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When I enter the classroom for the first time, I tell my students we are there to think critically, to engage the world we live in — the world of ideas — fully, deeply, and with our whole heart. Pema Chödrön’s work helps me do this. She consistently challenges me to think beyond the boundaries I have erected, the places where I’ve allowed myself to become stuck, attached, hemmed in by my defenses.
At first her writing irked me. I was disturbed by what I called its “strategic open-endedness.” I wanted to be offered solutions, ways out. Instead, she invited me into that enchanted space beyond right or wrong, on a journey to the heart of compassion. Once you step out on faith, straight into the heart of the matter, lovingkindness appears less like a utopian dream. It becomes concrete — something to practice wherever you are.
Chödrön is most seductive and exciting when she urges us to revise our notions of safety, telling us: “Real safety is your willingness not to run away from yourself.” She urges us to take risks, to embrace rebellion, disruption, and chaos as beloved means for transformation. Talking with her enabled me to bring the issues that trouble my heart out into the open. My hope was that she would shed light on them. She did.
— bell hooks
hooks: One idea that really challenges me in your work is abandoning the hope of fruition. That’s a hard one for me.
Chödrön: The point is that we rob ourselves of being in the present by always thinking the payoff will come in the future. But the only place ever to work is right now: we must work with the present situation rather than with a hypothetical possibility of what might be. I like any teaching that encourages us to be with ourselves and our situation as it is without looking for alternatives. The source of all wakefulness, of all kindness and compassion — of all wisdom — can be found in each second of time. Any teaching that has us looking ahead is missing the point.
hooks: Much of my work revolves around ending racism and sexism. On the one hand, I want to work right where I am, in the now; but on the other hand, I also have to have a vision of a future in which racism and sexism are no longer part of our lives. Do you think that’s too utopian?
Chödrön: I prefer to work with aspiration. The classic bodhisattva aspiration is: “Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them.” That means I aspire to end suffering for all creatures, but at the same time I don’t deny the reality of the present situation. I give up both the hope that something is going to change and the fear that it isn’t. It’s all right to long to end suffering, but somehow it paralyzes us if we’re too goal-oriented about it. Do you see the balance there?
hooks: Yet it seems very hard for people to fight racism and sexism without any hope for an end to them. So much despair and apathy arises from the feeling that we struggle and struggle and not much changes.
Chödrön: The main issue here is aggression. Often, if there’s too much hope, you begin to have a strong sense of an enemy. Then the process of trying to alleviate suffering actually adds to the suffering, because of your aggression toward the oppressor. Don’t you encounter many people who have good intentions but who get very angry, depressed, and resentful?
hooks: You’re talking to one! I get so overwhelmed sometimes.
Chödrön: Doesn’t that get in the way of your efforts?
hooks: It does. Right now I’m on tour talking about ending racism, and some people say to me, “Racism doesn’t exist,” or, “Don’t you think we’ve already dealt with that?” When I hear this I start to feel irritable. The irritability mounts, then collapses into sorrow. I came home the other day and sat down at my table and just wept.
Chödrön: Well, isn’t that the point? That we’re all the same, really; we just get stuck in different ways? Getting stuck in any kind of self-and-other tension seems to cause pain. If you can keep your heart and mind open to those people, and resist any tendency to close down toward them, perhaps the cycle of racism and cruelty can start to de-escalate.
It’s a difficult challenge to keep your heart and mind open. Once you get into this practice, all your own unresolved misery can come floating up and block your compassion. But when you examine how you feel toward these people at your talks, you can begin to understand why there is racism, why there is cruelty — because everyone has the same thoughts and emotions that you are having. Everyone experiences that escalating irritability.
hooks: Is it simply a matter of will to have an open heart?
Chödrön: I think it begins with an aspiration to connect with openheartedness; with deciding that cultivating openness is how you want to spend the remaining moments of your life.
