Rice University

The Boniuk Center

  • A Tibetan Way Toward

    Religious Understanding

    On January 16, 2014, Professor Alejandro Chaoul spoke at the Asia Society Texas Center to a crowd of one hundred community members about a Tibetan way of understanding that could be applied to inter-faith and intra-faith dialogue.  Chaoul, who received his PhD in Tibetan religions at Rice University, is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Program. He has also studied Tibetan Bon, the native tradition of Tibet—and Buddhist practices in India, Nepal, and the United States.  His presentation focused on his research and book on Chӧd, a meditation technique that these traditions practice, where practitioners visualize cutting their body, fashioning a bowl from a portion of their skull, and offering it as a feast to enlightened beings.  Accompanied by melody and chanting, this meditative practice is used to confront fear and the attachment to one’s identity symbolized by the ‘cutting’ of one’s body.  In other words, cutting through one’s ego and moving closer towards enlightenment.

    At a glance, Chӧd presents a paradox: how can the Buddhist tradition, with its emphasis on nonviolence and peace, be negotiated with Chӧd, a practice that includes meditating on the violent dismemberment of one’s own body?  Chaoul acknowledges that while Chӧd is indeed gruesome, it is not violent because it only involves visualizing these actions.  In other words, this practice does not conflict with the central beliefs of Buddhism—love, compassion, sympathy, and patience.  Not only is there no tension between this practice and the faith tradition in which it is embedded, Chӧd, which literally means to ‘cut’, is actually a means by which to attain these ideals. Moreover, generosity is a central feature of Chӧd, as you offer what is most valuable to you (your identity), by cutting the attachment to its main holder/sustainer (your body).

    Using Chӧd’s meaning of cutting, Chaoul states that religious tolerance can be enhanced from an understanding that comes from breaking down boundaries—whether those boundaries are limits of one’s body and mind, or factions between and within religious groups. For example, looking at the relationship between Bon and Buddhism in Tibet, the practice of Chӧd can be used as a lens through which religious tolerance can be addressed more broadly. Among the purportedly tens of thousands of different meditative techniques within the Bon and Buddhist traditions, Chӧd conceptualizes a way to cut across the differences within these perspectives and focus instead on unity underlying them all, and it is said to be a ‘jet plane to enlightenment.’  In closing, and responding to a question from the audience, Chaoul made a point to state that all religions, not just Tibetan Buddhism and Bon, present themes of peace that can serve as a foundation for tolerance. Fostering tolerance between and within faith traditions requires that we break free of the limitations we impose as we relate to our enemies (external and internal) and ourselves. In the last slide of the presentation, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of all Tibetan Buddhists, including Bon, is quoted as saying “in the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.”  

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