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."
To the Western ear, this might sound like magical thinking, but it's hardly new. Franz Anton Mesmer, a German physician and amateur astronomer who believed that reason constrained the human mind, retreated to a forest in the mid-1770s in an attempt to think entirely without words. Several months later, he emerged from the woods with the notion that we are all bound together by a "universal fluid," which produces an effect that he called animal magnetism. Mesmer claimed that he could control the human mind and heart using only his hands and eyes. He founded a secret society in Paris that was popular among the elite (the Marquis de Lafayette taught Mesmer's techniques to George Washington). Later, in the 1820s, the French Academy of Medicine studied Mesmerism as a form of anesthesia.
"Magnetism was an invisible force thought to be analogous to electricity . . . and the material form by which passion expressed itself," says John Monroe, the author of Laboratories of Faith: Mesmerism, Spiritism, and Occultism in Modern France. Mesmerism made its greatest impact in the United States, beginning with the Christian Science movement, and soon its techniques were adopted by the pioneering hypnotist James Braid and the New Thought movement (to which we owe the so-called law of attraction). You can spot Mesmerism's influence in everything from the "auditing" practices of Scientology (which rely on techniques similar to those of Mesmerism to transform old habits into new ways of thinking) to the best-selling self-help book The Secret.
Romantically challenged men like me, however, gravitate toward the techniques perfected by pickup artists. Even before the cynical tactics of the self-dubbed "seduction community" were cataloged in Neil Strauss' The Game, Tom Cruise had already given us a perfect satirical send-up of our calculating tendencies in Magnolia: "I'm Frank T.J. Mackey, a master of the muffin and author of the seduce-and-destroy system . . . the magical key to unlocking the female analytical mind-set. Tap directly into her hopes, her wants, her fears, her desires, and her sweet little panties."
I've never read The Game, but I've played it in my heart.
• • •
It's not yet 6 a.m. on the second day, and we're already deep in visualization. We picture ourselves as Red Tara, illuminated with ruby-red light, showering rays of goodness onto all sentient beings. When the sun rises, we get a 15-minute break. Then we practice the series of prayers, chants, songs, meditations, mantras, and visualizations that constitute the discipline of Red Tara. This continues throughout the day, with short breaks for lunch and dinner, and well after the sun sets behind the blue and green mountains. We stagger to bed as late as 10 or 11 o'clock. Then, at 5 a.m., we start all over.
The person most responsible for bringing Red Tara to the West was the lama Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, who died in 2002. Born in 1930 in Tibet, the Rinpoche—an honorific that refers to a high-ranking lama—escaped to India when the Chinese invaded his country. After living in several refugee camps, the Rinpoche received his first Red Tara empowerments and quickly became an accomplished practitioner. In 1978, he was in Nepal when he met a beautiful young American backpacker named Jane Dedman. She presented the Rinpoche with a jar of honey and later offered to serve as his attendant in retreat. Eventually they moved to California, married, and began establishing Buddhist centers across North America, as well as in Switzerland, Uruguay, and Australia. In 1994, they founded Khadro Ling; three years later, Dedman was ordained as a lama, and she has gone by the name Chagdud Khadro ever since. Today she's one of the highest-ranking female lamas in the world.
In the early days of Khadro Ling, the Rinpoche made the unorthodox decision that the empowerment ceremonies, or transmissions, whose secret rituals are normally reserved for faithful practitioners, should be open to the general public.
This spirit of openness comes with certain risks. Lama Sherab may as well be talking about me when she says, "If a person heard that someone found a lover because that person did Tara practice, we are presenting the method as an instrument to find happiness, and in doing so, presenting the Buddha's methods with a false view."
But it's quickly becoming clear to me that enlightenment comes only through spiritual sweat equity. If you want to learn how to magnetize people, first you will have to take refuge as a Buddhist, receive the transmission, and learn the practice of Red Tara. Although I couldn't reveal any of the key secrets in print if I wanted to (they're mental), this much can be told:
You will have to repeat a complex Sanskrit mantra—no, I can't tell you what it is—more than a million (yes, a million) times, and you'll have to keep count of your repetitions.
You will experience perfect elaborate mental visualizations—eyes open, no cheating!—of countries, palaces, goddesses, colors, and words and syllables in more than one language.
You will be involved in the daily close philosophical study of the meaning of key Buddhist terms, like mind, emptiness, karma, and compassion, and their interconnections. (We spent as many as 12 hours a day doing close analysis with Lama Sherab, sometimes syllable by syllable, just to prepare to read the Red Tara sadhana.)
You will ring a ceremonial bell, blow a conch shell, play a drum, chant in Tibetan and Sanskrit, and make offerings of symbolic substances on a mandala plate, according to a very specific ritual.
And you will immerse yourself in the story of Tara, a millennia-old ur-feminist who began life as an Indian princess so devoted to others that she would not even eat breakfast before performing at least two dozen acts of compassion. Even then, she was driven to do more: In Buddhism, the greatest way to help others escape suffering is to find enlightenment oneself. So the princess consulted a wandering yogi who told her: "The best you can do is pray to be reborn as a man. A woman will never reach enlightenment." In that moment, the stubborn princess resolved to both achieve enlightenment and always be reborn as a woman.
