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THE JOURNEY BEGINS
If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.
When you're trained as a Buddhist, you don't think of Buddhism as a religion. You think of it as a type of science, a method of exploring your own experience through techniques that enable you to examine your actions and reactions in a nonjudgmental way, with the view toward recognizing, "Oh, this is how my mind works. This is what I need to do to experience happiness. This is what I should avoid to avoid unhappiness."
At its heart, Buddhism is very practical. It's about doing things that foster serenity, happiness, and confidence, and avoiding things that provoke anxiety, hopelessness, and fear. The essence of Buddhist practice is not so much an effort at changing your thoughts or your behavior so that you can become a better person, but in realizing that no matter what you might think about the circumstances that define your life, you're already good, whole, and complete. It's about recognizing the inherent potential of your mind. In other words, Buddhism is not so much concerned with getting well as with recognizing that you are, right here, right now, as whole, as good, as essentially well as you could ever hope to be.
You don't believe that, do you?
Well, for a long time, neither did I.
I would like to begin by making a confession, which may sound strange coming from someone regarded as a reincarnate lama who is supposed to have done all sorts of wonderful things in previous lifetimes. From earliest childhood, I was haunted by feelings of fear and anxiety. My heart raced and I often broke out in a sweat whenever I was around people I didn't know. There wasn't any reason for the discomfort I experienced. I lived in a beautiful valley, surrounded by a loving family and scores of monks, nuns, and others who were deeply engaged in learning how to awaken inner peace and happiness. Nevertheless, anxiety accompanied me like a shadow.
I was probably about six years old when I first began to experience some relief. Inspired mostly by a child's curiosity, I began climbing into the hills around the valley where I grew up to explore the caves where generations of Buddhist practitioners had spent their lives in meditation. Sometimes I'd go into a cave and pretend to meditate. Of course, I really had no idea how to meditate. I'd just sit there mentally repeating Om Mani Peme Hung, a mantra, or repetition of special combinations of ancient syllables, familiar to almost every Tibetan, Buddhist or not. Sometimes I'd sit for hours, mentally reciting the mantra without understanding what I was doing. Nevertheless, I started to feel a sense of calm stealing over me.
Yet even after three years of sitting in caves trying to figure out how to meditate, my anxiety increased until it became what would probably be diagnosed in the West as a full-blown panic disorder. For a while I received some informal instructions from my grandfather, a great meditation master who preferred to keep his accomplishments quiet; but finally I summoned the courage to ask my mother to approach my father, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, with my request to study formally with him. My father agreed, and for the next three years he instructed me in various methods of meditation.
I didn't understand much at first. I tried to rest my mind in the way he taught, but my mind wouldn't rest. In fact, during those early years of formal training, I actually found myself growing more distracted than before. All sorts of things annoyed me: physical discomfort, background noises, conflicts with other people. Years later I would come to realize I wasn't actually getting worse; I was simply becoming more aware of the constant stream of thoughts and sensations I'd never recognized before. Having watched other people go through the same process, I realize now that this is a common experience for people who are just learning how to examine their mind through meditation.
Although I did begin to experience brief moments of calmness, dread and fear continued to haunt me like hungry ghostsespecially since every few months I was sent to Sherab Ling monastery in India (the primary residence of the Twelfth Tai Situ Rinpoche, one of the greatest masters of Tibetan Buddhism alive today, and one of my most influential teachers, whose great wisdom and kindness in guiding my own development are debts I can never repay) to study under new teachers among unfamiliar students, and then sent back to Nepal to continue training under my father. I spent almost three years that way, shuttling back and forth between India and Nepal, receiving formal instruction from my father and from my teachers at Sherab Ling.
One of the most terrible moments came shortly before my twelfth birthday, when I was sent to Sherab Ling for a special purpose, one that I had been dreading for a long time: formal enthronement as the incarnation of the first Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Hundreds of people attended the ceremony, and I spent hours accepting their gifts and giving them blessings as if I were somebody really important instead of just a terrified twelve-year-old boy. As the hours passed, I turned so pale that my older brother, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, who was standing beside me, thought I was going to faint.
