Teachings | Training
Chö, the Tibetan word for cutting, can be defined as using difficult experiences to develop your ability to be awake and clear in whatever life throws at you. This series explores Chö’s origins in the Diamond Sutra, its relationship to Taking and Sending, and daily prayers and practices.

Introduction Download

Origins of Chö from the Diamond Sutra; Machik Labdron and Padampa Sangye; definition of Chö as creating difficult experiences and developing the ability to experience them completely; Chö vs Shi-jé; relationship between Chö and taking and sending; outer, inner, and secret Chö.




Section 1

Can you take down the spots a little bit? Alicia knows. I feel like I’m in the Apollo Theater or something.

Student: There?

Ken: Yeah that’s…thank you.

Student: The rest of the lighting?

Ken: The rest of the lights you can take up a little bit in case people are taking notes and things. This represents, or is our first full day of retreat. It’s very good to be here. To be very, very clear from the sense of in the meditation hall here and also in the interviews that everybody comes to this retreat with a pretty clear and pretty strong intention and that makes for a good practice environment. There are a number of different themes that have emerged through the interviews. I just want to touch on two of them briefly because they’re both quite important.

The first, and this has a little bit to do with chö as well. Dharma practice, buddhist practice is not really about trying to make things better. It’s about developing the capacity to experience things just as they are.

Sometime ago I came across a quotation, one of these little refrigerator magnets from Winston Churchill, When you’re going though hell, keep going. [Laughter] Don’t try to make it better, just keep going. And there’s something really solid about that.

So, whether you’re working with waking up to what is ultimately true, or whether you’re working with waking up to what is relatively true, whether you’re working with the emphasis on emptiness or on compassion, on everything being like a dream, or taking and sending, the fundamental intention and aim of the practice is to bring you into the experience of “now.” Exactly what you are experiencing right now.

So, in your practice, whenever you feel you’re not really connected with it, move into the experience whatever it is. Sometimes that will be pleasant. Sometimes it will be unpleasant. It doesn’t really matter. And that is actually what we learn by doing this over and over again. We develop a capacity, which we haven’t had previously to experience things, which are intensely painful sometimes and sometimes intensely pleasurable, which we weren’t able to before. We just shut down and didn’t face it. And so we gradually cultivate the ability to experience whatever arises in life, and that’s how we become present.

The second point is a reiteration of what I said earlier this afternoon. When doing taking and sending, make sure you do both. If you only take, you’ll first become sad, then start to despair, and then sink into depression. And then you’re going to curl up in a ball and we’re just going to have to wheel you out. And if you only do sending, you end up somewhat intoxicated with happiness and very, very removed from the actual experience of the world. Do both, and make sure that you do both because when you do both, the fixation on either cannot and will not hold. So you stay in the experience of what is. These are the two points I wanted to go over.


Section 2

Now this evening, because this is our first full day, I’m not going to talk at great length, because I think we’re all a little bit tired, a little bit drained from the heat possibly. But I want to give a little bit of background to chö. Now, I’m just going to give a little pet peeve first, many of you know this one.

A good friend and colleague of mine, Sarah Harding, recently finished this book. And it is a translation of Machik Labdron’s own explanation of chö. And she’s done a very solid job translating it, a very thorough job researching it, and a good job putting it all together. And you will see that it is spelled c-h-o-umlaut-d. Well, the “d” is only pronounced in a dialect in the far west of Tibet and the rest of Tibet the “d” is never pronounced and yet everyone in the West is going Chöd [with d]. That’s my pet peeve; it’s pronounced chö.

Student: I thought there was two, I though there was chos and chö?

Ken: No, no there’s just chö.

Student: She said…

Ken: Who? Well there’s chos but that’s the word for dharma and that’s a totally different word. And that’s chos and not chö. [Laughter] And it’s a tonal language, you see, but there are two spelling differences. One is the, it’s chos and not chö, and the other is it’s “u” not “o”. So, they’re very important differences.

