The Sound of Vultures' Wings

The Tibetan Buddhist Chöd Ritual Practice of the Female Buddha Machik Labdrön

By Jeffrey W. Cupchik
Foreword by Pencho Rabgey

Subjects: Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Music, Asian Religion And Philosophy, Asian Studies
Series: SUNY series in Religious Studies
Hardcover : 9781438464411, 460 pages, February 2024
Paperback : 9781438464428, 460 pages, August 2024
Expected to ship: 2024-08-02

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Terminology
Note on the Meaning of the Title

Introduction: Approaching Chöd Ritual Studies

Part I: Chöd Ritual Practice in Context

1 Ritual Efficacy: Musical Performance in Chöd Practice

2. Musical Character of the Chöd Genre

Part II: Elements of Chöd Practice

3. The Sound of Vultures' Wings: Ritual Mapping the Chöd Practice

4 The Chöd Damaru Drum: Symbolism, Function, and Variation in an Interpretive Community

5. Mantric Utterance in Chöd

6. The Four Ritual Activities

Part III: Meaning and Application of Chöd Practice

7. Mind and Sound in Chöd

8. Transmission and Transformation

9. Gift of the Body in Chöd: Healing the Suffering from "Self-Interest"

Conclusion: Continuity of the Chöd Ritual Tradition

Note on Chöd Research

Explores the music of the Tibetan Chöd tradition.


The Sound of Vultures' Wings offers the first in-depth exploration of the music of the Tibetan Chöd tradition, which is based on the liturgical song-poems of the twelfth-century Tibetan female ascetic Machik Labdrön (1055–1153). Chöd is a musical-meditative Vajrayāna method for cutting off the root of suffering, our mistaken view of a self. The Chöd practitioner applies the antidote to self-cherishing by developing bodhicitta (altruistic awakening mind) and the antidote to self-grasping through the realization of the ultimate nature of reality: the correct view of emptiness. Chöd is regarded by many Tibetan Lamas as one of the most effective Buddhist practices for spiritual and social transformation. Jeffrey W. Cupchik details the significance of the complex, interwoven performative aspects of this meditative ritual and explains how its practice can bring about experiences of insight and inner transformation. In doing so, he undoes the notion of meditation being exclusively an experience of silence and stillness.

Jeffrey W. Cupchik is an ethnomusicologist specializing in Buddhist studies, ritual music, and anthropology of religion. He has spent over twenty years studying Tibetan language, music, culture, and religion in Tibetan communities in India, Nepal, Tibet, Canada, and the United States.


"This book is clearly an original contribution to scholarly knowledge in ethnomusicology, anthropology, Buddhist, and Tibetan studies—not just in terms of filling gaps in the individual disciplines, but more importantly in mapping out some of the complex interactions in the vitally productive mindspace that forms the field of interaction of Buddhist ideas, actions, and performances in the context of Tibetan ritual. It has some of the most skillfully drawn and solidly supported analyses of Tibetan ritual since Beyer's classic Cult of Tārā, two generations ago." — Ter Ellingson, author of Mandala of Sound: Sound and Concept in Tibetan Ritual Music

"The melodies and meditation exercises that accompany the Chöd ritual texts were passed down by oral tradition, from master to disciple, to the present day and have reached this author through long and arduous training as an insider. Thus, this work is one of a kind, and with its technical analysis of rhythm and melody in Chöd, will enhance and inspire the work of future historians of religion and music." — Guy L. Beck, author of Sonic Liturgy: Ritual and Music in Hindu Tradition

"This impressive work elucidates the dynamic symbolism in Buddhist liturgical rites and music's key role in enhancing ritual efficacy. Cupchik's insights will benefit scholars and Buddhist practitioners alike." — Sarah Morelli, author of A Guru's Journey: Pandit Chitresh Das and Indian Classical Dance in Diaspora