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Patriarchy, Gender, and Sexism in Buddhism with Tenzin Chogkyi

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In this episode Tenzin Chogkyi dives head on into the challenging topics of hierarchy, patriarchy, gender, and sexism in Buddhism. As a practicing Buddhist since the 1970s who spent 20 years as a nun ordained by His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself, she has deep, hard-won insights into these topics.

Tenzin Chogkyi is one of the most thoughtful, independent thinkers I know, and a person of extraordinary integrity who has dedicated her life to both inner development and advancing fairness and equality in the outer world. I think you’ll enjoy listening to our conversation just as much as I enjoyed being a part of it.

[00:00:50] Scott Snibbe: Tenzin Chogkyi, it’s a pleasure having you on the podcast. You and I are friends and I’ve had the pleasure of taking your teachings and being on retreat with you. So thank you so much for joining us on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment today.

[00:01:04] Tenzin Chogkyi: Oh, thank you so much for inviting me, Scott. I really look forward to our conversation because we have so many interesting topics to talk about today.

Tenzin Chogkyi’s history with Buddhism

[00:01:13] Scott Snibbe: To start, I’d love if you could talk a little bit about your history with Buddhism, how you became a Buddhist, and your time as a Buddhist nun?

[00:01:24] Tenzin Chogkyi: Sure, and I’ll try and encapsulate really briefly. It kind of begins when I was a hippie teenager, I was fortunate enough to be on the back end of the baby boomer generation. And in the early seventies there were a lot of teachers—like Ram Dass had just returned from India and published, Be Here Now.

Be Here Now book by Ram dass

And Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was teaching transcendental meditation and that was available even in suburbia where I was growing up. So I started meditating, doing TM meditation when I was 14 or 15. And just opened up the whole world of eastern contemplative methods to me, which I hadn’t had any access to.

This is like early 70s we’re talking about now. So I kind of read everything I could get my hands on and I remember when I read my first book about Buddhist philosophy, which was some kind of really bad translation of Edward Conze, something like that, I just said, Oh, that’s what I am. This totally makes sense to me. My parents had been raised Christian, but that’s not really how we were raised. We didn’t go to church, we were raised kind of more secular materialist more than anything. So when I read about Buddhism and especially the bodhisattva path, I had such an attraction.

So I became a theoretical Buddhist long before I became a practicing Buddhist, which happened later around 1979. A friend introduced me to a Japanese Buddhist practice, and then many years later I felt like I really needed a personal teacher. And His Holiness that Dalai Lama had just won the Nobel Prize, this is about 1990. And it was in the news and I thought, Oh, if there’s anybody I can really trust—I had some total attraction to His Holiness, even though I’d never met him or even seen a TV program or seen him, just from reading about him.

So in 1991, I bought a one one-way ticket to India to seek out the Dalai Lama. And I naively thought, Oh, we’ll just be able to sort of sit and hang out and figure out my life. I always say I was going through kind of an early midlife crisis. I was in my mid thirties at that point and ended up finally seeing His Holiness, not meeting one on one at that point, but seeing him and being exposed to Tibetan Buddhism.

So that’s when my journey of Tibetan Buddhism really started was 1991, after being theoretically a Buddhist for almost 20 years by then, but not really practicing with a teacher or a lineage or really receiving teachings just from books and things. So that’s kind of the short version of how I got into Buddhism.

Tenzin Chogkyi’s time as an ordained Buddhist nun

[00:04:17] Scott Snibbe: And do you want to talk a little bit about your time being ordained?

[00:04:22] Tenzin Chogkyi: Yeah, sure, I got involved in Tibetan Buddhism at Tushita Meditation Centre in Dharamsala, where His Holiness lives, where I’d gone to seek him out and studied in practice there for about a year and a half. And then came back to the States and had met Lama Zopa Rinpoche at a Kopan course. And he’d asked me to be the director of Vajrapani Institute at that point, or the co-director at that point with Rich Prinz.

So I came back to the States and then worked in administrative positions for the FPMT for the next 10 years, or almost, eight or nine years. And then was really feeling the wish to go into long retreat and consulted with Lama Zopa and he said it would be good for me to do three year retreat.

So I was still a layperson at this point but went into long retreat, and it was the third year of my first three year retreat that somehow I just realized if I was really serious about this path that becoming ordained, becoming a monastic, just made the most sense in terms of simplicity and focus. And so that’s when I decided to become a monastic, was the third year of my first retreat.

It was the third year of my first three year retreat that somehow I just realized if I was really serious about this path that becoming ordained, becoming a monastic, just made the most sense in terms of simplicity and focus.

And then I continued retreat for three more years and made a quick trip to India to get ordained with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, kind of in between retreats. So that was the story. And practiced as a monastic for 20 years until just last year when things just shifted again and it felt like my time as a monastic was coming to an end.

[00:05:57] Scott Snibbe: You spent something like seven years in retreat? 

[00:06:00] Tenzin Chogkyi: Yeah, two. One was the traditional three year, three month, three day. And then after that I did another retreat, which wasn’t specifically for that amount of time, but it ended up being another three years. It was just sort of open-ended, the second one. I had just at the end of the traditional three year retreat, I had written to Lama Zopa Rimpoche and talked a little bit about what was happening for me in meditation and feeling like I wanted to continue.

And then that’s when he advised me to go to Shiné Land, the retreat center on the coast near Big Sur. And I ended up meditating there for another three years. So it was basically between March of 2000 and something like July of 2006, I was mostly in retreat.

The benefit of retreat

person alone at night looking at starry sky by a lake with trees

[00:06:54] Scott Snibbe: For a lot of people, the idea of a retreat might seem like a total nightmare, being alone and isolated for even a few days or something. You obviously have a great propensity for that type of practice. To someone who’s never even done a retreat, I wonder if you could give a flavor of what you got out of that.

What’s the benefit of that much time practicing and being alone?

[00:07:20] Tenzin Chogkyi: Yeah, and yes, it was completely terrifying. Before I did it, I was completely committed to doing it. And that also goes way back to the early seventies. I remember reading Ram Dass in Be Here Now about yogis meditating in caves and Himalayas, and I was like, Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know you could be a yogi meditating when you grew up, you know?

And I had a strong attraction to that. So when it came about and I was completely terrified, the thought of being in solitary confinement with my mind for that amount of time, I had no idea what was gonna happen. And it was amazing. Some of the most amazing things in my life were becoming a teacher and becoming a monastic. And neither one of those may have happened if I hadn’t been in long retreat. I feel like both of those things were ripening of that time, because the purpose of retreat is really to minimize or eliminate the distractions of daily life and projects and so on, so you can focus on practice exclusively.

