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In desperation, Mingyur Rinpoche got up the courage to ask whether he could study formally with his father, Tulku Urgyen. His father agreed and began to teach him various methods of meditation. As it was with the solo chanting, this led Mingyur Rinpoche to experience brief moments of calm, yet his dread and fear persisted. He found it especially stressful that every few months he was sent to Sherab Ling monastery in India to study with unfamiliar teachers, among unfamiliar students. Plus, there was his formal enthronement as the seventh incarnation of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

“Hundreds of people attended the ceremony,” he has written, “and I spent hours accepting their gifts and giving them blessings, as if I were somebody really important instead of just a terrified twelve-year-old boy. As the hours passed, I turned so pale that my older brother, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, who was standing beside me, thought I was going to faint.”

About a year later, Mingyur Rinpoche learned that a three-year retreat was soon to take place at Sherab Ling and it would be led by Saljay Rinpoche, a renowned master. Mingyur Rinpoche was thirteen—an age considered too young for such intense practice—but he suspected that this would be the last three-year retreat that the elderly Saljay Rinpoche would ever lead. Mingyur Rinpoche begged for permission to participate, and in the end permission was granted.

“I’d like to say that everything got better once I was safely settled among the other participants in the three year retreat,” Mingyur Rinpoche has admitted. “On the contrary, however, my first year in retreat was one of the worst of my life. All the symptoms of anxiety I’d ever experienced—physical tension, tightness in the throat, dizziness, and waves of panic that were especially intense during group practices—attacked in full force. In Western terms, I was having a nervous breakdown. In hindsight, I can say that what I was actually going through was what I like to call a ‘nervous breakthrough.’”

Mingyur Rinpoche had to make a choice between spending the last two years of the retreat cringing in his room or fully accepting the truth of what he’d learned from his teachers—that whatever problems he was experiencing were habits of thought and perception.

Mingyur Rinpoche chose what he’d been taught and gradually, just by sitting quietly and observing, he found himself able to welcome his thoughts and emotions, to become in a sense, fascinated by their variety and intensity. It was like “looking through a kaleidoscope and noticing how the patterns change,” he wrote in Joyful Wisdom. “I began to understand, not intellectually, but rather in a direct, experiential way… how thoughts and emotions that seemed overwhelming were actually expressions of the infinitely vast and endlessly inventive power of my own mind.”

Mingyur Rinpoche has never had another panic attack, nor has his sense of confidence and well-being wavered. That’s not to say, however, that he no longer experiences any ups and downs. He is careful to say that he isn’t enlightened, and he’s forthright about being subject to the full range of ordinary human experiences, including feeling tired, angry, and bored. What is different is that his relationship to these experiences has permanently shifted; he’s no longer overwhelmed by them.

According to Cortland Dahl, Mingyur Rinpoche’s panic attacks led him to begin practicing and studying the dharma in a very atypical way for a lama—a way much closer to how we in the West approach it. He believes that one of the reasons that Mingyur Rinpoche’s teachings resonate so much with Western students is his willingness to talk about his own personal challenges.

“For cultural reasons,” Dahl explains, “lamas are happy to talk about other people’s issues, yet they don’t typically talk about their own struggles with practice or emotions. Yes, he was a tulku, a reincarnate lama, and yes, he grew up in this amazing environment with a family of great teachers. But he studied the dharma not only because that’s the typical training of a young tulku, but because he desperately needed it. He really wanted to find a way to work through this painful episode in his life.

“In a similar way, a lot of us in the West have come to Buddhism because we’re suffering and we want some way to work with our minds. Mingyur Rinpoche can really speak to our experience in a very direct way. It’s not only that he went through it, but that he is candid about it.”

In a world that equates happiness with big-ticket items, Mingyur Rinpoche stands in stark contrast. Even before leaving the monastery with just the clothes on his back, he had an ultra simple life. Extremely health conscious, he didn’t eat any meat or refined sugars and he jogged every day. He jogged in old penny loafers. Once, some people wanted to buy him some sneakers, but his response was, “Thank you, but I don’t need them—they won’t fit in my bag.” The one bag he carried with him when he traveled was that tiny.

“Everything Mingyur Rinpoche gets,” says Cortland Dahl, “all the donations and the money from his books, goes to his monasteries or dharma projects. People are always giving him gifts and offerings, but usually he gives whatever it is to someone else later. He has literally next to nothing.”

He was sixteen when he came out of his first three-year retreat, and much to his surprise he was appointed master of the very next one. This made him the youngest known lama to ever hold this position. It also meant that he was, effectively, in intensive retreat for almost seven continuous years.


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