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Pema Chödrön and Dzigar Kongtrül: Let’s Be Honest 

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.

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