One of the things I found, which I’ve compared with a lot of other people that have been in long retreat, like our friend Venerable Rene and other people, there’s this thing that happens after about plus or minus six months for almost everybody, your mind is just spinning out all the things and it takes about that much to really settle. And what I found for the first six months of retreat too, is just almost like reliving my entire life just replaying all the scenes. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you fall off a cliff or something. This is like my life flashing before my eyes, but it took six months to just replay every single thing, which can be really hard. And then your mind settles and you’re able to go really deeply into practice.

There’s this thing that happens in long retreat after about plus or minus six months for almost everybody, your mind is just spinning out all the things and it takes about that much to really settle.

And so I found there was a real deep settling that doesn’t happen for me when I’m engaged in daily activity. And there was, it took that amount of time. I mean, any amount of time in retreat is beneficial. Like a weekend is beneficial, two weeks is beneficial. No question about it. But there is something about really signing off.

A friend of mine who is a monastic was at her end of life when I came out of retreat and I had said something to someone or been interviewed or something about going into long retreat felt like dying. And it just felt like when you go into retreat for like two weeks, you put everything on hold, but for three years you really have to just wrap everything up and start over again when you come out.

And there’s a way of just closing up your activities that to me felt a lot like a preparation for the end of life. And you also know you’re going to come out completely different than when you went in. And so the reentry part can be really hard too, because the way you relate to people is completely changed, so much about your own life and mind has completely changed.

So all of those parts make it hard and really beneficial at the same time. And it is certainly not for the faint hearted. I always feel like they say your best quality and your worst quality is the same. And for me, I think it’s stubbornness/determination. Like it kept me in the dark night of the soul over and over again during long retreats, that determination to just see it through. But also having the guidance of my teachers saying it was the best thing to do really helped a lot. Because I think if it had been just up to me deciding without their guidance I would’ve just given up because there were times it was so hard and just so much insight into my own mind.

When I came out of retreat I saw a friend at Land of Medicine Buddha, we’re together in the dining room and then everybody else left the dining room and she leans over to me like, hey, nobody else is here. It’s just me. You can tell me the real truth about what happened. And she said, What happened in retreat? Like, what was the most significant thing? And I said, I think I just learned to make friends with myself. And she just burst into tears. I mean, she was expecting me to say the tantric deity visions of the pure realms. And it was like, just being in solitary confinement with your mind like that, you have to learn to just accept deeply who you really are and make friends with yourself or it’s just too painful.

Being in solitary confinement with your mind like that, you have to learn to just accept deeply who you really are and make friends with yourself or it’s just too painful.

I think I realized the extent of my self-criticism and self-judgment and really had to get over it. And it was so profound. It was so profound. And also another real advantage of long retreat, and other people that have been in retreat have shared this too, you’re completely isolated from any kind of ego-gratifying feedback.

Like we’re always looking for little hits of ego gratification, like you smile at someone so they’ll smile at back at you and you’ll feel good about yourself. And there’s something about solitude that just strips all of that away, which is also extremely hard. We don’t realize how addicted we are to all of those little moments that make us feel good about ourselves.

So that was another piece that was really profound about long retreat for me too.

[00:13:05] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and it’s even with our Buddhist teachers too, at least for me, wanting the teacher to smile at you.

[00:13:11] Tenzin Chogkyi: Totally, and think you’re special. Khadro-la was just at Land of Medicine Buddha, and I didn’t attend, but a friend of mine who went, said, Oh, I just had to look at my mind the whole weekend going, am I special? Is she going to give me that look? Is she going to smile at me? Is she going to single me out somehow for special treatment? So we totally do it with our teachers too.

Hierarchy, authority, and critical thinking in Buddhism

[00:13:38] Scott Snibbe: I know I do. Well, we mostly wanted to talk today about the relationship of Buddhism and Buddhist to authority and hierarchy, which I think you have a great interest in. And I’ve been thinking a lot about myself.

Can you start by talking a little bit about what the Buddha originally taught about authority and critical thinking? And then maybe compare that to how Buddhist institutions have codified those teachings into the various structures and hierarchies that we’ve ended up with over the centuries.

[00:14:09] Tenzin Chogkyi: Absolutely, this is something I think about so much of the time. So the Buddha is famously quoted as saying that one should check the teachings and not believe what the Buddha said just because he was the Buddha. There’s this metaphor of somebody buying gold and instead of just taking the word of the goldsmith, biting and melting and doing all the things to test.

So Buddhism really prizes that kind of critical thinking in theory. But Buddhism evolved and developed in cultures that were very hierarchical and had strong traditions of respect towards elders and authority figures. And so this attitude really influenced the ways that were viewed when we question aspects of Buddhism.

So in a way it can kind of be a culture clash, and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between what’s Buddhism and what’s culture. I just listened to an interview with Ezra Klein and Joseph Henrich, who just wrote a book on this theory in psychology called The Weirdest People in the World and WEIRD comes from some researchers who realize that a lot of psychological research is done on American college students who may not be typical of the human psychology in general.

The Weirdest People in the World book by Joseph Henrich

So a lot of these broad conclusions are done on the basis of usually male, 19-year-old American college student. But how representative is that? And then they came up with this theory called the WEIRD theory saying that Americans, or North Americans, because I think it includes Canadians too, are WEIRD, which stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.

And in terms of a bell curve of human experience, that’s way off on one extreme. So when you compare cultures, there’s certain values that are typical of WEIRD cultures, right? These western, industrialized, educated, democratic, including, we’re more individualistic, we like to flatten hierarchy. We believe in equality. There’s certain kind of universal morals like equality and fairness and honesty. And more traditional cultures value things like loyalty and hierarchy. So you see this, and I’ve experienced this myself. When you question something, the teacher says, you’re seen as disloyal from that frame of reference of traditional culture.

Whereas that’s something that we just value in modern Western culture. We have these values of equality and honesty and fairness and reducing harm. So that helped me understand sometimes the struggle that I felt personally, being very steeped in WEIRDness according to that. And my own cultural values sometimes are at odds with just the way that Buddhist institutions, which are still operating on different cultural values.

So that’s something that I think is really important for us to figure out. They say that when Buddhism spread to different countries, originally it took—I’ve heard academics talk about this—about 200 years before Buddhism melded with the culture of the place and some of the worldview of the indigenous people of the place and so forth. For example, when Buddhism traveled to China, it kind of merged with Taoism and became Chan, which later became Zen. So I think we’re still in the early days of that transmission really in the so-called West. And so we have certain cultural values; we have a worldview of looking at things through a psychological lens and through the lens of western science, for example.

So how is Buddhism going to adapt culturally in a way that’s going to make it accessible to the most amount of people? Because I see a lot of very, very traditional expressions and practices of Buddhism aren’t appealing so much to younger generations. And it would be a shame if these amazing, transformative contemplative methods got lost just because of these cultural barriers and things that modern people find a hard time relating to like the very rigid hierarchy and what feels like blind obedience to the teacher and blind faith and things like that are just more cultural than anything.

