MANDALA  Buddhism in Our Time
Reversing the energy of addiction
by Ngawang Chotok with Jindati Doelter
San Francisco, the city everyone should see before they die, according to the 60s rocker Eric Burden, is a city of doom for the street people, the bums, as ex-monk and student of Lama Yeshe, Ngawang Chotok well knows.

Sleeping in parks and low class hotels where you use the sink as the toilet and meditating in doorways at night was a nine-month reality for Chotok. "I was completely addicted to alcohol. I had drunk a lot for many years, but it was when I was on the street that I was at my worst," he says. Sober for nearly six years, Chotok is now a certified alcohol and drug counselor at the University of San Francisco, working with active drug users. He is also a treatment team member at Sequoia Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center in Redwood City and the director of PRISM, People Recovering in a Spiritual Manner. According to Chotok, "Addiction in general is a perfect metaphor for samsara. The dynamics of addiction are a graphic example of the dynamics of samsara in general."

And evolving beyond samsara is the same as evolving beyond addictions, he says. People who have given up addiction are people who are able to find life meaningful and satisfying without relying on mood-altering substances. Generally speaking they are spiritually evolved. In fact, Chotok says, addiction is an energy that can be reversed from agonizing misery to blissful liberation and become the spiritual path itself.

Human beings look for happiness in the wrong places and therefore find suffering instead. Looking for happiness outside as the solution for internal dilemmas is how most modern societies function, or rather, mis-function. "Ex-addicts have the advantage that they are not enchanted by money, power and possessions. They already know that they won't find happiness outside themselves in material things." "I talk to people about the suffering nature of life. The whole human race is in denial about that," Chotok says.

Having visited human hell, he can communicate vividly with his clients, and he is trustworthy to them. He's been there and he pulled himself out. And he has come a long way.

His journey towards the Dharma and his meeting with Lama Yeshe started with a car accident at age eighteen. Narrowly escaping death, he experienced a vision of clear light. And a year later, in Morocco where he was poisoned by a powerful dose of Belladonna without his knowledge, he had a clear visualization of the Kalachakra mandala in the sky. Without having been taught before, he was able to read the Tibetan letters that surrounded the mandala.

After excursions to several places in India in 1972, he eventually arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he met Olivia de Haulleville, the niece of author Aldous Huxley, in front of a Mahakala statue at Ratna Park. She told him about a Tibetan lama giving teachings at Kopan; and his wife Lisa knew someone there called Babaji, so it seemed a good place to go to. "I smoked two Nepali joints on the way there to make sure I'd be very receptive to the teachings," laughs Chotok.

He set foot in the old Chenrezig Gompa where he was first impressed by a Western carpet and by the 1,000 arm Chenrezig statue. A group of ten Westerners were there, including Anila Ann, Mommy Max, Zina Rachevsky and Massimo Corona.

Chotok was wearing shrouds from a funeral pyre and the matted locks of a Shiva saddhu. "Mommy Max looked at me as if a rat had just walked in! And Zina made clacking noises and motioned me to stand up," Chotok said. "All of the sudden the door burst open and Lama came through it like a tank, moving in a straight line. He was very determined and meant business!"

The discourse was on the two levels of truth. Chotok remembers Lama saying that the hippies that come to Kopan are awed by the beautiful sunset, but from Lama's point of view the sunsets were ugly because they cause attachment. Chotok was immediately seduced and thought, "This is the man I've been looking for since I was eighteen. He is my teacher."

By June 1973 he had left his pregnant wife Lisa and one-year-old son to become a monk. Chotok requested ordination from the Rimay lama, Tulshig Rinpoche of Tengboche Monastery in the Kumbu region of Nepal, because he wanted to establish a connection with a master who integrates the essential methods of all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

His friend Tubten Pende remembers getting Chotok stoned the night before he took his vows and reading him stories of Milarepa. "Chotok was zealous like me but he was able to channel his enthusiasm into formal structure by taking ordination." Having observed another Westerner become a monk, Pende made the decision to get ordained the following year.

Chotok stayed on to meditate in the mountains, at Lawudo, the home of Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Wasn't leaving his wife and child like this contradictory to the very meaning of Dharma? "I was at a point that I had to do this or die," Chotok says. "I loved Lisa and I loved my son, but I was such an uncontrolled being that I thought if I don't become a monk I'd lose it. I was scared. It appeared to me that if I didn't take this opportunity, my life would be worthless."