Now, Machik Labdron was a woman who had a natural intelligence, and she had the good fortune to learn how to read which was relatively rare for a woman in twelfth century Tibet. And she was able to read very well. So, she was regularly hired by nobility in her region, to read scripture because this is a way that you earned merit. And among the scriptures that were available to her were the Prajnaparamita, the Perfection of Wisdom. And, because of her intelligence, not only could she read it, she could also understand it. In Tibetan, you learned how to read without understanding what you read. And there was another whole step to actually learn the meaning of the words. And she was able to do that too.

So, she spent hours and hours and hours reading the prajnaparamita literature and just loved it. And on that basis, that’s how her faith and inspiration for practice came about. And, she had a number of teachers, her principle teacher Lama Sonam, relatively little is known about him. But at one point she had some dream signs, I think, or vision that she would meet a very dark skinned master from India. And when she went out of her house the next day, this guy was there and his name was Dampa Sangye. And he’s also often called Padampa Sangye, pa meaning father.

And the interaction between the two of them was very fruitful. Padampa Sangye developed a system of practice which is known in Tibetan as zhi byed (pron. shi jé), which is “to make peaceful.” And Machik developed a system of practice which we now know today as chö. The names for both of these practices come from the Prajnaparamita. zhi byed comes directly from the Heart Sutra. And if you read in the Heart Sutra on page 13:

Therefore the great mantra of the perfection of wisdom, the mantra of great insight, the unsurpassed mantra, the one which makes equal what is not equal, the mantra which completely calms all suffering

And it’s that “which calms.” That’s what zhi byed means, “makes peaceful”. And so, that is where the name for Padampa Sangye’s system of practice was taken. And Machik’s was taken from what is popularly known as the Diamond Sutra. It became known as the Diamond Sutra because this is how it was translated from the Chinese and Japanese which was the first contact with it. If you were translating this from the Tibetan, we wouldn’t translate it as the Diamond Sutra we would translate it as the Vajra Cutter Sutra. It’s the dorje chöpa and that cutter is the same as chö. It means to cut.


Section 3

Now, both of these systems of practice shared a common feature which is totally consistent with what we’re working with here today. But one has to remember that today, we have access to a far greater range of teaching and instruction than anybody has had historically. I mean, everyone of you has more access to instruction and teaching than most of the lamas who lived in Tibet.

Now, you may find that hard to believe, but up until the 1950’s if you trained in Zen that was in Japan, and that was it. If you trained in Theravadan, you were in Burma, or Laos, or Sri Lanka, or Thailand, and that was it. And if you trained in Tibetan Buddhism you were in Tibet; that was it. And you knew nothing about the Theravadan tradition. And you knew nothing about the Zen tradition. And the Zen knew a little bit about the Theravadan tradition because they shared a couple of sutras but not very much, and nothing about the Tibetan tradition. And so forth.

And the same with the Sri Lankan. A Sri Lankan teacher who lived in LA came to see Kalu Rinpoche. And Dr. Ratnasiri was a wily old goat, he’s a real, very astute guy and he said, “Oh, I want to meet your teacher Ken.” “Delighted.” So I came out and was sitting with Rinpoche and Dr. Ratnasiri said, “In the Theravadan tradition,” and he named four of the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment, “we have these teachings”.

Kalu Rinpoche leaned forward, “Oh, do you? Well, in the Tibetan tradition, we have those four and then, right after that, we have these five.” And Dr. Ratnasiri looked at him and said, “You know this stuff?” [Laughter] And he was genuinely surprised. He didn’t realize that they shared the same basic texts.

This is the degree of isolation that existed up until the middle of the last century. But now in Los Angeles, or in San Francisco, or in New York, in many other cities in this country, you have access not only to every Tibetan tradition but to most of the Zen traditions, to all of the Theravadan traditions, and Chinese and things like that. And one really does have access to these. So, the amount that we’re able to enjoy this way is very, very different.

