Hãy làm một người biết chăm sóc tốt hạt giống yêu thương trong tâm hồn mình, và những hoa trái của lòng yêu thương sẽ mang lại cho bạn vô vàn niềm vui và hạnh phúc.Tủ sách Rộng Mở Tâm Hồn
Chỉ có một hạnh phúc duy nhất trong cuộc đời này là yêu thương và được yêu thương. (There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.)George Sand
Nụ cười biểu lộ niềm vui, và niềm vui là dấu hiệu tồn tại tích cực của cuộc sống.Tủ sách Rộng Mở Tâm Hồn
Đừng than khóc khi sự việc kết thúc, hãy mỉm cười vì sự việc đã xảy ra. (Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. )Dr. Seuss
Không có sự việc nào tự thân nó được xem là tốt hay xấu, nhưng chính tâm ý ta quyết định điều đó. (There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.)William Shakespeare
Trời không giúp những ai không tự giúp mình. (Heaven never helps the man who will not act. )Sophocles
Sự vắng mặt của yêu thương chính là điều kiện cần thiết cho sự hình thành của những tính xấu như giận hờn, ganh tỵ, tham lam, ích kỷ...Tủ sách Rộng Mở Tâm Hồn
Chúng ta không thể giải quyết các vấn đề bất ổn của mình với cùng những suy nghĩ giống như khi ta đã tạo ra chúng. (We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.)Albert Einstein
Niềm vui cao cả nhất là niềm vui của sự học hỏi. (The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.)Leonardo da Vinci
Hãy nhớ rằng, có đôi khi im lặng là câu trả lời tốt nhất.Đức Đạt-lai Lạt-ma XIV

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Joyful Wisdom
»» Part One: Principles - 1. Light in the tunnel

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Trí tuệ hoan hỷ - Phần Một: Những Nguyên Tắc Chung - 1. Ánh Sáng Trong Ðường Hầm

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Our life is shaped by the mind; we become what we think.

—The Dhammapada, translated by Eknath Easwaran

The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.

—CARL JUNG, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston

SEVERAL YEARS AGO I found myself strapped inside an fMRI, a type of brain scanner that, to me, looked like a round, white coffin. I lay on a flat examination table that slid like a tongue inside the hollow cylinder which, I was told, held the scanning equipment. My arms, legs, and head were restrained so that it was nearly impossible to move, and a bite guard was inserted into my mouth to keep my jaws from moving. All the preparation—being strapped onto the table and so forth—was fairly interesting, since the technicians very courteously explained what they were doing and why. Even the sensation of being inserted into the machine was somewhat soothing, though I could see how someone with a very active imagination might feel as though he or she were being swallowed.

Inside the machine, however, it rapidly grew quite warm. Strapped in as I was, I couldn't wipe away any stray beads of sweat that crawled down my face. Scratching an itch was out of the question - and it's pretty amazing how itchy the body can get when there’s not the slightest opportunity to scratch. The machine itself made a loud whirring noise like a siren.

Given these conditions, I suspect that spending an hour or so inside an fMRI scanner isn't something many people would choose to do. I'd volunteered, though, along with several other monks. Altogether, fifteen of us had agreed to undergo this uncomfortable experience as part of a neuroscientific study led by Professors Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson, at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior in Madison, Wisconsin. The aim of the study was to examine the effects of long-term meditation practice on the brain. “Long-term” in this case meant somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 hours of cumulative practice. For the younger volunteers, the hours had taken place over the course of perhaps fifteen years, while some of the older practitioners had been meditating for upwards of forty years.

As I understand it, an fMRI scanner is a bit different from a standard MRI, which employs powerful magnets and radio waves to produce—with the help of computers—a detailed still image of internal organs and body structures. While using the same magnet and radio wave technology, fMRI scanners provide a moment-by-moment record of changes in the brain's activity or function. The difference between the results of an MRI scan and the results of an fMRI scan is similar to the difference between a photograph and a video. Using fMRI technology, neuroscientists can track changes in various areas of the brain as subjects are asked to perform certain tasks—for example, listening to sounds, watching videos, or performing some sort of mental activity. Once the signals from the scanner are processed by a computer, the end result is a bit like a movie of the brain at work.

The tasks we were asked to perform involved alternating between certain meditation practices and just allowing our minds to rest in an ordinary or neutral state: three minutes of meditation followed by three minutes of resting. During the meditation periods we were treated to a number of sounds that could, by most standards, be described as quite unpleasant—for example, a woman screaming and a baby crying. One of the goals of the experiment was to determine what effect these disagreeable sounds had on the brains of experienced meditators. Would they interrupt the flow of concentrated attention? Would areas of the brain associated with irritation or anger become active? Perhaps there wouldn't be any effect at all.