And he felt he needed strict training to get as far as possible in meditation. In the first couple of years he meditated on the lam-rim, spending from May to October up in the caves and the winter down in the valley at Kopan, or on pilgrimages in India, to Bodhgaya for example where His Holiness Dalai Lama gave a Kalachakra initiation in January 1974.

A group of fourteen of Lama Yeshe's students took ordination in Bodhgaya then, among them Pende, forming the beginning of Lama's Western sangha, the International Mahayana Institute (IMI). In the Spring of that year at Kopan, Lama Yeshe gave the first Heruka Vajrasattva initiation to his students. "I went back to Lawudo and did this retreat. It was the first secret mantra practice that any of us had ever done," Chotok says.

In only two weeks his mind underwent changes, he says. In one session particularly he remembers realizing that delusion is the root of all suffering, not just in his own mind but in the minds of all beings, and that sentient beings are not inherently bad, just ignorant. "I started to weep like I have never wept in my life," he says.

The next year, Chotok did a Mahakala retreat, and during it he composed stanzas of 108 lines in praise of Four-armed Mahakala. He requested Lama Yeshe to make Four-arm Mahakala the protector of the IMI. Lama Yeshe accepted, saying he had thought before about this aspect of Mahakala being the most suitable protector for his Western sangha.

Chotok held his vows as a monk for six years exactly. By 1978, he had been appointed director of Wisdom Publications by Lama Yeshe, and was living at Manjushri Institute in the north of England. Towards the end of this period, he says, he was struggling to reconcile his sense of who he was with the lifestyle of a monk. Recurring frustration debilitated his contentment with living in these vows.

"I longed for intimate physical contact with women again, but there was also something deeper going on," he says. "I felt that my ordination had become a hindrance, a barrier, preventing me from deeper communication with people." They would put him on a pedestal because of his robes, asking questions about meditation and philosophy, for example, but not opening up about their emotional problems. "I felt stifled and unfree."

He expressed his concerns to Lama Yeshe, whose advice was to renounce his vows and live as a lay person. Lama predicted that his practice would become more powerful this way, whereas if he remained ordained, he would become more confused. The decision was made.

After Chotok disrobed, in 1979, he lived again with Lisa and his two boys in Nepal. In 1982 he went to Dharmasala and did a 63-day chulen retreat Taking the Essence a fasting retreat where one takes only three herb pills a day. "It was my most significant retreat ever. I felt that I really got somewhere with meditation."

He was given the instructions by Lama Yeshe in what was essentially a samadhi retreat based on the practice of vajra recitation in the completing stage of the Guhyasamaja tantra. And one afternoon he was given a commentary on the ten kilayas in the mandala of Guyhasamaja by His Holiness Ling Rinpoche. "He very graciously gave me some of his precious time."

By the forty-ninth day of his retreat, Chotok says, his meditation had reached a level that he'd never dreamt possible. "The boundaries between meditation and non-meditation completely vanished. In fact, my post-meditation session the times out of meditation became even more powerful than the meditation session itself. The illusory nature of all universal phenomena was extraordinarily vivid. Everything appeared as vision.

"During this period, the last two weeks of the retreat, I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to take care of my wife and children. I envisaged exactly how I would be able to do it." For the next five years Chotok tried to make his vision reality. The work he had chosen was very lucrative but highly dangerous and stressful. Increasingly he used cocaine, alcohol and various opiates to deal with the intensity of his life.

Inevitably, his relationship with Lisa fell apart. And in 1987 he was given a day to leave Nepal. Because of his efforts to help a young Russian woman defect to the West, he attracted the wrath of the KGB. "My life was in danger, there was no doubt. I was taken to the airport under escort by four US marines and put on a plane to America."

He had nothing, only his prayer books. "I tried to live again with my family in Salt Lake City, but it was impossible. I nearly went insane." He tried to live at Vajrapani Institute, Lama Yeshe's center in northern California, "But I was in serious culture shock. By now I was completely dependent on alcohol. All I wanted to do was drink."

"I was in crisis. I was experiencing deep conflict about myself as a Dharma practitioner and how I fitted into the world. I didn't know how to put these two together.

"I got to the point where I didn't want to think any more, I didn't want to feel any more, I didn't want to live any more, I didn't even want to breathe."

By now he was in San Francisco, on the streets, and he literally could do nothing but drink. "The addiction was overpowering and I drank with abandon, insatiably. I wanted to drink all the alcohol in the universe." As the months of unrelenting pain went on, witnessing people get shot and stabbed next to him, Chotok felt he was close to his own death and prayed for a sign.

