As more ties are made between east and west, anthropologists, students of religion and psychologists have been studying what concepts and pieces of wisdom can be gleaned from those traditions. While modern psychology is arguably only 150 years old or so, these traditions have been studying the mind in various ways for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Asian traditions are, of course, highly imbued with their cultures and especially religious and philosophical views (just like the west!) and have to be seen in those contexts.
Tibet had a long history of an indigenous religion before Buddhism even reached its borders, this was known as the Bön tradition. Although scholars debate as to whether this was actually a pre-Buddhist tradition, it differs quite a bit from the others streams of Buddhism and has a strong presence of methods of divination and elements of folk religion in it. It’s obvious that whatever the case, the belief in “demons” has had a long history in Tibet and that belief intermixed with Buddhism when that stream of thought was imported into the country.
Demons were typically seen as outer phenomena: illnesses, plagues, etc. and were dealt with by exorcists who would battle with the demons in various ways. While that is still done in some traditions in Tibet, one figure changed the Tibetan religious landscape forever after: an 11th century woman saint named Machig Labdrön.
Machig Labdrön studied with a number of masters, but was unique in being a strong exponent of a practice called Chöd which later became integrated into all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. There are many stories of her miracles and, like many important Tibetan figures, she was considered an emanation (rebirth) of someone important, in this case she was Yeshe Tsogyal, arguably, the most important historical woman figure in Tibet.
Machig developed a unique practice that combined singing, playing a drum and bell at the same time and practicing a complex inner visualization. There are several lineages of her teachings, many with totally different visualizations and songs depending on which student they appear to have come from. Now, what does this have to do with demons and how is this relevant to working with our internal parts?
In brief, the Tibetan belief is that anything that interferes with your enlightenment is a demon. That means things that we are attached to, illnesses that take our focus off our spiritual practices, even the impression left in our mind from an abusive boss or relative. Machig had categories that she developed for these demons, but the biggest demon of all was the attachment to our own body!
The legend has it that she knew some demons were coming for her and, in the midst of a flurry of miracles such as walking through walls or flying to the top of a tree, she hit upon the idea of offering her own body up to the demons to feed upon! Since she was enlightened and no longer attached to it and was full of compassion, even for the demons, this was no problem to her! The demons themselves were so impressed with this act of generosity that they turned into protectors and allies.
Thus we have the idea of “feeding your demons” that came from this practice. I will go into more depth on this next posting.