Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche must have been considered a precocious meditator, even by tulku standards. Born in northern Nepal in 1975, the youngest son of the famed Tibetan Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, he was recognized at the age of three by the Sixteenth Karmapa as the seventh incarnation in his lineage. At age eleven he entered a monastery and at age thirteen began a three-year retreat. Sadly, near the end of this retreat, his teacher and retreat master, Saljay Rinpoche, passed away. At the tender age of seventeen, Mingyur Rinpoche was asked to take on the responsibility of retreat master for the next three-year retreat!
Now at the ripe old age of thirty-four, he is a veteran of over ten years of teaching in the West; has written two popular books on Buddhism, The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness and Joyful Wisdom: Embracing Change and Finding Freedom; and has created an ambitious curriculum to train Western students in Mahamudra meditation. He is pursuing an unusual trajectory—offering one set of teachings with a broad popular appeal and another set with sophisticated depth for highly developed practitioners.
I met Rinpoche in 1998 on his first teaching trip to the West. It didn’t take long to discover his love for the Dharma. After some unsuccessful attempts at small talk (When I queried, “What do you think of the West?” he replied, “It’s clean and square.”), I asked him to explain the difference between the Dzogchen and Madhyamaka views, two important schools in Tibetan Buddhism. His eyes lit up: “First, you have to understand that there are eighteen different kinds of emptiness!” He sat down on the path we were walking along and spent ten minutes in reply.
Often described as “the happiest man in the world,” Mingyur Rinpoche has a delightful presence. Like his older brother Tsoknyi Rinpoche, he seems to have an affinity with vipassana meditators, and we were fortunate to catch up with him on a recent trip to California. Edwin Kelley, Margaret Cullen and Inquiring Mind coeditor Barbara Gates joined me in the following interview.
Mingyur Rinpoche: I feel very fortunate to have been born in a beautiful valley in the northern part of Nepal surrounded by loving family, monks and nuns, and into a family with a teacher right there, my father. I loved him and very much respected him; he was perhaps more teacher than father. Before he gave me any formal lessons, he had already begun to teach me. I remember a teaching he gave me when I was four years old. I was fighting with a nun, just a little bigger than I was and really bossy. She squeezed my ear and I fought back. My father called me over, and I was crying. He said, “Here’s an apple. Okay?” With that apple, he talked to me about compassion and transformed my anger.
Inquiring Mind: You had five brothers. In Tibet, do people talk about sibling rivalry, competition between brothers or sisters?
MR: Yes, yes. Competition. We fought all the time. No, I’m joking. For me, there was no competition. For one thing, we were not together very much. My brother Tsoknyi Rinpoche and I are the most close in age, and he and I spent more time together than we did with the other brothers. We really helped each other; he guided me. I can remember, when I was little, he had a special knife that he bought from a shop. It was precious to him, but I really liked it. He said, “You like the knife?” and he gave it to me. I was so happy.
IM: Compassion and generosity were certainly modeled in your family, with your father in particular as your mentor and teacher.
MR: I was able to turn to my father when I was looking for a solution for the fear and anxiety which had haunted me from earliest childhood. With the beautiful and loving world that surrounded me, there wasn’t any reason for the discomfort I experienced. But often I had panic attacks; my heart raced and I broke out in a sweat when I was around people I didn’t know. At six years old, I had started to experience some relief when I played at meditation. Exploring in the hills, I would run to the caves where generations of Buddhists had practiced and I would pretend to meditate. I liked to pretend I was my grandfather, who was also a great master. Sometimes I would sit for hours reciting a mantra even though I didn’t understand what I was doing. Then when I was nine years old, I asked my mother to ask my father if he would teach me to meditate. My father taught me how to transform the panic, transform emotion. He used to give a lesson about a peacock eating poison. For the peacock, the poison is medicine. It gives him bright feathers. If poison is transformed into medicine, then anything can be transformed into medicine. Even though I was a very lazy boy, since I received teaching from my father, it really got into my mind and stayed there.
Then, when I was eleven years old, I went to Sherab Ling monastery in India. Panic followed from Nepal to India. It didn’t need a visa! [Laughter] I spent almost three years shuttling back and forth between Nepal and India receiving formal instruction from my father and from my teachers at Sherab Ling. Then I entered into a traditional three-year retreat; it was during that period that I completely conquered the anxiety. No more panic attacks!
