An interview with Tulku Thondup Rinpoche:
Western science is now confirming that the mind an body are not separate, that thoughts and emotions influence physical health. To Tibetan Buddhists, this linkage is ancient history, and an integral aspect of their philosophy. They have developed a technology of the mind that allows them to use the mind-body connection to heal both emotional and physical disease. Tulku Thondup Rinpoche has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has written and published many books on Tibetan Buddhism, including Masters of Meditation and Miracles (Shambhala 1996) and The Healing Power of Mind: Simple Meditation Exercises for Health, Well-Being and Enlightenment (Shambhala 1996).
Michael Toms: I'd like to begin with your own story. You grew up and were raised in Tibet. Tell us about what that was like for you.
Tulku Thondup Rinpoche: Although I didn't appreciate it at that time, looking back, it was an amazing, wonderful time, because I had time to experience what my mind was and what my body was, without the distraction of external phenomenon, like money, television, cars and all those things. I had the opportunity to feel the simpleness of the life, the simpleness of the mind and the mind-body connection.
MT: Your parents were nomads, weren't they?
TTR: Yes, I was born in a tent, and we used to move four times a year, because we lived on animals -- dairy products -- and animals need grass to survive. Typically, in one small valley, there was only one family. In one way it was a primitive life, but in another way it was so peaceful and joyful and the way to find the true meaning of life. In those days I didn't realize how valuable that was, but now, when I think back, I can really appreciate how wonderful it was. Of course, the modern world and modern technology bring us so much richness and so many benefits -- I appreciate all of them. But, if I had been born somewhere else, I may have not learned the mind-body connection . So, it was amazingly wonderful.
MT: You were identified as an incarnate lama at an early age, and then you went to the monastery. Is that right?
TTR: Yes. When I was around four or five years old, I was recognized as the rebirth of a great lama, so my parents and my grandfather sent me to the monastery.
After that, I saw my parents once very year or two for about a week at a time. But I never lived with them again. So my teachers were monks -- who were great scholars and great meditators -- and they were my parents, as well.
MT: So what was life like at the monastery as a young boy growing up?
TTR: At that time, again, I didn't realize how valuable it was. But the amazing thing was that from the early morning until late evening, or even late night, I would be studying or meditating -- and sometimes, of course, playing -- and living with these wonderful and amazing people, these monks. They were much older than me, but they understood what a little boy was like, and they were very kind and careful in taking care of me. It was a very rich life. My whole life is founded on these wonderful early life experiences. Now, I am very grateful for what those monks did for me.
MT: So then you left Tibet at the age of eighteen and entered India as a refugee. What did you do in India?
TTR: In India, as a refugee will do, I looked for ways to survive. It was very hard, because I didn't speak English or the language of that area. It was a strange culture and we didn't have much means for survival. We struggled for two or three years. I survived because I had a good education and because people were helpful. The Indian government was very helpful to all Tibetan refugees. Eventually, I got a teaching job in a couple of Indian universities. I taught there for thirteen years.
MT: And then you came to the United States?
TTR: In 1980, I came to the United States. Harvard invited me as a visiting scholar. So, I came to Harvard for a year. When they asked me to stay for another year, I stayed. And, since then, I'm here.
MT: I remember a story you told in your book, The Healing Power of Mind. You were in Kalimpong in Northern India with a group of other friends. it was at the time when you were in refugee status and didn't have a lot, didn't have enough money to go to a restaurant, so you were going to cook a meal. You had gone off to look for firewood and some stones to put together a fireplace, and you encountered an older monk, in a little hovel. Can you tell us that story?
TTR: Oh, yes, just amazing, When I talk about him or think about him, a tingling sensation goes through my body. It was amazing. When I saw this person, he was cooking a meal. He looked up at me and broke into a big smile, as if we were old friends meeting after may years, although I had never met him before. he asked me, "What are you looking for?" I said, "I'm looking for fuels to make tea. I just arrived here." And so he said, "Just sit here. There's nothing much, but we will share this meal." He was cooking a very little meal. I said, "No, I have some friends waiting over there. I have to go." And then he said, "When I finish cooking my meal, you take my stove" -- the little charcoal stove he was using.
The amazing thing was he was so poor, so old -- maybe around 80 -- and there was nothing even for him to eat, but he wanted to share. And also, if I took his little stove and disappeared, that was almost his whole livelihood. But, he trusted me. That big smile, the joy in his face and the love in his voice, all these things made a big impact on me. I remember him very vividly still. But he was not the only person like that. I encountered so many people like him with which I had experience.