It would be a shame if these amazing, transformative contemplative methods got lost just because of these cultural barriers and things that modern people find a hard time relating to.

Patriarchy and sexism in Buddhism

girl students at buddhist school in Burma

[00:19:11] Scott Snibbe: And what’s your personal experience with that, especially as a woman 20-30 years ago, it was much more pronounced of seeing a bunch of very strong male Buddhist leaders, all men who had the privileged position on the stage, various kind of demotions applied to the women in female sangha and so on.

Can you talk about your own direct experience with those, that cultural difference?

[00:19:41] Tenzin Chogkyi: Well, it was interesting. I noticed it as a layperson, but it became much more pronounced in terms of my personal experience when I became a monastic. And I wasn’t really expecting that. Laypeople just sort of sit where the laypeople sit and in the teaching they’re at a different place than the monastics or behind the monastics or whatever, but they were all mixed together.

But then suddenly, in certain situations, as a female monastic, I was expected to sit behind all the male monastics or go next in line or something like that. And it was just so not my experience, even though I grew up kind of before the first waves of feminism, but I’ve been a feminist my entire adult life and always held gender equality as a high value. So suddenly I had a choice of either like I make a fuss or I accept that this is the way that this is.

I remember it came out really strongly when His Holiness that Dalai Lama was teaching in Tucson in 2005. And because of this layout of the room, like a lot of rooms, female monastics will be on one side and male monastics on the other. And all of these young people were kind of freaking out and coming up to me and going like, Oh my gosh, what is that? It was like we were relegated to sitting in the back of the bus, and that didn’t sit well at all with these young people. I was a little bit like, Really, we’re still doing this here? So I have had more experiences of that; there’s been times in Asia where I’ve been told I can’t enter a room because of my gender, which would set me off and I would have a mental affliction attack.

There’s been times in Asia where I’ve been told I can’t enter a room because of my gender, which would set me off and I would have a mental affliction attack.

I remember my first monastic confession, which is called sojong at His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple in Dharmsala, and I was so excited to go. And then when I went I saw how the young Tibetan nuns were being treated by the Tibetan monks and it was just outrageous. I just got angry and said, Well, I can never come here again; I’m going to confess, and it’s just making me just feel really angry.

So I’ve had more of those experiences sadly when I became a monastic and especially in the traditional places in Asia, like I’m not even allowed in this space because of who I am. So, yeah, that’s hard. I think a lot of our teachers who taught a lot in the so-called West and understand more about our values, really try and do things to equal things out.

But I still look at the resistance to reintroducing full ordination for female monastics into the Tibetan tradition, and all of this research has been done to show how it could happen. And it’s still not happening. Sadly, I think there’s a lot of resistance to women being seen as equal in the tradition.

Sadly, I think there’s a lot of resistance to women being seen as equal in the tradition.

Women in Tibetan Buddhism and full ordination

[00:22:49] Scott Snibbe: That may be worth unpacking for people not familiar with that. Do you want to explain full ordination and how the lineage kind of fell off in Tibetan Buddhism and how we’re trying to reestablish it?

[00:23:00] Tenzin Chogkyi: Yeah, that’s right. So in many, many countries the lineage for full ordination for Buddhist female monastics, or nuns, either was never transmitted because there were never enough nuns in the country, or it was broken at a certain point. And the sad backstory to why it was sometimes broken was that it was always seen as more merit for the laypeople to offer food and requisites to monks than to nuns. So in times of famine, the monks would still be given food, but the nuns had the choice to either give their vows back and start working or starve.

So in times of famine, the monks would still be given food, but the nuns had the choice to either give their vows back and start working or starve.

So that’s the kind of history of the monastic order for nuns, for example, in South Asia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma. Apparently, there was a robust, fully ordained nuns community, and then the lineage was broken and it only survived in Chinese Buddhist countries like mainland China; I think in parts of Vietnam and Korea the full ordination for nuns survived. There’s some debate whether it was ever transmitted to Tibet or not, whether there were ever enough fully ordained nuns that crossed the Himalayas into Tibet. But there are ways to reintroduce it, but there’s been a lot of resistance.

It has been reintroduced in South Asia, especially successfully in Sri Lanka. Starting in 1999, they did an ordination actually in Bo Gaia to revive the lineage for fully ordained female monastics. Also in Thailand there’s a robust community, still doesn’t receive as much support from the laypeople in the monastic community as one would hope.

Activism and equality

[00:24:47] Scott Snibbe: The bodhisattva teachings tell us the great benefits of hardships like you’re describing, that when people harm us, it helps us to practice patience. I think a lot of my nun friends talked about the injustices, like you’ve talked about, as, Oh, it’s traditional and I’ll bear this, it’ll help me be patient.

How much of those experiences did you take as a helpful lesson in patience? And how much of it did you try to be an activist about and to change?

[00:25:19] Tenzin Chogkyi: Well, it’s interesting because I’ve heard there’s been a big division in the Theravada monastic community also about the reordination of nuns or reviving that lineage of ordination. I remember one of my Theravada monk friends was saying, Oh, but it’s such good training for your ego, like why would you want to be fully ordained? And I said, Okay, if it’s so great, you guys sit in the back of the bus Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and we’ll sit in the back of the bus Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Like if it’s that great of training, why don’t we all do that from time to time? So yes, of course there’s always value in that, but I think for me, my whole life, just fairness is just such a huge value.

And when something just feels so fundamentally unfair on the basis of something like skin color, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, all those things, that’s when I’m like, Okay, well I can practice with this. But it’s just so discouraging for all of those groups that aren’t able to. Think of all of the people of color who were denied higher education in our own country for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, and all of the geniuses that were relegated to enslavement and picking cotton that could have solved these huge problems.

To me it’s just a no-brainer that you give everybody equal opportunity for whatever they aspire to; you’re going to have a better society and a better culture. So if there’s women who really aspire to full ordination to take on the benefit of all of the extra vows—because the same teachers that denigrate full ordination for women are also the ones saying how karmically beneficial it is to take on vows. So how come it’s true for monks and not for nuns? Like if it’s that beneficial. Which I believe it really is is such an incredible training for the mind.

To me it’s just a no-brainer that you give everybody equal opportunity for whatever they aspire to; you’re going to have a better society and a better culture.

Actually, the vows train the mind better than just putting up with inequality. I think the actual container of training of the full ordination with all of the incredibly subtle vows about deportment, I see that as this incredible training that then is denied to half the population just on the basis of gender. So that to me overwhelms the idea that it’s really good for us to accept our second class status.

Western ideas intersecting with fundamental Buddhist teachings

abstract city life

[00:27:51] Scott Snibbe: Tibetan Buddhists tend to be very skilled in debate and I like your method. Like, Wow, it’s so beneficial to be at the back of the teachings, so why don’t the monks take their turn equally? We’re depriving you of that privilege. ​I want to keep talking about these cultural differences because Buddhism developed in feudal systems of monarchy: absolute power, usually male power.

