The West has a dharma treasure in Tsultrim Allione, who has been involved in the practice of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism for over twenty-five years, both as a student and teacher. She was ordained as a nun by His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa in 1970 in Kathmandu, and subsequently has received teachings from the most esteemed Tibetan Buddhist masters of our time. Tsultrim Allione’s book, Women of Wisdom, was one of the first to reveal the role of women in Tantric Buddhism, and helped break ground for the entire women’s spirituality movement. For the past fifteen years Tsultrim has been a student of dzogchen master Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, and has been teaching Vajrayana practices internationally. She has recently arranged for the purchase of a large tract of land in Colorado where she is opening a meditation retreat center called Tara Mandala. Tsultrim told us that “the vision is to create an actual mandala, a place where people can enter into profound meditation practice and attain the body of light, full enlightenment. We want to provide the physical situation where that would be possible, a place of safety and silence. I see Tara Mandala as a center for dzogchen practice and a repository for dzogchen teachings long into the future.” This interview was conducted by Wes Nisker and Mimi Buckley in December, 1994.
Inquiring Mind: In your book Women of Wisdom you write about the Tibetan chöd practice as a skillful means for working with one’s identification with self. Describe how this practice unfolds.
Tsultrim Allione: Chöd actually means to cut, and the practice is aimed at cutting the ego, or what the Tibetans call dagzin, which means self-clinging. In this practice we feed our bodies to all sentient beings, to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and also to our own hopes and fears, which take the form of demons. We even offer our bodies to the disease-bearing beings and to the “obstacle-makers.”
The core of the chöd meditation has several parts to it. First you send your consciousness out of your body and transform it into a wrathful dakini, who then cuts off the top of your head, turns it into a skull cup and then expands it three thousand times. Your entire body is then chopped up by the dakini and placed into the skull cup and transformed into a nectar-like substance which can transmit the true nature of mind and awareness. This food will completely satisfy all the demons.
This practice is a very powerful way to work with our attachment to our bodies. It recalls the ancient Mahayana image of the Buddha, who in a former life offered his body to the mother tigress. The gift of our bodies in chöd practice helps us develop great compassion, as well as the paramita of generosity. We feed everybody with our bodies and make the wish that all are satisfied, and then declare, “May the offering, the offerer, and the offered all remain in the state of Dzogpa Chenpo.” Then we sound “Ah,” and rest in that state, which is beyond giving and receiving, a state that goes beyond subject and object. This state of mahamudra or Dzogpa Chenpo is the natural state which underlies all experience and to which we return through practice.
IM: We will just assume that chopping yourself up and feeding yourself to all beings is a visualization practice! Can you describe what it’s like when the various beings come to feast?
TA: In the chöd practice I am doing, there are four different feasts. The first is the white feast, where you offer yourself to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, who then come and eat out of the skull cup. Next comes the red feast, when you feed the protectors, the guardians and the elemental protectors of the land. Then comes the black feast, which is the feeding of disease-carrying beings, obstacle-makers, debt-holders and the like, who usually come in the form of demons. The fourth is the mixed feast in which beings of the six realms are all fed. You see the entire human race coming to eat from your skull cup. It’s really quite amazing. Then you feed all the jealous gods and the hell beings and, finally, the animals. We end up feeding all of the beings we know of, letting them eat to their complete satisfaction.
IM: Could you describe the demons from the black feast?
TA: There are four principal demons, and all are related to the ego and self-clinging. First is the demon of solidification, which refers to the senses. Often when we see, hear, or taste something, desire or aversion will arise. At this point, the pure experience solidifies into attachment, becoming a demon.
Second is the demon of non-solidification, which refers to the internal obsessions and thought-trains of the mind that run on and on. Third is the demon of satisfaction, which arises as the pride you feel due to positive meditation practice, or the pride you feel when all of your family is around you, and you think to yourself, “Everything is fine and I’m doing real well.” The fourth principal demon is the ego itself, which subsumes all the others.