So, this was an example of what someone is able to do with their mind. This man, although he was experiencing what we would call dire poverty, was somehow very joyful, happy and perfectly satisfied in that situation.
Yes, that's the whole thing. There was a peacefulness, a joyfulness and a contentment in his mind, and so day by day he was surviving and enjoying his life. We generally dream about the future, and we don't have a present. We don't live in the present moment. We don't enjoy our life. WE live in the future, dreaming and worrying about the future, and then we don't have a present or a future. So, we are in a way like a dead person. He was living in the present, enjoying the present, not worrying. Of course, he was preparing for the future to some extent, but his main focus was enjoying the present, because he had peacefulness, joy and contentment in his mind.
MT: In the American culture, we're so wealthy, particularly in material things; yet we're still unhappy. The material things don't bring happiness.
TTR: Yes, that is one of the big problems we are facing here. Everyday, there are wonderful goodies coming up, and so we need those -- without them we can't survive. So, we are consistently struggling for external needs, goodies, tools, and we don't have time to think, feel our body, feel our own minds, feel the feelings of the mind or bring peace and joy into our mind. We don't have time. That is, I think, one of the worst things about American prosperity, and I think the price in this case is a little bit too much.
MT: So, how can we make the time -- what are the first steps that one can take to eliminate unhappiness and depression?
TTR: The first thing is wellness -- healing and wellness. So, what is that? Healing and wellness are mainly about having peace joy and strength in our mind, in our body, and in our everyday life. And what is peace and joy and strength? They are concepts created by mind. Peace is a concept created by mind, and an experience felt by the mind. So, peace, joy and strength are productions of the mind, and they are the most important things in our life. And if that's so, then we must use the mind to improve and heal our life.
MT: Rinpoche, one of the things that you focus on in The Healing Power of Mind is the Buddhist idea of mindfulness?
TTR: Mindfulness can be so many things, but basically it is awareness of every moment. Whatever you are feeling, whatever you are doing, try to be aware. Often, when we say something, afterward we'll think, "Oh, what did I say? Oh, too bad I said that." That is a lack of mindfulness. Whatever you are going to say, first think and then say it. Whatever you're going to do, first think, then do it. Be mindful. Even when you are walking, be mindful of every step, then you'll be mindful of every step of life. Then we will be a living person, not a dead person. Otherwise, our mind is somewhere else. In a way, of course, we are alive, but in another way, we are only half-alive. So the important thing is always try to remember.
How do we start to have mindfulness? How do we recreate peacefulness in our mind? We are all very busy, we have work to do, money to make, family to take care of. But, we can take at least ten minutes, or twenty minutes, or maybe only five minutes, to sit quietly and think about something spiritual. It could be meditation, it could be just watching the breath or watching the feelings of the body or having visualizations. Having visualizations or saying prayers or something - something spiritual. Bring your intention or your focus back to your own mind and your life.
MT: You mention visualization -- in the book you give four aspects to visualization. Can you talk about what the four are?
TTR: Most of the exercises in my book are based on four tools. One is image. That could be a mental image, meaning visualization. The next one is naming or thinking. The third one is feeling and the fourth one is believing.
With image, often people tell me they can't visualize. But all of us already visualize. If you think about your home, you will see the image of your home. If you think about your friend, you will see the image of that friend. If you think about an enemy, you see the image of that enemy. That's visualization. And in this case, you create a visualization, which is positive, which is a source of peace, a source of joy, a source of strength. We live images; we hardly can think anything without an image. That's why it's very important to have the visualization, or this image, constantly living with us. We can use that to our own advantage.
The second thing is naming or thinking. Even if you have a wonderful image, if you don't think, "This is a wonderful image," then it won't be powerful. If you don't think that this image is positive, a source of peace, a source of joy, then it won't be helpful. So you have to think, you have to name it or designate it as such.
The third one is feeling. We are all, especially if the West, very intellectual and very good about thinking; so we make everything into an idea. But we don't feel it. Especially if it something we need to feel positive about. So when you have a wonderful image, and you think it's a wonderful source of healing, then you feel it. If you don't feel it, then it's only conceptual, and ideas will not make that impact.
Finally, the believing. You know you have a wonderful image, a wonderful name and a wonderful feeling but you need the believing. You need to believe that this is an image that has the power to heal you, that this is a feeling that will heal you or heal all the people around you and the whole universe. So, we have to have a belief.