IM: In Western psychotherapy, we are always asking why, trying to find the cause of something like panic so we can cure it. But in the meditative traditions, one doesn’t necessarily have to understand why the panic arises in order to transform it into wisdom or compassion.
MR: In meditation, there is wisdom and there is method. Wisdom allows you to see the true matter. Through wisdom you know what panic is; you see that panic is impermanence. But with method, meditation, you don’t even have to ask the cause. You feel the panic and transform it—panic into shamatha, panic into lovingkindness and compassion, panic into emptiness. So you don’t have to ask why. It just transforms directly.
IM: Do you find that in the West, we are overly interested in discussing why? Does that create a barrier for us to just get with the method?
MR: Possibly; sometimes that approach is too intellectual. When you ask, “Why panic?” you’re still thinking about panic, not experiencing it. In this way, you may reinforce the panic. Or you may think you have found the cause of panic and that you understand: Oh, this is why I am suffering. You may be relieved, but what is missing is wisdom. I think one big difference between Western psychology and Buddhist meditation technique is that in the West you describe something like panic as a disease or a disorder. [Dramatizing] “I have a disorder. Oh, I have a problem!” [Laughter] But in Buddhism, wisdom tells us that the panic is not real; it’s just your mind that creates it. It is really no problem; you’re okay. Another difference is the motivation. When you apply psychology to the “problem,” you are only motivated to find a cure—a benefit for you. But meditation is for the benefit of others—a motivation that, by its very nature, brings happiness.
IM: So from the perspective of wisdom, we’re seeing the impersonal nature of the panic. In the West, when we try to analyze a difficulty, we’re still staying with the personal.
MR: Right. [Dramatizing] “Oh, maybe I made a little mistake or maybe my parent made a mistake. I am angry with my parents or angry with myself. I have something wrong with me.”
IM: Rinpoche, at one point you practiced developing low self-esteem. Why did you do this?
MR: The first time I came to the United States, a lady came to me and said, [Dramatizing] “I have low self-esteem.” That was the first time I had heard those words. She went on, “I always think I’m bad, a failure. Even if I do something good, I translate it immediately into bad. Even if someone says, ‘I love you,’ I think they don’t love me; they love my career.” Then she asked me, “What should I do?” I couldn’t give her a direct answer because I didn’t know what she was talking about. So I researched low self-esteem. I asked some other people, and then I created low self-esteem within myself using my imagination. I changed myself into her, put myself in her place and thought, I am no good. I am nothing. One day I finally felt low self-esteem. I was so happy; suddenly, I knew what she was talking about.
IM: So if I came to you and said, “I hate myself,” how would you reply?
MR: There are many ways to transform low self-esteem. I might encourage you to research what is really going on so you might recognize that your mind is exaggerating something, that maybe your mind is creating a “problem.” Or I might introduce you to basic goodness. Everyone has wonderful natures—love, compassion, wisdom. First, when you are trying to look for your goodness, you may see more of the bad part. But as you look again and again, then you can see your good qualities more and more clearly. When you see your good qualities, they can truly manifest.
IM: In both of your books, you describe how, once a person contacts some sense of his or her own goodness, a more compassionate nature naturally arises. How does that transformation process happen?
MR: No matter how long you practice or what method you use, every technique of Buddhist meditation ultimately generates compassion. When you recognize your suffering, you spontaneously see that it is the same as that within others. You want to be happy, you don’t want to suffer, and you see that this is the same with others. You see everybody is like a big family, sharing one feeling. When you see this suffering is also in others, you don’t feel so bad about yourself. Your mind becomes big. You are not alone here, you realize, so that gives you courage.
IM: Besides low self-esteem, what is another example of a “problem” that offers an occasion for insight, for the development of wisdom and compassion?
MR: Another example would be fear of death. In Tibet, this fear is very precious. People will even go to the charnel grounds to develop fear of death if they don’t have it. Everyone is looking to develop fear of death because it can introduce them to the Dharma; it can lead them to have insight into impermanence and inspire diligent practice. After practicing diligently, you can free yourself from fear of death and recognize the unborn, the deathless. Fear of death is very precious.
IM: Many Westerners approach painful or scary emotions like hatred or anger or fear of death in a dualistic way. We try to squash those feelings or we push them away. But you describe working with negative emotions by making them into allies, into our friends, into something precious.
