Nepalese Buddhist teacher led a month’s retreat at Yoga Barn

Tsoknyi Rinpoche and Dan Goleman share a light moment at the latter's home in Chilmark. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

If not for his crimson robe, one would not take Tsoknyi Rinpoche for a renowned teacher of Buddhism. At first glance he looks more 30-something than his actual 46 years. His open face, tousled black hair, bright eyes, big smile, and spontaneous giggle put listeners quickly at ease. He likes to wear casual clothes when not teaching, has a wife and two daughters back home in Nepal, and even does household chores. Although his English is very good, he occasionally is uncertain of a word or meaning, and at a recent interview would turn to his friend Dan Goleman for clarification.

Mr. Goleman, a meditator and student of Buddhism, hosted Rinpoche at his Chilmark home in November while the teacher lead a month-long retreat at the Yoga Barn. Mr. Goleman’s wife, Tara, had envisioned a fall retreat with their teacher on the Vineyard. The Yoga Barn was hospitable, there were off-season rentals available for students, and after lengthy organizing the retreat began. The Golemans met Rinpoche some 22 years ago when he first came to teach in the United States. They began organizing retreats for him in this country and have been his students and friends since then.

Along with leading the retreat, the teacher presented a public talk on November 4, filling the M.V. Hebrew Center to overflowing. Later he signed copies of his newest book “Open Heart, Open Mind.”

That evening he described the way he felt on Martha’s Vineyard as “calm and clear, both, not calm and dull,” and said this is a perfect place for a retreat.

During an interview in the Golemans’ sunny living room, Rinpoche smiled reassuringly, chuckled often, and emphasized his words with energetic hand gestures, talking about his life, work, and meditation.

Retreatants, most from elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad, had studied with Rinpoche in the past. More than 100 students began the retreat with a 10-day session, and most stayed on for the month.

They met daily at the Yoga Barn for group meditation, teaching, questions, and discussion. Although not in sessions full-time, participants were encouraged to observe silence at all times during their daily routines except when necessary to speak.

“It’s all part of the practice,” Rinpoche commented.

There was no fee for the retreat. Students made voluntary donations to cover retreat expenses and many also contributed to Rinpoche’s project, building a nunnery in Nepal.

In addition to teaching in the U.S. and many other countries, Rinpoche is committed to overseeing and expanding nunneries in Tibet and Nepal. He is in charge of one in Tibet, building another in Nepal. There, nunneries offer young women a rare opportunity to be educated. Rinpoche’s vision is that many will become well-versed in Buddhist tradition and meditation and be teachers. Many of the nuns return home, bringing the fruits of their education to their villages.

The Pundarika Foundation, a 501 c-3 charitable organization, supports these humanitarian efforts as well as Rinpoche’s work in the U.S. and abroad. Rinpoche also maintains a six-week summer teaching schedule in Crestone, Colorado, where students gather in a traditional Tibetan tent for meditation and study.

While Rinpoche’s gentle, unassuming manner and easy, innocent humor, make it comfortable to be with him, his life has been stringently disciplined, his training intensive. As an eight-year-old child living in Nepal, he was identified as a teacher, to follow in a succession of teachers begun with the first Tsoknyi Rinpoche. He is the third in that lineage.

At age 12 he was called to a monastery in India. Leaving his family behind, he would live and study there for more than a decade while missing his parents and especially his beloved grandmother. Though reluctant to forsake his home, family, and boyhood games, he accepted it, realizing, “This is the way.”

After years of study and living simply in the monastic community, he returned to the wider world, married, and began to teach.

Meditation is the focus of his teaching. A deceptively simple process of sitting and breathing, it is also a deep discipline. Buddhist meditation calls for the meditator to maintain awareness and let unnecessary thoughts go when they arise.

“That is a tough one,” said Rinpoche, explaining that simply ignoring a thought is not easy, especially for a beginning meditator. He teaches techniques to assist students in letting go.

Many thoughts and feelings that arise “have nothing to do with reality,” Rinpoche said. A strong reaction of fear or anger, though actually happening, is often not based on the current situation, but it is “residue” from long-past experiences. Meditation makes it possible to discern what is real and what is illusory, habitual, repetitive ways of reacting.

Through meditation mind and feelings become aligned, according to Rinpoche. “The mind listens to feelings, feelings listen to the mind,” he said. Unlike when mind and feelings “go in separate directions,” leading to destructive emotions, alignment produces harmony.

“The technique is breathing, long breathing in and out, the mind and feelings become friends.”

According to Rinpoche there are two levels of meditation instruction. The first is breathing, learning to calm and clear the mind. But the goal of Buddhist meditation is not just calming and relaxation but to become more aware and compassionate.

“Then we learn to transform wrong habits and become more emotionally healthy,” he said. “Feeling becomes more joyful, easy. The mind becomes more open and clear.”

At length, the practitioner connects with a sense of unconditional love, what Rinpoche terms “Essence Love.” That connection made, the meditator will experience compassion and act with loving-kindness and caring towards other beings.

“Meditation is key,” Rinpoche said. Although the study and contemplation of Buddhist texts and traditions are critical to learning, it is meditation that allows habits to change, transformation. He likened the process to preparing a meal. Reading a recipe is like studying Buddhist texts, he said. “But meditation is cooking.”

Why are Westerners drawn to Buddhism and meditation? Rinpoche said that Westerners are highly educated, “busy in their minds,” separated from emotions, under pressure, feeling lack of time. This cerebral, pressure-filled lifestyle leads to emotional pain, “modern suffering” that is soothed by meditation.

The regular mediator is likely to realize there is a more peaceful, compassionate, joyful way to live.

“Meditation is very suitable for the Western mentality,” he said. “Well-being in the heart is needed in this country.”

Ironically, young people in the Eastern world, raised in Buddhist tradition, are often attracted to the Western way of life, especially because of poverty in their homelands. But, Rinpoche said, after moving to the U.S. or other countries, leading fast-paced lives with emphasis on material success, they often become disillusioned, realize something is missing, and return to traditional ways.

“Meditation breeds lasting inner contentment,” said Mr. Goleman, noting that research shows no connection between wealth and happiness. He added that scientific studies indicate that meditation has a positive effect on the regular practitioner’s physical health and well-being.

Asked whether one can be a Christian or follow other religions and practice Buddhism, a question that may rise for Westerners as they embrace meditation, Rinpoche said “definitely!”

“As His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, ‘if you practice meditation, you will become an even better Christian,'” Rinpoche said. “It’s all compassion, concentration, all the same.”