• Karl Thunemann

Pema Chödrön Skates to the Rescue …Again

I have never met Pema Chödrön. I have never attended one of her workshops. I have no recollection of how I was first introduced to her work. She seemed so much older and wiser. If I referred to her fondly as Pema it was not in the illusion that we were teacher and student. I spoke with the keenness of a would-be follower, and as I imagined, a fellow traveler through the American West.

I have already written in this blog about how—at a moment when my meditation program was faltering from inattention and lack of discipline, I discovered Pema’s book called Start Where You Are and found myself reborn. This book introduced me to lojong slogans and tonglen, although I don’t recall that it made clear that both were part of the Tibetan practice of seven-point mind training.

Some 30 years ago my wife and I began exploring the West in a series of three-weeks-long motor trips. We always brought audio tapes and CDs to engage us on the long legs of the trip, and these media always included recordings of a Pema-led seminar, looking at life through some aspect of Tibetan Buddhism. We liked her humor and spontaneity as much as her spiritual wisdom—in particular, her good-natured complaints about the ungainliness of the workshop business. She would choose a subject that interested her, and months later, having moved on, she would interrupt herself mid-seminar to ask, Now, what is the subject of this seminar?

I have already written in this blog about how—at a moment when my meditation program was faltering from inattention and lack of discipline, I discovered Pema’s book called Start Where You Are and found myself reborn. This book introduced me to lojong slogans and tonglen, although I don’t recall that it made clear that both were integral pieces of the Tibetan practice of seven-point mind training. But it was enough to get me started assembling a pastiche of a loving-kindness practice I could call my own.

Eventually I discovered the framework of mind training, and set out to write about it, imagining that ultimately I would write at least one epistle about each of the 59 lojong slogans. On the internet I discovered others who were keeping lojong journals. I have tried to follow their blogs. Soon I was particularly taken with the insights of Judith L. Lief and resolved to follow her. This proved a bit difficult, as Lief posted work on two different Buddhist websites—Tricycle and The Lion’s Roar. I preferred the latter’s terms of engagement and went in that direction. How could I gain access to more of Lief’s work? I searched the net for books by Lief and found, among others, Training the Mind: And Cultivating Loving-Kindness. The cover of the book credits Chögyam Trungpa as the author. My search engine credited Lief as a co-author, but she is not mentioned on the book’s cover. On the title page, Lief is listed as editor. Lief and Trungpa two are closely linked, as she often edited his work and over the years has filled many roles at Naropa University, founded by Trungpa.

By now you might be wondering where I have left Pema? How has this epistle wandered so far afield from its track? Wait--it’s not that far. The book’s cover invites us inside with these words: Foreword by Pema Chödrön.

This book is estimable indeed. Before turning to the foreword, I glanced through and thought that Trungpa could be unreasonably demanding. Just as one example, he recommends that students memorize the text of all 49 slogans. A worthy goal for younger students, but perhaps out of reach for a student in his mid-70s struggling with an on-and-off memory. But beyond its implied demands, this book is clearly authoritative and compelling. I will make good use of it.

And what about Pema? I was captivated by her foreword. Please see the excerpt below.

This foreword caused my heart to swell—much akin to coming home again. As I was building my Taoist practice in the 1970s, the process included a lengthy period when I consulted the I Ching—the Chinese Book of Changes—with the same question every morning. What is my work for today? I do not remember life-changing readings akin to the one recounted earlier in this blog, inciting me to embrace radical change. No, it was more like a tutorial—a tour of the I Ching’s 64 basic readings in a variety of combinations. I learned to view the oracle as a means of enhancing my intuition. It brought me again and again to challenging readings that underscored my weaknesses—or should I call them challenges? A personality seemed to lie in these consultations—a personality with a sense of humor that often flashed in the face of my intransigence.

This would not be a lifelong practice. It lasted—how long, a few months, a couple of years? –until the I Ching advised me to go away. I wish I still had this reading, for it was not an occasion for dismissal. I could—and would—consult the oracle quite often. But the daily stuff? The oracle left that up to me.

I am inclined to create an epistle comparing Tibetan mind-training and its slogans with the I Ching. But not today. First, I must go try emulating Pema’s approach to the slogans and mixing it with my own proclivities—and find out what kind of blend works for me.

Blogger’s Note: Please read this rather lengthy epistle along with its companion piece, “Fortifying the Preliminaries.” Both were posted with Keyboard No. 29

How Pema uses the Lojong Slogans

From Pema’s foreword to Trungpa Rinpoche’s book.

Since 1981 the fifty-nine slogans that are contained in this book have been the primary focus of both my personal practice and of my teaching. For all these years, I have contemplated Trungpa Rinpoche’s commentaries on the slogans almost daily, and I can say without exaggerating that they have transformed my life.

The method I have used in this continually deepening exploration is one that Trungpa Rinpoche recommended to his students. Using a set of cards printed with each of the slogans, I shuffle the stack each morning and draw the slogan for the day. Then I read from this book about Rinpoche has to say, sometimes jotting down notes on the back of the card. This is followed by my best try to live by the meaning of the slogan throughout the day. Sometimes I forget the slogan all day long, only to be reminded of its message when I come back to my room at night.

Usually, however, if something challenging arises, the slogan of the day or perhaps a different one altogether will come to mind and provide me with ‘on the spot’ instruction. This always introduces me to a bigger perspective. I begin to have increasing confidence that I can utilize the slogans to be less reactive and to see things more clearly throughout my whole life. Slogan practice indeed continues to help me transform all circumstances into the path of enlightenment. Even the most difficult of situations have become more and more workable. The more I get hooked with what is going on, the more these challenges become a remarkable teacher, one that can open and soften me and make me wiser.

-Pema Chödrön

A Significant Resource

Here is an extraordinary offer I find on Pema’s website, downloadable and free!

The Essential Pema: Study Guide (pemachodronfoundation.org)