Cutting Through in Canyon de Chelly


This month I want to share with you something remarkable that has been going on in my life. Some years back Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, at the request of Anam Thubten Rinpoche, gave me the transmission of Jigme Lingpa’s Chod practice, called the “Sound of the Dakini’s Laughter.” This is a transmission he received from one of his most important teachers, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. I feel honored and feel deep gratitude to Rinpoche for giving me his blessing to explore this transformative practice.

A couple of years ago, Anam Thubten Rinpoche and I, along with four other dedicated practitioners, formed a non-profit organization called Wilderness Dharma Movement. The vision for this came from our inspiration to do practice and retreat in wilderness areas – places without walls! In addition, we wanted to explore and practice Chod, which traditionally requires the practitioner to leave the comfort of their homes and wander in wilderness areas with few belongings.

Chöd (literally: cutting through) is an important practice lineage that emerged in Tibet. It was introduced widely by the fearless and innovative lay practitioner, Machik Labdron (11th century), who was one of Tibet’s most renowned female saints and teachers. Machik’s unique approach provides us with a path to transform our inner demons by invoking, embracing, and nurturing them. Her approach is reflected in the words of her teacher, Padampa Sangye:

Confess your hidden faults.

Approach what you find repulsive.

Help those you think you cannot help.

Anything you are attached to, let it go.

Go to the places that scare you.

In September of last year, 2016, forty of us embarked on our first retreat as we hiked down into the sacred Navajo Canyon: Canyon de Chelly, and pitched our tents beneath the sacred Spider Rock – an 8,500 foot monolith, which is stunning to behold. I don’t think anyone could have imagined how powerful and magical it would be doing the Chod practice in this place. 

Machik’s Chöd practice absorbed many of the rituals and earthy spirit of indigenous Tibet, which share a similarity to those of the Navajo people. It was a natural fit. Our guides and their families became an important and inspiring part of our retreat. Numbers increased each day as new participants sat with us under the shade of a large cottonwood tree during our practice sessions, children running freely as we chanted and played our instruments. One guide said to us that he felt we woke up the spirits of the Canyon.

The culture of the Navajo people is matriarchal and there was a time when only women were allowed into this part of the canyon. They could appreciate this matriarchal lineage we were practicing. And our guides and protectors enriched our practice as they took us on moonlight walks through the canyon, generously sharing their knowledge of this place and their culture, and telling us stories. Their deep connection to the land and their fierce commitment to their own tradition was apparent and poignant to witness.

Both Anam Thubten Rinpoche and I feel that Chöd is a powerful practice for these times. In this age of spiritual materialism it is a strong tendency for all of us to use spirituality as a way to make ourselves comfortable. We tend to pick and choose aspects of our spiritual traditions that substantiate our ego, and reject the things that challenge our habitual reactive mind. How could such an approach be transformative? Machik’s approach – the approach of leaning into the things that one ordinarily rejects or withdraws from, is a remedy for this. And the view of this practice – the wisdom aspect of Prajnaparamita – is essential for these times. It is for this reason that we returned to the Canyon this September for a retreat that was yet again, amazing beyond words. Anam Thubten Rinpoche and I plan to teach Chöd more widely in the future and include a few city retreats in our schedule.


Katarina Bergh