No Right, No Wrong

An interview with Pema Chödrön, excerpted from the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, published originally
in their Fall 1993 issue. Pema Chödrön is widely respected as a highly ethical Buddhist teacher.
In this insightful interview, she explores the value of going beyond formulaic ethics and rules.

[On the re-evaluation of her teacher ChögyamTrungpa Rinpoche, his drinking, sex with students, etc, since his death in 1986:]

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.

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.

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 permamnent, 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. [. . .] 
You feel such gratitude that somebody pointed out the nature of your mind and gave you instructions that actually encouraged you to be brave and compassionate and to let go of old ways of thinking and old securities.

[On a movement encouraging students to confront teachers about their perceived
unethical behavior and publicize it if proveable:]

The concern here is obviously one of not wanting students to get hurt. Once you become a teacher—just as if you become a monk or nun—you can't blindly keep doing what you always did. You have to be more mindful about how your behavior affects others. So that's one side of it. And I'm glad to see this subject discussed. It's important for students to see that dharma teachers have tempers or aggression or passion. Buddhism isn't about seeing a world all cleaned up or thinking that the world can be all cleaned up.

The other side is that it brings up people's moralism, their conventional-mindedness. [Naming names] really does feel like McCarthyism to me. I wouldn't want to see a list of the bad teachers and I wouldn't want to see a list of the good ones—here are the saints and here are the sinners. For so many of us that's our heritage, to make things one hundred percent right or one hundred percent wrong. It has been a big relief to me to slowly relax into the courage of living in the ambiguity. I know that these guidelines are being created out of good motivation, but they're simultaneously coming from bad motivation, righteous indignation that "they" are doing something wrong. I like the saying "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." You can't make it right, can't make it wrong.

Read the whole interview at Tricycle.

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