Fast forward about another 20 years to the publication of Machik’s Complete Explanation, translated by Sarah Harding—the most complete account of Machik’s life and teachings that is available, at least that I’m aware of—and to the summer of 2008, when my own refuge lama, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, began a series of teachings on that text.
I had wanted to get teachings about Machik’s life and practice for many years, so to be able to attend these seminars with my very own dharma teacher is a precious opportunity indeed. Like many Machik fans, I yearn to do chod—the practice she developed and taught—but even more important, at least to me, is the opportunity to learn about her life and to hear her words of wisdom voiced by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche.
The spiritual autobiography of a Tibetan Buddhist teacher is called a namthar. Reading or listening to namthars has always been one of my favorite things, because a namthar is really a teaching in itself as well as a source of tremendous inspiration, both creatively and with regard to putting the dharma into practice. And according to Rinpoche, Machik’s Complete Explanation is not only her authoritative biography, but also the earliest source of her own teachings.
Last summer’s 10-day teachings at KTD featured Rinpoche concluding a teaching about Gampopa’s instructions to the assembly (his disciples and students), and beginning the teaching on Machik’s Complete Explanation. To signify the end of one set of teachings and the beginning of another, Rinpoche wore a large butterfly pin on his robes the day he started teaching about Machik Labdron.
Attending the 10-day teachings is a unique experience that offers students the opportunity to immerse themselves completely in the dharma, from listening to the teachings to spending time in dharma practice, meeting other students from throughout the country, volunteering to do some of the many tasks required to keep the center running, enjoying a vegetarian diet, and browsing and shopping in what may well be the best Buddhist bookstore in North America, Namse Bangdzo. (Yes, I was born to shop—primarily for books—and Namse Bangdzo is a kind of heaven for me.)
Some highlights from my notes from last year’s teachings: Machik Labdron had to be born as a woman in order to tame Tibet; “A man couldn’t have done it,” Rinpoche said.
Machik was an expert in triple voice modulation; she could read several lines of text at once. “Maybe only one person today can do this.”
Machik and Milarepa were contemporaries. There are no stories about the two of them meeting, but Rinpoche said it would have been possible.
There is not just one form of chod, in which the practitioner imagines feeding his or her own body to surrounding demons; there are many. The essence of chod practice is the cutting through of selfishness.
Thanks to the American teacher and writer Pema Chodron, many people here in the West have learned about the practice of tonglen, sometimes called “sending and taking,” during which we work with our breath to transform negativity into positive energy.
“Tonglen is imaginary,” Rinpoche said at one point. “Chod is real.” In response to a question, Rinpoche said that for accomplished practitioners, this is actually true—the more harm that demons cause, the happier the chod practitioner becomes, because the ground for practice becomes more fertile.
The greatest demon or mara (obstruction to enlightenment) is fixation on the self. To cut through fixation—“That is the dharma system of this beggar woman,” Machik Labdron.
The longer I am around the dharma, the more it becomes obvious to me that in order to really practice for the benefit of sentient beings, the more one has to give up attachments to hopes, fears, and personal rewards—even to the point of giving up ideas about “I, Me, Mine,” as my favorite Beatle, George Harrison, sang all those years ago.
Giving up attachment to self, giving up hope and fear, giving up everything we have been taught to hold dear—giving it all up in a supreme act of generosity for the benefit of other sentient beings—that is what Machik Labdron and her teachings are all about; that is who she is, and why I care about her.