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Pema Chodron on staying open when things fall apart

Pema Chodron with Sakyong Rinpoche, who resigned as leader of Shambhala last week

I’ve come to Boulder in Colorado, to hear a talk by the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. As I’ve previously written, I picked up Chodron’s book, The Places That Scare You, while on an ayahuasca retreat, in between two rather scary ceremonies. It was hugely helpful to me, and when I returned to my jungle hut that night, I looked at the book, and the photo of this small smiling shaven-headed nun, and literally cried tears of gratitude. I vowed to try and study with her.

It turns out that’s not so easy. I realized yesterday that thousands of people have similar stories, and feel their life was transformed, saved even, by Pema’s teachings. Pema is 81, and in huge demand as a teacher and speaker. She only accepts people on six-month retreats, after they have completed other initial courses. However, she does occasionally do public talks, such as the one I attended yesterday. It was at the summer seminar of a sangha called Mangala Shri Bhuti, where the head teacher is Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche, Pema’s teacher.

The seminar is a ten-day course in Buddhist philosophy, taught by Rinpoche, his wife Elizabeth (they met in India when they were both very young), and their son. They moved to Colorado in the 1980s, and set up this community high up in the hills outside Boulder. It is so extraordinary to be able to study advanced Buddhist philosophy with a Tibetan lama, then cross the road to the national park and see moose, and then drive down to Boulder, this mountain town full of gurus and poets and hippies. It’s like Lhasa with better Wi-Fi.

Boulder has been a centre for Eastern wisdom ever since a famous Tibetan teacher called Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche moved here in the 1970s. He set up Naropa Institute, which is the only Buddhist university in the West. He also set up a sangha (community) called Shambhala, which is one of the biggest Buddhist sanghas in the West.

Chogram was charismatic, funny and highly intelligent, and he attracted devoted students, including the poet Allen Ginsberg, the scientist Francisco Varela (who set up the Mind & Life Institute), and a young woman called Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, who came across an article by Trungpa when she felt like her world was falling apart after two divorces. She travelled to Oxford to be taught by him, then followed him to Boulder and threw herself into the dharma,  eventually being ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun called Pema Chodron.

Alas, something is rotten in the state of Boulder. Last week, Shambhala’s leader – Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Chogram’s son – resigned after facing allegations of the sexual abuse of students. The investigation, by a former student of Chogram’s, uncovered countless incidents of sexual violence within the sangha going back decades, by several men. The board of Shambhala has also resigned and the Boulder Buddhist community is in turmoil.

This is not the first western Buddhist community to go through such trauma. The other most prominent Tibetan sangha in the West is Rigpa, set up by Sogyal Rinpoche. He was also forced to resign, last year, after several allegations of abuse and sexual violence. And there have been many other incidents of male sexual coercion uncovered in spiritual communities over the last few years, including by the British founder of the London Buddhist Centre, Dennis Lingwood.

It’s dispiriting. It undermines one’s faith in the dharma when teachers – who are meant to be advanced practitioners of compassionate wisdom – turn out to be egomaniac sex abusers. What is the cause, what the remedy?

The problem is partly power. Spiritual communities often give too much power and veneration to priests or gurus, who then abuse that power. We are desperate for enlightenment, desperate for approval, and we think the teacher can grant us celestial approval like a god. People channel so much uncritical longing and authority to the teacher – I saw this at the Pema talk, where people wept as they spoke to her. This adulation creates a situation ripe for corruption. Secondly, spiritual traditions are often highly patriarchal. This is true across the world, in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Shamanism, Hinduism and Buddhism. It’s a time of great change in many of these traditions, as women challenge millennia of patriarchy and find their voice.

Thirdly, Tibetan Buddhism has two particular issues.  One is how lineages are passed on – successors are recognized as reincarnations of previous leaders when they’re children, and treated as semi-deities. This sometimes works (as with the Dalai Lama, a shepherd boy recognized as a lineage leader when he was a child), and sometimes doesn’t. Chogram’s other son, who makes hip-hop, made a great documentary about this tradition and how it goes wrong.

The other issue is that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition places a lot of emphasis on the guru-student relationship. Tibetan Buddhism, like Zen, is full of stories of gurus acting crazily and abusively – hitting their students, demanding ridiculous things of them. The student is expected to see their guru as the Buddha and accept whatever they do as perfect. The guru may also pursue Tantric sexual practices with their students. So you can see how this could go wrong.

