“Dharma books and tapes are valuable, but the true Dharma is revealed through our life and our practice. There are said to be 84,000 Dharma doors. To take refuge in the Dharma is to choose the doors that are most appropriate for us. Dharma is great compassion, understanding and love. To realize these qualities, we need a Sangha. When a Sangha shines its light on our personal views we see more clearly. In the sangha we have the support so we won’t fall into old negative habit patterns.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
How did you become interested in meditation and study of the dharma?
Who or what opened that door to meditation . . . . to the Tara Mandala Sangha?
I have been reflecting on how I was blessed to meet Lama Tsultrim Allione October 23rd 1987 at the ashram of Swami Rudrananda in Big Indian, New York. At that time I had been working through issues of a divorce with a Transactional Analysis therapist, Susan Pasternack. Susan told me, “You are finished with therapy but now you need a teacher.” I wasn’t quite sure what she meant until she gave me Lama Tsultrim’s book, Women of Wisdom to read. I was fascinated not only by the stories of the Tibetan women but Lama Tsultrim’s autobiography in the beginning of the book. The book spoke to me and awakened a connection to the Tibetan culture and Buddhism. I guess I could say that Susan Pasternack opened the door for me and then Lama Tsultrim “met” me there at the opening.
At that first Dakini Mandala retreat I was introduced to Simhamukha, the Queen of the Dakinis, as well as the mandala work. My life was totally changed. To this day the emotional work with the mandala (which I received almost 24 years ago) has been my living road map and the Mandala practice of Simhamukha has become my lifelong practice.
The doorways to the dharma continued to open over the years through my travels with Lama Tsultrim. In the late 80’s Lama Tsultrim had a vision to create dakini mandalas in different locations around the world. Lama Tsultrim saw these “as a series of interlinking dakini mandalas that would cover the globe with a protective net.” I was blessed to have the unforgettable experience to attend the Dakini Retreat in Bali. This trip deeply healed and inspired my dedication to the Lama Tsultrim mandala work and to the Simhamukha practice.
At the time that Lama Tsultrim was living in New York State I was able to assist in the creation of a stupa on her land in New York near the Tappan Zee Bridge. I have so many wonderful memories of the women that would gather there on weekends to study and practice together. Chogyal Namkhai Norbu came to consecrate the stupa. It was an incredible feeling to all of us to gather around the stupa to practice the Chod and offer a feast with this great teacher.
When Lama Tsultrim and Dave moved to the land in Colorado to create the Tara Mandala retreat center, I thought that the doorway was closing. I kept my samaya to the practice of Simhamukha daily. After I got over the sense of loss, I became committed to going to Colorado to attend teachings.
Once I stepped on the land at Tara Mandala I could feel another very vast door opening. There was a feeling of being home in the beautiful rugged land filled with a vibration of wisdom that is hard to describe. At first we stayed in wonderful army style tents and the teachings were in a yurt. When you entered the yurt, you felt like you were walking into a temple. The central circular altar of Tara statues glowed.
Eventually the teachings moved to a giant tent in the meadow. This tent became a “home away from home” for me. The meadow was alive with plants, animals and insects. The openness of the meadow and sky transported my meditation practice as a door to skylike mind. In those years we would start the morning with Green Tara practice in the tent. This connection to Green Tara and all the 21 Taras continues to grow in my heart every year.
In the successive years of visits to attend retreats or assist Lama Tsultrim I was introduced to the morning practice of Prajnaparamita on Prayer Flag ridge. Here the vast view looking out over the valley and to the mountains and Chimney Rock opened the door to skylike mind. This practice continues to be essential to my daily life.
In 2007 I was honored to travel to Nepal and Tibet with Lama Tsultrim and Dave. I can’t express how deeply moving it was to go to the sacred places of Machig Labdron’s lifetime. In Zangri Khangmar, Machig’s seat for the final years of her life, Tsultrim Allione was recognized as an emanation of Machig Labdron. To be there in that moment felt like all the doors were blown open and I stepped into an understanding of the Machig Lineage, Lama Tsultrim, and my deep connection to these teachings.
Doors continue to open for me as a practitioner. Some happen in daily practice. I can be doing a practice for years and then something shifts and a deeper understanding arises. During COVID I have been able to attend many more Tara Mandala retreats than I would have been able to if I had to travel to Colorado.
Our own Tara Mandala Florida Keys sangha community has blossomed during this time. Some members have more time to attend teachings and practices. We have a daily weekday practice plus our Saturday sangha with many more participants than we had when we met in the Nature Chapel. Many have opened the door to the depth of daily practice and the sense of community we share on Zoom.
I am immensely grateful for the doors that have opened throughout my life. Thank you Susan Pasternack and Lama Tsultrim Allione for opening the first doors and to the entire Buddhist community for holding them open. Thank you, the sangha, for “shining the light” of awareness and the compassionate support you provide to all.
May ALL beings benefit.
Ellen Yeshe Chopel