Working for Justice with Compassion

I really like this interview between teacher, writer, and activist bell hooks and Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön in Shamabala Sun (undated … timeless?). They speak briefly on many topics: suffering, compassion, hatred and aggression, compassion-fatigue and irritability, dying, blame and accountability, poverty, etc.


It seems fitting at this Martin Luther King time of year to shout a few bits from the rooftops, and into my own ears:


Pema: We may long to end suffering but somehow it paralyzes us if we’re too goal-oriented. Do you see the balance there? It’s like the teaching that Don Juan gave to Carlos Castenada, where he says that you do everything with your whole heart, as if nothing else matters. You do it impeccably and with your whole heart, but all the while knowing that it actually doesn’t matter at all.



bell: Yet it seems very hard for people to fight this racism and sexism without hope for an end to it. There is so much despair and apathy because of the feeling that we’ve struggled and struggled and not enough has changed.

Pema:  The main issue is aggression. Often if there’s too much hope you begin to have a strong sense of enemy. Then the whole process of trying to alleviate suffering actually adds more suffering because of your aggression toward the oppressor.



Pema: Getting stuck in any kind of self-and-other tension seems to cause pain. So if you can keep your heart and your mind open to those people, in other words, work with any tendency to close down towards them, isn’t that the way the system of racism and cruelty starts to de-escalate?



bell: Can you talk about the difference between blame and accountability? Because I feel, like you, that blame isn’t very useful. But you have said, for instance in reference to men teachers who abuse their powers, that you feel the issue of accountability is real. How does one maneuver between giving up blame and being able to embrace the idea of accountability?

Pema:  This is the message of the first noble truth. You are willing to see suffering as suffering.

Obviously the less that you are caught in your own hope and fear, the more you can just see suffering very straightforwardly and without aggression. So accountability seems to mean you can be honest, incredibly honest. You see that harm is being done. You see someone harming a child, an animal, another human being. You see that clearly and your strongest wish is to de-escalate that suffering. Then the question is, how do you proceed so that the person you see as the problem becomes accountable, becomes willing to acknowledge what they’re doing?

You realize how hard it is for you to acknowledge what you are doing in your own life. You see what it takes to become accountable yourself, and you begin to try to find the skillful means to communicate so that the barriers come down rather than get reinforced. It has everything to do with communication:  how can you communicate so that someone can hear what you’re saying and you can also hear what they are saying?



Pema: Accountability, as you’re talking about it, is my understanding of the spiritual path. With Trungpa Rinpoche, my feeling was that all he was doing was getting people to take responsibility for themselves, getting them to grow up. He was a master of not confirming. Talking to him was like talking to a huge space where everything bounced back, and you had to be accountable for yourself.



Pema: There is a famous saying that from great suffering comes great compassion. Well, from great suffering can come great compassion, or from great suffering can come great hatred. … From great suffering can come great openness of heart, a great sense of kinship with others, or from great suffering can come hatred, resentment and despair. …

People need a lot of support for suffering to turn into compassion. What usually happens to people when they don’t have teachers and guides and the support of people who care is that great suffering leads to more suffering.



Pema: For me the spiritual path has always been learning how to die. That involves not just death at the end of this particular life, but all the falling apart that happens continually. The fear of death — which is also the fear of groundlessness, of insecurity, of not having it all together — seems to be the most fundamental thing that we have to work with. …


We have so much fear of not being in control, of not being able to hold on to things. Yet the true nature of things is that you’re never in control. You’re never in control. You can never hold on to anything. That’s the nature of how things are. But it’s almost like it’s in the genes of being born human that you can’t accept that. You can buy it intellectually, but moment to moment it brings up a lot of panic and fear. So my own path has been training to relax with groundlessness and the panic that accompanies it. … to stay in the space of uncertainty without trying to reconstruct a reference point.


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