Chogyam Trungpa

The seeds of Shambala’s present problems are arguably found in Chogram’s behaviour. He was an alcoholic, who died of liver failure in his fifties. He slept with many students, and encouraged a culture of eccentric living and wild partying ruled over by his own monarchical authority. He then appointed a successor who had HIV and passed it on to other students. And he was succeeded by Chogram’s son, the heir apparent, who is also a violent alcoholic womanizer. Yet no student ever criticizes Chogram – he is still considered an enlightened being. His son must wonder why he, behaving so similarly, is getting such grief.

Various Tibetan Buddhist teachers have responded to these latest problems. The Dalai Lama, in response to the Sogyal Rinpoche controversy, said that ‘crazy wisdom’ behaviour is only acceptable in totally-enlightened gurus, and these beings are exceptionally rare and probably living in caves. In normal instances, the students should retain their agency and ability to say no. Tenzin Palmo, a British lady who became a Tibetan Buddhist nun and spent 12 years meditating in a cave, said last week this is an opportunity to ‘set some boundaries, and rethink the whole situation of the commitment between the student and the teacher’.

Up to this point, Pema Chodron had not commented on what must be a painful situation for her – Shambhala is her community, Sakyong is the son of her beloved teacher. But she was asked about it during her talk, and gave an interesting response. She replied:

This is the time of #metoo. How could I not support that – I’m a woman. Women should take a stand, what’s been dysfunctional should be addressed. When things fall apart, it impacts you, even at a subconscious level. At the same time, it’s an opportunity for something freeing to emerge. I have no preconceptions of what that will be. I have no idea what will happen with the United States, or with the planet – they’re not doing great either. But I’m an advocate for keeping your heart and mind open. Don’t get polarised into fixed, militant or fundamentalist views.

It’s characteristic of this time. Everything is blown wide open. That makes us all insecure. Our knees shake and our stomach is in turmoil. We don’t like that as a species. But the training of the bodhisattva is to become slowly able to hold that falling-apartness, with eyes wide open, with heart wide open. What we do – that’s the future.

She talked about many other things, particularly around the idea of bodhisattva warrior training. She used several examples from Christian missions, such as an organization called Homeboy Industries, which gives rival gang-members jobs and community, challenging the idea of Us and Them. She spoke about how painful it is to try and be a compassionate warrior – how sometimes, it simply overloads one’s nervous system and you have to take a break (she suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for several years). She spoke refreshingly about the balance between inner work and outer work – someone in the audience asked: ‘how can I be at this seminar, when I feel I should be at the border protesting?’ She replied instantly: ‘Why don’t you go afterwards?’

She spoke about taking seriously the bodhisattva vow to help and love anyone – including failed, abusive leaders: ‘Nothing will work if there’s no compassion. With a teacher it’s particularly heart-breaking. You’ve seen someone grow up and you love them dearly, then they do something that’s so painful to hear about. But how can you reject them? You can not condone their behaviour and still love someone, and know they can change.’

What I find most inspiring in her teachings is the idea of opening to the anxiety, shame and insecurity we all feel so often, seeing it as the juicy ground for practice rather than something to shut down. She said: ‘Your life is your training, not some time in the future when it’s more pleasant. The bad stuff that happens to you is what allows you to understand other people. We can practice kindness to our own stuff, our own stuckness. The part we’re ashamed of is what allows us to have compassion.’ This is so true.

She concluded: ‘The bodhisattva training has two big challenges. First, to grow in the capacity to live with nothing to hold on to, so when you die, and there’s nothing to hold on to, you’re trained.’ This, in fact, is what we’ve been studying all week – Nagarjuna’s teachings on emptiness, which I’ll write about next week. ‘Secondly, invite all sentient beings as your guests. There’s no guest list. All of them.’

I find her teachings profoundly helpful, but as always there are questions the critical student could ask: should Pema herself take responsibility as a leader of the community for supporting people, structures and practices that have been harmful? Is she rationalizing the abusive behaviour of her teacher? If we say ‘well, that’s the nature of samsara, everything falls apart and at the ultimate level no one has actually been harmed’, does this let Tibetan Buddhist teachers off the hook for errors and vices? What is the balance between inner work on fixing one’s mind and outer work on trying to heal the world? These are not easy questions.

