Rasayana (Chulen) – Tibetan medicine
The Tibetan practice of Chulen represents a highly particular forging of diverse strands of spiritual and medicinal legacies.
Rasayana (Tibetan: Chulen): literally ‘essence extraction’ [pronounced chew len], consists of varied methods whose goal is to extract nutrition or ‘essence’ through alchemical processes, ritual and contemplation. The extraction can occur from sources which may include plants, flowers, barks and roots, water, rock, sperm and blood and human flesh as well as other less tangible substances, such as the ‘essence of space’ and of stars. The function of the practices of rasayana are to sustain the physical body with supplemented, or solely on, substances, enhance the body and mind, or accelerate spiritual development, and or, particular abilities.
Instructional Chulen texts describe how the practitioner’s meditative experiences and subtle energies can be reinvigorated through sexual practice, both actual and visualized in the mind of the yogin. The extraction of essence can either occur from actual solid, tangible objects or imagined in the meditator’s mind, working on the inner body’s subtle energies. Chulen exercises and techniques can involve preparations of alchemical compounds and medicinal concoctions, recitation of mantra, adherence to specific dietary regimes and a variety of exercises, mental, respiratory and physical. Unlike many other meditative practices, which focus mostly on mental exercises and visualizations, in the practice of Chulen the physical body is given great importance and concoctions are prepared according to the practitioner’s physical typology. The medicinal goal of certain texts is to nourish the body’s strength and organs and to increase longevity. Instead, Chulen texts, with a more spiritual emphasis, are directed at increasing wisdom and sharpening mental faculties as well as gaining various other ‘attainments’. In Tibetan literature one can find reference to several variations of Chulen whose purpose is to allow the practitioner to live on negligible amounts of food, thereby purifying the body and energy flow and sharpening mental focus while on the path to Buddhahood. Minimizing the need for food also means that meditators can spend prolonged periods of time in solitary retreat without having to worry about a livelihood.
Determining the origins of the practice of Chulen is complex, due to relatively sparse documentation and to the complications of establishing authorship of texts spanning several centuries. Chulen never was an institutionalized practice. It was not undertaken in group but rather by individual meditators, and therefore it is hard to pinpoint distinct and continuous Chulen lineages of transmission. Many Chulen texts come from gter ma revelations and were recorded at later stages, complicating the identification of a text’s inception and its chain of transmission.
In several texts an Indian imprint can be detected through the deities invoked or visualized and in the ingredients found in recipes. Figures such as Kalachakra, Vajrayogini, Amitayus often recur as the central deities. Saraha, a semi-legendary figure from Orissa on India’s east coast, is identified in certain texts as the originator of specific water Chulen practices. Many ingredients found in recipes, such as utpala and arura (known as Terminalia chebula), also are thought to derive from India. The Indian rasayana tradition was a probable influence in the development of Chulen, while many of the exercises to master the subtle body probably had Indian counterparts: the Tibetan term bum pa can is a translation of the Sanskrit kumbhaka. Several rituals described in Chulen practices to empower nectars are remarkably similar to Indian Vajrayogini practices. While India may have been the source of and provided the model for many texts, this does not mean that a distinct form of essence extraction has not evolved on the Tibetan plateau.
Chulen practices are found in all four Tibetan Buddhist schools as well as in the Bon tradition. Many of the teachings are said to derive from Padmasambhava and were rediscovered and set on paper by Tibetan treasure revealers in the Tibetan language. Some of the more well-known gter ston [Terton] who discovered Chulen texts attributed to Padmasambhava are: Padma gling pa (1450- 1521), Ratna gling pa (1403- 1479), Dri med ’od zer (1308- 1364); Bdud ’joms gling pa (1835-1904).
However Chulen texts are not confined to the Nyingma school and instances of texts authored by masters affiliated with other schools include the second Dalai Lama Rgyal ba Dge ’dun rgya mtsho (1475-1542) who authored a flower Chulen that has been translated into English by Glenn Mullin (2005). Also Sakya Pandita(1182-1251) wrote a Chulen text and in the Kagyu school the third Karmapa, Rang byung rdo rje (1284- 1339) and Shakya Shri (1853-1919) authored Chulen texts. In the Bon tradition authors include Shar rdza bkra shis rgyal mtshan (1859-1935) and Dkar ru grub dbang bstan ’dzin rin chen (1801-1860).
The main subcategories of Chulen typologies, based on the substances employed, are: water, flowers, pills, rocks and prana.
A central feature of many texts is the practice of kumbhaka (bum pa can) a special method of holding the breath. The Tibetan term bum pa can is a translation of the Sanskrit term and literally means ‘vase-shaped’ holding. The underlying idea is to guide the movement of energies and prana in the subtle body by using the air retained below the navel, muscular contraction and mental concentration and visualization. By directing one’s awareness and prana into the central channel various meditative experiences can be generated. The regular practice of kumbhaka helps to coordinate breathing and since the workings of the inner body winds affect the overall health and mental states, proficiency in practices working with energies in the subtle body is crucial for the meditator aiming to master his mind.
In a recent commentary on the practice of Chulen it is stated: “Chu is the essential substance of the elements: it maintains the physical body and, if our energy is uncoordinated, it co-ordinates it, if it is weak, it reinforces it. Therefore, Chulen is useful, above all, to harmonize energy and develop clarity…The Body of Light (Jalu) can manifest when the principles of meditation are combined with Chulen.”
Taking the pills: To gain the most benefit from this supplement, one should take one pills first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. To make an auspicious connection with the lineage associated with the pills, one can take the first dose around 5pm on a Thursday. Chew the pills and swallow with a good amount of warm water. Wait at least thirty minutes before eating. It is common when taking the pills to feel increased energy and to need less sleep. One may also experience decreased appetite, as well as effects such as increased mental clarity, a sense of physical lightness and strength, and a more joyous mood. While these particular Chulen are good for all body types, those with high blood pressure should avoid them. In particular, they benefit the kidneys, liver, heart and gastric systems. As an effect of the blessings associated with the pills, spiritual practice may be enhanced and a deepening of meditative experience may be noted.
Replacing meals with Chulen should be done with great care. This type of advanced practice is best undertaken in retreat and under the guidance of a professional.
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