March 3, 2010

New Currents in An Ancient Stream: The Story of Planting a Tibetan Buddhist Lineage at Tara Mandala

Women have so few voices in their lives that affirm their wisdom and spiritual potential and we rarely have a female lineage that we can draw strength from. The goddess Tara and Dampa Sangye told Machig her lineage, and this gave her ground to stand on, confidence about who she was. A lineage is like a family tree but of a spiritual nature. We all have a spiritual lineage of some kind. When we know our spiritual roots, we have a source of inspiration to draw on. Figuring out your spiritual lineage, whether you are male or female, and whether it is straightforward or eclectic, can be an important step in clarifying your own path and gaining confidence.

—  Lama Tsultrim Allione

The question of lineage has become ubiquitous among practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.  As these ancient traditions are translated and transplanted in our Western soil, we come into contact with issues of how to preserve the purity of the lineage, while at the same time making practical and necessary adaptations to contemporary lifestyles.  This essay outlines the traditional meaning of lineage within Tibetan Buddhism, and follows the story of one particular Tibetan lineage, the Dzinpa Rangdröl, or Self-Liberation of Clinging, and its rooting at Tara Mandala Retreat Center in southern Colorado.  Because the translation of the practices at Tara Mandala only began in 2008, this process of grounding the lineage in the West holds fertile ground for exploration.  The following text is a transcription of teachings given by Lama Tsultrim Allione, founder and spiritualdirector of Tara Mandala, on the topic of lineage and the Dzinpa Rangdröl.

The word for lineage in Tibetan in gyud, which is literally translated as “stream.”  In the Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, this idea of wisdom teachings passing through teacher to student over centuries remains a foundational practice in maintaining and supporting Buddhist dharma.  There are several ways a lineage can be passed from teacher to student in this tradition: oral transmission, mind transmission, and imbuing a substance with a teaching.  The first is called menak, and takes the form of pith instructions, essential teachings bringing insight and inspiration spoken orally by a teacher to a disciple.  The second method, mind transmission, is an ineffable experience that a disciple receives through the mind-stream of the teacher; this transmission of blessings is like gift waves given from teacher to student.  A teacher may also put teachings into a substance or a person, like making a thumb print in a rock, imbuing the receptacle with wisdom energy.  Through this method, lineages can remain strong and secret over many generations, through times of conflict and repression of dharma.

When we follow a lineage, we make a karmic connection with this river of teachings.  Sometimes we have a visceral reaction when we first hear the name of a teacher in a specific lineage, or we’ll feel some kind of ineffable pull to practice with a certain community.  We most likely have connections to this lineage that stretch across lifetimes.  Sometimes this karmic memory is so strong that we feel like we are finally coming home after wandering for many centuries, or like we have heard the name of our mother for the first time.  Through this intuitive sense, we can make an energetic connection to a specific lineage.  Western culture does not value the idea of a lineage; in some ways we are lineage-less, as we usually don’t know who our ancestors were several generations back, and our spiritual paths are often eclectic and innovative.  However, lineage is as important in America as it is in Tibet.  In the West, we now have Vajrayana lineages available, the same teachings that lamas in the 8th and 9th centuries taught their disciples in the Land of Snows.  Through lamas and translation of ancient texts, we have the opportunity to connect with a genuine stream of dharma teachings, rooted in its own ancestry.

In Tibet, there are four main Vajrayana lineages: Nyigma, Kagyu, Gelugpa, and Sakya, each of which include teachings passed down from the Buddha in this river-like flow of lineage.  Within these tributaries, the idea of a guru preserving the lineage  with the aforementioned methods of transmission remains strong.  Machig Labdrön and her practice of Chöd, or cutting through, are present in the first three denominations of Vajrayana Buddhism.  Now, at Tara Mandala, Lama Tsultrim Allione and her sangha are working to implant this lineage, rooted by Machig and including feminine iconography and practice, in the Tara Temple that sits nestled in its verdant valley in southwest Colorado.

Machig Labdrön was born in 1055, during a time of great innovation, a kind of religious renaissance in Tibet.  She had several male teachers, most notably Padampa Sangye and Sönam Lama, both important lamas during that time.  Possessing extraordinary skill and wisdom, Machig received teachings from the Sutra tradition from these teachers.  However, she needed a female role model, so she drew on Tara, gathering teachings through visions and dreams from this celebrated Tibetan deity.  It is said that she received the Tantra teachings from Tara in her energetic form, downloading amazing sadhanas for subtle body practices, sacred sexuality, and phowa, the practice of ejecting consciousness through the top of one’s head.  This last practice in particular became a powerful method for Machig to open the gates to the sky, integrating nature of mind teachings of Prajña Paramita, the perfection of wisdom, that she is known to have memorized and recited from a very early age.  Machig also developed Chöd, an esoteric practice including the offering of one’s body to demons of sickness, debt, and obscuration.  All of her practices were rooted in the Prajna Paramita, as this was her personal study and also the representation of the mother of all buddhas, the wisdom space from which Tara emerged.

