December 18, 2012 § Leave a comment
In “Magic and Mystery in Tibet,” Alexandra David-Neel wrote of some of her extraordinary experiences while travelling Tibet in the early half of the twentieth century. One involved an unexpected late night encounter with a practitioner of Chöd, a spiritual practice that uses visualization to see the true nature of thought and the ego.
From a hidden vantage point David-Neel reported she observed the Chöd practitioner as he went about rituals designed to produce hallucinations. The man was frail and sickly looking indicating he had been practicing the discipline for some time. At one point he began to shout, offering his own flesh to be eaten by demons that only he could see. Through the rituals of Chöd the “demons” of pride, anger, lust and stupidity had become fully externalized to the man as hallucinations. As she watched, David-Neel had no doubt this practitioner was indeed experiencing visions of demons entirely of his own making devouring his flesh.
I don’t know if Chöd practice is still undertaken in Tibet. But in some ways there are unwilling practitioners of the discipline all around the world today. These are the men, women and children who battle their own demons, demons that arise from trauma experienced during war, Indian Residential Schools, rape or other violent events such as that which transpired just recently in Connecticut. These individuals suffer daily from anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but unlike Chöd practitioners they have no teacher to act as a guide through the experience.
It is important to seek professional help if you suffer from PTSD as it is a complicated disorder. Like the Chöd practitioner in David-Neel’s account you must not shy away from your demons. And like the Chöd practitioner your aim is to fully realize they are creations of your own mind and, as such, have only the power of your belief to sustain them. But even if you do not suffer from PTSD the lesson is the same.
Thought is a by-product of mind and therefore does not represent any actual “thing” in the world, as opposed to a perception that is a representation of something in our environment. The perception of a rock, for example, represents a rock in our environment. But any thought about the rock, e.g., whether it is valuable or pretty, exists solely in our own mind. Most people, however, believe their thoughts represent real things and therefore erroneously believe thoughts are real things.
When you believe thoughts are real you effectively supplant the actual world with an illusory one of thought. You then interact with the thought world instead of the actual one. Eventually, however, the actual world bumps into the illusory and a crisis ensues. The resolution to this crisis comes when you abandon your illusions about the world and your self. Unfortunately the ego makes it difficult to admit we’ve been wrong and so many suffer as they wait fruitlessly for the world to adapt to them.
Alexandra David-Neel tells us the essential point of Tibetan Buddhism is that the world is an illusion. Chöd practice is designed to bring the practitioner to this realization. PTSD brought about by trauma can also lead to this realization about thought and the ego. But if having been traumatized appears too hard to bear while others seem to have it easier, then consider the words of the Chöd practitioner’s teacher. Upon going to him to plead on behalf of the disciple David-Neel was told, “It is hard to free oneself from delusion, to blot out the mirage of the imaginary world and to liberate one’s mind from fanciful beliefs. Enlightenment is a precious gem and must be bought at a high price. Methods to reach tharpa are many. You may follow another one, less coarse than that suited to the man whom you pity, but I am certain that your way must be as hard as that of my disciple. If it is easy it is the wrong one.”
Today, there are many on a hard path. Let us pray their hardship does not bring them down but leads instead to compassion and tharpa, the Supreme Liberation.