The Healing Practice
Changbu Jatsa
by Alta Brown Ph.D.

Throma Nagmo

Throma Nagmo

Since Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso has given me permission to teach the chöd healing practice, the Changbu Jatsa, I think it would be useful to explain exactly what the practice is intended to accomplish and how it functions. On the face of it, the Changbu Jatsa sounds even stranger than chöd itself. Khenpo instructs practitioners to take the sick person out to the charnel ground and offer the body of that person to the demons who "own" sickness.

When I first read this instruction, it made no sense at all. How can healing be accomplished by giving away the body of the sick person to the demons who are already causing the illness? And why should we do this in the first place?

Khenpo explains that we should make this particular kind of offering to the demons that have infected the sick person because

"...When one is sick, one should develop compassion towards the demon or spirit which has caused the sickness more than towards the sick person because the one who is sick, no matter how sick he is, he is at home, lies in his bed, is well dressed, and gets something to eat. But the demon who causes the sickness, he is driven by karma, he has no independence, he has nothing to eat, he is not well dressed, it [he] does not do this evil out of his own power. Therefore, the demon is actually much more someone to have compassion to than the one who is sick" (pg. 101, gchöd).

This explains why we should offer to the demons, but the question is, how does such a radical offering heal the sick person? The mechanics of the practice look a lot like those of the Red Feast which is a part of the everyday chöd practice, but instead of chopping our body and the body of the sick person into small pieces, we offer the demons 108 small tormas, 108 pieces of meat and drinking water.

These tormas have been made with water that has be used to wash the hands and faces of the sick person and the practitioners who are leading the practice. The particular beings that "own" sickness are called "smell eaters." They can be fed by burning certain types of foods during the Sur practice. The smell itself feeds them. Because they are attracted to the smells of food, they will be drawn to the tormas which smell like the bodies of the people who have washed their hands and faces with the "smell water." The practitioners make the offering even more persuasive by visualizing the tormas, meat, and water as human bodies like that of the sick person.

Chöd practitioners then invite the demons to take away the body of the sick person, but at the same time, they tell these demons to notice the numbers of visualized bodies that also have been offered.

At this point, Machig Labdrön and her retinue are asked to separate the body of the sick person from the visualized offering. The central visualization is then dissolved, and the practice ends.

Hopefully, since their hunger has been satisfied, the demons will abandon the sick person. The offering, which is a feast, is called the ransom because the sick person is ransomed, is rescued, when the demons turn their attention to the visualized elements of the feast.

I asked Khenpo Tsering Gyurme, who taught me this practice, why we did not just depend upon the Red Feast to accomplish the healing, since all sorts of demons are fed during that feast.

He explained that the Changbu Jatsa is so much more concrete than the Red Feast and, for this reason, is more persuasive because it is specifically directed toward the sickness. The people who are sick will also be more likely to be convinced that their illness is being dealt with directly, because the practice addresses itself to their particular problem, and the demons will receive immediate satisfaction.

As he often does, Khenpo Tsering told me a story to explain exactly how the practice works. A hunter chased a deer into a cave. The deer escaped, and to the hunter's surprise, a city appeared. He walked into the city and soon realized that no one could see him. Eventually, he became hungry and decided that he would have to steal some food. The people in the city were very upset when their food continued to disappear. They were even more upset when one of the women of the city suddenly died. The hunter had been attracted to this beautiful woman and had touched her. His poisonous touch, like that of the demons who "own" sickness, had sickened and killed her.

The people of the city became very frightened, and since they thought they might be dealing with a demon, they decided to call upon the services of a chödpa. And, in fact, they were right. They were dealing with a demon. After all, the hunter had intended to kill the deer when he chased it into the cave. His desire to kill had transformed this hunter into a demon. The people of the city knew that the chödpa could deal with just this sort of problem.

The hunter watched the chödpa build a small hut and fill it with all kinds of good food and beautiful objects. He was intrigued but somewhat wary. When the chödpa began to sing the haunting, beautiful chöd practice, the hunter was attracted but could not bring himself to enter the hut.

At this point, the chödpa created a fire that encircled the hunter, to force him into the hut. Even though the hunter was still wary, he could not help tasting the food. But as he started to eat, the hut and the city disappeared, and the hunter was suddenly propelled out of the cave. Instead of the food and all the beautiful objects which had attracted him, the hunter found himself surrounded by the tormas (the changbus) and the pieces of meat which are the ransom offering of the Changbu Jatsa. Of course, the food and the beautiful objects are always the illusory creation of the chödpa.

In Khenpo Tsering's story, the hunter goes back to his home and discovers that no one knows him because several generations have come and gone while he was in the cave.

The point of the story is that chöd practitioners create a visualized feast, using tormas which have been made with ingredients which include the "smell water." The smell convinces the demons which own sickness that these tormas are many hundreds of bodies like that of the sick person, the food that the demons crave. They, like the hunter, come to the feast and are transformed. The sick person's body, like the city, is ransomed, and the illness disappears, in the same way that the hunter was propelled out of the cave.

Have the demons been tricked? Yes, says Khenpo Tsering. Is such a trick genuine dharmic activity? "Yes," Khenpo says again, "All dharma is a trick." That is, the purpose of dharma is precisely to trick the ego into destroying itself. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones' lyrics, "You can't always get what you want.... You just might find you get what you need." The demons are tricked into relinquishing the body of the sick person, but through the power of the practice, they are offered what is, in essence, the food of enlightened mind.