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Interview with Pema Chödrön
Pema Chödrön is a spiritual icon and one of the most influential and recognizable Buddhists in the world. A bestselling author and prolific teacher, she has touched the lives of countless individuals and in turn is fervently adored by many people, and not just Buddhists.
But the Pema I am drawn to—and I imagine most Pema Chödrön fans out there feel the same way—is not just a celebrity, but a real-world Buddhist nun who works with her mind and doesn't sugarcoat the truth. Genuine, playful, kind, and humble, the secret to Pema's success seems to be that she has no secret. She is able to help people work with fear and confusion because she has worked with her own fear and confusion. There's no wizard behind the curtain. There's just Pema, and she's practicing just as we can.
This summer, before the start of the Being Brave: Transforming Our World program in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I was able to sit and talk with Pema about a wide range of issues, from her teachers, spiritual materialism, the current state of monasticism, to the harsh realities of the world we live in. Visit the December 2011 Tricycle Retreat, Being Brave: Transforming Our World, led by Ani Pema Chödrön and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche here.
- Monty McKeever
Please tell me about this Being Brave: Transforming Our World program you’re about to teach with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and Acharya Adam Lobel. I can’t tell you too much about it because when you teach with the Sakyong you pretty much just jump off the end of a diving board. Unlike when I teach my own weekends and I kind of have a concept of what it’s going to be about. In this case, I’ll hear his talk and bounce off of it. It’s going to be a last moment kind of thing, which is good.
Of course, knowing the Sakyong and the title of the program, it’s about helping the world; using the tools that were left to us by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, meditation and the Shambhala teachings, to be of use and of help to a troubled world.
Can these teachings on human bravery literally transform the world? Yes, that’s right. Transform the people so they can transform the world. It takes a lot of bravery.
The big thing in my own experience is that the bravery is to not just go with a habitual pattern because it’s usually fear-based. Instead, stay present and open so you can connect with your underlying strength, which is called basic goodness. The seductiveness of habitual pattern is a false security, but we wouldn’t follow it if we didn’t think it was going to bring us some comfort or relief. Still, habitual patterns just keep us stuck in the same rut, so the courage is to actually realize you have a choice and choose to do the tougher thing.
What’s your relationship with the Sakyong like? Are you two close? Yes, we’ve been close for many, many years. When he was a teenager, his father, the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, asked me to be his meditation instructor because he was just starting ngondro [Foundational Vajyarana-Buddhist practices]. I used to go to his home in Boulder, the Kalapa Court, and have meditation instruction meetings. We got to know each other then, and there came a point where I didn’t have anything to teach him anymore. He was teaching me more and more. We have remained close ever since. Now he’s a wonderful teacher, and the relationship is different in the sense that he is the teacher and I am the student. Yet, we still have a kind of intimate relationship, too. Even if I don’t see him very much, it doesn’t matter.
There are so many different forms of Buddhism, and within different traditions there’s different lineages and sects and so on. It’s all very complex and can be a lot for a newcomer to take in. What advice could you offer to new practitioners that are drawn to Buddhism but unaffiliated with any tradition and unsure of the best way to move forward? I would encourage them to go to teachings. If they live somewhere that teachers come and teach, I would encourage them to go see every Buddhist teacher they can and see if something clicks. If they can’t do that, I would encourage them to listen to recorded teachings and read books of multiple teachers until something feels like a good fit. Then I’d encourage them to join that sangha and go as deep as they can and see if it continues to feel like a good fit.
It makes a big difference when someone has really connected with a teacher and a group of people who are practicing, because each teacher has their own way of bringing the students forward and you go a lot deeper. You just can’t do it completely on your own, or it’s the rare person, anyway. You need rubbing up against the sangha and a teacher who inspires you.
Sometimes people find a teacher and sangha and it ends up being not the right fit, and that’s all right too. It wasn’t a waste of time. Try something else.
Sangha is important. In such an individualistic culture it seems like a lot of people have this idea that they can do it on their own and retain that sense of autonomy. Right.
I heard someone say once that of the Three Jewels, sangha is the most imperfect, there’s the most neurosis there, and it is also the most important. That’s true. In a sangha, the one thing you have in common besides your teacher is an enthusiasm for understanding the teachings and applying them to your life. You can call each other on each other’s neurosis because you assume that everybody is committed to wanting to connect with their sanity. You have that in common. Other than that, sangha is a lot like family in that you don’t get to choose your family. Sometimes they’re the last people in the world you’d live with.
A lot of people rub each other the wrong way, but that rubbing the wrong way has a lot to do with our propensities. People aren’t really the cause of your discomfort. They are the trigger for your propensities that are preexisting to come forward. All of the neurotic tendencies to be hooked, agitated, or irritated are exactly what you’re hoping to not be run around by any more—to be free of those things so that you can see more clearly and connect with a deeper wisdom and intelligence. To use real Buddhist talk, you could say it’s karmic that you happen to be with those particular people, and you have something to work out with them. What you have to work out is freeing yourself from your own neurosis and returning to your fundamental sanity, so they really help you with that. There’s that analogy of dirty potatoes in a bag, and if you shake them all together the dirt starts coming off. The sangha is more like that. I have always gravitated to teachers who put a big emphasis on sangha.