In fact, the research team found that when these disturbing sounds were introduced, activity in areas of the brain associated with maternal love, empathy, and other positive mental states actually increased. Unpleasantness had triggered a deep state of calmness, clarity, and compassion.

This finding captures in a nutshell one of the main benefits of Buddhist meditation practice: the opportunity to use difficult conditions—and the disturbing emotions that usually accompany them—to unlock the power and potential of the human mind.

Many people never discover this transformative capacity or the breadth of inner freedom it allows. Simply coping with the internal and external challenges that present themselves on a daily basis leaves little time for reflection-for taking what might be called a “mental step back” to evaluate our habitual responses to day-to-day events and consider that perhaps there may be other options. Over time, a deadening sense of inevitability sets in: This is the way I am, this is the way life works, there's nothing I can do to change it. In most cases, people aren't even aware of this way of seeing themselves and the world around them. This basic attitude of hopelessness sits like a layer of sludge on the bottom of a river, present but unseen.

Basic hopelessness affects people regardless of their circumstances. In Nepal, where I grew up, material comforts were few and far between. We had no electricity, no telephones, no heating or air-conditioning systems, and no running water. Every day someone would have to walk down a long hill to the river and collect water in a jug, carry it back uphill, empty the jug into a big cistern, and then trudge back down to fill the jug again. It took ten trips back and forth to collect enough water for just one day. Many people didn't have enough food to feed their families. Even though Asians are traditionally shy when it comes to discussing their feelings, anxiety and despair were evident in their faces and in the way they carried themselves as they went about the daily struggle to survive.

When I made my first teaching trip to the West in 1998, 1 naively assumed that with all the modern conveniences available to them, people would be much more confident and content with their lives. Instead, I discovered that there was just as much suffering as I saw at home, although it took different forms and sprang from different sources. This struck me as a very curious phenomenon. “Why is this?” I'd ask my hosts. “Everything's so great here. You have nice homes, nice cars, and good jobs. Why there so much unhappiness?” I can't say for sure whether Westerners are simply more open to talking about their problems or whether the people I asked were just being polite. But before long, I received more answers than I'd bargained for.

In short order, I learned that traffic jams, crowded streets, work deadlines, paying bills, and long lines at the bank, the post office, airports, and grocery stores were common causes of tension, irritation, anxiety, and anger. Relationship problems at home or at work were frequent causes of emotional upset. Many people's lives were so crammed with activity that finally coming to the end of a long day was enough to make them wish that the world and everybody in it would just go away for a while. And once people did manage to get through the day, put their feet up, and start to relax, the telephone would ring or the neighbor's dog would start barking—and instantly whatever sense of contentment they may have settled into would be shattered.

Listening to these explanations, I gradually came to realize that the time and effort people spend on accumulating and maintaining material or “outer wealth” affords very little opportunity to cultivate “inner wealth”—qualities such as compassion, patience, generosity, and equanimity. This imbalance leaves people particularly vulnerable when facing serious issues like divorce, severe illness, and chronic physical or emotional pain. As I've traveled around the world over the past decade teaching courses in meditation and Buddhist philosophy, I've met people who are completely at a loss when it comes to dealing with the challenges life presents them. Some, having lost their jobs, are consumed by a fear of poverty, of losing their homes, and of never being able to get back on their feet. Others struggle with addiction or the burden of dealing with children or other family members suffering from severe emotional or behavioral problems. An astonishing number of people are crippled by depression, self-hatred, and agonizing low self-esteem.

Many of these people have already tried a number of approaches to break through debilitating emotional patterns or find ways to cope with stressful situations. They're attracted to Buddhism because they've read or heard somewhere that it offers a novel method of overcoming pain and attaining a measure of peace and well-being. It often comes as a shock that the teachings and practices laid out by the Buddha twenty-five hundred years ago do not in any way involve conquering problems or getting rid of the sense of loneliness, discomfort, or fear that haunts our daily lives. On the contrary, the Buddha taught that we can find our freedom only through embracing the conditions that trouble us.

I can understand the dismay some people feel as this message sinks in. My own childhood and early adolescence were colored so deeply by anxiety and fear that all I could think of was escape.


To the extent that one allows desire (or any other emotion) to express itself, one correspondingly finds out how much there is that wants to he expressed.

—Kalu Rinpoche, Gently Whispered, compiled, edited, and annotated by Elizabeth Selandia

As an extremely sensitive child, I was at the mercy of my emotions. My moods swung dramatically in response to external situations. If someone smiled at me or said something nice, I'd be happy for days. The slightest problem—if I failed a test, for example or if someone scolded me—-I wanted to disappear. I was especially nervous around strangers: I'd start to shake, my throat would close up, and I'd get dizzy.

