A discussion led by
Pema Chödrön and Dzigar Kongtrül—a student and her teacher—talk straight about honesty, self-deception, and why the difference is the key to the dharma.
By any measure Pema Chödrön is one of the most successful Western Buddhist teachers. And yet, after all her years of practice, teaching, and writing bestsellers, she has found the need to become primarily a student again. After studying with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche as her root teacher, and then with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Trungpa Rinpoche’s son and inheritor of his dharma lineage, she entered into a new and challenging relationship with Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche, and, as she says, “he’s been messing with me ever since.” In a conversation moderated by Dzigar Kongtrül’s student Elizabeth Namgyel, Pema Chödrön and Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche talk about the aspect of his teaching that captured her attention the most—the need to look at ourselves with total honesty—and how the teacher gives us the love and support to do that.
Elizabeth Namgyel: Rinpoche, in your book It’s Up to You, you place strong emphasis on the need for Buddhist teachers to encourage their students to stand on their own two feet, to work with their own minds. Why do you think this is so important?
Dzigar Kongtrül: The title of the book comes from what Buddha said to his own students: “I’ve shown you the path, but now it is entirely up to you to walk the path.” To make this possible, you can’t be afraid of your own mind. Therefore, you need to be able to self-reflect. By self-reflecting, you can honor your innate intelligence and wisdom. You can do this because every one of us has the intention to be free from suffering and to be happy. That intention arises from our intuitive intelligence, our buddhanature, as Maitreya said in the Uttaratantra Shastra.
However, if we are not able to cultivate actions that will support our intention, we will not make much progress as a student. When you first meet a teacher, you have no idea how to develop actions that will support your intention. You have no idea how you can go about doing this by yourself. Later, when you have learned how to do that, the teachings no longer belong to the teacher. The teachings are no longer kept in books. One’s own experience is the teaching. As confidence in your ability to do the work by yourself grows, you can come to see that your own mind is the real teacher, which is what all teachers are ultimately trying to point out to students.
Self-reflection is the key to marrying our intention to specific actions. By self-reflecting we can see how we are not able to bring the intention to be free of suffering to our everyday actions. We need to be like a researcher doing research on a very important matter. We must ask ourselves, “What are the different conditions that give birth to the afflicting emotions and reinforce our habits?” When we have the deep yearning to become free, do our actions work out as we actually intend? And when we do that kind of research, that kind of self-reflection, we can appreciate both our positive qualities and the challenge of working with our own habits, afflicting emotions, and confusions. To decide to take on this challenge is entirely up to the student.
Pema Chödrön: In The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhicaryavatara), Shantideva points out again and again how we have the intention to be happy and yet we do things that make us suffer. He gives specific advice on how to turn that situation around so that our actions accord with our intention. He was speaking to monks in eighth-century India, and yet what he has to say is completely relevant to anybody now. All these centuries later, we have the same neuroses that they had.
Dzigar Kongtrül: I agree. The text is as valuable for students today as it was for students then. Cultures have changed outwardly, but the makeup of individuals’ minds and the confusions and conflicting emotions are the same. The only change may be that there is a more urgent need to relate with one’s mind, because pain is so much stronger in this culture, which is so fast-moving and consumed by materialism.
Pema Chödrön: You think the pain is greater today in our culture?
Dzigar Kongtrül: The psychological pain and emotional pain are greater, given that so many of the support systems for people—good morals, ethics, values, and a healthy lifestyle—have been removed. Of course, there is no question that throughout history there’s been a tremendous amount of pain and suffering.
Pema Chödrön: What always strikes me is how intelligent we are as human beings, and yet how often we miss this very simple truth: we want happiness but the ways we go about trying to get it cause us to suffer. Whenever you ask yourself why you’re having a cigarette or why you’re saying a mean word, the answer is usually that in your guts you feel it will bring some satisfaction. Yet, if you ask yourself if what you are doing has ever given you satisfaction, your honest answer would have to be no. Nevertheless, we keep right on doing it. This kind of stupidity seems to run very deep in human beings.