And people get down a little bit on Western culture, but the Western Enlightenment, which is very different from the Buddhist Enlightenment, was this kind of extraordinary innovation in human society: advancing these values of democracy, liberalism, human rights, critical thinking, and debate.

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how these relatively new Western ideas intersect with the fundamental Buddhist teachings? You touched on them a little bit, but I think it’s nice to remind people, especially people who are trying to change our current systems, what an innovation these western systems were compared to feudalism.

[00:29:00] Tenzin Chogkyi: Yeah, absolutely. I read something Stephen Batchelor wrote once and I found really interesting, he was comparing the teacher student or the guru disciple relationship in Tibetan Buddhism to other kinds of Buddhism, especially ones that were more influenced by Chinese Confucian values. And he said in Tibet there was definitely feudal lord and serfs; and so he said the teacher-student relationship in Tibet really evolved along those lines. You were completely dependent on the feudal lord for your very existence. And so this thing of bowing down and seeing them as omnipotent in this way and all of that was really informed by that system.

Then he said when he started practicing in Korea in Zen monasteries, he found that the teacher-student relationship was more familial because it was more informed by Confucian family structures. So it was more like a parent and the child than it was like the serf and the feudal lords. So that’s something really interesting.

But in terms of these kind of modern cultural values I think it’s too easy to dismiss them and say, Oh, we should somehow go back to this traditional way of being, and people there in collectivist cultures are so much happier and more balanced and all of that. And in some ways that may be true. Some of these universal morals that evolved since the enlightenment, I think are not to be so lightly dismissed. The example I gave before of do we tell the truth always? Because that’s a cultural value that benefits everyone, not just your family, that you’re going to be willing to lie to your family because you’re loyal.

That’s the kind of thing that we’re talking about is just two value system sets almost. I don’t think we should just so easily dismiss this. I’ve had people tell me, Oh, you’re brainwashed by Western cultural values. Or, you’re too attached to your Western cultural values. And I say, I’m very proud of my Western cultural values, like fairness and equality and non-harming and things like that I’m going to hold universally, no matter who’s doing the harm, whether it’s a Buddhist teacher or not.

So I think we need to make peace with that. I think there are a couple of things. If Buddhism is too secularized, which I think is a danger, I think we need to take into account these cultural values and not dismiss them so easily. But I think we can make a mistake of being so hyper-rational that Buddhism gets reduced to some sort of sophisticated psychology, and then the transcendent goals of Buddhism are lost. I see that happening in some Buddhist groups where suddenly meditation becomes about kind of personal insight into your psychology and not insight into the nature of reality and it gets reduced to psychology.

I think we can make a mistake of being so hyper-rational that Buddhism gets reduced to some sort of sophisticated psychology, and then the transcendent goals of Buddhism are lost.

And then nobody’s really talking about liberation and enlightenment and samsara and karma and things like that. Those are just seen as so difficult for Westerners to understand that they just get swept under the rug. And then I think you’re losing the transcendent goals.

But how do we somehow combine both the transcendent and our own secular modern values? And that’s a tough question because we are very rational. One of my teachers, Geshe Tegchok, used to say to us when he was teaching at Land of Medicine Buddha, You guys are really well educated. You won’t just do something cuz I tell you to. You need to understand why. He said, You have really sharp minds.

I think we really are trained in this critical thinking, but I think it can become an obstacle for us too, because there are certain benefits to collectivist things like rituals that make us feel part of a group. And we can’t just say, Oh, nothing happens for me when I’m kind of in a group chanting something. Well, yeah, on some subtle level something does.

So how do we find even rituals that are meaningful for us that introduce those soft values like belonging and feeling like part of a group and things like that? Because I think the mistake we make is our practice is too individualistic; we just go into the room and shut the door, and then we’re completely ignoring the third jewel of refuge, which is spiritual community.

I think the mistake we make is our practice is too individualistic,

We’re taking refuge in Buddha and dharma, just like, oh yeah, there’s a third one. I’ll recite the prayer, but I’m not really thinking about it. But that is what I think keeps us going when it’s really difficult, is the connection we have and the support we get from others, and just that feeling of belonging, which I think is what a religion does and what a psychological contemplative method doesn’t. I think there’s some sense of belonging.

But how do you do that and not bring the bathwater along with the baby? And think that it means taking on also an entire foreign culture and somehow becoming Asian or Tibetan or Chinese or whatever it is, and just taking on the whole package. That’s the exciting and difficult space that we are in these early days of Buddhism being transmitted to the West. I think we’re still in that process and it’s still a lively conversation that I wish more people were having.

I think you’re having that conversation and that’s sort of the basis of all that you’re doing with the Skeptic’s Path is very much trying to bridge those two systems and find the meeting points and the benefits without anything getting lost in translation.

The importance of critical thinking and debate

[00:35:15] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it’s very confusing because you have this core Buddhist teaching that I think is so attractive to people in democracies, which is that you have to test it for yourself. The Buddha actually said, according to sutras, you have to test everything I said for yourself, and if it’s not valid, set it aside. But then, it really does feel at odds with the way that we’re taught Buddhism, which does feel very moralistic. And I actually don’t say this critically because I’ve benefited from this way of teaching; I’m more describing it than criticizing it. The way I learned it is very moralistic, very assured and very clear.

And hearing that from a Tibetan llama I think is fine actually. It makes sense and then I can go home and think about whether what they said was true. But for me to share his teachings, it would make no sense to say it, as a dharma friend, in any even slightly moralistic way.

So as people like us grow up and try to share the teachings more as peers with people than anything else, that to me is the question. Like, the Buddha was so clear about being critical and having debate, and yet the way it’s taught and the way it’s written about in our traditional sutras and commentaries is quite moralistic and firm.

The Buddha was so clear about being critical and having debate, and yet the way it’s taught and the way it’s written about in our traditional sutras and commentaries is quite moralistic and firm.

[00:36:40] Tenzin Chogkyi: Yeah, what you’re saying, Scott, makes me think of this system that was introduced to me a while ago by a Catholic priest, and it was based on a kind of a Christian interpretation of spiritual stages: John Fowler’s stages of development, which was actually kind of correlates a little bit with Piaget’s stages of development of childhood to adulthood.

But this is through the lens of spiritual practice and it sort of talks about progression that in my own language, I would put from a very literal understanding of things to a much more nuanced, more figurative way of understanding things. And when I look back on my last 30+ years in Tibetan Buddhism—because I too got all those very literal teachings.

And this is the four of this and the five of this, and this is exactly how it works. But I find that with lots of meditation, and integrating those ideas, there’s a way of looking at them without rejecting them, but in a much more nuanced, more figurative way. Which I think to me, and according to John Fowler’s stages, is sort of a mark of spiritual maturity.