The unpleasant situations far outnumbered the pleasant ones, and for most of my early life the only relief I could find was by running away into the hills surrounding my home and sitting by myself in one of the many caves there. These caves were very special places where generations of Buddhist practitioners had sat for long periods in meditative retreats. I could almost feel their presence and the sense of mental calmness they'd achieved. I'd imitate the posture I'd seen my father-—Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, a great meditation master—and his students adopt, and I'd pretend to meditate. I'd had no formal training as yet, but just sitting there, feeling the presence of these older masters, a sense of stillness would creep over me. Time seemed to stop. Then, of course, I'd come down from the caves and my grandmother would scold me for disappearing. Whatever calmness I'd begun to feel would instantly evaporate.

Things got a little better around the age of nine, when I started training formally with my father. But—and this is a little embarrassing to admit for someone who travels around the world teaching meditation—while 1 liked the idea of meditation and the promise it represented, I really didn't like the practice. I'd itch; my back would hurt; my legs would go numb. So many thoughts buzzed through my mind that I found it impossible to focus. I'd be distracted by wondering, “What would happen if there was an earthquake, or a storm?” I was especially afraid of the storms that swept through the region, which were quite dramatic, full of lightning and booming thunder. I was, truth be told, the very model of the sincere practitioner who never practices.

A good meditation teacher—and my father was one of the best—will usually ask his or her students about their meditation experiences. This is one of the ways a master gauges a student's development. It's very hard to hide the truth from a teacher skilled in reading the signs of progress, and even harder when that teacher is your own father. So, even though I felt I was disappointing him, I really didn't have any choice except to tell him the truth.

As it turned out, being honest was the best choice I could have made. Experienced teachers have, themselves, usually passed through most of the difficult stages of practice. It's very rare for someone to achieve perfect stability the first time he or she sits down to meditate. Even such rare individuals have learned from their own teachers and from the texts written by past masters about the various types of problems people face. And, of course, someone who has taught hundreds of students over many years will have undoubtedly heard just about every possible complaint, frustration, and misunderstanding that will arise over the course of training. The depth and breadth of knowledge such a teacher accumulates makes it easy to determine the precise remedy for a particular problem and to have an intuitive understanding of precisely how to present it.

I'm forever grateful for the kind way my father responded to my confession that I was so hopelessly caught up by distractions that I couldn't follow even the simplest meditation instructions, like focusing on a visual object. First, he told me not to worry; distractions were normal, he said, especially in the beginning. When people first start to practice meditation all sorts of things pop up in their minds, like twigs carried along by a rushing river. The “twigs” might be physical sensations, emotions, memories, plans, even thoughts like “1 can't meditate.'' So it was only natural to be carried away by these things, to get caught up, for instance, in wondering, Why can't I meditate? What's wrong with me? Everyone else in the room seems to be able to follow the instructions, why is it so hard for me? Then he explained that whatever was passing through my mind at any given moment was exactly the right thing to focus on, because that was where my attention was anyway.

It's the act of paying attention, my father explained, that gradually slows the rushing river in a way that would allow me to experience a little bit of space between what I was looking at and the simple awareness of looking. With practice, that space would grow longer and longer. Gradually, I'd stop identifying with the thoughts, emotions, and sensations I was experiencing and begin to identify with the pure awareness of experience.

I can't say that my life was immediately transformed by these instructions, but I found great comfort in them. I didn't have to run away from distractions or let distractions run away with me. I could, so to speak, “run in place,” using whatever came up— thoughts, feelings, sensations—as opportunities to become acquainted with my mind.


We must be willing to be completely ordinary -people, which means accepting ourselves as we are.

—Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Myth of Freedom

The Tibetan word for meditation is gom, which, roughly translated, means “to become familiar with.” Going by this definition, meditation in the Buddhist tradition may perhaps best be understood as a process of getting to know your mind. It's actually very simple, like meeting someone at a party. Introductions are made—”Hello, my name is . . .” Then you try to find a common point of interest: “Why are you here? Who invited you?” All the while, though, you're looking at this other person, thinking about the color of his or her hair, the shape of the face, whether he or she is tall or short, and so on.

Meditation, getting to know your mind, is like that in the beginning: an introduction to a stranger. That may sound a little odd at first, since most of us tend to feel that we already know what's going on in our minds. Typically, however, we're so accustomed to the flow of thoughts, emotions, and sensations that we rarely stop to look at them individually—to greet each with the openness we would offer a stranger. More often than not, our experiences pass through our awareness more or less as mental, emotional, and sensory aggregates—a collection of details that appear as a singular, independent whole.

