In this exclusive interview, Mingyur Rinpoche tells Lion’s Roar’s Andrea Miller how he learned to befriend his anxiety. We all have an innate well-being, he says. And we can all experience it.
Andrea Miller: You suffered from anxiety when you were young. What caused your anxiety, and how did you overcome it?
Mingyur Rinpoche: I grew up in the Himalayas, a wonderful environment with fresh air and trees, but also a place with extreme weather. The snow doesn’t just come from above. It comes from every direction (laughs). Winds can be so strong that they shake the whole house. At those times, I would cling to a pillar to secure myself. This violent weather was one source of my fears.
Another source was strangers. If somebody new came to my village, I’d get scared. If they came to my home, I’d panic. This was happening to me when I was around seven or eight. In a panic attack, my neck tightened, I couldn’t breathe well, and my heart hurt to the point I thought I was having a heart attack.
The doctors said my heart was fine, so my mother suggested I learn meditation from my father. He told me that panic is like a storm in the Himalayas. The fundamental quality of the mind, what we call awareness or clarity or luminosity, is like the sky around the mountains. No matter how intense the storm is, it doesn’t change the nature of the sky. That’s the view.
To practice, he said, don’t try to fight the storms. Try to connect with the sky itself, awareness itself. To do that, I started with breath meditation, sound meditation, and mantra recitation. Then, I began to welcome my panic attacks and apply the view and meditation.
Did it take courage to speak about your struggles with anxiety?
In the Tibetan community it was not difficult, but I found it more difficult to communicate in the context of modern Western culture. I began to write my book in 2000. Back then, the thinking in the West was that if you’re having panic attacks, you’re weak and unstable. Scientists were still in the early stages of understanding neuroplasticity—understanding that your brain can change and that panic is not something that’s always there. It’s only a symptom.
What motivated you to publicly share your experience with anxiety?
I thought my own life example might benefit people with similar issues.
How did you become interested in science? Do modern science and Buddhism dovetail?
Since childhood, I’ve had a lot of interest in science. When I was about twelve, I met Francisco Varela, a cognitive scientist who came to learn meditation from my father. I asked him a lot of questions, about cosmology, stars, galaxies. Eventually, we talked about the brain. Much later, in 2002, I became a guinea pig in laboratories where scientists were studying meditation using FMRI and EEG.
One of the great similarities between Buddhism and science is that the Buddha did not instruct us to simply take his word for it. He suggested we examine things carefully. Scientists do the same in trying to explore the nature of reality.
In Buddhism, we have view, meditation, and application. Earlier, when I was talking about my father teaching me, I talked about view, that is, the Buddhist view on the nature of reality. Science also has a view, and it seems to be getting closer to the Buddhist view every time I talk to scientists.
Concerning meditation, science doesn’t have that built in, and the application in life is a bit different. In Buddhism, our application of view and meditation means we develop intentions like loving-kindness and compassion, practicing for the benefit of all beings. That’s not explicitly done in science.
From 2011 to 2015, you went on a wandering-yogi retreat. What inspired you to do that?
When I was young, in the evenings we would gather around the fire and hear stories, including stories of great Tibetan meditation masters, like Milarepa and Rechungpa, who were wandering yogis. These stories would sometimes make my grandma cry, because she was moved by the hardships they endured, and I would cry along with her. So, from early on I was inspired by the idea of the wandering retreat.
As my book did well, and I was doing a lot of teaching, it seemed many people were being helped, but I also felt a subtle pride coming out of that: I’m a famous teacher, best-selling author, abbot of a monastery. Therefore, I thought maybe I should do something different.
How did you go about leaving everything behind, and what was that like?
One of the monasteries I lead is in Bodhgaya, India, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. One night while I was there, I snuck out. Once I got past the main gate, it was like I was in a bardo, an intermediate, nonconceptual state, a kind of shock.
Throughout my life, I’ve carried the title “rinpoche,” so people treat me like a dharma prince. They bow, give me nice food, great places to stay. Suddenly, I was out of that completely. At the same time, I was happy because I really wanted to do the wandering retreat.
Soon into the retreat, you almost died. How did that happen?
I only had a few thousand rupees, so after an overnight train ride, I was already low on money. Hanging around the train station, I found a map of India and saw that I could easily take a train to Kushinagar, where the Buddha attained parinirvana, nirvana after death.
When I arrived, I checked into a cheap, broken-down guest house. This used the last of my money. Now, I had to stay on the street. At the spot where Buddha was cremated, there’s a stupa. Near that, there’s a small Hindu temple with a big tree. This is where I stayed. Outdoors.
