Rhythm of Liberation: The Enthralling Tradition of Chöd Cham

Nestled in the rugged terrain of the Shivapuri Nagarjuna National Park, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, the Nagi Gompa mountaintop abbey is a sanctuary of spiritual awakening. It is the home to a unique and powerful tradition known as chöd cham, a practice so enthralling it has, for centuries, captivated those who witness its profundity.

Chöd cham — an intriguing dance of selflessness, compassion, and liberation — serves as a portal to cut through the illusion of ego and the trappings of dualistic thinking. A mesmerizing choreography blended with a medley of ancient rituals, the dance illuminates the path to ’emptiness’, that realm of the mind that disrupts our obsession with a fixed and separate self-concept.

Diving deeper into the world of the Nagi Gompa nuns, I couldn’t help but be reminded of their cultural and spiritual links to India, the birthplace of Buddhism. The roots of Vajrayana Buddhism itself trace back to the Indian subcontinent, where ancient Buddhist masters forged these profound and mystifying practices. Interestingly, it is believed that the Tibetan master Padmasambhava, a key figure in the lineage of Nagi Gompa and the terma teachings, hails from Uddiyana, an ancient kingdom referenced in many Buddhist texts, often associated with the Swat region in India. Padmasambhava’s teachings and practices, eventually reaching Tibet and further carried to Nepal, sowed seeds of spirituality in the icy heights of the Himalayas, thus forging a profound, interwoven bond between these nations. This Indian connect is a vibrant thread in the rich tapestry of Nagi Gompa’s traditions, further enriching the dance of Chöd Cham with a deep sense of interconnectedness and shared heritage.

Born from the spiritual wisdom of the renowned Tibetan yogini, Machig Labdrön, the practice breathes life into the metaphorical feast of one’s own body offered to a congregation of inner demons — our most formidable obstacles. Through this sacrificial act, the practitioners visualize the ebb and flow of life, death, and rebirth, often healing the sick or guiding the deceased to a benevolent reincarnation.

The chöd cham is no everyday spectacle, but a transformative ritual reserved for special occasions: Tibetan New Year, the conclusion of Yarne (Summer Rains retreat), and select organized events. More than a dance, it’s a symphony of elements – prayer, visualization, singing, drumming, and bell ringing, all weaving a spiritual tapestry that resonates deep within the psyche.

Imagine the stage: over 30 nuns, rhythmically drumming in unison — pa-pa, pa-pa, pam, pam — moving, almost gliding across the monastery courtyard. Their bodies align in a grand circle, each with their right arm aloft, wielding the double-sided chöd drum, the left hand clutching the kangling, a thighbone trumpet, at their hip. This circle they form is a mandala, a divine palace where transformation takes root.

Their performance is a synchronized dance of concentration, an intentional ritual to clear or subdue any obstacle that might hinder their spiritual pursuit. An act that necessitates the full attention of body and mind, dispelling worldly thoughts and distractions. Each movement imprints the mandala, or buddha-field, with the elements that underpin the sacred space for spiritual practice.

At the heart of Nagi Gompa resides Drupla Ani Dekyi Chödron, a woman of profound wisdom and authority who dedicated 35 years of her life to the abbey. My encounter with Ani Diki led me to the extraordinary lineage of the Chokling Tersar tradition, the spiritual legacy of the renowned Tibetan guru, Chogyur Lingpa, etched in the heart of Nagi Gompa.

Chogyur Lingpa, revered for revealing spiritual treasures or terma, passed on his lineage to his great-grandson, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Today, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s eldest son, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, ensures the flame of their spiritual heritage continues to burn bright in Nagi Gompa. As such, the monastery serves as a remarkable confluence of the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

The chöd tradition at Nagi Gompa is a testament to the timeless teachings passed down through generations, going back to Kharsha Rinpoche, the original meditator who constructed the gompa as a hermitage. The nuns have held onto the chöd practice, preserving its essence even as it continues to evolve.

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