Bill Moyers talks with author and American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron about her spiritual journey.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. I’m Bill Moyers. We’ve seen in this series how faith has a place in keeping an open heart, and reason, a means of keeping an open mind. In this hour, Pema Chödrön takes us beyond faith and reason. Her answer to the frenzy of modern life is a calm mind and a warm heart, the journey and discipline of 30 years as a Buddhist nun. Buddhism is not so much a religion as it is a way of life. It marks no divide between the sacred and the secular. And when you get serious about it, Buddhism touches everyday experience. That’s what Pema Chödrön teaches and writes. In helping many others to find their own footing on the path of enlightenment, she’s also helping to change the face of Buddhism in America. Once upon a time, this was how most of us in the West thought of Buddhism — monks, seeking mental and moral purification through ancient ritual. Images of great temples. Exotic art. And the mysterious, serene deity. But it was this man who came to personify Buddhism for us — the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Buddhism. He fled Tibet when Chinese communists overran his country, and has since become one of the world’s most popular spiritual figures. I’m just one of scores of journalists to whom he has patiently explained Buddhist concepts.
DALAI LAMA: Religion is not outside. Religion is here. I think essential, essential in a religion is good heart. Something I call love and compassion is the universal religion. That’s my religion.
BILL MOYERS: In recent years, Buddhism has found a welcome in America, thanks to books by some of its leading teachers, who point the way to a practice based on direct experience, rather than belief. Pema Chödrön is one of those teachers. Here she is, at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, where people come to learn about Buddhism.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: The thing is, what we find if we’re not used to sitting quietly with ourselves, not used to meditation, not used to having any inner solitude in our lives, we find that we’re very threatened by nothing happening.
BILL MOYERS: When she’s not on the road, teaching, Pema Chödrön lives, writes, and meditates at this monastic center in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where solitude replenishes her. For years, she trained as a pupil of the late renowned Buddhist master, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. She wasn’t always Pema Chödrön. Born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, she grew up in New Jersey. Here she is as a teenager, at her wedding in the mid-’50s, and with her children. Her grandchildren trick-or-treat with a Buddhist Batwoman. And even Buddhist nuns have to pump their own gas these days. Her books sell widely, with titles such as, When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, and No Time to Lose. Her readers not only discover modern insights into ancient practices. They also come to see how this housewife and mother became what the Buddhists call a bodhisattva warrior.
BILL MOYERS: What is a bodhisattva warrior?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Well, it’s someone who takes a vow, actually, which I have done, and many Buddhists do, that, my main passion in life is to awaken myself. And I believe that everybody could do that. And I will devote my life to the degree that I can awaken. To that degree I will devote my life to trying to inspire other people to believe that they could and, obviously behind all this is the de-escalation of violence, and aggression, and the escalation of loving, kindness and compassion, and those kinds of feelings. So the path is about how the individual works with their own mind, and how that affects the family, the society, the nation, the world.
BILL MOYERS: After 30 years–
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: But it isn’t like daydreaming that then, there’s not going to be anymore mean people in the world. There’s not going to be anymore prejudice in the world. And it’s not just experience based on reading the books, and listening to the teachers. There’s also a practice, which is a meditation practice. And then you just say everyone needs some solitude in their life. And this solitude could be that you take time to sit with yourself in meditation 15 minutes a day, you know. Or longer. Or you find time out in the busyness of the whole thing. I’ve had many times when I meditate, and it seems like my mind is just going a 100 miles an hour. And yet, when I stand up and walk into life, there’s more room in my mind. I guess that’s how I would describe it.
BILL MOYERS: More room in your mind?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Yeah, someone once said to me, “The best in that spiritual instruction is when you wake up in the morning and you say, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen today?'” And then carry that kind of curiosity through your life.
BILL MOYERS: That’s what intrigues me about you Buddhists. Is you go for long periods of time deep in to realms the rest of us are hardly aware of. What was the longest period you experienced silence?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: I guess a year.
