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Lions Roar : March 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2012 35 According to Cortland Dahl, Mingyur Rinpoche’s panic attacks led him to begin practicing and studying the dharma in a very atypical way for a lama—a way much closer to how we in the West approach it. He believes that one of the reasons that Mingyur Rinpoche’s teachings resonate so much with Western students is his willingness to talk about his own personal challenges. “For cultural reasons,” Dahl explains, “lamas are happy to talk about other people’s issues, yet they don’t typically talk about their own struggles with practice or emotions. Yes, he was a tulku, a reincarnate lama, and yes, he grew up in this amazing environment with a family of great teachers. But he studied the dharma not only because that’s the typical training of a young tulku, but because he desperately needed it. He really wanted to find a way to work through this painful episode in his life. “In a similar way, a lot of us in the West have come to Buddhism because we’re suffering and we want some way to work with our minds. Mingyur Rinpoche can really speak to our experience in a very direct way. It’s not only that he went through it, but that he is candid about it.” IN A WORLD that equates happiness with big-ticket items, Mingyur Rinpoche stands in stark contrast. Even before leaving the monastery with just the clothes on his back, he had an ultra simple life. Extremely health conscious, he didn’t eat any meat or refined sugars and he jogged every day. He jogged in old penny loafers. Once, some people wanted to buy him some sneakers, but his response was, “Thank you, but I don’t need them—they won’t fit in my bag.” The one bag he carried with him when he traveled was that tiny. “Everything Mingyur Rinpoche gets,” says Cortland Dahl, “all the donations and the money from his books, goes to his monas- teries or dharma projects. People are always giving him gifts and offerings, but usually he gives whatever it is to someone else later. He has literally next to nothing.” He was sixteen when he came out of his first three-year retreat, and much to his surprise he was appointed master of the very next one. This made him the youngest known lama to ever hold this position. It also meant that he was, effectively, in intensive retreat for almost seven continuous years. Attending a monastic college, serving as the functioning abbot of Sherab Ling Monastery, taking full ordination vows as a monk—Mingyur Rinpoche’s young adulthood was extremely busy. It was 1998 before he was able to delve into a branch of learning that he’d been interested in for years. Science. As a child, he knew Francisco Varela, a world-renowned neu- roscientist who’d come to Nepal to study Buddhism with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Varela frequently talked to Mingyur Rinpoche about modern science, especially in regard to the structure and function of the brain. Other Western students of Tulku Urgyen gave him informal lessons in biology, psychology, chemistry, and physics. “It was a little bit like learning two languages at the same time,” Mingyur Rinpoche has written. “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.” They were both methods of investigation. In 2002 he was one of the advanced meditators invited to the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where scientists examined the effects of meditation on the brain. Major publications such as National Geographic and Time reported on the results of the groundbreaking research. Notably, while the adepts meditated on compassion, neural activity in a key center in the brain’s sys- tem for happiness jumped by 700 to 800 percent. In the control group, made up of people who’d just begun to meditate, activity increased by only 10 to 15 percent. Meditation, the study sug- gested, had the potential to increase happiness. Early in 2009, Mingyur Rinpoche let his retreat plans be known to a small circle of people, the people who—as Dahl puts it— ➢ page 90 Mingyur Rinpoche meditating at Tergar Monastery. PHOTOCOURTESYOFTERGARINTERNATIONAL