OPRAH: What does it mean to be a Buddhist?
PEMA: In my opinion, the essence of it is trusting that the nature of your mind and heart is limitless openness, free of prejudice and bias, and that you can open all your senses to what's happening without narrowing down into a solid point of view that says, No, it can't be like that, it has to be like this. Somehow that leads to seeing the humanity in even the worst people.
OPRAH: That's why Buddhists are so calm.
PEMA: Maybe so. On the other hand, you don't have to be a Buddhist to practice this—that's what I know for sure. If you look at the teachings of all the wise people throughout history, this is what they've practiced—the ability to stand in someone else's shoes. Martin Luther King said that until we're all healed, no one is healed.
OPRAH: That sounds like a beautiful way to live. Can you do that all the time? Are you just walking around beaming love?
PEMA: Well, I don't want to make any false statements here—my children might read this and blow my cover! But it's my aspiration and my passion. I notice when I lose my perspective. That's the moment of truth, whether I'm going to be open or closed. Then I think, "I have to do this for all the people in situations that are so much more horrific than mine." If I can't do it in my luxurious life circumstances, how can I expect anybody else to do it? I feel like I have a responsibility to do it. And I love it; it's what has made my life worthwhile and meaningful.
OPRAH: Your children were teenagers when you decided to become a Buddhist nun. How did they take that news?
PEMA: My son, Edward, was 13, and my daughter, Arlyn, was 15. Edward, who's now in his 40s, says he took it in stride, but my daughter and I had to do a lot of healing around it. She took it as quite a rejection. I was still in her life—it wasn't like I went away completely—but my passion and attention went from family toward this.
OPRAH: When you became ordained, did your family think you were a little cuckoo?
PEMA: No, I don't think anybody thought that. That's a blessing! Somehow, gradually, everyone in the family was proud that I'd taken this path. No one else took it, but they've all been very supportive.
OPRAH: You're very well known in spiritual circles. You walk into a room and people say, "Oh, Pema Chödrön, I read your books, thank you for all your wisdom..." Can you ever have a bad day and get ticked off at people?
PEMA: You mean can I afford to, because my reputation is at stake? Well, as much as I value my teacher, I value my children, my family, and an old friend because they don't regard me as this big deal. My son—Oprah, this was so wonderful—recently, my son very sweetly said, "Mom, tell me honestly: What does your Buddhism have to do with the fact that you get so uptight about things?" I just roared with laughter. I said, "It has nothing to do with my Buddhism at all, except that I don't flagellate myself for it." Your family and your old friends still see you as the person you always were. Without them, you could think you were pretty hot stuff.
We Hear You!