August 07, 2006

Peace, Love & Kindness: An Interview with Pema Chödrön

pema.jpgOn this week's Faith & Reason Bill Moyers interviewed Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun and author of No Time To Lose. She's an amazing woman -- one who exudes such peace, love and kindness, it is no wonder that Moyers brought her on the program to talk.

Some of the notes I took during the program concerned her approach to her belief, faith and the Buddha. When Moyers asked her if she believed in God, she replied that didn't believe nor disbelieve in God. What she did believe was that the humans can be swayed against aggression with peace, love and kindness. And that she had faith in the basic goodness possible in all human beings.

She remarked that if your view is basic goodness, then you see it where ever you go. If your belief is that humans are basically bad, then you will see that where ever you are. This statement ties directly into what I have come to believe not through understanding Buddhism, but through my own experiences and study. A while back I'd written that I believe we bring forth in others what we expect to see.

These two opposing views of human nature [humans are inherently bad or all humans have the capacity for goodness] have been played out throughout human history. Rigid class structures and belief that people are bad have been found in every era and every continent. Yet, for just as long of a time and in every type of society, the belief that humans are capable of extraordinary acts of courage, decency and kindness has been a thread of hope and light that has never been extinguished. What allows for such a divergence of belief and philosophy? And why is it possible for one society to be sucked into horror (like the genocide of Rwanda?) where as in other times a society can show tremendous courage and conviction that stops evil in its tracks as with Denmark when many in the country worked to save the Jews in their midst from the Nazi regime?

The basic difference seems to be the expectations placed on people. Expectations seem to have more to do with how people behave than any other element we’ve discovered. And these same expectations have so much to do with the outcomes for people in their own lives. It permeates the lives of children and shapes the expectations they have as adults. Children who are treated with kindness and respect, nurtured with love and taught compassion and empathy learn to show the same for others. Children who are considered to be bad and therefore must be disciplined harshly to keep them in line find it hard to trust others or to give the other guy the benefit of doubt. How we think of a person makes a tremendous difference in how he or she behaves.

Indeed, it is as if we create the person we encounter by our every interaction with him or her.

The other thing that she talked about was how she didn't worship the Buddha in the same way that Christians worshipped God although she venerated him. She explained that the Buddha was an ordinary human being who was capable of being caught up in the same human kleshas (afflicted emotions) as the rest of us.

[Here's a quick view of kleshas: The basic idea is that certain powerful reactions have the capacity to take hold of us and drive our behavior....The kleshas work by grabbing hold of consciousness and taking it over. When I am enraged, I do not stop to question my reality; I am completely caught up in my anger. There is no space in my mind; I am identified one hundred percent with my feelings. The reason that kleshas is so difficult to translate is that it connotes something that underlies both state of mind and emotion.]

But what the Buddha found was a way to get past automatic and unthinking reactions by the practice of mindfulness. And as such, he became a role model for others. He showed by example how we also can truly choose how we act in all situations including those driven by base and primitive emotions such as greed, hatred and ignorance. We can not only find more peace and happiness in our own lives, but bring more to the world when we learn how to have control over our own reactions and help others by our example and our expectations for them.

How do we change humanity's heart enough to make it possible to avoid the worst of the violence and destruction that seem to be barreling down via unreasoned hatred of the other (terrorism), fear of the unknown (leading to fundamentalism) and global warming? It seems that we need to start listening and learning from those who have some answers, like Pema Chödrön and the Dalai Lama who really do preach and practice love and not hate.

Here's a wonderful interview with Pema from Beliefnet by James Kullander. And here is an excerpt from that interview about her reflections on these violent and uncertain times.

Buddhism espouses nonviolence. Yet we're living, it seems, in an increasingly violent world. How is it possible to remain peaceful in such a violent world?

You have to want to lose your appetite for violence or aggression. And to do that, you have to lose your self-righteousness. You have to realize that you cannot continue to have your habitual reaction to something, especially if your reaction ends with violence—physical or verbal—against yourself or somebody else, or even against the government of your country or the terrorists or whomever. You have to accept in your gut that the habitual reaction is poisonous not only to you but to the rest of the world.

Some people are waking up to this because they see the repercussions of violence in the world today. But I also see more and more people looking for ways to justify their aggression. I hear them say, "Yes, but this time I'm right." That's our self-righteousness talking. It is the voice of the fundamentalist within us. People need a lot of encouragement before they can silence that voice. Most of them can't get rid of it right away. They keep getting stuck in the story line. But we're not working with right and wrong. We're working with a change at the core of our being. When you make this change, the habitual pattern that causes you to think that something is right or wrong no longer has power over you. You're no longer a slave to it.

Some people find this message powerful, but the next time someone angers them, they start to get self-righteous again. I say to them, "You're sowing those seeds that are going to cause you and others great unhappiness, and you're cutting yourself off from your basic goodness." And they'll pause and say, "You're right." But many of them are still unwilling to give up their story line. They say, "Sometimes you have to be practical. Sometimes there are things that have to be done." The urge to follow that deep groove is very strong.

I think another such deep groove is the idea that we've got to get them before they get us. So it's not only self-righteousness or self-justification; it's self-preservation.

That's what's happening now on an international scale, particularly with the United States and the Middle East. It's a mirror of what's happening at the individual level. What we call "ego," or the sense of a solid self, we could just as well call "self-preservation." It's the same thing at the international level. Self-preservation leads you to think you must have homeland security, which is synonymous with all of those habitual patterns I've been talking about. And you become more and more cut off from your basic heart, your basic wisdom, your basic interconnectedness with other people.

We follow habitual reactions because we don't want to feel the groundlessness of a given situation. But Buddhism teaches us that everything is always groundless. If we can know that, and befriend that, then happiness is possible. Trying to avoid groundlessness only leads to violence.

What would you like to have seen happen after the 9-11 attacks?

I would like to have seen a large number of people realize that the groundlessness they were experiencing was the truth; that it didn't have to be a nightmare; that they could relax into it. In the early days after the attacks, I heard people say that the only thing that made sense was to be kind to each other. That's what happens when we relax into groundlessness: Suddenly the only thing that makes sense is to be kind to each other.

It's beyond my ability to say exactly what we should have done. But the Dalai Lama urged President Bush not to go to war because aggression only breeds aggression. Each of us needs to realize what seeds caused such a tragedy to happen in the first place. And then we can start burning up the seeds of aggression rather than escalating the violence, which will only put us in a worse place in the future.

I would like to have seen an awareness of cause and effect at the global level. September 11 could have been a moment of truth, of ultimate groundlessness. We could have begun to burn up the seeds of aggression rather than sow more; we could have created greater peace and harmony between people instead of more hatred and polarization. We all have to beware of fundamentalism, this self-righteousness that tells us everything is somebody else's fault.

And then we can start burning up the seeds of aggression rather than escalating the violence, which will only put us in a worse place in the future. Ah, yes, this is, indeed, the lesson our world needs to learn. And it really does start with ourselves.

Posted by Mary at August 7, 2006 12:52 AM | Religion | Technorati links |