BILL MOYERS: A year. What happens during that period?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: The first thing that happens is you climb the walls. This is personal with me. It doesn’t happen anymore. But because the detox is so intense, I remember thinking like, someone coming to the door to just drop off a note or something. And I felt like I was in Kansas, and Oz was outside the door. You know, it’s like sensory deprivation. But, gradually, what begins to happen is that you sink so deeply into what life has been distracting you from. Because it’s a definition of no distractions. That’s the purpose of the retreat, no distractions. You quickly learn that distractions are not just phone calls and emails and outer phenomena. Our own mind, and our longings, and our cravings, and our fantasies and everything are also major distractions. And, as time goes on, and you’re feeding it less because no talking. You begin to sink deeper into the undistracted state. And then you begin to realize that life is always pulling you away from being fully present.
BILL MOYERS: Fully present. What is that?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: It is basically a wide awake state where your sense perceptions are wide open, in the tradition I follow. And if you could imagine seeing and hearing, tasting and smelling and so forth, without any filter between you and your experience. It’s as if suddenly all of your sense perceptions have been like narrow little slits. And now they’re wide open. Like they have no outer dimension. But let me say this, if the result of that life was that I had to stay in that seclusion, I wouldn’t think I had it measured up to a hill of beans. So, for me, I always go out and in, in and out of this kind of situation. Because I want to go deeper. But, the only reason I want to go deeper is to be there for other people in increasingly difficult situations. It’s kind of based on deeply longing to be free of suffering and then it extends to wanting other people to be free of suffering. And the suffering that you see escalated in the world. And one of the principle teachings of the Buddha was that he said, “I teach only two things. Suffering and the end of suffering.” So this conviction that sentient beings could be free of suffering, they could end their suffering. That doesn’t mean physical pain. It doesn’t mean outer circumstances being unpleasant. It means what you do with the things that happen.
BILL MOYERS: The Buddha talked about the truth of suffering.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think he meant by suffering? And what do you Buddhists mean by suffering?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Suffering?
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Well, that’s a complex question, but it doesn’t mean that we could be free of that, if fire burns you, it won’t hurt. If you get cut, it won’t hurt. It also doesn’t mean that if someone you love very dear, deeply, dies you won’t feel sadness. And it doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen to you anymore, you know? It doesn’t mean that you won’t have your personal tragedies and catastrophes and crisis. And it also certainly doesn’t mean that you could avoid planes flying into the towers, you know? Do you know what I’m saying?
BILL MOYERS: I do know about that because–
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: So it’s all about that the end of suffering has to do with how you relate with pain. Let’s distinguish just for semantics, the difference between, let’s call pain the unavoidable and let’s call suffering what could what could lessen and dissolve in our lives. So, if there’s sort of a basic phrase you could say that it isn’t the things that happen to us in our lives that cause us to suffer, it’s how we relate to the things that happen to us that causes us to suffer. One of the things that this eighth century Indian Buddhist master, Shantideva, one of the things he says about this whole thing is work with little grievances such as the middle seat instead of the aisle seat or your favorite restaurant being closed or not being able to get into the movie. Or whatever it is, you know? He says “There’s nothing that does not grow easier through familiarity.” Putting up with little cares, I’ll train myself to work with great adversity. So in other words, the premise there is that if you work with two, feeling hot and feeling cold, you work with mosquito bites and aisle and middle seats. And at that level, notice that you’re hooked and work with not escalating it–
BILL MOYERS: You’re hooked?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Yeah. That I’m hooked. Hooked is an interesting quality to me.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by it?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: I mean, not only has something, evoked a response in me but it’s going to be difficult for me to let go. Anger is like that for sure. Prejudice is like that. Critical mindedness is like that. You don’t want to let go. There’s something delicious about finding fault with something. And that can be including finding fault with one’s self, you know? So that’s what I mean by hooked. You’re sort of it because of the image of a fish and the hook and it has this juicy worm on it and you know the consequences aren’t going to be good. But you cannot resist. And one of the main things we’re addicted to is escalating aggression.
BILL MOYERS: So you escalate the anger.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: So I escalate the anger, you know? My teacher Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, he calls it pouring kerosene on the fire, you know? In an attempt to put it out, you pour kerosene on the fire.
