In this episode we speak with Karma Kagyu teacher, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. He starts off by telling us about how he got into formal Buddhist practice, at the tender age of 9. He also shares some of his initial challenges with anxiety, and how he was able to work with it on his first 3-year retreat. Rinpoche also shares some suggestions for meditators who are fairly new to the path, suggesting that they focus on 1) Wisdom & 2) Method. In addition to that he speaks about what makes a good teacher and whether or not it is vital to practice in a particular lineage.
We finish our interview with Rinpoche discussing the importance of Joy on the Buddhist path, and of what he calls “Boundless Joy.” Tying in with that he shares what it was like participating in the meditative research conducted by Dr. Richard Davidson, and what the results of that study were.
- Sitting Quietly, Doing Something
- The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness
- Joyful Wisdom: Embracing Change and Finding Freedom
- The Yongey Foundation
Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks, this is Vince Horn, and we are very lucky today to be joined in the studio, he’s here in Boulder on a teaching tour, part of the North American tour, we are joined today by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Thank you Rinpoche for taking the time to speak with us
Mingyur: You’re welcome
Vince: Thank you. And before we jump in I want to say a little bit about your background…
Vince: I think many people probably have heard of you or at least heard of the Karma Kagyu tradition which is your main practice lineage and you have had several teachers including your dad Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, who is very well known, of course, amongst Titbeten Buddhist practitioners and you’ve practiced with several other well known teachers, and many years of practice and retreat and you started quite young, how old were you when you first got into this?
Mingyur: When I began to learn that time I was 9 years old.
Vince: 9 years?
Vince: And that’s when you started your formal training?
Mingyur: Meditation, yes. I learnt meditation before that, when I was 8 years old but it’s not really the formal way, but when I was 9 years old I really wanted to study meditation from my Father but I was shy to ask him directly I approached my Mother to ask him to teach me meditation.
Vince: Oh wow…
Mingyur: He accepted, I was so happy.
Vince: That’s very cool. Well I started reading your newest book Joyful Wisdom I was really struck by some of the stories of your earliest time with meditation and how difficult it actually was for you.
Mingyur: Right, yes.
Vince: I was wondering if you could maybe share a little bit of that because it is so touching.
Mingyur: When I was young I had panic disorder. I think it developed with me around 7 years old, I had fear for natural disasters and for strangers, many things, but sometimes fear without reason just my heart thumping and sweating and I am searching for some solution. That’s why I really want to learn meditation from my Father and my Father gave me meditation teaching, which is how to make friends with my panic, which is very nice but I was very lazy, I loved the idea of meditation but I didn’t like the practice of meditation, being a lazy boy and not really change with my panic attacks and then when I was 13 years old, I was joined into traditional 3 year retreat, retreat for three years.
Mingyur: And I really want to join I asked his eminence … through my father because I thought maybe he may not except because I was so young, but he kindly accept and I joined into three year retreat but first year my panic got worse, more stronger you know?
Mingyur: And especially with the group prayer, with the people,because sometime we use musical instruments for prayer and this noise would drive me crazy, and I would have to go out and one day I asked a question to myself, “Still I have 2 more years” and I said, “do you still want to spend two more years like this where you are unhappy or do you really want to apply meditation two year what I had been taught?” And I decide to apply. What I found is there is two things, first normally what we say ‘Yes Sir’ and second is ‘Hey get out.’ Do you want to know what all this means?
Vince: [laughter] Yes please, I am wondering what that means.
Mingyur: This is the new mantra I’m going to tell you that. Meaning of ‘Yes sir’ means you believe in panic and whatever message comes from panic you just follow that. The panic tells you “Oh there’s a problem.” You are thinking, “That’s the problem, Yes Sir, whatever you say Sir” and that makes panic become your boss and the second is ‘Hey get out.’ Hey get out means you don’t like panic, you have fear of panic, or panic of panic, try to get rid of panic so you say “Hey get out, leave me alone, don’t talk to much,” but panic doesn’t want to listen to you, the panic becomes worse that’s why panic become your enemy. And the third option is make friends, you say ‘Hello’ and I use my panic as my friend through three meditation techniques. And after three days my panic was gone.
Vince: Really, that quick?
Mingyur: Yeah. Of course it’s the result from a few years practice, but in that time it only took three years and it was totally gone. And now, I’m thinking that my panic was one of my best teachers. I learned a lot from my panic and I miss my panic.
Vince: That’s great. Thank you for sharing that.
Mingyur: You’re welcome.
Vince: While I was reading Joyful Wisdom I also got the sense of how accessible and how useful you present the teachings. Very straight-forward, very clear. The five blockers of BuddhaNature, very clear accessible lists, and techniques, and steps. It was like, this is easy. It seemed easy. So given that we’ve never really talked to a teacher about beginning level stuff on the show because it’s called Buddhist Geeks…
Vince: …but we have a lot of listeners that have called us and emailed us and said “Hey I’m new to the Buddhist Path, I’m starting to get into it. I’m enjoying your show. Reading a couple of books here and there. But I’m not really clear on how to get going.” So I wondered if you could share, given the accessible nature of your teaching, what you would suggest to people who are asking that kind of question. What’s the next step for someone that’s interested in the Buddhist path but hasn’t really dived in yet?
