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Breaking Through the Waves: Lama Tsultrim Allione Talks About Becoming the Woman She Was Looking For

Lama Tsultrim Allione, M.A. was one of the first American women to be ordained as a Tibetan nun in 1970 by the 16th Karmapa. After four years as a nun, she returned her monastic vows, married, and raised a family of three. Author of Women of Wisdom and Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict, she is the founder of Tara Mandala retreat center in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Lama Tsultrim is collecting the lineage of Machig Labdrön, the 11th century Tibetan yogini who founded the Chöd lineage.

This interview was conducted November 25, 2008.

Lama Tsultrim Allione

Mary Gilliland: Lama Tsultrim, you brought the biographies of notable Buddhist teachers to the attention of the Western public with your first book, Women of Wisdom. Your new book, Feeding Your Demons, presents a method of applying Buddhist teachings in a Western context. How has it been for you to be such a groundbreaker?

Lama Tsultrim: There have been many times when I’ve felt like the prow of a boat. Sometimes the old Scandinavian boats have that carved figure of a woman on front, breaking through the waves. Obviously, that’s not an easy position to be in.

I wished there were women I could consult with who were ahead of me, who had already done what I was trying to do.

That’s the challenge of it. And the blessing of it is that it’s a very creative moment in Western Tibetan Buddhism. If I were instead a Tibetan woman, there’s no way I could have broken through the culture to the extent that I’ve been able to here, where there’s a more receptive culture for innovation and for the presence of women in Buddhism.

I’ve had to try to become the woman I was looking to get advice from. I’ve had to become the guide that I needed.

Mary Gilliland

MG: Could you be characterized as an activist within Buddhist patriarchal traditions?

LT: I think that I am probably not a social activist in the conventional sense. But by creating a temple dedicated to the sacred feminine within a patriarchal Tibetan Buddhist tradition—the very act of doing that is activism.

How else? In Feeding Your Demons the five steps are a kind of personal activism, a very direct application of an alternative paradigm to our personal psychology. There’s also a chapter in the book on the social implications of shifting from a paradigm of domination and battle against the perceived enemy to one of feeding and nurturing the perceived enemy, whether that’s inside or outside.

The Feeding Your Demons process is based on Machig Lapdron’s Chöd practice. Machig’s feeding and not fighting the demons has feminine implications, since it is an approach of nonviolence and of nurturing rather than battling. To go through pregnancy and to give birth and then raise a child gives a deep sense of the interconnectedness and preciousness of life.

MG: You founded Tara Mandala in 1993. In view of this name for your retreat center, can you tell us how female Buddhist icons or deities relate to real women’s lives and practices?

LT: My search for models or inspiring examples in the lives of other women and in the iconography of Buddhism came out of a personal need—it was not an intellectual need, it was a heartfelt longing for the stories of women, for images and inspiration for myself as a woman practitioner.

In the Tibetan tradition we have a great wealth of female images and female deities such as Tara. And then we have the Dakini principle—wild, dancing, and at times fierce and wrathful female figures—which I found particularly inspiring, because it wasn’t a sort of monochromatic approach to the feminine. The wrathful feminine, the peaceful feminine, the erotic and yet spiritual feminine—Tibetan Buddhism offers all of that within the primary overarching interpretation of the feminine as representing wisdom.

In terms of personal identification, that allowed a much wider span, a larger vocabulary for myself as a female practitioner. I feel so grateful to be a tantric Buddhist practitioner. The primal matrix of enlightenment is the female goddess, or the female Buddha, Prajnaparamita. It was very important to me as a young woman, once I’d disrobed and was experiencing being a mother and being in relationships, being sexual and so on, that I could tie together my spiritual path with my personal experiences.

MG: Turning Wheel readers might be interested in knowing about how your students work with a Dharmakaya practice by meditating on the nature of mind—a formless level practice— but then also do the nitty-gritty of Feeding Your Demons—going into the depths of self-clinging and the shadows in the psyche.

LT: The Prajnaparamita practice is based on the absolute truth, and so it’s a direct encounter with the true nature of mind. At the end of the practice you embody yourself as Prajnaparamita, the female goddess of wisdom, and you chant her mantra. Embodying her, you imagine that out of her is coming light and wisdom, which emanates to all beings everywhere. There have been studies that people meditating for the benefit of others actually do affect the fabric of the community that they are meditating in. Even though Prajnaparamita is an absolute and physically inactive practice, that kind of practice is a kind of activism because of the strength of the mental activity.

Feeding Your Demons (FYD), even done just at a personal level, is activism in that Carl Jung said that great collective demons—for example, the demon of fear and hatred that became the Holocaust—are built out of the unfed and unattended personal demons of many people. It became a collective demon that was unrecognizable once it snowballed; those people who participated in it personally at the beginning were horrified at what it became collectively.

MG: When individuals feed their demons, they first ask the demon what it wants, what it really needs, and how it would feel if it gets what it needs. On the job and at organizational meetings, the language of feeling is often taboo. At a recent retreat you suggested introducing groups who are pushing through or against obstacles to the principles of FYD with words like, ‘It looks like we’re using a dominator model. Perhaps we could shift the way we’re looking at this situation into a partnership model: how can we find a way that both parties get what they need?’ Could you say a little more about that?

LT: We often project our own demons out onto others. Say we have a power demon. We think of ourselves as being very cooperative when in fact we’re very power hungry and we project that onto somebody—say, on a committee that we’re on. FYD should lead to a deeper awareness of what’s actually happening.