BILL MOYERS: I like that. I like the idea of being hooked. It’s a new metaphor for me in the-
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: The word in Tibetan is Shenpa. And I’ve been teaching a lot about it lately because when I heard this teaching from one of my main teachers, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, I thought this is fabulous. Because he says it isn’t the words themselves that you’re saying to yourself. It isn’t the emotions. It’s this charge behind them that’s the Shenpa. It’s this hooked quality this difficult to let go. In my case, I read a book by Ch–gyam Trungpa Rinpoche. And it really resonated, you know?
BILL MOYERS: What resonated?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: I’d have to go back a little bit further. I was at point in my life where I think it was the low point of my life. It evolved around a marriage breaking up. But-
BILL MOYERS: Your husband came home one day and said he was having an affair–
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: That’s right. That’s–
BILL MOYERS: He wanted a divorce, right?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: And what did you do?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: The first thing that happened, I had sort of an epiphany. Or I say in the book, I think, like a genuine spiritual experience which happens to people at a time of shock. Like car accidents and things. Which was time stood still. There was a completely timeless moment where all I saw was a light and heard the sounds. And it was like an eternal moment, you know? And then the mind came back. And I picked up a stone and threw it at him. You know? The mind came back and started, you know, this is what I’d say about fanning the whole thing, you know? But in any case, it took me a good year not to be over it. I wasn’t over, I’d say, for about five years. But a good year for the pieces to sort of start coming back together. And in that time, I looked everywhere. Different therapies. All the different spiritual disciplines. I lived in an ashram. I did, you know weekend intensives in scientology which I didn’t last very long in that. And–
BILL MOYERS: You went down the cafeteria of opportunity.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Yeah, well, I was suffering. And, you know, I guess to say what I was saying before, it was like there was a pain that was, maybe, unavoidable. But then I was causing myself to suffer by struggling, struggling, struggling and what I was saying and so forth. But on the other hand, it was pretty absolute. I don’t think there was any way to not suffer because the rug had been pulled out so completely. The pain was so great. And into that process, sort of, near the end of the year, I happened to see this article called Working with Negativity which was a chapter out of a book but was in a magazine. And I read it. And the first line is something like there is nothing wrong with negativity. Like, because what I was feeling was fear, rage and tremendous confusion about my rage and my hatred and a kind of a deep, profound unshakeable groundlessness. And nothing could fill it, you know? People would take me to the movies. They’d take me to nice dinners. They’d do all these things. And nothing could get the pieces back. And that was the first thing I had read that just spoke right to what was happening. Because I was thinking to myself all this time, from day one, when he told me from day one, I thought there’s something very profound in what is happening here. There is something very profound. Because all I see now as I look out of my eyes at the world, I see that a lot of us are just running around in circles pretending that there’s ground where there actually isn’t any ground. And that somehow, if we could learn to not be afraid of groundlessness, not be afraid of insecurity and uncertainty, it would be calling on an inner strength that would allow us to be open and free and loving and compassionate in any situation. But as long as we keep trying to scramble to get ground under our feet and avoid this uneasy feeling of groundlessness and insecurity and uncertainty and ambiguity and paradox, any of that, then the wars will continue. The racial prejudice will continue. The hatred against people of a different — you don’t agree with their sexual preferences. You don’t agree with their religion. You don’t agree with their skin color. You don’t agree with their whatever, you know? Their politics. It will always continue because you can’t avoid being triggered. What triggers you can get less and less in your life. But, you know, if you’re trying to avoid being triggered, I read something recently where someone said that’s like becoming a celibate nun like me or monk and then trying to get rid of all the sexually attractive people in the world in order to keep your vows. You know, it just doesn’t work. You have to work on your side of it, you know?
BILL MOYERS: Help me to understand this meaning of groundlessness. What is that?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Well, what is groundlessness? Well, you experience it all the time. You experience it all the time. And I don’t know about you personally, but generally speaking when people react against it. We experience it as unpleasant when it’s insecurity. You know, you feel insecure. That’s a groundless feeling. Embarrassed. Like off center, you know? When my husband told me that we were breaking up, you know, he was having an affair and he wanted a divorce, that was a big groundless moment. When the planes flew into the towers everyone felt groundlessness. It was like our reality as we knew it wasn’t holding together.
