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Cutting Through Fear:
A Tibetan Buddhist Practice for Cultivating Compassion and Courage
By Tsultrim Allione
Sounds True: 2001
Audio Series: 2.5 hours, 2 cassettes, $19.95
By the time the Chinese swept in in 1959, information technology in Tibet had peaked at more or less the level of the printing press. Yet despite the availability of Buddhist commentaries, teachings, and practices in written form for centuries, a more esoteric technology had held steady as the primary transmitter of the dharma in Tibet—the teacher-student initiation. One couldn't begin a Vajrayana practice—the brand of Buddhism practiced in Tibet—by reading a book; you had to have a formal empowerment by a qualified teacher. Inscribed in the Buddhist system was the belief that a mind-to-mind meeting was essential for proper introduction to the inner meaning of a practice.
Tsultrim Allione's new audio tape series, Cutting Through Fear, raises some provocative questions regarding dharma in the age of technology. Allione is the author of the groundbreaking book Women of Wisdom (Penguin, 1986) and is a respected teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. This tape program presents her uniquely accessible and updated version of Chod, a Tantric practice widely known in Tibet. Like all Buddhist practices, Chod works to cultivate emptiness and compassion, in this case through a ritual offering up of one's body to otherwise implacable demons. This is probably a radical idea for most Westerners, but the high steppes of Tibet, with their sky burials, shamanic past, and closeness to the elements, provided a natural climate for the more graphic aspects of this practice. More so than, say, a culture revolving around Starbucks, the stock exchange, and the gym. Nonetheless, Allione feels that Westerners, with our near-religious attachment to our bodies and things material, are prime candidates for doing Chod.
Although Allione says that in the tapes we "are not learning the Chod practice itself as it is taught traditionally, we are learning something of the essence of what it teaches," her version does retain much of the practice's ritual detail. The rationale behind Chod is that obstacles and problems ("demons") become fiercer the more we do battle with them. Therefore, we give up all resistance and actually invite the demon in, offering it something precious. In the basic ritual, the practitioner visualizes that the consciousness leaves the body and identifies with a deity, which then cuts up the empty body, transforms it into nectar, and offers it to the offending demon. As it is soothed and transformed by the nectar, the demon's grip on us loosens, and an experience of emptiness dawns.
On top of the physical and emotional benefits Chod practice can bring, and which Allione herself attests to (a friend whose health improved, a difficult ex-husband placated), the practice is also profound in its capacity to turn the ego on its head. How does that happen? First, we let go of the body, an act that produces a direct experience of emptiness; then, we invite in what we fear most and actually give it our most cherished possession (the body), thus neutralizing its power and generating compassion in its vastest form. Finally, we rest in the true nature of mind beyond duality and concept.
Allione's commentary on her version of Chod places the practice in something of a contemporary Western psychological frame, which she does deftly and without losing the original Buddhist spirit of the practice. The demons that Allione identifies ("fears, aversion, illnesses, addictions that drain our life energy") are familiar to anyone either in therapy or a twelve-step program. She suggests, for example, that we might have an "abandonment demon," an "addiction demon," or "the internalized voice of a negative parent." Making a compelling connection between Buddhist and psychotherapeutic perspectives, Allione recognizes the importance of making the "split-off" parts of ourselves "conscious" in order to work with them—rather than battling or rejecting them. This follows the logic of both psychotherapy and Buddhist psychology: if we fight with our thoughts in meditation, for example, they just become stronger.
It seems that Allione's program—and the Chod practice—offer powerful tools for understanding and working with psychological, personal, and physical challenges. While psychotherapists might argue that simply neutralizing them through the offering doesn't provide enough insight into their root causes, from the Vajrayana Buddhist perspective inviting and transforming difficulties on the spot is the best path for awakening insight.
Which brings us to the sticky questions these tapes raise: Can one be safely initiated into a tantric practice via audio technology? Why does chis Vajrayana practice need neither preparation not an initiation' By design, Vajrayana provokes challenging emotions and energies in order to transform them. To mitigate possible negative side effects of the directness of Vajrayana, an understanding of emptiness is necessary. Just as there is no inherent existence in phenomena, there is none in the deity or other aspects of what is visualized. The whole thing needs to be shot through with emptiness, or deities and demons can loom too real. For most people, the experience of emptiness is cultivated through many years of meditation. From one point of view, it would seem that the material in these tapes is for more experienced Buddhist practitioners, or at least chose working with a teacher or within the supportive context of a community.
I would certainly not want co dismiss the possibility that there are some natural adepts out there for whom these tapes and Allione's practice could be beneficial. She presents Chod in a thoughtful and well-informed way, and gives helpful and fascinating background information on bath chod practice and her own experience with it. However, unless you feel emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually sound enough to eject your consciousness, chop up your body, and face your demons in full-frontal view, maybe it's better to work up to this practice with a teacher before embarking solo on the chod path. Now that these tapes are available to anyone, it's up to the buyer. ▼
Anne Seidlitz is a freelance writer living in New York. She has written for The New York Times, the Village Voice, and other publications.