A rare combination of youth and wisdom, Mingyur Rinpoche discusses his life as a young teacher and student of the dharma.
Part of a new generation of teachers who grew up outside of Tibet, Mingyur Rinpoche represents an era of transition in the Tibetan community. Trained by some of the great Tibetan masters of twentieth century, he serves as a link between his father’s generation, who studied in the traditional monastic environment of pre-Communist Tibet, and teachers who were trained in exile.
Born in Nubri, Nepal, in 1976 to a family of renowned masters in the Tibetan Nyingma and Kagyu lineages, he began an education in the dharma at the age of nine, studying with his father, the late Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, at the hermitage of Nagi Gompa in the foothills of the Kathmandu valley. At thirteen, under the guidance of his teacher, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche entered a traditional Tibetan three-year retreat; for three years and three fortnights he lived and studied, almost entirely in silence, in a small meditation room at Sherab Ling monastery near Dharamsala, India. He later attended the Dzongsar and Sherab Ling monastic colleges in northern India, where he officially completed his dharma education. Now twenty-seven, he is the retreat master at Sherab Ling and gives teachings in India, Nepal, and North America. Tricycle spoke with Mingyur Rinpoche last fall at Rangjung Yeshe Gomde in Leggett, California, the North American seat of his older brother, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche. Erik Pema Kunsang translated.
You began to practice very seriously at an early age. Can you say something about that? I entered a three-year retreat at the age of thirteen. It was something I felt strongly about. I wanted to study with Tulku Saljey Rinpoche [1910-1991, an important Kagyu master], who was quite old at the time, at the Sherab Ling monastery, a couple of hours from Dharamsala.
Isn’t it unusual for a thirteen-year-old to begin such intensive practice? In India, yes, but it wasn’t so in Tibet. The major deciding factor in these cases is not age, but resolve, and after that, knowledge of the key points of practice. I had not completed my philosophical education, of course, but I had learned the general rituals, the chants.
As someone who was educated outside of Tibet, how different was your education from that of your teachers? I have tried my best to receive a traditional Tibetan education. In terms of studies and reflections, which form a major part of my theoretical education, I don’t feel there’s any real difference between what is currently taught and what was taught in Tibet. But if you compare me with the past generation, you’ll discover that people often spent more than twenty years in retreat, as did my father and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche [a great Dzogchen master of the last century whose visits to the United States in the 1970s helped to spread Tibetan dharma]. I haven’t done that. Also, the style of retreat has differed. For example, my father spent at least three years in one place with his door sealed off; nobody came or went. There was an opening to pass food through, but that was it. That’s what you call a retreat in the real sense of the word. I haven’t practiced like that. So I’d say that between the present day and the past, there’s no difference in the theoretical studies, but with regard to the degree of perseverance in practice, there’s a big difference.
As part of a new generation of teachers that grew up outside of Tibet, how else did your experience differ from that of your father’s generation? The older generation grew up in an environment where there had been countless practitioners approaching realization. The atmosphere was different; it was easier for students to embrace the Buddha’s teachings and to persevere in practice than it is for those who come to Buddhism outside of Tibetan culture. For example, there’s the question of former lives, and the consequences of karmic actions. When you are in an environment where there have been so many masters who could see where somebody took rebirth, who could point it out and could prove it—identify the reincarnations and so forth—it makes it much easier to trust the teachings on karmic consequences.
But that doesn’t mean that we’re not allowed to investigate. You can examine the teachings for yourself. The Buddha himself said so. When you hear my teachings, you should do as you do when you buy gold: You test it first; you don’t accept what I say at face value. You don’t have to trust blindly. We can derive great benefit from using science as the example. We can use scientific understanding, for instance, to explore the benefits of calm abiding, shamatha; of compassion; of identifying negative emotions and noticing how they can be changed and transformed with Buddhist practice [see “Science and Buddhism,” Tricycle, Spring 2003]. You can, of course, combine these two approaches—simple trust and the scientific method. There’s no problem there, and for Westerners it’s probably best to hear an explanation first, and then to test it out. Once you get a taste of it for yourself, you begin to gain trust, and you can proceed to deepen your practice.
Still, it is perfectly okay to follow the Buddhist teachings through faith? Simply being willing to trust that what the Buddha taught is true is allowed. There is an approach with the Buddha’s teachings that is called the tradition of pith instructions. In this case, it is not required to conduct elaborate investigations. You trust the teachings and you apply them. Not blindly, of course, but without elaborate investigation. It’s different from studying Buddhist philosophy. There you need to investigate intelligently. Otherwise, you won’t really understand the philosophical position, which requires a lot of time and energy. But in the tradition of pith instructions, the Buddha condensed the most vital teachings of what one is to know and apply into just a few key points. Applying these, one can progress very quickly and effectively. It’s like this: Say you’re sick and you need to take a dose of medicine. You can investigate the medicine and find out what it’s made of, who concocted it, how much it cost, how it’s made and so forth, and then take it. That’s perfectly fine. It just takes longer. Or, if you trust the doctor and you feel it’s the right medicine, you take it, and then also it’s fine, and even faster. In both cases you get cured.