IM: What do these demons look like? Are there some standard demonic images used in the visualizations, some Tibetan version of Freddy Kruger or Frankenstein?
TA: No. Part of the process is to find an image for your particular difficulty. So you work with your own experience to identify the form of the demon. That way you can actually see what your problem looks like. For example, let’s say I am working with some obsession or neurotic reaction, such as my fear of abandonment. I know all the reasons it exists, but it’s still there and causing problems in my life. In chöd practice I give that neurosis a demonic form, such as a child with little pointed teeth.
This is a particularly good way to work with addiction. People get to see what their alcohol demon or their tobacco demon looks like. What’s most important, however, is to feed the demon to its complete satisfaction. We usually don’t feed our demons well enough because we don’t like those parts of ourselves. They are embarrassing, humiliating, obnoxious. In chöd practice, however, in contrast to killing the dragon, which is the usual procedure in the hero’s journey, we feed it until it is totally satisfied. We nurture the demon until the dualistic battle between ourselves and the demon disappears. Once the demon is satisfied, it is no longer a demon. That’s why the skull cup is three thousand times bigger than normal, so there is an infinite quantity of nourishment.
IM: Describe how you would feed the disease-bearing beings.
TA: In the third feast we often work with sickness and diseases like AIDS or cancer. In fact, in Tibet the chöd practitioners are the ones who are sent to help out when there is an epidemic, because they don’t get infected. They know how to work with the diseases.
Recently, someone in our sangha who was carrying HIV began practicing chöd, and identified what his AIDS demon looked like. At first it was a yellow-green being as big as a house, but he continued to feed it until the demon shrank to a couple of inches. Through chöd, he worked intensively with his fears and hopes. Meanwhile, this man was in a hospital test group experimenting with AZT and a placebo. He eventually found out that he was taking the placebo, but his T-cell count had continually gone up anyway. He wasn’t doing any vitamin therapy or special diet, and the hospital staff was baffled. His T-cell count has continued to go up and has now stabilized around 500 to 800.
IM: Would the lamas say that it is appropriate to use the practice in order to get rid of diseases?
TA: I think that they would say that it has both an absolute and relative purpose and effect. Chöd is really for healing the ultimate illness of attachment to self, but on the relative level it may be useful in working with specific diseases.
IM: We understand that you also use a tantric mandala practice as a skillful means for working with self-clinging.
TA: Yes. The mandala is the essence of the transformation path of tantra, and a powerful form to use in working on the issue of self. The ego always tries to have itself as the center of the universe, but in a mandala practice instead of experiencing your ego at the center, you visualize yourself as a deity at the center of the universe. Your impure energies are thereby transformed into pure energies; the five poisons become the five wisdoms.
For example, in the Vajra Yogini dakini practice, you visualize yourself as the buddha family in the center of the mandala. To the east is the vajra dakini; to the south is the ratna dakini; to the west is the padma dakini; to the north is the karma dakini. It could be laid out in different ways, depending on which energy you wanted to place in the middle, but the mandala always includes the five families. Each of the five families is associated with a different energy, as well as a different color and element.
Usually the principal poison that you are working with is at the center of the mandala. Once the ego is taken out, each poison is transformed into a pure energy. So, for instance, in the vajra family the principal poison is anger; in the mandala, anger is transformed into Mirrorlike Wisdom. When ego is present, anger can be very destructive, but when ego is removed, it becomes an energy of pure clarity and wisdom.
In the buddha family, the poison is ignorance which, in the mandala, is transformed into the Wisdom of Dharmadhatu, or spaciousness. The poison of ignorance is like wanting to put your head under the covers, to go back to sleep and not do the dishes. It involves constant postponement and denial. But if you take the ego’s defensiveness away, that same energy becomes the Wisdom of Spaciousness, which is particularly connected to meditation. Spacing out becomes spaciousness!
