Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron and novelist Alice
Walker on how tonglen meditation practice opens our heart, expands
our vision, and plants the seeds of love in our lives. From an
evening of discussion at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts
Alice Walker: About four
years ago I was having a very difficult time. I had lost someone I
loved deeply and nothing seemed to help. Then a friend sent me a
tape set by Pema Chodron called "Awakening Compassion."I stayed in
the country and I listened to you, Pema, every night for the next
year. I studied lojong mind training and I practiced tonglen. It was
tonglen, the practice of taking in people's pain and sending out
whatever you have that is positive, that helped me through this
difficult passage. I want to thank you so much, and to ask you a
question. In my experience suffering is perennial; there is always
suffering. But does suffering really have a use? I used to think
there was no use to it, but now I think that there
Pema Chodron: Is there any use in suffering?
I think the reason I am so taken by these teachings is that they are
based on using suffering as good medicine, like the Buddhist
metaphor of using poison as medicine. It's as if there's a moment of
suffering that occurs over and over and over again in every human
life. What usually happens in that moment is that it hardens us; it
hardens the heart because we don't want any more pain. But the
lojong teachings say we can take that very moment and flip it. The
very thing that causes us to harden and our suffering to intensify
can soften us and make us more decent and kinder people.
takes a lot of courage. This is a teaching for people who are
willing to cultivate their courage. What's wonderful about it is
that you have plenty of material to work with. If you're waiting for
only the high points to work with, you might give up, but there's an
endless succession of suffering.
One of the main teachings of the
Buddha was the truth of dukha, which is usually translated as
"suffering." But a better translation might be "dissatisfaction."
Dissatis-faction is inherent in being human; it's not some mistake
that you or I have made as individuals. Therefore, if we can learn
to catch that moment, to relax with it, dissatisfaction doesn't need
to keep escalating. In fact it becomes the seed of compassion, the
seed of loving kindness.
Alice Walker: I was
surprised how the heart literally responds to this practice. You can
feel it responding physically. As you breathe in what is difficult
to bear, there is initial resistance, which is the fear, the
constriction. That's the time when you really have to be brave. But
if you keep going and doing the practice, the heart actually
relaxes. That is quite amazing to feel.
Chodron: When we start out on a spiritual path we often
have ideals we think we're supposed to live up to. We feel we're
supposed to be better than we are in some way. But with this
practice you take yourself completely as you are. Then ironically,
taking in pain-breathing it in for yourself and all others in the
same boat as you are-heightens your awareness of exactly where
you're stuck. Instead of feeling you need some magic makeover so you
can suddenly become some great person, there's much more emotional
honesty about where you're stuck.
Exactly. You see that the work is right ahead of you all the
Pema Chodron: There is a kind of
unstuckness that starts to happen. You develop loving-kindness and
compassion for this self that is stuck, which is called maitri. And
since you have a sense of all the other sentient beings stuck just
like you, it also awakens compassion.
I remember the day I really got it that we're not connected
as human beings because of our perfection, but because of our flaws.
That was such a relief.
Pema Chodron: Rumi wrote
a poem called "Night Travelers." It's about how all the darkness of
human beings is a shared thing from the beginning of time, and how
understanding that opens up your heart and opens up your world. You
begin to think bigger. Rather than depressing you, it makes you feel
part of the whole.
Alice Walker: I like what you
say about understanding that the darkness represents our wealth,
because that's true. There's so much fixation on the light, as if
the darkness can be dispensed with, but of course it cannot. After
all, there is night, there is earth; so this is a wonderful
acknowledgment of richness.
I think the Jamaicans are right when
they call each other "fellow sufferer," because that's how it feels.
We aren't angels, we aren't saints, we're all down here doing the
best we can. We're trying to be good people, but we do get really
mad. You talk in your tapes about when you discovered that your
former husband was seeing someone else, and you threw a rock at him.