To use a very simple example, suppose you're driving along on the way to work and suddenly encounter a traffic jam. Although your mind registers the event as “traffic jam,” actually, a lot of things are occurring. You decrease the pressure of your foot on the gas pedal and increase pressure on the brake. You observe the cars ahead, behind, and on either side of you slow down and stop. The nerves in your hands register the sensation of holding on to the steering wheel while the nerves in your back and legs are registering contact with the seat. Perhaps the noise of car horns penetrates your window. At the same time, you may be thinking, “Oh, no, I'm going to be late for my morning meeting,” and in a flash you start running through a kind of mental “script” associated with being late. Your boss might be angry; you might miss important information; or maybe you were supposed to give a presentation to your coworkers. Then your heart starts beating a little faster and maybe you start to sweat. You might find yourself getting angry with the drivers up ahead and start tapping the car horn in frustration. Yet even though so many processes—physical, mental, and emotional—occur simultaneously, they all appear to the conscious mind as a single, cohesive experience.

According to the cognitive scientists I've spoken with, this tendency to roll many different strands of experience into a single package represents the normal operation of the human mind. Our brains are constantly processing multiple streams of information through our sense organs, evaluating them against past experience, and preparing the body to respond in certain ways—for example, releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream to heighten our awareness in potentially dangerous situations. At the same time, areas of the brain associated with memory and planning start spinning out thoughts: “How far ahead is traffic congested? Should I dig out my cell phone and call someone? Maybe I should wait it out for a little bit. I think there's an exit not too far from here. I could get off there and take a different route. Hey, that car over there is trying to cut ahead on the side of the road.” Further, because the areas associated with reason, memory, and planning are closely linked with the areas that generate emotional responses, whatever thoughts arise are typically colored by some sort of feeling—which, in the case of a traffic jam, or my own response to the thunderstorms, is usually unpleasant.

For the most part, these processes occur spontaneously, beyond the range of ordinary consciousness. Less than one percent of the information our brains receive through the senses actually reaches our awareness. The brain competes for limited resources of attention, sifting out what it judges unnecessary and homing in on what appears to be important. In general, this is quite a useful arrangement. If we were acutely conscious of every stage of the process involved in an activity as simple as walking from one room to another, we'd be so quickly overcome by the details of lifting one foot and setting down another, small changes in the air around us, the color of the walls, levels of sound, and so on, that we probably wouldn't get very far. And if we did manage to get to the next room, we might not remember what we wanted to do when we arrived!

The disadvantage of this arrangement, however, lies in the fact that we end up mistaking a very small fraction of our moment-by-moment experience for the whole. This can cause problems when we're faced with an uncomfortable situation or a strong emotion. Our attention fixes on the most intense aspect of whatever we're experiencing—physical pain, the fear of being late, the embarrassment of failing an exam, the grief of losing a friend. In general, our minds spin in one of two directions when faced with such situations: We try to escape or we become overwhelmed. Our experience appears to us as either an enemy or, by completely taking over our thoughts and manipulating our reactions, a “boss.” Even if we do manage to temporarily escape whatever is bothering us— turning on the TV, reading a book, or surfing the Internet—the problem just goes underground for a little while, secretly gaining more power because now it has become mixed with the fear of facing it again later on.

My father's advice to me, when I told him of the trouble I was having practicing meditation, offered a middle way between these two extremes. Instead of trying to block distractions or give in to them, I could welcome them as friends: “Hello, fear! Hello, itch! How are you? Why don't you stick around awhile so we can get to know each other?”

This practice of gently welcoming thoughts, emotions, and sensations is commonly referred to as mindfulness—a rough translation of the Tibetan term drenpa, to become conscious. What we're becoming conscious of are all the subtle processes of mind and body that ordinarily escape our notice because we're focused on the “big picture,” the dominant aspect of experience that hijacks our attention, overwhelming us or provoking an urge to escape. Adopting a mindful approach gradually breaks down the big picture into smaller, more manageable pieces, which flash in and out of awareness with amazing rapidity.

It's a bit astonishing, in fact, to discover how shy the mind becomes when you offer to make friends with it. Thoughts and feelings that seemed so powerful and solid vanish almost as soon as they appear, like puffs or smoke blown away by a strong wind. Like many people who begin to practice mindfulness, I found it quite difficult to observe even a tenth of what was passing through my mind. Gradually, though, the rush of impressions began very naturally to slow on its own; and as it did, I noticed several things.

