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 of 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.
Tricycle: How do you understand the bodhisattva vow?
Pema Chodron: 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 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.
Tricycle: What was that trust based on?
Pema Chodron: 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.
Tricycle: Stories of Trungpa Rinpoche’s sexual encounters with students still upset a lot of people. Have they ever upset you?
Pema Chodron: 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.
Tricycle: How did he respond to your choice of celibacy?
Pema Chodron: He encouraged me to be very strict with my vows.
Tricycle:He never provoked you or needled you about being attached to your vows?
Pema Chodron: Quite the opposite. He actually was very strict and used to say, You know people will be watching you, people will watch how you walk, how you move, and you should really represent this tradition well. In terms of how to be a nun or monk, his teachings were always very straight, very pure. He needled me about other things. I remember one time saying something to him about feeling that I was a nice person. I used the word “nice,” and I remember the look that crossed his face—it was as if he had just eaten something that tasted really bad. And he would also do this thing, which many students have talked to me about, where you’d be talking on and on in your most earnest style and he’d just yawn and look out the window.
Tricycle:Would you say that the intention behind this unconventional behavior, including his sexual exploits and his drinking, was to help others?
Pema Chodron: As the years went on, I felt everything he did was to help others. But I would also say now that maybe my understanding has gone even deeper, and it feels more to the point to say I don’t know. I don’t know what he was doing. I know he changed my life. I know I love him. But I don«t know who he was. And maybe he wasn’t doing things to help everyone, but he sure helped me. I learned something from him. But who was that masked man?
Tricycle:In recent years women have become more articulate about sexism. And we know more today about the prevalence of child abuse and about how many people come into dharma really hurting. If you knew ten years ago what you know today, would you have been so optimistic about Trungpa Rinpoche and his sexuality? Would you have wanted some of the women you’ve been working with to study with him, given their histories of sexual abuse?
Pema Chodron: I would have said, You know he loves women, he’s very passionate, and has a lot of relationships with women, and that might be part of it if you get involved with him, and you should read all his books, go to all his talks, and actually see if you can get close to him. And you should do that knowing you might get an invitation to sleep with him, so don’t be naive about that, and don’t think you have to do it, or don’t have to do it. But you have to decide for yourself who you think this guy is.
Tricycle:Were there women who turned down his sexual invitations and maintained close relationships as students? Was that an option?
Pema Chodron: Yes. Definitely. The other students were often the ones who made people feel like they were square and uptight if they didn’t want to sleep with Rinpoche, but Rinpoche’s teaching was to throw out the party line. However, we’re always up against human nature. The teacher says something, then everybody does it. There was a time when he smoked cigarettes and everybody started smoking. Then he stopped and they stopped and it was ridiculous. But we’re just people with human habitual patterns, and you can count on the fact that the students are going to make everything into a party line, and we did. The one predictable thing about him was that he would continually pull the rug out no matter what. That’s how he was.
Tricycle: And your devotion never wavered?
Pema Chodron: I was slow to feel real devotion to Trungpa Rinpoche. For ten or fifteen years I felt that I ws lacking in devotion, but then about four years before his death, that changed. I tell this to newer students who are having the same problem. I tell them, Just hang in there and be true to what you think you’re being taught. Groundlessness is the name of the game, it’s not about attachment. See, if devotion sets in right away, it could be from a sense that now you have a new mommy or daddy, and there’s this cozy feeling to it. But by becoming Buddhists, we don’t get a new family. Becoming a Buddhist is about becoming homeless. But finally when devotion did come, it was extremely strong and I was grateful.
Tricycle:Grateful to Trungpa Rinpoche?
