Darkness Within. . .
In of a spooky Tibetan story that was recently translated. We are given the tale of three ngakpa – non-monastic, non-celibate tantric yogi sorcercers – who engage in the special exorcistic meditation of Chöd, and end up encountering a very dangerous demoness (more specifically, a yakshini or alluring female nature spirit, associated with the granting of power, riches, and sickness). I hope you will read it and be careful the next time you are practicing yoga in the wilderness!
Long ago in a big nomad region in Amdo there was a family with three brothers. Not only were all three brothers very religious, but they devoted themselves exclusively to the practice of meditation. One day the three brothers heard that a very holy lama was supposed to be coming to their area to give an empowerment for Chöd practice. After discussing whether or not they should go to receive the empowerment, and having agreed that they should, the three brothers went on their way. All those receiving the empowerment were required to visit one hundred mountain, one hundred spirit-haunted, and one hundred charnel-ground power-places as part of the practice. The three brothers vowed to do so and applied themselves to accomplishing the profound Chöd empowerment they had received. Now, as they had promised, they had to travel to a rugged and isolated spirit-haunted spot, but as the three brothers well knew, travelling to such a place was not at all easy.
When one practices Chöd, as is customary in the Chöd tradition, one must visit various power-spots that are home to all sorts of harmful demons, like nyen, tsen, döndre and so on. Since if all the brothers went to practice at the same time there would be difficulties for the family, the brothers resolved that they would not go all at once, but would go in stages one by one, with one brother going only after the previous one had accomplished the practice. The other two brothers rendered service to the one practicing. For one week, the youngest two went to whichever demon-haunt the oldest brother went and kept his camp in order and made sure that he had enough provisions. After the week was up the two returned home to see to things, and then after a week the middle brother went to check on the oldest one. When he returned to the place his older brother was, a fear unlike anything he’d felt before spontaneously came upon him. He approached the tent carefully but he heard nothing at all and everything appeared quiet. He called to his older brother in a quiet voice: “I’ve come to bring you food.” But no one gave an answer at all. Then, feeling afraid, he opened the tent door and looked inside. There he saw his older brother dead, with blood coming out of his nose.
Now, the circumstances of the older brother’s death were frightening but totally obscure. In line with his previous vows, the older brother decided to stay at the camp. After a week, the youngest brother came to look after his middle brother. As he neared the camp, an unbearable feeling of fear and panic, unlike any he’d experienced before, came over him. Not daring to open the tent, he called out his middle brother’s name in a loud voice. But no one answered. Even more afraid, he opened the tent door suddenly. Looking inside, he saw his older and middle brother alike with blood coming out of their noses, dead. When he carefully examined the tent he discovered there were indistinct letters written in blood on the outside. Of these letters, something that looked like “The milk isn’t fit for drinking” was all he could make out.
Not only was the youngest brother unable to make sense of the matter, but its significance seemed to be quite esoteric. Now the youngest brother was left alone, with no idea what to do. Both his older brothers were dead – he really wanted to know the cause of his brothers’ deaths but given that he had little more than “don’t drink the milk” to go on, he really had no clear way of knowing how his brothers had died. So he stayed right there and practiced. He divided his practice into six day and night sessions. He chanted for three successive days and three successive nights. From the first day until the seventh day, there were no movements or disturbances at all and everything seemed quite still. On the evening of the seventh day after the sun had set, he applied himself to the practice of Chöd. His practice session done, he went to sleep and focused his attention on the practice of dream-yoga. A little after falling asleep, hearing a woman singing he woke up. However, when he got up, not only had the sun risen but it was already almost afternoon. Although he was astonished that the sun could have come up after he’d slept for such a short time, he applied himself to his Chöd practice as usual.
After a little bit, voices and a great clamour seemed to fill the valley. Going outside his tent, when he looked he saw that a nomad raising a horn and a woman singing with a beautiful voice who were herding some cattle and sheep were approaching. After a little while the nomad family erected their tent close to his own. “Now I have neighbors,” he thought. “Which isn’t really so unfortunate – after all, both my older brothers have died so what’s so bad about having someone to console and aid me in my sorrow?” Thinking this, he again applied himself to his practice. A little while later the singing woman came to him. “Ngakpa-la (Esteemed tantric practitioner), please have some of this milk that I’ve just collected,” she said. The chöpa, greatly pleased, took up the milk but when he started to drink he suddenly remembered the cryptic message “the milk isn’t fit for drinking” and started to wonder. The women who’d given the milk became nervous. “This woman’s really a demoness!” he thought and threw the milk back in her face. With a great cry the woman disappeared without a trace. The demoness’ magic illusion destroyed, it changed back to nighttime and everything was again quiet. Now at last he realized clearly that his two older brothers had died because of the demoness.
The abovementioned tension between the conventional and literal reality of demons (or any-thing for that matter), between Chöd’s significance as a practical rite of exorcism/expiation and as an ascetic, contemplative discipline for exorcising oneself of ‘self’ delusion and misleading conceptuality, is a key and fascinating feature of the rite and the above story. In the tale, the last of the brothers is only able to defeat the demonness when he realizes that though her power to harm is ‘real’, she and the illusion she weaves is not.
Just how real are our personal demons and how much power do we give them? These are the keys to both the scary darkness that lives within and also the source of light than banishes such darkness.
Peace and Love, Jim