First, I began to see that the sense of solidity and permanence I'd attached to disturbing emotions or distracting sensations was actually an illusion. A split-second twinge of fear was replaced by the beginning of an itch, which lasted only an instant before the sight of a bird outside the window caught my attention; then maybe someone would cough, or a question would pop up: “I wonder what we're having for lunch?” A second later, the fear would come back, the itch would get stronger, or the person sitting in front of me in my father's meditation room would shift position.

Watching these impressions come and go became almost like a game, and as the game progressed, I began to feel calmer and more confident. Without consciously intending it, I found myself becoming less scared of my thoughts and feelings, less troubled by distractions. Instead of a dark, controlling stranger, my mind was evolving into, if not precisely yet a friend, at least an interesting companion.

Of course, I could still get carried away by thoughts and daydreams or shifting between states of restlessness and dullness. Again, my father advised me not to worry too much about such occurrences. Sooner or later, I'd remember to return to the simple task of observing whatever was happening in the present moment. The important point was not to judge myself for these lapses of attention. This proved to be an important lesson, because I often did judge myself for drifting off. But here again, the instruction to simply observe my mind produced a startling realization. Most of what troubled me consisted of judgments about my experience. “This is a good thought. This is a bad one. Oh, I like this feeling. Oh, no, I hate this one.” My fear of fear was, in many cases, more intense than fear on its own. I felt for a while as if there were two separate rooms in my mind: one filled with thoughts, feelings, and sensations that I was gradually beginning to recognize, and another, secret back room occupied by chattering ghosts.

In time, I realized that the rooms weren't really separate. The chatter was going on alongside everything else I was thinking and feeling, though so faintly that I hadn't recognized it. By applying the same process of gently observing the running commentary in my mind, I began to see that these thoughts and feelings were ephemeral. As they came and went, the power of their hidden judgments began to fade.

During the few years I trained exclusively with my father, the extreme swings of mood that had haunted me in my early childhood diminished somewhat. I wasn't so easily swayed by praise or terrified by embarrassment or failure. I even found it a bit easier to talk to the many visitors who frequently came to my father for instruction.

Soon, though, my situation would change and I would face a challenge that required me to apply the lessons I'd learned on a much deeper level than I'd ever imagined.


In Tibet there is an incredibly toxic root called tsenduk; you don't have to eat much of it before you die. At the same time, this plant can also be used as medicine.

—Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, As It Is, Volume I. translated by Erik Pema Kunsang

When I was eleven years old, I was sent from my father's hermitage in Nepal to Sherab Ling monastery in India—a journey of more than three thousand miles—to begin a rigorous course of study in Buddhist philosophy and practice. It was my first trip away from home and family, and my first experience on an airplane. Boarding the flight from Kathmandu to Delhi in the company of an older monk who served as my escort, I was seized by terror. What would happen if the plane suddenly lost power or was stuck by lightning? Images of the plane plunging from the sky and smashing to the ground filled my head, and I gripped the armrests of my seat so hard that my palms hurt. Blood rushed to my face as the plane took off and I sat rigid in my seat, sweating.

Seeing my discomfort, a man sitting beside me told me, with the confidence of a seasoned traveler, that there was really nothing to worry about; the plane was quite safe, he said, smiling, and since the flight was short—only one hour—we'd be landing before I knew it. His kind words restored my nerves a little bit, and I sat for a while trying to practice watching my mind as I'd been taught. Then, suddenly we hit some turbulence. The plane shook and the man almost jumped out of his seat, yelping in panic. For the rest of the flight, I sat immobilized, imagining the worst. Forget about watching my mind. I was sure I was going to die.

Fortunately, the thirteen-hour drive from Delhi to Sherab Ling was much less eventful. In fact, as we approached the mountains in which the monastery is located, the view became expansive and the drive quite pleasurable.

Unbeknownst to me, however, a reception at the monastery had been planned for my arrival. Many of the resident monks had lined up on the hill overlooking the road, waiting to greet me with eight-foot-long ceremonial horns and large, heavy drums. Since there was no telephone communication in that area at the time, the assembly had been waiting quite a while, and when they finally saw a car approaching, they started blowing the horns and beating the drums. But when the car stopped, a young Indian woman stepped out—obviously not me—and the grand reception came to an abrupt and embarrassing halt as the bewildered woman made her way through the gates.

Some time passed before my car was spotted along the road and the monks began blowing long blasts on their horns and beating their drums. But as my car approached the main entrance, confusion again disrupted the proceedings. I am, even as an adult, not a very tall person. As a child, I was so short that my head couldn't be seen past the high, old-fashioned dashboard. From where the musicians stood, there didn't seem to be anyone sitting in the front passenger seat. Unwilling to make another mistake, they lowered their horns and drum sticks and the music came to a stumbling halt.