This was very helpful (laughter). It was really good to have a
humorous, earthy, real person as a teacher. This was
Pema Chodron: When that marriage broke
up, I don't know why it devastated me so much but it was really a
kind of annihilation. It was the beginning of my spiritual path,
definitely, because I was looking for answers. I was in the lowest
point in my life and I read this article by Trungpa Rinpoche called
"Working With Negativity."I was scared by my anger and looking for
answers to it. I kept having all these fantasies of destroying my
ex-husband and they were hard to shake. There was an enormous
feeling of groundlessness and fear that came from not being able to
entertain myself out of the pain. The usual exits, the usual ways of
distracting myself-nothing was working.
Walker: Nothing worked.
And Trungpa Rinpoche basically said that there's nothing wrong with
negativity per se. He said there's a lot you can learn from it, that
it's a very strong creative energy. He said the real problem is what
he called negative negativity, which is when you don't just stay
with negativity but spin off into all the endless cycle of things
you can say to yourself about it.
What gets us is the spinoff. If you could just sit with the basic
feeling then you could free yourself, but it's almost impossible if
you're caught up in one mental drama after another. That's what
Pema Chodron: This is an essential
understanding of vajrayana, or tantric, Buddhism. In vajrayana
Buddhism they talk about how what we call negative energies-such as
anger, lust, envy, jealousy, these powerful energies-are all
actually wisdoms in disguise. But to experience that you have to not
spin off; you have to be able to relax with the energy.
tonglen, which is considered more of a mahayana practice, was my
entry into being able to sit with that kind of energy. And it gave
me a way to include all the other people, to recognize that so many
people were in the same boat as I was.
Walker: You do recognize that everybody is in that boat
sooner or later, in one form or other. It's good to feel that you're
Pema Chodron: I want to ask you about
joy. It's all very well to talk about poison as medicine and
breathing in the suffering and sending out relief and so forth, but
did you find any joy coming out of this?
Walker: Oh Yes! Even just not being so miserable.
of the joyousness was knowing we have help. It was great to know
that this wisdom is so old. That means people have had this pain for
a long time, they've been dealing with it, and they had the
foresight to leave these practices for us to use. I'm always
supported by spirits and ancestors and people in my tribe, whoever
they've been and however long ago they lived. So it was like having
another tribe of people, of ancestors, come to the rescue with this
wisdom that came through you and your way of teaching.
Pema Chodron: I think the times are ripe for
this kind of teaching.
Alice Walker: Oh, I think
it's just the right medicine for today. You know, the other really
joyous thing is that I feel more open, I feel more openness toward
people in my world.
It's what you have said about feeling more
at home in your world. I think this is the result of going the
distance in your own heart-really being disciplined about opening
your heart as much as you can. The thing I find, Pema, is that it
closes up again. You know?
Pema Chodron: Oh no!
(laughter) One year of listening to me and your heart still closes
Alice Walker: Yeah. It's like what you have
said about how the ego is like a closed room and our whole life's
work is to open the door. You may open the door and then discover
that you're not up to keeping it open for long. The work is to keep
opening it. You have an epiphany, you understand something, you feel
slightly enlightened about something, but then you lose it. That's
the reality. So it's not a bad thing.
Alice Walker: But it's
frustrating at times, because you think to yourself, I've worked on
this, why is it still snagging in the same spot?
Chodron: That's how life keeps us honest. The inspiration
that comes from feeling the openness seems so important, but on the
other hand, I'm sure it would eventually turn into some kind of
spiritual pride or arrogance. So life has this miraculous ability to
smack you in the face with a real humdinger just when you're going
over the edge in terms of thinking you've accomplished something.
That humbles you; it's some kind of natural balancing that keeps you
human. At the same time the sense of joy does get stronger and
Alice Walker: Because otherwise you
feel you're just going to be smacked endlessly, and what's the
Pema Chodron: It's about
relaxing with the moment, whether it's painful or pleasurable. I
teach about that a lot because that's personally how I experience
it. The openness brings the smile on my face, the sense of gladness
just to be here. And when it gets painful, it's not like there's
been some big mistake or something. It just comes and goes.
Alice Walker: That brings me to something else
I've discovered in my practice, because I've been doing meditation
for many years-not tonglen, but TM and metta practice. There are
times when I meditate, really meditate, very on the dot, for a year
or so, and then I'll stop. So what happens? Does that ever happen to
Pema Chodron: Yes.
Alice Walker: Good!
Chodron: And I just don't worry about it.
