reviews3Cutting 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.

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