BILL MOYERS: I think that’s why some of went to work, you know? My wife and I went right down to the office. While the second plane was hitting the tower. Because I felt the need and I think she probably did, too, to-
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: To ground yourself. Yeah. So I’m not saying that it’s entirely a bad thing. Because, I mean, ways that we experience groundlessness as a positive thing would be like awe, wonder, you know. Great beauty that just stops our mind. And so, as I say, sometimes it’s pleasant. But my curiosity has been more around when it’s unpleasant.
BILL MOYERS: And what was the step from that trauma in your life to taking up the training of becoming a nun?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Well, it didn’t take very long. It didn’t take very long, curiously enough, because believe me, it’s the last thing, I grew up Catholic. And, not that I had a negative experience with nuns, but I never dreamt of being a nun, you know. It’s the last thing I ever dreamt. But here I became a nun. So the first step was reading that article. And then I found a teacher. I wasn’t looking for a teacher, but I met one. And, somehow within two years I became a nun. I mean it’s very, very strange. In my life, when I’ve had certain thoughts, I say this is a forward thought and I have to follow it. It just happens every so often. And, for some reason taking the vows represented a forward thought. And, when I look back, it was premature. My children were young teenagers. And it would have been better to have waited until they were older.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever feel guilt over that?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Oh yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. But in terms of having done it, I think the timing could have been better. But there’s no other decision for me in life. That was the decision, you know. I always feel people are very fortunate, like this would be; you must feel this too. That somehow you find your niche or something. Where you always are somewhat on fire with a positive inspiration for, not even for your cause or something. But you’ve found something in your life that gives it deep meaning. And that doesn’t run out.
BILL MOYERS: I understand better now what you write somewhere when you say that all you think most spiritual experiences begin with suffering. They begin with groundlessness. They begin when the rug has been pulled out from under.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Oh, they do. They do. They do. And I would say, as a teacher of meditation and Buddhist teachings, and talking to many other much more accomplished teachers than myself, one of the things that people say is that students can be very attracted to the ideas. And very enthusiastic about it, like intellectually and conceptually. But it’s very superficial. It’s not changing them at the core of their being. Or shaking anything up. You know, in terms of how they perceive reality. The limited kind of narrow way in which we perceive reality. It’s not shaking it up at all. But when real hardship enters their lives, something that they can’t just shake off, like great loss, or pain, or anything of this nature, you can’t just shake it off. You can’t just smile and make it ok. The rug has been pulled. It is groundless. Then people start asking, and seeking, and have profound wish to try out this whole path.
BILL MOYERS: There’s a line somewhere. Someone says, I’m only paraphrasing it, that when an old culture is dying-
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: –the new culture will be formed by men and women who are not afraid of insecurity.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Right, I just loved that when I read it, you know. It will be formed by people who are not afraid of insecurity, is that what it said?
BILL MOYERS: Afraid to be insecure. What do you take that to mean?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Well, just what I’ve been saying, you know. And this was the article of Trungpa Rinpoche, why it just sort of was like a light bulb going off. Everything else seemed to be saying look towards the good. Chant until you’re in an ecstatic state. You know, like that the underlying assumption was there was something wrong, and you wanted to avoid this groundless state, or this unformed state, or this state in which you felt uneasy and queasy. And Trungpa Rinpoche is saying not at all. It’s like the matrix of creative potential. The matrix of the spiritual life. It’s like if we could rest there, which I suppose would be the description of enlightenment or the mystic, you know. Rest in that place, and is completely happy. That’s why, you know, they always say, with someone who’s very, very awake, just to use a term for enlightenment, you know, the walls could start crumbling in and they wouldn’t like freak out or something. Because it would be the whole — everything in life, anything could happen. And they’re kind of ready for anything to happen. Do you see what I’m saying?
BILL MOYERS: Is that what you mean by the term the awakened heart?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Yeah, I suppose. Awakened heart, awakened mind.
BILL MOYERS: The enlightenment the Buddhists talk of?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Yeah. Yeah. That you could, and you see this is one of the things that drew me to Buddhism. Because the Buddha taught that everybody had the potential, without exception, every living being has the potential to awaken. You know, to wake up.
