Andrea Miller on the life and spiritual journey of one Deirdre Blomfield-Brown.
Pema Chödrön was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in New York City in 1936. She has said that she had a pleasant childhood with her Catholic family, but that her spiritual life didn’t begin until she attended boarding school, where her intellectual curiosity was cultivated.
At age twenty-one, Pema got married. Over the next few years, the couple had two children, and the young family moved to California. She began studying at the University of California at Berkeley, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master’s in elementary education.
In her mid-twenties, Pema’s marriage dissolved and she remarried. Then, eight years later, that relationship also fell apart. “When my husband told me he was having an affair and wanted a divorce,” she said in an interview with Bill Moyers, “that was a big groundless moment. Reality as we knew it wasn’t holding together.”
In an effort to cope with her loss, she explored different therapies and spiritual traditions, but nothing helped. Then she read an article by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche that suggested working with emotions rather than trying to get rid of them, and this struck a chord. She has said, however, that at the time she didn’t know anything about Buddhism, and wasn’t aware that the article was even written by a Buddhist.
Continuing her exploration, Pema met Tibetan Buddhist teacher Lama Chime Rinpoche and had what she has described as a “strong recognition experience.” He agreed to her request to study with him in London, and for the next several years she divided her time between the U.S. and England. When in the U.S., she lived at Chögyam Trungpa’s center in San Francisco, where she followed Chime Rinpoche’s advice to study with Trungpa Rinpoche. She and Chögyam Trungpa had a profound connection, and he became her root guru. He had the ability, she has said, to show her how she was stuck in habitual patterns.
Trungpa Rinpoche supported Pema when she decided not to remarry or to get involved in another relationship. “My real appetite and my real passion was for wanting to go deeper,” she told Lenore Friedman in Meetings With Remarkable Women. “I felt that I was somehow thick, and that in order to really connect… with things as they really are… I needed to put all my energy into it, totally.” For Pema, this meant, in 1974, ordaining as a novice nun under the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Tibetan Kagyu lineage.