I think for a lot of people, we never survive that shift, like we think we’re losing our faith if we start looking at things in a more nuanced and figurative way. We’re like, Wait a minute, if I don’t really believe in literal rebirth, like there’s something that goes from body to body. There are different ways of looking at things like rebirth. There’s different ways of looking at things like karma, just in a more figurative way instead of like this is right and this is wrong, and you believe this and you don’t believe more black and white kind of concrete ways of looking at things. 

We think we’re losing our faith if we start looking at things in a more nuanced and figurative way.

So sometimes I think that’s a useful conversation to have too. We have this solid foundation in our tradition of the lamrim, the stages of the path, which I value on a daily basis, and it gave me such a solid framework. But now I can look at the correlations with other traditions. I can look at things like morality, maybe in even compassion training in the bodhisattva path in a more nuanced way. And I don’t feel like I have to reject it. But, the sort of concrete, literal way of thinking about things after a certain point just didn’t work as well for me.

And I needed to dive a little bit deeper and get a little bit more expansive in my views. And it’s not easy to do, especially because there isn’t a lot of guidance for that process or many people having that conversation.

[00:39:26] Scott Snibbe: It’s one of the things I’ve gotten out of doing this podcast because I’ve talked to people in different lineages and sub lineages, and I think the validity of the various Buddhist traditions—Theravada and other types of —is they have different numbers of mental factors. Even the canonical lists we learn in Tibetan Buddhism have different numbers of things and yet they seem to have also produced enlightened beings.

[00:39:51] Tenzin Chogkyi: Absolutely, I was talking to a friend about this the other day and he was saying he was comparing two teachings he’d gotten that involved visualization of chakras and channels, and in one of them the colors were one way and then another one, the colors were another way. At first he was really confused and he’s like, Well, which one is it? Which is the right thing? And then he said he had an epiphany because he read the instructions that just said, Not this is the way they are, but visualize them like this.

Then he realized, Oh, this is just a practice I’m meant to visualize them in a certain way and he realized he was taking the instructions literally as this is actually the way they exist. And it was like, for this particular practice, just do it like this because it’s skillful means in the moment for doing that practice. And I think that more spacious way of approaching our practices can be helpful at a certain point too.

[00:40:52] Scott Snibbe: There’s something I read really early on when I was a Buddhist, What Makes You Not a Buddhist.

[00:40:57] Tenzin Chogkyi: Oh, I love that, by Khyentse Rinpoche

[00:41:00] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, the one line that really sticks with me is as long as you consider yourself a Buddhist, you are not yet a Buddha.

As long as you consider yourself a Buddhist, you are not yet a Buddha.

[00:41:10] Tenzin Chogkyi: Oh, that’s awesome.

[00:41:12] Scott Snibbe: I think it’s very profound, right? Like that’s like emptiness. The Buddha didn’t consider himself a Buddhist.

The Buddha didn’t consider himself a Buddhist.

[00:41:21] Tenzin Chogkyi: Yeah, that’s right. Oh, I love that. As long as we’re still attached to those—well, it’s like the old metaphor of like, you use the boat to cross the stream and then you leave the boat behind because you’re at the other side of the stream. We don’t think about things like that as much as we should, and then I think we create unnecessary obstacles for ourselves.

I know so many people that I feel like gave up Buddhism because when things started to be less literal in their minds, which I think was a product of all of their meditation, they kind of didn’t know how to cope with it. And they thought they were losing their faith and then just left or went on to the next thing because they didn’t realize.

There’s a story I heard from Thubten Chödrön who loved to do interfaith dialogues with Christian nuns. I remember once she was talking to this Christian nun who’d been ordained since she was like 16 or something, and she was in her mid 80s or older.

So Venerable Thubten Chödrön asked her, Well, I’m sure in your 70 years of being a monastic you’ve had the dark nights of the soul, how did you survive? And this nun said something that I found so profound. She said, Yeah, many times I would feel like I was losing my faith. But after a while I realized that my grosser ways of thinking about things were dissolving and I was going land at a subtler way of understanding things, but in between it kind of felt like free fall. I didn’t have any faith at all but I realized that was a really good, necessary step. And then soon through my practice I’d come to a different subtler level of understanding and then stay there for a while until it happened again and again. 

I took refuge in that story so many times in long retreat, because I felt because of the intensity of the container of practice, that that would happen so much more frequently than it does in my normal life. It just wasn’t working for me the way. I’d even look at some basic practice like refuge and it just kept transforming into a subtler and subtler understanding. Remembering that story would keep me from completely freaking out when I feel like I’d lost my faith. And this is the kind of conversation I wish we had more of because then it would make people realize they just have to be patient and keep practicing and it’ll all work out. And just trusting yourself too.

This is the kind of conversation I wish we had more of because then it would make people realize they just have to be patient and keep practicing and it’ll all work out.

I think that’s one of the things that, speaking of our Western cultural values, sometimes people criticize our individualism. But the kind of self-confidence that we have too, and trusting ourselves and our own wisdom is another side effect of our culture that is not to be easily dismissed. Because it’s in moments like that if I can just trust my own wisdom then I know I’ll be okay and I can make my own choices.

I think sometimes that—going back to the feudal sort of teacher-student relationship—we can become really dependent on our teachers in sort of infantile ways. And then we don’t develop our own wisdom. We’re just asking our teacher every move to make, and then I don’t think there’s much wisdom in that either.

Do you have to believe in concepts such as karma and rebirth to be Buddhist?

neon lit triangles modern art

[00:44:56] Scott Snibbe: What do you think about these big areas of non-overlap with the western and eastern culture like karma, rebirth, other realms? People like Stephen Batchelor take a very extreme position that even those are cultural, that maybe those aren’t intrinsic to the Buddha’s teaching. It’s quite a controversial perspective, but where do you land, especially what was your journey with coming to understand those ideas and how do you work with students over the years who grapple with those ideas?

[00:45:29] Tenzin Chogkyi: Well, funnily enough I didn’t, it was only when I started teaching that I realized how hard those concepts are for people. Because for me it just made sense, I think that was one of the reasons I was attracted to Buddhism when I first started reading about it as a hippie teenager. I don’t know if it’s past life imprints or what, but it’s like, this just makes more sense than anything else. And I kind of relate to karma like the second law of thermodynamics, for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction; so to me it just kind of makes logical sense too.

I kind of relate to karma like the second law of thermodynamics, for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.

I didn’t have so much of a problem and a struggle with that. And lately in my teachings, I’m kind of a big fan of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I’m teaching a lot more from some of the secular contemplative science programs like cultivating emotional balance and the compassion training, just because I don’t want to struggle and argue with somebody about karma. I just want to teach them to be more compassionate, and then hopefully when their heart softens, they’ll treat people better and have a better life. So I’m teaching less traditionally that kind of thing. But with people I’d usually say, Hey, does this give you a framework for thinking about your actions in a different way and maybe the impact of your actions?