BILL MOYERS: That’s intriguing to me. Because the knock on Buddhism is that, well, all of this concentration on yourself-
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: The what of Buddhism–
BILL MOYERS: The knock on it. The criticisms of it.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Oh, the criticism-
BILL MOYERS: The public– the public rap on it–
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Is that all this concentration on yourself feeds your personal narcissism.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Oh yeah, no. I mean, it can. It can. I mean let’s just say, just because you call yourself a Buddhist, you’re just as hookable as anybody else. And Buddhists can become as much fundamentalists as anybody else, you know.
BILL MOYERS: As much fundamentalist?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Sure.
BILL MOYERS: You mean that rigid mind-
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: –that– that we associate with-
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: No, the whole teaching. And usually what attracts people is it teaches that otherwise, but let’s just say it’s so basic in us, let’s just say you’re a Buddhist, I’m a Buddhist. And I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. But when someone hurts my feelings, and puts the knife in, and I actually think that they’re actually purposefully slandering me, or gossiping about me, or saying a mean word, or, I just don’t come out looking so good, you know, is my first impulse to love them? No. My first thing is I get hooked. And if it wasn’t for the way I’m sort of thrilled by the challenge of that, I would just bite the hook like anyone else. And most Buddhists that take, it doesn’t matter. We still bite the hook, we still get towed under. And we can still, I say clobber people with our peace signs, you know. So, it really doesn’t matter what religion we are. We can be a fundamentalist, or a non violent, non aggressive propagator of love in the world, and fellowship of humanity. And you see what I’m saying?
BILL MOYERS: I do. I like this notion that we all are capable of being fundamentalist.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Because we like to be angry at other people’s wrongness.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: We all get–
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: So this is the part where I get really intrigued is I feel so passionate about wanting to teach, and live, personally live by this, and the main thing is free from fixed mind. That was a term of Trungpa Rinpoche. Free from fixed mind. Free from closed mind. Free from bigoted mind, or fundamentalist mind. And it all starts with the Shenpa. It all starts with getting hooked, you see what I’m saying. So that’s where the work has to get done and no one can be naive and say, “I’m Shenpa free,” you know. That might be a description of enlightenment, you know. Or maybe a description of enlightenment is Shenpa’s not big problem when it happens. It’s just another blurp on the radar screen, you know. But it doesn’t set off the chain reaction. So we’re all–
BILL MOYERS: Chain reaction?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean chain reaction?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Well, it’s like a tightening in the stomach, or tightening of the jaw. You can see it in other people. When you’re talking to them you can see that they’ve just been hooked. Their eyes kind of glaze over or whatever. And if it just stayed there it wouldn’t be a problem. But then you just think about it, and think about it, and think about it. And it’s like a chain reaction. So let’s say that the Shenpa, or the charge, or the hook quality is very subtle. And then the charge gets stronger and stronger and stronger. Until you’re blind, and you’re able to actually harm another human being, or start a hate campaign. So it’s a chain reaction. And you can actually, if you come to your senses anywhere in the chain reaction you can interrupt it. But it gets harder and harder ’cause you become more on automatic pilot. And it’s like an undertow. It’s very seductive.
BILL MOYERS: Was it Shantideva who said, “We, who like senseless children–”
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Yeah. “Shrink from suffering, but love its causes.”
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: “Shrink from suffering but love its causes.” How do you interpret that?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Well, just recently I was with a group of people. And I quoted that, and I asked them without any teaching at all to tell me what they thought it meant. And there was this line up at the microphone. Because people, you know, they talked about everything from being alcoholic. You know, shrink from suffering, don’t like the suffering. But to mask the suffering I drink again and I have more suffering. What Shantideva is really getting at is, generally speaking, nobody wants to suffer. But our means of going about getting happy are not in sync with our desire to not suffer. A basic Buddhist teaching is that sentient beings, none of them want to suffer. But their way of going about getting happy escalates the suffering. So yelling when you’re angry would be an example. And I tell this story, like last year I knew that if I kept working on a project I was working on I could feel my physical health starting to deteriorate. But the adrenaline for wanting to keep writing, I was writing an article, and it was taking a long time. And the adrenaline to want to keep working was driving me beyond what was sensible in terms of long hours and so forth. And I could feel that it was making me sick. And somewhat fragile health. And so, I stopped, and I said to myself, I got up in the morning and I had said to myself before, “I’m not going to start on this project until 1:30 in the afternoon. I’m going to spend the morning meditating, walking, calming kind of things. But I got up in the morning and I found myself at the desk with the pen. First thing, you know. So I sat there, and I said, “Why are you doing this?” And then so I’m having a dialogue with myself. “I’m doing this because I equate it with satisfaction. I’ll finish this paper. And that makes me feel good to think that it will be finished.’ So then I said to myself, “And if you start writing now, will you feel better?” “No, I won’t, because my health is starting to go.” “So why are you doing it?” So I just sat there with this feeling like someone is going to have come up bodily and gag me and put a mask on me, and drag me out of the house for me not to just start. Despite the fact that I knew it wasn’t good. And then I came down just ’cause I want to. You know, I already knew I was doing it for this imagined satisfaction that I knew I wouldn’t get. You see, so we’re kind of stuck in that place.
