In 1981, Pema Chödrön became the first American woman to become an ordained Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition. Her story—one of personal struggle, scraping the depth of despair and transcending it by turning toward it—inspires emotional enlightenment across a wide audience, and her books are often passed from friend to friend.
Who She Is
Pema Chödrön, born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, is a Tibetan Buddhist nun, an acharya or respected spiritual teacher, and a disciple of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She is a mother, an author, and a frequent guest on Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday. As principal teacher of Gampo Abbey, a Western Buddhist monastery in the Shambhala tradition in Nova Scotia, Canada, Chödrön seeks to share knowledge and root Tibetan Buddhist monasticism in the West. Her foundation runs compassionate initiatives around the world, including support for nuns in the Himalayas and programs for at-risk communities throughout the world.
What She Teaches
Chödrön doesn’t often use Buddhist language to convey her ideas, because what she speaks of is so universal to the human condition. Many of her books and discussions focus on the theme of shenpa, the hook in difficult situations that triggers our habitual tendency to react, to tighten, to shut down and reach for relief. Freedom, Chödrön teaches, comes in the ability to turn toward pain instead of resisting it. This idea carries through When Things Fall Apart, the beloved guide to finding the courage to rest in a place of uncertainty.
Why You’ll Love Her
There is a little bit of Pema Chödrön in every person who has endured heartbreak, suffered loss, grappled with pain and suffering, and questioned the very nature of existence—in other words, a little bit of Pema Chödrön in all of us. This is a spiritual leader who came from the same “normal” background with the same challenges as anyone else. That’s why the pages of her books feel like a letter from a wise friend and why they’ve comforted countless readers in times of vulnerability. Chödrön speaks from understanding. She is straightforward and encouraging. The practices she teaches are action-based, rooted in the real world, an invitation at each moment to sit in the middle of the fire. “Whatever life you’re in,” she says, “is a vehicle for waking up.”
How She Found the Spiritual Path
The first chapter of Deirdre Blomfield-Brown’s life followed a trajectory like any other: The youngest of three from a Catholic family in New Jersey, she graduated from a prestigious prep school, then university; married and had two children; and became an elementary school teacher. Then things began to change. Her first marriage dissolved and she remarried. She moved to California. Then one day her husband told her he was having an affair and was planning to leave her, and Blomfield-Brown spiraled into a deep depression where she could no longer feel the ground. Nothing she did to alleviate the pain helped. By chance, she read an article by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche that changed her life. Negativity itself, she learned, is not the problem: It is the reaction to negativity that causes suffering. Blomfield-Brown didn’t even know the author was Buddhist, but she immediately connected to the path and never looked back.
A few months later, in the French Alps, Blomfield-Brown met a Tibetan lama and asked to study with him. She formally committed herself to Buddhism after only two weeks and took a vow to spend the rest of her life helping others reach enlightenment. Two years later, she became a novice nun. In 1972, Chödrön—whose spiritual name means “lotus torch of the dharma”—met Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and he became her root teacher. She received full monastic ordination in the Tibetan lineage of Buddhism in 1981 in Hong Kong, the first American woman to do so.
Chödrön became the director of Gampo Abbey, the first Tibetan monastery in North America for Westerners, and continues to grow on her spiritual path. After Trungpa Rinpoche’s death, she accepted Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche as her teacher and spends an increasing amount of time under his guidance in solitary studies.
What She Says
“When things fall apart and we can’t get the pieces back together, when we lose something dear to us, when the whole thing is just not working and we don’t know what to do, this is the time when the natural warmth of tenderness, the warmth of empathy and kindness, are just waiting to be uncovered, just waiting to be embraced. This is our chance to come out of our self-protecting bubble and to realize that we are never alone. This is our chance to finally understand that wherever we go, everyone we meet is essentially just like us. Our own suffering, if we turn toward it, can open us to a loving relationship with the world.”
Where You Can Find Her
Chödrön teaches in the United States and Canada, but is allocating more time for solitary retreat. Find more information at The Pema Chodron Foundation website.