Like the four qualities of a karmic action and how important intention is, so even when I would teach I would try and tell people it’s not like this is the concrete way that it is. It’s just a perspective and it’s much more subtle than this. But if I use these four points when I’m considering any action, if I think about what’s my intention, what’s the object of that action and take more into consideration, it’ll really help me with my moral life.

So I would teach it much more as kind of a practical strategy for approaching life rather than a concrete dogma. When I think of myself and even how much my practice has changed, Do I know that rebirth exists? No. But is it a working hypothesis that I’m quite happy to take on board for now? Yes. Does it help me? Not so much. Mostly I practice the way I practice because it makes me happier in this life. I don’t have the looming fear of a hell realm hanging over my head. But, again, it’s just a working hypothesis.

I had a student in New Zealand ask me that, it was when I was still a monastic and it was about 10 years ago, and I was teaching a weekend retreat. And she said, If I could prove to you right now that there’s no such thing as karma and rebirth, how would your life change? And I thought for like five nanoseconds and I was like, I don’t think at all, living in a simple way and benefiting beings makes me happier than any amount of sex and drugs and rock and roll and all the different ways I’ve tried to find happiness in this life. I don’t think anything would really change.

Living in a simple way and benefiting beings makes me happier than any amount of sex and drugs and rock and roll and all the different ways I’ve tried to find happiness in this life.

So I’m not doing it because of the fear of in this sort of Calvinist, Protestant fear of retribution. I’m living my life the way I do because I just find that through trial and error it actually gives me a happier this life too. And then if it helps me in the future lives, that’s awesome too.

[00:49:04] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, that’s where I think, at least for Western students, I do disagree a little bit with this perspective in the lamrim that you have to give up concern for this life in order to—

[00:49:17] Tenzin Chogkyi: That never made sense to me.

Happiness and pleasure

[00:49:18] Scott Snibbe: I do think the logic is there and it’s how the His Holiness teaches. Again, you put it so crisply and simply that if someone were to prove karma and rebirth aren’t true, you wouldn’t change a thing. And that’s what His Holiness says, right? If you wanna be happy, cherish others. Like if you want to be selfish, be intelligently selfish. It turns out the way to selfishly pursue your happiness is to benefit others.

[00:49:49] Tenzin Chogkyi: What helped me a lot in understanding that admonition of the lamrim to not think about this life in cultivating emotional balance. We talk about kind of two domains of happiness. One we call hedonic happiness, which is the kind of happiness you get from sensory experience and pleasant experiences and people and nice food and all of that. Nothing wrong with that.

But then there’s another domain that Aristotle coined the word eudaimonia, which we sometimes translate as genuine wellbeing. I think of it sometimes directionally; hedonic happiness is the happiness we get from what we can get from the world and eudaimonic happiness is the happiness from what we can give back. So it’s developing our inner qualities and acting out of kindness and compassion and altruism and just feeling like your life is meaningful and that special fulfillment you get.

Hedonic happiness is the happiness we get from what we can get from the world and eudaimonic happiness is the happiness from what we can give back.

I was talking to a friend yesterday who does prison work, and we were comparing a day in prison is like 0% hedonic and 100% eudaimonic. Like you come out of prison, you’re thirsty, you need to pee, you’re starving because you can’t take food, you’re exhausted, and you’re 100% fulfilled because you just did the most important thing with that day. And so when the lamrim is like, don’t think about this life, I think they’re pointing more towards, if you live a life 100% focused on hedonic happiness, what a waste.

But I think if Lord Buddha had talked to Aristotle about eudaimonia, maybe the story would’ve changed a little bit because those are the kind of values and qualities and that’s the kind of balance that gives me that happiness of this life that His Holiness talks about: the happiness of service, the happiness of giving back, the happiness of developing those inner qualities.

[00:51:44] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and that’s where mindfulness really is helpful because if you can just look at your mind while you’re experiencing like a great sensory pleasure, or while you’re helping someone or benefiting someone else, you start to see there’s subtle layers. The happiness of a sensual pleasure, a big part of it, is actually about being free from the attachment of wanting that thing.

The happiness of a sensual pleasure, a big part of it, is actually about being free from the attachment of wanting that thing.

At least I notice in myself a lot of the pleasure I feel when enjoying any and all kinds of sensual pleasures is actually more that freedom. When I really look closely at it, it’s more the freedom from attachment for a little bit than the thing itself.

[00:52:26] Tenzin Chogkyi: Oh, I love that. That’s such a spin on what psychologists call anticipatory pleasure, like we have more pleasure when we’re actually anticipating it. But I love your Buddhist spin and also anticipating the freedom from attachment we’ll feel when we actually have the experience because it’s true.

I mean, you’re staring at the gluten-free chocolate brownie in the case at the cafe where you go every day and then by the time you’re on the third bite, you’re already on the next thing and you’re not even tasting it anymore. Like maybe the first bite is really good, but again, that’s like the meeting of the anticipation with that momentary experience. Usually by the end of it your mind is already off to the next objective attachment and you’re fantasizing about that. 

[00:53:19] Scott Snibbe: I’ve known a lot of wealthy people in my life, and one person in particular is always trying to get someone to go have a beautiful meal with her, to go on a great vacation, to go pay for someone to enjoy this vacation she can enjoy, to have a drink with her, all of those things.

You see that people who can afford anything, they’re still hungry to share it. They don’t just enjoy sitting there alone with their glass of wine, they’re hungry to share those things. And it’s not just loneliness, it’s actually compassion, it’s wanting to be generous and to share that joy and make someone else happy.

[00:54:00] Tenzin Chogkyi: Beautiful.

Politics, activism, and engaged Buddhism

thich nhat hanh buddhist activist

[00:54:01] Scott Snibbe: I wanted to get back to our discussion about activism and politics. When we were preparing for this episode, you shared that there’s generally a rule that Buddhist monks and nuns can’t be political, which may be a little bit of a feudal leftover where you get killed for being political.

So what about the engaged Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh or Tibetan Buddhist protests over Tibetan autonomy, in your own life? Can you talk a little bit about politics?

[00:54:30] Tenzin Chogkyi: Yeah, and that’s a super interesting, I think of it on a couple of levels. One is in the time of the Buddha, the cultures were not representative democracies, so there was no such thing as voting and your voice being heard about things. There were mostly kings or like feudal kind of tribal republics and things; so the individual voice didn’t really count for much. So there was that perspective.

Then there were a lot of things in the monastic vows that some people have interpreted would apply to something like a campaigning for a specific political candidate because there are specific things in the monastic vows about not sending, like running messages and errands for kings, ministers of State House householders, and a more general thing of not getting so involved in the activities of laypeople.