Dzigar Kongtrül: That’s why we need to reflect very deeply, with a strong attitude of not giving up. Then a definite impact can be made on the mind. The ability to think more skillfully and the ability to sustain one’s mind with a positive attitude are inherent capabilities. But how do you get somebody interested in reflecting deeply enough to discover those inherent capabilities without their getting burned out from the frustrations and disappointments that arise from seeing their own minds?
Somehow, students have to gain a greater confidence in their potential than in the confusion that oppresses them. That confidence is buddhanature. We need to encourage a kind of self-esteem in the student—not ego self-esteem, but buddhanature self-esteem.
Pema Chödrön: Is that the same as what Trungpa Rinpoche called “trust in our basic goodness”?
Dzigar Kongtrül: Yes, trust in our basic goodness is very important. Teachers must do whatever they can to instill this in their students, and students must do whatever they can to instill it in themselves. Merit plays a very great role here, I feel. Merit refers to gathering causes and conditions that allow you to have a certain level of well-being. The momentum that results from your positive deeds helps to develop psychological and physical well-being, so that you have the environment and resources necessary to subsist in this world of samsara, as well as to go beyond it.
People who have done well in their lives have a certain amount of confidence in themselves and in their ability to follow through on their intentions. This kind of confidence, developed in worldly affairs, can be applied to the spiritual path if one decides to do so.
Elizabeth Namgyel: How would you suggest a student go about gaining, or gathering, merit?
Dzigar Kongtrül: I would suggest learning how to rely on one’s own positive qualities, and to have a more altruistic mind. When you have altruistic mind, His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, if you want to be selfish, then you can be selfish intelligently. [Laughter] The positive things that arise for us don’t come about from being selfish. But you luck out by having all the positive things in your life, even though you were only trying to do altruistic deeds.
Pema Chödrön: I recall an analogy you gave recently for gaining merit: you do a job for its own sake instead of for the commission. Even though you may receive the commission, you get the payoff in terms of merit. If you’re doing the job just to get the commission, you probably won’t get the payoff, because you won’t do a very good job. Whereas, if you’re doing the job for its own sake, you will probably do it well—and accrue the merit.
Dzigar Kongtrül: Many people do that. They become very good at what they do, and receive lots of compensation as well.
Elizabeth Namgyel: Isn’t it possible, though, that wanting to be happy and gain merit can simply become self-importance?
Dzigar Kongtrül: Self-importance is having too much attachment to one’s own well-being and freedom from suffering, without having the same kind of care and concern for others’ well-being and freedom from suffering. When we have a great deal of self-importance, we will never be able to enjoy whatever we possess that we have gathered through our hard work, wit, and cunning. It will always bring a sense of dissatisfaction. We will never feel quite ready to enjoy it, because we carry the burden of being attached to it. However, if we apply to others the same sense of loving and caring that we have in cherishing ourselves, we reduce the self-importance.
When self-importance is reduced, a door opens to your positive qualities. As you continue to reduce the self-importance, the positive qualities take deeper root in your mindstream and your heart. At that point, you have real discipline and you begin to sustain yourself with your innate positive qualities, rather than the drive to become important. The ability to love, to care, to be concerned, to be compassionate—these were all there from the beginning. Previously, they were guided by self-centeredness; now they are guided by the needs of others.
This innate love is a powerful force that is now being led by a completely noble, incredibly dignified leader. Before, this powerful force, an army with the richness of a whole kingdom behind it and the loyalty of the subjects, was being led by a crooked king, and that crookedness created a state of confusion that spread everywhere. When that crooked leader is replaced by a noble leader, with a genuine sense of dignity, everyone in the kingdom can reap the benefit of the positive qualities that are the basic nature of the kingdom in the first place.
Pema Chödrön: Is the leader self-reflection?
Dzigar Kongtrül: The noble leader is altruistic mind, and the crooked leader is self-centeredness. Self-reflection is what discriminates between the qualities of self-centeredness of the bad leader and the altruistic mind of the good leader.
