Dulshuk - Disciplined Engagement

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
-Carl Jung


Dulshuk (Wyl. brTul Zhugs, sometimes also spelled tulzhug) is a method of practice uniquely found in the Chöd tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. It is in itself a pith instruction for attaining liberation, and serves as the methodological foundation of the Chöd ritual, which first captured my heart over a decade ago when I encountered the teachings of Lama Tsultrim Allione.

Dulshuk is, in practice, the means by which the wandering yogin transforms the darkness of samsara into the ornaments of realization. It is the effortless expression of the sheer madness of compassion.

The bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo defines the undertaking of brtul zhugs as:

“vanquishing one’s normal, ordinary behaviour, one enters into the area of uncommon behaviour.”

Rangjung Yeshe’s dictionary describes it as:

“way of life yogic discipline; [religious, yogic] ascetic practice, conduct, discipline, practice, ritualism, behavior, life-style, yogic action; (usu. tantric) deportment courageous conduct.”

My personal favorite as far as concise, somewhat literal translations are concerned is disciplined engagement.

All of these definitions are, at best, skin-deep. It is an inherently experiential esoteric term (even and especially when translated into English), making little sense to the uninitiated.

Individually, we have two powerful concepts expressed through fairly common words:

བརྟུལ་ brTul means to subjugate or to conquer, but in this instance what is being subjugated is not an external force or enemy, but the projections of our own consciousness and indeed fear itself, which is born out of self-clinging. This part of disciplined engagement is more commonly described as the overcoming of conventional behavior and perceptions of reality.

ཞུགས་ Zhugs implies the entrance into or adoption of something. It can be understood as adopting the uncommon conduct of a yogi, or entering into uncontrived behavior. In a Jungian sense, this could be understood as entering into the shadow. But the energy of forward movement is primary. We are stepping in, not retreating or cowering in fear.

I first encountered Dulshuk while receiving teachings on the life of Machig Labdrön, the 11th century matriarch of the Chöd lineage and illustrious dakini of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. While inspired by Indian Buddhist philosophy, particularly the Prajñāpāramitā (‘Perfection of Wisdom’) literature, Machig’s dharma was uniquely Tibetan (there is some contention as to whether or not there was a primitive Indian Chöd tradition before Machig … but to date, we have not seen any actual Chöd sadhana that pre-dates her). Chöd (literally to cut) is a fully Mahayana practice, rooted in the Bodhisattva ideal and an intimate understanding of Emptiness, but it incorporates tantric Vajrayana techniques and shamanic qualities found in pre-Buddhist Tibetan folk traditions. This shamanic link is refuted by scholars like Jerome Edou, but is vehemently defended by many others including Namkha'i Norbu Rinpoche. It's also important to note that Machig taught in a cultural paradigm that broadly accepted the relative existence of disembodied spiritual entities, leaving us with a tradition of Tibetan demonology that is quite advanced. In the course of the ritual, one cuts through self-clinging by abandoning the body and offering it as food to various guests in a number of “feasts.” This is all done through graphic visualization, fully embracing the experience of working with your imagined corpse as if it is nothing more than food for vultures (Chöd is deeply connected with the Tibetan tradition of Sky Burial). The visualization is accompanied by a drum, bell, thighbone trumpet, and a sung liturgy. Through this ritual offering, one generates merit (by making offerings to the Enlightened Ones) and cancels out karmic debts (by offering the essence of whatever is desired to karmic debtors). Across Tibet, Chöd is prized for its healing capacity and ability to even alter the weather and environmental circumstances, but its essential purpose in the context of Buddhist practice is to cut through dualism in order to uncover the Nature of Mind.

The significance of a Tibetan dharma that was carried TO India is massive. And the fact that its founder was a woman - and a non-celibate mother, at that - is staggering. Women like this have a long history in Buddhism, but normally their stories were deemed less important than those of their male counterparts. Luckily for us, Machig’s biography has been published in the west through the tireless efforts of my teacher, Lama Tsultrim Allione, in her book Women of Wisdom.

When I was introduced to Chöd by Lama Tsultrim, I had already been well acquainted with her process of “Feeding Your Demons,” a psycho-spiritual approach for transforming personal “demons” into allies, that she developed through her personal experiences with Chöd over many decades. But the traditional practice itself is distinctly different, at least on an outer level. With the drum, bell, trumpet, and exotic melodies, the rite can be underestimated to be merely spectacular. But when you strip away the exoticism, the roots of the ritual are profound on many levels.

Machig taught that there are three degrees of Chöd practice: outer, inner, and secret:

On an outer level, the practice is really completely centered around the practice of going to frightening locations alone, like cemeteries or haunted sites, in order to confront fear and offer the body in the throes of self-preservation.

On an inner level, the practice is concerned with generating merit through making offerings to the enlightened beings and offering gifts to the guests of compassion (all of the beings in cyclic existence) through the perfection or paramita of generosity.

And on a secret level, the practice is most fundamentally focused on cutting through ego-fixation by severing clinging to the impermanent corporeal body.

In Chöd, we can’t simply sit in our shrine rooms and feed imagined demons. We have to set out and find them, both within our minds and within our environment. It’s not so much about creating projections, but seeking out the latent fears hidden in the shadows. We can spend endless amounts of time learning about the Tibetan divisions of non-human spirits, and how to appease them with particular tormas and incense mixtures, but what we fail to recognize is that the Chöd teachings didn’t spend excessive amounts of time establishing a belief in spirits. Machig’s Chöd was juxtaposed onto a culture that already held demons to be as real as anything else. She offered them not a method to cling further to these concepts, but a way to view them through the lens of absolute truth.

