Buddhism from a practitioner’s perspective

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Venerable Thubten Chodron was interviewed by Dr. Dyron Daughrity of Pepperdine University for a chapter on Buddhism in his forthcoming textbook on world religions. Below is a transcript of their interview.

Pepperdine University [Pepperdine]: Get us acquainted as to who is this person we’re about to hear from. Give us a nice summary.

Venerable sitting in front of a statue of Buddha, smiling while teaching.
Venerable Chodron leading a retreat at Sravasti Abbey. (Photo by Sravasti Abbey)

Venerable Thubten Chodron [VTC]: Born in Chicago, grew up in Southern California. I was born in 1950, so I grew up during the time of the race riots, the time of the Vietnam War. Those things happening in the country really made me stop and think about what is the meaning of life and what is the purpose of my life. I was born into a Jewish family, but they weren’t very religious. And with all due respect to your beliefs, the belief in a God or a creator never resonated with me. It didn’t fulfill my spiritual needs. I explored different religions over the years through my friends and they took me to meet their priests or pastors or whoever. But the questions still continued. I went to college, the first two years at USC and last two years at UCLA, and I graduated with a degree in history, Phi Beta Kappa.

After I graduated, I worked for a year as a teacher in an open classroom because I still didn’t know the purpose of life, but I figured it must have something to do with benefiting others. I did that, and then I took off and traveled for a year and a half. I didn’t want to go to graduate school. I wanted to learn from living. I was tired of reading about other people’s lives. I wanted to live my own, and meet real people who could tell me real things from their own experience. I traveled Europe, West and East, North Africa, Israel, and then we went overland to India. This was in 1973. We saw the Bamiyan Buddhas, which the Taliban has subsequently blown up, and traveled through Iran, which I wouldn’t advise doing now. I was actually quite fortunate to be able to do that.

I came back when the money ran out and went back to graduate school, thinking to become a teacher. Again, something to do with benefiting others through education. During one of my summer vacations, I saw a flyer for a Buddhist meditation course. As a teacher I didn’t have anything to do in the summer in those days, so I went to the course. It was three weeks, and one of the things I really appreciated was that it was taught by two Tibetan masters. One of the first things they said was, “You don’t have to believe anything we say,” which I thought was great because if they had told me the “Truth” with a capital T, at that point, I would have said bye-bye. But they didn’t. They said, “You’re intelligent people. You listen and you think about it, and if it makes sense to you, good. If it doesn’t make sense to you, leave it.” That’s what I did. As I really thought about the Buddhist teachings, they made a lot of sense to me. Most of the questions I had been asking, they had a very reasonable answer for, and especially because we were encouraged to think and not just follow blindly.

After that course, instead of going back to teaching, I quit my job and I went back to Nepal because these masters had a monastery in Nepal. I spent some time there and in the process of being there, I decided I wanted to become a monastic. I asked my teacher, and he said, “Yes, but wait a while.” I was eager to do it, but he was right, and making me wait was good. I continued my practice and came back to America to check things out. Finally my teacher said, “Okay, now it’s fine.” I went back to India, to Dharamsala, and my ordination master was Kyabje Ling Rinpoche. His previous life was His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s senior tutor. I ordained and I stayed some time in Nepal and India. Then my teacher asked me to go to some Dharma centers that he was in the process of establishing in the West. I lived in Italy and France, later on in Singapore. I never really intended to come back to the States. I thought, after the Vietnam War, I can’t relate to the values of this country. When they say we’re killing people in order to live in peace, it made no sense to me. But somehow, they invited me to come and do a teaching tour, and then some people said, “Please stay and teach at our Dharma center.” So I did that and now I’m living here in Washington state at a monastery.

Pepperdine: Now, the female perspective. I want to hear—because I’ve heard several variations of the story of this conversation between Ananda and the Buddha.

VTC: There are several versions of it. Basically what happened is his stepmother, who was the one who raised him, and 500 Sakyan women—500 just means a lot. It’s not necessarily that number. They did the first women’s liberation march in history, I think. They walked from Kapilavasthu to Vaishali. They put on the robes, they shaved their heads, they walked barefoot the whole way, and requested the Buddha to ordain. This is how the story goes.

