Filed in Tibetan, Science

Trust Through Reason

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche discusses the relevance of science as a tool for meditators.

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Born in Nepal in 1975, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is the youngest son of the eminent meditation master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and received the same kind of rigorous training associated with previous generations of Tibetan adepts. In his new book, The Joy of Living (Harmony Books), Mingyur Rinpoche recounts how he used meditation to outgrow a childhood beset by fears and extreme panic attacks. From a very young age, he also displayed a keen interest in science; he has pursued this curiosity and how it relates to Buddhist teachings on the nature of mind through countless conversations with neurologists, physicists, and psychologists. In 2002, he participated in experiments at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior in Wisconsin, to investigate whether long-term meditation practice enhances the brain's capacity for positive emotions.

In The Joy of Living, Rinpoche's investigations into the science of happiness are woven into an accessible introduction to Buddhism. Today Mingyur Rinpoche divides his time between Sherab Ling Monastery, in Northern India, and teaching engagements throughout Asia, Europe, and the Americas. I spoke with him this March in California at a program sponsored by the Yongey Buddhist Center.

–Helen Tworkov


Courtesy of Yongey Mingyur RinpocheWhat is the value of using scientific technologies to validate the benefits of meditation?
If you already have a developed meditation practice, you have no need to rely on science. But science can be useful for understanding the same meaning from a different perspective.

For people engaged in "analytic meditation," you examine everything that is going on with the mind and you develop trust from reason. For this kind of meditation, every tool is useful. So science can be used as a new tool, a new perspective, a new way of developing trust through reason.

In the West, are we in any danger of diminishing the traditional emphasis on subjective experience and on faith in the teacher by giving so much credibility to external methods?
This is not a problem, because in Buddhist practice there's no gap between outside and inside. So the measurements can be good for Buddhist practitioners. Especially for someone who has no real meditation experience, science can help build certainty about their own practice, help build confidence.

So far, we have seen many "parallels" between science and Buddhism. Can they work in combination?
The Dalai Lama said that if the Buddhists and the scientists could join together, it could be of much benefit to the whole world, because the scientists can help find and identify the source of problems with the mind or with the emotions, and the Buddhists have many methods and techniques for solving these problems.

If scientists could manipulate brain chemistry or use genetic engineering to increase happiness, would that be beneficial? Maybe not so beneficial. Because suffering is the cause of happiness.

So the process of transformation is critical? For lasting happiness, yes. Suffering can be transformed into happiness. That is the whole point of my book. Of course, too much suffering is not good. If you become always manipulated by it, if suffering is always the boss, that is not good. And if you have too little suffering, you will not be inspired to pursue real happiness. That is why we speak of "precious human birth." Because being born in the human body provides just the right amount of suffering that we need in order to transform suffering into a source of wisdom and knowledge.

This morning, in your teaching to new students, you introduced a practice of "resting the mind." And you said this involved a "secret" that you would tell afterward. Then you demonstrated the posture for this practice, and everyone tried it for a few minutes, after which you revealed the secret: that actually, this is meditation. So, this "secret," like the use of scientific data, can be understood as another skillful means. Why do we Westerners seem to require these nontraditional entry points?
Buddha said that different beings have different capacities for understanding, different ways of thinking, different personalities and mentalities and cultural attitudes; and that teachings should be in accordance with this. The essence of Buddhism is lovingkindness and compassion and understanding emptiness. And all these different approaches are just many ways of allowing these real, innate qualities to manifest. When we teach, any example that is understood by the teacher and the student can be used. Also, sometimes with people in the West, when they try meditation, they try too hard. They become very tight, their bodies become tense. Everything becomes blocked and difficult. Then they need to learn to relax and to rest the mind—with awareness but not so much tightness.

The interest in science and Buddhism seems to be concentrated on meditation. What about the role of faith, devotion, ritual, acts of kindness or the practice of generosity? Will Westerners have to wait for the scientists to figure out how to "prove" the benefits of these aspects of Buddhism?
Many people are doing shamata meditation. This is a kind of resting meditation, also called "calm abiding." This is good, but in Buddhist training you must go deeper than this. It is important to go deeper into emptiness—not nothingness, but into understanding emptiness as the nature of mind. This is where wisdom and compassion come from. And when you apply the method of this kind of meditation with nonjudgment, then lovingkindness and devotion and faith arise and work together to liberate one from suffering.

A few months ago you inaugurated Tergar Institute in Bodh Gaya, India. "Institute" implies study. Will Tergar encourage the kind of study and practice that you just talked about?
Yes. There are three intentions for Tergar Institute. One is to create an international study center where Buddhism can be taught in different languages and people from all over can come for months at a time to study. Another is to bring monks and nuns together for a traditional type of college, or shedra, where they study Buddhist philosophy and train in debate and things like that. Also, an important part of Tergar is to participate in the Kagyü Monlam. This is the big festival at the end of the year where thousands of people gather to pray for world peace. And Tergar will be the residence for the Karmapa and other teachers who come for this.

