An Interview with Tsultrim Allione
How did you end up choosing Pagosa for your location to start Tara Mandala?
Since age 22 I had had a vision to create a retreat center in America with conditions that were similar to those in Tibet, that is, conditions of quiet and the elements in balance. That was when I was a nun. Then I started my family and 20 years went by. As my last child was getting old enough, I began to think about it again. At that point we were living in New York State. I started having dreams about the west, and I realized the center would probably be in the western part of the country. Then I did some meditation and had some visions about certain landscapes, and I begin looking for some of these elements I had been seeing in dreams and meditation. We were actually on our way to see some land in Mancos that my oldest daughter had found, and we stopped in Pagosa and looked at this land. I knew immediately that this was the land because it corresponded with things I had seen in my dreams. We climbed up the peak that is at the center of the land and I looked around and said to David, “this is it.” So we actually never went to see that land in Mancos.
How long have you been here?
We first saw the land September 18, 1993 and then Tara Mandala began in the summer of 1994.
In that period between your vision of wanting to start Tara Mandala and actually starting it, what was your greatest challenge as a mother?
I think it was finding a way to integrate being a mother and being a serious practitioner of meditation and Buddhism. Buddhism was traditionally a monastic tradition from the time of the Buddha, but Tantric Buddhism, which is what Tibetan Buddhism is. Tantric Buddhism had the tradition of the householder and a very strong non-monastic tradition. So there were examples and a historical basis for that, but still the living of it in this time and everything that that involves, that was a challenge.
How did you find that balance between your practice and the day to day labors of raising children?
When they were little before they went to school, I would just let them crawl all over me when I was trying to meditate. They would kind of rip my shrine apart. I just realized that the main distraction is internal. No matter what’s happening outside it’s never as strong as the internal distractions and the thought process and everything else that goes on in our minds. So I would just try to do it with them there. Then once they got in school, I would begin to practice as soon as they left for school. Another thing I did was to integrate awareness practices with them. For example, Buddhism has a lot of meditation on impermanence. I would take them out and ask them if they could see anything that was permanent and not changing. They would say, “There’s a stone. That’s permanent. That’s not changing.” And I would say well, actually it is changing. It’s just changing more slowly. And then we would sit by water and watch the water change or watch a flower changing. I would do meditations with them without them really realizing that that was what was happening. The other thing I did a lot with them was building altars. In the woods or in the backyard or under a tree or wherever, I would have that as kind of a game. We would create a little shrine and of course they weren’t conventional shrines, they were kid’s shrines. I think that’s a really important thing for children to have altars in their rooms and also to make them because it’s a stage in a way for the soul. If their altars reflects their own interests, their own inner processes, whatever that is, it allows them to them externalize that, and then when they see their altar it reflects their inner process. Jung said “A home without an altar is like a person with no soul.” I remember my daughter Sherub was really into this. On her altar she had St. Francis, Krishna, Buddha, a Madonna, and then she had all kinds of other things: stones and things she had found. Then she would line up all of her stuffed animals at the shrine. Whenever someone would give her a piece of candy or something she would put it on the shrine, so it had this incredible living quality for her and I think that was a really important piece for her own spiritual development.
Does she still have a shrine?
Yes she does, but not as elaborate.
Were your children an inspiration for your spiritual work?
I went from being a nun to being a mother in one year, so it was a huge transition for me and I think what happen was that so much of what had been theoretical I had to actually apply. When you’re living alone in the mountains you study patience and you think you have a lot. You think you have overcome anger and jealousy, but then when I became I mother I realized that all these emotions were still there. I just hadn’t been in a situation that had been challenging. So it was really great in that way because I could see all these ways that I wasn’t as developed as I thought and I had to confront myself. As you know as a parent you’re not getting a lot of sleep. I had all my kids really close together. I had Sherab and then Aloka 17 months later, and then 5 years later I had my twins, and I figured out once that I hadn’t had a full nights sleep in seven years. Lack of sleep makes everything more difficult.