Pema Chödrön: It is interesting to consider the nature of the self-centeredness that seems to be prevalent in the West. I don’t think the term “self-cherishing,” for example, is all that helpful here, because the ego twist in the West isn’t that we love ourselves too much. Rather, we tend to have a negative preoccupation with ourselves. We might go shopping, not so much to feather our own nest, but to try to overcome some very bad feeling we have toward ourselves. Rather than cherishing ourselves, we hate ourselves. So, loving- kindness toward oneself needs to be developed as the basis before you can spread it to other people.
Dzigar Kongtrül: The loving-kindness is directed to your mind, not to the self. When you redirect the love and compassion from the self-centered approach, which has never produced good results anyway, to the altruistic approach, you find you have positive feelings in great abundance. Even though these are extended outwardly to others, they don’t leave your mind and end up somewhere else. They fill your mind and sustain it.
Pema Chödrön: Shantideva talks about all the ways that we are willing to hurt ourselves, including suicide. He says, if you’re willing to hurt yourself that much, it’s no wonder you’re willing to hurt other people. It seems to me the verses in the Bodhicaryavatara that discuss this issue are key for the West, because we’re much more into self-degradation than what you call self-cherishing.
Dzigar Kongtrül: The use of language in this case is interesting. When we say self-degradation, it sounds like we don’t have much self-importance. But in reality if one were not holding tightly to the self, there would be no reason to feel such aversion to it.
Pema Chödrön: Yes, I see self-degradation as one of the main ways that self-importance manifests in the West. You are still “full of yourself,” but you are full of yourself as a negative thing.
Dzigar Kongtrül: We come to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. But if you really study, if you really practice, you will find that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong. So you need to commit to a course of study and practice, and until you do that, whether one is in the West or anywhere else, there is going to be the feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with you. When you wish to be happy and free from suffering, and yet your mind is not supporting you, it’s very easy to resort to thinking that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.
Pema Chödrön: When we engage in self-reflection and see how our habitual patterns and actions are not in sync with our intention, we can turn the self-reflection against ourselves. One of the things that I’ve learned from you, Rinpoche, that has been so helpful for me is to see that none of what we seek is permanent. All that we seek is like shifting, impermanent clouds, and behind all that the mind itself is workable. The underlying state of openness of mind has never gone away. It has never been marred by all the ugliness and craziness we’re seeing. That’s the message of the buddhanature teachers, like Maitreya, as you mentioned earlier. That message needs to be sent strongly: when you look at yourself, yes, you see the awfulness, and yes, it’s not comfortable to see it, but it’s passing, it’s impermanent. Our mind is workable. We are not simply stuck with that stuff.
Dzigar Kongtrül: That is true. But it is also true that you are not going to get anywhere if you have not done the work. Nobody deserves credit if they haven’t done the work. If you do the hard study and practice, then you see the infinite possibilities of changing the mind. If you just complain about your state of mind, it simply means you’ve never got around to doing the work. So, one of the most important things we can do is inspire people to do the work they need to do to discover their innate possibilities.
Pema Chödrön: On the spot, right?
Dzigar Kongtrül: On the spot, in any given moment, and in an ongoing way in their life. Gathering merit requires continuously applying yourself, in order to reap the positive fruit that you want. The intention to be happy and free from suffering must be supported by the wisdom and skillful means that allow one to work fruitfully with one’s own mind.
Pema Chödrön: One of the things I’ve learned from both you and Trungpa Rinpoche is that when we feel pain, it is a moment of truth. Instead of saying something’s wrong, that something bad has happened, we can say, “Oh! I am seeing and feeling very old karmic seeds ripening. Right now is the moment when I could do something different.” At that moment of truth, we could choose to do the habitual thing or we could choose not to sow those same old seeds again. At that very point, we can notice our opportunity to practice, rather than being preoccupied with feeling that we just messed up again.
Dzigar Kongtrül: That’s quite right. Your attitude in the moment will determine whether you use the experience to manifest positive qualities or enhance your negativity.
To have positive attitudes under negative circumstances undercuts the power of the negative circumstances. Rather than falling down and then trying to get up again out of desperation, only to slip on the same thing, except harder, you can take a positive attitude toward your suffering and pain. The problem is that when you are hit with pain, it is so easy to act automatically. So, you need to go through a little bit of a withdrawal process, to learn to simply be with the experience rather than react or try to fix it. Once you get some strength to just be with the experience, then the experience of the pain will begin to lose some of its solidity and power, which gives you a chance to reorganize your whole mind. In the end, you might actually come to appreciate the pain.