But openness actually starts to emerge when you observe how you close down. You see how you close down, how you yell at someone, and you begin to have some compassion. It starts with compassion toward yourself, and then you begin to extend that warmth to the rest of humanity. It dawns on you how people could yell at others because they’re Asian or black or Hispanic or female or gay or whatever. You begin to know what it’s like to stand in their shoes.
hooks: How do you develop compassion toward yourself?
Chödrön: A big part of developing compassion is being honest with yourself — not shielding yourself from your mistakes, or pretending nothing has happened. The other big component is being gentle. This is what meditation is about, but obviously it goes beyond sitting on a cushion. In practice, you begin to really see your moods, attitudes, and opinions. You begin to hear this voice — your voice — and how it can be so critical of yourself and others. You develop a growing clarity about all the different parts of yourself.
Meditation gives you the tools to look at all of this with an unbiased attitude. A lot of having compassion toward oneself is a matter of staying with the initial thought or the initial arising of emotion. This means that when you see yourself becoming aggressive, or getting stuck in self-pity, or whatever, then you refrain from adding things on top of that — guilt or self-justification or anything else that increases the negativity. You work on not spinning away from your situation as you find it, and on being kinder toward the human condition as you observe it in yourself.
hooks: The idea I find most moving in your work is the unconditional embrace of one’s being, which in turn allows one to embrace others. But if I unconditionally accept myself, then what’s my motivation to practice further?
Chödrön: That willingness to stick with yourself is a way of staying awake. What blocks us from seeing things truly is our tendency to self-denigrate, to continually edit ourselves. When we cease closing down and shutting off, insight begins to emerge, insight that completely cuts through our conventional way of seeing.
So when you see clearly, the motivation to practice becomes stronger and stronger, because you begin to have insights that are refreshing and powerful. You are discovering your true nature, and it’s painful to block that in any way. It’s painful now to see yourself being totally neurotic and selfish. You don’t want to cover over your openness anymore. Nor can you bear to see the suffering it causes other people when they do the same thing.
On one level, our suffering is caused by bigotry and dogmatism, but ultimately we suffer because we don’t understand how limitless we are. You could say that we live in a fantasy; what we call reality is actually a dream, and we’re completely caught up in it. We limit what is limitless, condition what is unconditioned, and it makes us miserable. When you begin to understand that, you can’t bear to keep hurting yourself that way, or to see other people keep hurting themselves that way. Then you are really motivated to practice.
hooks: You have said that we can’t “smooth out the rough edges” in our lives, yet as I listen to you, I think, Isn’t she describing a sense in which the rough edges do get smoothed out?
Chödrön: Actually they don’t. What you realize is that there’s enough space to accommodate all of them — enough space in your own being, enough space in the whole of creation. It’s because we pick and choose, because we have biases and prejudices, because we prefer smooth to rough, that we suffer.
hooks: Like you, I feel that blame isn’t very useful. But you have also said — for instance, in reference to male teachers who abuse their power and seduce female students — that accountability is real. How does one give up blame while embracing the idea of accountability?
Chödrön: This is the message of the Buddha’s first noble truth: you must be willing to see suffering as suffering. Obviously, the less you are caught up in your own hopes and fears, the more you can see suffering straightforwardly. Accountability here means being honest, incredibly honest. You see that harm is being done: you see someone harming a child, an animal, another being. You see that clearly, and you wish to lessen that suffering. Then the question becomes one of how to proceed so that the person you see as the problem becomes accountable, willing to acknowledge what he or she is doing.
You realize how hard it is for you to acknowledge what harm you are doing in your own life. Seeing how much it takes to become accountable yourself, you try to find skillful means to communicate with this person so that barriers come down, rather than get reinforced. It has everything to do with communication: how can you each hear what the other is saying?
hooks: Although I did not have the pleasure and pain of meeting Trungpa Rinpoche, I’ve always been moved by his teaching. I have tried in my own teaching to embody a perhaps similar wildness of spirit, a willingness to experiment, to push the boundaries.
