Evaluating Eckhart

Review of “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle and “The Joy of Living” by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

Gaylon Ferguson1 July 2008

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose
By Eckhart Tolle
Plume, 2007; 313 pp., $14 (paper)

The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness
By Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Harmony Books, 2007; 272 pp., $24 (cloth)

Old Kipling was clearly wrong. I mean, of course, Rudyard Kipling, the Victorian poet and novelist who famously wrote: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Globalization, with its constant, whizzing, cross-cultural flows of people, ideas, and material goods, has rendered that statement nonsense. Consider these two books—one by a young Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, and the other by a German-born, English-educated popular spiritual teacher—as further evidence of the intertwining of Eastern and Western cultures.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche was born in Nepal in 1975, the youngest son of the renowned Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Mingyur Rinpoche’s brothers, Tsokyni Rinpoche and Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, are both well-known in the West as Buddhist teachers. Mingyur himself was recognized as a tulku, a reincarnate lama, and formally enthroned shortly before his twelfth birthday as the compassionate rebirth of the first Yongey Mingyur.

One of the most charming aspects of this lively book is the frank recounting of the ups and downs of his early years learning the traditional practices of Tibetan Buddhism. He trained diligently, first with his grandfather and later with his father, and then during a lengthy retreat in India he entered at the age of thirteen. “I’d like to say that everything got better once I was safely settled among the other participants in the three-year retreat at Sherab Ling,” he writes. “On the contrary, however, my first year in retreat was one of the worst in my life. All the symptoms of anxiety I’d ever experienced—physical tension, tightness in the throat, dizziness, and waves of panic—attacked in full force. In Western terms, I was having a nervous breakdown. In hindsight, I can say that what I was actually going through was what I like to call a ‘nervous breakthrough.’ ”

This breakthrough was so successful that, at the end of three years, Mingyur Rinpoche’s teacher appointed him the meditation master for the next retreat. As he notes with confident humility, “From that point on, I haven’t experienced a single panic attack. … I take no personal credit for this transformation in my experience, because it has only come about through making the effort to apply directly the truth handed down by those who’d preceded me.” He directly connects his transformative experience with the tradition of spiritual practices handed down in an unbroken lineage for centuries.

Mingyur Rinpoche’s thorough grounding in tradition began when he was a child, as did his encounter with Western neuroscience. Francisco Varela, the Chilean biologist, traveled to Nepal in the 1980s to study Buddhist teachings and meditation with Mingyur Rinpoche’s father. When they weren’t studying or practicing, Varela began instructing the young Mingyur in modern scientific views. Other Western students visiting Nepal also began informally tutoring him in physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, and this led to a lifelong interest in the ongoing conversations between Western scientists and Buddhist practitioners. Mingyur Rinpoche tells the story of his delight and interest in the talks given at the two Mind and Life Institute conferences he attended in 2000 and 2003. These dialogues with, among others, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, are conversations between research scientists and Buddhist monks and scholars about the workings of the mind. Daniel Goleman’s Destructive Emotions: How Can We Transform Them? is one account of these exchanges.

Mingyur Rinpoche’s own book seems in part a result of these dialogues. He skillfully weaves the vocabulary and findings of contemporary neuroscience with guided instructions in mindfulness, compassion, and resting in the nature of mind. He deftly explains neuronal connections as the biological basis for our most entrenched mental habits. Yet these karmic patterns can be changed. “In neuroscientific terms, this capacity to replace old neuronal connections with new ones is referred to as neuronal plasticity.” There is a clear path in the book pointing to the mind’s inherent flexibility and pliability—in short to our ability to free ourselves from the control of conflicting emotions and develop an attitude of loving-kindness and compassion.

Mingyur Rinpoche’s journey begins with immersion in the wisdom traditions of Asia and then expands to include insights from Western physics and neuroscience. The subtitle of his book promises a new synthesis of ancient secrets with the emerging “science of happiness.” Eckhart Tolle’s journey moves in the opposite direction—from the postmodern, secular West to an inclusive spiritual vision of old and new truths.

As Tolle tells the story in his best-selling first book, The Power of Now, he was a twenty-nine-year-old graduate research assistant at the University of London when a spontaneous spiritual experience arose after a long night of utter despair: “The silence of the night, the vague outlines of the furniture in the dark room, the distant noise of a passing train—everything felt so alien, so hostile, and so utterly meaningless that it created in me a deep loathing of the world. The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my existence.”

