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The Ear-Whispered Lineages

Background: Two Streams into the River of Chö

By my retreat cabin in the Oregon forest surrounded by green moss and trees, flows a beautiful creek. It comes from the snow-melted waters of the Cascade Mountains. That creek flows into the McKenzie River and eventually reaches the Oregon coast.


Over many centuries many streams of the river have flown down from the pure source of the awakened teaching and practice called "Chö." Among them, two streams have fed into the river of the Geluk Chö tradition. Practiced carefully and discreetly they have been carried down by the Geluk masters.


1. Main Stream: The Ear-Whispered Lineage of Bliss Heaven (Ganden/Ensa Nyengyü)


One stream is visible to those who approach the river. Literally, the "mainstream" is called the Ganden/Ensa Ear-Whispered Lineage (Ganden/Ensa Nyengyü), which has been held by the prominent masters in the Geluk order.  I call them "prominent" because all these masters were also the lineage holders of the Ganden Ear-Whispered Lineage of Mahamudra and Guru Yoga, as well as Chö. The lineage itself has come from the founder of the Geluk tradition, Lama Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) 's direct transmission from Manjushri.[1]


It is interesting to note here that recent research by a historian suggests that the lineage gurus of the Ganden/Ensa Ear-Whispered Lineage were the original disciples of Lama Tsongkhapa. The well-known teacher-disciple relationship between Lama Tsongkhapa and Khedrubje and Gyeltsabje was the later development.[2]


Historically, Lama Tsongkhapa also received from Khedrub Chöje (d. 1379) of Samding, the Chö lineage that is traced back to Machik Labdrön and Padampa Sangye.[3]


2. Underground Stream: The Machik Ḍākinī Ear-Whispered Lineage (Machik Khandro Nyengyü)


The other stream is thin and invisible, yet steadily flowing underground. At my retreat, once the spring season arrives, natural wellsprings of cool pure water flow out of a gap between the mossy rocks. Even in the dry season of summer, this thin stream does not cease but continues to flow uninterruptedly underneath the earth and gives the constant flow of unpolluted, fresh, and delicious water.


During my retreat, I often visited this spring and enjoyed its refreshing water, thinking that the Machik Ḍākinī Ear-Whispered Lineage is like this stream of pristine natural spring water that has been flowing hidden over the centuries. The lineage was once much treasured.  It spread from the borders of Eastern Tibet to Amdo and all the way to Inner Mongolia. However, the Ḍākinī Lineage was strictly orally transmitted and by the early 20th century was on the verge of disappearing.



[1] For more about this lineage, see Janice D. Wills, Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition: Wisdom Publications, 1995


[2] Elijah S. Ary, Authorized Lives: Biography and the Early Formation of Geluk Identity: Wisdom Publications, 2015. His research suggests that the institutionalized entity was not well defined in the early days of the school before the 15th-century. This also suggests the original nature of the Chö Ear-Whispered Lineage in the Geluk was not strongly affiliated to the institutional framework.


[3] Édou Jerome, Machig Labdrön, and the Foundations of Chöd, Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1996, p.191 note 46. Khamnyon Jikdrel Chökyi Senge (Khams snyon' jig 'bral chos kyi seng ge, 19th c.e.), The Precious Garland, Ornament of Liberation, the Transmission History of Pacification and Severance (Zhi byed dang gcod yul gyi chos 'byung rin po che' I phreng ba thar pa'i rgyan). Khamnyon's historical account also suggests that the long lineage can be traced back to Machik Labdrön who transmitted it to Khedrup Chöji of Samding. He then transmitted it to the Second Dalai Lama Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542). More on FN 35.


(An excerpt from Chöying Khandro's presentation - THE UNFOLDING OF NYENGYÜ: THE MACHIK ḌĀKINĪ EAR-WHISPERED LINEAGE at Tara Mandala, 2017  Copyright, 2017, Chöying Khandro)

What Is The Machik Dakinii Ear-Whispered Lineage?


Rare, Secret, and the Unknown Chö Tantric Tradition


“The Machik Ḍākinī Ear-Whispered lineage” (Machik Khandro Nyengyü, Machik Khandro Nyengyü, Ma gcig mkha' 'gro  snyan brgyud) is one of the two streams that make the river of Chö, which has been carried by Geluk masters for centuries. It has been carried as an oral and living tradition without necessarily being affiliated with any sect or institution. It is a rare, secret and unequaled Tibetan Vajrayana Chö tradition that has been kept very secret and unrecognized until recent years.

