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Exclusive Interview: Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche on Living Life with Balance and Awareness
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is a revered Karma Kagyu and Nyingma master. Born in 1975, the son of renowned meditation master Tulku Uryen Rinpoche, he received full monastic ordination from Tai Situ Rinpoche at the age of 23 and has received numerous important transmissions, including the Dzogchen transmission of the Heart Essence of the Great Perfection’s oral lineage from Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche. He teaches around the world, with a particular interest in the intersection between Buddhism and neuroscience, and is the abbot of numerous monasteries and the leader of a number of meditation societies, most famously Sherab Ling Monastery and the Tergar monasteries and organizations.
In early June 2011, he went on extended solitary retreat, wandering across the Himalayas until November 2015. He is currently on a teaching tour throughout Asia and gave an interview to Buddhistdoor Global during his stay in Hong Kong from 9–25 September.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche: Fo men wang de peng you! Ni hao. [Hello, friends of Buddhistdoor!]
Buddhistdoor Global: Thank you very much for joining us, Rinpoche. To begin, could you tell us about some of your unique experiences during your wandering retreat? Could it be said that you have reached a certain milestone in your own practice as a result, and if so what will this mean for your future teachings?
YMR: There were two things that I learned. One was to really improve my meditation. The whole purpose was to develop meditation. The second was that I learned a lot of things about life. I was born to a nice family and I was recognized as a Rinpoche. I had many good friends and students. I was a Dharma prince, so I never went out and I never stayed on the street for more than an hour. My solitary retreat led me to big discoveries. I was naïve. It was like a karmic suicide mission: no money, no house, no friends, no support, nothing. Just me, alone.
And then I fell sick because I was begging for food. I almost died. But that experience really, really benefited me, it was one of the best experiences of my life. My body felt totally paralyzed, I couldn’t see or hear, and I stayed like that for around 6–7 hours. After that, I woke up and felt like everything was my home. Before I had thought the streets were not my home and I was embarrassed to stay there. “This is not my home, I don’t belong here; dirty here, dog there.” But then the street became my home. An old, broken wall behind me looked very nice and was my home. The trees, the breeze, the sunshine—everything. I learned a lot of gratitude and appreciation.
Let me share another example. After my near-death experience, I went into the mountains and cooked for myself. Before people would cook for me, or the monastery would prepare food. But now I had to make a fire. There was no gas or electric stove. I had a matchbox. For the first few days I couldn’t make fire, but once I could make fire I had to cook. So first I had to boil water. It took me two hours! So when I drank it, the water tasted like steam, and I got dizzy and I saw stars and galaxies. . . . Later I could boil hot water within 15 minutes.
In the summers I went into the Himalayan mountains, and each year during my retreat I went to a different mountain site. In the winter it’s very cold and if it snows while you’re in a cave, you’re stuck and cannot go out. In the winter I came down to the Nepal-India border where it would flood. There were many places where I could get free meals, such as ashrams. I could sometimes get free lodging or just stay on the streets. I also did not stay in one place for too long. When I did so, such as for three or four months, people would come with offerings and ask me to do puja, among other things. This made me busier and distracted, so the idea was not to stay in one area for too long.
So after coming back, what has changed for my teaching? What I teach is the teaching from 2,500 years of lineages. The meaning of the teachings never change. It’s the same, but there are different emphases. Now I emphasize three things: experience, application in everyday life, and meditation techniques for different personalities.
BDG: We live in a hustle-and-bustle society, and we face so much noise and responsibility every day. Not many people have the opportunity or time to go away for a long period of retreat. Do you have any advice for people facing such constraints?
YMR: We don’t need to look for problems because our lives are full of them. Free problems! But we have very good opportunities to learn from our problems and obstacles. We can go beyond our normal circle and grow thanks to our problems. Normally we have a small circle with our usual behavior and habits, and if we stay there we cannot grow. We have to take some risks, because even when we aren’t looking for obstacles, obstacles come to us, so we need to use them as teachers. So, without mistakes, there is no success. But repeated mistakes—no success! We have to learn from any mistake. If you surrender to your problems, mistakes, whatever—they will come back again and again, but if you make them a learning process, to grow, then the problem or obstacle becomes a really good teacher.
So how to get peace in our lives? There is so much stress and competition. Normally, we need to find balance, but you can get real peace even in stressful situations, because stress is a mental state. Even if someone were pointing a gun at you, the mind is still in your hands, even if the gun can harm your body. Of course it’s very dangerous and I’m not saying you can enjoy the situation. You have to try your best to escape, but whether you can still live or even die peacefully is up to you.