Later, Tolle will term this a discovery of suffering, using the Buddhist Sanskrit word duhkha, meaning fundamental unease and pervasive dissatisfaction with life itself. But he is equally comfortable calling it “original sin,” as in the Christian teachings, or “maya,” echoing sayings of the great Indian non-dualist Ramana Maharshi. The dust jacket introduces him as a “contemporary spiritual teacher who is not aligned with any particular religion or tradition.”

Tolle’s transformation was sudden. As he describes it, “I was awakened by the sound of a bird outside the window. I had never heard such a sound before. … I got up and walked around the room. I recognized the room, and yet I knew that I had never truly seen it before. Everything was fresh and pristine, as if it had just come into existence. I picked up things, a pencil, an empty bottle, marveling at the beauty and aliveness of it all.” He says that although he knew that “something profoundly significant had happened,” initially he “didn’t understand it at all.” It was only later, after reading spiritual texts such as A Course in Miracles and meeting with Theravadin Buddhist monks in England, that he began to call this transformation awakening. But again, he seems as pleased to note that in Hinduism and Buddhism this is called enlightenment as to note that in the teachings of Jesus it is salvation.

Tolle’s newest book, A New Earth, takes its title from the words of a biblical prophet: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). He interprets the new heaven as a state of consciousness that is emerging not in the West or East alone but globally. Tolle sees his books as catalysts contributing to the arising of a new, less egoic consciousness and “a more enlightened humanity.” Human beings in this new state of being will then make a new earth, transforming our historic propensities for violence, greed, and exploitation into a saner, wiser, and gentler relationship to ourselves and nature.

Tolle is careful to distinguish this from a utopian vision of a possible future. Either this flowering of human consciousness is already taking place in us, he emphasizes, or the thought of it is simply that—just another thought.

These two books illuminate missing elements, each in the other. This is a key part of the virtue of cross-cultural dialogue and interweaving. The Joy of Living’s genuine and insightful appreciation of neuroscience verges at moments very close to what we might call “biologism.” It is as though neuroscience provides us with the hard evidence of absolute truth. This would be an unfortunate solidifying of a helpful set of scientific findings, and Mingyur Rinpoche himself eloquently warns us against any such conceptual solidification as a mental fixation that will only lead to further suffering.

Still, there are a number of puzzling statements in the book: “[T]aking the time to gain even a partial understanding of the structure and function of the brain provides a more grounded basis for understanding from a scientific perspective how and why the techniques I learned as a Buddhist actually work.” More grounded than what? Modern science “helps to explain why the Buddhist practices work in terms of hard, scientific analysis.” What is the point of view from which Buddhist insights stand in need of such external validation? Isn’t that point of view sometimes called “scientific materialism,” and doesn’t thorough Buddhist analysis lead to the dissolution of all such conceptual, compounded solidity?

Along similar lines, the book presents the neurotic confusion of samsara and the ethical impulse to help others as based in our human physiology. Our “crazy monkey” mind of deluded self-interest is “essentially a neurologically programmed response to human survival.” The problem here is that biological explanations of our current social patterns leave to the side the crucial role of society, history, and culture in shaping what it is to be human, and how we are human today. When Harvard professor Robert Putnam demonstrates a sharp decline in community involvement in the United States in the last few decades, there is no reason to look for a change in our biology to understand this shift. Consumerism, advertising, greed, and socio-political forces play much more important roles in making the global crises we face today than “ancient survival-based patterns.” These patterns have been here throughout human history, and yet some societies and cultures have taught and learned gentleness and compassion. Clearly this cultural training in aggression or non-aggression makes all the difference.

Likewise, consider approaching the horrors of the ongoing political struggles in the Middle East, or the recent narrowly averted civil war in Kenya, with the news that “an ethical sense is a biological feature of our species.” As we have seen, successful mediation depends on skillful negotiation, persuading opposing sides to see each other’s point of view, moving toward “win-win” scenarios. It does not seem helpful or relevant to locate altruism in our biology. Our real difficulties are on the level of society invading society, group mistreating group, selfish indifference to the suffering of others. Culture—not biology—seems the key here.

Tolle seems more attuned to this level when he reminds us of the slaughterhouse of human history, that in the twentieth century alone, more than one hundred million humans died violent deaths at the hands of other human beings. As well, he notes the “unprecedented violence that humans are inflicting on other life-forms and the planet itself—the destruction of oxygen-producing forests and other plant and animal life; ill-treatment of animals in factory farms; and poisoning of rivers, oceans, and air. Driven by greed, ignorant of their connectedness to the whole, humans persist in behavior that, if continued unchecked, can only result in their destruction.” These are all collective manifestations of what he calls the greed of the ego, noting that huge corporations are egoic entities competing with each other. “[W]hat keeps the so-called consumer society going is the fact that trying to find yourself through things doesn’t work: the ego satisfaction is short-lived and so you keep looking for more, keep buying, keep consuming.” Just as individual bad dreams arise from a dreaming mind, our collective nightmare of materialism is a product of our mentality.