MR: In modern society, mostly in the West, there are two negative emotion “boosters.” The first is belief: you believe you have a problem and you follow your belief. For example, when I was young I believed in my panic, and because of the panic I believed I was bad. So you believe there is a problem, you exaggerate the problem, and then you believe the exaggeration. Or when you have anger, you believe in the anger. If you believe in these problems, then they will become your boss.
The second booster is fight or resistance: you try to suppress your problem; you hate your problem. You feel fear of death: Don’t look! Then it grows underground. All of the fear becomes louder, noisier and stronger. If you try to fight with it, try to get rid of it, it doesn’t work or maybe it works for a little while. But actually, when you fight an emotion, you reinforce it.
The best way is to make friends with the fear, the anger, the self-hatred, the panic. But even if you don’t know how to make friends with a negative emotion, just having the idea of making friends is a relief. If you know how to make friends with it, that is the best. So you need to know how to make friends with these feelings. Method is also important. You can learn to practice shamatha, lovingkindness/compassion and vipashyana.
IM: Rinpoche, please imagine a family or organization in which one person develops a compassionate heart that she radiates toward the others in her circle. The others may not be involved in Buddhism in any way. Could that compassionate presence be transformative for the other people even if they are not practicing themselves?
MR: A woman in England told me about a problem she was having with her next-door neighbor. This neighbor was always trying to annoy her, damaging her flowers and tossing garbage into her yard. Very disturbed by this, she tried many approaches: to fight back, to call the police, and finally to meditate on compassion for her neighbor. But the situation still grew worse. She came to me and said, “Nothing has worked. What should I do?” I told her, “Meditating on compassion involves more than trying to invoke a sense of kindness for someone. It requires some analytical investigation into the other person’s motivations and an attempt to understand the other person’s feelings and that, just like ourselves, everyone shares the same basic motivation to be happy and to avoid unhappiness.”
One year later, the woman came to thank me: “Now I have solved all the problems.” She described how she thought deeply about her neighbor’s motivation—to be happy, to avoid unhappiness. Gradually she realized that she wasn’t afraid of him anymore, that nothing he might do could bother her. Twice more, he did things that would have previously upset her. But then he stopped completely. Once he realized that nothing he could do was going to get a response out of her, he became embarrassed by what he had done; then over time he even became very polite. One day, a few months later, she went out into her yard and he said, “I’m sorry. In the past I made a lot of problems for you. Can you forgive me?” She did, and now they are friends. In meditating on compassion for him, she had become confident in herself, and in response, gradually he had realized that he didn’t have to do anything to show how powerful or damaging he could be; he had developed confidence in himself as well.
IM: So through this transformative practice of compassion—seeing the universal desire to find happiness and to avoid suffering—one subtly warring neighbor was able to awaken a like compassion in her former “enemy.”
MR: Exactly. Here’s another story of the transformative power of compassion. When I was twenty-three, I ran a big monastery, Sherab Ling, for a few years. His Eminence Tai Situ, the main abbot, was traveling the world giving teachings and I was there standing in. I had to choose the discipline master. I thought one monk was strong and tough, that maybe he would have authority. If I chose him, maybe discipline would be better. What actually happened was that he wanted to control everything. Others found him authoritarian and didn’t listen to him. Discipline became very loose.
Next time, I chose a monk who didn’t act tough. He saw himself as equal to the other monks. This monk really thought about others; he was selfless and compassionate. With his leadership, the discipline became fantastic. I realized that the first monk wanted control, but he didn’t get control. This second monk didn’t want control, but he got control. Everybody loved him, they listened to him, and whatever he said, they followed. They respected him and wanted to give power to him.
Compassion looks like it is soft, but when you are faced with a problem, it becomes very powerful. In compassion, all of the four immeasurables are working together—equanimity, love, joy, along with the compassion. Compassion is strong, especially if you are faced with a difficult situation, even a person who doesn’t practice compassion themselves, someone who is very angry, like the “bad” neighbor. If someone does bad things, you can ask yourself, Why do they do bad things? You know it is because they follow their ignorance and don’t have control of themselves. With an intuitive sense of their suffering, you begin to act toward them in a kinder, more considerate way. And they, in turn, begin to behave more compassionately toward you and others.
Compassion is the spontaneous wisdom of the heart. If everyone could learn to develop lovingkindness and compassion toward one another—a spontaneous understanding that whatever we do to benefit ourselves must benefit others and vice versa—we wouldn’t need laws or armies, police, guns or bombs. Compassion is more powerful than an atom bomb.