How to reach balance? We need to change our beliefs, we need to have some experience of peace and we need to deal with our everyday behavior. We have to believe in our basic goodness—we all have so many good qualities in us, scientists say, and we ignore the majority of our good qualities and exaggerate our few negative qualities. Peace and happiness is within you, along with many other things: wisdom, skill, capability, power, love, compassion. You are smarter than you think. You are more capable than you think. So believe in yourself.
At the level of the brain we need belief, but at the level of the heart we need experience with meditation. A simple technique is to be aware of your breath. Just notice your breathing. Your mind needs to follow and feel your breath—in, out, in out. You might have a lot of thoughts, that’s okay. You don’t have to block those thoughts. Many people think meditation is having no thoughts. Let them come and go, just don’t forget your breath.
Finally, you must apply this meditation and belief in everyday life. Try to believe! Try to meditate! Try again! You can meditate anywhere, anytime. You should also try to do some exercise, and sleep is important. I heard many Hongkongers sleep very late, and then their rest is not good and the morning becomes stressful and tight. So try to sleep early. If you do all these things, you can still have peace in a stressful life.
BDG: Very often we emphasize our spiritual practice, but we forget that the body needs to provide a solid foundation to be able to do those practices.
YMR: Yes, the Buddha talked about our precious human life, our precious human body. So we need to respect and take care of our body. Again, we need balance. So try your best, believe in yourself, take care of yourself, and meditate. But your mind should not be too uptight about the result. Some days we are sick, some days we have too many obstacles . . . we may not achieve everything we wish and that is life. The Buddha said that life is suffering, right? The first teaching he gave was, “Bhikkhus, life is suffering.” So he gave the bad news first! But knowing that life is suffering is the good news, because not knowing that life is suffering leads to so many expectations and broken hearts. All our suffering comes from unrealistic expectations.
BDG: Many people in Hong Kong have a lot of materialistic and emotional expectations. Since you’ve returned from retreat, how have you taught your students about managing expectations and making peace with unrealized hopes?
YMR: Finding balance is so important. How do we do that? Try your best and use your many good qualities to achieve your goals. But at the same time, your mind must not be too tight. Remind yourself that life is like the wave of an ocean, or like the stock market—it comes up, it goes down. You cannot always achieve what you want; it’s impossible. You might not always fail, either. So if you balance your expectations and are at peace, whatever you do will naturally become more successful.
BDG: Let’s talk about the issue of solitude. Nowadays we’re obsessed with our relationships with others—our social media and smartphones, friends and peers, and society. We seldom have time to sit with ourselves. Can you share with us your experiences with solitude?
YMR: If we can be with ourselves, it is the cause of our liberation, freedom. Sometimes we feel loneliness so we can’t be with ourselves and our mind is always “out there” and not “in here,” or jumping between the past and future and not in the present. Solitude means to relax in our own presence. If you want to do anything or make any decision, you have to be relaxed. Even if you get a nice idea, if your mind is too tight and runs through all the details, you lose the bigger picture. So being solitary from time to time manifests our innate goodness. Maybe even for short times, like 15 minutes. Or go for walks. Don’t bring your phone.
Any new thing we do will feel uncomfortable because the habit is not just in our mind, it’s in our body and muscles. Even when our brain says no, our hand reaches for the phone to hold and check it! So we need to build a new habit to replace our old habit. Start small, step by step. If you try to do one hour at the beginning, you will only succeed once, and afterwards you won’t do it again. Do five minutes for 20 days, then you will benefit. Building new habits takes time. If you meditate for short times for 30 days, then the habit will go into your body and muscles as well as your brain.
BDG: What is the difference between awareness and mindfulness?
YMR: Originally, long ago, mindfulness and awareness had the same meaning. Now I talk more about awareness. It sounds more natural and has a sense of being and presence. Many aspects of mindfulness are misunderstood. Some people think it’s about no thoughts or blissing out, especially people in the US.
BDG: Any closing remarks, Rinpoche?
YMR: Of course, we all want to be happy, but we don’t know what the real causes of happiness are. When I was young I had panic attacks, so I used meditation to make friends with my panic and to overcome it. Now I consider my panic to be one of my best teachers and friends. I believe these meditation techniques are good for everyone. Also, it’s very important to be with yourself and to meditate and develop lasting happiness so that your life becomes meaningful!
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