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The Spiritual Heritage of Ma Gcig Lab Sgron Facchini, Massimo 1983

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Massimo Facchini
In 10551 Ma gcig lab sgron was born in Tibet. She was one of the very few
women who had a primary role in the country's religious history; this woman
gave birth to a teaching called Bdud kyigcodyul (Cutting off Spiritual Death)
which permeated the four great schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
The gcod tradition is still alive in some Tibetan monasteries,2 and in recent
years it has started to spread among the western Buddhists in the U.S.A. and in
The traditional Tibetan sources usually say that Ma gcig received the gcod
teaching from the Indian master Pha dam pa sangs rgyas,3 and in the Grub
mtha' (p. 107) the author says that the Gcod yul is a branch (yan lag) of the Zhi
While the meeting between Ma gcig and Dam pa (or one of his disciples) is
credible, I have doubts about the strict interdependence between the Zhi byed
and the gcod traditions.
These doubts are based first of all on the difference existing between the two
teachings which only have their relationship (that for the Zhi byed is really
close) with the Prajnaparamita in common.4 Moreover there are two
characteristics in the figure of Ma gcig that, according to the tradition, make it
impossible for her to be the source of a teaching that was so important in
Tibetan religious history.
Ma gcig is a Tibetan and, moreover, a woman; all the Buddhist teachings
come from India, and, according to the traditional sources, everything
(writing, medicine, astrology, etc.) was imported into Tibet from India and
Ma gcig is a woman, and you can't find another woman in the religious
history of Tibet who founded a religious tradition. From a sociological point
of view, Ma gcig is a diversity in a context of equals.
The two characteristics that give her this uncomfortable position are
inverted in a biography of her,5 in which her previous life as an Indian prince is
In her previous life her name was Smon lam grub (pp. 2-3)), the child of an
Indian king. During his short life Smon lam grub obtained the ordinary and
extraordinary siddhis, converted 100,000 non-Buddhists (p. 6), and worked for
the benefit of all sentient beings.
When Smon lam grub was twenty years old a dark-blue dakini6 said to him
(pp. 9-10): "I shall kill you and your consciousness will enter me." So saying,
she raised her knife to kill Smon lam grub and his consciousness entered her; in
this way he was guided to Tibet.
In the land called Lab phyiE'i gang ba (p. 10), in the town called Mtsho me,
she saw a man and woman in union and entered the womb of the woman.
The name of Ma gcig's mother was 'Bum lcam (p. 11), and she came from the
family called Phyug tshang. Her father's name was Chos kyi dzal ba, and he
was a local mayor. As soon as the baby was born, standing in a rainbow light,
she assumed the dancing position of Vajra YoginT(p. 19), and on her tongue
there was a red hrt, while on her forehead was an eye. Her father recognized in
her all the signs of a dakint.
When she was eight years old, the lama who taught her the Dharma told her
parents that she was a dakinl and that he had given her the name Shes rab
sgron me (Fiery Torch of Prajna). The girl became very famous in her country
and the king ordered Ma gcig's family to bring her to him. When the king
asked her name she said: "Call me Rin chen sgron me, Sgron tse, or A sgron"
(p. 26). Hearing these words the king said: "If you join the name Sgron me to
the place of your birth, Lab, it will be auspicious." So after that she was called
Lab sgron.7
Following these biographical notes, let us now consider the spiritual
heritage of Ma gcig lab sgron.
The Tibetan verb gcod pa means "to cut," and it is very common in Tibetan.
It has assumed many derived meanings such as "to cure (a disease)," "to
suppress (a passion)," "to kill," etc.8
The CCK (p. 415) says: "This doctrine is called Gcod yul because it
thoroughly cuts (gcod) all the ropes of the mind's (sems) pride and goes beyond
the four limits9 and the eight bounds."10
Again in the CCK (p. 415) it is explained that to define the system of Ma gcig
the verb gcod pa can be substituted by its homophone spyod pa (to practice).
