Crossing Paths

James Shaheen

Several months ago, at a packed auditorium in lower Manhattan, Pema Chödrön, one of the West’s most revered teachers, spoke frankly before a rapt audience about the challenges of dharma practice. She acknowledged that there had been periods of deep loneliness and self-doubt, but added that practice had also brought with it an ever deepening acceptance of life on its own terms. Her relaxed demeanor and steady gaze conveyed a courage and faith that seemed only to strengthen over the course of the daylong teaching, heightening the aspirations of her listeners and students. During the question and answer period that followed, Pema Chödrön pulled no punches. Absent was a sugar-coated dharma popularized by a consumer culture eager to package spiritual highs. When one woman spoke of her weariness in the aftermath of a series of brain surgeries, Pema didn’t shrink from the difficult truth: Yes, you can continue to fight, she said; in fact, it’s the best thing to do. And still, you may lose. If so, can you prepare for the inevitable? Are you willing to say yes to it, and let go if it becomes clear to you that your best efforts have failed.

The questions continued, as students lined up, some with pressing concerns, others simply to express gratitude. Often pausing before responding, sometimes taking the edge off blunt advice with humor or a compassionate smile, Pema established a trust and intimacy rare for a public gathering. At one point, she addressed what her own teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, considered a unique challenge to Western students: a pervasive sense of guilt. It wasn’t enough, apparently, for practitioners in the West to note a more general sense of unease, a feeling that something was missing, that something was wrong with the world. We Westerners, she’d learned, added to it all a baffling twist: Yes, there’s something wrong with the world, and worse, what’s wrong with it is me.

During the months that followed, I often returned to this teaching, and, in particular, wondered how an obstacle like guilt might be worked with in practice. So Pema’s recent offer to speak to her teacher on this subject for Tricycle’s readers couldn’t have been more welcome. In the interview, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche and Pema Chödrön offer a teaching that provides a fresh take on guilt, distinguishing it from the more skillful state of genuine remorse. While remorse allows us to consider our negative actions and to remedy what harm they may have caused, guilt is nothing more than crippling attachment to self. Ultimately, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche teaches, we need to realize our own “guiltlessness”: for “the mind is, by its very nature, innocent.” A novel—and liberating—notion for a culture weaned on Original Sin.

It's been over thirty years since Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg—among the first to practice Vipassana meditation in this country— began teaching. When I heard that the three of them would be together at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, I seized the opportunity to interview them together. The interview, which begins on page 38, offers an inside look at the lives of three teachers who have been pioneers of the teachings in the West. After we met, each agreed to take some time out for brief “one-on-ones” touching on their personal lives. While speaking with Joseph Goldstein, I felt the issue had come full circle: “Guilt,” he said, “is a lot about self.... 'I’m so bad.’ Feeling remorse is about taking responsibility.”

Sometimes, while putting an issue together, we find that themes arise serendipitously. In this case, teachers from different Buddhist traditions, after years of practice, have arrived at identical conclusions. As Jack Kornfield points out, perhaps the West’s greatest contribution to the dharma is bringing together the different traditions and practicing them in one place. Since the beginning, it has been this magazine’s mission to provide such a meeting place by offering an open and independent forum for teachers from the different traditions. Happily, in this issue, some of the West’s most well-known Buddhist teachers have taken the conversation a step further.

 

 

 

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