Many Westerners came to Buddhism because it seemed so logical. Impermanence made perfect sense, and was easily verified. And no-self made sense—that people and things have no intrinsic, unchanging identity. That we suffer is clear. However, in meditation, often the experience of these things is far more convincing than any of the logical proofs. Can you say something about that? There are two approaches. The first is theoretical investigation. It means using our intelligence to find out what is fact and what isn’t. And if you know how to investigate intelligently, you will discover the Buddha’s truths. You will see what is real and what isn’t. You’ll see that it is true that composite things are impermanent. And if you really pay attention, you will also discover that there is no intrinsic personal identity, that all things are ultimately empty. And that deluded states—samsaric states—are painful. It’s a fact. That’s how it is.
It’s also a fact that calming down, practicing what we call shamatha, or calm abiding in the meditative state, has sublime qualities. This is another way you can attain conviction about what is real and what isn’t, gaining trust in what is. In this case, it doesn’t help to continuously analyze, because the act of analyzing actually disturbs the calm; you cannot be confident in the experience of calmness by being analytical. It’s self-defeating. And when it comes to vipashyana meditation—the experience of seeing clearly—it’s the same; you can’t really have the experience of insight if you continuously analyze. So a different approach is necessary. Aside from intellectual trust, you have to develop an experiential trust. The first kind of trust is only good if it creates circumstances that lead to the second, experiential type. This is gained through training personally in the experience of calmness, shamatha meditation, and also in vipashyana meditation, which leads to the insight of emptiness. Not as theory, but as an experience. Developing this kind of trust, combined with compassion for beings and devotion to the awakened ones, can lead you all the way to the awakened state of the Buddha; mere intellectual understanding will not. That’s the main difference between the two kinds of trust or understanding.
In other words, intellectual understanding will not transform you, but experience can? Not only that, but there’s a danger in relying on the intellect only. Because even though it’s delightful and inspiring in the beginning to “understand,” if it is not combined with actual experience, then the inspiration fades, and the taste of realization diminishes. It’s called being a dried-up intellectual; the understanding is nothing more than theory in the end. You can deceive yourself by talking about it without really knowing it.
There’s a saying that great sinners can be cured by the dharma, but the dharma professional cannot. The great sinner is someone who can still get into practice and be transformed. But someone who’s just intellectually convinced could become insensitive; he doesn’t get anywhere and cannot be helped by the teachings.
Would you say the result depends on the practitioner’s intention? That’s a big part of it. The Buddha said that all phenomena are conditioned and totally depend upon intention. The motivation with which we practice can be of different types, and each type will determine a different outcome. Let me explain. According to Buddhist teachings, external phenomena are not as they seem to be. In other words, they are illusory. And the main source of everything that is experienced—we cannot deny that everything is experienced—is the perceiving mind. And it is through changing this perceiving mind’s attitude that all phenomena can be transformed. Therefore, attitude, or motivation, is the most vital factor to take hold of, and to change for the better. When we practice there are three types of attitude. The first one, which is called the attitude of a lesser person, is to want to better myself. I want to do good. I want to do what is meaningful so that I can achieve a better state, a better rebirth, either as a human being or as a god. By practicing with that attitude, one does attain rebirth as a human being, or as a deva, or god. A second and better attitude is one that comes from a desire to be free. I want to attain liberation from deluded states, from samsara. Through that, one is able to attain freedom from delusion. That is the attitude of the mediocre type of person. The highest motivation is the desire for true and complete enlightenment for the benefit of an infinite number of beings. I want to help all of them. We can do the exact same practice, but with three different attitudes. Depending on attitude, we’ll achieve three different—extremely different—results. So the attitude, one’s intention, is the most important thing.
My point here is that the mind is very powerful. There’s a tremendous strength there, and it makes such a big difference how this mind, this will, this intention is being steered. And everything depends on whether it allows itself to relax and be serene, or whether it allows itself to get caught up in anxiety, grasping, and fear; it makes a difference if you do something with a relaxed, easygoing frame of mind, or if you do it in a harried and distracted way. In past times, people used to walk from eastern Tibet all the way to Lhasa, in central Tibet. Some types wanted to get there really fast, so they’d walk as quickly as they could. They’d tire, or get sick, give up and have to return. But other people, they would just walk at an easy pace, and they’d sit down, take breaks, pitch camp for the night, have a good time. And then, the next day, continue. And in that way they would actually reach Lhasa quite quickly. Thus the Tibetan proverb, “If you walk with haste, you do not reach Lhasa. If you walk at a gentle pace, you will make it there.”
