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a monastic college, serving as the functioning abbot of Sherab Ling
Monastery, taking full ordination vows as a monk—Mingyur Rinpoche’s
young adulthood was extremely busy. It was 1998 before he was able to
delve into a branch of learning that he’d been interested in for years.
a child, he knew Francisco Varela, a world-renowned neuroscientist
who’d come to Nepal to study Buddhism with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Varela
frequently talked to Mingyur Rinpoche about modern science, especially
in regard to the structure and function of the brain. Other Western
students of Tulku Urgyen gave him informal lessons in biology,
psychology, chemistry, and physics.
was a little bit like learning two languages at the same time,” Mingyur
Rinpoche has written. “Buddhism on the one hand, modern science on the
other. I remember thinking even then that there didn’t seem to be much
difference between the two.” They were both methods of investigation.
2002 he was one of the advanced meditators invited to the Waisman
Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of
Wisconsin–Madison, where scientists examined the effects of meditation
on the brain. Major publications such as National Geographic and Time reported
on the results of the groundbreaking research. Notably, while the
adepts meditated on compassion, neural activity in a key center in the
brain’s system for happiness jumped by 700 to 800 percent. In the
control group, made up of people who’d just begun to meditate, activity
increased by only 10 to 15 percent. Meditation, the study suggested, had
the potential to increase happiness.
in 2009, Mingyur Rinpoche let his retreat plans be known to a small
circle of people, the people who—as Dahl puts it—would “keep the ship
afloat” in his absence. After he left, his brother Tsoknyi Rinpoche
explained during a July 2011 retreat at Garrison Institute that “Mingyur
Rinpoche wanted to do retreat and he planned for it—he did not abandon
his activities without responsibility. He recorded four to five years of
instruction, he trained instructors, he fund-raised, and he delegated
all his work. So, he prepared everything.”
in the summer of 2010 in Minnesota, Mingyur Rinpoche made a formal
public announcement about his retreat plans. People, however, assumed
that he intended to take a closed three-year retreat—an assumption that
makes sense, as choosing to be a wandering yogi is highly unusual,
especially in modern times.
Why is practicing in this style now so rare?
to Tergar instructor Tim Olmsted, after Tibetans fled their country in
the fifties, both first and second generation lamas had to struggle to
keep the Buddhist tradition alive. To build monasteries and monastic
colleges, they needed to dedicate enormous amounts of time to raising
money; they had to publish books and travel to the West and Southeast
Asia to gather students. In short, the lamas simply never had the chance
to be wandering yogis.
But there is another reason that wandering isn’t common today: “It’s hard,” Olmsted says bluntly.
Kelley, also a Tergar instructor, expands on that. “I don’t think many
of us are ready for a wandering yogi retreat,” she says. “To have some
walls around us, a consistent food supply, and a safe environment to
meditate in is a great support, which frees up a lot of energy that we
can then direct toward looking deeply into our hearts and minds. For
wandering yogis, there is a huge level of uncertainty that they have to
deal with on a daily basis. That uncertainty could make it harder to
maintain the stable mind that allows for realization. I see being a
wandering yogi as an advanced practice.”
Pitkin, a Columbia University professor who has done extensive research
on renunciates and wandering yogis, agrees it’s advanced, but that
doesn’t mean all advanced practitioners wander or should wander. In the
Tibetan tradition, there are many valid and powerful paths, she says.
Realization is possible whether one is a monastic in an institution, a
householder, a hermit recluse, or a wandering yogi. These broad
categories are not even so clearly defined. For example, continues
Pitkin, “One of the things that you often see in the Tibetan tradition
is that people will be monks or nuns in an institutional setting at one
point in their lives, maybe early on, then they’ll leave and be
wanderers. And eventually they’ll start to stay in one place because
they are teaching so much more.” That said, even monastics who spend
their whole lives in an institution do not have a cookie-cutter
practice. For instance, some are ritual specialists, while others are
administrators or teachers.
are lots of things that have to happen to keep the monastic tradition
going,” says Pitkin. And it’s important to remember how critical it is
that it does continue.
Without the monastic tradition, she says, “there is no Buddhism, no
continuity.” At the same time, she asserts, in order to stay fresh, the
tradition needs the inspiration offered by wandering yogis, those
“figures of vivid passion that dramatically illustrate the totality of
the Buddhist path.”
wandering, says Pitkin, “you renounce your attachment to not just
possessions and comfort, but to more subtle things, such as being famous
and controlling where you go. As a wandering yogi, you go where
circumstances dictate— you’re responsive to the situations that you find
yourself in. That is, there is total freedom from ordinary
entanglements, but also a very profound renunciation of ordinary