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Turning Toward Pain

Pema Chödrön discusses her discovery of Buddhism and explains how pain can be a great spiritual teacher.

Continued from page 3

So even back then you were drawn toward painful experiences.

I guess so. But what I really remember from the 1950s is everyone always smiling. It wasn't until I studied Freud in college that I had any inkling there was anything below the surface.

Freud observed that we're awfully hard on ourselves, that we judge ourselves and others all the time. Do you think this sort of judging is inherent in human nature, or is it something learned?

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Several years ago the Dalai Lama was in a conference with Western Buddhist teachers. At one point, meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg brought up the subject of self-hatred. She said it was a major issue that had to be addressed by anybody teaching Buddhism in the West. The Dalai Lama didn't know what she was talking about. So he went around the room and asked the other Western teachers about it, and every one of them agreed with her. Self-hatred was something that the Dalai Lama literally didn't understand.

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The first noble truth of the Buddha is that people experience dukka, a feeling of dissatisfaction or suffering, a feeling that something is wrong. We feel this dissatisfaction because we're not in tune with our true nature, our basic goodness. And we aren't going to be fundamentally, spiritually content until we get in tune. Dzigar Kongtrul, my teacher for the past five years, says that only in the West is this dissatisfaction articulated as "Something is wrong with me." It seems that thinking of oneself as flawed is more a Western phenomenon than a universal one. And if you're teaching Western students, it has to be addressed, because until that self-hatred is at least partially healed, people can't experience absolute truth.

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Why not?

Because they will misinterpret the groundlessness of absolute truth. People will think there is something wrong with them.

This self-criticism seems difficult to avoid. You don't just wake up one day and say to yourself, "I'm going to stop being self-critical." If you drop a jar at the grocery store, and it breaks, you automatically think, Oh, what a clumsy fool I am.

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Interview by James Kullander
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