Pema Chodron: You feel such gratitude that somebody pointed out the nature of your mind and gave you instructions that actually encouraged you to be brave and compassionate and to let go of old ways of thinking and old securities. But I would say now that that devotion to Trungpa Rinpoche has gone further since his death. I’m really willing to entertain the idea that maybe he wasn’t perfect, maybe everything he did wasn’t to benefit people. In other words, my sense of not having to make it all right or all wrong is stronger now. I can actually hold my devotion purely and fully in my heart and still say, Maybe he was a madman. And it doesn’t change my devotion because he taught me something about not saying yes or no but resting in groundlessness. And that’s more profound than my saying, Oh, no, he never did anything to hurt anybody, because what do I know, that’s just my projection, and making him wrong—that’s somebody’s projection too.
Tricycle: You sometimes refer to yourself as a student/teacher. Why?
Pema Chodron: It’s kind of a comfort mentality to say, Oh, I’m not a teacher. I’m more of a student on the path. It’s very threatening to actually think of being a teacher. But then, of course, there are people who consider me that and I have to take responsibility. But you get pride in being a teacher and say, Don’t mess with me, don’t say I’m not a teacher or my feelings will be hurt. The other thing is wanting to not face it. There’s a kind of false humility that can set in. So somehow you’re caught in the groundlessness of the confidence in the dharma, which has nothing to with you but can come out of your mouth and which will benefit sentient beings. Confidence in that the more you get out of the way, the more you can provide the truth. And at the same time this humbling experience of being exactly where you are and knowing what some of your limitations are. That tension between confidence and humility is what you get if you relate to reality honestly. You don’t get that security of one hundred percent confidence, which turns into pride, and you don’t get the converse feeling that you are just nothing. You’re big and small at the same time.
Tricycle:There’s a lot of talk in Buddhist circles of “safe” places to practice, “safe” teachers, even “safe” environments in which to hold conferences for Buddhist teachers. And the idea of safety seems to imply guarantees and predictability, that things are going to unfold according to plan. This seems so different from your own training. How do you handle students’ desires to be in a ‘safe place’ at the abbey?
Pema Chodron: We just did this program where people are falling apart right and left. Frequently, students would say, Well, this place feels safe to let it all hang out. So the environment was safe, but the teachings were threatening. Everyone was being encouraged to relax and and open up to whatever came up, and this meant that memories might be coming up for people which were causing them to cry; other people were triggered by the fact that people were crying, and they were having to work with their irritation, maybe even rage, at the fact that people were crying. In some sense, it was a very unsafe situation. A situation where no one rocks the boat and the whole thing creates a very weak understanding and feeds into the avoidance of pain, the major cause of samsara.
Tricycle:What role does loving-kindness play in this kind of situation?
Pema Chodron: Trungpa Rinpoche used to say that the first step in the training of the warrior, which is to say, one who is cultivating their courage, is to place them in a cradle of loving-kindness. And this is really true. In the Buddhist teachings we talk about cultivation of maitri or loving-kindness toward oneself. This does seem necessary in order to have the willingness to work with all the messy and delightful parts of yourself. Real safety is your willingness to not run away from yourself. In terms of creating a safe environment, you want to create a space in which people can look at themselves and where that’s going to meet with approval and it’s going to be safe to do that. No one is going to laugh at them for crying or falling apart. Now that’s the first stage, because, what you’re really talking about is how to live in this world where people do ridicule and laugh at you. And so we don’t just want to create a lot of practitioners who can only exist in a “safe” situation where there is no insult, where there’s no roughness. The cradle of loving-kindness is not about getting stroked. It’s more about developing a friendship with yourself in a more complete way. The real sense of safety that people need is that things aren’t going to be hidden. It isn’t really the sex or even the teachers that are the problem. It’s the duplicity, because it’s so hard to handle lies. It’s important to create a situation where people aren’t lying.
Tricycle:Do you find that certain practices are more upsetting or disrupting than others?
