Interview with Barbara Gates for Inquiring Mind November 2010

Elephant Bones:

An Interview with Lama Tsultrim Allione

In a delightful convergence of ancient wisdom and modern technology, Lama Tsultrim Allione spoke with Inquiring Mind via Skype from Darsedo, an historic border town in a steep valley surrounded by Himalyan peaks between eastern China and Tibet. Following the shocking death of her husband, David Petit, who died in the middle of the night from a heart attack this past July, she had come here as part of a pilgrimage on her way to Tibet, Nepal and India. In Darsedo she received teachings and the Entrustment Ceremony (Ka Tey) for the treasury of Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje’s lineage from Jetsunma Do Dasel Wangmo, who is an eighty-three-year-old nun, a highly regarded Tibetan doctor and the great-granddaughter of Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje (1800–1866).

Lama Tsultrim was ordained as a Tibetan nun, taking vows in 1970 from the 16th Karmapa in Bodhgaya. After four years as a nun, she returned her monastic robes, married and raised a family of three. In 1993, after her children grew up, Lama Tsultrim founded Tara Mandala ( in Southwestern Colorado with her husband, David. Tara Mandala is where she now lives and teaches retreats.

Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates, Martha Kay Nelson and Wes Nisker conducted this interview in November 2010.

Inquiring Mind: Vajrayana Buddhism is known for its use of mantras, mandalas and a complex array of spiritual instruments and symbols. In your many years of Vajrayana practice, you have been involved in and led countless rituals, and you have also created many rituals for the members of your community at Tara Mandala and for your own family. Why do a ritual, any ritual?

Tsultrim Allione: This is something very close to my heart. Rituals break through the conscious mind and impact a subterranean layer of the psyche. Take the difference between “living with someone” versus “getting married”; the marriage ritual deeply impacts a couple. Because a wedding is witnessed by the greater community, during the ritual the community begins to hold and support the couple, and in turn, the couple announces themselves to the community. The internal impact of symbols used in the ceremony, such as the ring,  in the wedding, speaks to that ancient, more primitive part of the couple’s psyche, as well as to their conscious minds.

In raising my children, I instituted ritual in the family around holidays or other important events. We regularly held family “councils,” where we used a talking stick and whoever held the stick could not be interrupted. We held council to mark significant meetings and departures, for example, when I left on pilgrimage to Tibet. We gathered, and I told the family why I was going and spoke personally to each of them. When I returned, we met again, and I relayed my journey, while they shared all that had occurred in my absence. For birthdays we created a ritual of lighting three candles. Before lighting each candle they spoke about the past year, the present moment and made affirmations  for the future year. This simple act made for a more meaningful ceremony than the usual cake and candles alone.

IM: What do you feel are the essential elements of ritual?

TA: I think physical symbols are an important piece and symbolic acts. There are many sacred objects in Vajrayana—for example, the vajra whichich is usually described a a septer, it has five points on each end joined by an small sphere and the bell with half a vajra at the top as handle and a bell below representing masculine and feminine, which are wisdom and skillful means. You always use them together to symbolize nondual union. The point of Vajrayana Buddhism is intimate union with our experience. This is symbolized by the partnership between the self, made up of the five skandhas—form, feeling, perception, karmic volition and consciusness, represented by the the five male buddhas—and the phenomenal world, made up of the five elements—space, water, earth, fire and air, represented by the five female buddhas. Each of the the five female buddhas is in sexual union with one of the five male buddhas. Sometimes people think this just means Vajrayana is about sacred sex, but its real meaning is intimacy with our whole experience, union.


IM: How important is it to have knowledge of what something symbolizes, and how much does a well-chosen symbol express itself, even if we don’t have words for it?

TA: There is a way that symbols work on the unconscious, even if you don’t know the meaning of the object. But it’s much more potent if you do know the meaning. For example, a non-Jewish adult goes through a Jewish wedding where the glass is broken, and even if she/he doesn’t know what that means, the symbolic act will transmit something.  However, if the meaning is known—that, for instance, the breaking of the glass symbolizes the end of virginity breaking into openness of relationship—the experience of the ritual is more powerful.

When we do a Vajrayna ritual that involves a deity, there are three important requirements that all play a part in doing the ritual. The first is clarity of the visualization: if you are being the female Buddha Tara, you experience that you actually are green and that your hands are held in a precise mudra (position), this is clearly experienced. The second is to understand the symbolic meaning of the postures: the thumb and ring finger meeting represents the union of samsara and nirvana, and the other three fingers represent the three jewels of Buddha-Dharma-Sangha. You know that Tara’s right leg is stepping out and down, means she steps into the world with compassion while the other is tucked in and you know this means she simultaneously remains in meditative equanimity. The third requirement is Vajra pride: you have confidence in yourself as the deity, realizing that you possess innate Buddhanature, so you have the capacity within yourself to actually be Tara.

