A week ago more than 100 people from around the world began arriving on the Vineyard. Most looked like regular folks, bearded or not, wearing jeans or skirts, sneakers and shoes. They could have been leaf peepers who took a wrong turn on their way to the Berkshires. But some wore flowing crimson robes, a visible sign that this group was up to something different.
More telling, though, was that they appeared more relaxed than most people. They didn’t pack as much stuff either.
This group had come to the Vineyard to take part in a month-long meditation retreat being taught by Tsoknyi Rinpoche and held at the Yoga Barn in Chilmark. These are all experienced students who have studied with Rinpoche before. After all, you don’t just wake up one morning and decide to jump into a month-long silent retreat with twice-a-day teachings and all-day meditation.
But on Sunday, Nov. 4, at 7:30 p.m., the rest of the Vineyard community has a chance to learn more about why so many have traveled so far to study with a man who humbly says, “I had a lot of great teachers in my life and these people are coming to see them and they accidentally bumped into me.”
Rinpoche is giving a public lecture on Sunday at the Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven. The talk is free and everyone is welcome.
This is not Rinpoche’s first visit to the Vineyard, but it is his first time teaching here. In the past he has been a guest of Daniel Goleman and his wife Tara, Chilmark seasonal residents and long-time students of Rinpoche.
Mr. Goleman is the best-selling author of numerous books including Emotional Intelligence. In his own words, he is a hard-core meditator.
“I started meditating in college,” he said. “I was in India as a pre-doc and post-doc looking at meditation systems. And then I did my dissertation work at Harvard on meditation, so I’ve had a lot of standing interest both professionally and personally.”
And yet even he has never been on a retreat for more than 10 days at a time.
Among other projects, Mr. Goleman is involved with the Mind and Life Institute which began as a series of conversations with the Dalai Lama.
“My own research was on meditation and stress,” Mr. Goleman said. “What Tsoknyi is doing is really on a more spiritual level. What you can do with your consciousness and work with your awareness and transform it so very positive qualities emerge spontaneously. He takes it out of the religious language and trappings.”
Or as Rinpoche told the Gazette: “What I’m doing is trying to reconnect to the nature of being a human.”
Tsoknyi Rinpoche was born in 1966 in Nepal. When he was eight years old his family received a letter from the Sixteenth Karmapa, the head of the one of the orders of Tibetan Buddhism. Rinpoche had been identified as a spiritual heir, or third reincarnation, of a long line of Buddhist teachers and as such he would be sent to a live in a monastery to receive training and eventually become a master himself.
The young Rinpoche did not want to go. As he writes in his new book Open Mind, Open Heart, “I was a social and playful boy. I liked talking to girls, making jokes.”
He also liked drinking Coca Cola and admits it took him seven years to quit this habit. He knows the pleasures of the modern world.
And yet, at the age of 12, he did enter the monastery and began a lifetime of study and teaching of Buddhist principles. In addition to Mr. Goleman, his students include Jon Kabat-Zinn, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, American teachers who have made meditation and Buddhist thinking, if not household words, at least familiar principles to many.
Eventually, Rinpoche left the monastery and gave up his vow of chastity. He is married and the father of two daughters. And it is perhaps this connection with everyday life — he knows how difficult it is to get a five year old to clean her room — and an appreciation of the modern world that makes him so accessible to Western students.
“This is my interest, how to bring the ancient wisdom into a modern understanding, without losing the core Buddhist value,” he said.
Through traveling and teaching around the world, he has noticed how each culture and society has a particular antagonist at its core that leads it astray from what it means to be human.
In the West “it is speed and excitement. When you are trying to get everything as soon as possible in the fastest way, you disturb the speed limit of the body. Speed and anxiety and habitual patterns block the ability to feel the proper way,” he said.
The Western world also leans much more heavily toward the way of the intellect rather than that of the heart, he said.
“The basic ability to love someone is being cut off in the West because so much attention is in the head. We disregard feelings and try to achieve everything through the mind by focusing on the objective and fulfilling the objective.”
Rinpoche is not a finger pointer, though, at what is wrong with any culture. Rather, his mission is to relieve suffering and to foster loving kindness. The first step is meditation.
As he writes in his book, the instructions are deceptively simple.
“Just straighten your spine, take a couple of breaths, keep your eyes open, now let yourself be aware of everything you’re experiencing.”
This may seem counter-intuitive, particularly to a Western mind, that sitting still, focusing on the breath and watching the mind do its acrobatics, is the key to a better way of living. It seems too easy. Nothing to buy, no pill to take, test to pass, competition to take part in, or prizes to win? Just breathe?
But confronting the chaos of the mind, in all of its glory and absurdity, is neither easy nor comforting. Meditation is also just one step, a tool, really, for helping people recognize their patterns for what they are.
“What you are seeing is your own perception. You’re not really seeing reality. You are seeing what it appears to you and you believe it. When you don’t have any control over what your perception tells you, you are vulnerable.”
If this is beginning to sound too enigmatic, this schism between who you think you are and the real you buried unconsciously beneath layers of cultural and personal masks, you begin to understand why a month-long retreat is necessary, even after years of study. We have not even addressed “emotional transformation, cognitive stability or how to desolidify the ego fixation.”
And yet, at its core, the answer remains straightforward.
“It is to stop the mind from judging and reconnect with the basic well-being of okay-ness. I call it essence love. The basic ability to love someone. The real well-being is in the heart, not in the doing something.”
The Vineyard, its turns out, is a very good place to do this.
“I feel good here,” Rinpoche said. “Calm and clear. Some places you feel only calm and dull. Some areas you feel clear but a little bit restless. But this place, you feel very calm but at the same time the sharpness of the mind is quite natural here.”
Tsoknyi Rinpoche will give a public lecture on Sunday, Nov. 4, beginning at 7:30 p.m. at the Hebrew Center, 130 Centre street, Vineyard Haven. Copies of his book Open Heart, Open Mind are available at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore and Edgartown Books.