When I look back on this period, and on all the kindness that was shown to me by teachers, I wonder how I ever could have felt as fearful as I did. In hindsight, I can see that the basis of my anxiety lay in the fact that I hadn't truly recognized the real nature of my mind. I had a basic intellectual understanding, but not the kind of direct experience that would have enabled me to see that whatever terror or discomfort I felt was a product of my own mind, and that the unshakable basis of serenity, confidence, and happiness was closer to me than my own eyes.
At the same time that I began my formal Buddhist training, something wonderful was taking place; though I didn't realize it at the time, this new turn of events would have a lasting impact on my life and actually accelerate my personal progress. I was gradually being introduced to the ideas and discoveries of modern sciencein particular the study of the nature and function of the brain.
A MEETING OF MINDS
We have to go through the process of sitting down and examining the mind and examining our experience to see what is really going on.
Kalu Rinpoche, The Gem Ornament of Manifest Instructions, edited by Caroline M. Parke and Nancy J. Clarke
I was only a child when I met Francisco Varela, a Chilean biologist who would one day become one of the most renowned neuroscientists of the twentieth century. Francisco had come to Nepal to study the Buddhist method of mental examination and training under my father, whose reputation had attracted quite a number of Western students. When we weren't studying or practicing, Francisco would often talk to me about modern science, especially his own specialty, the structure and function of the brain. Of course, he was careful to frame his lessons in terms a nine-year-old boy could understand. As others among my father's Western students recognized my interest in science, they too began teaching me what they knew of modern theories about biology, psychology, chemistry, and physics. It was a little bit like learning two languages at the same time: Buddhism on the one hand, modern science on the other.
I remember thinking even then that there didn't seem to be much difference between the two. The words were different, but the meaning seemed pretty much the same. After a while, I also began to see that the ways in which Western and Buddhist scientists approached their subjects were remarkably alike. Classical Buddhist texts begin by presenting a theoretical or philosophical basis of examination, commonly referred to as the "Ground." They then move on to various methods of practice, commonly referred to as the "Path," and finally conclude with an analysis of the results of personal experiments and suggestions for further study, typically described as the "Fruit." Western scientific investigation often follows a similar structure, beginning with a theory or hypothesis, an explanation of the methods through which the theory is tested, and an analysis comparing the results of the experiments against the original hypothesis.
What fascinated me most about simultaneously learning about modern science and Buddhist practice was that while the Buddhist approach was able to teach people an introspective or subjective approach to realizing their full capacity for happiness, the Western perspective explained in a more objective fashion why and how the teachings worked. By themselves, Buddhist and modern sciences both provided extraordinary insights into the workings of the human mind. Taken together, they formed a more complete and intelligible whole.
Near the end of that period of traveling between India and Nepal, I learned that a three-year retreat program was about to begin at Sherab Ling monastery. The master of the retreat would be Saljay Rinpoche, one of my principal teachers at Sherab Ling. Saljay Rinpoche was considered one of the most accomplished masters of Tibetan Buddhism of his day. A gentle man with a low voice, he had an amazing ability to do or say exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. I'm sure some of you have spent time around people who had a similar kind of impact, people able to teach incredibly profound lessons without appearing to be teaching at all. Just the way they are is a lesson that lasts for the rest of your life.
Because Saljay Rinpoche was very old, and this would most likely be the last retreat he might ever lead, I wanted very much to take part in it. I was only thirteen years old, however, an age generally considered too young to tolerate the rigors of three years in retreat. But I begged my father to intervene on my behalf, and in the end, Tai Situ Rinpoche granted me permission to participate.
Before I describe my experiences during those three years, I feel it's necessary to take some time to speak a little bit about the history of Tibetan Buddhism, which I think may help to explain why I was so eager to enter the retreat.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LINEAGE
Conceptual knowledge is not enough . . . you must have the conviction that comes from personal experience.