And I had no food. A few days before, when I still had a little money, I’d eaten at a restaurant. So, I went there, asking for food. They told me to come back in the evening. After closing, they gave me leftovers, which gave me food poisoning. I was throwing up and had diarrhea. For the next five days, I just drank water from a pump. Then, my body could not move. Slowly, slowly I felt that I was dying. Panic set in and lasted a few hours: What should I do? Maybe I should call my monastery and go back. In the end, I let it go.
That night, I felt like I was becoming paralyzed. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t hear. So, I began to do bardo practice, death and dying meditation. I experienced the dissolution of the elements in the body, the dissolving of the senses, but I continued to stay in awareness. Even though my senses were not there, awareness became clearer. Even thought—words and mental images—began to dissolve. Then suddenly I experienced a peaceful state of mind, beyond thought. No front and back, no time, just really present.
I’m guessing I was in that state for maybe seven, eight hours. And in the end, I had the feeling that this was not the time to die. I needed to come back to help people. There was a feeling of compassion, which kept getting stronger. Then I felt my body again and slowly I heard sounds. I could see again, and the world seemed totally different.
Before, I’d felt the place was not safe. It seemed dirty, with lots of dogs, mosquitoes, and danger. Now it felt like home, safe. The tree was now what I called “the tree of love.” It was alive and so nice. I had appreciation, gratitude. I enjoyed the wind blowing on my skin.
Then I felt thirsty, so I tried to get up and look for something to drink. I fainted, and someone took me to the hospital. I woke up with an IV tube attached to me.
That was fortunate! What a beginning! What was your retreat like after that?
Really good. I spent summers in the Himalayas and winters on the border between India and Nepal. I learned where and how to get food, and that when you love the world, it loves you back.
My only mission was to practice meditation. I began to feel very free, like a bird in the sky, freely flying. No need to follow a schedule. Not responsible to do this or that. The main thing was to practice.
Would you go on another retreat like that in the future?
No, I don’t have any plans to do that. I do want to do a solitary retreat in one place, but not a wandering retreat. In my life, I want to do two things: personal retreat and teaching.
Do you feel you need to do personal retreat in order to teach?
Yes, they benefit each other. If I do retreat, my teaching becomes more helpful to my students, and I myself learn more, which helps when I go back to retreat.
Can you say more about how the wandering retreat changed your understanding of the dharma, your practice, or the way you teach?
The wandering retreat was very special. When I almost died, it helped me understand what my father and other great teachers were talking about. Everything dissolved; only awareness was present, beyond concept. But at the same time, I knew what was going on. That was the breakthrough for my practice. On the rest of my retreat, of course, there were lots of challenges—no money, no support except what I could find on my own, things going up and down. All these challenges helped my practice. I was out of the cocoon. Surviving by myself, I learned a lot.
What is the role of the teacher or guru?
It’s very important for the teacher to have some kind of realization on an experiential level so they can transmit fully, not just talk about it in the abstract. To choose a rather bad example, it’s like the coronavirus. You can’t get the coronavirus from a description or a picture in a book. You only get it from someone who has the virus. Some scientists say that when we’re learning, 93 percent of what we take in is based on nonverbal cues. That’s why connecting on the experiential level is so important.
But it’s not necessary to have the teacher always there with you. Some people nowadays think they have to have one teacher, who will tell them all the details. That’s also not necessary. Teachers are like flowers, and the dharma is the nectar. Once you take in the nectar, you put it into practice.
What is buddhanature?
Buddhanature is the fundamental quality of our mind. I often translate this as innate well-being. When I talk about the sky and the clouds, the sky is this innate well-being, which we all have, all the time.
Thoughts and emotions and perceptions go up and down, but the fundamental quality of well-being is beyond all of this. It’s pure, and it has a quality of knowing awareness, inseparable from emptiness. You don’t need to get rid of anything. You don’t have to do anything. Let everything be as it is and discover this wonderful quality of the mind within yourself. For Vajrayana Buddhists, the main practice is how to find the fundamental quality of our own mind.
Why is it difficult for people to recognize their buddhanature?
Because it’s too easy! (laughs) For example, someone might say, “Oh, I lost my glasses!” They look around; they can’t see them. It turns out that the glasses are perched on the top of their head.
Usually we’re looking for something special, but what’s most special is already within us. We ignore it. It’s too close. There are lines on my hand, but if I bring my hand too close to my eyes, I cannot see them.