In addition to the exchange of symbolic objects, another key element in ritual is often, though not always, being witnessed in your process. For example, at Tara Mandala every year we have the Family Retreat, and part of it is a ritual for teenagers who embark on a four-day quest in a hidden valley. As witnesses to this process, their parents and siblings hear their intentions, offer their prayers and await their return. During this time the parents keep a fire going and hold a vigil during the night of the teens’ solo quest. In such a shared experience the teenager is witnessed by their family and community in a rite of passage.

Without ritual our lives feel hollow and we can’t heal from significant loss. What is happening now with the veterans returning from war? Do they come home and are then immediately expected to have a beer while everyone wants things to go back to how they were before they went to war? Is there any time where the community creates a return ceremony where the veteran tells about what he/she has been through and also hears the  experience of those close to them? Is there a time when they are honored welcomed them back or ceremonially held them? Usually not, which takes its toll as the veterans try to re-enter civilian life.

As I reflect on community rituals, I am thinking too about the whole process that took place around my husband David’s death this past summer. Immediately after we found David’s body (he had died in the night of a heart attack) we did phowa. In this practice the consciousness of the individual is moved out of the corpse and transferred into space or into the heart of Buddha Amitabha; thus if it is stuck or wandering, the consciousness is directed toward liberation and away from clinging to the body. We then took his body outside, washed it with saffron water, completely wrapped it with strips of white cloth, placed a crown of the five buddha families on his head, and placed him on a palaquin in our bedroom.

Then the practices began and they went on steadily for the next seven weeks. The cremation took place two days later, and a pyre was built in front of the Tara Mandala stupa, which David had built. In the state of Colorado the family or tribe can take charge of cremation if it is part of their religious beliefs.

On the morning of the cremation, a procession descended from the house, outfitted with Tibetan instruments, hats and robes. Two pickup trucks came down the hill, the front one with the Tibetan instrument band and the second one contained all five of David’s brothers and sisters and his father, as well as his body decorated with flowers and silk scarves. When they arrived the family and close friends carrying the body  followed the musicans in a procession to the stupa, where I was waiting with everyone else. Everyone passed by and offered a juniper spring to the body before the fire was lit. During the cremation, we visualized his body as the red Buddha Vajrasattva and offered grains and special oil, cloth, and other offerings into the funeral pyre. The community chanted or meditated through the cremation.

Another ceremony took place when David’s ashes were offered to the river that flows near Tara Mandala. It just so happened that David died three days before the family retreat began, so at the time the ashes were offered into the river, our teenagers were out on their vision quest. Two significant rites of passage were happening at once. Their parents were watching David’s ashes go into the river as the teens prayed for a guiding vision for their lives.

On the forty-ninth day after he died we held another big ceremony. David was a secret yogi doing advanced  dzogchen practice, so there were many signs around his death. There were rainbows almost everyday for three weeks, and on the third night after the cremation there was a moonbow, a rare atmospheric phenomena like a rainbow, but from moonlight; it arced from the top of the mountain in the middle of Tara Mandala and ended at the house where David died.

What an incredible way to die—to inspire and to be held like that by your community. For those of us close to David, it helped so much to have these ceremonies keeping such a focus for so long. Most of all, I was amazed at the thoroughness of this Tibetan ritual process—from the cremation to the grinding of his bones to be mixed with clay and formed into small stupas called tsatsas. These will be placed into a special “tsatsa house” built next summer at his favorite outdoor meditation spot.

Major life passages don’t happen quickly, which is why important rituals often include a series of events. Often in our culture, you go to the funeral, then everybody goes back and is expected to get on with their lives. But the impact has been huge, and there’s a vacuum in the community where more ritual is needed. For many in our culture, there is a lack of ritual marking our passages. Some people are now creating their own ceremonies, often independent of a particular religion. A ritual doesn’t have to be like David’s death, held within a very specific tradition. It can be made up by the people involved.

IM: Participants in making up a ritual often need a lot of encouragement. It’s a little bit like dancing—if you think you can’t do it, you can’t. But really, all you have to do is move your body.

TA: Yes, you might think that you don’t know how to create a ceremony, but you do. It is so deeply a part of human instinct. Also, everyone has symbolic objects, even if they believe they don’t. When most people stop to think, they realize, Oh yeah, I’ve got that necklace from my mother. Or, Remember that rock I found on the beach? In creating a ritual, it is important to convey that it doesn’t have to be complicated.