Walker: Good! (laughter)
One of the things I've discovered as the years go on is that there
can't be any "shoulds." Even meditation practice can become
something you feel you should do, and then it becomes another thing
you worry about.
So I just let it ebb and flow, because I feel
it's always with you in some way, whether you're formally practicing
or not. My hunger for meditation ebbs but the hunger always comes
back, and not necessarily because things are going badly. It's like
a natural opening and closing, or a natural relaxation and then
getting involved in something else, going back and
Alice Walker: I was surprised to discover
how easy it was for me to begin meditating many years ago. What I
liked was how familiar that state was. The place that I most love is
when I disappear. You know, there's a point where you just
disappear. That is so wonderful, because I'm sure that's how it will
be after we die, that you're just not here, but it's
Pema Chodron: What do you mean exactly,
Alice Walker: Well, you reach
that point where it's just like space, and you don't feel yourself.
You're not thinking about what you're going to cook, and you're not
thinking about what you're going to wear, and you're not really
aware of your body. I like that because as a writer I spend a lot of
time in spaces that I've created myself and it's a relief to have
another place that is basically empty.
Chodron: I don't think I have the same experience. It's
more like being here-fully and completely here. It's true that
meditation practice is liberating and timeless and that, definitely,
there is no caught-up-ness. But it is also profoundly simple and
immediate. In contrast, everything else feels like fantasy, like it
is completely made up by mind.
Well, I feel like I live a lot of my life in a different realm
anyway, especially when I'm out in nature. So meditation takes me to
that place when I'm not in nature. It is a place of really feeling
the oneness, that you're not kept from it by the fact that you're
wearing a suit. You're just in it; that's one of the really good
things about meditation for me.
Judy Lief: I
assume, Alice, that as an activist your job is to take on situations
of extreme suffering and try to alleviate them to some degree. How
has this practice affected your approach to
Alice Walker: Well, my activism really
is for myself, because I see places in the world where I really feel
I should be. If there is something really bad, really evil,
happening somewhere, then that is where I should be. I need, for
myself, to feel that I have stood there. It feels a lot better than
just watching it on television.
Judy Lief: This
is where you bring together your private practice and your public
Alice Walker: Yes. Before I was sort of
feeling my way. I went to places like Mississippi and stood with the
people and realized the suffering they were experiencing. I shared
the danger they put themselves in by demanding their rights. I felt
this incredible opening, a feeling of finally being at home in my
world, which was what I needed. I needed to feel I could be at home
there, and the only way was to actually go and connect with the
Pema Chodron: And the other extreme is
when our primary motivation is avoidance of pain. Then the world
becomes scarier and scarier.
Pema Chodron: That's the really sad
thing-the world becomes more and more frightening, and you don't
want to go out your door. Sure there's a lot of danger out there,
but the tonglen approach makes you more open to the fear it evokes
in you, and your world gets bigger.
When you are practicing tonglen, taking on pain of others,
what causes that to flip into something positive, as opposed to
being stuck in a negative space or seeing yourself as a
Alice Walker: I think it's knowing that
you're not the only one suffering. That's just what happens on
earth. There may be other places in the galaxy where people don't
suffer, where beings are just fine, where they never get parking
tickets even. But what seems to be happening here is just really
heavy duty suffering.
I remember years ago, when I was asking
myself what was the use of all this suffering. I was reading the
Gnostic Gospels, in which Jesus says something that really struck
me. He says basically, learn how to suffer and you will not suffer.
That dovetails with this teaching, which is a kind of an acceptance
that suffering is the human condition.
Chodron: It is true people fear tonglen practice.
Particularly if people have a lot of depression, they fear it is
going to be tough to relate with the suffering so directly.
have found that it's less overwhelming if you start with your own
experience of suffering and then generalize to all the other people
who are feeling what you do. That gives you a way to work with your
pain: instead of feeling like you're increasing your suffering,
you're making it meaningful. If you're taught that you should do
tonglen only for other people, that's too big a leap for most
people. But if you start with yourself as the reference point and
extend out from that, you find that your compassion becomes much
more spontaneous and real. You have less fear of the suffering you
perceive in the world-yours and other people's. It's a lot about
overcoming the fear of suffering.