In Machik’s time you lived in one village, and it was usually surrounded by mountains. And the only people who went over the mountains were the traders, because it was very perilous and it was a very, very difficult journey. How many of you’ve seen the movie Himalaya? Yeah, you get an idea of what it was like. It was very, very difficult to go from place to place. So, you might have one set of texts and that was it. That was all you were going to have access to.


Section 4

So, when you think of it in these terms what Padampa Sangye and Machik Labdron did was to develop a different way of approaching practice. And at that point—except for some very, very secret stuff that was carried on by people like Marpa and Milarepa—the vast majority of people, monks in the monasteries and nuns in the convents, they would do refuge, and they might have a few teachings on the bodhicitta. But most of the time, they were studying logic and morality. They studied that ad nauseam. And that’s what their practice consisted of. They had relatively little access to other teachings.

And the whole idea was to gather, to do good work by doing prostrations, confession, and doing virtuous acts and so forth. So you gradually matured into some kind of awakening. And a lot of these people never got a lot of instruction in meditation itself.

And what Machik and Padampa Sangye said was, “You can go right into the experience and discover the awakened nature of experience by experiencing what arises completely.” And Padampa Sangye’s take on this was, “Okay, when suffering comes, open to the suffering completely.”

And—as all of you know from your own experience—when you open to the suffering completely, the suffering is calmed. Because by opening to the experience of suffering completely—remember suffering is the reaction to experience—by opening to that experience of the reaction completely, the energy that goes into the reaction goes into one’s attention. So, you stop reacting. You may experience pain but you no longer suffer. And you’re just right there in the experience. And this is the essential point of Padampa Sangye’s approach. which at the time was revolutionary.


Section 5

Machik took this a step further and said, “Well, not only do you do this, you actually create really challenging experiences for yourself, and then you go straight into them.” And this is the vajra cutter quality. Don’t wait for stuff to come, make ’em happen. Sound familiar? [Laughter]

So, and because Tibet was a country that was just steeped in mythology and demons and things like that what you did was invoked all of these things that people were very, very afraid of. So they’d go off into strange places, and invoke them, and get themselves totally terrified, and then rest right in the experience of being totally terrified. And they would cut all of the preoccupations.

So whereas zhi byed, or pacifying, works to pacify the reactions through attention, chö cuts the attachment, and the confusion that accompanies reaction, so you’re right in the experience.

The full name for chö…ah, how does it go? I can’t remember it. I won’t take time digging it up in here, but basically it’s the clear-cut mahamudra. Clear-cut is in what they do on the West Coast, you know, they just chop all the trees down. Here the forest is the forest of thoughts and emotional reactions to things. And you just cut. And then in you’re in space mahamudra. And that’s the actual name for it in Tibetan.

Now, because chö worked very directly with these elements of Tibetan culture it became very, very popular and totally misconstrued in Tibet. And I just want to read how Jamgon Kongtrul opens up his commentary on…this is a short commentary, here we are. He says: This teaching known as the clear-cut mahamudra belongs to the middle turning of the wheel (These refer to the three turnings of the wheel, three cycles of teachings that Shakyamuni taught and is connected with the deliberate behavior practice in Vajrayana.

The deliberate behavior practice in Vajrayana was a whole set of practices, various gradations, in which you would deliberately engage situations to see how solid your meditation was. So, for instance if you were pretty sure about your cultivation of compassion you got into a bar and you jostled somebody. And when he picked a fight with you and hit you in the face and knocked you to the floor, you’d observe whether any anger came up in you. And if it did then you went back to your cave.

In this practice you embrace what is undesired, you gather adversity, and you come to understand directly that all demonic manifestations are your own mind. And you know that you and others are equal. Through this, you cut right through the inflation of attachment to a self-image or ego-clinging. If you don’t understand this teaching this way and use it with the hope of being able to subdue and control demons…

And he just uses two different kinds of words for demons.