What are your thoughts and feelings as we approach the 25th Parinirvana of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche? My main thought is that all that he predicted is happening. A lot more challenges environmentally, natural disasters, but also economic failure and more wars and conflict globally. Reading the news is so sad. In every continent of the world there’s tremendous strife. It almost seems like North America is this bubble that hasn’t quite popped yet. You wonder how long you have.
Chogyam Trungpa taught the Buddhist teachings through the Vajrayana, but at the end, the emphasis was all on Shambhala. The Shambhala message was that everybody is fundamentally sane and has the capacity to open, and we can connect with that and live from that rather than our neurosis. He said the times will get tougher and tougher, and that the habitual pattern will be to escalate the aggression. It’s like when there’s a lot of people that are very uncomfortable physically and afraid because of financial reasons and so forth. It brings out the worst in people. They become afraid, aggressive, stingy, out for themselves and their families. He said you can train ahead of time so that those very same conditions bring out the best in you.
As we come to his Parinirvana, I have renewed my own aspiration that his teachings on bravery and basic goodness will spread and have a very deep and profound influence on a growing number of people. Whether they call themselves Buddhists or Shambhalians, it doesn’t really matter. These teachings can really have a big impact and attract other people from other traditions that are already involved in the same kind of work. In other words, his vision for an enlightened society, an uplifted society, can become more and more a reality. That would be my main aspiration.
Would you like to see Chogyam Trungpa’s vision of an Enlightened Society grow on a more massive and established scale? Where would you like to see it go? I’d like it to help the largest number of people possible. I think the only way to do that is if you’d have a core of people who are committed to his terma and things like this, but for the majority of people it wouldn’t be like that. It would be just basic training on working with not escalating your reactive emotions, learning to hold your seat and be present with difficult emotions, and to stay and keep your heart and mind open to other people in the world. In other words, not living from a place of prejudice and bias, but living from a place of caring for everyone and seeing that we all need to work together in order to save the planet.
I just hope that somehow we begin interfacing more and more with all the multitude of people on the earth who are already doing this kind of work, and that we be part of the big movement for living from a place of nobility and strength, rather than hatred.
Glenn Beck is no longer with us, so to speak, in the terms of his popularity. He was incredible. Watching him it seemed like his only purpose was to kindle a great fire of hatred, to get people full of hatred and fear. I thought, “Oh, my gosh. That’s what could take over.” That’s probably what allowed fascism to grow in Europe in the ‘30s. It was good people, yet it got so out of control. May that never happen again, because these Shambhala teachings and people of like mind who don't call themselves Shambhalians are coming from the same place, and somehow that's the major force in the world. That's what I think would make Chogyam Trungpa smile broadly.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught about spiritual materialism. These days, it seems like the term "spiritual materialism" itself gets thrown around somewhat haphazardly, and I think people could use a refresher. What's your take on spiritual materialism, and what can people do to kind of counteract it, or be aware of it? My understanding of spiritual materialism is using the spiritual teachings to build up your sense of ego, or limited sense of a self. In other words, you become more arrogant, more puffed up. Spiritual Materialism is using spiritual teachings as a way to get ground under your feet, rather than seeing spiritual teachings as stepping into groundlessness. Groundlessness keeps opening up as the teachings evolve.
In the foundational teachings, things are pretty reliable and there are lists of virtuous and non-virtuous actions. In the Mahayana, which was the Buddhism that went to Japan, China, Tibet, Korea, and Vietnam, the lists of virtuous and non-virtuous actions don't quite hold because it's more important what your intention is. For instance, there are stories in the Mahayana of someone killing somebody else in order to stop them from killing 500 people. Even something so seemingly obvious as not killing becomes more vague in the Mahayana. Things are less fixed. If you move into the Vajrayana, then the whole ground shifts and nothing is fixed.
I think that spiritual materialism is trying to use any of that to get ground under your feet and a sense of, "It's like this, and I'm like this." That's when you get people wearing special clothes…haha, like me! But anyway, sometimes you see people, they're proclaiming their spirituality by how they're walking and dressing and things like that. You can smell a rat right away. That's what I think of as spiritual materialism. To avoid it would be to keep your mind open and always question and explore, be inquisitive, curious. When you feel yourself getting triggered or hooked, see that as a warning sign that you're holding onto something and be curious. Step in a little further. That's what I think counteracts it.
Materialism usually means material things. People use clothes and furniture and cars and everything you can think of to comfort themselves or to feel secure. Spiritual materialism is using spirituality the same way as materialism, instead of spirituality being something that introduces you to the true nature of reality, which is unfixed, impermanent, and changing.