Speaking personally, I still find the Buddhist path a very rich and rewarding one, and I recognize that I need teachers and I need community – but I no longer expect either of them to be perfect. I agree with Dzigar Rinpoche’s wife, Elizabeth, that ‘we need to retain our agency and critical reason on this path’. No guru can fix us and no teacher I’ve met is flawless, not even Pema Chodron.

Pema Chodron’s Places That Scare You

Pema Chodron’s book, The Places that Scary You,  has been extremely helpful to me over the past six months. I came across the book in the Amazon jungle, when I was on an ayahuasca retreat last October. There was a bookshelf in the dining area, and Chodron’s book caught my eye. I picked it up after the third ceremony, which had been quite scary for me, bringing up old fears of losing my mind. The fourth ceremony was that evening, and I was wondering what my intention should be.

I took the book back to my jungle hut and read it, and it really hit home. It inspired me to set my intention for that evening’s ceremony: ‘Help me open my heart and make friends with my fears’. And I feel I’m slowly making progress in that process, that my heart is opening gradually, like a reluctant oyster.

Chodron is an American lady in her 80s, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, and former student of controversial teacher Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche. She’s one of a handful of excellent female Buddhist teachers who have arisen in Western Buddhism – along with Sharon Salzberg, Roshi Joan Halifax, Tara Brach, Tenzin Palmo and others. We’re in a golden age for female Buddhist teachers.

The Places That Scare You teaches you how to cultivate bodhichitta, or open heartedness. In other words, how to keep your heart soft and open, rather than following our natural tendency to close and harden our hearts when we run into adversity.

This is one of life’s great challenges. When our hearts are truly open, we are connected to other beings and to the limitless dynamism of reality. But very often, we turn away from pain and uncertainty, and close off. We try to protect our heart, because it’s raw and sensitive. Yet this closing off and shutting down only makes our situation worse – it aggravates our sense of separation and loneliness and cuts us off from the energetic flow of reality.

I closed my heart down for about a decade, and have been working to open it for about a decade. It’s slow work, but rewarding. Each little inch you open it let’s the light and warmth back in (as well as the wind and the rain).

We can train ourselves to keep our hearts open even when the wind blows and the rain falls down. Pema Chodron calls this ‘warrior training’ – you’re training yourself to become a bodhisattva, a warrior dedicated to reducing the suffering of all beings.

We can teach ourselves warrior practices, kung fu for the heart and mind. Tibetan Buddhist practices are quite similar to Stoic spiritual exercises. For example, Pema Chodron describes the ’59 Lojong mind-training slogans’ introduced into Tibetan Buddhism by a monk called Atisha (so-called because he got terrible hay fever). The slogans are short, memorable phrases that the trainee warrior memorizes to arm themselves in challenging moments, like the maxims of ancient Greek philosophy.

Things like:

Regard all dharmas as dreams; although experiences may seem solid, they are passing memories.

Don’t expect applause.

In all activities, train with slogans.

But there’s a difference between Tibetan Buddhism and Stoicism, in their attitudes to the emotions. Stoicism teaches that emotions are basically wrong judgements. Once we remove the judgements, we should become apathetic, emotionless, completely tranquil. To me this sounds like having one’s limbs chopped off. Tibetan Buddhism, or Vajrayana / Tantric Buddhism, teaches instead that emotions are ‘thoughts plus energy’, as Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche put it.

We can train ourselves, when difficult emotions like fear or anger arise, to remove the thought / story / label and just sit with the emotion. We can observe it, feel it, taste it, without solidifying it into a story. We can taste its energy and realise it’s not bad, it’s actually vibrant, pulsating. When we recognise the raw energy of emotions, we can re-integrate it, and turn an enemy into an ally. We can rest in the fiery dynamic energy of mind – which seems different to me to the apathy and weary duty of Stoicism.

With the warrior mentality, we can learn to welcome difficult situations as opportunities for training (this reminds me of Seneca’s line, ‘the Stoic sees all adversity as training’, or Epictetus’ ‘Difficulties reveal men’s characters’.) We can completely transform our attitude to suffering.

Usually, when difficult emotions arise, we may feel downcast because they suggest our life is going badly in some way, that we’re not advancing as successfully as we thought. We think ‘not this bloody sadness again!’ or ‘aaaargh, fear is back!’ We get negative about the negative emotion. We double down.

But what if we welcome negative emotions as teachers and potential allies? What if it is precisely this pain, this anger, this fear, this disappointment, which point the way to the soft, warm, tender heart of bodhichitta?

