December 16, 2009

Chandra Easton & Scott Blossom: On Relationship, Lineage, and Women in Yoga and Buddhism

In 1996, Chandra Easton’s interest in meditation led her to study Buddhist philosophy, meditation and Tibetan language at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India, founded by H. H. the Dalai Lama. Later, she received her degree in Religious Studies at UC Santa Barbara where she translated Tibetan Buddhist texts on meditation with B. Alan Wallace. Chandra has taught Buddhist meditation and yoga since 2001 nationally and internationally.

In 2007, with Sarah Powers, Chandra co-founded Metta Journeys, a service-oriented organization that offers yoga retreats internationally to help women and children in developing countries. Chandra’s primary teachers are H.H. Dalai Lama, Lama Tsultrim Allione, B. Alan Wallace, Zhander Remete and Sarah Powers. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her partner Scott Blossom and their two children.

Scott Blossom is a Traditional Chinese Medical practitioner, Shadow Yoga teacher, and Ayurvedic Consultant. He has been studying yoga for over 18 years and teaching for 12. His primary teachers are Zhander Remete, founder of Shadow Yoga, and Dr. Robert Svoboda, renowned Ayurvedic physician and scholar. He recently took Buddhist refuge vows with Lama Tsultrim Allione. Together, Blossom and Easton run Shunyata Yoga.

I first met Chandra and Scott last July, while they were on retreat at Tara Mandala Retreat Center, where I work as Program Manager. They caught my attention not only because they are both attractive, bright people who seem content and calm; they were also one of the few young families attending the retreat. During meals and lunch breaks they would spread a blanket over the wood chips outside the dining room and settle in with their nine-month-old son and nine-year-old daughter to enjoy good food, good sunshine and the peace of the summery Colorado landscape.

The months following has seen an ongoing email correspondence, as Scott and Chandra will be teaching a week-long retreat with Lama Tsultrim Allione at Tara Mandala next summer, Shadow Yoga and Shamatha Meditation: The Pranic Pathway to Stillness, June 30 – July 7, 2010.

As you’ll see, together they embody a unique merging of the ancient practices of Buddhist meditation, yoga asana, Ayurveda, and Chinese medicine with contemporary service in the world.

Following is a series of questions on their views on relationship and family, spiritual lineage, and the blending of yoga asana and Buddhist practice. The interview concludes with questions about Chandra’s views on women in Buddhism, her relationship with Lama Tsultrim, and a description of their upcoming 2010 retreat at Tara Mandala.

DWT: How did you two meet? How do you merge your relationship with your spiritual practices?

Scott Blossom: We both grew up in the same town and had mutual friends during our high school years. In college, we both got into yoga and Buddhist meditation and would see each other from time to time at talks or classes. Over the years our friendship grew partly because we could talk with each other about subjects that many of our friends were not interested in like meditation and philosophy. Our romantic connection was nurtured very slowly and organically because our commitment to Dharma practice just kept bringing us together. I remember running into to Chandra just a few days after she had returned from a year in India studying Buddhism and Tibetan language. I was so impressed with the stories Chandra brought back from her time there that I threw a party where she showed her slides from the trip. We started dating soon after that.

We have always tried to weave our family life into our work and teaching. For Tara’s first-grade year we home-schooled her and took her with us to Europe where we were working and studying. She got to learn about life, art, and history on the spot. It was a wonderful experience. Chandra was four months pregnant with Tejas at that time and got to enjoy a wonderful trip to Africa where she and Sarah Powers led their first Metta Journeys fundraiser trip for Women For Women International. After the trip Chandra returned to Vienna where I was studying with my yoga teacher and Tara was learning the fine art of strudel enjoyment.

DWT: As practitioners of both yoga asana and Buddhism in the West, how to do you view this mercurial idea of lineage? How should we in the West, with partners and children, hold ourselves in respect to lineage?

SB: The value of lineage is like having an excellent map of a territory you wish to travel through. While there is always more than one way to go about the journey, it is useful to have an experienced guide, someone who has traversed the course you are taking, especially through the difficult or dangerous parts.

The Indian teacher Krishnamurti said that truth is a pathless land. While this is ultimately true about Dharma, which means “truth” or “reality,” it has to translate into experience at the relative level by virtue of embodiment. Lineage is about the way that sangha or spiritual community reflects the embodiment of Dharma. Lineage is about choosing relationships that help us navigate the spiritual path we choose in our own unique, individual way.
We have both had long-term relationships with our respective teachers and feel there is something very powerful in the reflection that an evolving student-teacher relationship requires. It helps clarify how reciprocal the role of guidance and personal commitment are to practice. Even though I come back again and again to the same practices and teachers, the life of the practice must transcend the relative trappings.

DWT: Chandra, as a practitioner of both Buddhism and yoga asana, how do you see these paths differing? Is there a conflict between the two? Tension? Or are they complimentary, in your view? How can we reconcile them, especially as female practitioners?