BILL MOYERS: Did my colleagues get to you to tell you how to get to me? How to do a public diagnosis of me? I mean did they come to you and say, “You can get him if you talk about work”? You know? No, I’m the same way.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Yeah. Of course. I’m fascinated by that seductive pull. That urge to keep doing, as the Buddha would say, where your desire for satisfaction and happiness are not in sync with the methods you go about using. And then you could say the consequences, you know, of war and prejudice and so forth, they all come from that moment of the urge to do the same thing you’ve already done.
BILL MOYERS: Among the rolling hills and lakes of the Hudson River Valley, just 80 miles north of the clatter of New York City, sits the Omega Institute, an oasis for spiritual seekers. Pema Chödrön made a rare appearance at Omega’s campus recently to teach from her book, “No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva.” The teachings are based on a text written by the eighth-century Buddhist sage, Shantideva. And its contents, as Pema Chödrön explains, are remarkably relevant to modern life.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: In Tibetan, the word is Dunzi. I love this word, Dunzi. It means distractions — distractions that just sort of, you can waste your whole life in Dunzi, you know, just, like, the lifestyle of just sort of flipping through magazines. Or — I don’t know. The thing is, what we find if we’re not used to sitting quietly with ourselves and not used to meditation and not used to having any inner solitude in our lives, we find that we’re very threatened by nothing happening. And we are addicted to dunzi addicted to distractions. And that’s why you get on an airplane, and it’s as if, I think they’re just, like, terrified, what would happen if the video went off and there was no food, and we all had to sit there for the whole, you know, 1 1/2-hour flight, You know, and not have any entertainment? And, you know, all the books, you forgot your book and everything. It would be kind of interesting to see if people would, like, freak out. Because you look up — you walk up and down the aisles, you know what everyone would do, they’d close their eyes and go to sleep. They’d just try to not be there. I try to meditate on airplanes. It is not easy, actually, because there is so much, the — the videos are going like this, change, change, change, and there’s all this electrical sound going through, and everyone is working with their little gameboys. And their little things and there’s, like, so much happening in that little space, you know? Everyone’s sitting in their little seats, and there’s just, like, chaos. But it’s all in the name of entertainment, you know, distracting you from being in this dreadful experience of being in this airplane for, you know, for however long. This lousy world, this lousy people, this lousy government, this lousy everything. Lousy weather, lousy blah blah blah blah. Pissed off, you know, it’s too hot in here, it’s too cold, I don’t like the smell and, the person is too tall in front, and — too fat next to me, and they’re wearing perfume and I’m allergic, and just — unnnh! So he says, the analogy is that you’re barefooted, it’s like being barefooted and walking across blazing-hot sand or across cut glass. Or in a field with thorns. And your feet are bare, and you say, this is just, you know, it’s really hurting, it’s terrible, it’s too sharp, it’s too painful, it’s too hot. Do I have a great idea! I am just going to cover the whole, everywhere I go, I’m going to cover it with leather. And then it won’t hurt my feet anymore. That’s like saying, “I’m going to get rid of her and get rid of him and get the temperature right, and I’m going to ban perfume in the world and, you know, there will be no, nothing that bothers me anywhere. There — I am going to get rid of everything, including mosquitoes, that bothers me, anywhere in the world, and then I will be a very happy, content person.” We’re laughing, but it’s what we all do. That is how we do approach things. We think, if we could just get rid of them or cover it with leather, then our pain would go away. Well, sure, because, you know, then it wouldn’t be cutting our feet anymore — I mean, it’s just logical, isn’t it? But it doesn’t make any sense, really. So he said, “but if you simply wrap the leather around your feet” — in other words, shoes — then you could walk across the boiling sand and the cut glass and the thorns, and it wouldn’t bother you. So the analogy is, if you work with your mind, instead of trying to change everything on the outside, that’s how your temper will cool down. * * *