When my children were young, our home riutals were sometimes met with resistance, but now they all do rituals themselves, even if I am not there. For instance, at Thanksgiving we always did a gratitude circle, I wanted it to have a meaning rather than just a meaningless overeating binge. Later, when my second daughter, Aloka, returned on her first holiday from college, she surprised me by saying, “I don’t care about anything else for Thanksgiving, but I want to do the gratitude circle.”.

When my first daughter, Sherab, was about eighteen, she decided to climb Mt. Denali in Alaska. I was afraid, but she told me, “Mom, it’s really important for me to do this and to I feel supported by you in this choice.” I realized she was right so before she left, our family climbed the small peak at the center of Tara Mandala. In the context of ritual, we spoke aloud everything we wanted to say to her before her ascent, and we each gave her a small talisman to take on her journey. I gave her a little stone as a protection and put my prayers into it. This ceremony marked my acceptance of her leaving, and it allowed her to feel held in the process.

IM: Recently, I heard about a ritual developed by a couple who felt they needed to end their marriage even though in many ways they still loved and respected one another. How might one mark that kind of event?

TA: David and I were married for twenty-two years, and he was married once before for thirteen years. When he and his first wife got divorced, they did a divorce ritual. They began with a clay pot. Each wrote down all of the hopes they’d had for their marriage and put them in the pot. Together, they lifted the pot and then dropped it, when it shattered it was emotional for both. Next they wrote their aspirations for their relationship after the marriage had ended and exchanged them.

Sometimes, there are threads in a relationship that haven’t really been cut. It can be very painful to keep a sort of umbilical cord tying you to a marriage or relationship that has ended. One option is to do a cord-cutting, even if the other person isn’t present. Just find something that symbolizes that person, then run a cord between you and that object. Talk aloud about what you feel those cords represent, and then actually take scissors and cut them. Maybe you bury or burn those cords. It’s all metaphor.

IM: So some of the power in ritual comes from how you make meaningful things tangible, how you bring them into the temporal world. You can create rituals to honor all of the passages in your life.

TA: Yes. Now, I’m in the passage of grieving. My ritual is a long pilgrimage through Tibet, Nepal and India. I think sometimes about the elephants who periodically, for many many years, go back to the bones of their dead. They kind of stroke the bones with their trunks and feet. I think it is their ritual of grieving, of honoring the love they have for a member of their tribe who has died.

My pilgrimage is going to sacred places and practicing there with one of the tsatsas, the small stupas made from David’s bone fragments mixed with clay and blessed medicinal herbs. I am meditating, making offerings and receiving blessings in these places. In each place, I’m bringing the tsatsa and putting it on the altars I make, like the elephants revisiting the bones of their dead, but I’m carrying some of his bones. Each cremony gives me something different and contributes to the healing and opening to the next phase of my life.

I’m learning that grief has its own life, that I can’t control it. I can’t predict when a wave is going to come. It really reminds me a lot of birth, of being in labor. When you’re in labor, you’re subject to something beyond your control you have to submit to it. Grief is a big part of human experience, so I feel like I am learning more deeply about a whole piece of human experience. In 1980, I lost a daughter named Chiara when she was two-and-a-half months old to Sudden Infant Death. There is no way to explain that sort of loss unless you’ve been through it. And now this. I wouldn’t wish these losses on anybody, but at the same time they expand me as a person and make me more empathetic to others who are going through the loss of a child or the loss of a life partner.

In Buddhism we constantly contemplate death and impermanence. But then when we’re faced with it, it can be unexpectedly difficult. I know that everything is illusion, but when I saw David’s corpse and the night before he had been dancing, I realized this on another level. I saw that his life had been an illusion, in the sense of the permanence that I attributed to it. A part of me just assumed Dave would be with me for a long time. So I realized, Wow. That’s not true. He’s not here. He’s gone. Then there was a feeling of dropping off the edge. Suddenly the world had a kind of pulsating hyper-vividness, and at the same time everything was extremely empty.

The grieving process is a constant companion. It was just last July that Dave died. I came on this trip in a way to get away from Tara Mandala, and it is better to be here than to be there where we lived and work and played together. It’s not as if I could leave the grief there, or as if I even really want to leave it. Sometimes the grief is beyond words—how horrible it feels—but I don’t want an anesthetic. Grieving  is like natural childbirth. I want to have this experience to see what it is and find out what it can teach me, and I want to honor my love for David by grieving him fully.Through the journey I am integrating the loss and receiving help from the power places and the people I meet. The outer journey reflects the inner journey, like the elephants returning to the bones of their dead, touching them again and again—it is a process that is held by ritual.