Pema Chodron: Certain practices dislodge a lot of emotional material—for instance, tonglen. Tonglen is a practice where you work with your breath. You breathe in suffering and connect with it fully—yours’ and other people’s. It’s a willingness to feel what hurts, not to shy away, not to reject it. You’re willing to take on suffering and develop compassion for it and even relax with it. And when you breathe out, you give away joy, a sense of inspiration, delight. So what you’re usually attached to and want to keep for yourself, you get used to sharing, giving. It’s very advanced practice when you start working with other people because it shows you every place that you shut down, hold back, every single place where you close your heart. If you’re a practitioner of the dharma, you want to see that and make friends with it. I think if you really want to become enlightened, somehow you’ve got to put yourself on the line. If you’re already a student and want to wake up fully, then you’re going to get the tests and challenges you need, and they’re all going to come from other people. Safety becomes wanting to avoid all that.
Tricycle:Recently a group of Western teachers met in India with His Holiness the Dalai Lama to discuss the direction of Buddhism in the West. [Pema Chodron was invited to this conference but was unable to attend.] At the end of the conference the participants composed—and suddenly circulated—an open letter which set out guidelines for ethical conduct for teachers and which encouraged students to confront teachers in instances of innappropriate behavior and “to publicize any unethical behavior of which there is irrefutable evidence.” Do you agree that this would be beneficial?
Pema Chodron:The concern here is obviously one of not wanting students to get hurt. Once you become a teacher—just as if you become a monk or nun—you can’t blindly keep doing what you always did. You have to be more mindful about how your behavior affects others. So that’s one side of it. And I’m glad to see this subject discussed. It’s important for students to see that dharma teachers have tempers or aggression or passion. Buddhism isn’t about seeing a world all cleaned up or thinking that the world can be all cleaned up. The other side is that it brings up people’s moralism, their conventional-mindedness. It concerns me that guidelines like these may become like some government edict or law of the land. My whole training in Buddhism has been that there is no way to tie up all the loose ends. And that comes from my teachers and the teachings. You’re never going to erase the groundlessness. You’re never going to have a neat, sweet little picture with no messiness, no matter how many rules you make. It’s important to have all the different positions expressed, from left to right, from the most liberal to the most uptight.
Tricycle: You don’t think it would be helpful to name names, to publicize those instances where Buddhist teachers have been repeatedly taken to task by students?
Pema Chodron: That really does feel like McCarthyism to me. I wouldn’t want to see a list of the bad teachers and I wouldn’t want to see a list of the good ones—here are the saints and here are the sinners. For so many of us that’s our heritage, to make things one hundred percent right or one hundred percent wrong. It has been a big relief to me to slowly relax into the courage of living in the ambiguity. I know that these guidelines are being created out of good motivation, but they’re simultaneously coming from bad motivation, righteous indignation that “they” are doing something wrong. I like the saying “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” You can’t make it right, can’t make it wrong.
Tricycle:Did this view evolve from your own Buddhist practice?
Pema Chodron: Very much so. But also, I’ve never met anyone who was completely right or completely wrong. And a lot of people see me as very trustworthy, and that gives me a lot of insight because I know who I am. Maybe on a scale of one to ten I’m pretty respectable, but still, it confirms that there is still no all “right.” And what does that mean anyway? My heroes are Gurdjieff and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Machig Labrum, the mad yogi of Bhutan. I like the wild ones. Probably because I’ve invested so much in being a good child and have always gotten great feedback from it. But my friends and teachers have always been the wild ones and I love them. I’m bored with the good ones. Not exactly bored, but they don’t stop my mind. I’m the kind of person who only learns when they get thrown overboard and the sharks are coming after me.
Tricycle: The open letter also says that “no matter what level of spiritual attainment a teacher has, or claims to have reached, no person can stand above the norms of ethical conduct.”
Pema Chodron: As a woman I don’t like that guys are always misusing their positions and coming on to the women. But I’m tempted to say something like, When a teacher is very realized it is actually different than when you’re not. But who is going to decide? Nobody can decide except the student who is in relationship with that teacher. That’s an unconditional relationship. You vow to stick by each other no matter what. And that teaches something about unconditionally sticking with your own life. When things revolt you and scare you, those things point out those parts of yourself that you are rejecting.
