With all the male gurus in the lineages of Tibetan buddhadharma, it is worth remembering one of many female gurus: Machig Labdron.
Machig lived at the same time as Milarepa, Tibet’s most famous yogi, in the 11th into the 12th century. Like Mila, Machig is famous not only for being a great yogini, but also for being a guru. Furthermore, she is also the originator of the Mahamudra Chod practice, which cuts through attachment to ego.
Born into a noble family in the small town of Lab, and well-educated, Machig did not have to be married off at an early age and was able to become a professional reader. She was sent to read dharma texts in the homes of lay practitioners.
Householders believed that hearing the dharma read to them was both beneficial and meritorious, even if they were consumed by worldly affairs. One of the texts she read or recited most frequently was the Prajnaparamita or Heart Sutra. But, although she received much praise for this work, she didn’t feel she was really benefitting people in a profound way.
When Machig met the great Indian siddha Phadampa Sangye (whose name means Holy Father Buddha) who was visiting Tibet, she asked how she could be a genuine help to sentient beings.
And his answer had a life-changing effect on her:
“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 ….
Find Buddha inside yourself!”
With this challenging but empowering advice, Machig began to practice these instructions. She gave up her prosperous reading and began a wandering life, much like Milarepa. She was no longer moved by praise.
Wearing the cast off clothes of beggars, living with beggars, staying anywhere, even in the house of a leper, she discovered that the main obstacle to finding Buddha inside herself was her own “self-cherishing”. But she also discovered that her ego was eroded each time she leaned into the situations she disliked or was afraid of and her realization grew. As she wandered, she ate anything offered to her except meat.
Encountering various teachers as she wandered, she received various Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings (the highest teachings of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhadharma).
Practicing these teachings, she gained mastery, and kept them in her heart so that she began to experience pain and pleasure as “one taste” and her realization became stable.
Then she met another siddha or accomplished one from India named Topabhadra, and the two formed a dharmic union, which soon created a family lineage. At age 24 Machig gave birth to her first son, Drubpa (Tibetan for siddha), who in his youth began by resisting the dharma.
At age 25 Machig gave birth to another son, Drubse (Tibetan for Accomplished Son), and at age 30 to a daughter Drub Chungma (Accomplished Little Woman)—one does see a theme here!
But at age 35, Machig left her three children with their father Topabhadra in order to spread her practice of Mahamudra Chod all over Tibet. This was a unique Mahayana practice, which used vajrayana methods to cut ego. No shrine was necessary. One could practice alone in the wild.
From the Abbreviated Daily Practice, Machig’s practice and view is basically this:
“Grant your blessings so that I may turn back
Clinging to confusion and all activities of the world.
Grant your blessings so that I may stop cherishing
This illusory body made of four elements.
Grant your blessings so that bad circumstances,
Sickness and…obstacles become of equal taste.”
Machig was able to spread her teachings and many Tibetans considered her their teacher or guru. This is in fact how she received the name Machig: Only Mother.
Eventually Machig reunited with her children and Topa Bhadra, and sang songs of realization to them much like Milarepa did with his students. Although Topa Bhadra eventually returned to India, Machig continued to teach Mahamudra Chod until her death at age 90. And her sons and daughter continued her lineage of Mahamudra Chod, which has survived to this day.
How is this view relevant today?
Machig emphasizes that it is the clinging to activities of the world that feeds egotism, not the actual activities themselves that are the problem. In fact, in today’s world, some of those activities may be the very places that scare us—and pop our ego—whether in the board room or staff meeting, during public speaking, etc.
It is true that to practice and to stabilize this view, Machig did first renounce her occupation and even her family life. In doing so, the more difficult situations she encountered strengthened her view, while enabling her to help so many other people—the poor, the sick, the shunned, outcastes, destitute women.
For her the reading occupation and family life were cocoons for her ego. The more she gave up self-involvement, the more she was able to be active in compassionate activities spontaneously—without clinging to any situation as her ID—even though the people she helped thought of her as mothering their Buddha Nature. She simply moved on to fresh situations, until she realized “equal taste” and the death of duality.
Does that mean that to follow the example of Machig we need to go out and buy a chod drum and thigh bone trumpet and practice in the charnel grounds of Asia? Of course not!
It also doesn’t mean that one should necessarily walk down the alleys of a city at night just to get an adrenaline rush. Our daily life affords plenty of opportunity to lean into the places that scare us. It could mean simply being with a friend in the hospital, or caring for someone at home.
Trungpa Rinpoche used to say that hospitals, in spite of their sterile environments, were the charnel grounds of the West! It could mean gently telling a co-worker or friend something difficult, something you are afraid may hurt their feelings, but that it is the honest thing to do.
And, as Pema Chodron encourages in her book of the same title, it is very helpful to go to The Places that Scare You.
How else are we to develop confidence in our Buddha Nature?
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