My experience of working with
this practice is that it has brought me a moment by moment sense of
wellbeing. That's encouraging to people who are afraid to start the
practice-to know that relating directly with your suffering is a
doorway to wellbeing for yourself and others, rather than some kind
Alice Walker: I would say that is
also true for me in going to stand where I feel I need to stand. I
feel I get to that same place.
I also appreciate the teaching on
driving all blame into yourself. We need a teaching on how fruitless
it is to always blame the other person. In my life I can see places
where I have not wanted to take my part of the blame. That's a
losing proposition. There's no gain in it because you never learn
very much about yourself. You don't own all your parts. There are
places in each of us that are quite scary, but you have to make
friends with them. You have to really get to know them, to say,
hello, there you are again. It's very helpful to do
Pema Chodron: One of the things the Buddha
pointed out in his early teaching was that everybody wants happiness
or freedom from pain, but the methods human beings habitually use
are not in sync with the wish. The methods always end up escalating
the pain. For example, someone yells at you and then you yell back
and then they yell back and it gets worse and worse. You think the
reason not to yell back is because, you know, good people don't yell
back. But the truth is that by not yelling back you're just getting
smart about what's really going to bring you some
Judy Lief: The lojong slogan says
"Drive all blames into one," that is, yourself. But there are
definitely situations where from the conventional viewpoint there
are bad guys and good guys, oppressors and oppressed. How do you
combine taking the blame yourself with combating oppression or evil
that you encounter?
Alice Walker: Maybe it
doesn't work there. (laughter) Pema why don't you take that one.
Pema Chodron: Well, here would be my
question: does it help to have a sense of enemy in trying to end
Alice Walker: No.
Chodron: So maybe that's it.
I think it's probably about seeing. As Bob Marley said so
beautifully, the biggest bully you ever did see was once a tiny
baby. That's true. I mean, I've tried that on Ronald Reagan. I even
tried that on Richard Nixon, but it didn't really work that well.
But really, when you're standing face to face with someone who
just told you to go to the back of the bus, or someone who has said
that women aren't allowed here, or whatever, what do you do? I don't
know what you do, Pema, but at that moment I always see that they're
really miserable people and they need help. Now, of course, I think
I would love to send them a copy of "Awakening
Pema Chodron: It's seeing
that the cause of someone's aggression is their suffering. And you
could also realize that your aggression is not going to help
So you're standing there, you are being provoked, you
are feeling aggression, and what do you do? That's when tonglen
becomes very helpful. You breathe in and connect with your own
aggression with a lot of honesty. You have such a strong recognition
in that moment of all the oppressed people who are provoked and
feeling like you do. If you just keep doing that, something
different might come out of your mouth.
Walker: And war will not be what comes out.
Lief: It seems to me that Dr. Martin Luther King had the
quality of a tonglen practitioner. Yet he didn't ask us not to take
Alice Walker: He was from a long line of
Baptist preachers, someone who could really get to that place of
centeredness through prayer and through love. I think the person who
has a great capacity to love, which often flowers when you can see
and feel the suffering of other people, can also strategize. I think
he was a great strategist. I think he often got very angry and
upset, but at the same time he knew what he was up against.
Sometimes he was the only really lucid person in a situation, so he
knew how much of the load he was carrying and how much depended on
As activists, it is really important to have some kind of
practice, so that when we go out into the world to confront horrible
situations we can do it knowing we're in the right place ourselves.
Knowing we're not bringing more fuel to the fire, more anger, more
despair. It's difficult but that should not be a deterrent. The more
difficult something seems, the more it's possible to give up hope.
You approach the situation with the feeling of having already given
up hope, but that doesn't stop you. You said we should put that
slogan about abandoning hope on our refrigerators.
Chodron: "Give up all hope of fruition."
Walker: Right. Just do it because you're doing it and it
feels like the right thing to do, but without feeling it's
necessarily going to change anything.