CE: I see both Buddhism and yoga asana as having therapeutic uses. Ultimately both yoga asana and Buddhism are age-old technological systems for cultivating exceptional states of happiness and contentment (i.e. enlightenment). But they can bring about physical benefits as well. Given the therapeutic characteristic of both yoga and meditation, one can adapt and change according to the circumstances. A menopausal woman in the 21st century should practice differently than a 18th century 20-year-old man. Some elements of the old traditions should certainly be kept, but everything in moderation and according to the circumstances. There are no ultimate hard and fast rules. This is why it is important to study the breadth and depth of the traditions so that you can apply what is useful and discard what is not useful for a given situation.

Historically, there has been a sharing as well as a competitive tension between Hinduism and Buddhism. Tension and harmony are both important elements for growth and refinement. Buddhism grew out of the Vedic worldview that later became what is called Hinduism, so one can see many similarities between the two (both have Vedic roots). For example the ideas of karma, samsara, and nirvana all stem from the earlier Vedic and Upanishadic traditions of India. The more one learns about both traditions the more similarities one can find. At the same time, there are many differences such as the belief in self or ‘atman’ in Hinduism and the belief of no self or ‘anatman’ in Buddhism.

I think the role of female practitioners is to remember and remind others of the big picture, the true purpose of spiritual practice whether it be Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and so on. Of course being aware of the differences as well of the similarities is important, but ultimately we must remember the similar goals of happiness and enlightenment, of being of service to others and reducing our self interest. When one gets caught up in “my tradition is better than yours” one is caught up in the ego and this does not serve anyone.

I find I am drawn to Tantric teachings of both Buddhism and Hinduism because of their value and veneration of the feminine as divine, which is radically different than the earlier Vedic and Buddhist traditions. That is not to say that the earlier traditions do not have much to offer both male and female practitioners, but it was not until the rise of Tantric practices around the fifth century that the feminine was given equal respect. Lama Tsultrim has been a wonderful voice for the feminine teachings that have not always been heard, even in the Tantric tradition of Tibetan Buddhism namely.

DWT: Are there particular female aspects to these traditions? Should women practice differently than men – should we change the traditions to better suit our needs? How?

CE: Yes and no. Women can do all of the practices that men can do. Except women must take into account the three main phases of their life, namely, menses, pregnancy (for some), and menopause. Different practices should be done at different times in ones life. Studying with an experienced teacher is of utmost importance.

DWT: What is your connection to Lama Tsultrim, and how do you view her teaching?

CE: I first met Lama Tsultrim at a Namkhai Norbu retreat in Lake Tahoe when I was pregnant with my first child, in 1999. I had already studied Tibetan Buddhism in Dharamsala and at the University of California, Santa Barabara where I translated texts on meditation from Tibetan into English. I was also what you might call a Dharma brat, having grown up with a Tibetan Buddhist mother and step father. So when I met her I was intrigued and wanted to learn more. For a long time I had wondered how it would be to have a female teacher, one who could more deeply speak to issues pertinent to my life, such as becoming a mother and continuing with my spiritual practice. But it was not until later that I had the chance to do a Chöd retreat with her in 2004. I was touched by her experience and sincerity. She, like me, has elements of a scholar, a mother, and a practitioner, so I feel an affinity with her that I do not have with my other teachers. She is a wonderful teacher and innovator, someone who has knowledge and respect for the Tibetan tradition and is able to apply the teachings to modern times. I have benefited immensely from her teachings.

In early July, 2010, Scott and Chandra will offer a week-long retreat, Shadow Yoga and Shamatha Meditation: The Pranic Pathway to Stillness, at Tara Mandala Retreat Center. The teachings will be geared toward those who wish to learn a set of practices for circulating and preparing the vital energies (prana) for meditation. Shadow Yoga is a Hatha Yoga system that utilizes rhythmic breathing, bandhas (energetic locks), and the marma system (vital junctions) to free the peripheral body of its energetic obstructions and to ignite our inner fire. The Shadow style consists of circular and spiraling movements, warrior stances, sun salutation forms, as well as, traditional seated postures designed to produce resonance in the body and mind for healing and meditation.

Chandra will give instruction on two distinct forms of Shamatha (Calm Abiding) meditation: the first is ‘Mindfulness of the Breath’ as taught by the Buddha, and the second is ‘Settling the Mind in Its Natural State’ as taught by the 8th century Indian Buddhist sage, Padmasambhava, who brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet. Shamatha in all its aspects is the foundation for the more advanced practice of Vipassana (Insight) meditation, and also is a direct vehicle for full awakening in and of itself. There will be both indoor and outdoor meditation sessions.
Lama Tsultrim Allione will join Chandra and Scott for an afternoon to introduce and guide the practice of “Feeding Your Demons,” a process based on the Tibetan practice of Chöd (Cutting Through) by which we learn to feed rather than fight our so-called ‘demons’ as a means to liberate our energetic and emotional blockages.

For more information about their teaching, visit www.shunyatayoga.com.
For an in-depth article on Chandra’s experiences studying in India, visit http://www.shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=10043.
To read about and register for their Tara Mandala retreat, visit www.taramandala.org.

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