The Grub mtha' (p. 114) says that the Gcod yul is so called because its
precepts ". . . cut the egoistical mind's activity through the bodhisattva's
compassion. The roots of transmigration are cut by means of the explanation
of sunyata (stong nyid). Moreover it is also called spyod because one must
practice the way of the union between thabs (skillful means, Skt. upaya) and
shes rab (profound wisdom, Skt. prajna ), which is the way of the bodhi-
The CCK (p. 414) lists the four devils (bdud, Skt. mar a) which are the object
of the gcod practice. These four are defined as the four "internal devils (nang
gyi bdud)":
Thogs bcas (bdud)       (Devil) of the senses, concrete.
Thogs med (bdud)       (Devil) of the mind, not concrete.
Dga' brod (bdud)       (Devil) of lust, desire.
Snyems byed (bdud)       (Devil) of pride.
These four are joined together with the four "external devils (phyi bdud)" in
the same work (CCK, p. 414):
Phung po (bdud)       (Devil) of the body.
Nyon mongs (bdud)    (Devil) of passions.
Lha bu (bdud)       (Devil) of lust.
Chi bdag (bdud)       (Devil) of death.
In the Mahayana system these four correspond to the four mara:11
Skandhamara, the devil who generates the five psychophysical constituents.
Klesamara, the devil who generates suffering and illness.
Devaputramara, the devil who generates lust.
Mrtyumara, the devi! who leads one to death.
Thus, the objects of the "cutting through" (gcod) are the four mara (Tib. bdud)
who lead one to spiritual death (the root of the Sanskrit word mara is mr, "to
The field in which the mara operate is the discursive mind (sems), the
intellective process that is the cause of dualism, assuming a thinking subject
different from the object that is thought. The discursive mind is the cause of
suffering, of fear; it is the world of our ego, which is anxious about living and
In fact it will be this individual world that will conclude its own existential
process; that part of us that we identify with our thoughts and with our
rational world.
The enlightened mind (byang chub kyi sems), which is innate but latent in
all the sentient beings and that has to be "recognized" by the practitioner in
order to achieve liberation, is not involved in living and dying; it lives in a
relationship of continuous transformation with the whole, being indissolubly
joined to it.
The gcod practice is therefore addressed to the destruction of the discursive
process and leads to the understanding that ". . . all things which appear, even
the Gods, are a creation and a phantom of our unconquered thought."12
It is this vision of the world that shows the links of the gcod system with the
Prajnaparamita which emphasize the non-dual nature of reality. Gcod-yul is
therefore a complete and direct meditative practice because the understanding
of reality's emptiness leads to the sudden release from samsara.
But how does the gcod practice lead to the goal? The way is through sacrifice
and offering; the offering of one's own body and life, and the destruction of the
five components of the human being.
From the seed-syllable at the center of his body the practitioner visualizes a
dakini (Tib. mkha' 'gro ma), usually Vajra YoginI (Tib. Rdo rje rnal 'byor
ma) or Ma gcig lab sgron, at the top of his head and identifies his consciousness
with her. Then he starts dancing with the damaru in one hand, while blowing
the rkang
The sound of these instruments and the concentration involved give life to
many demonic beings in front of the practitioner, who offers them his own
body as food. At the end of the rite everything is reabsorbed into the seed-
syllable from which everything started.14 To perform a gcod rite, "... a
cemetery, or any wild site whose physical aspect awakens feelings of terror, is
considered to be an appropriate spot. . ."15
To endorse this point, in the Grub mtha' (pp. 115-16) the author quotes
three passages based upon the Hevajra Tantra (Tib. Brtag gnyis).16 He states
that, for meditation, suburbs and lonely places, the night and the Ma mo
house," and cemeteries and woods are considered good. Further on in the
Hevajra Tantra it is stated that, having given the gift of your body, the practice
becomes still purer. It is also stated that were a lha min (asura) to walk before
you, even if it came in the form of Indra, you would not be afraid because of
your lion's form.18
I think it is important to note that the means to overcome the mind's
conditioning is the mind itself, its own projections. This meditative process
possesses a great psychological significance. There are two distinct elements in
its actualization: a preparatory element, in which the deceptive assumption of
the existence of gods and demons is made, and a second element which brings
about the certitude that gods and demons are nothing other than emanations
of our thought.19
Two paths are open to man. One leads to a state of submission to joy and
pain. Its contents or duration may vary and it is still always the path of
sarhsdra. The other path is the way of enlightenment. In order to traverse it,
gcod must cut off the root of the cycle of sarhsara. This process begins with two
erroneous views: one general, abstention from evil and so on; one particular,
the performance of good actions; transcending both there will be the certainty
that there is neither subject nor object.20
As I said above, one of the derived meanings of the verb gcod pa is "to cure, to
heal;" in Tibet many illnesses are considered to be caused by devils and the
gcod practitioners are called to give remedy.
