Review: Chöd Practice in the Bön Tradition – Alejandro Chaoul

Chöd Practice in the Bön Tradition: Tracing the origins of chöd (gcod) in the Bön tradition, a dialogic approach cutting through sectarian boundaries – Alejandro Chaoul, Forewards by Yongdzin Lopon Tenzin Namdak and Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
Snow Lion. 2009. 116 pp. with appendices. 9781559392921.

Chöd is a fairly obscure practice from Tibetan Buddhism and it also appears within Bön, the pre-Buddhist “shamanic” religion of Tibet. It is generally conceived as a Buddhist practice, framed in Buddhist imagery and philosophy, and the mythology places it firmly within the realm of Buddhism by use of its founder Machik Labdron, a Tibetan Buddhist saint. Yet in Bön the philosophy and mythology are a bit different though the practice is largely similar. So where did chöd come from?

Chaoul makes, what he believes, to be the first real study of chöd within Bön tradition. The book based upon his MA thesis at the University of Virginia, where he tried to find the interconnection between the two chöd practices. He did not focus on trying to find an origin for chöd but instead focused on how the practice has been shared and exchanged and developed between the two traditions. One tradition was not viewed as more legitimate or superior, instead Chaoul states “that the beauty of this rich, intricate, and often misunderstood practice, is to be found in the coexistence of many different views, which can expand beyond the traditional horizons delimited by social, academic, and sectarian boundaries.” (4)

I find this a curious and interesting case; as a perfect example of what he was studying Chaoul included in the book the sadhana called in English “The Laughter of the Dakinis” which is a sadhana within my lineage as well, even though his source is Bön and my lineage is Buddhist. So there I find not just the general sharing, but a specific ritual within both traditions. Personally it was a great book to read because of my lineage, my lama taught me (and understands this) through the Buddhist perspective and it was great to see the other, less common, perspective.

In fact in my initial chöd training I learnt that chöd had incorporated aspects from Bön, as it had from tantra and sutra traditions and even Hinduism, but I was unaware that there was a full chöd tradition within Bön. Most of this book made sense, and I could see the exchanges and changes, and some parts had me really wondering. For example when describing the tools the damaru (drum) is described as being made from two skulls (53) whereas I was taught, quite emphatically, that the damaru is to be acacia wood and the skull drums are from an unrelated tradition but due to similar appearance get associated with chöd, but should never be used for chöd. (Sidenote: The damaru shown on the cover is quite clearly not made from skulls) Things like this intrigue me, I want to learn is this a difference between Bön and Buddhist chöd, or is this lineage specific and my lama was speaking from his bias?

This book is highly academic, as mentioned it was based upon an MA thesis, it has 299 endnotes (to help make the point), so if you’re looking for an easy read, this isn’t it. This book is not appropriate for someone curious about chöd or looking to learn it, too much of the knowledge, history, mythology, and philosophy is chöd specific. For those studying chöd the complete sadhana of “The Laughter of the Dakinis” is included and “intended for use by those who have received transmission and explanation from an authentic lineage holder” (69) and if you are a chödpa (Buddhist or Bönpo) with an academic or bookworm leaning, this book is an excellent read and resource.

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