What is enlightenment?
When we talk about enlightenment in the Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions, we mean fully recognizing our true nature, buddhanature. In order to achieve that, we go through three stages: understanding, experience, and direct realization.
Understanding is like learning about the moon from a book. The book describes its color, shape, qualities. But the painting of the moon in the book is not the real moon. At the beginning of the path, when we reflect on our true nature, it’s just words and some feelings, some taste of experiences and realizations—all mixed together. However, the painting of the moon does help us learn more about the moon. We practice again and again, and our feeling for things goes up and down. Sometimes we have a lot of experiences, sometimes nothing happens.
Gradually, though, in the second stage, things become more stable. We’re not just working to understand conceptually. We have real experience. The truth comes alive. One day you go out and as you look at the water, you see the moon reflected in the lake. That reflection is much better than the painting of the moon. It’s higher quality, more alive, but still it’s not the real moon. At this second stage, even when you’re not meditating, your mind automatically enters the meditation. Even though there are still lots of ups and downs, behind the ups and downs, you can access meditation anytime. The sky is clearer. You can have clouds, but the clouds cannot change the sky.
You continue to practice. And one day, direct realization dawns. The ideas, the words, the flavors—all that has gone. You really see your true nature, the fundamental quality of the mind that is the union of emptiness and luminosity. You go out and you look up, and you see the crescent moon, a tiny moon, but it is the real moon. Not the painted moon. Not the reflected moon. That is the first stage of enlightenment, not yet full enlightenment. There are nine more levels to go (laughs). At the final level, the crescent moon becomes the full moon.
That’s a lot of levels. Is enlightenment, then, something we could actually achieve in this lifetime?
Yes, but of course it is very difficult, very rare. A level of direct realization is very possible, though. Even in my hometown, my grandpa and grandma, who didn’t know how to read or write, practiced Dzogchen, a profound meditation form of Tibetan Buddhism. Many people like them achieved realization, but full enlightenment is quite difficult.
Is enlightenment a permanent state?
Not permanent, not impermanent. It’s beyond those concepts, beyond duality.
If someone is enlightened, do they experience difficult emotions, like sadness or anger?
These kinds of energies are transformed. Anger, for example, transforms into wisdom. You go beyond subject and object, beyond ignorance, aversion, and craving—you’re totally free of all that. But at the same time, you have love and compassion. With awareness and wisdom, you help beings. Now you are unceasing like the sky, totally beyond storms and pollution, beyond any kind of cloud, because you know clouds do not, cannot, change the nature of the sky.
How can we truly taste the truth of emptiness and no-self?
In Buddhism, we talk about eight consciousnesses. The first five are the five senses. The sixth is the mental consciousness, which is talk and imagination, a lot of words and images, blah, blah, yada, yada. Sometimes, we call that the monkey mind. The seventh consciousness is me, me, me: I’m important. I don’t care about others. I have to win. What about me? Out of that, we create karma, which resides in the alaya, the eighth consciousness.
To counteract that, we can bring self-awareness to that sense of me. You don’t have to do much at the beginning. You don’t need to tell it to get out. Just sense it. Feel it, like you would the breath. See what happens. Sometimes it may disappear, and there’s a gap. Sometimes, you may see “me” as so many different factors or pieces: my body, my name, my job, my title, my friends. Because of my students, I’m a teacher. Because of my teacher, I’m a student. So many pieces!
When we look at all that, we see that the pieces are all connected, interdependent. They’re also changing, impermanent. As we see more with awareness, automatically we go beyond that sense of me, into shunyata, emptiness. When the sunlight of awareness appears, the darkness is automatically eliminated.
What do you think about secular mindfulness, which has become so popular in the West? Is it missing something?
Secular mindfulness in a way is really helping many people. Three things may be missing, though. The first is intention. When you meditate, the meditation helps you. That’s self-compassion, which is very important. At the same time, though, you could have the intention of meditating to help your friends, family, society, and all beings.
The second aspect that may be missing is view. Normally, in secular mindfulness you’re just taught how to relax, how to be with your breath, how to be present now. But in Buddhist practice, we always start with view, right from the beginning, including the understanding of buddhanature, how your self is made of so many interdependent and ever-changing pieces, and how you can go beyond subject and object.
The third thing that may be missing in secular mindfulness is at the level of application. In the buddhadharma, there’s an ongoing path. And that path of spiritual development—bringing dharma to life—is not like a spa, where you go to feel better. It’s about a deeper level of ongoing transformation.