Pema Chodron is an influential and beloved Western Buddhist nun and teacher. She speaks and writes about the dharma from her heart, in ways that are accessible and make clear that these teachings are not esoteric or remote, but apply to the lives of everyone, everywhere, and at all times. Through the use of her life experience, she demonstrates that we can all benefit from a more close understanding of those principles the Buddha was attempting to explicate over 2000 years ago.
Chodron (more properly Chödrön) is the foremost disciple of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who established the Shambhala school of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. Born in 1936 in New York City as Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, Chödrön grew up in New Jersey as a good Catholic girl. She enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College, but left school to marry in 1957. In 1958, she gave birth to a daughter, Arlyn. In 1961, her son Edward was born. Also in this year, she and her family moved to Berkeley, California. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in English literature and a master's degree in elementary education. She worked for many years as an elementary school teacher in California, but after divorcing from her first husband, she remarried and moved with her family to Taos, New Mexico. There she believed she had found a full and fulfilling life, but in the 1970s her husband suddenly revealed he had been having an affair and wanted to divorce. Though shattering, this event precipitated Chödrön into the course she would follow for the rest of her life. She describes this in her book, When Things Fall Apart:
I remember the sky and how huge it was. I remember the sound of the river and the steam rising up from my tea. There was no time, no thought, there was nothing—just the light and a profound, limitless stillness. Then I regrouped and picked up a stone and threw it at him.
Soon after this, she traveled to the French Alps, where she heard the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Chime Rinpoche speak. She continued to study with Chime for many years, and received ordination as a novice nun in 1974 from His Holiness The Sixteenth Karmapa. Chödrön's true path, however, began when she met her root guru, Chögyam Trungpa, in 1972. She continued to study with him until his death in 1987, and received full ordination as a bhikkhuni (Buddhist nun) in 1981.
Ani Pema, as Chödrön is affectionately known, was the director of the Shambhala Center, Karma Dzong, in Boulder, Colorado for many years, but in 1984 was instructed by Trungpa to establish a new monastery for Western monks and nuns in Nova Scotia. With other of Trungpa's disciples and friends, she created Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, a still-thriving center for the practice of this unique brand of Buddhist thought. She advocates the practice of the three root disciplines of Shambhala: sitting meditation, tonglen (sending and receiving) practice, and lojong slogan practice, in order to cultivate a heart of bodhichitta, which is ultimate openness and tenderness.
Pema Chödrön is the best-selling author of several books, including The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are, When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, Comfortable With Uncertainty, and No Time To Lose. She continues to teach, write, and practice throughout the world. Her root teacher is now Dzigar Kongtrul, and Chödrön spends much of her time in private retreat. She also has three adored grandchildren.
The writings of Pema Chödrön are highly accessible and useful to anyone. No knowledge of Buddhist thought or teaching is necessary. The following is a brief quote from Comfortable With Uncertainty:
For those of us with a hunger to know the truth, painful emotions are like flags going up to say, "You're stuck!" We regard disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, jealousy, and fear as moments that show us where we're holding back, how we're shutting down. Such uncomfortable feelings are messages that tell us to perk up and lean into a situation when we'd rather cave in and back away.
When the flag goes up, we have an opportunity: we can stay with our painful emotion instead of spinning out. Staying is how we get the hang of gently catching ourselves when we're about to let resentment harden into blame, righteousness, or alienation....
Ordinarily we are swept away by habitual momentum. We don't interrupt our patterns even slightly. With practice, however, we learn to stay with a broken heart, with a nameless fear, with the desire for revenge.... We can bring ourselves back to the spiritual path countless times every day simply by exercising our willingness to rest in the uncertainty of the present moment—over and over again.
Chodron, Pema. Comfortable with Uncertainty. Boston: Shambhala, 2002.
—When Things Fall Apart. Boston: Shambhala, 1997.