I had ‘heart heat.’ My heart was small, hot, and closed. As the woman, a khandroma (dakini), scratched the flesh of my back, digging, creating red grooves of raised pain and relief, she said, “You need to expand your heart.” My first thought – fear. Will it hurt? Second, how to expand a heart? The scratching, the heat, her touch. A ritual in a small stuffy room, women only, that gestated a bodily transformation. Breaking raised blood vessels, leaving welts on my back the rich maroon color of a monastery freshly painted, she scratched, crooning sweet comforting words. Blood moved and changed under my unbroken skin. The old vessels my blood moved along were destroyed and new pain erupted. My old heart, rent asunder – that was a year ago.
Later that day, as I sat fidgeting, receiving the tantric empowerment from my female lama, I pondered their seemingly different modes of attaining wisdom. The khandroma is a ritual healer and tantric consort, and the female lama is a celibate nun who teaches religion to thousands of women and writes texts on monastic vows, among many other subjects. Two Tibetan women living Buddhist wisdom through very different, and yet uniquely Tibetan, modes of religious life. They are complementary members of this local world created by the Buddhist community that gathers at Serta Larung Gar, Eastern Tibet. Doing ethnography in what is now the largest nunnery and dharma encampment in the world, I encountered these two respected figures, who each tried their best to instill some wisdom in me.
If we allow ourselves to be disrupted by suffering in the world to the extent that our variously-sized hearts allow, scholarly wisdom must be constantly interrogated and re-contextualized in order to be of any use to us. In that light, I have tried to unpack this experience I had with healing. Seeking to understand how wisdom is practiced in a living Tibetan Buddhist community, I found myself giving up my ethnographical intentions, willingly becoming an inhabited body initiated into the ritual community, ripped open, healed, and instilled with a tantric god. I asked the khandroma to heal me, and she spoke gentle wise words that cut my heart like a knife through butter. Those few words shine like the famed Buddhist wish-fulfilling jewel, always offering the eye new facets, new meanings and interpretive possibilities. I let the khandroma lacerate my back with her caring fingertips. I accepted the pain. Moving forward, letting these experiences inform a new sense of self and context, I am still integrating them into my new heart.
The thousands of nuns who form the community at Larung Gar sacrificed everything else in “worldly life;” gave up everything extraneous to the quest for wisdom. These brave women severed family ties, left friends and lovers behind, and cut off the possibility of seeking any support other than refuge in the quest for wisdom itself. They have created an environment harmonious with Tibetan Buddhist ontology, a world where noise, speech, bodily actions, thoughts, and bodies themselves are transformed into karmic potentialities conducive to enlightenment. I went from having questions for them, to having my heart and life changed by them.
My female lama initiated me into the meditation which installs the tantric deity in your heart. There’s a space there now, created from releasing the clenched pain of shutting suffering out, a strength that I didn’t have before expanding my heart. When a tantric god lives in your heart, you are supposed to be transformed, becoming unafraid of how deeply the world can affect you. It’s a form of self-confidence that radically de-centers the self, connects you with the ritual community, and keeps you aware of the larger welfare of humanity. It breaks your heart open. I chose to let it.
So, I started over. I let myself be transformed by their expectations and their concerns for my heart. I felt the pleasing lilt of her sweet voice flow over me like liquid, as she hurt me in order to make my heart better. My identity changed through this bodily healing encounter with the khandroma. Honestly, she could have just as easily been referring to my mind rather than my heart. Ask a Tibetan to point to their ‘mind’ and they will touch their heart. For her, it was a deficiency of heart-mind capacity which I could solve by re-envisioning my entire life with the braveness to accept what truly living out the quest for wisdom does to our hearts and minds: it changes them. It expands them, painfully, accompanied by the dull ache of lack – cracking open the familiar walls we once depended on to keep us safe from fear, separate from the world’s suffering.
Wisdom should destroy our plans and our preconceptions, leading us to engage authentically with the world because of, and not in spite of, suffering. My present understanding requires that I remain uncomfortable in my position, re-framing my own capacity. I expand the walls of my new heart, breathing and experiencing the world’s suffering, listening, caring, hoping to do justice to my commitments to the community who showed me lived wisdom.