For the average Westerner, external demons may be a foreign concept, and for that reason many contemporary Lamas have strayed away from the personification of these entities, and instead focused on the negative emotions, sicknesses, and addictions that we consider to be demons. This is also in line with Buddhist philosophy, which takes the indigenous demons of the Himalayas and ties them in with the Buddhist concepts of dependent origination and voidness. In a recent teaching with Dr. Nida Chenagtsang regarding protective amulets, he suggested that only those who believe in negative spirits should worry about being protected from them. Others would disagree, insisting that “spirit provocation” (one category of diseases in Tibetan Medicine) is a reality regardless of the patient’s own views regarding unseen beings.

Ultimately, there are bigger fish to fry than exorcising demons. Enlightenment is the final goal of the Buddhist path, not mastery over supernatural monsters. But regardless of one’s personal opinion regarding the existence or non-existence of ghosts and demons, everything can shift if you push yourself to the edge of your self-preservation. In Chöd, the practitioner does not make a habit of practicing in peaceful, safe environments. Instead, s/he is expected to venture out into the wild and perform the body offering in places that scare them. For Tibetans and Indians, few places could evoke the fear associated with charnel grounds, cemeteries where cadavers are cast out as food for vultures. These “graveyards” are a far cry from our lush parks and memorial gardens; they are littered with bones and corpses in varying stages of decay instead of the more familiar carnations and roses. Traditionally said to be the abodes of many kinds of demons (and the ancient flesh-eating dakinis), the charnel ground was the ideal place for a practitioner to come and relinquish attachment to their body. In America, most Chödpas visit cemeteries in lieu of traditional charnel grounds, but this really doesn’t accomplish the same tulzhug effect. It may be more beneficial to practice on a hill where a bear lives, or on the wrong side of the tracks in a sketchy neighborhood … or maybe it’s in the house where you were sexually assaulted. The places that scare you are the places that hold the most potential for spiritual growth. This is also true with our emotions. Fear, addiction, and other “big” demons in our lives tend to hold a lot of energy that, if worked with and ‘fed,’ can be transformed into phenomenal allies. But if we continue putting so much energy into the ‘fighting,’ all that we get is a stronger demon.

(That said, it is always advised that you use objective reason in choosing a place to exercise tulzhug. You should not put yourself in actual mortal danger…)

Tulku Sang-Ngag Rinpoche, while transmitting Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje’s Dzinpa Rangdröl Terma cycle to our sangha at Tara Mandala, would send practitioners out into our 700 acres of wilderness to do Chöd in scary places overnight. In the remote wilderness, populated with mountain lions, bears, snakes, and the vast unknown – our very real fears could come to the forefront. In this place, when the projections of our own self-clinging terrify us with endless fearful thoughts and emotions, we can subjugate the fear (brtul), abandoning the common tendency to flee frightful locations to protect the body. According to Lama Tsultrim, by doing this we transform the energy locked up in that energetic conflict, and can push through the experience and awaken to the true nature of mind. She explains that this “pushing through” is the true meaning of zhugs. It’s a grand entrance, a pushing-through, into pure transcendent awareness.

The meaning of brtul zhugs doesn’t lie in some kind of contrived attempt to feign fearlessness. The meaning is in the real, lucid experience of being on the threshold of absolute terror, and stepping into that fear in order to sever dualistic clinging. It’s understood as uncontrived yogic conduct because it goes against our habitual instinct to avoid the things that scare us. It is fearlessness, but not the same kind of fearlessness that one comes to by “sucking it up.” It can only be realized when we recognize the baselessness of our fear, and the fundamental insubstantiality of the “self.” This is, of course, a complex concept that might only really resonate to Buddhists and physicists… but I feel it could also be just as applicable to those who believe in a “higher” power.

While the concept of Tulzhug has its roots in the narrow stream of the Tibetan Chöd tradition, its principles don’t need to remain esoteric. If we can step into adversity, what Lama Tsultrim often describes as “turning the sail into the wind,” and allow our self-clinging to be liberated in its own ground, we can catch a glimpse at the nature of mind. If we can forcefully subjugate our fearful projections and just rest in that moment of baselessness, perhaps we can become truly fearless. This “turning in” is the true meaning of Tulzhug.

“Dance on the tip of a spear! Race your horse on the edge of a knife! The time is now! Accomplish your purpose! There’s danger of losing your path in the rocks… Strive on the steed of practice! Eat delicacies to the cackling of the charnel grounds!“

-Padampa Sangye (Lion of Siddhas, p. 123)

(c) Erik Andersson 2015



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© 2020 Shrīmālā Healing Arts. Tibetan Medicine is a millennia-old healing discipline formally acknowledged in Tibet, China, India, Bhutan, and Nepal. However, it is not a licensed medical discipline in the USA, UK, or EU, and therefore is not regulated by the FDA, AMA or any other regulatory body in these countries. Erik is not legally qualified to diagnose any conditions, and no herbal formulas recommended or supplied are intended to prevent, treat, or cure any disease. Therapies or treatments pursued under a Tibetan Medicine Practitioner should not be treated as a replacement for qualified care by a licensed physician.