Also, in Buddhism the image of the mother as the embodiment of compassion is used a lot. She’ll do anything for the children. As a mother I felt that depth of love and commitment and having somebody who I really would give my own life for-it was very powerful to have that kind of relationship. I also felt that I didn’t really grow up until I had my children. There were ways that maturity was demanded of me and having children brought forth that maturity.
So I wouldn’t say my children were an inspiration in the sense of what I thought would have been a spiritual inspiration before I had children. More so I think meeting the challenges of motherhood with what I had learned made my practice very rich.
So maybe having children allowed you to take your practice to a deeper level?
I wouldn’t say a deeper level, but I would say more practical level. If I had stayed a nun and lived in a cave for twelve years, I think my meditation would have gone deeper. There’s depth of meditation that you can get to in that kind of silence and isolation that you can’t reach in family life. But the stretch that I had to go through-the testing and bringing theory into practice that I had to confront as a mother-I don’t think that would have happened if I hadn’t become a mother.
Do you feel like you still have challenges as a mother at this point?
I think in a way now I am enjoying the fruits of the process. I really enjoy all of my children as adults now. I don’t really feel challenged by it although there are occasional challenges where they need help in one way or another. There’s a feeling now of every time I meet them discovering who they are. Who are they now and what and who has come into their lives? It’s like when you build a boat and you let it go down the river and you can’t do that much about it. It just keeps going. They’re in their boats and they’re in the river and I can do some things, but mostly now it’s up to them. I do communicate quite a bit with them and they always call me if they have things that they want to talk about or if they want advice.
What do you see as the biggest challenge that mothers face today?
I don’t think things have changed very much. One thing that was happening when my children were little and even more now is that most women are not only mothers but they also hold jobs. Really being a mother is a full time job, so often mothers have two full time jobs. This is really difficult and it’s challenging to find time when you can actually enjoy your kids. Most families are in that situation of needing two incomes, and then there are a lot of single parents who are definitely in that situation. That’s difficult.
Another challenge is the speed at which everything is happening now: the speed of the media, the speed of peoples’ lives. That was happening then, too. It wasn’t really that long ago that I was raising my kids.
What advice would you give to a mother of young children?
I think one of the most important things you can do with your kids is have family ceremonies and rituals in whatever form they take. It doesn’t have to be a religious ceremony or a spiritual ceremony, but occasions should be marked. There should be a certain stopping and taking note when transitions happen, whether it’s the seasons or another transition. When my kids were growing up, when I would go on a trip we would have a family circle before I left. I would talk about where I was going and why. Then when I came back we would have another circle, and I would tell them what happened and what I saw. Then if one of my children was going somewhere, we would have a circle for him or her when she left and when she came back. I think a lot of times people are coming and going out of that family unit, and if it’s not noted or they’re not listened to about where they went and what happened, in a way they can’t value or be honored for what has happened. For example, when family members go to war, which is happening now of course, it’s important that the family stop before they go, and they talk about why they’re going and what they’ll be doing. When they come back they have to have some kind of re-entry ceremony. Of course, that is kind of an extreme example.
In our family at each holiday we had some kind of a ritual or ceremony. For example at Thanksgiving we had a gratitude ceremony where everyone in the family said something they were grateful for. Often on Thanksgiving there is no connection with gratitude the whole day. It’s just about eating, and then you end up feeling stuffed and weird, like there is something missing. So really trying to get the essence of the holiday and bring that into family life. I’m a Buddhist but at Christmas we always talked about Christ and what Christ brought to the world, and also how Christmas is also a very ancient holiday marking the winter solstice.
What makes you most happy about what you give back to the world?
I think if I can help people and relieve suffering on any level, whether it’s physical or emotional or spiritual. If I can be of help and relieve someone’s pain in some way, that’s the most joyful feeling