In the alternative spirituality universe, few figures exude emotional gravitas like Pema Chödrön. Whether from her rugged retreat centre in Cape Breton, or from the solarium of Oprah’s Montecito mansion, Chödrön preaches a message of receptivity, acceptance, and the need to recognize melancholy as a gateway to empathy.
Chödrön’s many faces — tender grandmother and austere nun, feelings counsellor and religious disciplinarian— transcend the airbrushed world of Instagram self help. Her origin story and winding biography embody a message that rebels against a superficial age. She asserts that fulfillment and wisdom, if not happiness, are won through loss, disillusionment, and facing despair with an exposed heart. Chödrön has fermented an adulting tonic for American childishness.
She is faithful to the venerable Tibetan formula of renouncing worldly desires, developing limitless compassion, and using meditation to collapse the space between self and other. The message seems to be as Buddhist as her maroon robes.
But because Chödrön is also the messenger for her guru, Chögyam Trungpa, one of the most troubled and abusive Buddhist figures of the 20th century, it might be time to re-evaluate her legacy. It might be time to reckon with the possibility that her religion evolved in part as a way of finding peace in the shadow of a spiritual monster, and within a fringe church, Shambhala International, that has been by turns aspirational, evangelical, claustrophobic, chaotic, and cultic.
Chödrön’s catalogue has inspired millions, but it has also served to launder the Shambhala legacy and lend bourgeois respectability to Trungpa’s “crazy wisdom” movement. And what if, in its uncritical presentation of her roots, it also trojan-horses a reactionary attitude of abuse tolerance into the mainly-female self-help market?
When Chögyam Trungpa died of terminal alcoholism in 1987 at the age of 47, he left behind a teetering pyramid of lieutenants intoxicated by his grandiosity, and a silenced network of students who had survived his sexual and emotional abuse. His successor, Tom Rich, infected an unknown number of students with HIV/AIDS, believing that his devotion to Trungpa would…