Yet A New Earth also has blindnesses served up with its insights. The last chapter of The Joy of Living contains a simple statement: “You need a teacher.” Mingyur Rinpoche quotes from a meditation master of his own spiritual lineage, the ninth Karmapa, in support: “You must be guided by an authentic spiritual mentor.” It may be a part of Tolle’s widespread appeal that he has no lineage, no tradition, allowing him to quote from a Zen teacher or a Sufi saint as easily as the Tao Te Ching. Spirituality often claims to present the essence of all religions—a rather immodest proposal. Distrust of commitment is part of the mind-set of our time. Ego loves to believe that it can do it “my way.” The downside is that there are no checks and balances to correct distortions or biases that can easily creep into any articulation of what is “beyond words.” What’s missing here is a teaching lineage, an authenticated body of teachings, and a community of practitioners gathered to realize their inner meaning.

For example, Tolle tells us that we are moving to a time beyond religion, beyond spiritual ideology and mythology. “We are coming to the end not only of mythologies but also of ideologies and belief systems.” Yet A New Earth includes the invention of a new mythological entity he calls “the pain-body.” “If that sounds to you like a psychic parasite,” he says, “you are right. That’s exactly what it is.” Media and the entertainment industry often feed the pain-body. Active pain-bodies can even explain many traffic accidents: “When two drivers with active pain-bodies arrive at an intersection at the same time, the likelihood of an accident is many times greater than under normal circumstances. Unconsciously they both want the accident to happen.” A teaching lineage might be helpful in clarifying the accuracy of this concept—testing it against other authoritative pronouncements and verifying the elaborations of the insight as authentic or not.

Most distressing is a momentary lapse into racialism: we are told that there are “collective racial pain-bodies.” Most modern social scientists understand “race” as a powerful cultural construction. Our social categories of “race” have no valid genetic basis, hence the inherently unscientific nature of racism. When tragedies such as the genocide of Native Americans or the Holocaust or African American slavery are being discussed, these are the historical, cultural experiences of particular ethnic groups. There is no need to stray into solidifying this as a “racial” heritage, as though tragedy is carried in the genes.

The path presented in A New Earth is primarily a change in attitude. The crucial question is: how are we to make the shift to a more enlightened attitude? Reading the words of the book is said to have transformative power—if, as with any spiritual teaching, we truly take to heart these teachings on surrendering to what is. In contrast to Mingyur Rinpoche’s carefully detailed meditation instructions, there is but one passing mention of the power of being aware of the breath. This leads to a further exposition of inner body awareness, first introduced in The Power of Now. Yet for all the discussion of a mass awakening, there is little mention of life in communities—either spiritual communities or neighborhoods in general. This is a peculiarly individualistic story of moving beyond ego.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of the university where I teach, envisioned Naropa as a place where “East meets West and sparks will fly.” Placing these two books side by side, we glimpse some of the many possible sidetracks in cross-cultural pollination—how we can solidify each other’s traditions, or extract only a portion of what needs the wholeness of living context.

Yet in the end, I am grateful for both these books. Mingyur Rinpoche’s cheerful appreciation of the diligence and precision of the scientific community is heartening. The Joy of Living also displays the enduring profundity and present-day practicality of the buddhadharma. The point of this historic meeting of East and West is clear: “How lucky we are to be alive at this unique moment in human history, when the collaboration between Western and Buddhist scientists is poised to offer all humanity the possibility of achieving a level of well-being that defies imagination!” Tolle reminds us not only that a new consciousness is possible, but that the means to this transformation—our own bodies, breathing, and minds—are close at hand. Moreover, he emphasizes the urgency of personal and social transformation; the survival of the planet depends on it. I am grateful for these two books, which remind us that the overall purpose of a spiritual journey is the collective well-being of all beings, East and West, North and South.

Gaylon Ferguson

Gaylon Ferguson, PhD, was core faculty in Religious and Interdisciplinary Studies for fifteen years at Naropa University. He has led mindfulness retreats since 1976 and is the author of Welcoming Beginner’s Mind (2024), Natural Wakefulness, and Natural Bravery.