In the ratna family, the poison is pride, which is really a poverty mentality. You never feel good enough about yourself, so you have to puff yourself up, or eat a lot, or accumulate a lot of material wealth. When transformed, that pride becomes the Wisdom of Equanimity which has a sense of innate richness and satisfaction. If you have a lot of problems with money, or never feel as though there is enough, you might experience yourself as the ratna dakini, who emanates the Wisdom of Equanimity.
The padma family works with passion and the need to seduce or manipulate energy. For instance, if you are constantly looking for the perfect relationship to make yourself whole or happy, then you would put padma in the center. This energy is associated with fire, and in the mandala it becomes Discriminating Wisdom. You have already developed the ability to see how things relate to each other and how to manipulate the energies. Now, if you remove the ego, you get Discriminating Awareness, or prajna. You are able to see relationships between people or objects without any personal investment in how they should turn out.
The karma family is associated with jealousy, ambition and the desire to succeed. It is a kind of windy, speedy quality, and when ego is removed it becomes a powerful and selfless energy for work in the world. It transforms into the Wisdom of Accomplishment.
IM: How does dzogchen meditation on emptiness fit into the chöd and tantric mandala practices?
TA: When you have the experience of non-self or transmutation of ego into an experience of openness and nonattachment, there is often a desire to fill in that space again immediately. Who am I without my problems? Do I exist if I’m not obsessing about something? The fear of that space is replaced by the dzogchen teaching of emptiness. This is the experience of mind as a mirror which is pure, stainless and beyond karma.
Dzogchen is difficult to talk about since it is beyond concepts and words. Some would say that it is the highest teaching and therefore also the most difficult to apply. It is beyond effort, even beyond method. Dzogchen stands on its own as a practice because it is not about renunciation or transformation; it is about all experiences liberating themselves. Awareness itself transforms awareness, so there is nothing to do.
At the same time, there are also skillful means in dzogchen, certain methods and practices which dissolve our self-clinging and point to our true nature, which is the body of light. There is the “dark retreat,” sometimes called the bardo retreat, which is a whole series of practices done in complete darkness. Special buildings are built where it is so dark that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. There are also practices of sky gazing, or gazing into space, which involve exact sitting postures and certain belts and sticks.
Another dzogchen practice is to integrate with the elements. If you find yourself by the ocean, a river or a fire, you can merge your energy with the fundamental energy of that part of the phenomenal world. Each of the elements is associated with a color of light: the water element is white light; the fire element is red light; the earth element is yellow; and so on. By doing the practice of integration with the elements, you begin to dissolve the solidity of this body into its true nature, which is light. The whole focus is on understanding what you are, which is a body of light, or the rainbow body.
IM: That sounds like a practice that the deep ecologists might prescribe—a way of actually experiencing ourselves as one with the life force or with Gaia.
TA: Speaking of ecology and skillful means, my teacher Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche has just taught our sangha a dance that was transmitted to him in dreams. This dance is done on a mandala which is literally a map of the earth. It’s laid out like a view of earth from above, so the center of the mandala are the poles, the axis, and the outside of the mandala is the equator.
During the dance, men and women mirror each other, often in very complex steps, and each step is connected to a sound. So as you do the dance you create internal harmony, as well as harmony between the dancers, plus harmony on the earth. It encompasses all of those levels.
Namkhai Norbu dreamt this dance over a period of several weeks. Every night he would be taken into the dimension of the dakinis and taught the dance by a particular dakini. Then he would wake up and teach it to the students who were around. The next night he’d go back to sleep and the dakinis might say, “Well, that step wasn’t quite right, and you actually do it like this.” It is amazing to think a dance of this complexity was received in dreams.
IM: Do you sometimes dance on the trouble spots of the world?
TA: We aren’t so much dancing on trouble spots as on points of power. Some of them are in very remote parts of Africa and Brazil. The instructions are all coming from Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche’s dreams. But what is interesting to me about this dance is how it integrates body, speech and mind. That integration is central to the teachings and dzogchen theory, and this dance brings it into a form that we can experience in our lives right now. Having this dance in our sangha has also helped to harmonize the relationships between people.