So, if you have these four tools, then whatever positive, healing exercises you do will be effective.
MT: So, it's important not to doubt.
TTR: Oh yes, no doubt. If you do a wonderful meditation, or a visualization -- but then you say, yes, I did a nice thing but I don't think it will work. It will stop right there. The progress or benefits will stop there. Believing is hard, but we have to try to believe. If you do try again and again, then slowly, a habit of believing will come.
MT: In the West, particularly in America, we're trained to doubt. We're entrained to be skeptical; we're entrained to be cynical. It's insidious, because we're surrounded by this skepticism all the time. It permeates our lives. I'm wondering if you have any insights as to how we can arrive at that ability or capacity in ourselves to rally believe - to have faith, to trust.
TTR: In Buddhism, even the Buddha said, don't trust me -- first you see, then test by yourself. When you find it believable, then believe. I think that is the point. I'm not saying that we should have blind faith. That's not valuable, and that's not what we are looking for. When you reach a conclusion that yes, this is trustworthy, then you have to trust; otherwise, you will never really move forward.
One of the ways of brining trust, is, if you have analyzed well, if you have studied it well, then you will find yourself a conclusion: this is something trustworthy. If you find by yourself a conclusion, the trust will come. But if someone else tells you that you should trust in this, that you should trust in that, then even if you trust for awhile, it won't be stable. So the best way of developing trust is to not begin with trust. First you study, learn and move forward. Maybe you criticize. But then, finally, you reach a conclusion that is something you like.
MT: There's a section in your book where you focus on daily living activities as healing and I wanted to focus on work as a healing activity. I'm not sure all of us have that relationship to work as being a place where we can actually heal ourselves. Can you talk a little about that?
The most important thing, is again, to find or create peace and joy in our mind, strength in your mind. In Buddhism, we believe we are all peaceful and joyful in our nature. Like the ocean, the bottom is peaceful, calm and clear, but on the top there are waves, turmoil, pollution and all those things going on. In the same way our mind's true nature has a foundation that's peaceful, calm and clear.
We all have that wonderful foundation. Maybe our lives are turmoil on the surface, emotionally or conceptually, but deep down we're all peaceful and joyful. So, if you can reach back to that foundation, through meditation, through reflections, feelings, believing, whatever work you do will become an expression of that foundation, that peaceful energy.
If you are not in peace in your mind, in your heart, and you go to work and try to get peace from your work or from your paints or your books, it won't work. We have to find peace from our heart, from our mind. For that, we have to meditate on and create that peace and joy -- then go to work. For example, if you do five minutes of meditation in the morning, brining pace and joy and calmness into your mind, then when you go to work, from time to time, remember again -- bring back that reflection,b ring back that feeling. Even just for a couple of seconds now and again, while you are working. Then slowly, slowly -- not today, not tomorrow, up to months, maybe years -- there will come a time you always feel, "Yes, I have a peaceful foundation." Even though sometimes the work is turmoil -- there are waves on the ocean -- you will have a foundation to rely on, a peaceful ground to stand on in the depth of your mind and heart. To have that is the most important thing.
MT: What if you feel that you're being put under undue pressure, or you're being exploited in some way by your employer. What about that?
TTR: There are two things. One is, intellectually or practically, you have to deal with it if your employer is not treating you well. But emotionally, you should never get upset. Of course, you will, but you should try not to get upset, try not to get angry. And if you are angry -- for example, your employer says something bad to you -- your first reaction should be to stay quiet. When you get angry, don't say anything, don't do anything, remain as a piece of wood. That's the first thing.
Secondly, take a couple of deep breaths. Release -- thing that the anger that you have is being expelled with your outgoing breath. Through visualization, through naming, feeling and believing, release that anger you're experiencing. Then, after you become calm and your emotional anger is gone, now you are you. Then you should think how you should deal with this person practically.
Until then, whatever you say, whatever you do, you are not saying, you are not doing. Your emotions are doing, the monster is doing. And whatever you say will be wrong, whatever you do will be wrong, and later you will regret it. So, first, if you are angry, if you are under emotional pressure, don't say anything, don't do anything, let yourself calm down. Then, later on, do whatever you need to do.
MT: If you'd like to be in touch with the work of Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, you can write to him at the Buddayana Foundation, Three Barnabas Road, Marion, Massachusetts 02738. peace and joy