Can you say something, then, about right effort in terms of the proper balance between zeal and, say, the ease that’s required? Okay. Let’s take the practice of shamatha. There are two typical problems; you are too relaxed or too tight. But that doesn’t have to be a problem, because you could always practice shamatha with or without an object. When you focus on an object, you can sometimes tighten up and fixate; then, you can shift to shamatha without an object, without a focus, letting the mind rest. Shifting from one type of shamatha to the other and back will give you some balance, a sense of when you are too relaxed or too tight. But whether something has meaning or not has a lot to do with the reason for doing it in the first place. Again, it’s a reflection of intention. You can approach meditation wanting to experience something. Then when nothing happens, it feels too plain, or absurd, or maybe even disappointing. But that would be to miss the point. Generally speaking, shamatha deals with the flickering of the attention, which is usually something very unsteady, always shifting from one thing to the next, creating endless complications. Shamatha tries to bring a change to that, by steadying the attention. The point isn’t to experience something extraordinary. It’s to develop more one-pointed attention.
Now I have a question: What is it that makes practice difficult for you? I’m very goal oriented. Trying to achieve, I lose my sense of calm. I feel frustration. I guess you could say I’m running to Lhasa. I would like to give you a suggestion. There’s something that you can apply while practicing. One of the main reasons attention does not remain steady is that one thought arises after another. That’s the primary obstacle. Mindfulness is the goal here. One thought, perhaps, is feeling frustrated. But whatever the thought is, just look at the thought. Earlier today, in a teaching, I suggested that we look at visual form, as a support for shamatha, and in the same way, when there’s a thought, then that becomes the support. No matter what the thought—a desired goal, anything—it becomes a support for your practice. So whatever the thought, just be aware: “I want to go shopping. I should take a ride in the car. I should actually stop at the bank first.” All of that, just notice, be aware.
The nature of mind is always with you, never apart from you for a single moment, regardless of your thoughts or mind state, whether you are angry, frustrated, or feeling joy. This natural awareness is the awakened state. In our deluded state, however, this awareness is blocked. And we suffer, and we develop a disenchantment for worldly pleasures, and maybe we come to practice. It is because of pain and suffering that we first want to practice. And it’s because of pain and suffering that we attain enlightenment. Regard suffering as a teacher, and an inspiration. And then try your best to move in the direction of awareness, of enlightenment. It’s not about how successful we are right now, but what we aim at that is most important.
And what is the role of sacrifice, or renunciation? You can say practice makes perfect. What seems impossible, or difficult at present, becomes more familiar as you progress along the way. It becomes easier and easier. As a matter of fact, there’s nothing you can’t become used to. It’s just a matter of training.
How can lay practitioners deal with the conflict that arises between a lay life and more intense study? You can train whenever there’s an emotion. You don’t have to be in a particular place to observe it. And the same is true of being compassionate. You can train anywhere, no matter what you’re involved in. You can also practice all the time, of course! Making an effort to be kinder, and so forth—you can do that training without having to give up your worldly business. There is one thing that one does need to change, though, and that is refraining from harming others. There’s no leeway here. But otherwise, you can carry on as usual, training at being more and more aware, and more and more kind. Then, quite naturally, some people—not everybody—will want to spend more time in meditative practice. They will have less and less interest in pursuing whatever occupied them before.
Eventually, one may give up more and more, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up things in order to practice. If one gives up everything, it’s all very good. But then there are also some who think, “I want to be like the Buddha and give up everything.” Just throw everything away, their job, belongings and so on. And then, after six or eight months, they regret it. They’re not able to practice, and that’s not so good. So you use moderation. You carry on in harmony with your individual abilities or practice, and with your individual degree of fortitude.
How does retreat fit into this? There are external and internal conditions that aid our practice in retreat. Usually what gets us into trouble is involvement with emotions of all different kinds. And they come about through a combination of three factors. One is proximity to the objects that provoke emotion. Another is incorrect thinking. And a third is the unwillingness to abandon negative emotions. Whenever those factors are present, one gets caught up. In retreat we can more easily keep a distance from the objects that give rise to negative emotions. If you go to a place that’s quiet, then automatically, you avoid getting involved. That is the external retreat. Inner retreat has to do with giving up unvirtuous actions. And then together with that, staying physically quiet, not running around doing a lot of things, and avoiding too much conversation. That’s called inner retreat.
But please understand that while going about your business—while doing your job, while accumulating and creating wealth—it’s not prohibited to practice at the same time. It’s not that one has to give up those things in order to be able to practice. It’s not necessary to think like that. You are allowed to integrate spiritual principles in your life situation.
Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, what we need to acknowledge is something natural. Something uncontrived. The uncontrived state is actually very special. Being natural is very special. And this natural way is actually already with us, in or out of retreat, but we just don’t acknowledge it. If you just acknowledge your natural way, that’s enough, good enough. It’s like the cow peeing in the field. [laughs] It just stands there and pees. Every day, it just pees, quite naturally. That’s really enough.
Images: © Tri H. Luu