For example, monastics, a couple of people have gotten off of jury duty because one of the vows is not passing judgment on laypeople. We are supposed to keep monastic activities and lay activities separate. There’s also a danger in becoming partisan politically, vocally and lobby or kind of campaigning for a specific candidate.

We found this a lot during the Trump years because you can’t make assumptions about all the people in your Buddhist class. And if you’re too political in terms of talking about specific candidates, you can lose people and then they’ll get turned off from Buddhism because they think, Oh, I have to be a lefty progressive to be a Buddhist. So that’s a danger, we have to be very, very careful as Buddhist teachers, not to be too partisan vocally.

We have to be very, very careful as Buddhist teachers, not to be too partisan vocally.

However, for me, there is a big difference between that and actions that are harmful. For example, one of the most meaningful experiences maybe of life was going down to the border with a big interfaith contingent. It was when I was still a monastic during the whole child separation policy the summer of 2018, and there was a huge contingent of religious leaders and and other people who went down and we protested in front of a detention center and it united people across faith lines, across religious lines, across even political lines, because that was just so heinous.

We saw these children being separated from their parents at these young ages, like four and five years old, and we all were just outraged. So for me, I can protest a harmful action but I should be careful as a teacher being too vocal about partisan politics, that’s where I draw the line. If an action is harmful and there’s something I can do about it I feel like I’m fulfilling bodhisattva vow.

I can protest a harmful action but I should be careful as a teacher being too vocal about partisan politics, that’s where I draw the line.

But it’s sort of like compassion training because people say, How can you have compassion for somebody who does some horrible thing? Well I can have compassion for the person and really try and do my utmost to stop them doing the harm they’re doing.

So it’s sort of similar for me. Without lobbying specifically and getting into partisan politics for monastics, because then that may cross a line or turn people off, or you get too involved in the activities of laypeople. But definitely standing up against harm is also something for those of us that have taken bodhisattva vows that we absolutely have to do.

I think that’s what Thich Nhat Hanh was doing; he was protesting the war in Vietnam and all of the ways that people were being treated. It was seen very politically, but from his side, and all of the other great Buddhist social justice activists, they were really trying to prevent harm, that was at the root of their motivation, not just picking and choosing partisan politics.

But how do we skillfully oppose the actions that are harmful?

[00:58:34] Scott Snibbe: In Christianity, they have this phrase, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” I’m not sure everyone’s always following it, but it’s a very good admonition that people are good at heart and certainly have infinite potential for good.

But how do we skillfully oppose the actions that are harmful?

[00:58:55] Tenzin Chogkyi: It’s one of the hardest practices. I teach the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training and usually, within the first five minutes of the first of the eight weeks of training, people are like, How do I have compassion towards, fill in the blank, these days it’s Vladimir Putin. And it’s like, okay, hang on, pump the brakes. Let’s just talk rewind to talk about this.

That person, even if they’re doing so much harm, has potential. I taught in prisons for about 15 years and I think every single one of my students had experienced multiple traumas like this. And when you understand that, then your heart goes out to this person because to cause that much harm they must be in so much pain and have survived so much trauma too. So you’re not going to condone the harmful actions. But like you say, separating the person from the actions and your heart going out to the person and doing whatever you possibly could for them and stopping them from continuing to do harm.

[01:00:11] Scott Snibbe: It’s thinking about cause and effect, right? The Buddhist view is that everything happens due to cause and effect, and people are good at heart. So if someone is performing a harmful action, it’s because of other causes and conditions that have come together. Even Vladimir Putin or whoever you’re really upset about.

And some people argue about this, obviously, but the Buddhist view is so hopeful that everyone has what’s called Buddha nature or the fundamental goodness. There’s even growing scientific evidence for it too, that when you really start to look at some of these famous studies like the Stanford Prison experiment that purportedly tell us how fundamentally bad people are, the experiments didn’t actually pan out the way that they were publicized at the time. In fact, people needed an awful lot of coercion and force to make them unnaturally behave harmfully to others.

[01:01:06] Tenzin Chogkyi: It’s that the dichotomy is wisdom and ignorance and not good and evil. Like if somebody is acting in a way that seems so-called evil, they’re just acting out of ignorance, a profound ignorance about the causes of happiness and the causes of suffering. And they’re actually creating even more suffering for themselves through their harmful actions, which is such a different conceptual paradigm from good and evil.

if somebody is acting in a way that seems so-called evil, they’re just acting out of ignorance, a profound ignorance about the causes of happiness and the causes of suffering.

If you say people are evil, that’s so concrete. And what’s the possibility of redemption if you see somebody as evil in their heart? So that’s one of the things I love the most about Buddhism is exactly what you said, this idea of Buddha nature and that infinite potential to transform.

The decision to leave monastic life

[01:01:50] Scott Snibbe: I would imagine a lot of people listening to this might be curious about why you decided to stop being a Buddhist nun? You don’t have to go into all the details, but I think some people may look at it as a kind of failing or something for you to come out of monastic life. But I know many people who have come out of monastic life who are people of great integrity and had very good reasons for it.

But you’re a teacher of extraordinary integrity and great qualities, and I really respect your journey in life. What do you think you can share that’s of benefit for people to understand coming in and out of monasticism?

[01:02:35] Tenzin Chogkyi: Well, I think in the progression of my own teachings in practice, like I said, I’ve become more of a proponent of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s view and his idea that there are ways of presenting these kind contemplative techniques in a way that’s more available to a non-religious audience. And the Stanford compassion cultivation training, cultivating emotional balance—I found more and more that presenting as a monastic, people would be expecting a very traditional approach from me that I wasn’t delivering as much anymore, which would be a little bit confusing for them. Then more and more as my life and practice and teachings evolved, I was wondering how important maintaining the monastic life was for me in the way that I was evolving as a teacher.

So it was kind of from both directions. I felt like I wasn’t so much representing the traditional approach that everybody was expecting from a monastic and not doing that so much anymore. What was really the value of the monastic life? I would be teaching one of these secular trainings, and I would find doing it as a monastic was initially sometimes an obstacle, people couldn’t hear me doing anything other than strict traditional Buddhism. Even though I would say with my mouth and my words a million times, this is based on Buddhist techniques, but it’s not Buddhism.

And still they would say, Oh, when you taught Buddhism, and I’d say, No, I taught cultivating emotional balance, that wasn’t Buddhism. So there was kind of a disconnect a little bit more. I hung on for a long time because I don’t take my commitments lightly ever at all. And then there was one point when I went in to teach in robes, one of the first in-person retreats after the lockdown of Covid and it just felt like it was finished, it was just a felt sense that something had shifted. Even though for 20 years I’d gone everywhere in robes and climbed up mountains in Australia, like I didn’t even have lay clothes. But all of a sudden it just felt like something shifted and I felt like I had to pay attention to that. And that hanging on for dear life would just create more of a struggle for me and the people around me.