In cases of pestilence or leprosy they are the only ones who dare to have
contact with the infected corpses, because they never become contaminated.
This is the reason why people in the West often refer to the gcod practice as
There is a big difference between the two: exorcism, in fact, assumes the
existence of an alien entity which must be "cast out" from somewhere or
someone. In the gcod context, however, the devil that the practitioner finds in
front of him is his own dualistic mind with its own passions and projections
because, ". . . from the material world up to omniscience everything will be
recognized as the devil's action."21
1. On this point the following works agree: B.A. II, p. 981; Tucci, p. 39;
Ferrari, p. 121, n. 198; and Vostrikov, p. 134, n. 391.
2. Rgyu ne and Skyabs che in eastern Tibet.
3. On his life and teachings (Zhi byed) see B.A. II, pp. 867-981. See also CCK,
p. 421; Grub mtha', p. 107; Aziz 1978; and Aziz 1979. On the meeting between
Dam pa and Ma gcig see Lalou, pp. 39-47.
CCK (p. 490) gives a brief account of their meeting and says that Ma gcig
(whose nun's name, Tshul khrims rgyan, is given) stayed with him for seven
years. The Grub mtha' (p. 114) says that Ma gcig received the gcod teaching
from Skyo ston Bsod nams bla ma, who received it from Dam pa, and it does
not mention the meeting between Ma gcig and the Indian master. According to
this text, the tradition that began with Skyo ston and Ma gcig is called mo
gcod, which is different from the pho gcod that was transmitted by Dam pa to
Sma ra ser po. On the pho gcod see Lauf, pp. 85-95, and De Rossi. The meeting
between Dam pa and Sma ra ser po is recounted in CCK, pp 433-35.
4. On the relationship between Zhi byed and the Prajnaparamita see TPS, p.
92; and Grub mtha', pp. 107 and 113.
5. Phung po gzan sgyur gyi rnam bshad gcod kyi don gsal byed bzhugs so.
The complete translation of this work is published in a work titled Women of
Wisdom by T. Allione: Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1984.
6. dakinT (Tib. mkha' 'gro ma), a goddess or realized yoginl.
7. The biography of Ma gcig is in B.A. II, p. 983; and CCK, pp. 451-60. See
also Lalou, p. 49.
8. Das, p. 390.
9. The "four limits" are birth and death, immortality and annihilation,
existence and non-existence, and phenomenon and voidness. See Das, p. 968.
10. Sems kyi snyems thag thams cad yul de nyid kyi stengdu thad kar gcod de
mu bzhi'am mtha' brgyad spros bral du gnas pana bdud kyi gcod yul du grags
pa yin la.
11. Wayman, p. 116.
12. T.P.S., p. 92.
13. The damaru is an hourglass-shaped pellet drum with two faces which has a
very complicated symbolism. The rkang gling is a sort of trumpet made of a
human thighbone. On these instruments and their symbolism, see Ringjin
Dorje and Ter Ellingson.
