On nature and human nature

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche teaches us the art of understanding ourselves through wisdom, compassion and balance

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche was born in Nubri of Gorkha district in 1975, and is the guru of the Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. Author of four books, including the New York Times bestseller The Joy of Living, he believes in the blending of traditional practices and philosophy with modern psychology. 

Last month, surgeon Saroj Dhital, himself a practitioner of Buddhism and student of Mingyur Rinpoche, sat with the guru at his Kathmandu Tergar Osel Ling Monastery, and talked about traditional and modern interpretations of Buddhist practices and philosophy. 

Excerpt of the conversation:

Saroj Dhital: In our very first interaction you told me that taking refuge in the Buddha means taking refuge in the Buddha inside you. Could you elaborate?

Mingyur Rinpoche: Shakyamuni Buddha tells you that you are the master of yourself. We all have this wonderful nature – our true nature – which we call the Buddha nature, and from the Buddhist point of view, no matter who you are, the essence is always the same. The essence of all the Buddhas, of all beings – humans, animals – what we call six realms, are the same.

The Buddha recognised this, but we have not. You may have a diamond but as long as it is hidden and you do not recognise that, it does not matter. But, once you do, your life completely changes. The truth is, we are already rich from the beginning, many of us are yet to realise that.

So it is really important to know that we all can become just like the Buddha, not just his follower, servant or retinue, through the practice of the dharma. "I can show you the path,” the Buddha said, “whether or not you fully become a Buddha is in your hands." We have to make an effort, follow the dharma, then we can become like the Buddha.

Many people interested in Buddhist philosophy and practice look for faults in the Vajrayana. They say there is so much hierarchy in Vajrayana and that it is the path of the elite. 

While Vajrayana Buddhism developed in India and Nepal, it flourished in Tibet. In Tibet the guru is not like a God or a parent. It is a projection of your true nature, your Buddha nature, and its appreciation. To do this, you first project on the teacher the quality of the Buddha nature.

But over time, this teaching from Tibet mixed with different cultures. Hierarchy is present in almost every culture. Starting with one’s family, there is either the father or the mother who is the head. The same is true for organisations and companies, even religions, as is evident in Buddhism. But in teaching, this is different.

Let’s return to the previous example of a diamond that is hidden under layers upon layers. In the same way, we can also imagine our essence to be obscured by layers based on ignorance of our true nature.

But then, what is our true nature, our Buddha nature?

Buddha nature has three qualities: of emptiness, of being beyond concern, and being beyond subject and object. There is clarity, awareness, love and compassion. This is our true nature. But not recognising this is what hides our true nature from ourselves, in the form of our ego.

Even scientists and philosophers have said, if we have ten qualities, nine are positive and one negative. This one negative quality is often what we see first and exaggerate. But we ignore the other nine good qualities. There is a lot of good that we manifest everyday, but we think the world is only getting worse every year.

Can we also think of guruyoga and other traditional Vajrayani practices as the highest form of tools to understand the truth? 

Certainly. In Vajrayana there are two paths: wisdom and skillfulness. Wisdom is the emptiness, which is the Buddha nature, while guruyoga falls under skillfulness with compassion, bodhichitta and awareness.

Indeed, rituals, worshipping and recalling the deities are part of an art of expressing and connecting with our fundamental nature through imagination. There are plenty of rituals but we must understand their meanings. For example, when we imagine a deity, we require concentration. Connecting our true nature to different aspects of practice is the Vajrayana method.

Is it possible to invite compassion and wisdom through the practice of samatha, or the awareness of the things around and within us?

Only samatha cannot bring compassion and wisdom, we need samatha with skillful means. This can lead to vipassana, to insight. For example, one of the practices of samatha meditation in our tradition is watching our breath and being one with it. We need to learn how to be in our reality as it is.

This is very important because our minds are restless and we tend to over exaggerate things to the point of worry. A scientist once said, 99% of our worries will be taken care of if we stop exaggerating and accept reality.

But if we want to learn to see our reality, we have to start at a point, like with our breath. The emphasis here is to try and see our breath as it is. Does not matter if it is shallow or deep, irregular or peaceful. By listening to our breath, we must then let go of our aberrations.

We all have great qualities. We all have Buddha nature. There is awareness, love and compassion, wisdom, skills and potential within all of us, and we should try our best to use them. We should also try to use our own mistakes, our own incapacities. Letting go doesn't mean giving up. The best power is within ourselves.

There is a teaching in our Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism that wisdom, love, compassion and awareness are the best powers. There is a story popular in Tibet: Once there was a king who was very generous and wanted to help everyone. He gave barley to his people from his own store, but once that ran out, there was nothing to eat. One of the ministers suggested that the people could be taught how to plant barley themselves so the wisdom stays with them. When they did that, the entire nation was saved.

Accepting reality as it is, is the beginning of wisdom. The path is not smooth, of course, as there are lots of ups and downs, and our reality itself is impermanent and constantly changing. On top of this, our mind is like a restless monkey. We think of work, we worry about family, about life – many thoughts come and go. We often act on impulse, our past habits and what other people say. That creates a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication.

When we fight with these thoughts, we end up thinking about it more. But when we really want to think about it, the thought will disappear. That is what I mean by the monkey mind.

This is not to say that thoughts are bad. It is important to let them come. But we have to also remember to breathe. If we don’t, we are not lost. We have to let go of craving, of attachment to develop wisdom, as wisdom is knowing reality as it is. Then slowly we return to ourselves, our bodies, our feelings, our minds. Thus, wisdom comes together through the samatha, and vipassana and samatha become one in the end.

