Machig Labdron

Machig Labdron, drawing, author Marina Sherman

Machig Labdron, drawing, author Marina Sherman

Machig Labdron lived in Tibet in the 11th century. Legend says that Padmasambhava predicted that she would be born as a reincarnation of Yeshe Tsogyal. When she was a child she used to read the Prajnaparamita sutra for wealthy patrons. It was thought that repetitively reading the sutra brought merit, and as she was able to read very fast, her services were highly valued (merits’ size was determined by the number of readings).

Machig used to walk from house to house until she met the teacher named Lama Sonam Drapa who questioned whether she understood the meaning of what she was reading. This very moment Machig suddenly realized the essence of the Prajnaparamita sutra. From that moment on Machig abandoned ordinary life and started practicing in cemeteries. The basis of her teaching became Chod practice, which is about cutting off attachments and discovering emptiness of the “I”.

Machig Labdron brought to perfection the teaching of corpse contemplation making it a tantric ceremony. In this ceremony our idea of ourselves (of “I”) is divided into parts and is offered to hungry ghosts who lately become Dharma protectors.

Below is an approximate text which may serve an example for a study of the Mind of Chod practice. The basis of this text is a manuscript translated by Evans Vents, but considerable abridged. Changes and additions based on personal view of my teacher, Vova Pyatsky.

THE PATH OF MYSTICAL SACRIFICE: yoga of cutting of the “I” sense

The Yogic dance, which destroys delusions

Visualize yourself as if you have become the Dakini  of the All-encompassing wisdom with body enlarged to the size of entire Universe and endowed  with all the features of perfection, and dance the Dance of Wisdom, which destroys delusions.

I, the Wisdom Dakini, who realizes the Fearless Courage, who devotes her  thoughts and energy to the realization of inseparability of Nirvana and Sansara,   invite all of you to participate in my Dance:

I invite you, my honored gurus, and you – Dakas and Dakinis, uncountable as ocean drops.

Come to my Dance, you, beings who wander in the Sky, who roam everywhere; may this earnest offering of mine be successful; please, bring your blessings to it.

Thus I accomplish The Yogic dance of five directions:

When I move in the direction of the Eastern Continent, continent of the perfect figure, Dakas and Dakinis whirl on the crescent-shaped arena. Their feet twinkle as they dance on bodies of prostrated Royal Maras, maras of ill-will, who symbolize hatred and anger. They play the flutes of Mirror-like Wisdom.

When I move towards the Southern Continent, the Human Realm, Dakas and Dakini whirl on the triangle-shaped dance arena.

Their feet twinkle as they dance on the head of the defeated Mara of Pride, embodied in the God of Death. With sharp sounds they drum the skull-drums of the Wisdom of Equality.

When I move towards the Western Continent, which is blessed with fulfillment of worldly desires, Dakas and Dakinis whirl on the round dance arena. Their feet twinkle when they move on the head of the defeated Giantess of Lust. They softly jingle with bells of the Wisdom of Discernment.

When I move in the direction of the Northern Continent, the continent of the unpleasant sound, Dakas and Dakinis whirl on the square dance-ground. Their feet twinkle on heads of the defeated vicious Maras of Envy. The Tiara of the All-accomplishing Wisdom sparkles bright.

When I dance towards the Center of the Perfectly Constructed Sphere, the dance arena for heroes and heroines is blessed with Dakas’ and Dakinis’ divine presence. Their feet twinkle when they dance on the head of the defeated Vampire of Folly. Joyful HUM-sounds, sounds of the Wisdom of Suchness, are melodious.

Piercing of the component parts of the “I”-sense:

The Dakini of Recognition comes from the East with her dart of Loving Kindness.

The Dakini adorned with the three jewels comes from the South with her dart of Great Compassion.

The Lotus Dakini comes from the West with her dart of Benevolence.

The Dakini of Action comes from the North with her dart of Co-joy.

The Buddha-Dakini comes from the Center with the dart of Equality.

Standing on the defeated heads of the images of the own sense of “I”, on its four extremities, they thrust their darts into them. They pierce them passionlessly and thus provoke the peace of mind (which is a cessation of samsaric activity).

The decision

I take a decision to liberate myself from any hope and from any fear.

Sacrificing the Illusory Body

I offer this illusory body (as an aggregation of the five skandhas), which I considered to be so precious, to all the gods of this gathering I visualize.

May the very root of “I” be cut into pieces. With the sharp discernment I take off the skin of this subtle, illusory (coming to me in the dream of Dharma) body. And with this white, lotus-like skin I cover all the shortcomings of Earth and of beings; I conceal them the way a heavy snow fall conceals the tired earth. I offer to Dakas and Dakinis, who came to witness my renunciation, the insides of this illusory body, which consists of precious stones of Chintamani, which satisfy hunger, quench thirst, and heal disease.

Visualization of a corpse and of a wrathful goddess

Now imagine that this body, which is a result of your own karmic inclinations, is a fat and juicy corpse, which embraces the entire universe. Then visualize the radiant Mind, which is inside of you, as if it were the Wrathful Dakini, who stays aside from your body.  She has one face and two hands and she holds in her hands a knife and a skull. Imagine that she cuts off the head – the scull of the corpse and puts it (as it were an enormous cauldron) on the three channels of your body (as if they were legs of a tripod).  Then she cuts the corpse into pieces and throws them into this scull as an offering to wordly gods, spirits and maras. Then imagine that, due to the mystical power of rays – mantras Aum, Ah, Hum, these offerings turn entirely into amrita, sparkling and radiant.

Then, when you offer this treat, you say: “if you hurry, then swallow it uncooked; if you have time, then roast it and eat it slowly, piece by piece; and do not leave even a single piece, eat it to the tiniest particle!”

I dedicate this Mandala to each and every being, who satisfies all his/her passionate desires, as this Mandala is an inexhaustible source of nourishment.

May every being, whom I contacted, achieve the State of Buddha!

May all the karmic debts be payed off and cleared!


When we discussed the story of Machig Labdron with my Teacher, Vova Pyatsky, he made the following comments:

The story of Machig Labdron is in fact a history of birth of modern Buddhism.  She was one of a very few women-teachers who succeeded and gained authority. Even in our days nuns have secondary status compared to monks in Buddhist monasteries; so nuns have to bow to monks. And at the time of Machig Labdron these inequalities were even more evident. At that time mostly men (monks) had recognition, titles and respect and monkhood became an institution invested with titles, rituals and power.

Where regulations start to rule over reason, the Mara of Teaching arises. Machig Labdron demonstrated that woman may become a Dharma teachers and that truth’s realization is beyond rules. Machig showed that the teaching grows decrepit and as it grows decrepit it becomes home to demons. One of these demons is a mara of Teaching. And his presence is usually very hard to recognize as he hides behind noble appearance, simple monastic robes, learned repetition of ancient texts and ideas of male superiority. Mara of Teaching draws us towards taking advantage of social and preaching at the same time. Priests are different from yogis because they are heavy, adorned with robes and their life is full of rules and rituals in an atmosphere of significance.  This makes a person “heavy”. But Machig practiced not in comfortable monasteries but in cemeteries. She came out against Mara of the Teaching and conquered this striving for comfortable, senile, church Buddhism.  She was able to put yoga above ritual, above organization, above hierarchy and to live in freedom, to dance naked in the cemetery like “dakini dancing in the sky”; she was able to realize the essence of Prajnaparamita sutra, to realize the emptiness of the “I”-sense.

Marina Sherman
Translation: Dorey Glenn and Ilona Erkin