Highly Valued and Disseminated


The lineage was once highly valued as a “Tantra transmission” or “Vajrayana Chö” and spread from the borders of Eastern Tibet to Amdo and Inner Mongolia. The lineage is extremely discreet but not exclusive. It pervaded all the way to isolated regions yet did not settle in any institutional framework. The lineage practices are profound and powerful as well as beautiful, melodious and imbued with the dakinis’ blessings. However, the lineage was strictly orally transmitted and was on the verge of disappearing by the early 20th century.

Distinctive Lineage of Wandering Yogis and Yoginis


From the outset, the Machik Ḍākinī Ear-Whispered Lineage has been distinguished by the unique lifestyle of its practitioners: as a lineage of yogis and yoginis; wandering hermits (Ensapa); mountain solitary dwellers (ritöpa); ones who go to and dwell in frightful sites with fearless daring (nyentröpa); wanderers in the 108 springs (chumik-gyatsa- korwa); as well as chö practitioners in general (chöpa).

The emphasis of this lineage is placed on retreats through which one can develop flawless renunciation, bodhicitta, the wisdom of cutting through the demon of self-grasping, and the realization of emptiness--the ultimate meaning of Prajnaparamita. The strong emphasis on the integrated system of “view,” “meditation,” and “conduct” as the path of a chö practitioner is reflected by such unique retreats as the “the Seven-Evening Wilderness Retreat (Nyentrö Shakdün)” and “the 108-Spring Retreat (Chumik Gyatsa)”. All the practices and retreats of the lineage culminate with the profound retreat practice of Tröma Nakmo, which is the wrathful aspect of Machik Labdrön.

Complete, Integrated Tradition of the Chö Lineage


The Machik Dakini Ear-Whispered Lineage is a uniquely integrated tradition of Tibetan meditational, cultural and liturgical heritage. The Lineage consists of clearly defined sets of practices, retreats, empowerments (wang), and reading and musical transmissions (lung) as well as full commentaries (tri). The lineage presents a complete authentic system of Tantric practice to guide practitioners to the fruition of the path--full awakening. The major practice texts of the lineage are considered as “sādhana” (drubtab) proper, which are "Means of Achievement". They include the generation stage - "front-generation" and "self-generation" as well as completion stage practices.


The tradition encompasses both common and uncommon Chö empowerments (Chö-wang, gCod dbang). The common empowerment allows the individual to practice the Ensa/Ganden Ear-Whispered Lineage as the preliminary or foundation to the uncommon empowerment. The uncommon empowerment grants one permission to practice the Machik Ḍākinī Ear-Whispered Lineage. Both empowerments allow one to undertake the formal Chö retreats (Chökyi Nyenpa, gCod kyi bsnyen pa) to accomplish the Chö-related yidams. Each yidam practice has its own visualization with a prescribed number of mantra recitations to be followed by a fire puja and commitments after the retreat. 

Recent Endeavors of Transmissions


An even greater challenge to preserving the lineage arose after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, which resulted in the global Tibetan Diaspora. By the early 1990’s the 9th Khalkha Jetsün Dampa, Jampel Namdröl Chökyi Gyeltsen, (Khal kha rJe tsun Dam pa 'Jam dpal rnam grol chos kyi rgyal mtshan, 1924- 2012) had become the sole lineage holder. Khalkha Rinpoche was concerned that the lineage would completely disappear if it was kept as secret as it was in the past. He took the liberty to open up the tradition to the West, first in 1993 and then 1994-5. This would be the first time key Chö empowerments and transmissions of the Machik Ḍākinī Ear-Whispered Lineage were bestowed outside of Tibet.


After his first visit to the West twenty-five years ago, upon his request and encouragement, Chöying Khandro, his direct senior disciple, completed the translation of the entire set of 11 lineage texts and the recordings of all the lineage melodies. The Dakini’s Whisper Five-Leveled Chö Mastery Journey facilitates passing on all the transmissions, teachings, and practices of the lineage to individuals in the modern world.

Copyright 2016 Chöying Khandro

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