Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, is widely known for her down-to-earth teachings on compassion and meditation in the Shambhala lineage of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Her books, including the best-selling "When Things Fall Apart" and "The Places That Scare You" are popular among people from many spiritual traditions. Chödrön, whose Buddhist name means "Lotus Torch of the Dharma," was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936 in New York City. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, Chödrön spent many years as an elementary-school teacher and in the 1970s began to study Buddhism, which she turned to earnestly in the wake of her divorce. She was ordained a Buddhist nun in 1981 and today is the resident teacher of Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist monastic center in Nova Scotia. Now in strict retreat much of the time and suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, Chödrön occasionally teaches at the abbey and a few other retreat centers, including Omega Institute, in Rhinebeck, New York, where the author, James Kullander, the executive editor at Omega, conducted this rare interview.
Jump to Pema Chödrön talking about:
You've been a Buddhist monastic since 1974. That's a long way from being a wife, a mother, and an elementary-school teacher. What attracted you to Buddhism?
The truth is I didn't know it was Buddhism that I was attracted to initially. In 1972, I read an article by Chögyam Trungpa, who would become my principal teacher. The article made terrific sense to me, but I had no idea that he was describing Buddhism. I was living a countercultural life in northern New Mexico. There were a lot of communes around, and I explored them all. One week there'd be a Hindu swami in the neighborhood, the next a Zen roshi, the next a Native American teacher, and the next a Sufi master. I really didn't distinguish between them, and no one encouraged me to do so.
Then my marriage ended and-I've realized since then that this is fairly common-it was one of those crises where everything fell apart. I couldn't feel any ground under my feet. It was devastating.
The word depression was not used much back then, but I think I went into a major depression. At the time, however, I had no words for it. All I knew was that the pain was intense, and there was nothing I could do to get out of it. Any of the usual strategies for entertaining myself or finding comfort only exaggerated the pain. Going to a movie, eating, smoking dope-it all somehow made the pain worse.
I started looking for ways to deal with my anger, which seemed unfamiliar and out of control. The groundlessness I felt had a fearsome and panicky quality to it. I was offered plenty of advice, but it all seemed to boil down to a similar message: "Turn toward the light" or "Chant yourself into a higher consciousness." It was useless to me. If I could have simply turned toward the light, I would've done so happily.
I had two children and was teaching school at the time, and one day I came out of work and got into a friend's pickup truck. On the front seat was a magazine that Chögyam Trungpa had published in the 1970s. It lay open to an article titled "Working with Negativity." The first line was something like: "There's nothing wrong with negativity." I took this to mean: "There's nothing wrong with what you're going through. It's very real, and it brings you closer to the truth." The article explained that when you find yourself caught in extreme discomfort or negativity, the negativity itself is not the problem. If you can have a direct experience of that pain, it will be a great teacher for you. The problem is what Chögyam Trungpa called "negative negativity," or reacting against negativity and trying to escape it. It was the first sane advice I had heard for someone in my situation. As I read, I kept nodding and saying to myself: This is true. I didn't even know that Chögyam Trungpa was a Buddhist teacher, or that it was Buddhism I was reading about. Once I connected with it, though, I never looked back. I felt-and I still feel-as if I had connected with an unfinished story, or rediscovered a path that I'd lost long ago.
After I'd read that article, I moved up to the Lama Foundation in northern New Mexico for the summer. (My children were with their father.) I remember seeing Allen Ginsberg drive up in his Volkswagen bug with Tsultrim Allione, who was then a Tibetan nun. When she got out of the car, I was struck by her robes and everything about her. It was almost a physical shock. And I remember thinking to myself: What is this? I hardly remember Allen at all. I started talking with Tsultrim, and I must have mentioned the article, or maybe she mentioned that her teacher was Chögyam Trungpa. She said that if I wanted to meet him I could come with her up to Boulder, Colorado, where he taught.
I would have done it, but a few days later an old boyfriend of mine arrived at the Lama Foundation and told me that he was on his way to a Sufi camp in the French Alps. Because I was still in enormous pain over my divorce, I wanted to go with him. I was jumping blind, looking for some sort of help. All my friends told me I was crazy just to go off like that. But it turned out I wasn't crazy.
A Tibetan Buddhist lama came to the camp. His name was Lama Chime. When I saw him, I had the same experience that I'd had with Tsultrim. His talk didn't make any sense to me, but the minute it was over I went up to him and asked, "Could I study with you?" He didn't have a center or anything like that, but he lived in London and said if I came there, he would give me some instruction. After I'd been with Lama Chime for two weeks, I took refuge, a vow through which one formally enters the Buddhist path. Then I took the bodhisattva vow, a personal vow to seek enlightenment and help others do the same. Two years later I was a nun. I thought I was so worldly-wise. I was only thirty-six years old.
Do you recall having any early spiritual or religious inclinations?
I have no memories of any childhood spiritual aspirations, though I was raised Catholic. But some friends I grew up with say that they always thought of me as a spiritual person. For example, one woman I know from those days once said to me: "When my cousin died, you were the only one who really sat down with me and talked with me about the fact that my very close relative had drowned." We must have been fifteen years old at the time.