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Living Fully: An Interview with Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche

by Edie Weinstein


Take a deep inhalation of life sustaining breath and allow it to anchor you to the present moment. This is the essence of the beautiful book entitled Living Fully: Finding Joy In Every Breath written by Tibetan Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche. The pages lead the reader into a simple and profound life practice that does not require leaving behind worldly surroundings or creature comforts to live spiritually. It does offer an entrée to serenity in which the one turning the pages may want to dwell indefinitely.

He is a willing and eager transmitter of spiritual wisdom, which I think of as knowledge in action. A life-long student, Rinpoche has taken his encyclopedic comprehension of the teachings of East and West and offered them to willing students worldwide, including those at Harvard, Naropa and Yale Universities. His appeal is both mainstream and metaphysical as the vocabulary he uses to express universal truth is easily translatable to modern life. He also bridges the worlds of spiritual Buddhist practitioner and householder, as he is married and is the loving father of three children.

One of his projects is establishing The Center For Enlightenment at Buddhafield in Millerton, New York. His vision is that it be a "sanctuary for complete awareness within ourselves, in the center of our hearts."

Although we have not yet met face to face, by reading the book and conducting this interview, I feel welcomed into Rinpoche’s world in which happiness is a direct result of being a willing vessel for the energy of love in service to others. He invites the reader to recognize our true nature, which beckons us to live in the full awareness of the present moment.

Opening to any chapter at random, will lead the reader on a journey of inner exploration. In the chapter called Just A Short Stay, he likens life to a hotel into which we register and remain for a limited period of time. We may enjoy it ever so slightly in the beginning and then little by little, we begin to take notice of cracks in the walls, leaky ceilings, lumpy mattresses that make it not a whole lot of fun to inhabit. As it comes near time to check out, we may look back in dismay that we didn’t enjoy it more. According to Rinpoche "During your brief sojourn, try not to make too much fuss about the flaws in your hotel room, in your life. Whatever presents itself in this very moment is it."

In another, entitled A Pure Heart, the concept of kindness and compassion for ourselves and those we encounter, even in the face of perceived unkindness, is encouraged. He offers "When attacked with arrows, the Buddha taught us to respond with flowers. Flowers represent the beauty of compassion."

In A Savings Account For All Beings, Rinpoche explores the ideology of merit. Rather than placing our positive energy into an account from which only we can draw, he teaches that it need be available for others as well, so that they too reap the benefit of our spiritual practice. Referred to as dedication, it guarantees that this account will never be empty, so long as it is of use to the world."

Our minds, he says are Like A River, that is "always in constant motion, flowing and transforming. We picture it the same every day, but it is never the same."

Considering desire, anger, pride, envy and ignorance pitfalls into which we may stumble, Rinpoche elaborates in the chapter called Dissolving Emotional Afflictions. He explains "In this tradition, we do not reject or accept anything outright. Without holding back, we must be willing to experience our feelings and emotions fully. They are all valid because they emerge from a wellspring of pure energy. However, when the machinations of ego corrupt this energy, like toxic smoke consuming a pure blue sky, emotions can quickly become poisonous."

Rinpoche is guided by the Buddhist tradition that invites the first steps of ‘taking refuge’ in The Three Jewels of the Buddha, The Dharma and The Sangha (defined as the teacher, the teachings and those who follow the way of the Buddha.)

Wisdom: You have mentioned being more drawn to ritual objects than toys at an early age. Do you feel you were born to the spiritual practice in which you are living?

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: In a way, I feel that every human being is naturally drawn to the unconditional nature and to spiritual practice. I am therefore no different from anyone else. However, my personal circumstances were very favorable for genuine spiritual growth. In a way, it might seem that I was born into the spiritual practice that I have now. But fortunately, I have been able to actualize great benefits by applying myself to spiritual practice.

Wisdom: Your childhood was a blend of the conventional and cosmic, being immersed in your secular and spiritual studies. How did each serve you?