When the passenger door was opened and I stepped out, I was greeted by such a loud, enthusiastic fanfare that I could feel the vibrations in my bones. I'm not sure which was more alarming: the noise of the instruments or the sight of all those strangers lined up to welcome me. All the terror I'd felt on the airplane came rushing back, and I made a wrong turn, walking off in the wrong direction. If it weren't for the monk who'd accompanied me, I'm not sure I would have made it through the entrance gate at all.

It was not a particularly auspicious beginning to my stay at Sherab Ling. In spite of the fact that the monastery itself—nestled between the Himalayas to the north and east and rolling flatlands to the south and west—was very beautiful, I was for the most part miserably unhappy. My old sensitivity and anxiety came back with overwhelming force, defeating my best efforts to welcome them as my father had taught me. I had trouble sleeping and little things could set off a chain reaction of disturbing thoughts. I remember quite vividly, for example, waking up one morning and discovering a tiny crack in the window of my bedroom. For weeks afterwards I was terrified that the housekeeper would blame me for breaking the window and for the trouble it would cause to replace the glass.

Group practice sessions were especially painful. There were about eighty monks in residence at the time, and they all seemed quite friendly with one another, strolling between classes and practice sessions in groups, laughing and joking. I was a stranger among them. Except for our robes, I didn't feel we had anything in common. When we sat down in the main hall for group rituals, they all knew the words and the gestures much better than I, and I wondered whether they were watching me, waiting for me to make a mistake. Most of these sessions were accompanied by horns, drums, and cymbals—a sometimes deafening roar of music that made my heart pound and my head spin. I wanted so badly to run out of the hall, but with all those others watching, there was no escape.

The only moments of real comfort I experienced came during my private lessons with my tutors Drupon Lama Tsultrim, who taught me language, ritual, and philosophy and Saljay Rinpoche, who instructed me in meditation practices. I felt an especially close connection with Saljay Rinpoche, a very wise lama with a squarish head and gray hair and, despite being in his eighties, a face almost unwrinkled by age. In my mind's eye, I can still see him with his prayer wheel in one hand and his mala—a set of beads used to count repetitions of mantras, special combinations of ancient syllables that form a sort of prayer or which, more generally, can be used as a support for meditation—in the other. His kindness and patience were so great that I came to view him almost as a second father, to whom I could bring problems both great and small.

His responses invariably wound up as profound lessons. For instance, one morning while washing my hair, a little bit of water got trapped in my ear. I tried everything to get rid of it: wiping the inside of my ear with a towel, shaking my head, twisting little bits of tissue paper inside my ear. Nothing helped. When I told Saljay Rinpoche about it, he advised me to pour more water in my ear, then tip my head to let it all drain out. To my surprise, it worked!

This, Rinpoche explained, was an example of the principle, taught long ago by the Buddha, of using the problem as the antidote. Timidly, I asked if the same approach could be used to deal with thoughts and feelings. He looked at me quizzically, and soon I found myself pouring out the whole story of how anxious I'd been most of my life; the fear that sometimes attacked with such violence I could hardly breathe; how I'd tried to watch my mind in a friendly, nonjudgmental way as my father had taught me; my small successes back in Nepal, where everything was familiar; and how all the old problems had resurfaced even more forcefully in this new, strange environment.

He listened until I ran out of words and then replied with the following story.

“Tibet,” he said, “is full of long and lonely roads, especially in the mountains, where there aren't many towns or villages. Traveling is always dangerous, because there are almost always bandits hiding in caves or behind rocks along the sides of the road, waiting to jump out and attack even the most watchful travelers. But what can people do? To get from one place to another, they have to take those roads. They can travel in groups, of course, and if the groups are big enough, maybe the bandits won't attack. But that doesn't always work, because the bandits will usually see an opportunity to steal more from a larger group. Sometimes people try to protect themselves by hiring bodyguards. But that doesn't work very well, either.”

“Why not?” I asked.

He laughed. 'The bandits are always more fierce and they have better weapons. Besides, if fighting breaks out, there's more of a chance that people will get hurt.”

His eyes closed, his head drooped, and I thought maybe he'd fallen asleep. But before I could think of any way to wake him, he opened his eyes and continued.

“The clever travelers, when attacked by bandits, make a deal with them. 'Why don't we hire you to be our bodyguards'? We can pay you something now and more when we reach the end of our journey. That way, there won't be any fighting, no one will get hurt, and you'll get more from us than you would by simply robbing us on the trail. Less danger for you, because no one will come hunting you in the mountains, and less danger for us, because you're stronger and have better weapons than any bodyguards we could hire. And if you keep us safe along the road, we can recommend you to other people and soon you'll be earning more than you could ever hope to gain by robbing people. You could have a nice home, a place to raise a family. You wouldn't have to hide in caves, freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer. Everybody benefits."

He paused, waiting to see if I understood the lesson. My expression must have given away that I hadn't, so he continued.

“Your mind is the long and lonely road, and the all the problems you described are the bandits. Knowing that they're there, you're afraid to travel. Or you use mindfulness like a hired bodyguard, mixing it with hope and fear, thinking, 'If I watch my thoughts, they'll disappear.' Either way, your problems have the upper hand. They'll always seem bigger and stronger than you are.

“A third choice is to be like a clever traveler and invite your problems to come with you. When you're afraid, don't try to fight the fear or run from it. Make a deal with it. 'Hey, fear, stick around. Be my bodyguard. Show me how big and strong you are.' If you do that often enough, eventually fear becomes just another part of your experience, something that comes and goes. You become comfortable with it, maybe even come to rely on it as an opportunity to appreciate the power of your mind. Your mind must be very powerful to produce such big problems, yes?''

I nodded. It seemed logical.

“When you no longer resist a powerful emotion like fear,” he continued, “you're free to channel that energy in a more constructive direction. When you hire your problems as bodyguards, they show you how powerful your mind is. Their very fierceness makes you aware of how strong you are.”


The best way out is always through. —Robert Frost,

“A Servant to Servants”

I'd never thought of the emotional storms I suffered as evidence of the power of my own mind. Or rather, I'd heard teachings to that effect, especially from my father, who would frequently point out that disturbing emotions are actually expressions of the mind—in the same way that intense heat, for example, is a product or expression of the sun. But like most people when they first start the practice of examining their minds, I was more concerned with getting rid of the thoughts and feelings that upset me than with actually looking directly at their source. As Saljay Rinpoche pointed out, my efforts in practicing mindfulness were bound up in hope and fear: the hope that by watching my thoughts the unpleasant ones would eventually fade away, and the fear that when they resurfaced, I'd be stuck with them forever.

Looking back, I can see that my early attempts weren't all that different from the strategies that people typically use when faced with challenging situations or powerful emotions. I was trying to think my way through anxiety and panic, laboring under the assumption that there was something desperately wrong and if I could just get rid of the problems, everything would be okay; my life would be blissful, serene, and trouble-free. The essence of Saljay Rinpoche's lesson was to consider the possibility that the thoughts and feelings that kept me awake at night and made my heart pound like a trapped bird during the day were actually signs of something right: as if my mind were reaching out to say, “Look at me! Look what I can do!”

Some people can grasp such a radical alternative right away. My father, I've heard, was such a person. As soon as he heard the teaching on the nature of the mind, he intuitively grasped that all experience is a product of the mind's unlimited capability—”the magical display of awareness” as it's often described in Buddhist texts. Unfortunately, I am not that quick. My progress was more of the “two steps forward, one step back” variety that I heard about from students later on when I started teaching. It took a crisis for me to finally face my fears head on and recognize their source.

That crisis occurred during the first year of the three-year retreat program at Sherab Ling - a period of intensive training in the essential and advanced forms of Tibetan Buddhist meditation, which can only be passed on orally by a teacher who has received the oral transmissions and mastered them sufficiently to pass them on to a new generation of students. This tradition of passing the teachings down orally is a kind of protective seal, preserving the teachings in their original form in an unbroken lineage stretching back more than a thousand years. They're offered in a sequestered setting—you're literally locked away from the outside world as a means of minimizing distractions, in order to focus more directly and intensely on the inner landscape of the mind.

Because I was only thirteen at the time, there was some doubt that I'd be allowed to enter the retreat. In general, this opportunity is offered to older students who have had more opportunity to achieve a solid foundation in basic practices like mindfulness training. But Saljay Rinpoche was going to be the principal teacher, and I was so eager to study under him that I pressed my father to intervene on my behalf. Ultimately my request was granted. Joyously, I took the retreat vows along with the other participants and settled into my cloistered room.

It didn't take long for me to regret my decision. Dealing with troubling thoughts and emotions in an open setting is hard enough for most people—but at least there are opportunities for distraction, especially nowadays with cable TV, the Internet, e-mail, and cell phones so readily available. Even a walk in the woods can offer some “breathing room” for the mind. But in a three-year retreat setting, such opportunities are limited. There are group teachings and practices—which I still hated—and long periods of solitary practice, during which there's nothing to do except watch your mind. After a while, you can begin to feel trapped: small annoyances start to feel huge and more intense thoughts and emotions become powerful, threatening giants. Saljay Rinpoche compared the experience to planning a visit to a park or wilderness. You pack up food and other provisions for a day of quiet relaxation in a beautiful setting, and shortly after you settle in, government officials arrive with orders from the king or minister saying that you can't leave the park under any conditions. Enforcers surround you in four directions, frowning and refusing to let you move from your spot. Even if you try to appease them by smiling, they remain standing there, stone-faced—resisting any spontaneous urges to return your smile. Your whole experience changes in that instant. Instead of being able to enjoy your surroundings, all you can think of is figuring out how to escape. Unfortunately, there is no escape.

I started avoiding group practices, hiding in my room. But in some ways that was worse, because I couldn't hide from my mind. I trembled; I sweated; I tried to sleep. In the end, I had little choice but to apply the teachings I'd received—starting off gently, according to the first lessons I'd learned from my father, just watching my thoughts and emotions as they came and went, observing their transitory nature. After the first day, I found myself able to welcome them, to become, in a way, fascinated by their variety and intensity—an experience that one of my students describes as looking through a kaleidoscope and noticing how the patterns change.

By the third day, I began to understand, not intellectually, but rather in a direct, experiential way, what Saljay Rinpoche meant about bodyguards: how thoughts and emotions that seemed overwhelming were actually expressions of the infinitely vast and endlessly inventive power of my own mind.

I emerged from my room the next day and began to participate once again in group practices with much greater confidence and clarity than I'd ever dreamed possible.

I can't say that I never experienced any mental or emotional “bumps” over the remainder of the retreat. Even now, almost twenty years later, I'm still subject to the range of ordinary human experiences. I'm hardly what anyone would call enlightened. I get tired, as other people do. Sometimes I feel frustrated or angry or bored. I look forward to the occasional breaks in my teaching schedule. I get cold quite easily.

However, having learned a bit about working with my mind, I've found that my relationship to these experiences has shifted. Instead of being completely overwhelmed by them, I've begun to welcome the lessons they offer. Whatever challenges I face nowadays have become opportunities to cultivate a broader, deeper level of awareness—a transformation that, with practice, occurs more and more spontaneously, similar to the way a swimmer automatically directs more energy to his muscles when hitting a turbulent patch of water and emerges stronger and more confident after the ordeal. I find the same thing happening when I get angry or tired or bored. Rather than fixate on the mental or emotional turbulence itself or look for its cause, I attempt to see it as it is: a wave of the mind, an expression of its uninhibited power.

So overall, though my life is far from perfect, I'm contented with it. And in a peculiar way, I'm grateful for the troubling emotions I experienced as a child. The obstacles we face in life can provide powerful incentives for change.

A student I met with during a recent trip to Canada put it this way:

“Anxiety had always been a problem for me, especially at work. I felt I wasn't doing a good enough job or working fast enough; that other people were talking behind my back and that because I wasn't as quick or competent as others, I'd lose my job. And if I lost my job, how would I support myself and my family? How would I put food on the table? These thoughts would go on and on until I actually felt myself experiencing the horror of living on the street, holding a cup and begging for coins.

“The only way I could calm myself down was to look for a light at the end of the tunnel'—desperately hoping that conditions would change. That I'd get a new job that was less demanding. Or that the pressure would decrease. Maybe I'd get a new manager. Or maybe the people whispering behind my back would get fired.

“Then I started looking at the anxiety itself, and I began to see that the problem wasn't the job but the thoughts I was having about my job. Looking for that 'light at the end of the tunnel' was nothing more than the flip side of fear—a hope that a change in circumstances would rescue me from the panic. Gradually, I began to realize that hope and fear were also nothing more than ideas floating through my mind. They really had nothing to do with the job itself.

“In that moment, it hit me that the light I was looking for was the tunnel and that the tunnel I felt trapped in was the light. The only difference between them was my perspective—the way I chose to look at my situation.

“That shift in perspective has made all the difference. When I feel anxious or afraid, I can look at that those impulses and see that I have a choice. I can surrender to them or I can observe them. And if I choose to observe them, I learn more about myself and the power I have to make decisions about how I respond to the events in my life.”

This man's story reminded me of my experience in the fMRI— a tunnel of sorts, in which the challenges of heat, noise, screams, and crying might easily have been disconcerting, but which became, instead, opportunities to discover a more vivid sense of peace, clarity, and compassion. My early training and the experiences that followed have shown me that what may at first appear as darkness is, in essence, nothing more substantial than a shadow cast by the mind's true light.

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