Chogyam Trungpa, most notably in the Sadhana of Mahamudra [a text written by Trungpa Rinpoche around which an important Shambhala practice developed,] proclaimed that we are living in the dark ages, and that materialism and aggression are out of control on a mass scale. Do you share in this notion? What can we do? Trungpa Rinpoche felt that what we could do was to just teach about basic goodness and try to help people connect with their basic goodness. In other words, he felt that people can have confidence in their basic nature, rather than emphasizing their faults, addictions, and harmful deeds and speech. Basic goodness, as it's usually taught, in Shambhala, is that space before you get into biased or prejudiced or polarized mind of good and bad. It's that much more open space. You begin to really trust, from your own experience, that when you can stop yourself from being caught in fear-based emotional reactivity, there's a clear space where you always know which direction is towards sanity and health. That space has a lot of gentleness and kindness in it. You can trust it. At any time you can pause and connect with your fundamental intelligence, which will help you do whatever is needed to actually help the situation.
Let’s say you begin to feel afraid, and out of habit you begin to speed up and get panicked. This thereby strengthens further habits that keep you stuck in a rut. What you find is if you just train in simply staying present even a few seconds with those uncomfortable feelings, like fear, that you can then develop the strength to stay present for a few minutes, and then 10 minutes, then more, and so on. If you can stay present with your own emotional distress in an open space that’s not clouded and keep letting the thoughts about it go, then you always know what will deescalate the heat of the situation. When you go on automatic pilot, you automatically escalate. You become a slave to your own habits. Basic goodness to me is that you actually know what's going to help the situation.
I'm curious about the intersection of practice, examining our habits and working with how we relate to our minds, and actually living in the world in troubled times. There are so many dangers facing the world, and it's hard to not be a part of them. For example, it could be argued that just by having bank accounts and driving cars we're taking part in some systems that threaten the planet. Trungpa Rinpoche used to say, "Don't fight against the systems," like the cars and the bank accounts and credit cards. He used to always say, "Stop ridiculing people with clean front yards and grass." He said, "There's some basic goodness in that." You have to join in with society and work with it as it is, not try to escape it. But when you're working with it as it is, you do it from a place where you yourself are really grounded and present in your body and in touch with your emotions. Then you are the first one to know when you've been triggered and you're starting to get mean, or be unkind.
You don’t need to try and get off the grid, although that's not a bad idea. We may want to go back to before there were computers and live off the land, but we can also jump into the current society just as it is, and try to not escalate its neurotic aspects.
Let's talk about genocide. The Hutus and the Tutsis. These were invented. The Dutch separated Rwandans by the ones that were tall and thin and the ones that were shorter, something like this. By the time the genocide came, it was hard to tell who was who and there was a lot of intermarriage, but they had it stamped in their passports. They were able to drum up this hatred towards the others, based on prejudice. The same is true with black people in the United States under segregation, and Jewish people, Gypsies, and homosexuals in Nazi Germany. It's like the most distorted part of our nature begins to drive the society. Or it can be our basic goodness that's driving society. I think that's what we're hoping for the world, individual by individual.
Since basic goodness is in everybody, we can all begin to have confidence in our own basic goodness. When you have confidence in your basic goodness, then you see it in everybody else. Until you have respect for yourself, you can't really have respect for other people. It has to start with respect for your self.
And it can move out from there. Yes. A lot depends on how you feel. Do you trust yourself? Many people say, "No, I don't, because I fly off the handle," "I go on binges, drinking, eating, heroin," whatever. They don't trust themselves. But Buddhist teachings say that all those habitual patterns, as fixed as they can get, are still removable, and the basic nature is like the sky behind the clouds; it never changed and you can always touch into it.
I have a close friend, an inmate on Death Row, and he sees the basic goodness in all the guys there, and they're mostly murderers. It's there.
Monasticism has traditionally been such a central part of Buddhism, but in the West there are many more lay practitioners. What do you see as the role of monasticism in the West, going forward? It doesn't seem that this is the time for the monastic path to flourish in the West. There's not a tremendous amount of interest in it.
I live in a monastic community, Gampo Abbey. To me, community is a very important feature of monasticism. When you're in a community, that's when the real possibility of transformation and helping the world happens.
When you go to a monastery, you didn't choose the particular people that are going to be there. Some people that bother you the most are there. This presents the challenge of being kind without it being idiot kindness, and in a very real situation. We always say, "If we can't have an enlightened society here, how can we expect anyone else to have it?" We're all of one mind, we’re all dedicated to waking up, we're in this remote place where we don't have any distractions, but still, we come right up against our habitual patterns.
To me, one of the beauties of monasticism is that it really can transform you at the core quite rapidly. The methods for that are meditation and studying the Buddhist teachings, and we go very deep. This becomes grist for the mill of learning to be kind to each other. It's such a profound container, the monastery. You don't get it at other centers because the population is so transient. This is we have temporary monks and nuns, and Trungpa Rinpoche said, "Temporary monasticism is what will allow monasticism to continue in the West." He always said there will be some that will be life-long monastics, and they will keep the thread alive, but the majority of people will be there for one, two, up to five years, and then they'll go back to their lay life. It's very transformative for people who do that. And so because of the people who've committed their lives to it, those people are great helpers and guides for the people who are coming in for short terms. Then the people who are in for their life are continually learning from the new people because there's always someone new to push your buttons or to enlighten you. It isn't just that you take vows, it has to do with the community.