15. When Things Fall Apart

by Pema Chodron

Like the late great Zen master D.T. Suzuki, Pema Chodron is gifted with the ability to make Buddhism meaningful to Westerners without watering it down or misrepresenting it for the sake of our ease.

Pema Chodron is a Buddhist nun living at the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her dharma talks and essays are challenging, to say the least. At the center of this book (which is a collection of "talks" she gave in the mid-90s) is the notion that the goal of Buddhist meditation practices is first to make friends with ourselves, to know ourselves, including all the so-called bad feelings and emotions we so often run away from or try to drug out of existence.

Hope and fear, she argues, occupy attention that should be devoted to the moment in which we are actually living. In Buddhist thought, the greatest teacher is the present moment. Hope and fear are merely our imagined future, and despite the fact that they are not real beyond the imagination, they preoccupy us in the present reality. The effect is that we are never really living. Our minds are not awake to the present reality because we are busy about the imagined future (or the remembered past).

Thsi is not to say that we should admonish ourselves for fearing, or avoid experiences that cause fear. Instead, Chodron says, we are to face our fear, without judging it, and accept it as part of who we are. She argues that when we encounter fear, we should "lean toward it," not to eradicate it, but to embrace it and try to understand it just as we should with our perceived qualities.

She tells a story of her teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, whom she often witnessed do remarkable things. She, Rinpoche and four other monks were walking into a monastary when they passed an large, angry, snarling guard dog on a chain. They walked past warily while the dog grew increasing angry and determined to eat them. Just as they got some twenty yards into the monastary, the dog broke the chain and came tearing after them. All the monks cried out and/or ran away in fright except for Trungpa Rinpoche, who ran directly toward the dog. Needless to say, at the sight of this monk running toward him, the dog stopped in its tracks and decided to run elsewhere instead.

Later in the book, on a slightly different subject, she tells another story. During the horrible campaign by the Chinese to occupy and control Tibet, the leaders of a local monastery decided that it was too dangerous for them to stay any longer. They joined other refugees and fled for the hills and surrounding countries. All except a monk (whose name I can't remember) who said good-bye to them at the monastery's front gates and walked toward China.

Your fear. Lean toward it. Face first. Eyes open. What is it, really? Whatever it is, embrace that part of you with loving kindness. And do nothing else about it. Just keep loving yourself until it radiates outward.

Well, my review of this book is slanted. It is actually a very useful manual for Buddhist practice, especially meditation (which is really where we should be facing our fears).

I'll be revisiting the chapters in this book for a long time. I'd be crazy not to.


Olman Feelyus said...

When you get back from vacation, delete those comments above. They seem to be some sort of blog spam, the likes of which I haven't gotten yet. What bastards!

Anyways, I liked your brief presentation of the author's suggestions on handling fear. It's a good concept to think of it as separate from your reality but also a part of you. As I get older, I'm finding myself much more conscious of my fears as something separate from what I'm actually trying to do. I haven't conquered them, but it helps to realize that my emotional reaction may be limiting my actual response. It allows me to move forward.

As a point of context, and I may be wrong about this, but I'm pretty sure Pema Chodron is a source of a great deal of controversy in the Buddhist world. I remember reading an article about her in Saturday Night many years ago. If it's her, she has many enemies and lots of accusations of corruption against her.

That is not to take away from the ideas, but I'm very suspicious of all organized religions, especially the eastern ones, because they sneak in to the educated upper-middle class as antidotes to judeo-christian mythologies that many of that class are rebelling against.

All the active buddhism I've seen in the west is extremely materialistic. Everybody involved is rich and a lot of the events involve much transferring of money. All these rinpoches always seem to have a plan of building some big retreat somewhere. It strikes me as a religion (in its current state in the west) designed for the leisure classes to have something to think about without really doing much for society.

Crumbolst said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Crumbolst said...

Thanks for the heads up about the spam. Wow, 10 spam "comments" (now deleted). It's going to suck if this problem grows.

I agree with your thoughts about organized religion. Buddhism is no exception. About the class issues in the west, I also agree. Buddhism, or a refined strain of eastern Buddhism to be more precise, has been coopted by Western upper classers. And it is poorly used. In fact it ends up not being Buddhism at all, but rather a religion used to justify our materialism.

Best we can do is try to see through this cultural shitstorm and gleen the wisdom of this extraordinary way of thinking and living.

One important practice in meditation and living, though, is not to allow issues in the wider world to distract us from the very moment we're in. We'll never clearly experience a moment if we are preoccupied with other moments, issues, ideas, etc. I know this might sound a lot like promoting contextual ignorance, and in a very exact way it is, at least during meditation, but we simply have to practice listening to and seeking the content of our own hearts before we can make any sense of the rest of the world. Buddists say that doing so will make us wiser and more compassionate livers in the world.