"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."