…or you want to become famous and well-known so that people will support you with food and other offerings. And you look at your own projections as enemies and yell, “hung, hung” and “phat, phat” at them, and engage in this kind of contrived behavior, this is the incorrect practice of chö. This is a huge mistake. So, right from the beginning make sure that you practice this the right way.


Section 6

So, obviously there was a problem in Tibet with this practice. At the beginning of the first three-year retreat I did, a very distinguished lama of the Kagyu tradition came to visit us. A really extraordinary person: very quiet spoken, very, very quiet presence. And we had just started practicing chö. So, it was very much on our minds. And so we said, “Could you explain chö to us?” And he went, “Oh, oh, it’s so long since I’ve practiced chö.” Because he was in his 80s at this point. He said, “Oh, it’s probably fifty years, oh, I don’t think I can remember anything, ah.”

And then this is what he said: “The secret practice of chö is mahamudra”, which in our parlance is direct awareness. “The inner practice of chö is taking and sending. The outer practice of chö is offering your body to gods and demons.”

This is one of the reasons that I wanted to include chö in our work here in this retreat ,even though it’s a whole other body of teaching. Because of its intimate connection with taking and sending.

Now, tomorrow, in the teaching we’re going to be talking about how to transform adversity into the path of awakening. And there are particular instructions of how to do this. And several of those instructions refer more or less to directly to chö. So, that’s another reason I wanted you to have this background.


Section 7

As Kongtrul says, this is not about gaining power. It’s not about developing sorcery abilities. It’s not about being able to heal people. It’s about cutting through what causes disturbance. And the method—chö actually combines a number of different methods—and they’re all based on the fusion of emptiness and compassion.

Chö is a dramatization of what takes place internally when you are awake and present. So, by acting out this drama which you do with a bell and a drum and everything else. By acting this drama out, you create the propensity within yourself, and you speak directly to the intuitive faculties if you wish, so that when you encounter situations which cause disturbance, what you’ve trained to do in chö just happens.


Section 8

Now, when you’re deeply trained in the dharma, something happens in life, something unexpected, somebody insults you, it doesn’t matter what. When you’re deeply trained, the occurrence of a stimulus triggers an openness in mind, and you just go open. And in that openness, you experience what is arising—anger coming at you, say.

Now, the ordinary reaction to anger coming at you is, you push it away. And now you have a conflict. What happens is, when anger comes at us, it triggers, it resonates with anger inside us. So, that anger comes up. But rather than experiencing that anger, we either suppress it and it goes into the body, or we express it here, whereas we push it away and we go into conflict. But when you’re trained, you go into that openness, the anger arises, and you don’t react to it. And you don’t suppress it. You give it all the attention that it needs. In any other words, you experience it completely. What happens then?

Student: It subsides.

Ken: It subsides; it releases itself, and you return to open awareness. That is what is actually being dramatized, whether it’s fear, neediness, greed, pride, jealousy. All of these demons representing all of these different emotional reactions. And you summon them. And you first identify with the openness of The Perfection of Wisdom, emptiness, then you invite it all in, and you give it whatever it needs. What does it need most? Or what are we most attached to? What is the one thing we’re most attached to? Our body. So we give it our body. All of these things. And they’re happy. They cease to cause any trouble. And that’s it.

Now, to do this we have a little bit of fear, unease, discomfort to deal with, and that’s what the practice cuts through. It cuts through all of these self-protecting mechanisms. So that we can be completely open and present with what we experience.


Section 9

How are we doing for time? So, let’s take a few questions, and that’s probably enough for this evening? Kevin?

Kevin: [Unclear]

Ken: Well, Tibetan lamas didn’t send their practitioners into the slums of Lhasa either. So, I’m not sure that your comparison is accurate.

Kevin: [Unclear]

Ken: Oh, I’m not sure about that. Hanging out in cemeteries or the cremation grounds in India wasn’t a really very safe place to hang out. Because there were a lot of thieves there who went and stole from the corpses. And if you were hanging out there, they don’t want somebody witnessing them. They weren’t that safe actually. But the point is, your question boils down to, “Where do we go to get scared?” Right?

