In response to bell hooks’s interview with Pema Chödrön and the excerpt from Chödrön’s book [“Beyond Right or Wrong” and “When Things Fall Apart,” June 1997]: several of Chödrön’s depictions of Tibetan Buddhism should be emended. While Tibetan Buddhism certainly addresses chaos, not all Tibetan Buddhists have celebrated it to quite the degree that Chödrön and her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, are inclined to do. Acknowledging impermanence and chaos by no means undoes the law of dependent arising, which dictates that there is an inconceivable efficiency to even the messiest of experiences.
Chödrön’s emphasis on “groundlessness” is also not the only take of Tibetan Buddhists. The Tantric traditions consistently celebrate a universal ordering principle of bedrock awareness, which emanates from Buddhist divinities. If we can intuit this ground whence inspiration emerges, there is no problem with then developing strategies, pursuing ideals, or working for justice in the world. However dour we make the mundane world out to be, it is also the only ground for enlightened activity. Compassionate Buddhas do not simply abide in note knowing; they also envision and create cultures of concern.
The emptiness/compassion teachings are often taught by way of the “two truths”: the first directs us to curb our fascination with this inevitably decrepit world, while the second, “higher” truth impels us to care compassionately for others anyway. Thus, until one has reached an extremely rarified level of realization, it is better to err on the side of caring too much!
“Any teaching that has us looking ahead is missing the point,” Chödrön says. But looking ahead with clarity is not missing the point; “the point” is ever yet to be determined, and we are all active participants in the dynamic process of meaningful awakening.
For many of your readers, who write each month to share their challenges, horrors, and hopes, Chödrön’s heart advice, as lovely as it is, may ring tinny and ethereal. We can discern right from wrong. To in any way undercut people’s determination to realize and claim their own powerful agency is to skew the Buddhist perspective such that only a partial refraction of its spiritual vision remains.