Tricycle: You can’t support the idea of ethical norms as suggested in the letter?
Pema Chodron: My personal teacher did not keep ethical norms and my devotion to him is unshakable. So I’m left with a big koan.
Tricycle:Do you think that Buddhism in our society is too focused on morality?
Pema Chodron: I don’t know. But there are predictions from the time of the Buddha that say that when the rules and regulations become emphasized over liberation or realization it is the sign of the decline of Buddhism. Historically there is always tension between things getting too tight or too loose. From my view, it doesn’t matter what is happening as long as it is all out in the open and we are not feeding into the fundamental source of suffering which is ignorance. As long as there is a lot of dialogue and all the different feelings and views are being presented and are in debate, then it doesn’t become some sort of McCarthyism where you have to hold a particular point of view—or watch out. It would be very unfortunate to think that we can smooth out all the rough edges. It would kill the spirit of Buddhism if it became uncomfortable or dangerous for people to hold opposing views.
Tricycle: The letter also says that “it is at necessary that all teachers at least live by the five lay precepts.”
Pema Chodron: They must be referring to the five monastic precepts: not to kill, steal, lie or have sexual relations, which I assume in this case is interpreted not as pure celibacy but being faithful to the relationship you are in, and not to drink alcohol. To be that strict about drinking and sexuality seems a bit rigid as a guideline. I have arguments with friends who feel that keeping these precepts defines being a Buddhist. There are many different views, such as if you don’t keep those precepts you cannot call yourself a Buddhist, or that if you eat meat you are not a Buddhist. I don’t hold these views myself but I enjoy a good lively debate with people who do. I don’t care what the views are as much as I care that people are out there debating them.
Tricycle:You yourself have maintained these precepts?
Pema Chodron: Absolutely. It’s not as if I don’t like those precepts.
Tricycle: And for about twenty years you have never abandoned your vows of celibacy?
Pema Chodron: No.
Tricycle:And have those precepts helped to cultivate your own sense of groundlessness?
Pema Chodron: Yes. Those precepts represent no exit, “the wisdom of no escape.” And they represent that there is no way to get away from yourself—ways that you usually use to build up your ego-structure or that distract you from the groundlessness. They give you a clear mirror for seeing how you try to get ground under your feet and how we scramble to not feel that groundlessness. I live by those precepts and I live with people who live by those precepts, and I have seen them benefit people tremendously. But the argument I have sometimes with other monastic friends is whether every Buddhist should be strictly following those precepts.
Tricycle: Is that because there are people who can better express compassion without the precepts, or is it possible that breaking the precepts can itself benefit someone?
Pema Chodron:We can’t make that judgment. But precepts don’t work if they’re imposed from the outside like a straitjacket. You have to want to set the boundaries that tightly for them to be of benefit. If you force someone to keep the precepts when they do not want to or are not ready to, then it’s like they’re in prison.
Tricycle:There has been a lot of confusion about what qualities define a true teacher. The letter seems to be suggesting that keeping the precepts defines a teacher as trustworthy for a student new to the dharma.
Pema Chodron: A lot of people think because I keep these precepts, I’m sort of above politics and scandal. So I can see that students want these clean role models. But clean role models were never that useful for me. My models were the people who stepped outside of conventional mind and who could actually stop my mind and completely open it up and free it, even for a moment, from a conventional, habitual way of looking at things. And so people look for different things. But to look for “safety” in a role model, someone that will never hurt you and always confirm you, is very dubious. If you are really preparing for groundlessness, preparing for the reality of human existence, you are living on the razor’s edge, and you must become used to the fact that things shift and change. Things are not certain and they do not last and you do not know what is going to happen. My teachers have always pushed me over the cliff, and that is what has awakened my compassion for what human beings are up against. I am afraid that because of where we come from as Westerners, with our Judeo-Christian heritage, that if you get too focused on doctrine, on codifying, or ethics as a major emphasis, it just turns into harsh judgment. And then there is no genuine compassion.