Chödrön: My feeling is that all Trungpa Rinpoche did was get people to take responsibility for themselves, get them to grow up. He was a master of not confirming: talking to him was like talking to a huge space in which everything bounced back — you had to be accountable for yourself.
I feel that the teacher’s role is to wean students from dependency, from the parent-child view of life, the theistic view. Theism doesn’t have to do only with God; it has to do with the feeling that you’re incomplete and need something or someone outside you to make you whole. It’s like never growing up. Theism implies that you can’t find out for yourself what’s true. You take Buddhist teachings — or any teachings — and try to fit yourself into them, without really grappling with them in a way that could transform your being. You’re just trying to live up to some ideal. You’re still looking for the security of having someone else to praise or blame.
Accountability, on the other hand, doesn’t offer that kind of support. There is no hand to hold. No matter what other people say, when it comes down to it, you are the only one who can answer your own questions.
hooks: You have taken radically different paths at different times in your life. I’m interested in how mindfulness can illuminate vocation, helping us know when we need to let go of one path and move toward another. Do you still grapple with these questions?
Chödrön: All the time. The more you really get into life, the more you grapple. It’s always humbling you, showing you how little you know, how little you understand. It inspires you to go forward, but at the same time, it’s a pretty humbling experience.
hooks: I was thinking, in particular, about how in America work is often a place of suffering. So many people spend their lives working in jobs where they feel miserable. I certainly feel miserable in my job.
Chödrön: There’s always the simple answer of moving to a different field, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But just changing the outer situation doesn’t get at the root of the discontent, doesn’t address the true source of suffering. What we need is to look directly at suffering — at what causes it, at what makes it escalate, and at what allows it to dissolve. The first step is to acknowledge that no matter where we go or what we do, we are always going to experience both positive and negative feelings — and that this is a fertile situation.
I’ve been a Buddhist nun for about twenty-three years, and over those years my life in some ways has gotten simpler and clearer. But even so, feelings of worry, of not having enough time, still come up. So you realize how much of it is in our minds: whether we’re in an overwhelming work situation or a very simple one, we still have to deal with our minds. That’s why some teachings say that no matter what is happening in your life, it’s always showing you the true nature of reality, the true nature of your mind.
It all comes down to being very, very attuned to one’s emotions — to seeing how one is attached to the pleasant and averse to the painful. We must work again and again on learning to open and soften rather than tighten and close down. It comes down to realizing that wisdom and compassion are contained in this life, just as it is. No matter how simple or complicated our life, it can make us miserable, or it can wake us up.
hooks: I’ve been thinking a great deal about poverty. In our society, people are made to feel that they can’t lead meaningful lives if they are poor. Much of the suffering in the lives of the poor has to do with this belief.
Chödrön: The question is how to help people realize that, no matter how desperate their lives, they are worthy of living on this earth, and need not feel inferior or be ashamed. One answer is to help people get smarter about what causes suffering and what alleviates it.
There is a famous saying: “From great suffering comes great compassion.” Well, from great suffering can also come great hatred. Out of great suffering there can arise an openness of heart, a sense of kinship with others — or, alternatively, deep hatred, resentment, and despair.
hooks: That’s right. It isn’t an automatic thing that because you suffer you will have compassion.
Chödrön: People need a lot of caring support before their suffering can turn into compassion. What usually happens to people without that support is that great suffering leads to more suffering. For example, mothers who don’t have the money to care for their kids turn to drugs, and their kids get into deep trouble. So the nightmare escalates.
The fundamental question is not whether there is or isn’t suffering; it’s how we can work with suffering so that it leads to awakening. How can we go beyond the habitual views and actions that perpetuate suffering? How can we use suffering to transform ourselves and those with whom we come in contact? How can we stop running from pain and reacting to it in ways that destroy ourselves and others? This is a message people can appreciate, but they have to hear it a lot, and from people who really care — not from somebody who is just passing through to make a few dollars.