Elizabeth Namgyel: Is that because the pain is not personalized at that point, no longer my pain?
Dzigar Kongtrul: Yes, pain is only my pain in the confused state. When one goes beyond the confusion, neither the pain nor the confusion is yours. You could work with the confusion, and the pain that comes with it, as a universal thing that you need to work with to get beyond it. With that kind of attitude, you may discover sudden strength coming out of the pain that allows you to work with your mind in a much clearer way. That would not have come about if you had not been tested by your own pain, so an appreciation develops for the pain, and for the confusion too.
Pema Chödrön: In one very long section of the Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva talks about looking differently at pain as a result of not responding automatically and habitually. I called that reframing the way you regard the pain. When you have intense emotional pain, you can treat it like a bell going off. When the bell goes off, that’s the signal that you could shift the pattern. We can burn up lifetimes and lifetimes of karma that way, instead of just digging the hole deeper by doing the same old thing. The self-reflection you have been talking about, Rinpoche, enables you to familiarize yourself with your patterns, so that you can let go of them when the opportunity presents itself.
In self-reflecting, after a while, you come to see that there are not so many story lines. In the Vipassana tradition, they say that you have the “top ten,” but you begin to see that there’s a set of even fewer patterns that you replay over and over. You don’t have to be a brilliant person to figure out what your habitual response to pain is going to be. Nor do you need to be a brilliant person to know that the habitual response never brings you the happiness you seek. But without the self-reflection, you will never catch the habitual response. You will never realize that you’ve done it countless times, and that it’s going to be painful and not bring you what you want anyway. Without self-reflection, you will go on doing it and thinking it is something new.
Dzigar Kongtrül: Self-reflection is not an end in itself. It is the key that opens the door to your innermost qualities, to buddhanature. It also shows you the strength and confidence you have as a result of those innate qualities and that allow you to live with a sense of richness.
Elizabeth Namgyel: But these qualities of richness or wisdom are also not yours, are they, in the same way that the neurosis is not yours either?
Dzigar Kongtrül: That’s right. There’s no clinging to the richness, but it prevails in your mind.
Pema Chödrön: One of the strongest qualities of ego, or self-importance, is ignorance about where happiness really lies. It is as if there is a quality in us that is committed to keeping us unhappy.
Dzigar Kongtrül: Somebody asked me yesterday where our overwhelming self-absorption comes from. I told them that universal self-absorption comes from universal confusion. The confusion is like a blanket of fog. When the confusion is not there, the self-absorption is not there. One sees one’s enlightened nature directly, and one can also see that mind can both know something and know itself. It’s magic, really.
Pema Chödrön: By “confusion” do you mean our inability to understand the chain reaction of our habitual patterns, how it starts and how it leads to suffering?
Dzigar Kongtrül: Yes, that is the confusion. But the confusion is also a feeling of being overwhelmed and bewildered. You don’t know where to look for the causes and conditions of your pain, and even if you are vaguely able to identify what the causes and conditions are, you don’t know what to do about it.
Pema Chödrön: What would you say, in a nutshell, that we should do about the confusion?
Dzigar Kongtrul: Listen to the teachings, study them, and contemplate them. Then, allow the teachings to illuminate your experience, rather than trying to bring your experience in line with the teachings. It’s important first to have the teachings illuminate your experience, so you can see what’s happening clearly before you actually try to put them into practice.
Elizabeth Namgyel: Pema, tell us how you came to be a student of Dzigar Kongtrül.
Pema Chödrön: About ten years ago I was invited to a Buddhist teachers’ conference in San Francisco, and I arrived a day early to rest. I’d been resting all day and decided to go out for a walk. As I emerged from my door, Rinpoche walked out of his door at the same time. We recognized each other, so I asked whether he would like to have a cup of tea. We went into my room and had a very nice cup of tea, and I was so inspired by what he was talking about that I began to feel stronger physically than I had for some time. I felt a powerful connection, and when I had an interview with him later, it reminded me very strongly of how I felt when I used to talk with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, my root teacher.
