The eleventh-century Tibetan female ascetic, Machik Labdrön (1055-1153), developed a Vajrayāna (Tantric) Buddhist meditation method called Chöd (Tib. gCod, Eng. “to cut”) and associated ritual practices as a means of eliminating “self-grasping,” which is defined as the mistaken instinct of regarding one’s “self” and all phenomena as intrinsically, or independently, existent. Her musical-meditation method became renowned across Central Asia during her lifetime, and Chödritual practices and liturgies have been transmitted from teacher to disciple in unbroken lineages until today. The ritual is now well known globally, with Tibetan Lamas, nuns, and empowered exponents teaching widely, across a transnational Diaspora, to Tibetan Buddhists engaging in the practice.

The Chöd meditation practice requires operationalizing the heightened emotions roused from the experience of fear in order to elicit the seemingly self-existent “I,” and “cut” (gCod) the instinctual grasping to the “self.” The ritual that effects this transformation is liturgically based upon song-poetry drawn from the Tibetan mgur tradition, which is itself drawn from the Indian dohā tradition of meditative poetry. The ritualized meditation experience is inhabited musically by several mgur-styled song-poem melodies that are performed in accordance with a liturgy over an underlying and potentially trance-inducing, rhythmic theme.

In this paper, I show what I have found to be correspondences between the “internal” performance of meditative visualizations and the “external” performance of the liturgical song-poetry and musical gestures within the Chöd rituals. Indeed, the musical parameters themselves carry meanings that not only enhance or reinforce the effect of the liturgical song-poetry but also directly assist in the meditative journey and spiritual catharsis of the Chöd practitioner. When a melody has been composed to symbolically represent a visualized scene in a subritual section of this religious rite, it illustrates an instance of what I call, “sonic iconography”—at once, a melody serves to embody a meditative complement to the sung text, enliven the psychophysical drama, and provide an atmosphere, or mood, akin to an Indian rasa. According to the Tibetan oral tradition, the melody composed by Machik Labdrön for the subritual section at the height of the dramaturgical narrative of one Chöd liturgy is designed to conjure an image depicting the “sound of vultures’ wings as they arrive at a sky burial.” By exploring the purposeful use of melody--as an aid in meditative visualization--at this climactic moment in a Chöd ritual, it provides a unique window into the interwoven aspects of music and religion in this important Himalayan tradition.

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