Basically, we should teach how to take difficult circumstances and transform them into the path of compassion. That’s the kind of teaching we need these days — that difficult circumstances can be the path to liberation. That’s news you can use.
hooks: Well, that brings me to my final issue, which I have written down in big block letters: DON’T THINK EVEN FOR A MOMENT THAT YOU’RE NOT GOING TO DIE.
Chödrön: Right. Dzongsar Khyenste Rinpoche said that to a friend of mine who was dying of cancer and having trouble accepting it. And instead of coming across to her as cruel, the statement came across as immensely kind; someone was telling her the truth.
hooks: It seems so much of our longing to escape suffering arises from the sense that the closer we are to suffering, the closer we are to death.
Chödrön: For me, the spiritual path has always been a lesson in how to die. I don’t mean just the death at the end of this life, but all the falling apart that happens continually. The fear of death — which is also the fear of insecurity, of not having it all together — seems to be the most fundamental phenomenon we have to work with: because death is an ending, and endings happen all the time. Things are always ending and arising and ending. But we are strangely conditioned to want to experience just the birth part and not the death part.
We have so much fear of not being in control, of not being able to hold on to things. Yet the true nature of life is that we’re never in control; we can never hold on to anything. That’s how life is. Although we can perhaps accept this intellectually, moment by moment it brings up a lot of panic and fear. So my own path has been learning to relax with this lack of control and the panic that accompanies it, learning to stay in the space of uncertainty, learning to die continually.
We can stop searching for some idealized moment when everything will be simple and secure. This moment of experience, which could be painful or pleasurable, is our working basis. What makes all the difference is how we relate to it.
This interview originally appeared in Shambhala Sun. It is reprinted here with permission.
The interviewer, bell hooks, is a writer, teacher, and “insurgent intellectual.” A Distinguished Professor of English at City College in New York, she advocates “education as the practice of freedom,” and is the author of many books, most recently Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood (Henry Holt).
In response to bell hooks’s interview with Pema Chödrön and the excerpt from Chödrön’s book [“Beyond Right or Wrong” and “When Things Fall Apart,” June 1997]: several of Chödrön’s depictions of Tibetan Buddhism should be emended. While Tibetan Buddhism certainly addresses chaos, not all Tibetan Buddhists have celebrated it to quite the degree that Chödrön and her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, are inclined to do. Acknowledging impermanence and chaos by no means undoes the law of dependent arising, which dictates that there is an inconceivable efficiency to even the messiest of experiences.
Chödrön’s emphasis on “groundlessness” is also not the only take of Tibetan Buddhists. The Tantric traditions consistently celebrate a universal ordering principle of bedrock awareness, which emanates from Buddhist divinities. If we can intuit this ground whence inspiration emerges, there is no problem with then developing strategies, pursuing ideals, or working for justice in the world. However dour we make the mundane world out to be, it is also the only ground for enlightened activity. Compassionate Buddhas do not simply abide in not-knowing; they also envision and create cultures of concern.
The emptiness/compassion teachings are often taught by way of the “two truths”: the first directs us to curb our fascination with this inevitably decrepit world, while the second, “higher” truth impels us to care compassionately for others anyway. Thus, until one has reached an extremely rarified level of realization, it is better to err on the side of caring too much!
“Any teaching that has us looking ahead is missing the point,” Chödrön says. But looking ahead with clarity is not missing the point; “the point” is ever yet to be determined, and we are all active participants in the dynamic process of meaningful awakening.
For many of your readers, who write each month to share their challenges, horrors, and hopes, Chödrön’s heart advice, as lovely as it is, may ring tinny and ethereal. We can discern right from wrong. To in any way undercut people’s determination to realize and claim their own powerful agency is to skew the Buddhist perspective such that only a partial refraction of its spiritual vision remains.