Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

I had never read Pema Chodron before, but I had been somewhat wary of her work, due to my own prejudices.  People I knew casually and liked, but who struck me as very bourgeois Buddhists (I know, I know…judging mind…) raved about her.  That worried me.  Also, I came to Buddhism via a meditation group led by a Mexican-American man, fully-credentialed (received the transmission from Sheng Yen), but who practices using his birth name.  I understand that it may be part of the deal in some traditions or organizations for people to adopt a new name when taking monastic vows, and this may be the case with Pema Chodron.  She may not have had any choice in her name.  That said–my own prejudices–I have met too many white people who ostentatiously go all wisdom-of-the-East, and I steered away from Pema Chodron I think out of a semi-conscious association of her, because of her name, with those people for whom I had a great distaste.

Then, my life fell apart, I started to get back to my practice, and in conversation with a Zen priest for whom I have a great deal of respect I was recommended Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart.  Time, I figured, to drop my prejudices, which at some basic level I can no longer afford, and give her a go.  I nabbed the library’s copy and went.

So, I’ll start by saying that I found much of value in the book.  She makes a very basic point which is worth making: falling apart is impermanence by another name, and is thus the basic characteristic, along with emptiness, of samsara.  When things fall apart, the self wants to avoid it–and you can be sure that my own self has done precisely this.  However, she recommends embracing the condition of falling apart, of sitting with it, literally in the case of sitting meditation practice, and metaphorically as well.

For whatever reason, I’ve developed what I will admit is an aesthetic when it comes to particular practices called “Buddhist.”  It’s taken directly from Sheng Yen’s method(s), which in essence sought to maintain, though clarify, systematize, and such as it were distill the various techniques bequeathed him by his various teachers.  This he did, exceptionally well.  He was seen during his lifetime, and now, too, I suppose, as an innovator, and this he was in two ways, in his systematization of technique just previously mentioned, and also in his insistence that all of these techniques were available to lay practitioners as well as monastics. What he explicitly did not do, however, was develop new techniques.  He taught that one should have an absolute faith in the method at hand.  Mixing methods or making them up out of thin air was not his game.  Even someone like Thich Nhat Hanh, who uses his skill as a poet to develop new gathas, always grounds himself in a rigorous attention to tradition.  What might seem a whole-cloth innovation in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching is as often as not based very directly on material he gleaned from above all the various Pali scriptures which he, broadening his textual base from typically Zen scripture, re-introduces to his own Zen technique.  So, he innovates by digging into scripture that is, at least in their oldest extant written form, older than the oldest Mahayana text.

I write the above to preface my preference in When Things Fall Apart.  Pema Chodron, as far as I can see, is at her best when relating the most basic and most traditional teaching.  What struck me in the book as most beneficial personally was a moderately lengthy discussion of the practice of Tonglen.  What people–or at least what I need, is very practical instruction, particularly when in a difficult time.  I don’t have time for theory.  I need to know what to do when I sit my ass down on the cushion, because just watching my breath just doesn’t cut it when I’m in a total crisis.  I’m not that accomplished a practicioner.  Tonglen practice, a Tibetan practice with which I had no familiarity as I have basically no familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism, was of great help.

Now, to my prejudices, and how they were confirmed.  I would say were I trying to look better than I do that “I don’t mean to criticize someone who clearly is more accomplished a practitioner than I am, but…”  However, I am trying to do that.  There are real problems with Chodron’s approach.  Maybe it’s a function–she mentions working with a homeless person in the book, which, while homeless people are not the only ones who need help, are definitely people for whom things have truly fallen apart–of the need to make money in order to do other kinds of work that don’t generate a lot of income, like, for example, working with homeless people.  Homeless people don’t give lots of “dana,” for example, and don’t buy new copies of Buddhist books.  Upper-middle class people do, and in Buddhism in the United States, particularly for a white writer, that means you aim at upper-middle class white people.  These are people who do not respond well to having their social self-delusion exposed.  So, if you want them to buy your next book, you push gently, or, in Chodron’s case, you don’t push at all.

Above all, you communicate the misapprehension that somehow racism in the United States is a matter of differing but somehow equal opinion or perception, that is to say, rooted in self-centered conceptual (samsaric) thinking.  Witness this, from the chapter called “Widening the Circle of Compassion”:

But suppose someone does not agree with us? Then what happens? Do we find ourselves getting angry and aggressive? If we look into the very moment of anger or aggression, we might see that this is what wars are made of. This is what race riots are made of: feeling that we have to be right, being thrown off and righteously indignant when someone disagrees with us.

I would want to look more specifically at wars to judge whether or not they are questions of differences of opinion.  That’s surely part of it.  Race riots, on the other hand, are by no means functions of difference of opinion.  Race riots, first off don’t happen very often.  The L.A. Uprising of my lifetime, was not a race riot.  Race riots in the United States have been as often–I might wager most often–started by white people against black or brown.  Witness, among others, the Zoot Suit Riots.  In something like the riots after Dr. King’s assassination, riots in Watts or Detroit, we do not have presented a counter-argument in response to a (white) argument.  We have people who have been pushed beyond their limits by intolerable circumstances with no legitimate or even non-violent means to create positive outcomes.  It’s not a question of two equal sides, both mired in their own subjectivity.  It’s a question of unequal power relations, and anyone whose sympathy lies with the powerful has some sickness to deal with.  That said, it’s a comfortable thought to white people to see racism as a mere difference of opinion–well, I don’t see it that way but you are entitled to your opinion–rather than a question of unearned privilege.  Chodron seems to not see this clearly.

Also, Chodron privileges, like so many white people, Chinese and Japanese culture over other Asian societies.  Unmistakably:

Referencing Bodhidharma:

a painting of Zen master Bodhidharma. (73)

Referencing Katagiri Roshi:

As the Zen master Katagiri Roshi often said…(56)

Referencing Thich Nhat Hanh:

As the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says…(75)

I don’t hear Buddhists refer to Thich Nhat Hanh as anything other than a Zen Master.  He’s not just a teacher: the man is a Master.  But, he’s from a little country, it seems.  Not good, and very off-putting.

The book, to be sure, was not without merit, as I indicated.  I got another Pema Chodron book as a present, so I will give her another shot.  If your life does fall apart, as mine has, I suppose the best bet is actual practice and talking with an actual teacher.  I’ve been lucky enough to have the San Francisco Zen Center as a resource and recently Deer Park Monastery, in Escondido.  Actual practice is the thing.

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