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Cultivating Wellbeing in the Heart of the City: An Interview with Tsoknyi Rinpoche
For more than 21 years, Tsoknyi Rinpoche has traveled the world teaching about the innermost nature of mind as understood by the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Born into the family of the Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, he is the brother of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and was recognized as an important Drukpa Kagyu lama by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche has a keen interest in the ongoing dialogue between Western scientific research—especially in neuroscience and psychology—and Buddhist understanding. His insights into the Western psyche have enabled him to teach meditation in a way that is directly relevant to the modern everyday experience, while touching our most profound awareness.
In anticipation of his upcoming teaching tour in Hong Kong, Tsoknyi Rinpoche is interviewed by Pundarika Hong Kong, a registered non-profit organization that supports the teachings of Rinpoche and the maintenance and education of nuns of Tsoknyi Gechak Ling in Nepal.
Pundarika HK: You have traveled widely and taught many students around the world. Can you share some of your observations about the modern lifestyle and how it affects our ability to lead happy, successful lives?
Tsoknyi Rinpoche: I’ve observed two distinct lifestyles in the world. In less industrialized countries, the lifestyle is largely based on simple thinking and warm-heartedness, but in modern Westernized societies, the lifestyle is driven by the intellect and the pursuit of prosperity—and I’ve noticed this unwittingly creates a blockage in people’s subtle energy bodies and diminishes their feeling of wellbeing. This means that although you might be able to think well, you don’t feel well in the deepest part of your being. Eventually this subtle energy blockage depletes thinking power too, which starts to feel scattered and hollow. The result is a lot of unhappiness and disharmony for the individual, for family, society, and the workplace, because the basic emotional health is upside down.
PHK: What is the subtle energy body in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition?
TR: The subtle body is the energy level of the body and the home of the emotions. It is composed of channels (Tib. tsa) in which energy drops circulate (Tib. thigle), driven by the inner winds or chi (Tib. lung). A tight nervous system burns the energy drops, which are our source of joy.
PHK: And what is your remedy to help us restore our sense of wellbeing?
TR: I have tried out many things over the years. Finally I realized, “OK, we have to connect the cognitive mind and the feeling realm.” But that’s not easy because in developed countries the mind is all up in the head, so we have to bring it down into the body. Once the physical body, the emotional body, and the cognitive mind connect, it all comes together. Then you can feel your feelings and open up your blockages through different skillful methods, and one day you will discover your innate wellbeing—what I call “essence love”—which is a feeling of basic “okayness.” That is the best healing for the blockage in the subtle body. When the mind and body are one team, you feel grounded, you feel open, and you think clearly. Then the cognitive mind becomes receptive to wisdom or insight. I teach a lot around that area.
PHK: Your focus on emotional wellbeing and the body is unusual among Tibetan Buddhist teachers, and is the subject of your book Open Heart, Open Mind: Awakening the Power of Essence Love (Harmony, 2012). Why do you teach this, especially?
TR: My natural wish is to try to transform people’s suffering and this is the type of “high-class suffering” I see in modern city dwellers. Their speedy lifestyles generate speediness in the subtle body, creating restlessness and churning up lots of emotions. Their minds want to rest but the subtle body is spinning in overdrive, and eventually the mind becomes the slave of this blockage or unhealthy feeling. When you push all your energy outwards—or force too much chi up into your head—then you won’t feel great. You might achieve a lot but you won’t feel great, so in the long term that’s a problem.
PHK: Do you see this in both the East and West?
TR: I see this wherever there is a modern city, wherever there is progress. If you don’t take care of this, it will beat your whole system. One day you will become paralyzed and won’t even be able to do your job. You will feel split. Half of your mind will be taking care of your job and the other half will be taking care of your energy problem. But if your subtle body is healthy you can work productively and not feel stressed or tight.
PHK: Hong Kong is a tiny place that is home to more than 7 million people. It’s a highly pressurized and work-driven culture, but much of this striving seems to come from an underlying insecurity.
TR: Hong Kong people work even harder than people in New York! I understand the drive for material security, but sometimes I think Hong Kong people are overreacting to that. Perhaps the original message is out of date. Actually I think life in Hong Kong is pretty good, but you might not see that because your old habits are still driving you. The message that you must keep working harder, faster, longer no longer matches the reality of your circumstances, and it’s burning your energy unnecessarily. Over a lifetime, it can take so much hope and fear to achieve your ambitions that by the time you reach the top of the career ladder, your chi is burnt out and you can’t enjoy your success. You have material wealth but no happiness!
PHK: So, is it possible within the distractions of an intensely stimulating city such as Hong Kong to feel peaceful?
