation and propagation of human capital through traditionally held views on economic and biological reproduction furthered by the state, Chodpas and monastics may be conjectured as figures completely antithetical to this practice. They completely remove themselves from common society, which is the template upon which the biopolitical propagates itself.

As far as the Chodpas themselves are concerned, their transgressive ritual practices and the accompanying doctrine, beliefs, accoutrements associated with their ritual, and their chosen living spaces serve as a visual refusal of or foil to a system which depends upon and reinforces doctrine preying upon the clinging nature of humanity, primarily the desires of bodily preservation which lead to the preservation of existing human capital and the production of new human capital.

Conversely, through performance of rituals at a community level, a practitioners such as chodpas may facilitate the construction of their own subtle biopolitical system simultaneously existing under and running counter to the overarching one in which abandonment of the normative bodily ideal is facilitated by the performance of rituals such as Chod and exultation of doctrine which negates the idea of a whole, individual form that is subject to base desires which lead to propagation and sustenance of the ego. This microbiopolitics of the ritualists and spiritual leaders would facilitate a new norm in which clinging to the body and the fear that this clinging generates would no longer be the foci.

Through the charismatic spiritual leader, the microbiopoltical field in which the Vedic and subsequently Buddhist idea that the human form is “dividual”; permeable, ever changing, and not conventionally real[15] would be the key paradigm and would be propagated in a similar manner to the secular biopolitical system. Theorists such as Foucault observed that what constitutes the biopolitical is based on economics, primarily economic notions and practices applied to the population.

The notion of a religious microbiopolitics operates with the same notions, but in addition to a hypothetical economy based on the corpus of the devotee, there is a spiritual economy constructed and propagated by spiritual leaders which serves to influence adherents. In the contexts of Tibetan and Buddhism and Bon, the idea of a karmic economy which stretches across time and space is propagated. Karma, Sanskrit for “action”, is the notion that every action performed by humans has a consequence, namely karmic weight accumulated to an individual’s consciousness that stays with them through subsequent rebirths and re-deaths[16].

Xuanyuan_Temple_in_Yan'an,_Shaanxi_(1)This Karmic weight may be negated by the generation of merit through blessings and rituals performed by a spiritual leader, or by individual acts of good deeds accompanied by beneficent intention[17], such as the giving of alms to renunciates. These ideas of karmic accumulation and cessation by way of garnering personal merit, a cosmology centered upon rebirth and re-death within the cycle of existence known as Samsara, a doctrine teaching the impermanence and permeability of the body, and a body of syncretic ritual practices which combines these facets serves to construct a microbiopolitical field.

This subsystem would run counter to a larger system of secular biopolitics which predicates upon the egoistic attachment to the body in order to propagate human capital and continue economic and population dominance at the global scale.

At both the individual and communal levels, the performance of Chod serves to empower those involved on their own path to enlightenment and to simultaneously bring the participants great merit, necessary to facilitate either the achievement of nirvana in the present lifetime or a subsequent rebirth that will enable this achievement. As its nomenclature suggests, the performance of this ritual is meant to sever not just the visualized limbs of the practitioner, but also attachment to the self, the aim being total enlightenment and the realization of the concept of no-self.

In all Buddhist traditions, clinging is one of the primary causes of worldly suffering. In the Chod ritual, this clinging by the ego is severed; clinging to the body results in desires and fears, particularly towards harm and death[18]. To fully confront this clinging of the ego to the physical form, many lamas encourage future chodpas during their training to make their homes near and perform their ritual in graveyards or desolate, lonely places, as these environments are associated with death and loss. Chodpas are also encouraged to perform their ritual activity at night, in order to fully realize fear so that they may understand it and defeat it; living near and performing Chod in such places serves to reinforce the truth of impermanence and impending death, thus empowering the ritual performer to sever its influence and further themselves along the path to the realization of no-self.

Akin to the initiatory visions of shamans among the Central Asian peoples, the Chod ritual centers around the envisioned death of the ritual practitioner, though unlike the fever dreams of the shamans, the chodpa is not reconstituted by the envisioned deity and the multitudinous spectral host. This lack of spiritual reconstruction serves to further remind the ritualist of the impermanence of the physical body. Combined with the visceral living space of the Chod practitioner, the ritual itself may serve as a focal point for discussing the impermanence of the physical form and the role of the ego in the every-day life of the general laity, Tibetan or otherwise.

This focus on the impermanence of the body may also be drawn into discussions regarding the biopolitical, as the human corpus itself is the lynchpin and basis of the entire regime. This ritual may hypothetically serve as a multifaceted tool which accomplishes many outcomes such as awakening one at the individual level to the nuances involved in the maintenance of a biopolitical matrix, serving as a catalyst for the circumvention of said regime by multiple individuals at once, or developing the notion of a “vital politics” in regards to the individual practicing the ritual itself.

