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Pema Chodron: How an American Woman Became a Tibetan Buddhist Nun

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Pema Chodron is one of the most influential and respected teachers of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. She is also one of the first American women to become an ordained nun of this tradition. How did she make this remarkable journey from a divorced mother of two to a revered spiritual leader? Here are some of the key moments and lessons from her life story.

From Deirdre to Pema

Pema Chodron was born as Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in New York City in 1936. She grew up in a wealthy family and attended a prestigious boarding school. She married at 21 and had two children, but her marriage ended in divorce when she was in her mid-twenties. She remarried and moved to California, where she studied and taught elementary school. She also became interested in spirituality and explored various paths, such as Zen, Catholicism, and Transcendental Meditation.

In 1972, she had a second divorce that shattered her sense of identity and security. She felt lost and depressed, and searched for a way to heal her pain. She read a book by Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist master who had fled from Tibet after the Chinese invasion and established a center in Colorado. She was deeply moved by his teachings on suffering, compassion, and wisdom, and decided to meet him in person.

She attended a weekend workshop with Trungpa Rinpoche in San Francisco, where she had a powerful experience of awakening. She felt a connection with him as her teacher, and decided to follow his guidance. She took refuge vows, which mark the formal entry into Buddhism, and received the name Pema Chodron, which means “lotus torch of the dharma”.

Becoming a Nun

Pema Chodron continued to study and practice with Trungpa Rinpoche, who encouraged her to deepen her commitment to the Buddhist path. In 1974, she took bodhisattva vows, which express the aspiration to help all beings attain enlightenment. She also began to teach meditation and lead retreats at Trungpa Rinpoche’s centers.

In 1977, she had another turning point in her life. She traveled to France to receive teachings from the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. There, she met another Tibetan master, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, who inspired her to become a nun. She felt that renouncing worldly attachments and devoting herself fully to the dharma would be the best way to serve others and realize her true nature.

She received ordination from the Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and shaved her head as a sign of renunciation. She wore maroon robes and followed a strict code of conduct that included celibacy, simplicity, and discipline. She also received further teachings and empowerment from various Tibetan masters, such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche.

Teaching the World

Pema Chodron returned to America as a nun and resumed her role as a teacher and retreat leader. She also became the director of Gampo Abbey, a monastery in Nova Scotia, Canada, where she established a community of monks and nuns who follow the Tibetan tradition. She trained them in meditation, study, service, and ethics, and created a bridge between the East and the West.

She also wrote several books that have become classics of Buddhist literature, such as The Wisdom of No Escape, When Things Fall Apart, Start Where You Are, The Places That Scare You, No Time to Lose, and Living Beautifully. In these books, she shares her insights on how to deal with challenges, emotions, relationships, and uncertainty with courage, kindness, and humor. She draws from her own experience as well as from the teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche and other masters.

She has also given talks and interviews that have reached millions of people around the world through podcasts, videos, online courses, and social media. She has addressed topics such as fearlessness, compassion, happiness, peace, death, aging, illness, addiction, violence, war, climate change, social justice, and interfaith dialogue. She has collaborated with other prominent figures such as Oprah Winfrey, Alice Walker, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hanh, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Final Thoughts

Pema Chodron is now 87 years old and still active as a teacher and leader. She has touched countless lives with her wisdom, warmth, and authenticity. She is a living example of how an ordinary person can become an extraordinary nun.

About the author
Picture of Grace Turner

Grace Turner

A wellness enthusiast and mindfulness educator residing in the beautiful community of Venice Beach, California. With a deep interest in running, mental health, and entrepreneurship, she proudly serves as the executive director of a statewide mental health nonprofit organization. Beyond her professional commitments, she is an avid wellness author, dedicated to promoting holistic well-being through her teachings and experiences.

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