Of course, we don’t really know how accurate the story is. When they got there, they requested ordination. The Buddha said, “Please don’t ask.” Then they petitioned Ananda to talk to the Buddha about it. Ananda did and the Buddha agreed. Different versions have different things he may have said after that. It’s interesting, if you look at ancient Indian culture, even if you look at modern Indian culture, women do not have a lot of freedom. In ancient times, they were under the control first of their father, then of their husband, and finally their son. They couldn’t go out of the house without an escort, and so on. The Buddha allowing them to ordain was really rather radical for that time in history. The Jains were the only other sect at that time that allowed women to ordain.

Some people look at this story and say, “The Buddha didn’t really want to ordain women. Ananda just talked him into it.” To which I usually respond, “When the Buddha first attained awakening, he said he wasn’t going to teach because nobody would understand it. Then the gods, Brahma, Indra, and so on, came and requested him to teach. He changed his mind and he began to teach.” Now regarding that story, nobody says, “The Buddha didn’t want to teach and the gods just talked him into it against his will.” These stories are quite parallel. I don’t think the Buddha was really talked into it. I don’t think you can talk a buddha into something they don’t want to do.

The order started and it has existed up until this day with many really incredible people in it. Our Abbey has an especially close connection with the Chinese nuns. The Tibetan tradition doesn’t have the ordination lineage for full ordination, only novice ordination for women. We go to Taiwan to take the full ordination. My novice ordination was in the Tibetan tradition, my full ordination was in the Chinese tradition in Taiwan. We have a really close relationship with both sanghas, the Tibetan and the Chinese. There are some really amazing female practitioners.

Pepperdine: You haven’t settled for me the debate as to the true story. I think you’re right, it’s probably something where historically, we just can’t reconstruct the motives and the precise conversation of that day.

VTC: Also, supposedly at that time, the Buddha set out the eight gurudharmas (heavy rules), but there’s several different versions of the eight gurudharmas. Also in some of the versions, he talks about things that haven’t happened yet. So, historical accuracy? To me, that isn’t a big thing in my mind. What is more important is how do I practice now, and do I take advantage of the opportunities that I have? I’m not going to be saddled by a story that people can interpret or misinterpret many different ways. I think it’s much more important that we’re active and take advantage of our lives at this present moment.

What we do at the Abbey, regarding the eight gurudharmas that, in some ways put women under the guidance or lower than the monks is, when we’re with our Asian friends who follow that system, when in Rome do as the Romans do. The Chinese nuns are not inhibited by any of that. They are quite strong. But here at our Abbey, we don’t follow those, and we have a policy of gender equality, which means that men and women are equal, except the men can carry all the heavy things.

Pepperdine: Let’s look at the afterlife. I would love to hear from your perspective, what continues after death. There’s no soul. Is it energies? What is it that continues into the next physical body, or into the next spiritual being?

VTC: To really explain it well would take me quite a while. It really involves asking, “What is the self?” This gets us into the topic of, how do things really exist? His Holiness the Dalai Lama always encourages us to use reasoning and logic regarding this. We have to start with understanding what we call “self” is something that is merely designated in dependence upon the body and mind. It’s something merely designated in dependence upon the body and mind.

The body and mind, when we’re alive, are interconnected and influence each other. At the time of death, they each have their own continuum and go their own way. The body is something physical, atomic. Scientists can investigate it and measure different things about the body. There’s a whole other dimension to human existence which is conscious experience. That’s where the mind comes in. When I say mind, I don’t mean brain, and I don’t mean just intellect. The Buddhist word for “mind” also means “heart,” as in somebody has a kind heart. When we say mind, it includes intellect, the emotions, all the cognitive experiences. Those things are not atomic in nature. They are not physical or material. At the time of death, the body, from dirt to dirt, it goes back. The body gets recycled in nature. The consciousness, the mind, continues on. It is not a soul. The idea of a soul is usually something that is unchanging, that exists in and of itself, by itself, that is independent of the body and mind. And Buddhists don’t accept that.

When we look at the person, the person is constantly changing. If we look at the body, it’s changing all the time. The mind is changing all the time. Aside from the body and mind, when you really investigate, what is the self? What can you point to? Anything you point to is basically an activity of either the body or the mind. We don’t have the idea of everybody having their own unique soul that was created by a divine being or something like that. During life, the body and mind are linked. They influence each other. You know, when you don’t feel well physically, your mind isn’t so good. When you have a good attitude, your body heals better. They influence each other. But at the time of death, they each have their own continuum, they go their own directions. According to the actions we created during our life, that will influence where we take birth and what we take birth as.

