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Attending 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. Science.

As 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.

“It 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.

In 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.

Early 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.”

Then 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?

According 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.

Myoshin 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.”

Annabella 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.

“There 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.”

In 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 attachments.


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