Meeting Machig Labdron

· Essays, Teachings · ,

by Jody Hojin Kimmel, Sensei

Right now you have the opportunity.
Look for the essence of mind—this is meaningful.
When you look at mind, there is nothing to be seen.
In this very not-seeing, you see the definitive meaning.

—Machig Labdron

A few years ago I was leafing through a magazine and came eye-to-eye with a young Tibetan woman, an infant swaddled to her back. The image stopped me cold. Opening the page and sinking further into their sunned faces and warm eyes, I felt a powerful sense of recognition, a remembering at the core of my being, a wakefulness in the cells of my body. I felt that “I” had stood in the exact space as this person. It was very familiar.

She was high atop a mountain, on a sky burial platform, the earth around her littered with bodies in all stages of deterioration. Majestic vultures and other small birds were sharing the wealth, picking the bones and flesh apart. Not long before this, I remember a friend asking me in a kind of off-hand way what I wanted done with my body when I died. Without hesitating, I responded, “It would be great to be food for the birds, to benefit other living things in that way.” It wasn’t something I had ever thought about before, and I have no idea where the thought came from.

Deeply touched by this image, I found myself wondering about sky burials and the ritual surrounding them. I began to explore a bit on my own, finding my way to the teachings of an ancient Tibetan master: Machig Labdron. I had never come across this name before, and as I read, I was surprised to encounter the pronoun “she.” Machig is a woman, I realized. I took this into my body. A relaxed warmth moved through me with my next breath. A woman, I repeated to myself. A wild woman….Go find her.

Shortly After This, I was at Daido Roshi’s studio when I noticed a book off to the side still wrapped in cellophane: Machig Labdron and the Foundations of Chöd, by Jerome Edou. I asked Daidoshi if he knew about Machig and the sky burial practice. He said it was “for the birds,” but sensing my interest, he placed the book in my hands and said, “Here. Read about it.” I did.

Machig Labdron lived in Tibet in the eleventh century, a contemporary of Milarepa. She was an outstanding teacher of the dharma, a mother, and the founder of a unique transmission lineage known as the Chöd of Mahamudra.

Machig was born into a privileged Buddhist family at a time of great religious innovation in Tibet. She gave up her pres- tige to become a wandering yogini. Later, after becoming a mother, and feeling called to practice the dharma more intensively, Machig left her children with her husband for several years and returned to study and train with her teacher full-time. She even- tually became her teacher’s teacher, which is rather remarkable, and dedicated her life in service to her students.

Chöd is a Practice Of cutting through the tendency to grasp at a self and its attendant emotional afflictions. It aims to free the mind from all fear and overcome the ego’s clinging so that practitioners can perceive the true nature of self and all phenomena, free of preconceptions. As part of the practice, Tibetan teachers of Chöd encourage everyone to witness a sky burial at least once: to have such direct, visceral contact with the body decaying can bring home the reality of impermanence, not to mention serving as a powerful reminder of the precious opportunity afforded by human life. Chöd is also known for its teaching on transforming the aggregates into an offering of food for demons, a compassionate act of self-sacrifice.

Machig herself is closely identified with the Prajna Paramita teachings. In fact, according to Tibetan tradition, Machig is an embodiment of both Prajna Paramita, the goddess of wisdom, and of Tara, the female buddha of compassion. The Prajna Paramita teachings point to the truth that once we let go of conceptual thought, emptiness is revealed not as dead nothingness or a void, but as fullness—a vibrant womb of wakefulness. The teachings on emptiness, to the degree that we have personally touched their truth, lead to an open-hearted generosity that naturally arises as we begin to understand the essential impermanence of all forms.

When We Bring These teachings to our ego’s tendency to cling to what is not real and to try to get rid of the things that scare us, we can touch the empty essence of the self, and so perhaps encounter ourselves with greater acceptance and love. Machig’s teaching was not to exorcise demons, but to treat them with compassion. After all, who are these demons if not manifestations of our own wild, creative process? When Machig was asked to define what a demon was, she replied,

That which is called a demon is not some great black thing that petrifies whoever sees it. A demon is anything that obstructs the achievement of freedom…. There is no greater devil than this fixation to a self. So until this ego-fixation is cut off, all the demons wait with open mouths. For this reason, you need to exert yourself at a skillful method to sever the devil of ego-fixation.

Machig’s understanding of demons was remarkably sophisticated, clearly the fruit of her own deep inquiry into the nature of experience. When we follow Machig’s example and ask ourselves, “What is the real evil? What are the real demons?” we can see into her teaching for ourselves: Isn’t our ego, the sense of self we hold at the center, whether on a personal or collective level, the real demon?

Machig advised her students, “Approach what you find repulsive, help the ones you think you cannot help, and go to places that scare you.” This begins when we sit down in zazen and practice not struggling with our own mind. When we investigate our own experience—letting go of our reactivity, our grasping, our rejecting—we can begin to see into our fundamental misunderstanding of who we truly are. Through practice we find the possibility of realizing ourselves. But we need guidance: “After all, the troublemaker is only you,” said an ancient teacher.

What follows is an offering of Machig’s final words. Delivered at the end of a long life of practice, it is a generous dose of guidance for all of us along the path. It is a teaching that is, as we say, “dark to the mind, but radiant to the heart.” If we can let it in, this nectar will surely touch that part of us that is completely wild and awake.

Jody Hojin Kimmel Osho is a Zen priest who lives and teaches at Zen Mountain Monastery.

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