That’s the beginning. In terms of how to use it, it wouldn’t be doing so literally –‘here’s a demon, let’s feed it!’—but rather, thinking in those terms when working with difficult situations or difficult people. For example, somebody’s attacking you and at the same time trying to get something from you: a conventional response would be to protect yourself. But if you’re practicing FYD, you might think ‘OK, this person is wanting something and then there’s an underlying need they have, as well. I know what they’re saying they want, but what is it that they need?’

If you can get at that underlying emotional need, then a lot of conflict is essentially dissolved, and also a lot of repetition of conflict.

MG: When conflicts come up in civil situations—factories, land use—very often force is used…

LT: Say a chain wants to build a big box store on vacant land in our town. You and others might want to stop them. But our underlying need is to feel community connectedness, the support in community that comes with more personal relationships with businesses than chain stores can provide. The basic need in the situation is intimacy and closeness within a community. If that need can be spoken and shown to be a real value, that takes it to another level.

If you only address the wants, even if you give somebody what they say they’re wanting, then it doesn’t actually satisfy them. The thing about a want…addiction is a good example. Ice cream. You keep getting what you want, even too much of what you want, but the need is going to be the same, because it’s not being satisfied.

MG: Any thoughts about Buddhist social activist groups finding and feeding their demons?

LT: Something that comes from the Tibetan tradition of wrathful deities, and also Joanna Macy talks about this, is differentiating between hatred and anger. A deity has an angry manifestation and yet there is no hatred. It’s a fast-moving wrathful manifestation, and I think that word ‘manifestation’ is important. Because, for example, in a political situation, at a protest you could manifest anger as a powerful aspect, but inwardly be completely compassionate and not be caught in hatred.

The difference is the feeling you have inside. You can feel when you’re hooked by hatred, and how different that is from a wrathful or strong or forceful manifestation that isn’t hooked into anger.

Machig Labdrön

MG: How is it to have been recognized in 2007 as an emanation of the 11th c. Tibetan teacher Machig Lapdron? And then to have published in 2008 Feeding Your Demons, which adapts the principles of Machig’s Chöd practice both for those on or wishing to enter the path and also for those who wish to use FYD in a secular way for personal development?

LT: First of all, how do I understand being an emanation? I see that as I’m working for her—in the sense that I’m working for her teachings and her lineage. And I actually have been doing that for many years before the recognition. The experience that I actually had—in the recognition in Tibet and also when it happened again independently in Nepal just a few weeks later—was very interesting. Because on some level, it didn’t matter. And at the same time it reminded me of when Tara appeared to Machig Lapdron and gave her a lot of initiations and made prophecies about her future. At a certain point Machig said, ‘You can say all these things about me, but I’m just a weak stupid woman.’ Tara says to her, ‘The past has been erased from your heart. Let me tell you who you are.’ And then she tells Machig her lineage, starting with Prajnaparamita. The effect on Machig at that time was that somehow it allowed her to be who she was.

For me, the recognition had a quality of a lot of pieces of my life falling together like a puzzle: ‘Oh now I see…Why did I have that vision of Machig in 1981 that led to finding her biography? Why did I focus on the Chöd practice? Why did I develop this more Western method [FYD] of working with the principles of her teaching? All these things happened, and they were obviously interconnected, but I never had any sense of why. The recognition made a lot of those pieces fall together.

And in the way that you ask yourself ‘What would the Dalai Lama do?’ I also think, ‘What would Machig do?’ if I’m trying to make a decision or confront a situation. The recognition gave a sense of confidence in some of the choices that I’ve had to make over the years: the choice that I needed to teach Feeding Your Demons in this more westernized way, or the choice that I made that feeling the sacred feminine was important at this time, and making the choice to support that in ways that had a large impact on my life.

It is an interesting question because for women that kind of mirroring—‘let me tell you who you are’—is important. I teach a women’s retreat in the fall every year at Spirit Rock. After the recognition in Tibet, the teachers there were having lunch together and they said to me, ‘What happened? What’s it like?’ I told them the recognition allowed me to know what I know. And I told the story about Tara and Machig, and how important that had been for Machig. They got excited about that phrase ‘the past has been erased from your heart; let me tell you who you are.’ And they realized that in their gratitude hut, where all the lineage teachers connected to Spirit Rock are honored, that there were no women. And so they made a request that one wall of that hut be titled ‘the past has been erased from your heart; let me tell you who you are.’

In a sense, for all beings, the past has been erased from our hearts. Because we don’t remember our true nature; it’s been obscured. But particularly for women, the past has been erased from our hearts in the sense of the memory of being empowered and knowing what we know as women. So I think that an important piece of a female activist is: how is a woman activist different from a male activist? Is she different? Part of how a woman activist might be different is in how much she knows her past—in the sense of knowing who she truly is as a woman and having models and examples—both religious iconography such as images of the Dakinis or Tara or Prajnaparamita, and an internal sense of having female lineage and knowledge.

And I think that what might come out of recovering or remembering her past shouldn’t be like a blanket or cookie cutter kind of thing. A woman who remembers who she is has confidence in the sacred feminine, and confidence that the sacred feminine has a gift that hasn’t been given to the world for some time. A Buddhist woman practitioner and activist can work to integrate that gift and that knowledge of who she is into herself, and then bring that into her activism.

Mary Gilliland  is an award-winning poet who lives in Ithaca, New York, where she serves on the board of Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies, the Dalai Lama’s seat in North America.

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