Claire Heisler sits down with yoga teacher Chandra Easton to discuss yoga, Tibetan language and studying in Dharamasala.
Chandra Easton describes her religious upbringing as Tibetan Buddhist with an appreciation for the teachings of Jesus and all the world religions. Easton began formally studying Tibetan Buddhism in 1996, in Dharamsala, North India, at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, founded by H. H. the Dalai Lama. While there, she also studied the Tibetan language, and meditation. Since then, she has studied and translated Tibetan Buddhist texts and taught Tibetan. Easton has also studied yoga for nearly two decades. She began teaching in 2000 after training with Integrative Yoga Therapy, as well as Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley. Easton blends vinyasa, shadow, and yin yoga, as well as her Buddhist influences. She lives in Berkeley, California with her partner Scott Blossom, their eight year-old daughter Tara, and their new baby boy, Tejas. Easton and Blossom run Shunyata Yoga.
What brought you to study Tibetan Buddhism at Dharamsala?
I was living in Los Angeles in the early nineties, studying drama and dance and dabbling in yoga. My family encouraged me to attend a talk by Kusum Lingpa, a Lama with a very colorful and irreverent way of teaching. Upon hearing him talk about the dharma and the preciousness of our life, an intense longing arose in me to study the dharma more seriously. At that time, I met a peer dharma practitioner who was soon to leave for Dharamsala to study Buddhism and Tibetan language. I knew instantly that I wanted to do the same. In 1996, when I had saved enough for a plane ticket and living expenses to last me one year, I left for Dharamsala to begin my studies. This was to be the most formative time of my life.
But really the seeds of interest were sowed in me when I was much younger. Growing up as a ‘dharma brat’ (a child in the West whose parents converted to Buddhism), I had the good fortune of meeting many wonderful Lamas such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche, and the 16th Karmapa. When I was five years old, my mother was involved in arranging the Karmapa’s visit to Santa Barbara, CA, where I grew up. During the teachings, which were held outside in the gardens of an old estate in Montecito, he performed the Black Crown Ceremony. I watched from the audience and to my dismay, I saw him disappear. My five year old mind thought, “There must be a monk in the large throne he is sitting on, turning a crank, and lowering him down into the box, like at the circus!” Later, when I asked my mom how they made him disappear, she knew something magical had happened. Though perhaps no one else saw the Karmapa disappear, my mother tells me now that many people there had felt the magic of his presence when he went into meditative samadhi during the ceremony. This experience as a young child instilled in me an even deeper awe and curiosity in the mystical side of life. It also has imbued me with strong faith in Buddhist practice. I think this is why my later encounter with Kusum Lingpa triggered such a strong longing to dive more deeply into spiritual practice.
Where do Buddhism and yoga intersect?
The main point of intersection between Tantric Buddhism and yoga is the understanding of prana, or life force. Our mental habits and concepts have the biggest effect on the rhythm and movement of this life force; thus the Karmapa’s ability to dissolve his material form into the fabric of space. Hatha yoga, like Vajrayana, is designed to purify and prepare the body, energy, and mind for heightened states of awareness and ultimately enlightenment. This is why physical postures (asana), breath work (pranayama), visualization (dharana), and chanting (mantra) have always been used in both traditions. Some Tantric scholars say that recently translated source texts indicate that hatha yoga may actually have its origins in a very early form of Tantric Buddhism from North-East Pakistan, an area historically known as Uddiyana, and which is Padmasambhava’s birth place.
How does your study of the Tibetan language help your yoga?
The hatha yoga tradition also has a rich philosophical and textual background, but due to my primary interest in the Buddhist meditative practices found in the Vajrayana, I have not spent as much time studying those texts. I intend to study Sanskrit more deeply when I return to graduate school after my kids get older. Nonetheless, Tibetan language, which developed a dharma vocabulary in order to translate Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan, offers a framework with which to talk about both yogic and Buddhist concepts in a way that delves deep beneath the surface of the English words. Particularly when I teach the more restorative, contemplative practices of yin yoga, I give “dharma talks” on topics that apply to the practice. I find that when I share Tibetan terms, students are able to gain a better understanding and appreciation for the deeper meaning of the concepts. It also feels like a way to keep a beautiful yet endangered heritage alive. Not many Westerners know how refined Tibetan Buddhism is, and learning Tibetan terms is one way to expose them to this rich, vast terrain.
Are there specific challenges to Tibetan-English translation?
Learning a new alphabet and a new way of creating sounds through letter combinations is the first hurdle. The second is the order of the wording and then of course you have the various tones. The word “nga” when spoken in a high tone means the number “five,” but when spoken in a medium tone it means “me.” In written Tibetan, as in spoken, pronouns are often left out so one must be very careful not to loose the subject and/or object in the sentence. Even when one is fluent in Tibetan, one still needs the assistance of a native speaker who can help clarify the meaning. Many texts on Dzogchen and other subtle practices are written in a form of ‘twilight language,’ a kind of code language, so that one must receive instruction from a qualified teacher before engaging in the practices. This protects both the student and the lineage.
While in Dharamsala, did you meet the Dalai Lama?
While living there, I attended a public audience with hundreds of Tibetans and a few dozen Westerners. In the morning of this audience there was a double rainbow in the valley in front of my home, and brightly colored birds I had never seen before flittered from tree to tree. At His Holiness’s compound entrance, we waited in a long line that slowly proceeded past H.H. and his attendant monks. When it was my turn to shake hands, I bowed to him, and I heard his deep, kind voice say, “Tashi Delek,” the Tibetan greeting that loosely means “auspicious greetings.” I received a red blessing cord from a monk attendant and then was encouraged to move on so others could pass. That night, as my friend and I left a restaurant, still feeling the blessings of meeting the Dalai Lama, we saw the spectacular comet, Hale-Bopp, lighting up the sky. It was a day I will never forget.
You teach with your husband, Scott. How does this impact your relationship?
It has been a powerful way to practice what we teach. When we first started teaching together about eight years ago we facilitated silent retreats integrating yoga and shamatha meditation. Ironically, during the retreats we ended up getting upset with each other over logistical things. It was shocking to see how reactive we could be toward each other. But now, after a lot of practice and patience we genuinely enjoy it. It has deepened our communication, trust, and respect for each other. It is also important for us to have venues where we teach individually so that we have the space to share more fully from our own traditions.
Did you gain new realizations about the West through your studies in India?
I gained a much deeper sense of the divine play of samsara. The fact that life is fleeting and we must use it wisely has also taken root in me. I see the American consumer mentality much more clearly and find that I am more able to appreciate the simple pleasures in life. At the same time, due to my year in India I appreciate my country so much more than I ever did. I will go back again someday with my family, but I must admit that the idea of taking my kids there overwhelms me. India is a force not to be taken lightly.