I think there’s a similar idea in Christianity about you reap what you sow. That is similar. In Buddhism it just goes from one life to the next life. If somebody is acting in a really horrible way, like we witnessed yesterday in Washington, DC, [referring to the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol building] and has very bad attitudes and harms other living beings and so on, they’re implanting in their own mind the seeds to experience suffering in the future. If somebody acts with kindness and compassion, they’re putting in their own mind, the seeds to experience happiness. This is a very simple explanation. To really explain it in depth, so you could really get a sense, would take much longer than we have.

This is the idea of karma. Karma just means action. It’s actions we do physically and actions we do mentally. Mental actions are what we plan, what we think about, what we ruminate about. All these things, they don’t just happen and then cease without any continuity. They leave seeds or energy traces on the mental continuum that influence what we’re reborn as and what we experience when we’re reborn. The purpose in Buddhism is to get out of the cycle of rebirth because the root of this cycle is ignorance. You can see there is ignorance because we have attachment, anger, jealousy, arrogance, laziness, and all these other undesirable qualities. They’re rooted in ignorance. Ignorance is a misapprehension, or a misconception, of how things exist. And especially of how we ourselves exist.

The idea is, when we can see things as they really are, the ignorant view is overcome. What the ignorant view apprehends, does not exist. When you generate wisdom that knows things as they are, that wisdom can overpower the ignorance. That leads us to a state of liberation, or arhatship. In the context of the Mahayana tradition, which is the one I follow, we say it’s very good to become an arhat, but we also have the potential to become a fully awakened Buddha. A Buddha has eliminated from the root not just the ignorance but all other obscurations on the mind, and that person has developed love and compassion for every sentient being. The whole reason behind that spiritual practice is one of wanting to be of great benefit to sentient beings and therefore aspiring to become a fully awakened Buddha. That becomes your motivation for practice. When you become a fully awakened Buddha, you have many super-knowledges, or what they might call supernatural or psychic abilities, or whatever you want to call it. I call it super-knowledges, that enable you to be of great benefit to other living beings.

Pepperdine: Now when you speak of ignorance, are you talking about avidya?

VTC: The different Buddhist traditions have, in some ways, the same definition of avidya, but there’s some differences in how they define it as well.

I noticed in your questions that there was the assumption that in the Theravada tradition, when you translate it as “nonself” or “not self,” that means nonexistence. That is not correct. Not self, nonself, the translation of selfless, none of those things mean nonexistent because clearly, we exist. We’re talking to each other. We exist. The question is how do we exist. Our apprehension of who we are is based on a misconception. We don’t understand who we are in a correct way. That is what creates the mental afflictions, disturbing emotions, and wrong views, which then create the karma. We act out of what we think and believe, and the karma continues the rebirth cycle. The idea is to see things as they really are. The whole idea that there’s no person or that nothing exists, in Buddhism, this is called the extreme of nihilism, and it’s an idea that is very strongly refuted.

The whole thing is, when you use the word “I,” to ask ourselves, what is that word actually referring to? What is the word “I” referring to? We have a very strong feeling that there is some kind of independent “I” there. So what is it actually referring to? This gets really interesting when we start to examine it. We might say, “I walk,” but that’s referring to the body. We might say, “I feel happy.” That’s referring to the mind. Is there something else besides the body and mind? If you think there is, then exactly what is it? How does it function? Is it something permanent, that doesn’t change? Things that don’t change cannot function in the world. Things that don’t change cannot be influenced by other factors, which means there’s nothing that can make them change. They’re fixed. But clearly when we say “I,” we’re not referring to something that is fixed like that. If there is something that is unchanging, exactly what is it? It can’t function because it doesn’t change. Functioning involves change, interaction, interdependence. It’s a very interesting thing to explore.

Pepperdine: Let’s talk for a moment about your relationship with the Dalai Lama, who has become something of a celebrity since his Nobel Peace Prize, where he really jumped onto the public scene.

