Pema Chodron: Buddhism and Activism

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Pema Chodron: Buddhism and Activism

In high school, I was taught a body-inventory meditation, which led me to explore more formal practices in college.  I was hooked.

When I traveled to both Okinawa and South Korea, I found myself studying Buddhist texts and visiting temples to ask questions of the monks.  But I’m embarrassed to admit that it took years to fully appreciate how the tenants of Buddhism fit with my environmental activism.  Pema Chodron’s writing and speaking stood out to me in this respect.

She is one of the few female, fully-ordained bhiksunis (nuns) in Tibetan Buddhism. She speaks with modesty and an immense depth of experience, and her books have been received around the world.

Recently, on a visit to spend a day with my family, I picked up an audio-CD of one of her retreats called Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality for the drive home (2 hours one way).


If the audio plug-in does not work in your browser, I apologize.  You can listen to the mp3 (5 minutes) by clicking Pema Chodron_Activism Without Aggression.

She uses the term “shenpa” (attachment).  More to the point, she is referring to the emotional reaction we experience when we don’t get the outcome to which we are attached.

Until both sides are healed – nothing is healed…  This is not about becoming a doormat or never expressing your views.  It’s about realizing that sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut than to put your foot in it…  It’s better to refrain when you are out of control.

For me, this teaching is incredibly powerful.  Because I still get stuck viewing things as black and white – either I’m standing up for what I believe in or I’m giving in, letting the other side win.  Which is not the truth.

There is a middle way – where I can choose my battles to win the war.  There is a middle way – where I can contribute to someone, where they are.  Instead of offering what I want them to have, I can offer what they need to take the next step in their process.

It’s common sense really.  You see what’s kicking the wheel, and you choose to stop kicking the wheel, because you want there to be peace in the world.  And peace in your family.  And peace in your neighborhood.  And peace in your own mind.

My heart went out the woman who shared at the retreat.  As an activist, I can 100% empathize with her experience of “I don’t want to be angry, but I don’t want to be neutral either… because then maybe I wouldn’t write these petitions anymore.”  It’s a paradox I struggled with for many years.  It was difficult to see that anger was not the only driver for making a difference.  It also wasn’t the most effective.  The answer was brilliant.

 You’re already doing the work, because you’re seeing the shenpa (attachment)…  My advice to you is: keep up the good work, but really look at the shenpa and make aspirations in your own mind that you want to spend the rest of your life getting really good at it.

For me, this means giving up the story that my parents, sister, friends, co-workers, or neighbors are wrong.  And more so, that I am right and need to fix or teach them something.  It opens opportunities for me to remain curious.  To engage in dialogue that is respectful.  To share my stance and be a contribution to their lives, while noticing if I’m getting angry or arrogant in the way that I’m approaching them.

And it really helps me see that I truly care about this other person – otherwise, why would it bother me that we disagree on environmental issues?

Bodhisattvas are frequently activists.  But they’re activists who really have a lot of prajna (wisdom) about what escalates the aggression and what diminishes it.




Adam Hammes is the executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, a consultant, author, and motivational speaker. He specializes in helping businesses and sustainability professionals with environmental and social performance.

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