It's like Navy seal training for devotees of Tibetan Buddhism. We're out of bed at 4:30 in the cold Brazilian mountain air for shamatha meditation. There are nine of us, ranging from Lucas, a handsome 25-year-old from the port city Porto Alegre; to Louisa, a heavy-set, wealthy retiree from Leblon, Rio's fanciest suburb; to Amie, a dark-haired, dark-eyed 36-year-old writer from Iowa City, Iowa, and—since last summer—my wife. We sit on the wooden floor or on small, round cushions. First we do the cleansing breath: Inhale through one nostril, as deeply as you can, using your belly rather than your chest. Then sharply expel all of the air from your lungs. Again, with the other nostril. Then both nostrils. Repeat three times. Legs crossed and back straight, palms on our knees, we focus on a single object—for most of us, a postcard-size picture of the Tibetan goddess Tara. Her skin is unnaturally, enticingly red, head tilted, a slight smile on her face, with her third eye—in the center of her forehead—open and watching, her long black hair, tied in a topknot, flowing over her shoulders.
"The point in shamatha is not to remain undistracted," Lama Sherab Drolma, our high-cheekboned, doe-eyed teacher, tells us, wrapped in her scarlet robe. She is slender but somehow lush, like the jungle surrounding us. "Of course your mind wanders."
I've never seen so many different flowers, or as many species of butterfly, as I have up here, high in the mountains of southern Brazil, at the Buddhist monastery Khadro Ling. The calls and songs of hundreds of birds fill the air, and great black spiders—whose webs hang undisturbed by the Buddhists—wait patiently between the pillars of the courtyard.
Presiding over the monastery is Chagdud Khadro, the greatest living practitioner of Red Tara. To practice Red Tara means to perform the meditations, prayers, and rituals associated with the key text (or sadhana) we use to learn about the goddess and express our devotion to her. Part of that process is the learning and practicing of "empowerments." Our goal is to recognize that we are ourselves Red Tara. It is in this way that we gain the attributes of the goddess, such as the power to liberate other minds from suffering—and to magnetize them.
Tara has 21 different forms, but when she appears as Red Tara, her particular activity is that of magnetization. We all know people who have this power. You feel drawn to them, not necessarily because of their looks but because of some mysterious quality they have—something welcoming, something attractive, something, well, magnetic. Tibetan Buddhists believe that you can harness this quality to magnetize many good things your way: people, health, wealth, even fame. And because Red Tara's magnetization operates through the forces of love and devotion, she has become specifically associated with the power of romantic attraction. We normally think of Buddhism as a renunciation of desire and worldly things. But there are many would-be practitioners—especially desperate-minded novice Buddhists like me—who seek the power of Red Tara because they perceive it as a kind of Love Potion No. 9.
A simple way of thinking about it was described to me by Jogyir, a 45-year-old Brazilian monk and retired firefighter who lives at Khadro Ling: "The world and everything in it is just the projection of your own mind. When you magnetize someone to you, what you are really doing is attracting a projection of yourself. You're really just seducing you." I thought of the kid with the shaved head in The Matrix: "Do not try to bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth. There is no spoon. Then you will see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself." It boils down to a basic concept: The world we are living in is like an incredibly realistic dream, but it's still just a dream.
The Khadro Ling monastery is the high cathedral of the Tantric practice of Red Tara. It's natural to hear the word Tantric and think about chakra-rocking sex and Sting's reported 10-hour lovemaking sessions, but it's really a belief that you can achieve enlightenment through experiences in the material world.
"You should practice like your hair is on fire!" Lama Sherab tells us. She's in her mid-forties, but there are photos of her 10 years younger on sale at the temple's gift shop; men must have donned monks' robes just to be near her. And yet as a teacher she's tough as nails. We follow her every command. After all, there's no time to waste. This life is your best chance to achieve the ultimate goal: freedom from suffering and the illusion that the universe is separate from yourself. Plus, I wouldn't mind having supernatural powers of seduction or a little extra money in my pocket.
Lama Sherab rings a small bronze bell: The meditation begins. We focus our concentration on the ruby-red image of the goddess.
I traveled 6,400 miles to spend 11 days at this remote monastery perched atop a high mountain in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, to ensure that my wife stays in love with me. Most Buddhists would not approve of my motives. But I have already endured the heartbreak, depression, and near bankruptcy of two divorces—separations that feel anything but illusory—and if Red Tara can help me safeguard my marriage to Amie, I'm sure as hell ready to give her a shot.
Still, we've been here only two days, and a hot Brazilian nun is already creating problems.
"That woman's fallen for you," Amie says while we're all in the dining hall eating lunch. "She won't stop staring at you."
"What woman?" I say, though I know exactly whom my wife means.
She's sitting two benches away: twentysomething, great figure, curly black hair—the prettiest woman living at the monastery.
"She's totally fixated on you."
Amie and I had been worried about this. Before coming to Khadro Ling, we made a promise to use Red Tara only on each other. I've been keeping my end of the bargain—though I don't yet know how to use Red Tara. Perhaps we're both susceptible to our overactive imaginations, because I've noticed that the men here are increasingly fascinated with Amie. This makes sense. She's young and attractive. But I'm 46 years old, pale, and out of shape, with thinning hair and a vague aura of discouragement that I haven't been able to shake since my second divorce. Up here, however, there's electricity in the air. Not sexual, exactly. It's more like an immersion in the magical colors and heightened perceptions that come with being in love.
But you don't have to be at Khadro Ling to experience the power of Red Tara. "It can make all kinds of things appear in the so-called real world," says Bruce (who asked that his last name not be used), a 58-year-old contractor in Bellingham, Washington, and faithful Red Tara practitioner. "It could bring a lover, of course. But it could bring money, too. Anything, I suppose."
I asked Ron, a 53-year-old physician in Seattle and another longtime practitioner, if he had ever used Red Tara to make someone fall in love with him. "I can definitely say that my partner was magnetized to me by my practice of Red Tara," he says. Twelve years ago, Ron (who asked that his last name not be used) met Steven at a nightclub. "He asked me if he could see me again, and I said yes," Ron recalls. "But then I crumpled up his phone number, thinking, 'We'll see if that happens.'" Ron had his Red Tara magnet turned on: The following day, his car broke down, and he was walking down the street in search of jumper cables when, Ron says, "Steven pulled up out of nowhere. A week later, he told me, 'I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to pursue you.' We've been together ever since."