Pema Chödrön on Trungpa in 2011: “I Can’t Answer the Relative Questions”
This is a followup on notes I published about the structure, language, and impact of disorganized attachment evident in the Shambhala organization. It also provides an update on the question of Chödrön’s approach to Shambhala history, and whether it provides clarity or obfuscation in relation to the present revelations of institutional abuse.
On July 13th, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (Khyentse Norbu) cited Chödrön’s 1993 interview with Tricycle as a laudable example of how a Vajrayana student is to view and contemplate their teacher. However, Norbu incorrectly dated Chödrön’s statement to 2015. I argued that this unfortunately could create the unfair impression that Chödrön’s 25 year-old views are current, and perhaps issued to pre-empt current criticism of Shambhala.
But in the 2011 hagiographical film “Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche” (New York: Kino Lorber), director and Trungpa student Johanna Demetrakas records Chödrön delivering an aphoristic encapsulation of her 1993 statement.
At time cue 51:00, Chödrön says:
People say to me, how could you follow a teacher like that? Or how could an enlightened person do that? I do not know. I can’t buy a party line where they say it was sacred activity or something like this. Come up with ground to make it okay. I also can’t come up with ground or a fixed idea to make it not okay. You know, I’m left, really left in that I don’t know. I don’t know. But I can’t answer the relative questions because he defied being able to answer them.
First, read that last sentence carefully:
But I can’t answer the relative questions because he defied being able to answer them.
So who is not able to answer? The grammatical muddiness here seems to elide subject (Chödrön) into object (Trungpa). Her inability to answer, therefore, echoes his inability or refusal to self-define. This is not surprising in the discourse of guru devotion, in which students are regularly asked to merge themselves with the visualization and even disembodied mind-streams of their teachers.
Chödrön might have said more during filming, so the analysis that follows is as much about what the culture, via a feminist documentarian, frames as valuable about her views as it is about what her actual views are.
The context for the quote is an ambivalent discussion of Trungpa’s alcoholism. This context presents an implicit (and therefore weak) inquiry into whether it harmed students. This is important to keep in mind. Trungpa may have broken his Buddhist vows by consuming alcohol, but being alcoholic is no crime. What is at stake rather, is whether the effects of his disability, combined with his power, cast the consensuality of his widely acknowledged sexual relationships with students in doubt. As in the present crisis involving his son, we can’t talk about Trungpa’s drinking without also bringing up issues of power, and therefore consent.
Immediately prior to Chödrön’s reflection, the scholar of Tibetan Buddhism Robert Thurman offers qualified criticism of Trungpa’s drinking, lamenting that he would have been more helpful to more people for longer if he hadn’t become addicted. Beverly Webster, Trungpa’s secretary, describes his students begging him to stop. And Walter Fordham, “Head of Trungpa’s Household”, claims “It was safe to say that his level of awareness in the environment was unaffected by, by the alcohol.”
Chödrön’s position, framed by the documentary, presents both a personal admission of uncertainty and a sophisticated allusion to the Mādhyamika logic that provides the philosophical framework for the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Not being able to “come up with a ground for” judging Trungpa’s behaviour or impacts on others is a direct echo of arguments that date back at least to the 2nd-Century CE deconstructions of the Buddhist saint Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna set out to show that naming and identifying impermanent objects with signs and values could only ever be provisional.
The ultimate target of Mādhyamika deconstruction or “the object to be denied”, is the essential, abiding, unchanging Self or soul. The idea is that human suffering can be greatly relieved, if not ended altogether, through the revelations that the human person to whom suffering seems to be occurring is an unstable construction of socialization, language, and thought.
Ultimately, Mādhyamika argues, the self is as ephemeral as the natural world. It is, as is written in the Diamond Sutra, which dates back to Nagarjuna’s era:
“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”
Its flashing appearances — brief, radiant, melancholic — seem to invoke memories of childhood that maturity teaches cannot be retrieved. And that we will suffer if we try to.
When Chödrön speaks of answering the “relative questions”, she’s talking about these shifting bits of sensory engagement. What she doesn’t mention in this clip is that in this system, “absolute” answers become available to practitioners who “see through” the folly of “relative” questions, and our attachments to answers that can only be speculative.
In other words: the route to Mādhyamika enlightenment depends upon the ability to assert the dream-like quality of ephemeral phenomenon. In this world, laws, lawyers, judges and even decisions about things are the enemies of limitless possibility. Chödrön can’t say that Trungpa’s alcoholism is okay, but she also can’t say it’s not okay. The first refusal allows her to leave open the possibility of criticizing him, but the second refusal makes the question irrelevant. As such, Chödrön’s position here, built on a Mādhyamika framework, cannot speak to the material impacts of structured power and harm. It actually makes a virtue of not doing so. In response to the hidden question “Was there harm?” Chödrön’s system seeks to transcend the question.
In the Vajrayana practices into which Chödrön has been initiated, the Mādhyamika view is applied to all experiences and phenomena, but most importantly to the nature of the teacher. After initiation, the teacher’s actions cannot be pinned down, named, identified, assessed, or even understood. “Relative questions” about them must remain a mystery. As Norbu commented in his very Mādhyamika-dependent defence of Sogyal Lakar’s abuses: “It’s a big mistake to speculate about the possibility of continuing to analyze and criticize the guru after having received a major initiation—actually it’s totally wrong. ”
In other words, not only is “I don’t know” is the only viable response to a teacher’s actions that appear abusive, it is mandated.
Chödrön’s “I don’t know” carries a further charge. Arguably, a large part of her popularity comes from her ability to poetically mobilize the language that values personal vulnerability (recently made more popular by Brené Brown and others) to reinforce a doctrinal belief not just in the unknowability of “relative” answers, but in their irrelevance.
For those who try to engage it — I speak from some personal experience — the impact of Mādhyamika contemplation can be startling to the point of ecstasy. The feeling of “groundlessness” to which the Shambhala literature continually refers reflects the sudden epiphanies of deconstructive logic. I was used to this austere pleasure from my university studies, where it was applied to pull apart the mechanisms of social and linguistic power. To think that this could also be used internally, soulfully even, to pull apart internalized power structures was thrilling. It’s a hook, for sure.
But groundlessness and “spaciousness” as responses to not just life in general, but particular instances of harm in organizations like Shambhala, should now be looked at in a different light. Trauma studies have made the reasons for dissociative responses in relation to abuse part of popular discourse. We know that abuse victims can enact disembodiment reflexes in order to avoid further abuse or pain, or to recover from past abuse. Those to whom dissociation occurs describe sensations of floating above, or vacating the body, or shrinking down to imperceptible size, or inflating to an ungraspable immensity. (These are all, in fact key features of Vajrayana visualizations.)
The free-falling qualities of groundlessness and spaciousness are coded as states of freedom and courage by Chödrön, who honours her training well. We have to now ask, clearly, whether, how, and when that training spiritualizes a trauma response. We have to ask whether when students are told that they “can’t come up with a ground”, but are to occupy no position at all, they are being given tools to:
- Sublimate their own experiences of abuse, and/or
- Ignore the victims of power abuse, and/or
- Protect themselves from the pain and moral injury of having their critical thinking and agency stripped away by an Iron-Age thought experiment, weaponized by a high-demand group.
I’m no Buddhist scholar, but my guess is that Nagarjuna proposed groundlessness as a conscious antidote to existential pain, not an automatic response to institutional abuse. I’m also pretty sure that the melancholic poetry his system inspires was not meant to be commodified as a way to help people, women especially, metabolize preventable harm by advising they lean in to the sadness of things.