You come from an extraordinary dharma family, which you describe as very supportive and loving. How do you understand the panic attacks that you suffered from as a child?
I cannot say for sure. But being engaged in dharma and growing up in dharma doesn't mean being completely free from suffering from the beginning. It means to go in the direction that liberates from suffering. So I hope the book shows that this is possible and to share a little bit of how it can be done. That is my wish, my aspiration.

Image: Mingyur Rinpoche at Tergar Institute in Bodh Gaya, Courtesy of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

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robbenwainer@verizon.net's picture

I can relate to his childhood. My mother was a prestigious intellectual who was also critically manic depressive, in my young adult years I couldn't have met up to her expectations except in my returning to school when her discussions got me interested again. My religious endeavors were like the spinning of thread that amazed her at how meticulously I was doing the work. In a sense it was an amazement that ended in our defeat as we could not counterbalance the essence of our joy for learning and my past experience as a delinquent. It was as though a spirit had suspended our beliefs in human nature only to trap us into a view of the tangled web of sexuality. While I held onto a certain affectation with my Mother when my spirit discovered the tenderness of love I fell short of bridging the gap so that we still shared a common bond. It was as though the flagship of our testimonial to always rise above situations and circumstances left us at a cross roads of our final separation, and need to cling to the dependence and reliance on each other, that while sturdy somehow was destroyed by human acts of will, their regression, repression, and resentments.

rosemary.franklin's picture

I label emptiness or non-self as "boundless". or is it? The reading is thought-provoking for the better. Thank you,

Janejenn's picture

This phrase, "resting the mind" is a profound reframing of the "definition"of meditation. As I meditated with this conceptual framework, I felt my body also begin to "rest", and while my eyes were closed, they naturally turned downward and to the left, in a way that felt so full of ease. The word "rest" usually implies a physical " non-doing ". In the same way, it helped my mind calm and be free of activity. Surely there can be more to meditation than this, but it gave me a new sense of possibility for a freer mind.

mahakala's picture

Emptiness could mean the lack of fixed designation, the appearance of solidity in relation to other appearances of solidity, without being solid in itself - the fluid nature of phenomena as it interconnects with itself, endlessly - in all moments, in all directions.

'Sunyata' is one of those terms that does not seem to have been translated very well into english. There are quite a few of them, IMHO.

aldrisang's picture

Reading another article here (http://www.tricycle.com/ancestors/second-buddha), I find "absence of self-existence" to be a decent alternative explanation for emptiness.

aldrisang's picture

What's funny is that emptiness is often conflated with nothingness, which doesn't mean the same thing... but if you think of it as no-thing-ness, that actually succeeds better in translation! HA!

dixraile's picture

Wouldn't that make it relative?

trailpaloma's picture

What Thich Nhat Hanh says is "Emptiness is the Middle Way between existent and nonexistent". Try substituting the word "interbeing" for "emptiness". He says "Looking deeply, we see that the flower is made of non-flower elements -- light, space, clouds, earth, and consciousness. It is empty of a separate, independent self."

aldrisang's picture

Interdependent Selflessness =) It's just too hard to deflate everything into terminology, at least terminology that's not so complicated.

Jakela's picture

"This morning, in your teaching to new students, you introduced a practice of "resting the mind." And you said this involved a "secret" that you would tell afterward. Then you demonstrated the posture for this practice, "

Caveat emptor, Rinpoche: when you offer "secrets" to beginning western students' minds, they interpret it as a "magic bullet". wondering how skillful that is....

drgayle's picture

my understanding is that "emptiness" refers to the idea that an event is neutral from personal interpretations. Its very neutrality, therefore implies "emptiness". The event , or experience itself is void of interpretation, except through a personal lens. this could be called "emptiness", as the event itself is not the experience, or personal interpretation. and that an event is therefore, not "good" or "bad", as it could be either, based on the personal interpretation.....that is what I have been able to understand so far.....

fabienneff's picture

Thank you for this simple (not simplistic) interpretation. I fully believe that it is really the response that we cultivate to the events, our perception that color how we understand them. And once we can come from a place of neutrality as you say, we can really see with clarity.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Most accurate understanding yet! '"emptiness" = neutral from personal interpretations'. Then when confronted, so-called "empty" phenomena become so full of meaning, implication, potential, etc. that there is no room for "emptiness".

tbreeze's picture

I cannot say that I understand the difference between "emptiness" and "nothingness". Anyone there to comment? Thanks!

aldrisang's picture

What you are is emptiness. What everything "is" is emptiness. So it's not the same thing as "nothingness".

Think of the universe as a giant lava lamp, and every "thing" in it is just a new combination of that same stuff, coming and going... going and coming. There's no "self", no core "thing", just the laws that govern the stuff. Then let go of attaching to it all; that's the source of suffering.

candor's picture

Nothingness is non-existence. Emptiness is a way of referring to dependent origination. Dependent origination is the fact that nothing exists without being dependent on other things for its existence. As the Buddha is said to have put it, "this is because that is." It is through dependent origination that we realize that the ego -- the sense we have of a core "self" or a core inside of us -- is illusory. Once we relinquish the ego in this way, we are liberated from a great psychological burden. Of course, this is easier conceptualized and said than done. Practice, practice, practice.