VTC: My perspective is he’s quite an amazing being. Quite amazing. I’ve seen him in many different circumstances, and he’s brilliant. He’s brilliant in the way he can take different things and weave them together. Things that you may not have seen the link between or the interdependence between. He can take those and weave them so all of the sudden you go, “Wow!” He’s also very adept at being in tune with what people, their dispositions, what they’re interested in, what would benefit them to understand. I’ve been at a few of the Mind & Life Conferences, the early ones where he was just beginning to talk with scientists. It was incredible because he really tuned into the scientists, and they tuned in to him. He said, “we’re looking for the truth.” And the scientists are looking for the truth. We may have different things we explore and different tools we use to explore the truth, but he is very interested in the body-mind relationship.

He also helped some of the scientists realize if you just think all phenomena is what is physical and what is physically capable of being measured by scientific instruments, you’re leaving out a lot of existent phenomena and not learning about them. Now the scientists are beginning to really investigate contemplation and all sorts of different things. I think he’s really making that link, and also speaking to Buddhists about different scientific theories. He’s so revered in Tibetan society, but at the same time, he’s incredibly humble. People will come and say, “We hear you’re the Buddha of Compassion. Are you really the Buddha the Compassion?” His Holiness just says, “No, I am just a simple Buddhist monk.” That’s all! He doesn’t go around saying, “I’m the Dalai Lama. I’m this. I’m that. And by the way you can give your donations here.” That is not his way at all.

Pepperdine: That leads us into this question about the monastic sacrifice you’ve made. I think everybody knows a monastic person of whatever religion, makes a sacrifice. Put this in a personal context. It sounds like in your early 20s, you had some men in your life, boyfriends and so forth, and you forsook that. You forsook the notion of children, I’m assuming you didn’t have children in your 20s. You forsook hugging guys and having these kinds of gregarious relationships. You had to cut ties with a lot of really enjoyable, happy things about the human life.

VTC: It’s not a sacrifice. It’s not a sacrifice! If you see taking precepts as a sacrifice, you’re going to be miserable as a monastic. For me, I saw it as so much attachment. You get attached to people. The attachment gets so sticky. There’s so much expectation. The more you’re attached, the more you’re hurt when things don’t work out. The more you’re upset when you don’t get along with the person you’re attached to. For me, you know, if you really look at a lot of things that we call human enjoyments, they don’t bring lasting happiness, do they?

How many people do you know who are happily married? I mean, really happily married for a long time? How many people are satisfied when they get a new car? Does their new car make them always happy? They get a promotion in their job; they become famous. Does that make them happy? It brings a buzz for a short time, then afterwards: “I want more. I want better. I want more. I want better.” There’s this constant dissatisfaction.

For me, giving that up actually brings much more happiness and peace. And taking precepts not to do different things, it’s not like, “I really want to do that, and I’m sacrificing and it’s so painful.” No! I’ve thought about it, I’ve thought, does that bring lasting happiness? Is that how I want to spend my time? Or do I want to spend my time developing myself as a human being? I want to spend my time developing myself. I want to spend my time benefiting others. Giving that stuff up is not a big deal. At the beginning, I sometimes saw couples walking and his arm is around her, and think, “I remember how nice that was.” I remembered also what happened afterwards. Some guy is really, really nice in the beginning. Then you live with them for a while and they expect you to do this and that. There’s no lasting happiness in that. Even if you do have a good marriage, eventually at the time of death, you have to separate. There’s not going to be a happy ending anywhere in cyclic existence. For me, I’m fine.

Pepperdine: I was hoping you could talk a bit more on the concept of nirvana, and what that looks like in your tradition.

VTC: We talk about different kinds of nirvana. There’s the nirvana of an arhat, where they no longer take rebirth under the influence of ignorance, and then there’s the non-abiding nirvana of a Buddha where you don’t abide either in cyclic existence or in the peace of an arhat, and instead, you manifest in various ways to be a benefit to sentient beings.

I’ve written a lot about this, if you look in Buddhism for Beginners; Open Heart, Clear Mind; or Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions. The question about nirvana is in the book called Samsara, Nirvana, and Buddha Nature.

If you want more on karma, it’s in those books I already mentioned, but a broader explanation is in the book The Foundation of Buddhist Practice and that book also explains about rebirth.

Pepperdine: Venerable Chodron, it’s so good to meet you. We really appreciate you giving us an hour today.

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