Perhaps everything terrible in us is, in it's deepest being, something helpless needing our help.
- Rainer Maria Rilke
I first read about the Tibetan Buddhist practice of ‘chőd’ in Alexandra David-Neel’s ‘Magic and Mystery in Tibet’. Some time in the early nineteen twenties, David-Neel was travelling in Tibet and camped near the cave of a lama and his two emaciated disciples. She waited some days for the lama to grant her an interview, but he played hard to get. She was about to move on when one of a group of herdsmen camped nearby died, and so she decided to stay around to observe the rustic funeral. This was an affair of much chanting, much reading of religious texts to the deceased, days of copious eating and drinking, all culminating with the feeding of the corpse to the vultures on a plateau in the mountains.
David-Neel set out to the sky-burial ground at night, intending to meditate there, but one of the lama’s disciples had beaten her to it. He was not, however, sitting in serene detachment, meditating on emptiness being only form and form being nothing but emptiness. Wielding a drum and blowing into a thigh-bone trumpet, the young man danced and chanted in the moonlight among the pieces of corpse, howling at an invisible assembly of demons:
‘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, [trumpet] 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.
Chőd is a ritual and metaphorical feeding of oneself to hungry demons, another Buddhist way of cutting through the ego; chőd in fact means ‘to cut’. Burial grounds and villages infected with smallpox were apparently favourite venues for the ceremony, as they were places where the fear of death could not only be faced, but faced down. David-Neel felt this lad was working at chőd so hard that he was endangering his sanity, so she went to see the lama to persuade him to get the boy to ease off a bit:
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.The other week I bought ‘Feeding your Demons’ by Tsultrim Allione, an American Buddhist teacher who has adapted chőd for Westerners. You don’t need to visit a cemetery or a plague-ravaged mountain village (I mean, like, thank goodness, right?) because Allione has turned this fearsome confrontation with the reality of death and decay into a very American five-step program. You keep a Demon-Feeding Diary so that you don’t forget to feed your demons on a regular basis, and so that none of them gets left out. You can also work with a partner and compare hang-ups. Like so many American self-help books, this one is packed with anecdotes about comfortably-off Sharons and Barbaras and Peggys and Kates who have their low self-esteem demons and their over-eating demons, their alcohol-abuse demons, their blame-demons and their loving-too-much demons, and much of it I found pretty unreadable. You want to say to the Sharons and Barbies, look love, get a life or get a thigh-bone trumpet and sod off to the mountains, but fucking leave us out with massaging your complexes. It is with some reluctance, therefore, that I have to admit this stuff has actually worked for me, after a fashion.
‘You appear to know chöd, Jetsunma. [Reverend Lady] Do you really? . . .’ he inquired calmly.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I have practised it too. Rimpoche, […] 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.’
'... he does not understand that he is himself the eater.' This morning I knew I was in for a few hours of insomnia when I woke at about two. This wakefulness, a weekly occurence, invariably involves a wearying bombardment from my subconscious of old guilts, old humiliations, memories of sins of omission and sins of commission, scenes of hideous executions, visions of foul creatures from the ocean abyss, oh, it goes on and bloody on. So I got to thinking about Allione’s watered-down chőd, and as she suggests, I began to imagine my Guilt and Humiliation demon, to give it a shape. It was an elephant-sized cross between a squid and a giant weta, its legs and tentacles visible on the floor, its amorphous bulk off in the darkness. I had to ask what it wanted of me. ‘Warmth,’ it said. And then I had to feed it what it wanted. Dutifully I imagined gold liquid running out of me, and the Guilt Monster Weta thingy plonked a proboscis into the liquid and drank. And then fuck me if I didn’t begin to experience, unbidden, a warm sense of gratitude for my cosy bed, my family, my brains such as they are, my health, everything I ought to be grateful for but hardly ever think about in those terms. The squid-weta-guilt demon shrank. The monster is, of course, myself tormenting myself. By treating it kindly, I broke the usual pattern of angry, weary resistance. Such resistance has the same effect as scratching mosquito bites; the itching just intensifies. I fell asleep at four or so. The alarm woke me at six, the only time I have ever actually needed it. After so little sleep I felt like a half-baked soufflé from the oven untimely ripp’d, but still marvelling at the ease with which Allione’s chőd for softies had short-circuited that horrible guilt-ridden insomnia that I get so often.
Confess all your hidden faults!
Approach that which you find repulsive!
Whoever you think you cannot help, help them!
Anything you are attached to, let go of it!
Go to places that scare you, like cemeteries!
Sentient beings are as limitless as the sky,
-Dampa Sangye, (1045-1117)
Chőying Drolma performs the chőd meditation without benefit of dismembered corpses.