So I never thought that I would not live the rest of this life as a monastic, but everything changes. And to me, I just needed to be responsive to almost that karmic shift that I felt, and some people may experience it as failure. I was so grateful. I wrote a letter that I sent out to my closest students when I made the change, and people have been so incredibly supportive and many people said, Oh, I respect you even more for really following your integrity of like, this wasn’t the right thing anymore because that must have been so hard after nearly 20 years.

I just received so much kind of kindness and love and support from friends and students through it. I couldn’t be more grateful for all the support that people have shown me through the transition because it has been hard. It hasn’t even been a year, and I feel like I’m kind of inhabiting this next phase of life as an experiment, at my advanced age, and still trying to figure it out. And there’s certain parts of the training that are still there, which I’m really grateful for. Like I don’t have the vows and the robes anymore, but I certainly had all those years of training and that doesn’t just disappear; so I’m grateful for that as well.

[01:06:48] Scott Snibbe: I know a couple of other monastic friends who made that decision recently as well. And it was the decision of greatest integrity to change from being ordained to not ordained. I think that was an important realization from talking to you and a couple of other monks and nuns I know that sometimes the decision of greatest integrity would be to move on from being in in the ordained sangha.

[01:07:18] Tenzin Chogkyi: Yeah, and I think that quality that I mentioned before of stubbornness/determination—like I said, I tried, I really hung on. I don’t give up anything lightly, but then it became kind of unambiguous at a certain point, and it was just time.

The acceptance of gender fluidity in Tibetan Buddhism

gender fluidity buddhism
Source: Rubin Museum of Art

[01:07:38] Scott Snibbe: We talked a lot about some of the difficulties of gender in Buddhism. I wanted to go all the way to the other side to ask you a little bit about some of the beauty and flexibility and acceptance of all the aspects of gender that there are in Buddhism, particularly in Tibetan Buddhism, the Vajrayana teachings where we’re encouraged to fully embrace our female and male aspects. So I thought just as a balancing note towards some of the other ways we were talking about gender.

Can you talk about this more embracing side of gender, particularly in Tibetan Buddhism, how gender equality and fluidity are viewed within it?

[01:08:15] Tenzin Chogkyi: Well, it’s interesting because a lot of that comes or is embodied in Vajrayana practices, which originated in Northern India and were practiced there before being transmitted to Tibet. I remember reading something that Tenzin Palmo wrote about some of these Vajrayana practices in saying that like the way that they’re practiced now in Tibetan Buddhist ritual is a pale, pale, pale, pale, pale version of what they were meant to be, which was these very transgressive practices. They were meant to literally just kind of blow your mind and destroy all your concrete, conceptions.

So I find that even though the theory is still there, this is just my experience of very highly realized beings that tend to kind of embody that fluidity. Like Lama Yeshe was a totally famous example, and Lama Yeshe apparently was a nun in his past life. I remember when I first saw a picture of Lama Yeshe, which is on the alter at Tushita Meditation Center in early 1991, I remember thinking, How cool they have a nun on the altar. Like I completely perceived female.

I’ve heard this great story that a friend of mine who was a student of Lama Yeshe told about how she went into his room one time and he’s kind of reclining on this sofa, reclining with his head on his hands in this sort of like almost seductive pose. And her first thought was, oh my God, Lama Yeshe is a woman, and then she’s like in her mind like, no, no, no. And Lama Yeshe plays with her and he says, Well, what do you think dear? Am I a man or am I a woman? She just said, Well, Lama you’re a man of course. And he goes, How do you know? And he just fully played with it.

I remember early on I had met his Holiness Sakya Trizin Rinpoche in India. And then I came to visit a friend in Vancouver and met his sister Jetson Kula. And I remember really noticing brother and sister, both of them I felt like had equal androgyny. That would’ve been my way of thinking about it back then of like, both of them fully embodied in a really similar way. Just a felt sense of these qualities and my teacher Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche, whenever I was with him, I’d always feel like grandmother energy, you just felt this nurturing, beautiful kind of energy.

So I believe that for a lot of these really highly realized beings, they embody that. And still in the institutions, unfortunately, there are these lines. But I do love that it’s held, at least kind of conceptually, as a value and that it still does exist as a very transgressive practices from early Vajrayana. 

Compassion meditation

[01:11:29] Scott Snibbe: We could talk for ages and we’ll have to have you on again to expand on some of these topics, but you’ve agreed to lead a meditation for us, which we’ll broadcast in the next episode.

Could you tell us a little bit about that meditation now?

[01:11:42] Tenzin Chogkyi: Yeah, so what I chose to share is a practice that I try and do every chance I get. Every group of students that I have, I try and weave it in. But as I mentioned, I’ve been especially focused these days on teaching the compassion training and really focusing on compassion and loving-kindness.

I recently just finished a series on the four immeasurables and did a day long retreat in the four immeasurables, and one of the turning points that we talk about in the Stanford compassion training is broadening our compassion to even people that we don’t know, even people we would see somehow as other is meditating on common humanity. And to me, this is so incredibly powerful if we can see the common humanity.

I’ve been involved in a couple of ventures, not only in the contemplative world, but with a friend put on our second annual event in Santa Cruz, bringing people of certain misunderstood and marginalized identities together with members of the public for these half hour conversations. Because the idea is if you can just meet somebody human to human for half an hour, you can never think of them as other and stereotype and judge and dismiss them in the same way. So I just find that this whole idea of common humanity is kind of a through line and so much of what I’m teaching and exploring these days, that the practice I’d love to lead today.

[01:13:18] Scott Snibbe: Wonderful, I look forward to that and I’ve been reading a few books lately about what are the solutions to divisiveness in culture. And the most scientifically backed one seems to be just that, contact. If people just get into contact with the people that they’re afraid of or that they think they hate, those feelings generally tend to dissolve.

[01:13:42] Tenzin Chogkyi: Yeah, that’s right. We had that feedback from the event that I just did and people said nothing short of, This just changed my life. Like a one half hour conversation with a Muslim or a transgender person or a police officer or a republican, because we had those identities also.

People were like, We found wonderful dialogue partners. And so people would say that like, Wow, I’ll never be the same. It sounds so hyperbolic, but that was the experience from just those meetings. 

[01:14:24] Scott Snibbe: Well, Tenzin Chogkyi, thank you for such a wonderful conversation. I really appreciate your openness, your kindness, your compassion, and the wisdom that comes out of a life of practice and teaching and activism. Thank you for joining us.

[01:14:37] Tenzin Chogkyi: Scott, thanks. It’s been such an illuminating conversation. I’ve really enjoyed it. Thanks for inviting me.

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Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
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