That is the Vajrayana or tantra attitude to negative emotions – ah! Here’s some wonderful coal to stoke up the fire! For example, Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche calls disappointment ‘a chariot for the spiritual journey’. I love that.

When I was in the jungle, I read and copied out this passage from Chodron’s book:

We are, as the 8th-century Buddhist master Santideva pointed out, very much like a blind person who finds a jewel buried in a heap of garbage. Right here in what we’d like to throw away, in what we find repulsive and frightening, we discover the warmth and clarity of bodhichitta.

That reminded me of Jung’s idea of confronting the Shadow, which I have written about previously. In both, there is the idea of confronting pain and darkness, overcoming one’s habitual desire to run away, and instead sitting with it, thereby performing an act of alchemy or transmutation. ‘Just as alchemy changes any metal into gold’, Chodron writes, ‘bodhichitta can, if we let it, transform any activity, word or thought into a vehicle for awakening our compassion.’

One finds a similar alchemy in Sufism, in Rumi’s poetry for example:

Learn the alchemy true human beings know.

The moment you accept what troubles have been given you

The door opens.

Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade.

Joke with torment brought by a Friend.

In both Vajrayana Buddhism and Jungian psychology there is the idea of turning the daemon or Adversary into a helper and ally. The 11th-century Buddhist nun Machik Labdron taught: ‘In other traditions demons are expelled externally. But in my tradition demons are accepted with compassion.’ She developed a visualisation technique, called Chod, where you visualise your inner demons, become them, and then transform them with compassion.

This idea of recognising all scary monsters as manifestations of your mind is central to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And it’s central to Jungian psychology, in the idea of recognising, accepting and transforming your Shadow – I believe Jung developed his theory independently of Tibetan Buddhism, although later in his life he was quite inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Check out this book about the similarities between Tibetan Buddhism and Jungian psychology.

Anyway, Chodron’s book was hugely helpful to me during the fourth ayahuasca ceremony, which was even scarier than the one before. It helped me face very difficult emotions, and welcome them as a purifying fire. I went back to my hut that night, picked up her book, and cried with gratitude.

The week after the retreat was even scarier. I thought I was in some alternate reality – a dream, or the afterlife. Her book helped me enormously then too. It was the only book I could understand – I couldn’t understand novels, or Asterix comics, or movies, but her book rang out clear and loud as a bell. The warrior training she taught worked no matter how altered my consciousness. It worked even when I didn’t know if I was alive or dead. That’s the point – the Tibetans say that the spiritual training we do in this life still works in the bardo of drying and the bardo of rebirth, and after taking ayahuasca, I’m prepared to believe that.

And her book has helped me in the six months since going on that retreat, when I’ve dealt with a fair amount of disappointment and uncertainty. I’ve turned 40, and am not sure what direction my life will develop – will I start a family, write another book, stay in academia, move country? She has taught me not to run away from uncertainty, nor rush to shut it down, but rather to accept it as an inescapable part of life and as coal for the fire of transmutation. Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche once said to her: ‘All life is transition. If you can accept that, you’ll be fine.’ Making peace with uncertainty seems pretty crucial to me at this stage in my life.

As a postscript, I planned to make a video for you on this topic, as part of a new initiative to make short philosophical movies for YouTube. I bought lots of fancy new equipment and set it all up. Yesterday I shot a video of me talking about working with negative emotions. Then I realised it was all blurry – my brand new camera wouldn’t bloody auto-focus! I set off for Tottenham Court Road, asked various electronics gurus their advice, and they couldn’t help me. I felt such sadness and rage at the fact my shiny new technology wasn’t working. What would I have to show for this week? Where was I going in life? I wandered through Kings Cross, feeling drawn to some of my habitual comforting mechanisms – booze, fags, junk food, casual sex.

And then, sitting in the cafe at Friends House, I realized, what a hilarious joke. I’d just made a video on dealing with negative emotions that very morning, and I’d already forgotten to practice! I’d literally been speaking on camera about welcoming difficult emotions as teachers and allies just a few hours earlier, yet here I was, buffeted by the winds of rage and sadness, being swept along to my habitual bad habits. How marvellous! How ludicrous! So I sat there, in the Quaker cafe, and just felt the sadness. And it didn’t overwhelm me.

Thank you to Pema Chodron for her wonderful book.