Vital politics is a term used heavily by the theorists Wilhelm Ropke and Alexander Rustow, representatives of the German post-war neoliberalist thought movement. “Vital politics” as used by both theorists refers to “a new form of the political grounded in anthropological needs and possessing an ethical orientation”[19]. These needs and this ethical orientation are further elaborated upon by Lemke as being within the sphere of society. Families and community groups will interact with each other in such a way that they will aid each other while simultaneously allowing the continuation of the overarching biopolitical schema by maintaining the comfort and desire of the individuals within these social units[20].

The practice of Chod can be seen to promote vital politics in the sense that its performance generates merit for a group and helps to unite a community in a funerary setting or in a sacrificial setting in which the community is altered or put at risk. Further, the practice of Chod carries the idea of conquering individual fear and attachment by way of the performer offering their own flesh to the ultimately self-generated demons and hungering spirits.

Through engaging and conquering these apparitions, the practitioner realizes that they, like general suffering, is self-generated and may be overcome, leading to the cessation of the cycle of re-birth and re-death, which is further imparted at the community level by ritual performance and propagation of doctrine[21]. By overcoming fear and clinging, the possibility of ultimately breaking free from potential rebirth in the extant bipolitical system and its associated vital politics is realized. That being said, one may postulate that ritual activity in general helps to propagate the vital political existing within both macro and micro biopolitical systems.

Both the Deity Yoga and Chod rituals focus on the propagation of the belief that the human body is both permeable and impermanent and that through this permeability and impermanence there is to be found self-empowerment and liberation. Said goals run counter to the Western influenced macrobiopolitical regimes that propagate the belief that the body and ego are whole and must be protected. However, a number of practices in the Vajrayana cultural area with syncretic origins seem to veer away from the Buddhist concepts of permeability, impermanence, and the dividual form.

Such practices are often healing rituals, which seek to restore a degree of wholeness to one or a group who is sick mentally or physically. Within the Vajrayana cultural area there exists such a ritual that serves to unite a community unit in the healing of an afflicted individual or group whose origins may be seen to have arisen within the shamanistic practices that predominated in the Central Asian plateau and steppe regions before the coming of the Dharma.

The Soul Ransoming Ritual: Lalu

Within the context of the Vajrayana Buddhism of Central Asia, evidence of the shamanic traditions that were precursors to Buddhism are still extant. Much akin to the other groups inhabiting Central and Northern Asia such as Mongol diaspora, the folk religion of the Tibetans was one which emphasized the figure of the shaman and this individual’s abilities in healing and interacting with the unseen.

The shaman is a magico-religious practitioner whose defining attribute is the induction of a state of ecstatic trance in which he or she transcends the mundane realm, or if you like, the human condition, to traverse theHimalayas various levels of the distinctly Central Asian cosmology of existence to accomplish certain ends, notably healing, divination, and the guidance of recently deceased souls to their respective resting places[22]. With the introduction of the Dharma to Tibet, the duties of the shaman largely passed to monastic and yogic tantric masters, notably the performance of rituals attending to the needs of a given community.

One such ritual is that of the Lalu, roughly translated to English as “soul ransom”. To understand the purpose of this ritual, it is important to understand the relationship of a Tibetan with the world around him or her. Popular belief holds that the land of Tibet is permeated with supernatural beings; nigh innumerable gods, spirits, and demons. These powerful entities are believed to inhabit every facet of nature, even the homes of Tibetans, and they are incredibly humanlike in their dispositions.

When praised, they are said to be happy, but if disrespected, they can swiftly bring their wrath to bear upon the unsuspecting person. As such, great care is often taken to propitiate these beings, so much so that universally throughout Tibet, there is an offering of smoke from burning juniper and tsampa to the local deities and spirits. At their best, these beings coexist relatively peacefully with the Tibetan people, but at their worst, they are purported to be quite malicious, going so far as to steal people’s souls.

The idea of the soul or a similar phenomenon is pervasive throughout many of the world’s belief systems, though concepts of it differ by region. Western thought holds that without the soul, the body is dead, as an individual has only one, and it is vital for all the body’s system’s to properly function. In the Tibetan view, this is simply not the case. As to what the Western mind perceives as a solitary supernatural construct, to the Tibetan mind it is part of a triad of energies that are all vital for the proper function of the body[23].

