It wasn’t a typical Saturday afternoon. We had just spent many hours chanting. And in a trance. I now sat alone with the Buddhist Lama, and he passed me a bowl made from the skull of a very ancient Tibetan monk and prompted me to drink. I took the skull into my cupped hands, looking down to see what was inside. The fluid inside was dark, red and wet. Was it wine or human blood? I didn’t know, and I honestly didn’t care. I figured that if it was wine and this magic was going to work, by the time it hit my tongue, it would have turned to blood anyway. The bowl felt very old, soft but brittle, and I thought of how once upon a time long passed, it must have pulsed with the breath of life. Overcome with reverence, I put my lips to the bone, and I drank. I was sure that I knew what I was doing, but I also knew that I had absolutely no fucking idea what was happening.
As I swallowed, I slowly raised my eyes to take in my surroundings. I was half-expecting to see some visiting deities or demonic entities coming right at me, but there wasn’t even a Tibetan thangka painting to be seen. Then I remembered that this shouldn’t be surprising as I wasn’t in Tibet. I was possibly in the most unlikely place to be immersed in a tantric ritual. I was deep within the sanctum of St Theresa’s Catholic Church, right in the middle of Dublin.
I may have been in a Catholic church, but there was no dangling carrot promising salvation here. What was on the cards was an invitation to annihilate any illusory sense of self. Holding the skull had made this clear, I was in touch with death, and as I felt the last red drops drip from my lips, the Lama and I connected as I gave him the skull.
A fleeting thought passed as I wondered if the church had a clue about all this when they had given the space. Maybe someone offering their body as a tantric feast to the gods had resonated with their own faith, possibly creating some inward echoes with the domesticated, safe and controlled ceremony of the sacrament.
And although there may have been a resonance, it was obvious that this was beyond the sacrament.
We were in a ‘Chöd’ ceremony.
Chöd is mostly hidden, and very obscure. It is an esoteric and extremely risky Buddhist ritual, at least as far as mental health is concerned. It is a fast-track method of self-destruction and spontaneous enlightenment that historically takes place on rare occasions in the Himalayas.
I remember when I first read of Chöd. In Tibetan, it means “to cut through”. It is pronounced as “Chuh”, and was brought to earth by Machig Labdrön, a renowned 11th-century Tibetan tantric female Buddhist. Machig was named Dorje Wangchuma which translates as ‘Diamond Independent Goddess.’ Appearing to me as a paradox, she was a master of supreme personal autonomy and at the same time an expression of infinite, boundless flowing edgelessness. That was all I needed to know. Deep within my heart, I signed-up.
Having located a book about Chöd as a teenager, I quickly realised that it wasn’t a daytime read. With macabre curiosity, I read page after page, drinking in the words, and digesting them with envy as I learned how the monks, who after waiting and prepared for someone’s death, would visit the fresh grave that very night. After beseeching all the demonic entities to come to the grave, they would then pray for their illusory self to be sliced into pieces and devoured.
In only one night, apparently the adept could bypass years of meditation and spiritual practice in a total and all-consuming sacrifice.
Chöd is possibly the ultimate spiritual ‘hack’.
As demons devoured every delusion, and demons were seen as illusions, the sense of an individual self was destroyed. Only the remains of the monk would be left, as a smouldering piece of shit, egolessly festering on the gravesite. Although the objective was apparently a noble one, the risks were known to be significant, at least to the self, defined as it is by its perpetual seeking for personal relevance.
For every monk that shifted into liberation, many more went insane, forever locked into the world of a madman, the gateway to enlightenment slammed shut for all eternity.
Nevertheless, and with possibly a lower chance of death for the dedicated monk than a game of Russian roulette, Chöd became relatively popular, most likely appealing to those on the fringes of society, who would possibly find solace dwelling in the solitude of burial grounds and other ghostly haunted realms. As a teenager, I had instantly seen the appeal.
Once I’d returned the skull, the Lama handed me a human femur. “Blow”, he said.
I had heard that the thigh bone of someone who died a violent death is preferred when selecting a Kangling, or leg-flute, and I didn’t stop to ask what the donor had done to deserve their fate. I have since been told that the best Kangling is from a young woman who died giving birth; signifying the compassion and love of a mother. A Kangling should be handled with great care.
Without any consideration of placing the largest bone of the human body to my mouth, nor soliciting any tips for proper technique, I took a large intake of breath, pursed my wet lips onto what I imagined was the kneecap end and blew. What came out was nothing like Philip Glass’s ‘Kundun’ soundtrack nor the haunting sound of an energised Kangling, blown by the lungs of an enlightened being. The sound is supposed to terrify all evil spirits but be pleasing to the wrathful deities. I had the sense that my attempt would terrify anything, as what blurted out had been more demonic raspberry than spiritual mastery. At this point though, for all I knew I could have been spluttering blood.
And then Chöd was over, and we went to the pub. And I carried on with life.
One afternoon, six years later I was sitting in my clinic during a break, chatting with a friend on Facebook, when seemingly out of the blue my sense of individual self spontaneously disappeared into oblivion, taking with it the idea that ‘I’ had ever been. It took less than 30 mins.
So it can happen, and it can happen to you. And if it does, you’ll know that enlightenment does happen, but to no-one. That it is simply the falling away of that which was seeking enlightenment. The end of the seeker. A super-complete perfection. Everything and nothing. More love than is imaginable.
Literally one hell of a ride.
I am grateful to Margaret Michie for information on a young mother being the best source for a Kangling.