BILL MOYERS: Do you look to the Buddha with the same kind of reverence that many Christians look to Jesus? Or Muslims look to Muhammad?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Yes, I do. The Buddha was a role model of what I myself can do.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: He was an ordinary human being with hopes and fears, and Shenpa, you know ability to get hooked. And he freed himself from suffering, not from pain but from suffering. And found his ability to communicate it so that it was very stirring to people around him. And allowed other people to become free. And I believe I can also do that. And I believe everybody can also do that. So he’s the role model of someone who didn’t give up on himself. Didn’t give up on the world. Didn’t give up on other people. And freed himself from suffering. This unnecessary suffering that Shantideva refers. We shrink from suffering but love its causes. “We hurt ourselves,” he says, you know. So why should others be the object of our hatred. He says what he says, not implying that we should hate ourselves, but implying that we could take responsibility for our side of what you see.
BILL MOYERS: Do you-
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: But, yes, I have great veneration for the Buddha. You know, what-
BILL MOYERS: Do you pray to him? Like Christians pray to Jesus?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: No. No I don’t pray to him. Or even think of him, necessarily, as a role model. He was a person like myself that woke up the way I could, and the way all sentient beings could. But Buddha for me is that awakened mind itself. That totally open unbiased unprejudiced mind and heart. And I resonate with that. And I come back again and again to that mind and heart as the motivating factor of my life. And I think of that as you know, if you use the word Christ consciousness, you might call this Buddha consciousness, or Buddha nature. And so it’s what he uncovered. It wasn’t like he was reaching for something he didn’t have. It was more like he had it all along. As if it was a mirror covered with dust, and he removed the dust. And then the shining mirror was always there. So he uncovered that. That’s what I resonate with, my capacity to do that, and everyone’s capacity to do that. So the bodhisattva says may all sentient beings be happy and free of suffering. And it means all. It doesn’t mean except, you know, your list of people who you think should get there’s, you know.
BILL MOYERS: By happiness, what do you mean by happiness?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Contentment. At home with yourself in your world. Not separating yourself from others. Not hardening your heart, or your mind to others, or to the world. That profound wellbeing which is not based on facts, so to speak. You know, like changing circumstances. It’s not based on changing circumstances.
BILL MOYERS: How do you experience God?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: How do I experience God? You know, that in Buddhism we do not believe in God or disbelieve in God. We keep it as an open question. So I don’t use the word god much. I’m not at all even slightly offended by the word god. And I know it means a lot of different things to different people. So if I had to have a definition it would be that open space of mind that allows for ultimate possibilities. And doesn’t narrow down into a security based or fear based view where my way has to have precedence.
BILL MOYERS: Do you describe yourself as a person of faith?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Well, I thought about this topic, because I knew it was a subject of faith and reason. And faith was not a term that I had ever used for myself. So I gave it some thought, you know. I do have a lot of faith. But the main faith is that sentient beings have the capacity to awaken all beings. And that, given the right causes and conditions, many people who are sort of neutral, and could get caught by the sweep, or a strong seduction towards aggression could equally be swayed towards peace and love and kindness. Because people have that capacity in them. Now this isn’t to say that I don’t see injustice. But I think I’m more of the school of Martin Luther King, you know. Where you want beloved community, where you take the view that wanting everyone to be healed, not wanting to win your side and make the other side wrong. And, ok, underlying this would be that you want for everyone to deescalate their aggression, and not increase their aggression. And I equate that with happiness and peace in the world and so forth.