Chodron: Something that I heard Trungpa Rinpoche say has
been a big help to me. He said to live your life as an experiment,
so that you're always experimenting. You could experiment with
yelling back and see what happens. You could experiment with tonglen
and see how that works. You could see what actually allows some kind
of communication to happen. You learn pretty fast what closes down
communication, and that's the strong sense of enemy. If the other
person feels your hatred, then everyone closes
Alice Walker: I feel that fear is what
closes people down more than anything, just being afraid. The times
when I have really been afraid to go forward, with a relationship or
a problem, is because there is fear. I think practice of being with
your feelings, letting them come up and not trying to push them
away, is incredibly helpful.
Question from the
audience: Thank you both for being here and bringing so
much pleasure to so many people tonight. I'm asking a question for a
friend who couldn't come tonight. She was at Pema's three day
seminar and she left on Saturday feeling badly because she had got
in touch with her anger and couldn't stay. Now she feels she's a bad
Buddhist, a bad practitioner. I've been trying to tell her it's okay
but I think she needs to hear your words.
Chodron: Well, tell her we're used to using everything that
we hear against ourselves, so it's really common to take the dharma
teachings and use them against yourself. But the fact is we don't
have to do that anymore. We don't have to do that. It's just like
Alice saying that the heart opens and then it closes, so she has to
realize that's how it is forever and ever. She'll get in touch and
then she'll lose touch and get in touch and lose touch. So she has
to keep on going with herself and not give up on
Question: This is really hard on her
because you two are her favorite people in the entire
Alice Walker: And she didn't
Question: She's so
Pema Chodron: She didn't come
because she was so ashamed of herself for not being able to stay
with it...that's not true, is it?
Pema Chodron: Really. Wow. You should
tell her that she's just an ordinary human being. (laughter) What's
a little unusual about her is that she was willing to get in touch
with it for even a little bit.
name is Margaret, and I have practiced Tibetan Buddhism for a number
of years. About eighteen months ago, right around the time that for
the first time in my life I fell in love with a woman, the Dalai
Lama made a number of comments pointing out where the Tibetan
tradition did not regard homosexuality as a positive thing, but in
fact as an obstacle to spiritual growth. It reached the point that I
left the sangha I was connected with and found a different part of
the spiritual path that's working for me now. I have gay and
bisexual friends who are interested in Buddhism but some of them
have been stopped by what the Dalai Lama had to say and by the lack
of coherent answers from other people. I think it would be a big
service if you could address that.
Well, listen. I have so much respect for the Dalai Lama and I think
that's where people get stuck. I didn't actually hear those
comments, and I heard there were also favorable comments. But aside
from all that, as Buddhism comes to the West, Western Buddhist
teachers simply don't buy that. It's as if Asian teachers said that
women were inferior or something. I mean, it's absurd. That's all
there is to it. (applause) It's just
Question: Let me ask you to say that
often and loud.
Pema Chodron: Sure! I go on
record. And I'm not alone, it's not something unique with me.
Western teachers, coming from this culture, we see things pretty
differently on certain issues and this is one, for sure.
Dalai Lama is a wonderful man, and I have a feeling that if he were
sitting here he'd have something else to say on the
Alice Walker: You know, when he was
here at the peace conference he was confronted by gay men and
lesbian women and he readily admitted that he really didn't know. He
didn't seem rigid on it.
But also, when there is wisdom about,
we should have it! Wisdom belongs to the people. We must never be
kept from wisdom by anybody telling us you can't have it because
you're this, that or the other.
Question: I have
a question about the connection between tonglen and joy. I kind of
understood the moderator's question about when you breathe in so
much suffering, how do you avoid becoming so burdened or martyred by
it? What I'm understanding about tonglen is that there's something
kind of transformative about it, when you breathe in suffering and
then you breathe out relief and healing. I keep thinking about that
prayer of St. Francis of Assisi about being an instrument of peace,
and where there is hatred, let me sow love, and where there is
despair, let me sow hope. I'm wondering if joy has a place in the
ability to make that transformation.
Walker: I think the practice of tonglen is really
revolutionary, because you're taking in what you usually push away
with everything you've got, and then you're breathing out what you
would rather keep. This is just amazing. I mean, it really shakes
Pema Chodron is director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton,
Nova Scotia. Her most recent book is When Things Fall Apart: Heart
Advice for Difficult Times. Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for
The Color Purple. Her latest novel is By the Light of My Father's