The very next day an insane man tried to pick a fight with him. "He had cocaine-psychosis, his eyeballs were bulging out of his head, all his hair was standing on end, and he was completely out of his mind. He tried to fight with me. Even though he'd never seen me before, I was the object of his rage. I watched that like a movie and saw him he was black as a manifestation of Mahakala.

"I took it as a sign and decided that I didn't want to die that way. It wasn't the way to repay the kindness of my teachers," Chotok says.

He remembered a dream that he had during his fasting retreat in which he met Lama Yeshe. "We were walking through the deserted streets of San Francisco. I took Lama to an elegant restaurant and offered him eight golden coins. He was very pleased. And we talked about finding a way to fulfill my Mahayana vows in this kaliyuga, the dark ages."

And he recalled an occasion in 1977 this time it wasn't a dream when he was walking with Lama Yeshe in the desert near Yucca Valley in southern California. Chotok asked Lama if the present kaliyuga is really as negative as the Kalachakra Tantra describes it. Lama looked up in the sky and whistled and then spat on the ground and said, "Of course! You're a perfect example of kaliyuga. If you had been born in Tibet you would have been trained at a young age and would be an object of refuge. But because of these degenerate times you were born in America and even your friends think you're garbage." And then Lama turned around and walked away.

Chotok took himself off the streets and put himself into detox. He almost died, and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and transferred to a hospital.

From there on his life's graph went uphill. He found a cheap room and got a job with a computer company. This helped him to get back on his feet, and soon one of his teenage sons came to live with him. After two years purchasing computer parts, Chotok felt the strong desire to share his experiences as a recovered addict, to help others with the same struggles. He started working in the field of chemical dependency, went back to school and got certified. Now he is working for his master's degree in social work.

Chotok teaches the Four Noble Truths and meditation to addicts the majority of whom are not street people, he points out. Many in fact are famous athletes and successful business people.

"The meditation that I teach them at the beginning, middle and end is inner fire, the seed-syllable meditation, which I originally learned from Tulshig Rinpoche, and which Lama Yeshe encouraged us to do," he says. "This meditation speeds recovery from acute withdrawal symptoms to post-acute withdrawal symptoms." It has the power to burn addiction, he says, as it deals with the subtle energy channels and winds and induces a healing effect upon the nervous system. It opens people's minds to wisdom and clear light, thus dissolving neurosis. The vase breathing, an important part of the meditation, calms the thoughts.

Some Dharma practitioners think there is no harm in smoking marijuana, for example. But Chotok doesn't have much good to say for it. "It is important that the central channel of our subtle nervous system is clean and clear, and if you smoke dope you are gumming everything up. When you start smoking you feel it makes you high, but soon you feel stupid. In fact, it strengthens delusions."

"He is the most knowledgeable person about meditation in our organization, says Internship Supervisor and Aftercare Director of Sequoia Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center Martha Dunn. He is very compassionate, very intuitive and has a knack for working with addicts. And he is good at facilitating and listening to people...they hear what he's saying."

Chotok also teaches people the techniques of exchanging themselves for others, to take on the suffering and pain of others, especially the meditation called Giving and Taking Upon the Breath. This really helps open channels of communication, he says. "People trust me, they do what I tell them to do. I personally have compassion for them and I tell them to do the same."

"The average person does not want to cause suffering. People instinctively want to practice. You don't hit them over the head by telling them "this is Buddhism' you just tell how things are."

During his three years of meditation in the caves of Nepal, Chotok says he made prayers and dedications to be of benefit to sentient beings in whatever way necessary, and not to fear samara's deepest and darkest pits. He feels his prayers have been answered in the work he is doing now, which is because of his experiences on the streets.

"I can say in perfect confidence that people are helped," he says, explaining that his confidence derives from relying upon the Dharma taking teachings, meditating on them, and beginning to feel comfortable about their meaning.

"We practitioners of Tibetan Dharma are refugees from Tibet who transmigrated from one existence to the next. Our struggle is to find the yearning for our spiritual heritage from a previous existence in an environment where social values are rooted in materialism," he says. "The truly miraculous thing is that the migrators are able to bring the Dharma to people who haven't met the Dharma before. The ineffable joy of this is that we're able to see how true the teachings are."

Chotok feels he has found his peace. "I think it took the extreme intensity of my experiences, that vengeance upon myself, to finally find out how to fit into life, how to incorporate my obligations as an even nominal Dharma practitioner into this Western society. I have found harmony between my inner self and what I am doing in the world."