Mingyur: I think the most important is 2 things. What we call in Buddhism tradition, wisdom and method. Wisdom is your understanding of the nature of yourself and nature of phenomena. And the method is only wisdom… You need experience. To get experience, what we call method is meditation. Meditation and knowledge. These 2 are very important. What is knowledge? You can learn about the nature of phenomena and the nature of your life, impermanence, the changing of conditions. And, actually, you have basic goodness. Everybody has good potential existing within us.
There is one story within my book, the first time I came to the USA in 1998. Some people told me that you’ve been in retreat so long maybe your health is not good you have to check with a doctor. And I did. The doctor told me that everything’s fine except you need some physical exercise. People asked me to go to swim, and I went to a big Olympic-sized swimming pool and tried to swim, and I had no success. I swam under the water. That means I sank like a rock. [laughter] And my friend said that means you are too tight, you have to relax. I tried to relax and again I sank because I was too relaxed. I thought, “wait a minute, I know how to swim.” When I was young I grew up in the Himalayan Mountains. We had a lot of small lake and I used to swim, but only one style: doggy paddle. When I remembered that I can swim, I became able to swim. My friend was very surprised and asked how come I could not swim 5 minutes before and now I can swim, and I told him that now I remember how to swim. The point here is that even though you have the capability to swim, you do not recognize that capability then you cannot swim.
The important thing is that we have love, compassion, joy, wisdom, capability, everything exists within us. It is important that we recognize this. There’s the knowledge; the wisdom. The second is to meditate. Maybe you can start simple meditation. Just be aware of your breath; just relax your mind every day for maybe 15 minutes. No need for too long. 15 minutes of sitting meditation. Then you can apply meditation in daily life. From that you can learn more and more and you can develop more wisdom, more experience.
Vince: Would you suggest people find, or go deeper in a particular tradition at some point, or is it ok to continue with something simple?
Mingyur: I think its okay. Buddha said a teacher is like a flower, and Dharma is like nectar in the flower, and you are like bees. And the bee go to the different flower taking the nectar. If this teacher is authentic, you can receive from any teacher and important is to practice the Dharma. That is the important. If you have one particular lineage, great. If you don’t have, OK. Maybe sometime you will find, “Oh I have to belong to this way.” It can belong to that way. Even if you don’t have special particular lineage, also OK.
Vince: Hmm. I think that’s a great suggestion.
Mingyur: Oh you’re welcome.
Vince: Thank you. Kind of going off of that, one thing you talk a lot about, and obviously it’s in the title of both the books you’ve written, is joy.
Vince: I mean I hear joy in the Buddhist teachings but I don’t often meet teachers that really emphasize that.
Vince: So I was wondering if you could say a little bit about the importance of joy. Why is it so important on the Buddhist path?
Mingyur: Actually the main goal with this practice is to achieve joy. What is joy? There’s many levels of joy. Fundamental joy or the final destination of the joy is unchangeable joy, boundless joy, joy full of wisdom, love, and compassion and enlightened activity, which can help to boundless sentient beings. Actually a joy is already existing within us, inside of you, but you have to recognize it.
What is the real essence of joy? It’s the quality of a Buddha-Nature. The Buddha-Nature is totally free from suffering, totally free from problems. It has unchangeable joy. How to develop that? Through wisdom and experience. Of course, if you have the great unchangeable joy, you only achieve and you become full enlightenment.
But maybe I can give some simple example right now here. Although we have a lot of problem, but everybody looking for happiness, everybody wanting to free from suffering. That is the joy actually, the sign of joy which is within you. The Buddha said: If there’s bird’s nest and some time mother bird flies away, although she flew very far, she don’t think she is going to stay there. She want to return nest. Why? The nest is the real home for her.
So our real home is a joy. The Buddha-Nature. That’s why we get homesick. Everybody looking for happiness with each minute, with every breath. Even right now I am talking with you, also looking for joy. That’s why main importance here is, if you recognize the joy which is developed within you, none depend on the outside circumstances. That is the beginning of unchangeable joy.
Vince: I’m just wondering, why is it that people, when they first start looking for happiness think that they’re going to find it in some sort of configuration of experience that’s going to… it’s such a constant assumption of people.
Mingyur: Right. That is actually because of the joy, which is existing within in you and cause to look for the joy. But important is whether you get the right way to see the joy or not. If you are looking joy from outside material, outside circumstances, then your joy become like stock market, you know; up and down. But actually a real joy is existing within us.
So if you see joy within you and that also good for your life, good for your activity, good for your job, good for your relationship with others, that influence the outer material joy; the cause of the joy you know. Is like it become like circle of the goodness.
Vince: I’m also wondering about, you said there’re many levels of joy.
Vince: I’m imagining that there are certain levels of joy that may seem very stable… maybe joy associated with states of consciousness, or meditative awareness. I’m wondering how one works with more subtle types of joy, that aren’t quite the unconditional joy that you’re talking.
