Pema Chodron on staying open when things fall apart

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 Kongtrul 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 Chogyam 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.

Chogyam 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 Colorado. Last week, Shambhala’s leader – Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Chogyam’s son – stepped back from his leadership position after facing allegations of the sexual abuse of students. The investigation, by a former student of Chogyam’s, uncovered countless incidents of sexual violence within the sangha going back decades, by several men. The board of Shambhala has resigned and the Boulder Buddhist community is in turmoil.

This is by no means 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 sexual and spiritual abuse uncovered in western Buddhist 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.

The seeds of Shambala’s present problems are arguably found in Chogyam’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 Chogyam’s son, the heir apparent, who is also a violent alcoholic womanizer. Yet no student ever criticizes Chogyam – 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.