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Confessions of a Failed Buddhist
A Philo-Psycho-Theological Examination of the Mystery of Why Nobody Has As Yet Punched Pema Chödrön in the Face
Pema Chödrön is a Tibetan Buddhist nun, considered by many to be that religion's most prominent voice in the entire world. She has written dozens of snappily-titled books, most of which became quick bestsellers, but I first learned of her the same way most people do: seeing her short, pithy statements posted on various social media, in elegant type superimposed over soothing if bland stock photos of nature.
Okay, that's not a great one, even with the elegant type superimposed over soothing if bland stock photos of nature. There are objectively bad things, after all, Pema, no matter how much we insist there aren't. Like bland stock photos of nature. Or Stage 4 cancer. Here's another:
Well that one's just patently false. I didn’t know about Pema, but speaking for myself and just about everyone I have ever known or met, we get through, yes. But "just fine" is debatable. "Just fine" is a high bar. Here's another:
I hate to put too fine a point on this, but isn't about what I offer chaos, it's about what chaos offers me. Hint: it's fist-shaped and headed for my anus, so I'm not sure a cup of tea is going to help. A bottle of amyl nitrite, maybe, but not a mug of Lemon Zinger. I'll be honest – this Satan's spawn combination of Getty Images and Chicken Soup for the Soul wasn't cutting it for me, and I couldn't understand why so many found it so helpful.
And then things fell apart.
I lost my job. My physical health suffered from the stress and worry. My mental health suffered with it, just as I had become separated from Ike, my long-time friend, mentor and psychiatrist.
I was terribly lost, anxious and afraid. The "Judeo" part of the Judeo-Christianity that I had been raised with had offered me no solace in life – quite the opposite, in fact ("There's a man in the sky, possibly alcoholic, he watches your every move and he'll kill you if you eat bacon. Sleep tight, Son.") – and so I wasn't interested in the "Christianity" part either; if I didn't like the original, I wasn't going to like the sequel. And so, with nowhere else to turn, I turned to Pema Chödrön. I was in a bad place. I dragged myself to the bookstore, and for $25 I didn't want to spend, I bought her most widely known book, "When Things Fall Apart." Even the cover was elegant type superimposed over a soothing if bland stock photo of nature.
I read it that evening, and a strange thing happened:
Not a fucking thing.
All it did was annoy me. Pema seems to genuinely care, and there were indeed some nice sentiments in the book – non-aggression, empathy, compassion, self-care – but nothing I couldn't find in the greeting card section at Target for $23.00 less than the book cost me. Her philosophy seemed to boil down to this: when things fall apart, you might think it's bad -- but it's really good.
See how easy that is?
That isn’t pain, it's pleasure!
That's not AIDS, that's an opportunity!
To me this wasn’t an answer; it was merely declaring that there was no question. Which is why in the real world, saying shit like that gets you punched in the face. Hard. As it should.
That whole terminal cancer thing? Why, you win, baldy!
Fired without severance and no chance of employment? I guess today's your lucky day.
Hit by a truck? I'm taking you to Vegas, Mister Jackpot.
I thought it a terrible shame she wasn't at Auschwitz, where she could have explained to the dying piled up in mass graves just how fortunate they were. "Chin up, Mordechai! This is a chance to grow!"
Above: So many lucky, lucky people
This particular paragraph was the final straw:
"In 1995, I took a sabbatical. For twelve months I essentially did nothing… pretty much all I did was relax… I had no schedule, no agenda, no shoulds." It was, she says, the most spiritual time of her life.
A sabbatical? I thought, wanting my twenty-five bucks back. Who the fuck takes a sabbatical anymore? A sabbatical, Pema, are you shitting me? No wonder you're so fucking happy. It's not the dharma, it's the year off - in which you did nothing? I haven't done nothing in fifty years. My nothing is everything. Hey, how's that for a snappy book title, Pema? Nothing is Everything, by Pema "Sabbatical" Chödrön.
I think I mentioned I was in a bad place.
Bad answers were worse than no answers, so I put the book away, never to pick it up again.
Until things fell apart.
Just when I thought I had rebuilt it all, it collapsed. My dear friend Craig passed away, my dick broke, and the icing on the shit cake, my beloved dog Natasha developed bone cancer and had to be put down.
I bought "The Pocket Pema Chodron." ($8.94)
I bought "The Places That Scare You." ($18.95)
I bought "Comfortable with Uncertainty." ($13.99)
And this time, $66.83 in the hole, Pema helped me.
She comforted me.
A strange comfort, but a comfort.
Not with anything she said, of course – it was all still trite, mildly infuriating, borderline insulting, not-quite-brave-enough-to-be-full-on-nihilism. But as I read her this time, something happened. I began to get the feeling that I'd read this all before, a long while ago. Something about the cadence of her sentences, the rhythm of the words, the simplistic parables of ancient lunatics (A man once came to see a monk/rabbi/priest/imam"), the dubious "I once knew a man who" stories, the pseudo-paradoxical phrases ("Welcome the unwelcome," " Wholehearted living in a brokenhearted world"), the "it rhymes so it must be true" rhetorical devices ("Don’t fear what you can't bear") - if you've had any sort of a religious upbringing, you'll recognize these things, as I did, as tools of the Pretending to Have Answers trade. Rabbis do it, priests do it, imams do it - and I guess I finally learned that Buddhist nuns do it, too.
What else did I learn from all this? Two things.
The first is that you can superimpose just about any words in elegant type over soothing if bland stock photos of nature, and people will think it profound. Or they'll think it’s Pema Chödrön:
Did Pema say this?
You don’t know, do you? You can't tell. She might have.
She didn't. Try another:
That sounds like Fake Pema… but it's real. She said that.
Nope. But thanks for playing.
The second thing I learned is the one that gave me the strange comfort I mentioned earlier.
Because life is difficult. It's so difficult, in fact, that people will take any answer they can find to ease their way through it.
This past Monday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. If you don’t know how that particular answer works, here's a brief guide:
On Rosh Hashana, God sits in his courtroom watching footage of your past year. Before him sits a pair of large books, The Book of Life and the Book of Death. If for some reason he likes what he sees (not likely), you get marked down in the Life book. If he doesn't, you get marked down in the Death book. Then you have ten days, until sundown on Yom Kippur, to change the Lord's mind. After that, your fate is sealed.
Now, this is a theology that is almost too cartoonish to believe (and frankly, if that's God, fuck him) and yet many do. It gives them hope. It gives them peace, the same way Pema does to others. The first says "Things are bad because you sinned," the second says, "Bad? Things aren’t bad, they’re good." One says the pain will go away with penance, the other says it's not really pain at all. Neither of these approaches speaks to me, but together they provide me that strange comfort in knowing we're all terrified. That we're utterly beside ourselves with worry and pain and fear. I take comfort in knowing I'm not alone, a comfort worth every penny of the $66.83 I spent on Pema's books.
Not what she intended, I know, but comfort's comfort. I think she’d be happy with that.
I am writing this on a flight home which has been particularly turbulent. As the plane began to shake, the little boy behind me began to sing "Baby Shark" to calm himself down. The worse the turbulence became, the louder he sang, until at last the plane settled down, and his singing stopped.
Yahweh didn't do it for me, and neither did Pema.
When things fall down a third time, I might have to give Baby Shark a chance.
Yours in the fetal position,
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