BILL MOYERS: On almost any day, well I would say on every day in New York you can experience random acts of kindness. But, after 9/11 kindness seemed to be everyone’s daily behavior. I saw so much kindness. And then, of course, it didn’t take too long for it to disappear.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Ok, so this is like a big view of what happens with individuals. And what we saw in New York, and you see with people who are in those states, that it’s a softness, a kindness, it’s as people said during those days in New York, it’s the only thing that makes sense. And then what happens? The habit comes back. Because, basically, the kindness comes out of not being able to escape from groundlessness. And then, when everyone is in the same situation, you’re all groundless together, the only thing that makes sense is kindness. It’s so interesting, you see, this almost proves, you know, if you’re going to have a proof of faith in basic goodness, that sort of proves it. Then the person who believed in basic badness would say, no, the more fundamental thing is what reasserts itself. And I would say, no, what the Buddha taught was what reasserts itself is the classic texts call it adventitious. It means removable. It’s temporary. Neurosis is temporary. Sanity is permanent.
BILL MOYERS: I like that.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: But, also, I’ve done dialoguing, interfaith dialoguing when I was, about ten years ago I did a lot of it. And I came out of it feeling if your view is that of basic badness, you see it wherever you go. If your view is basic goodness, you see it wherever you go. And I said, I might be wrong, maybe basic badness is a fundamental state. But basic goodness makes for a much happier world. And for feeling more at home in the world, and more friendship. So I came out feeling, you know, I’m open enough to, maybe when I die, you know, some big plaque comes up and says, “You were wrong all your life. Everything you believed in your whole life is wrong.” I think I’m preparing for that moment, you know, for it not to be anything that I thought it was. And it would be ok. And do you see what I’m saying?
BILL MOYERS: Have you forgiven your husband?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Oh sure. Yeah. Well, not only forgiven him, I tell him, you know, it’s a little insulting to him actually. I say, “You know, your leaving me was the best thing that ever happened to me.” It’s, you know, I’m not sure he’s forgiven me, you know. But sure I’ve forgiven him because, basically, without that, it’s like people who say, “I lived such a superficial life until I found out I had a disease that wasn’t going to get better.” Do you see what I’m saying? Not everyone uses that to get happier. But for a lot of people, when you can’t get rid of it, it sort of brings you to the bottom, and that kind of positive bottom where you surrender, and then things begin to open up for you. Somebody had given me a poem, and it had a line it which was, “Softening what is rigid in your heart.” Work on yourself. Work on your own aggression. And that’s sewing the seeds of peace. It’s not that do this and then the war will be over in Iraq. You know, it’s not naive that way. But it’s talking about sewing seeds of peace. And this is where the meditation comes in. People who meditate, they do become much more in tune with being able to notice that they’ve been hooked and then also notice what they’re saying to themselves at that time to escalate the whole thing. In other words, it does give you more clarity about what’s going on with you.
BILL MOYERS: After over 30 years on this path of enlightenment when you took that vow to be a nun, do you feel you’re close to a state of perfection?
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: No. No. I’m happy. I’m very happy. I feel satisfied with my life. If I died tomorrow, I’d feel I hadn’t wasted my life. But my appetite is insatiable, and I feel I have a long way to go, you know, in terms of perfection.
BILL MOYERS: Who was the Zen master who told his student, “All of you are perfect, and you could use a little improvement.”
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: That’s was Suzuki Roshi. Yeah. “All of you are perfect, and you could use a little improvement.” Yeah. So, you know, one of the things with the bodhisattva warrior, they say that “No matter how far you get in terms of being unhooked yourself, or being happy yourself, or always look back at who you used to be. Never forget to look back at the neurosis that you carried for so many years. Otherwise you’ll lose your contact with the suffering of other people.” So for the bodhisattva warrior, our kinship with each other is the crucial thing, you know. So it isn’t that really you want to avoid the pain of the world, because that educates you about what other people are up against. But the suffering. When I remember earlier I tried to distinguish between pain and suffering? And that suffering is what could lessen, and there could be a sensation of suffering. So you’re not trying to tell people that then there’ll be no bad more things happening to good people. But that the good people will relate to things in a way that doesn’t escalate their suffering, and therefore the suffering of those around them.
BILL MOYERS: Pema Chödrön, thank you very much for being with me.
PEMA CHÖDRÖN: It was my complete pleasure. And thank you. I feel very honored. Very honored to have had this chance to be with you.
BILL MOYERS: And I. Thank you so much.