Mingyur: That is just your living everything normal. When you doing physical exercise, maybe jogging. Maybe jog for half an hour, and you finish your physical exercise and you’re pretty happy and you use nice chair in garden at your home with a big sigh [sigh]. You don’t have to do anything. Don’t meditate, don’t block any emotions, you don’t have to follow that. Just live it as it is and you begin to see your inner joy. It’s very simple but it has calm, peaceful, clear of awareness.
Vince: Very simple. Sounds simple.
Mingyur: Simple yeah. But of course you cannot remain within that state too long. Only for few seconds, you’re lost, you come back in, lost, come back in, lost, yes.
Vince: Interesting. So it sounds like there’s a way in which joy can deepen.
Mingyur: Yeah. Yes.
Vince: On its own, it sounds like.
Mingyur: Yeah on its own.
Vince: Very cool. So the last thing I wanted to talk about is the scientific studies that you’ve participated in with Dr. Richie Davidson.
Vince: And he brought in, at some point I heard lots of different meditators who’d spent something like 10 to 50,000 hours doing formal practice. You know people who are really, the Olympic athletes, so to speak, of meditation. And you’re a part of that cadre of people that came to, I guess do all sorts of tests. I was wondering, what was that like?
Mingyur: Yeah. They put me in FMRI and EEG; you know there’s two things. What they call FMRI is not just regular MRI. The regular MRI is almost like photograph you know. Then FMRIs are almost like video. And they put me in the big machine, it looked like a white coffin. Sort of looked like a white coffin. And temperature was very, very cold. Has to be cold. I don’t know there’s a main some power cannot be function so it has to be cold, something like that. I don’t know the detail… And there’s kind of a tongue coming out, tongue you know coming out and I have to lie down on that and they give me like earphones. Something like this I think, like radio. And they tied my head and they put me in what they call, by god something chews in my mouth and screw up everything machine. That’s why I cannot move my head. Not allowed to move. Then they put me inside the FMRI, it’s kind of like a tunnel you know. A dark, cold tunnel. Inside there.
And then I have to stay there and then I have to meditate on three points. First is open presence. Second is focused meditation, we had to focus attention. Last is loving-kindness, compassion. They said, “OK. 90 minute compassion. Now stop compassion. Compassion. Not compassion.” You know on and on. And the scientists there in the next room, having fun, drinking coffee. [laughter]
You know talking to each other. And they say, “OK. Now stop compassion. Ok, now meditate compassion.” And it’s like one hour, and more than one hour, something like more than one and a half hours, I cannot move. And then they send terrible noise like baby crying, girl screaming, lot of noise, different noise and I have to meditate like that. And after all of that, should I tell you the result?
Mingyur: Hmm. I don’t know if I should tell you or not. [laughter]
Mingyur: They said I am totally crazy. I was so disappointed. I thought they may give me some special certificate, that you are enlightened, you know. No I’m joking, I’m joking. [laughter]
Vince: A Scientific Certificate of Enlightenment. [laughter]
Mingyur: Yeah. No, no, no they didn’t say I’m crazy, but I’ve been there three times and they also check with a lot of senior mediators and what they call in the brain, what they call left prefrontal lobe. Increased, activity’s very increased and then all the different part of brain work together what they call gamma synchronize, gamma frequency.
And what I learned from them is this three important things. First, what they called: Neuroplasticity. That means your brain is capable of change. Ten or fifteen years before Neuroscientists doesn’t believe that. If we are born with unhappy, the rest of your life will be unhappy. But now they said, “No, you can change and brain has unlimited capability to change.” It organizes itself and change the cells into different things. So, there is hope.
And second important is, one of the best of way to change your brain activity function from negative to positive is, apply meditation. And they also tested with it beginners, who had no idea about meditation do you know is student. They are asked to meditate everyday, one hour for eight weeks, and they develop this lateral prefrontal lobe within ten to fifteen percent.
Mingyur: Within eight weeks. And third important point is, that positive change in your brain, is good for your physical body, the immune system. And there are so many ongoing studies about good for stress deductions, high blood pressure and heart, many things, you know. It’s good for your physical body and now I add one more and this is from my laboratory, and I’m joking. I do have a laboratory, but… Meditation is good for your life. Why? Happy mind, and healthy body, of course is good for your mind. Yes.
Vince: Is there anything else that you want to say to an audience that listens to a show called Buddhist Geeks, that you think could be of value?
Mingyur: Yeah, I think nowadays we are facing big problem in the world, recession, global financial crisis. And, the main message is, don’t be upset about that. Make friends. Same like, what I did with my panic, I tried to make friends with my panic, and so maybe you try make friends with this problem. You might think OK, if I lost everything, how I can make friends with this problem, but still you can do. Don’t try to hate, don’t try to resist. Try to look different way, try to accept. If you just worry too much, situation gets worst, no benefit for you. For example, if the stock market going down, if you cry and pull your hairs, beat your chest, doesn’t make stock market one dollar go up. In fact, situation get worst. This why, believe in your self, still you have a capability, still you have a wisdom, love, and power and strength. So try to use them, and go forward. Letting go is not giving up. Thank you.