Is there an issue of balance or moderation when it comes to developing compassion within us?

Yes. One day in the Buddha’s past life, he saw a mother tiger with her cubs looking for food. Thinking that if the mother died, the cubs would too, he offered his body to them. But Buddha later said, “Yes, I did so in my past life but new practitioners of bodhichitta should never do the same. The desire itself may become an obstacle.”

It is important to develop love, compassion and bodhichitta, but in practice we need to find our own balance. We have to check our ability, our resources and the strength of our mind. We cannot help beyond our limit. Love and compassion alone won’t save the world, we need to combine it with wisdom. Wisdom is the main practice and compassion is the method.

Wisdom is completely free like emptiness, beyond subject and object. And suffering is an illusion, while everything is emptiness. The view is totally open but your action has to be there. Generosity, discipline, effort, patience – all are important. But there are many dos and don’ts when it comes to action, as there are societal and cultural aspects. When you think about them, you cannot be free, which then leads you to tie yourself, which is another extreme.

So, try your best to help others. But know your limits and find balance between the extremes.

Read also: Buddha’s birthday in his birthplace, Nepali Times

Being able to identify evil within us is one thing, but what can we do when we see evil outside of ourselves?

Normally we should support the victims, which is really important. But how do we do that?

Sometimes we just follow our inner mara, and we become the same as the perpetrator, without understanding the condition, the situation in which the act was committed. While trying to save the victim, we choose violence. This is not real wisdom or compassion, and in the end it will create more problems and distractions.

People do not want to change themselves – they only want to change the world, and then the world becomes chaotic. But Buddha’s way is that you need to change your inner world, your inner mara first. Only then does the genuine influence come.

When you transform yourself, you want to help others, you want to radiate whatever peace you have within you to help others. Otherwise, you miss out on a lot of social work. Based on your inner mara, your social work becomes a weapon to develop your own mara, and it results in more conflict and more fighting. Social justice is important, and Buddha did that through love and compassion – not through hatred, violence.

We have become very human-centric, not caring about the other sentient beings in the world. How should we use Buddha’s teachings, also for other beings?

I think it is really important to connect with the balance. The world is based on the individual, and as we are the individual, we need to transform our actions according to our limit, our capacity. Then the world will change. The problem is when we want to change the world and that doesn’t happen, we give up. We think, “I am just one person, whatever I do, doesn’t affect the world.” And then we quit. If we are too tied and follow violence, we will then destroy the world.

So, as the Buddha said, you help in your own way, with whatever you can contribute, whatever you can do to help the environment and the world – even the small things.

I have met many social workers who were exhausted, stressed and depressed because nothing changed. If they practice the teachings of the Buddha – love and compassion, awareness and wisdom – and get more imagination and power, they can help the society and the environment more. Balance like this is very important.

If you don’t believe in the soul, but you believe in rebirth, what is it that passes from one body to another? What is this continuity? Is it also a part of the soul?

The Buddha nature is obscured by two layers. The outer layer is when we talk about self, which itself has three more layers: the unhealthy sense of self, the healthy sense of self, and the self beyond self.

The unhealthy self is what we call clinging on to the ‘permanent, single, independent’. We perceive ourselves as permanent. At the same time, we don’t like to have unexpected surprises. But if the surprise is expected, we are happy. There is a kind of consistent belief that everything should be a certain way. For example, if you are waiting in a line to use the toilet and someone cuts in, the unhealthy self explodes.

Maybe that person did not see you, had an emergency or just doesn’t respect you – there can be many causes and conditions, but we do not see them. We just want everything to be as we expected.

Then there is ‘singularity’, meaning my way is the best way. During a science experiment, more than 70% of taxi drivers interviewed said that their driving skill was above average. But that is impossible. For example, if you and your friend are in a car, and the road is a little bumpy, then automatically we think that it would be safer if we were driving it.

Then comes ‘independent’, meaning we want to control everything. We think, “if it is not controlled by me, it is wrong”. These three combined together [permanent, single, independent] is the mara actually. It is very touchy and egoistic. It doesn’t care about others. And that single, independent, permanent self actually does not exist even at the relative level. It is just at the conceptual level.

Next is the healthy sense of self. It is the self that is changing. So maybe at home you are parents, husband or wife, and at work maybe a boss or a staff. With your friend circle, you are friends. Your Self is always changing. And this self has changed from your childhood till now. Sometimes the self is happy in the morning but unhappy in the evening. Sometimes good Self, sometimes not so good Self. Self is always changing.

There is multiplicity – you become you because of your education, your family background, the way your friend looks at you, your body, your mind. There are so many pieces there. Understand that this is healthy. And they are all interconnected, interdependent, not independent. Not everything is in your hand. From there comes compassion, awareness and wisdom.

And lastly, there is emptiness that does not mean nothing, but that everything can manifest. So the true nature of self is beyond time and matter, beyond subject and object.

So then, what is continued? The healthy self is changed and that stream of consciousness, matter and particles is continued. The body is the particle and the mind is consciousness, and they will continue like a river even though they are changing.

But the real self is emptiness at the ultimate level – empty, but not nothing. There is clarity and potential. These two are one and therefore we are not nothing – yet, we are not existing.

Read also: Kinship, karma, and kung fu, Shristi Karki

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