She’s Not Chinese!


The other day I was reading an interview in The Sun, an interrogation of the Buddhist pundit Pema Chödrön, whose name, face, and quotes I see often in some of the slick Buddhist magazines we subscribe to. There was a mini-article introducing her, and this was surprisingly revealing, pointing up a lingering uneasiness I had long felt regarding the sage in question.

It seems that Pema Chödrön was a student of the enigmatic Tibetan master Chogyam Trungpa. One thing about this holy man: he died of sirrosis of the liver, just like Pentecostal healer A.A. Allen did, only Trungpa drank himself under at the premature age of 44 years! He used to speak portentously of the Buddhist doctrine of craving while swilling a can of Colt 45. He was addicted to “love affairs,” i.e., being a sexual predator among those tender souls who made the mistake of trusting him. Yeah, this guy is the very epitome of a spiritual guide! Do you think that the hip readers of mags like this would exercise anything like the anticipated degree of tolerance if they were talking about Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker? Because this is like claiming apostolic succession from one of them.

But what about the venerable Pema Chödrön herself? Her name means “Lotus Torch of the Dharma.” One might expect its bearer to be a wizened lady reminiscent of Kwan-Yin, an Asian counterpart to Mother Theresa. Not a chance. The apple-faced guru was born Dierdre Blomfield-Brown. Does that matter?

I thought immediately of a Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza’s mother was persuaded not to divorce her husband by the wise words of Jerry’s current girlfriend Donna Chang, whose advice Estelle Costanza had absorbed over the phone. Grateful, Estelle invited Jerry and Donna over for dinner. It was only then that she realized Donna was a blond Jew whose family name had been shortened from “Changstein.” Confronted with the reality of her counselor, Estelle yelled, “She’s not Chinese! I thought she was Chinese! That changes everything!”

Yeah, it was funny because, as George pointed out, the advice should have been as good no matter the ethnicity of the advisor. But you could see Estelle’s point of view. She had been subtly cajoled into accepting Donna’s wisdom by the exotic charisma of her Asian mystique. It had been the sugar that helped the medicine go down. Jerry saw the same thing and accused Donna of being a fraud, trying to trade on an illusory Chinese link to hype up her persona. And I thought that maybe “Pema Chödrön” was another Donna Chang. How much of the gravity of her teaching stems from a phony Tibetan mystique?

Was Pema much different from a channeler in my local Borders Books who claimed to channel the spirit of a Tibetan Buddhist monk? When she transited into her stage presence, she started speaking with a fake Chinese (not Tibetan) accent: “Likee soupee?” Her nonsense would have been nakedly exposed as nonsense without the trumpery, which it should have been anyway. 

The larger issue here is another long-standing suspicion I have harbored concerning the integrity of many Americans’ professions of Buddhist identity. “I‘m a Buddhist,” I will hear someone say. And then I will consider it a moment and think, “No, you’re not.” They’d like to think they are. They’d like others to think they are. But I’m not convinced. Harvey Cox, in his 1977 book Turning East, suggested that the evidence was leading him to believe that Americans had hijacked Buddhism, the discipline of extirpating self and ego, and turned it into one more pop self-realization therapy. That’s the impression I get, too. Especially when you see in these magazines an article about extinguishing materialistic desire cheek by Hoti jowl with numerous ads for all sorts of Buddhist materialistic goodies including expensive statues, meditation mats, robes, etc. Elizabeth Claire Prophet may have the balls to print the name “Gautama Buddha” on a paperback volume of her channeled bullshit, but that doesn’t entitle or oblige me to consider it Buddhism.

Pema Chödrön might be entitled to the name if she had assimilated herself into the Buddhist cultural context. I teach Buddhism, too, in a Western academic setting. I need to be neither an Asian nor a Buddhist to do that. But I do not offer Buddhist spiritual counsel, nor am I competent to do so. When I learn that someone positioning herself as a Buddhist sage with the name Pema Chödrön is really Dierdre Blomfield-Brown, I think of the too-prolific paperback author Lobsang Rampa, actually Irish plumber Cyril Henry Hoskyns. Why the stage name unless it’s a schtick?

Especially when, in the interview, we read that our guru “do[es]n’t use Buddhist terminology much.” This remark is a transparent bit of cheap rhetoric whereby one claims to transcend, with masterful nonchalance, the very tradition one pretends to derive one’s authority from. This implies the teacher doesn’t really know the subject. Otherwise, why hide behind the alias? How much credibility would you have in New Age circles if you billed yourself as the “Bodhisattva Blomfield-Brown”?

Robert M. Price



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