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Pema Chodron – famous Buddhist teacher

A mother of two turned Buddhist nun. It’s not a common happening, and it was even more rare when Deirdre Blomfield-Brown did it, because the Tibetan Buddhist nun’s tradition no longer existed. So despite being a student of Mahayana Buddhism, she had to go around the world to Hong Kong where she was ordained in a Theravada lineage of Buddhism.

While this was a long journey, it is not as strange as it may seem at first sight: in Buddhism the teaching lineages are not the same as the lineages of monks and nuns. The latter have to do with ritual, not teachings.

However, it was ground breaking: she was the first western woman in the Vajrayana tradition to go for biksuni (nun) initiation.
Having suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she knows what she’s talking about when she tells us to face up to the darkest in our lives.

What I admire about Pema Chodron is that she brings Tibetan Buddhism home to people. She’s so profoundly practical in her wisdom, down to earth, funny, honest – it just resonates. As Buddhism is becoming more popular every day, it is due to a large extent to Pema Chodron’s books: they offer practical advice on how to deal with the troubles and annoyances of daily life.

Pema Chodron is a Tibetan Buddhist, particularly she is a nun in the Vajrayana tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. Most of her books are too general for this to be noticeable.

Her teachings

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Like her teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche her way of teaching is very down to earth. She has a knack for relating the deep philosophical teachings of Buddhism to every day life.

About Maitri

The basis of compassion, the seed of happiness or wellbeing, or being glad to be alive. Where does that come from? All of this has a lot to do with our relationship with pain, with difficulty. The Buddha’s revolutionary teaching was that in human life there’s pain and that’s inevitable. Growing old and dying are the most inevitable one. The more that you love, which brings happiness, but at the loss of that person there is pain. If you put your hand in fire that burns. So there’s a lot of discomfort in life.

The fundamental teaching of the Buddha was to not struggle against the pain in our life. We don’t like to hear that.

Pema Chödrön was born on July 14th 1936 in New York City. She attended Miss Porters School in Farmington, Connecticut and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. She worked as an elementary school teacher in California and New Mexico before her conversion to Buddhism. She has two children: a son and a daughter. Before her conversion to Tibetan Buddhism she was known as Deirdre Blomfield-Brown.

Following a second divorce, Chödrön began to study with Lama Chime Rinpoche in the French Alps. She became a Buddhist nun in 1974 while studying with him in London. She is a fully ordained bhikṣuṇī in a combination of the Mulasarvastivadin and Dharmaguptaka lineages of vinaya, having received full ordination in Hong Kong in 1981 at the behest of the sixteenth Karmapa. She has been instrumental in trying to reestablish full ordination for nuns in the Mulasarvastivadin order, to which all Tibetan Buddhist monastics have traditionally belonged; various conferences have been convened to study the matter.

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Ani Pema first met Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1972, and at the urging of Chime Rinpoche, she took him as her root guru (“Ani” is a Tibetan honorific for a nun). She studied with him from 1974 until his death in 1987. Trungpa Rinpoche’s son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, appointed Chödrön an acharya (senior teacher) shortly after assuming leadership of his father’s Shambhala lineage in 1992.

Trungpa Rinpoche appointed Ani Pema director of the Boulder Shambhala Center (then Boulder Dharmadhatu) in Colorado in the early 1980s. It was during this period that she became ill with chronic fatigue syndrome. In 1984, Ani Pema moved to Gampo Abbey and became its director in 1986. There, she published her first two books to widespread critical acclaim. Her health gradually improved, she claims, with the help of a homeopath and careful attention to diet.

In late 2005, Pema Chödrön published No Time to Lose, a commentary on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Her most recent publication is Practicing Peace in Times of War. She is currently studying with Lama Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, and spends seven months of each year in solitary retreat under his direction in Crestone, Colorado.

She continues to teach the traditional Yarne (Tib. rainy season; Sanskrit: Vassāvāsa) retreat for monastics at Gampo Abbey each winter. In recent years, she has spent the summers teaching on the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life in Berkeley. Pema was appointed by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche as “acharya” (senior teacher) in California. 

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A reader says:

Pema Chodron is amazing, and a true inspiration. What I like best about her is her humanness, and how she helps us deal with the quiet foibles of being human. We listened to her tape on anger on a trip once, and my son who can be quite fiery was very effected. Somehow the way she explained the need for patience really got through. I have tremendous admiration for her.

Pema Chodron Books (My reviews)

More Pema Chodron

Notes

A bhikṣuṇī is a Buddhist nun.

The vinaya are the rules for monks and nuns. There are various lineages, which don’t have anything to do with being either a Mahayana or a Theravada Buddhist. Because the nun-tradition was lost in Tibetan Buddhism, Pema Chodron had to get her nun-initiation in another tradition of Buddhism. This is alright, because the rules of monasticism have nothing to do with beliefs (which is what distinguishes Theravada from Mahayana), only with practice. In all Buddhist traditions, the nun initiation has made a comeback. This is true not just for Tibetan Buddhism, but also for Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka for instance.

Pema Chödrön is a member of The Committee of Western Bhikshunis which was formed in the autumn of 2005, to help further the cause of women in Buddhism.

About the author: Having studied Buddhism and other religions and spiritual traditions since 1995, Katinka Hesselink became a Buddhist formally in 2011. She has studied world religions at Leiden University where she focused on religious anthropology, philosophy and psychology. She has written online since 1999 and started this blog to share her Buddhist knowledge, insight and opinions. Katinka is best known for her common sense approach to Buddhism.

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