Pema Chödrön is an American nun in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and the director of Gampo Abbey, on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She was a student of the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and in 1974 received the novice ordination from His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa. She took the full nun’s ordination in 1981. She is the author of The Wisdom of No Escape and Be Grateful to Everyone: A Guide to Compassionate Living, forthcoming from Shambhala Publications next year. Editor Helen Tworkov conducted this interview for Tricycle in Nova Scotia in June. Photographs by Jeri Coppola.
Tricycle: Pema, your life has unfolded into an interesting paradox. Because you are the director of Gampo Abbey, one of the few Buddhist centers in North America to maintain the traditional monastic precepts, and because you have been a celibate nun for twenty years, you are considered eminently trustworthy, a teacher beyond reproach in terms of ethical conduct; at the same time, you have become one the foremost representatives of the Vajrayana lineage of Trungpa Rinpoche, a teacher who became legendary as much for his unconventional behavior as for his spiritual attainment-specifically his drinking, and having sex with students. Since his death in 1986, there has been increasing concern about the inappropriate use of spiritual authority, particularly with regard to sex and power. Today even some students who were once devoted to Trungpa Rinpoche have had a change of heart. Behavior that they may have formerly considered enlightened they now consider wrong. Has there been a shift in your own outlook?
Pema Chodron: My undying devotion to Trungpa Rinpoche comes from his teaching me in every way he could that you can never make things right or wrong. I consider it my good fortune that somehow I was thrown into a way of understanding Buddhism which in the Zen tradition is called “don’t know mind”: Don’t know. Don’t know right. Don’t know wrong. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to make things right and wrong you can never even talk about fulfilling your bodhisattva vows.
How do you understand the bodhisattva vow?
The bodhisattva vow has something to do with going cold turkey, naked, without any clothes on into whatever situation presents itself to you, and seeing how you hate certain people, how people trigger you in every single way, how you want to hold on, how you want to get in bed and put the covers over your head. Seeing all of that just increases your compassion for the human situation. We’re all up against not finding ourselves perfect, and still wanting to be open and be there for others. My sense of what it means to be a bodhisattva on the path, a student-warrior-bodhisattva, is that you are constantly caught with “don’t know.” Can’t say yes, can’t say no. Can’t say right, can’t say wrong. Trungpa Rinpoche was a provocative person. In Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism he says that the job of the spiritual friend is to insult the student, and that’s the kind of guy he was. If things got too smooth, he’d create chaos. All I can say is that I needed that. I didn’t like being churned up and provoked, but it was what I needed. It showed me how I was stuck in habitual patterns. The closer I got to him, the more my trust in him grew.
What was that trust based on?
It wasn’t trust that he would be predictable or follow some kind of reliable code. It was trust that his only motivation was to help people. His whole teaching was about leading people away from holding on to some kind of security. And I wanted my foundations rocked. I wanted to actually be free of habitual patterns which keep the ground under my feet and maintain that false security which denies death. Things are not permanent, they don’t last, there is no final security. He was always trying to teach us to relax into the insecurity, into the groundlessness. He taught me about how to live. So I am grateful to him, no matter what.
Stories of Trungpa Rinpoche’s sexual encounters with students still upset a lot of people. Have they ever upset you?
No. But he upset me. He upset me a lot. I couldn’t con him, and that was uncomfortable. But it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes, in certain situations, I can see how I’m a con artist, and I can see how I’m just trying to make everything pretty and smooth, and all I have to do is think of Rinpoche and I get honest. He has the effect on me of relentlessly—in a dedicated way—keeping me honest. And that’s not always comfortable.
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