14. For a more detailed description of the gcod rite, see E.W., pp. 277-334.
15. David-Neel, pp. 148-66.
16. Snellgrove, pt. I, ch. VI, (6), (19), (25), and pt. II, pp. 19 and 21.
17. Here Snellgrove (pt. I, ch. VI [6]) translates: "Meditation is good if
performed at night beneath a lonely tree or in a cemetery, or in the mother's
house, or in some unfrequented spot." But the Ma mo are a class of female
demons assuming various manifestations. According to me, the right translation is, "the house of the Ma mo." On the Ma mo see Neumaier as well as
Nebesky-Wojkowitz, pp. 269-73.
18. Probably Simhamukha (Tib. Seng ge'i gdon pa can), the Lion-faced
19. Tucci, p. 88.
20. Ibid., p. 89.
21. CCK, p. 414.
Western Studies:
Aziz 1978: B. N. Aziz, Tibetan Frontier Families. New Delhi, 1978.
Aziz 1979: B. N.Aziz, "The Work of Pa dam pa sangs rgyas as revealed in Ding
ri Folklore," in Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson, pp.
21-30. Warminster, 1980.
B.A.: G. N. Roerich, trans. The Blue Annals, 2 vols. New Delhi, 1976.
Das: C. Das, Tibetan-English Dictionary. Kyoto, 1979.
David-Neel: A. David-Neel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet. Baltimore, 1971.
De Rossi: E. De Rossi Filibeck, "The Transmission Lineage of the gCod
According to the Second Dalai Lama," in Contributions on Tibetan and
Buddhist Religion and Philosophy," Proceeding of the 1981 Csoma de
Koros Symposium, Vol. II, Wien, 1983.
E. W.: W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. London, 1958.
Ferrari: A. Ferrari and L. Petech, mK'yen brtse's Guide to the Holy Places of
Central Tibet. Rome, 1958.
Lalou: M. Lalou, Les Religions du Tibet. Paris, 1957.
Lauf: D. I. Lauf, "Die gcod Tradition des Pha dam pa sangs rgyas in Tibet," in
Ethnologische Zeitschrift no. 1 (1970), pp. 85-95. Zurich.
Nebesky-Wojkowitz: R. de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Oracles and Demons of Tibet.
Mouton, 1956.
Neumaier: V. E. Neumaier, Matarah und Ma-mo, Studien zur Mythologie des
Lamaismus. Munich, 1966.
Ringjin Dorje and Ter Ellingson: Ringjin Dorje and Ter Ellingson, trans.
" 'Explanations of the Secret gCod Damaru' An Exploration of Musical
Instrument Symbolism," in Asian Music, vol. X-2 (1979), pp. 63-91.
Snellgrove: D. L. Snellgrove, trans. The Hevajra Tantra, 2 vols. Oxford, 1959.
T.P.S.: G. Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls, 2 vols. Rome, 1949.
Tucci: G. Tucci, The Religions of Tibet. London, 1980.
Vostrikov: A. Vostrikov, Tibetan Historical Literature. Calcutta, 1970.
Wayman: A. Wayman, "Studies in Yama and Mara," in Indo-Iranian Journal
(1959), pp. 112-31.
Tibetan Texts:
CCK: Dharma Senge (Chos kyi seng ge), Gcod kyi chos 'khor. Three Texts on
the History and Practice of the Zhi byed and Gcod Precepts. New Delhi,
Grub mtha': Thu'u bkwan Bio bzang chos kyi nyi ma, Grub mtha' thams cad
kyi dang dod tshul ston pa. Varanasi, 1973.
Phung po:  Jam mgon kong sprul Bio gros mtha' yas, compiler, Phung po
gzan sgyur gyi rnam bshad gcod kyi don gsal byed bzhugs so. New Delhi,


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