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bell hooks: One of the things I've been thinking about a great deal is poverty. I feel very strongly that in our society people have been made to feel that you can't lead a meaningful life if you are poor. So much of the agitation in the lives of the poor in this society has to do with this disdain.
Pema Chödrön: The question is how to help people, no matter how desperate their lives are, to realize that they are worthy to live on this earth, that they do not have to feel inferior or be ashamed of themselves. And the question is how to help people to get smarter about what causes suffering to increase and what causes it to decrease.
There is a famous saying that from great suffering comes great compassion. Well, from great suffering can come great compassion, or from great suffering can come great hatred. Maybe someone like you could really work on that message right there. From great suffering can come great openness of heart, a great sense of kinship with others, or from great suffering can come hatred, resentment and despair.
bell hooks: But it isn't an automatic thing. It isn't because you suffer that you will have compassion. In the past people have felt that this is some kind of reward for your suffering, that you will have compassion.
Pema Chödrön: People need a lot of support for suffering to turn into compassion. What usually happens to people when they don't have teachers and guides and the support of people who care is that great suffering leads to more suffering. You have mothers who don't have the money to care for their kids and on top of that they get completely lost in drugs, not to mention that their kids are getting into deep trouble. So the nightmare escalates and escalates.
The fundamental question is not whether there is or isn't suffering. It is how we work with suffering so that it leads to awakening the heart and going beyond the habitual views and actions that perpetuate suffering. How do we actually use suffering so that it transforms our being and that of those that we come in contact with? How can we stop running from pain and reacting against it in ways that destroy us as well as others? This is a message that people can hear, but they have to hear it a lot, and with great heart, and from people who really care, not from somebody who is just passing through to make a few dollars.
That's why I love the lojong teachings, because the lojong slogans are accessible. Basically, they teach how we can take difficult circumstances and transform them into the path of compassion. That's the kind of teaching we need these days, that difficult circumstances can be the path to liberation. That's news you can use.
bell hooks: Well, that brings me to my final issue. I have written it in big block letters: DON'T EVEN THINK FOR A MOMENT THAT YOU'RE NOT GOING TO DIE.
Pema Chödrön: Right. "Don't even think for a moment that you're not going to die." Dzongsar Khyenste Rinpoche said that to a friend of mine who had cancer and was close to death and was having trouble accepting it. And instead of it coming across to her as cruel, it came across as immense kindness, that someone was telling her the truth.
bell hooks: It does seem that so much of our longing to escape has to do with the sense that the closer I am to suffering, the closer I am to death.
Pema Chödrön: For me the spiritual path has always been learning how to die. That involves not just death at the end of this particular life, but all the falling apart that happens continually. The fear of death—which is also the fear of groundlessness, of insecurity, of not having it all together—seems to be the most fundamental thing that we have to work with. Because these endings happen all the time! Things are always ending and arising and ending. But we are strangely conditioned to feel that we're supposed to experience just the birth part and not the death part.
We have so much fear of not being in control, of not being able to hold on to things. Yet the true nature of things is that you're never in control. You're never in control. You can never hold on to anything. That's the nature of how things are. But it's almost like it's in the genes of being born human that you can't accept that. You can buy it intellectually, but moment to moment it brings up a lot of panic and fear. So my own path has been training to relax with groundlessness and the panic that accompanies it. Training to allow all that to be there, training to die continually. That seems to be the essence of the lojong teachings—to stay in the space of uncertainty without trying to reconstruct a reference point.
We can stop looking for some idealized moment when everything is simple and secure. This second of experience, which could be painful or pleasurable, is our working basis. What makes all the difference is how we relate to it.
bell hooks: Pema, I want to say how much I have wanted to speak with you, and I thank you for giving me this opportunity.
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