About a year later, we had another meeting and I asked to receive a certain set of Dzogchen teachings. Rinpoche refused. That was a bit of a shock, so I asked him to explain why. He cited several obstacles he felt I needed to take care of first. Later, when I had dealt with those and told him I felt confident that I could genuinely study these teachings with him, he agreed.
Eventually, I worked with him while in retreat over a hundred-day period. At that time, I realized I hadn’t met anyone since Trungpa Rinpoche who could sense where I was stuck. I was very good at conning everyone and talking about not getting hooked, but Rinpoche somehow had this great ability to hook me. I knew we must have a really old karmic connection. I felt so grateful to have met him, so I asked if he would take me as his student, and he accepted. And he’s continued to mess with me ever since.
Elizabeth Namgyel: Why is it so important in Buddhism to have a teacher?
Pema Chödrön: When you’re with a teacher, their wisdom resonates with your wisdom. It transcends the two personalities. Being with them connects you with your buddhanature. No one can tell you who your teacher is. It’s a completely personal thing based on karma. It’s like falling in love with someone.
The most important requirements for a teacher are to know you well, see where you’re holding on, and be able to create circumstances that highlight your grasping. Situations emerge that allow you to see where you’re stuck. Because it’s happening with your dharma teacher, you don’t run away when you’re insulted or uncomfortable, and that’s the real value. You hang in there and they help you through it.
Elizabeth Namgyel: Since having a teacher is such a unique relationship, what attitude should students take toward a teacher?
Pema Chödrön: In It’s Up to You, the primary focus is self-reflection. Rinpoche has said that whether you have a teacher or not, the key is self-reflection. You need to be interested in reflecting on yourself, and also willing not to bail out. Because when you look at yourself closely, you will see not merely your wisdom-mind, you will also see your craziness, neuroses, and lack of kindness.
To obtain enlightenment you need a deep heart-connection to someone whose sole motivation is waking you up. Without the strong connection, when your buttons get pushed and it’s really tough, you’re automatically going to feel betrayed and disliked. Just when you think the teacher is your best friend, they don’t look at you, they don’t call on you. Yet, it is a relationship of the deepest intimacy, because all of your secrets are exposed, to yourself if not to anybody else.
What I’m describing is devotion. It’s a relationship you stick with, through thick and thin, in order to obtain enlightenment. And it’s based on a love that can withstand strong challenges.
Dzigar Kongtrül: There are teachers you meet with whom you feel a very strong connection. You feel quite moved by the teacher’s qualities and presence, their sense of accomplishment. This is the nature of devotion at the beginning of one’s path.
Over time, though, being a student involves training in the path of dharma. One learns not merely in the academic sense of knowing what the teachings are, but also in the sense of learning how to integrate your mind with the teachings. As a result, a transformation may take place in your mind, such that you have more freedom from conflicting emotions, which in the past may have left you completely clueless. You may not be successful in overcoming them every time you are challenged, but at least you have some positive results in working with them.
This causes you to be grateful to the teacher, and you can extend that gratitude to the lineage masters, and ultimately to the Buddha. The gratitude can also extend to appreciating difficult circumstances you face, because they can transform you. You can feel that kind of appreciation toward people who cause you pain or difficulty. You can feel quite free to have that kind of widespread gratitude because you are not being oppressed by your own mind and the unpredictable mess you had been trapped in.
This gratitude is important, because it undercuts self-importance—the sense that it is me who has these great qualities and me who has worked so hard to achieve them—which threatens to destroy all that one accomplishes or cultivates.
Pema Chödrön: Can you say something about your own teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, challenging you, in the way I was talking about?
Dzigar Kongtrül: I quite often felt challenged by my teacher’s command or simple presence, or what I perceived as displeasure. Sometimes it was just silence, or the teacher looking at me with a certain deep penetration. Yet, I wonder whether it was actually the teacher’s intention to challenge. I think my own mind was projected onto the teacher. I would hold a judgment and project that onto the teacher. In fact, I was dealing with my own mind and its habits, including negative habits that I was not ready to give up, despite the fact that they were dragging me down. There was a dualism going on in my mind: I wanted to be good and then found myself not so good. I wanted to impress the teacher but was not able to because I could not be free of certain thoughts and emotions.