The presence of Buddhism in Tibet has had a unique impact on indigenous ritual and belief, particularly in regards to the local beliefs regarding the human soul. As Buddhism continued to grow in Tibet, monastics encountered rampant local belief in the soul, which was at odds with the teachings of the Dharma. In Buddhist canon, the soul is not held to be in existence as one of a western intellect may understand it to be. That which makes up an individual and what may be considered a soul or a personality is the result of a series of events or causalities that have led to what we consider as a person actually existing.

Something may be conventionally real, but lacking in a true essence. For something to be ultimately real, that thing must be a quintessence, it cannot be made of a series of aggregates and come into fundamental being due to cause and effect. As far as something akin to a soul is concerned within Buddhist doctrine, there is the Alayavijnana, which is considered the “storehouse of consciousness” within a stream of karmic continuity[24].

This argument regarding what truly constitutes the personality or soul of an individual can be applied to the realm of the biopolitical. In many cultures, belief in a soul often accompanies some level of belief in an ego or self. Belief in the self or whole individual is often predicated upon by a governmental biopolitical regime to ensure ends regarding the preservation and propagation of human capital are met. As mentioned by Buddhist doctrine and authors such as Ricard, the origin of suffering in the world comes from various degrees of clinging, particularly to concepts or things such as the physical body (Ricard).

This notion of clinging to the body, wanting it to be healthy, long lived, and fit, is the paradigmatic cornerstone of Western biopolitical systems, as the main goal of said systems is to maintain healthy human capital that will propagate future healthy human capital. Buddhist doctrine stands opposite to this, as one of the main goals of Buddhist practice is the realization of no-self and the subsequent realization that a cease of clinging will lead to a ceasing of suffering at the individual and group levels.

This doctrine in itself leads to subsystems of biopolitics within Buddhist communities, particularly in Tibet, as ritual practitioners and learned lamas preach this idea, draw followers to themselves, and then beseeching their adherents to further the doctrine and hold dear Buddhist biopolitical ideology.

Padraic Fitzgerald received his MA degree in religious studies from the University of Denver.   His interests, according to Facebook, include “fitness, heavy metal, the esoteric and occult content of religions, wizardry, and casual nihilism.”


[1] Mircea Eliade, “Symbolism and Techniques: Tibet, China, the Far East,” in Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), 436-437.

[2] Patrul Rinpoche, “The Kusali’s Accumulation: Destroying the Four Demons at a Single Stroke,” in Words of My Perfect Teacher, trans. Padmakara Translation Group (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2011), 298-299.

[3] Giuseppe Tucci, “The gCod Tradition,” in Religions of Tibet, trans. Geoffrey Samuel (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), 89.

[4] Stanley Royal Mumford, “Rituals of Death,” in Himalayan Dialogue: Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal, ed. Stanley Royal Mumford (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 206.

[5] Mumford, “Rituals of Death,” 207.

[6] Patrul Rinpoche, “The Kusali’s Accumulation,” 298.

[7] Mumford, “Rituals of Death,” 206.

[8] Patrul Rinpoche, “The Kusali’s Accumulation,” 301.

[9] Mumford, “Rituals of Death,” 206.

[10] Tucci, “The gCod Tradition,” 91.

[11] Patrul Rinpoche, “The Kusali’s Accumulation,” 302.

[12] Mumford, “Rituals of Death,” 205.

[13] Tucci, “The gCod Tradition,” 92.

[14] Tucci, “The gCod Tradition,” 92.

[15] Diane P. Mines, “Personhood and Rank,” in Caste in India, ed. Diane P. Mines (Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies, 2009), 31.

[16] Patrul Rinpoche, “Actions, the Principle of Cause and Effect,” in Words of my Perfect Teacher, trans. Padmakara Translation Group (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2011), 101.

[17] Patrul Rinpoche, “Actions, the Principle of Cause and Effect,” 123-131

[18] Ricard, “Buddhist Perspectives on Mental Imagery,” 70.

[19] Thomas Lemke, “Vital Politics and Bioeconomy,” in Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction, trans. Eric Frederick Trump (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 105.

[20] Lemke, “Vital Politics and Bioeconomy,” 106.

[21] Patrul Rinpoche, “The Kusali’s Accumulation,” 304.

[22] Mircea Eliade, “Shamanism in Central and North Asia I. Celestial Ascents. Descents to the Underworld” in Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1964), 205-209.

[23] Samten Gyaltsen Karmay, “The Soul and the Turquoise: A Ritual for Recalling the La,” in The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals, and Beliefs in Tibet, ed. Samten Gyaltsen Karmay (Kathmandu: Mandala Books, 1998), 311.

[24] Giuseppe Tucci, “The Soul,” in The Religions of Tibet, trans. Geoffrey Samuel (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), 192.

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