In addition to becoming a widely-known and celebrated teacher of dharma, Machig was also the mother of three children.  She transmitted her teachings and practice to her children, most notably giving the Tantric teachings to her younger son, Tönyon Samdrup, and teaching her eldest son, Gyalwa Döndrup, the Sutra tradition.  She also may have passed down a secret lineage to her daughter, who reincarnated as a great-granddaughter and discovered her teachings hidden in rocks and waters preserved through the third method of transmitting the teachings.  It was prophesied that her practices would disperse over ten generations, only to return powerful and strong after this time.  Eventually the lineage did die out, and only her universal practice of Chöd remained, especially in the Kagyu tradition.

In 2007, during a Chöd pilgrimage to Tibet, Lama Tsultrim Allione, an American-born teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, was recognized by several Tibetan lamas as an emanation of Machig Labdrön.  This recognition brought many apparently divergent strings of Lama Tsultrim’s life into focus, merging her passion for the sacred feminine in Buddhism, her lifelong practice of Chöd, and her interest in Prajña Paramita.  The next year, she asked Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche, a disciple of Dilgo Kyentse Rinpoche, if there were any connections between Machig’s teachings and Dzogchen, as she had been drawn to both throughout her 40 years of dharma practice.  Inspired, he told her of the Dzinpa Rangdröl cycle of teachings, which are based both on Machig’s lineage and the practice of Dzogchen.

Literally translated as “Self-Liberation of Clinging,” the Dzinpa Rangdröl comprises an entire path to enlightenment, beginning with the preliminaries, or Ngöndro, and ending in advanced Dzogchen practices such as Trekchö and Tögyal.  This cycle was written by the extraordinary yogi Do Kyentse Rinpoche (1800 – 1861), who received it through visionary encounters with Machig and Tara.  Do Kyentse Rinpoche was an incredible magician, a deep traveler, who was known to disappear frequently from the form realm during visits to the pure land of Padmasambhava.  Dilgo Kyentse Rinpoche received this cycle of teachings from Do Kyentse, although there are possibly two other teachers between them.  Tulku Sang-ngag received the teachings and empowerment for this lineage twice from his teacher Dilgo Kyentse, once in Bhutan and once in Kathmandu.

The Dzinpa Rangdröl is unique in several ways, in that it has been kept secret for many generations, and it contains remarkably esoteric and advanced Dzogchen practices.  It also contains a lineage of female teachers including Machig Lapdrön, Mandarava, Yeshe Tsogyal, and a sadhana of the five wisdom dakinis.  In all four Tibetan lineages, male lineages predominate the practices, so for women wanting female role models and a Ngöndro practice that includes a feminine lineage, the Dzinpa Rangdröl provides ample inspiration.

As part of Lama Tsultrim Allione’s mission to ground a female lineage at Tara Mandala, the community hosted a White Dakini Drubchen, or extraordinary accomplishment practice, from the Dzinpa Rangdröl in late August of 2009.  This was the first time this Drubchen has ever been performed in the West.  This practice has remained rare and precious because it risks dilution and misunderstanding if too widely taught.  It is a great treasure, authentic and complete, and because it is finding a solid home at Tara Mandala, Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche sees this as the time when it will become much more widely known and practiced.  Part of the vision of rooting this lineage at Tara Mandala is the support of long-term retreatants who will complete the cycle in its entirety.  By practicing in this traditional manner, the lineage can be practiced and taught properly, preserving its depth and insight.

In tandem with the Dzinpa Rangdröl practices, Lama Tsultrim intends to establish a library with teachings on Machig’s kama tradition, the oral transmission lineage.  She has invited His Holiness the 17th Karmapa to come give these teachings of Machig, along with empowerments that accompany the practices, since the karmapas have historically held this part of her transmissions.  Lama Tsultrim is also collecting Machig’s direct teachings on Dzogchen and other yogic practices, held by a variety of lamas including Lama Wangdu Rinpoche and Dzog Chen Pönlop Rinpoche.  Because they are just now coming out into the open, these teachings are appropriate for this time, and meet the needs of many practitioners, both women and men, who desire a powerful presence of the sacred feminine in traditional Tibetan Buddhism.  The new Tara Temple is a perfect vessel for this precious lineage, a physical manifestation of the requisite container for such rare and secret teachings.  After this first Drubchen, Tara Mandala will host the event annually, during the last week of August, as part of the establishment of the Dzinpa Rangdröl in the West.

Tara Mandala’s residents and sangha are enthusiastic and dedicated to rooting and preserving this lineage for years to come, offering an authentic and inspiring opportunity for all to reach ultimate enlightenment.

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