A few times I thought my teacher was quite upset with me, and when I looked into it further I found that he had no judgment whatsoever! Because I thought things were so bad and I was terrified of being confronted, when I found it wasn’t such a big deal, I felt a deep sense of the teacher’s acceptance and love and care, like you would feel from a mother. But it was more than a mother’s care. There was not only acceptance but a sense of not being disturbed altogether. That was wonderful.
In the beginning of the relationship with the teacher, there is maybe a little bit of codependency. Later, when the codependency gets resolved, there is a sense of being a team, a sense of kinship. In my case, it was truly a delight to discuss the dharma, to learn more about how to practice the dharma. At that point, it’s not one person trying to teach another. It’s both parties trying to do the same thing.
When I saw so closely my teachers’ deep appreciation for dharma and their one-hundred-percent conviction in its ability to bring sentient beings to a state of liberation, I felt great joy in sharing that with them. When that happens, your love for dharma begins to equal their love of dharma, and that becomes the basis for deep kinship.
Pema Chödrön: That’s precisely what I was talking about earlier. It isn’t that the teacher messes with you exactly. It’s simply that being in their presence heightens your sense of where you’re stuck. We call it devotion because when that happens you don’t run away. You get to the point where you feel there’s nothing you could do that would cause the teacher to give up on you.
Elizabeth Namgyel: Pema, why have you chosen to write a commentary on The Way of the Bodhisattva at this particular time?
Pema Chödrön: So many dharma teachers seem to be teaching about the bodhisattva path these days, so I feel I am just tuning into the same instinct. Shantideva talks very clearly about confused mind and gives a multitude of tips on how to work with confusion on the spot. Each time, the point is to uncover our basic wisdom. The highlight isn’t just on the confusion; it’s on the awakening heart, bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is a longing to wake up yourself, so that you can help other people do the same.
The sense of urgency that Shantideva expresses is needed for these times, because when things are tough you don’t have to use fancy words, like enlightenment. You just want to be free of your confusion so you can help other people be free of their confusion. It’s a life-and-death matter. Confusion and pain have always been life-and-death matters, but now you can really feel it in the atmosphere. People are asking, “What can I do?”
Shantideva doesn’t restrict himself to absolute teachings. He gives plenty of practical, relative teachings on how to relate with our sore points. He has a lot of humor, yet he’s also very wrathful at times and pushes your nose into some of the undesirable qualities we human beings exhibit. You see yourself in there. You may not see yourself in every example, but there is something for everybody.
The text itself can be difficult for a modern audience to read. I have always found, though, that when I hear dharma teachers like Kongtrül Rinpoche teaching this text, their modern commentary makes the classic text come to life. I felt very inspired to do that myself.
When I first started to teach the Bodhicaryavatara I had no idea that a book would come of it. When I asked Rinpoche about the idea, he questioned me about my motivation. I told him that I simply felt a sense of urgency and that it would be a real blessing for me to connect so deeply with the wisdom of this text. I feel that inspiration and blessing is communicated through the commentary I’ve given, which is very much influenced by my teachers’ teachings.
It’s nothing original really, but it’s up to date. If you don’t have a commentary that communicates something to the modern ear, if you are just reading the verses and the classical examples they use, what Shantideva has to teach us might be lost. I hope readers will hang in there with this commentary, which is certainly not typical of what I’ve done in the past. If they do read the commentary, eventually they can leave it aside and just read the text itself and come to see how it connects with their own wisdom.
In my own experience, you study a verse and come to understand it in a certain way, and then you keep studying it and your understanding goes deeper. It’s not intellectual understanding. How you relate with the situations in your own life is informed by what Shantideva has taught, so his teachings become memorable to you. Shantideva talks a lot about the karmic results of doing the habitual thing over and over again, in order to encourage us to interrupt those habits and in fact burn them up altogether. When you’re on the spot and just about to do some habitual thing, his words will come to mind. They’re like nourishment that helps you to hang in there and save yourself from dire consequences.