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: My childhood experience was indeed very open and nurturing. Conventional human kindness was integrated with spiritual practice and insight. It was a great opportunity to relate to everyday experience from the perspective of spiritual teachings. Today, I feel lucky that I am able to relate to day-to-day experience in a skillful and sensitive manner. As a humble spiritual practitioner, I feel it is very important to apply natural intelligence and handle everything with skillful means. From the very beginning, it is crucial to provide opportunities for our youngsters to relate to their thoughts and feelings with spiritual understanding. I feel that this will shape them and help them become truly gentle and mindful beings.

Wisdom: What impact do you find that prayer and focused intention have on healing?

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: Express-ing one’s own focused intention, eloquently and meaningfully, is sublime prayer. With this sublime and sacred prayer, one will definitely invoke the power to cure mental affliction and physical disintegration. The healing power of prayer is limitless. To be healthy is to be complete—complete in the sense that nothing is limiting you or causing imbalance. To leap beyond limitations is to experience a perfect and fulfilling way of life. With prayer one is able to free oneself from all restrictions, and therefore, live in a truly healthy and fulfilling life.

Wisdom: Enlightenment and mindful-ness are two words that are part of the language of spirituality. How would you define them?

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: Enlight-enment is the state of ultimate realization. Mindfulness is an experience of the ultimate essence itself. Nowadays, these two words are mostly used when speaking of the spiritual realm. The most important thing is to experience mindfulness and glimpse enlightenment in our everyday lives. Being mindful of everyone’s essence is it!

Wisdom: How can we put lofty ideals into day-to-day practice?

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: As long as your priorities are straight, you can assimilate lofty ideals into your day-to-day life. Once you begin to integrate with these so-called lofty ideals, they will not seem out of reach. They will be inseparable from your being. Loving kindness and compassion are natural qualities of your being; you can integrate with, and embody these ideals. For a dedicated practitioner, this will become a very simple and natural process. It is so important for us to realize that we can enjoy a completely fulfilling life and we can help others to achieve this, too. There is nothing loftier than this!

Wisdom: Often conflicts occur when we perceive those outside our own skin as ‘other’ and perhaps different and even threatening. How can we maintain psychological boundaries, while experiencing spiritual union with all life?

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: First of all, we are limited when we feel that we must maintain psychological boundaries. To experience spiritual union with all life is to go beyond psychological boundaries. If we are unable to realize the limitless, unconditional wisdom mind, we will be bound by our habitual ways and by our conditional concepts. Whenever there is a concept, there is separation between self and other. To experience union with the true essence, we must be able to fully experience the unconditional nature of our being. Within this essence, there are no boundaries and there is no separation.

Wisdom: What is the perfect moment?

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: I suppose, the perfect moment is the unconditional moment, which is beyond hope and fear. Here, the true experience of equanimity is realized.

Wisdom: How can we maintain a heart of compassion toward ourselves, and those we encounter throughout our lives?

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: Through-out our lives, it is essential for us to maintain compassion for others as well as for ourselves. We must realize that every being on earth is essentially a breathing being. However, this precious breath will end some day. Realizing that, it is our responsibility to breathe comfortably and allow others to breathe comfortably. Secondly, remember that everyone is struggling and trying to survive—emotionally, mentally, and physically. Everyone longs to experience happiness and eliminate suffering. Since all living creatures share these same aspirations, it is crucial to help each other find happiness. If you are unable to help them, at least recognize that there is no reason to harm others. To have a heart of compassion is to have true understanding and sensitivity to the suffering of others.

Wisdom: What are "The Four Boundless Qualities?"

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: The Four Boundless Qualities are love, compassion, sympathetic joy and impartiality.

Wisdom: Please speak of the intention of the Bodhisattva.

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: In short, the Bodhisattva’s intention is to save and protect every being from suffering and help them realize the ultimate state of happiness. The Bodhisattva practices the paramitas (the perfection of generosity, perfection of ethics, perfection of patience, perfection of joyous effort, perfection of concentration and perfection of wisdom) to skillfully bring the buddha nature of all beings to perfect fruition. This is done effectively by purifying oneself and cultivating true insight. