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Exploring Buddhist Teachings on Suffering with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

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Anshu Bahanda: In the heart of ancient Japan, there lived a wise and enlightened man called Hakuin, and he was known for his wisdom and his serenity. And lots of people came to him seeking enlightenment. So one day, this troubled young samurai, who was deeply troubled by existential issues of life and death, of pain, of peace. He came to him and he said, “Master Hakuin, what is the true nature of heaven and hell?” Hakuin looked at him and he said, “Why should I offer such profound teachings to an untidy, undisciplined, slovenly excuse of a samurai like you?” So this young samurai got really angry. He reached out for his sword and he was about to pull it out and he was in a real rage when Master Hakuin said to him “That sir is hell.” So when the samurai heard this, he was very ashamed of his behaviour and he bowed deep and he apologised and he thanked Master Hakuin for his teachings. And Master Hakuin said, “And that, sir, is heaven.” So this story is a reminder of the Buddhist concept that much of our suffering is created by our own mind and by our reaction to a situation. Welcome to Wellness Curated. This is your host, Anshu Bahanda, and our topic today is teachings of Buddhism on suffering. And it’s part of the series Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living. I’m delighted to welcome the world renowned meditation teacher, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. He’s master of the Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, and his first book, the Joy of Living, debuted as a New York Times bestseller. Rinpoche, thank you so much for joining Wellness Curated and we’re very grateful you’re with us today. Thank you.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche: Thank you very much. I’m very happy to be here. Thank you.

AB: We’re delighted that you could make it. So, according to the Buddha, the first noble truth is the acknowledgement of suffering. So can you explain to us what it means to acknowledge suffering? 

YMR: Yes. So suffering in the ancient language, in the Pali and Sanskrit, is known as dukkha. So Dukkha, the real meaning of dukkha is dissatisfaction. So that dissatisfaction, it also manifests sometimes hollowness, like emptiness. So that hollowness is very difficult to fill by money, fame, power, all these material things cannot be filled. That hollowness, sometimes manifests sadness a little bit, or insecurity. And most of the time we feel this incompleteness, that something is missing. So this is what we call the baseline of suffering, dukkha. And then our entire life we try to fill it. Like if you are very busy. We think, ‘oh, this is too busy. So many friends here and so many people here. I want to have quiet time,’ and you come back home and rest and within five minutes you think, ‘oh, I need to do something. Something is missing.’ Television, smartphone, talk to, call my friend. So it’s like— drinking coffee is good for 20 minutes. And after that we go back to the baseline. So Buddha said, ‘how to free that suffering?’ First important [thing] is to connect with that, to recognise, to recognise that deeper feeling of incompleteness or [that] feeling of sadness or feeling of little bit of dissatisfaction. And when we recognise that, then actually we can do a lot. So we can feel that one. So how do we? How can we feel that hollowness? With love, compassion, awareness, wisdom. So when we engage with these qualities, we actually feel satisfied, warm, or complete. So that’s how the Buddha’s teach— to recognise the suffering, but not just recognising, to create or to practise the path that can lead to [becoming] free from suffering.

AB: And you shared some very personal experiences about anxiety, about panic attacks that you’d had, in you know, your writing and your talks. How did meditation help you get rid of these? And also, was there a particular moment where you felt like, ‘oh, my God, this is helping me’ Like an aha moment?

YMR: Yes. So I had panic attacks when I was young. I think panic [attacks] developed in me at around seven, eight years old. And I didn’t know at the beginning there was panic. I thought, it’s a heart attack. My heart is a problem. I’d been telling my mom, you know, my heart is not good. I need to see the doctors. And she brought me to many doctors. They [would] say your heart is good, but I didn’t believe so. Then when I was nine years old, we recognised there’s kind of like panic attacks. So she recommended me to learn meditation from my father. At the beginning, I felt very shy, that maybe my father will say you are too young or too stupid. But then she asked my father on behalf of me and my father was very happy and he taught me meditation. But my first question was how to fight with my panic attacks because I really don’t like my panic attacks. And my father said, don’t fight. And I was surprised why? And he said, actually, the very thing that we want to fight with panic attacks, we want to run away from panic attacks, that makes panic become stronger. And actually we don’t need to fight panic attacks because the fundamental quality of our mind is wonderful. My father taught me meditation. One of my first meditations is breathing meditation. Watch the breath. I felt it was so boring, you know, I felt like stupid and [it was] boring because I want to get rid of my panic attacks. And he said, ‘Don’t care about panic, but you care about your breathing.’ So breathing in, breathing out again, breathing in, breathing out. But then actually eventually it kind of helped me. So I was surprised because I felt stupid, bored, every day doing something. I know I’m breathing, so why do I have to say that I’m breathing again. And then my father said, because you are connecting with the awareness. So awareness, the more you connect with these innate qualities, you feel more happy. So [that’s when] I had the aha moment.

AB: Got it. So, Rinpoche, this is going to really help the younger people. There’s a lot of panic attacks, there’s a lot of anxiety amongst the youngsters. And a lot of people say it’s because of their involvement in the digital world, because of the social media space, the Internet space. And then there is another school of thought where they say that it could be because this generation is so in touch with their feelings. I’d love to know your thoughts on this in the Buddhist context.

YMR: There are so many factors in the Buddhist context, what we call… If we want to grow a flower, we have to have soil, water, sunlight, oxygen, fertiliser seed. So everything has pieces and they interconnect each other, what we call interdependent. So there’s no one answer for everything. It depends on the circumstances. So many different things. For me, the most important for me is the more we connect with innate qualities, like we have this awareness, love and compassion and wisdom. Then we feel more happy, we feel more resilient. For example, if you help others, if you do social work, if we do social work, we feel very happy. Deeper level, we feel like that is me or feel like coming home or feel like we did something right. Why do we feel like that? Because we are connecting with our innate quality and same with wisdom. So for me, try to connect with the awareness, [the] love, [the] compassion, and [the] wisdom. I think it really helps. 

AB: So as we’re talking about resilience, how can the concept of impermanence help us develop a resilient mindset in this very fast paced world that we’re living in?

YMR: So what we call, let it go, but don’t give up, okay? So that’s [where] the wisdom comes. So wisdom means knowing the reality as it is. So what is the reality? Change. Reality is like what we call our life is like the wave of the ocean, [it] always goes up and down. Or it is like the stock market,  goes up and down. Wisdom, meaning to accept that, accept our life is up and down. Then we know how to let it go. But letting go, it’s not giving up. For example, like if we are going somewhere and then in the end we reach the dead end, there’s a huge wall in front of us, then what should we do? So one choice is [that] this is our normal way. I need to go through this wall and bang our head to the wall. I need to go through, go through this or we give up. So there is no hope. And in my life I cannot do anything. So normally we do these two things, but then if we try to learn impermanence, if you learn how to let it go, then maybe— we cannot go through this wall.That’s true. We need to accept that no matter how you bang your head to the wall, it damages your head. You cannot go through the wall, but it doesn’t mean that you cannot cross the wall. There are so many different possibilities. Maybe just look around, stay in place, or you go up and then out the other side, or use a rope or rock climbing style, or maybe go to the right side, left side. Impermanence means full of possibility, potential, there’s wish and ways to new opportunities, new doors that we don’t see normally. If you’re not letting go, not accepting the reality as it is. If we just [stay] fixed with our own beliefs. So therefore, impermanence, meaning accept things are changing and let it go, but don’t give up. 

AB: That was absolutely wonderful. Thank you. So Buddha also said that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. And the whole concept of nirvana in Buddhism, which is the cessation of suffering, is also, you know, a very important concept. So how can we shift our perspectives so that suffering or dukkha, as you call it, becomes a choice. 

YMR: So when we connect with the awareness, love and compassion, wisdom, and there’s a lot of choice there. For example, this is just a small example. If you are angry or maybe hatred, or maybe sad or these things, emotion comes, then maybe we want to get rid of it, we want to change. And normally it’s not so easy, because our mind does the opposite. For example, when we tell ourselves, don’t think about pizza, what will happen? We think about pizza more. No pizza, no pizza, more pizza will come. Or another, what we call craving. For example, at night we want to sleep early, because tomorrow I have a lot of work. I need to sleep early. I need sleep. I need to sleep. What happened? Sleep disappears. So these two things, one is aversion, one is craving. And that is the cause of suffering. And that is not just with pizza and sleep. It’s everything about our life, with relationships, with work. So now how can we free this suffering. Small example is if you are angry, the first important thing is to just catch that you’re angry. Oh, I’m angry. You don’t need to say, hey, anger. Or you don’t need to listen to anger, just, oh, I’m angry. So when we are angry or the hatred comes for two or three seconds, if we just catch that one, there’s a choice. And that is more powerful than saying, ‘no anger’; ‘I will not be angry, I will not be angry’ a hundred times. And then next, once you catch that one, then there’s so many techniques you can connect with breathing. Let anger come, let anger go. Let worry come, let worry go. Let pizza come, let pizza come. But [let the] mind be with the breath. You should not fight with the pizza but not totally follow with the pizza. You come back to the breath. Back to the breath. 

So then what we are learning is that if you let pizza come, you are letting go of aversion. But you are not totally lost. You are being present with the breathing. So you’re letting go of the craving. So then craving and aversion based on ignorance is the cause of suffering. And then those three slowly, slowly dissolve. Then that is what we call nirvana. 

AB: So, Rinpoche, just to understand this more, the worry, you’re saying— let it come, catch it. Focus on your breath and that will help you let it go.

YMR: Yes, yes. So first you worry, you just recognise, oh, I’m worrying. Maybe you can say worry is just a thought, worry is not me. Just recognise that. And then just watch the breathing and let worry come. Let worry go. Our mind cannot stay with our breathing for too long. Just few seconds, we forget to breathe again. It’s okay. Come back to the breath. 

AB: I will try it next time when I’m worried about something. I’m going to try your breathing technique. So in your best selling book, the Joy of Life, you worked with a number of neuroscientists and physicists. You know, because you’ve done scientific research and meditation, can you share some simple and effective techniques that we can use to help us cultivate joy and gratitude in our lives?

YMR: Yeah, so I’ve been like a guinea pig since 2002. I went to many laboratories. They put me in an fMRI machine, eeg. And then there’s a hot, kind of like a hot water watch. Kind of like while I’m meditating and there’s a lot of experiments trying to trigger like emotions, fear, etc. So what they found is not only me, there are many other long term meditators that the mind becomes pliable, walkable. So normally our mind does the opposite, right? As I mentioned before, no pizza. More pizza will come. I need sleep. Sleep disappears. But the meditators mind becomes more pliable, walkable and special in the brain. Many parts of the brain work together. And even while not meditating, what they call the baseline. Baseline meaning we are happy or not happy, there’s some baseline. And that baseline cannot change by even winning a lottery or marriage or being certainly successful. All this changes for a few years or few months, then comes back to the baseline. But through meditation, even you are not meditating. The baseline is improved. So what are the techniques that we do? So one is the breathing meditation that I just mentioned. And the second is compassion. So this compassion is to first understand that we all have this wonderful quality within us. And not just you, everybody has it. And then you wish that these wonderful beings, everybody by nature is wonderful, may all of them be happy and have the causes of happiness. May all beings free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May all beings, meaning, including yourself. So this practice is what we call love and compassion, appreciation and gratitude. So that appreciation and gratitude is just a simple thing— that I’m still alive. 

AB: Wonderful. 

YMR: Actually it’s really a great thing. But we take it for granted, right? I have senses, maybe eyes, ears, nose, whatever. I have roots, I have something to eat. I have friends and family. Maybe write three things in the book every day. Three things, just three things. Maybe one day about you, one day about others, one day about the world. While we are having pain, we are really difficult to appreciate. But actually we can use pain as a learning process to grow ourselves. So for me, the panic attacks were one of the best kinds of teachers for me. And I’m still really happy that I had panic attacks because of that… Now I’m here because of those panic attacks. 

AB: And also the Buddha said that in separateness lies the world’s greatest misery, and in compassion lies the world’s true strength. So how does meditation help you develop compassion towards yourself and towards others? And also how does then developing compassion help you with suffering?

YMR: Yes. The first important thing is, as I mentioned before, that we all have this wonderful innate quality. So that means all of us have love and compassion, 24 hours, even when we feel hatred. So do you believe it or not?

AB: Yes, I believe that. I’m a big believer of love. 

YMR: Wonderful, wonderful. You know, first I received this teaching from my father. Now, I didn’t believe that. And it’s really kind of like sometimes when I teach this to some people and they feel shocked. They say no, no, no, I don’t believe that. But actually what is the meaning of love? Meaning looking for something nice, happiness, sense of purpose, meaning, good, compassion. Meaning wanting to free from suffering, problems, obstacles, difficulties, things. So this both may be to you, maybe to others. So for example right now maybe some of you are watching this video or audio. Why? Because you are looking for happiness. Each eye’s blink is looking for happiness. Each breath is also looking for happiness. So even at an unconscious level we are looking for happiness. Not just the body, all the thought process, emotion, everything is looking for happiness to avoid suffering. So that is the innate love and compassion with us all the time. But this innate love and compassion are filtered by ignorance. Then the love becomes craving. Compassion becomes aversion. Aversion and craving. And then that becomes a cause of suffering. So I think about how to develop this love and compassion. First we need to see this in ourselves, this innate quality. Just recognise. Try, maybe try now. Maybe you might have love and compassion, all of you. Even [if] you try, that is love. And you might feel, ‘I think I cannot feel it.’ That is compassion. Maybe you change your posture, try to keep relaxed. That is also love. Then we see these with others. Maybe first with your friends, family members, someone that you like. Think about them. They are also the same as us, wishing to be happy, and don’t want to suffer. And you wish may he or she have happiness and the causes of happiness— so there’s love. May he or she be free from suffering and the causes of suffering— and that’s compassion.

AB: You also talk a lot, even in your talks, in your writing about what you just mentioned. Aversion and craving. Tell us a bit more about that. Do we all go through that regularly, all the time in our lives?

YMR: Yes, normally we all have aversion and craving. Without aversion and craving, we cannot survive. Of course, aversion has also a lot of wisdom in it, a lot of compassion in it. Craving also has love and all these things. But then it becomes too much, becomes a problem. So normally, what we call, we need to transform the nature of aversion and craving. Aversion becomes compassion, the craving becomes love. Then actually we can live our life better. So sometimes, what we call if I don’t have attachment and craving, I cannot live my life. Normally it’s true. But then if we transform that and recognise the deeper level of feeling of love and compassion, then they become wisdom. Wisdom, love and compassion, and awareness help our lives better and become more peaceful, more meaningful and also become more successful.

AB: Also I think I grew up in India and I grew up with a lot of stories about Buddhism. You know, there’s a lot of parables and stories involved. You know, for centuries, there have been really interesting stories. Tell us your favourite story about Buddha’s teachings on suffering.

YMR: Oh, on suffering. One of my favourite stories is when Buddha was in the palace, in the Kapilavastu, now in Nepal. So Buddha had this question, what is the meaning of life? Where do all these things come from? Who am I? So the sense of something is missing, really. Kind of like a hollow incompleteness, dissatisfaction. Though he had a luxurious life, and the father and the kingdom— they tried their best to please him, but then he had this question. One day he left the palace, looking for this answer. He couldn’t find it. And, he thought, okay, now I should practise. And he sat next to the river for six years of rigid meditation. Although he had so many meditation experiences, he still didn’t get the answer. Then in the end, he let go of studying, let go of meditation. Be as it is. Be just natural. Then something came together. So then he found what we call the middle way. Not too tight, not too loose. Be with the reality as it is. So then he went under the Bodhi tree and he got enlightened. 

AB: Lovely. Thank you so much for your wisdom and for taking the time out to be here with us and for your profound teaching. Thank you. 

YMR: Most welcome and I’m very happy. Thank you very much.

AB: So, before I leave you today, I’d like to share an exercise with you. It’s called the five remembrances practise. And it’s a really lovely exercise. It’s based on reflection in Buddhism, and it’s meant to help you cultivate a deeper understanding of life’s nature and to encourage living with mindfulness and compassion. So, please, go find yourself a comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight but relaxed. Make sure you’re relaxed. Now, begin by taking three deep breaths, focusing on the sensation of the air entering your nostrils and leaving your nostril. Allow your mind to settle and your body to go into a deeper and deeper relaxation with each exhalation. Now slowly contemplate each of the following.

I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot escape growing old. 
I am of the nature to have ill health. I cannot escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die. I cannot escape death. 
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change, and there is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belonging. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand. 

Now think about how this awareness can change your priorities and the way that you interact with those around you. Consider the actions that you take in your daily life to live in harmony with these truths. So for example would you be more compassionate now towards those around you now that you know that they are living with the same truths that you are living with?

I hope you will carry this mindfulness and awareness into your daily life and I hope you will make this a regular practice doing this once a week to reduce your suffering and to increase your capacity for joy and compassion. 

Thank you for being here with us today. I hope you learned something new. I hope we’ve helped you lead a healthier, happier life in some way and we hope to see you for our next podcast which is where we’re going to be peeling back the layers of the Greek and Roman concept of Stoicism. Until then, stay well.