Well, there’s another Kagyu teacher, Tsulak Trengwa, who was a very profound scholar. And we studied some of his work in retreat also. He wrote his biography, and which I had occasion to read, and one chapter of his biography I loved, because it spoke just to this point. And I translated it under the title How I Live The Practice. And after the retreat you can look it up on Unfettered Mind’s website because it’s up there.

But it starts off with:

I’ve never gone into fearful cemeteries and other frightening places, but I know of no place more frightening than the reactive attitudes of mind and the demons of the eight worldly concerns.

So, it’s one thing to go and find these places outside in the world. But really if we look very carefully at what anger, greed, pride, jealousy, desire, so forth do to us, you know, the most frightening place to be is right inside. Because they regularly hijack us, create all kinds of turmoil and confusion and mess in our lives. And we do nothing about it, you know. So we’re being mugged inside all the time.

And I know from my own practice, and many of you have expressed the same thing. When you actually encounter say your anger or your desire head on, that’s actually pretty frightening. You know, it’s like, “eeehhh.” So, that’s where I suggest you go looking for those things, right inside. That’s where it really counts.


Section 10

Okay? Other questions? Yes, Kamal?

Kamal: Can you say something about the inner, outer and secret levels?

Ken: Oh, yes, certainly. The secret chö—which is to say, the essence—that’s mahamudra. Or you can call it dzogchen, or you can call it direct awareness—it doesn’t matter—it’s all the same. The inner chö, that’s what you practice just as a meditation. That’s taking and sending, what this retreat is about. And the outer chö is offering your body to gods and demons.


Section 11

Okay? Other questions?

Now there’s one text in here which is, starts on page 31. This is a prayer that was written by a teacher, oh, I think in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, generally known as Karma Chagmé, who was a very prolific writer, a great devotee of Amitabha and Chenrezig, and this is a prayer he wrote. It’s actually a little prayer service about Machik Labdron. It’s really a form of guru yoga.

So, you visualize her on top of your head or in front of you—either is fine—it says above my head because that was traditional in Tibetan tradition but you can also visualize in front. And there’s a description of her. And then the actual prayer starts on the top of page 32 and goes down to, Give me the energy to obtain the stable understanding. Just a second, no sorry, it also includes the next verse, And through this connection bring great peace.

And then, what follows after that is what is known in Tibetan as pointing out instruction, pointing out the nature of mind. So, if you want a connection with the secret chö, mahamudra, this is a very good way to get it. Because it’s pointing directly to how things are, and similar to the instruction we were working with this morning. Yes?

Student: Does that suggest a way that tonglen is related to mahamudra? In other words, if after doing tonglen for a certain amount of time you will also have an experience [unclear]?

Ken: Well, remember what I said at the beginning of this evening. The purpose of all practice is to experience precisely what is arising right now. As you do tonglen or taking and sending you become more and more adept at what is what is arising right now. Because you’re training yourself. As soon as something arises, if it’s negatively flavored, you open to it by taking in the same thing from all sentient beings. As soon as something pleasant arises, you open to it by giving it away.

And by doing this, you’re actually training to be in the experience of what arises. And when one does this, you find that the taking and sending falls away and you just rest in the experience of what arises—which is mahamudra. And you can actually work all the way from the outer: you can just do chö and keep offering to gods and demons but in doing so you’ll find yourself opening more and more to just what you experience, and doing the same thing in a taking and sending kind of way and then gradually dropping into mahamudra. So they’re all very intimately connected, yes.

Any other questions? Okay, then I won’t keep you up any later, have a good evening, a good night’s sleep, I hope. I think we’re off to a very good start for the retreat. Thank you for your efforts and I’ll see you in the morning. We’ll observe silence again from when we stop now, so don’t stay up all night talking with people. Observe silence and go through right until we finish lunch tomorrow. Okay?