The Ninth Gyalwang Karmapa, Mahamudra: The Ocean of Definitive Meaning, translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan
The method of exploring and working directly with the mind that we call Buddhism has its source in the teachings of a young Indian nobleman named Siddhartha. Upon witnessing firsthand the terrible misery experienced by people who had not grown up in the same privileged environment he enjoyed, Siddhartha gave up the security and comforts of his home to find a solution to the problem of human suffering. Suffering takes many forms, ranging from the nagging whisper that we would be happier "if only" some small aspect of our lives were different, to the pain of illness and the terror of death.
Siddhartha became an ascetic, wandering across India to study under teachers who professed to have found the solution he was seeking. Unfortunately, none of the answers they provided and none of the practices they taught him seemed entirely complete. At last he decided to abandon outside advice altogether and seek the solution to the problem of suffering in the place he had begun to suspect it originated: within his own mind. In a place called Bodhgaya, in the northeastern Indian province of Bihar, he sat under the shelter of a tree and sank deeper and deeper into his own mind, determined to find the answers he sought, or die in the attempt. After many days and nights he finally discovered what he was looking for: a fundamental awareness that was unchanging, indestructible, and infinite in scope. When he emerged from this state of profound meditation, he was no longer Siddhartha. He was the Buddha, a Sanskrit title that means "the one who is awake."
What he had awakened to was the full potential of his own nature, which had previously been limited by what is commonly referred to as dualismthe idea of a distinct and inherently real "self" that is separate from an apparently distinct and inherently real "other." As we'll explore later, dualism is not a "character flaw" or defect. It's a complex survival mechanism deeply rooted in the structure and function of the brainwhich, along with other mechanisms, can be changed through experience.
The Buddha recognized this capacity for change through introspective examination. The ways in which mistaken concepts become embedded in the mind and the means for cutting through them were the subjects of the teaching he gave over the next forty years of his life as he traveled throughout India, attracting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students. Two and a half thousand years later, modern scientists are beginning to demonstrate through rigorous clinical research that the insights he'd gained through subjective examination are amazingly accurate.
Because the scope of the Buddha's insight and perception extended far beyond the ordinary ideas people hold about themselves and about the nature of reality, he was compelledlike other great teachers before and after himto communicate what he'd learned through parables, examples, riddles, and metaphors. He had to use words. And though these words were eventually written down in Sanskrit, Pali, and other languages, they've always been handed down orally, generation after generation. Why? Because when we hear the words of the Buddha and of the masters who followed him and achieved the same freedom, we have to think about their meaning and apply that meaning to our own lives. And when we do this, we generate changes in the structure and functions of our brains, many of which will be discussed in the following pages, creating for ourselves the same freedom the Buddha experienced.
In the centuries following the Buddha's death, his teachings began spreading to many countries, including Tibet, whose geographical isolation from the rest of the world provided a perfect setting for successive generations of students and teachers to devote themselves exclusively to study and practice. The Tibetan masters who achieved enlightenment and became Buddhas in their own lifetimes would then pass on everything they had learned to their most promising students, who, in their turn, passed this wisdom on to their own students. In this way, an unbroken lineage of teaching based upon the instructions of the Buddha, as faithfully recorded by his early followers, and on the detailed commentaries on those original teachings, was established in Tibet. But the real power of the lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, what gives it such purity and strength, is the direct connection between the hearts and minds of the masters who passed the core teachings of the lineage orally, and often secretly, to their students.
Because many areas of Tibet are themselves isolated from each other by mountains, rivers, and valleys, it was often difficult for masters and students to travel around, sharing what they'd learned with one another. As a result, the teaching lineages in different regions evolved in slightly different ways. There are currently four major schools, or lineages, of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug. Although each of these major schools developed at different times and in different areas of Tibet, they share the same basic principles, practices, and beliefs. The differences between them, similar to the distinctions, I'm told, between various denominations of Protestantism, lie mainly in terminology and often quite subtle approaches to scholarship and practice.