Making the Old New Again and Again: Legitimation and Innovation in the Tibetan Buddhist Chöd Tradition

Michelle Janet Sorensen

Making the Old New Again and Again: Legitimation and Innovation in the Tibetan Buddhist Chöd Tradition
Sorensen, Michelle Janet
Thesis Advisor(s):
Thurman, Robert A. F.
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Ph.D., Columbia University.
My dissertation offers a revisionary history of the early development of Chöd, a philosophy and practice that became integral to all Tibetan Buddhist schools. Recent scholars have interpreted Chöd ahistorically, considering it as a shamanic tradition consonant with indigenous Tibetan practices. In contrast, through a study of the inception, lineages, and praxis of Chöd, my dissertation argues that Chöd evolved through its responses to particular Buddhist ideas and developments during the "later spread" of Buddhism in Tibet. I examine the efforts of Machik Labdrön (1055-1153), the founder of Chöd and the first woman to develop a Buddhist tradition in Tibet, simultaneously to legitimate her teachings as authentically Buddhist and to differentiate them from those of male charismatic teachers. In contrast to the prevailing scholarly view which exoticizes central Chöd practices--such as the visualized offering of the body to demons--I examine them as a manifestation of key Buddhist tenets from the Prajñaparamita corpus and Vajrayana traditions on the virtue of generosity, the problem of ego-clinging, and the ontology of emptiness. Finally, my translation and discussion of the texts of the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorjé (1284-1339), including the earliest extant commentary on a text of Machik Labdrön's, focuses on new ways to appreciate the transmission and institutionalization of Chöd. I argue not only that Chöd praxis has been an ongoing project of innovation and renewal, but also that we can properly understand modern incarnations of Chöd only through a nuanced appreciation of its historical and philosophical developments.
Asian studies
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