We are taught to think of Tara as we would think of our mothers: Imagine the great love, sympathy, and devotion that your mother has for you, and that you have for her. The Red Tara practitioner, like a good mother, radiates the power of love. It might seem odd that a mother figure would be connected to a power to make others fall in love with you (though Freud would think it was perfectly natural), but this is the basic principle that motivates the practice and creates the magnetic energy of the practitioner.
When Chagdud Rinpoche brought this teaching to the West, Lama Sherab tells us, "he found that many of his students did not have the same happy relationship with their mothers that he knew from Tibet and India. So he said we can think of any woman who radiates love, even the most beautiful movie star." Imagine the way your favorite actress or a lingerie model looks into your eyes. She's looking at a camera, yet somehow she manages to project her love at you, and it draws you to her.
As I sit meditating at Lama Sherab's feet—one day after receiving my first empowerment and beginning to see Red Tara for who she really is—I think of my children's mothers, both now estranged from me. I think of my daughters and how I have disappointed them. I look at Amie and swear to myself that it will never happen again. Then we begin practicing mudras: elaborate symbolic hand movements that generate spiritual energy. I try to concentrate. We begin to chant the mantra. But I'm thinking of all the spiritual damage I've done to the people I love.
Amie takes my arm and asks, "Are you all right?" I realize that, while chanting, I am also bawling my eyes out. I am grateful to be in the front row, so that no one else can see.
• • •
The dawn of Day 4: Chagdud Khadro will finally transmit the power of Red Tara to us. It's been raining nonstop, but this morning the sun rises, the clouds clear, and it's bright and warm. We still haven't met Chagdud Khadro, or even seen her walking the grounds. But today she will speak to us, touch us, teach us.
"Actually pay attention to every word Chagdud Khadro says, every gesture she makes," Lama Sherab instructs us. Before you can do the practice, you have to receive the empowerment from Chagdud Khadro. And you won't receive any of the benefits of it unless you practice diligently.
A great procession of Brazilians have come to the monastery for the day's ceremony, some from as far away as Rio. Amie and I and the rest of the students jostle for positions with all the new visitors in a large room surrounded by windows, where Chagdud Khadro will empower us. There's an enormous pile of shoes outside the door. There are children present too, and at least one baby. It's like a crowd assembled to receive a blessing from the pope.
Suddenly everyone starts prostrating: raising hands pressed in prayer to the crown of the head, the throat, and the heart, then kneeling and touching the forehead to the floor. Chagdud Khadro has entered the room.
She is slender and pale with sandy-blonde hair and kind but piercing blue eyes. Dressed simply, in the signature crimson robes of the Tibetan Buddhist, she is in her sixties but looks 45. There is a kind of light surrounding her.
Amie and I are in the front row, and Chagdud Khadro sits on a low throne a few feet from us. Next to her is an altar bearing a statue of Red Tara, with candles, incense, brandy, fruit, flowers, and other offerings. We sit behind long wooden tables with orchids and paintings of Red Tara resting on them. Some people have bronze meditation bells; others, bronze mandala plates covered with precious stones; still others, their malas, the necklaces of bodhi seeds that Buddhists use like rosaries to count their mantras.
Then Chagdud Khadro begins to speak, in English, with a translator sitting by her side, repeating her precious words in Portuguese. She has the strangest voice I have ever heard: It sounds like a hummingbird might sound if it were suddenly able to speak. She explains the importance of bodhicitta—of practicing as Buddhists in order to accumulate merit to benefit others, not oneself: "Red Tara teaches us to love all sentient beings. We must free every class of being from suffering through our love and compassion." She goes on to explain that Red Tara inspires love for the sake of devotion, which serves the purpose of freeing the mind. She explains the interconnections of form and emptiness. Then her assistants hand us ritual flowers, which we will drop on a sacred plate during the ceremony to reveal our particular strengths and weaknesses.
Three times Chagdud Khadro rises, first pouring saffron water into our palms to drink, then touching each of us on the forehead as part of the transmission. She carries the mandala from person to person. People line up to ask her to bless their malas or to give her white silken scarves. She says prayers over each object.
After we leave, we watch the procession of visitors get back into their cars and drive off. Now they have the power of Red Tara—in theory. Of course, it won't mean a thing unless they learn the practice.
Amie and I start to head back to our room, assuming we will get to relax after having finally received the empowerment. No such luck. "We will meet back here after dinner," Lama Sherab announces. We still have another week's worth of 15-hours-a-day drilling under Lama Tough Love.
Immediately following dinner, when we take a seat on our meditation mats, Amie says, "You know I really love you." At first I can't tell if she's thanking me for coming up here or telling me she understands how much she means to me. But the benevolent look on her face communicates both of those feelings. "I really love you too, honey," I reply. As we begin meditating, she nudges her cushion over, so that our knees are touching.
Just then, the twentysomething nun enters the practice room, carrying a mandala plate with our offering for later. She places it on the altar. I look to see if she glances my way. She catches my eye for a moment, smiles, then leaves. I'm careful not to watch her go.
"You know I'm not interested in that girl, right?" I say.
Amie gives me a sidelong glance. "I thought you didn't know what girl I meant," she says. Then Lama Sherab rings the brass bell. And we start to visualize Red Tara.
• • •