TR: Yes, definitely. First you must recognize the problem and then you can transform it. By finding the right balance, you can live a speedy life without feeling speedy. First of all, be kind to yourself and your situation. You can talk to your old habits and tell yourself that you are overdoing it and that it’s not healthy. Then you can use various methods to work with your subtle energy. I teach the “handshake practice,” where you look inside and connect honestly with yourself, to bring awareness to your raw feelings and subtle body agitation.
Remember, the burnout is not coming from the speed of thinking but the speed of the subtle body. For example, if I want to go from here to my house, my cognitive mind has already figured out how to get there, but my physical body cannot jump instantly with the mind, it has to go step by step. Yet my subtle body, the emotional feeling, is saying, “Go! Move! Get going! Come on!” It’s as if we have three inner speed limits relating to the mental, emotional, and physical levels. While it’s good to think fast and move fast, it’s definitely not helpful for us to have speedy emotions. That inner voice urging us to hurry up only leads to stress and exhaustion. So it’s very important to be aware of that subtle body energy and to slow the unnecessary speed and extra worry to the right level. There’s a lot of gold in this. With a smooth-flowing subtle energy body, you feel very clear! Fast, alert but calm; dynamic and efficient, but also happy.
PHK: How did you come to adapt your traditional Buddhist teachings in this way?
TR: I’ve had many experiences and encounters with people who come to my teachings, and I can see from my students the issues that need to be addressed. In particular, I learnt much from Daniel Goleman,* Tara Bennett-Goleman,** and Richard Davidson*** about cognitive psychology and brain function. My teachings have emerged from our discussions on the meeting of the scientific point of view and Buddhist understanding. I think this collaboration has been very useful. Psychological understanding gives us the map and the Dharma gives us the tools to work with ourselves, while science gives us some assurance about how it happens.
PHK: Hong Kong is undergoing a lot of change, and the culture itself is becoming more open to the value of emotional intelligence and personal development. It feels like the time is very ripe for what you are communicating.
TR: Hong Kong is an interesting blend of Western and Asian cultures, and that brings with it a mix of good and bad things. On one side, there is already an understanding of karma, reincarnation, subtle energy, and feng shui. On the other side, there are traditional social structures that can be emotionally restrictive. On top of all this is the influence of Western culture. I think people can lead different lifestyles at home and in the office, which can cause confusion and subtle suffering.
I’ve seen a lot of Hongkongers who are searching for answers. They know deep down that something is not working, but they don’t know what. When I’ve taught here before, I’ve seen that something immediately clicks—people recognize that it’s something inside that they have to transform. My method is not to change your outer lifestyle but to fix the inner problem, until one day our collective lifestyles will naturally shift. When we have harmony in the mind, subtle body, and physical body, then a feeling of peace arises and transmits to the whole group.
PHK: What advice do you have as we go through these challenging and uncertain times?
TR: In Buddhist practice, it is essential to make a good motivation to benefit others. So first we should connect with our basic wellbeing and inner peace and then radiate that to others. Based on that ground, we can use our intelligent mind to act. It’s important not to act from an emotionally wounded place.
PHK: Can you also advise us about raising children in an emotionally healthy way? Life in Hong Kong is increasingly competitive and children are starting to study at very early ages, with some learning to write at three years old.
TR: It’s very important to give children a feeling of emotional security rather than give too much knowledge too soon. Too much cognitive stimulation and responsibility will stress out a young child’s emotional state and that’s not healthy for their overall development. I understand that Hong Kong is going through a lot of change, but even if we can’t change the external circumstances, there’s still a way that we can help children to be playful in the subtle body. For example, I encourage parents to hold their young children on their lap, with the child facing outwards but protected by the adult’s presence from behind. Then the child can play happily, coming and going at will, while subconsciously knowing someone is there. That’s very important in communicating essence love and helping a child grow up feeling secure and confident. Too much pressure and input from the parent can be too smothering or disturbing. Of course, a child needs to study, but to have this kind of relaxed contact every day for 15 minutes is very beneficial. In time, they will assume responsibilities and develop their cognitive faculties from this healthy foundation.
PHK: It’s extraordinary that the Buddhist insights on transforming suffering are still so relevant to the modern condition.
TR: At the beginning I couldn’t understand why people in wealthy countries were suffering. I thought suffering was confined to poor countries like Nepal, but now I have equal sympathy for both. The very rich have suffering. The poorest in Nepal suffer, yet I still see some joy or openness there. Of course, the best is to be externally happy and internally happy. Wow, that’s very good!
* Daniel Goleman is a psychologist, science journalist, and author of the bestselling book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
** Tara Bennett-Goleman is a teacher, psychotherapist, and author of the book Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart.
*** Richard Davidson is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, renowned for his research on how meditation can rewire the brain.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche will teach on the Subtle Body, on 25–27 November at Hong Kong University and lead a retreat titled “Trek Chod 1” (Cutting Through) on 2–4 December. For details, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.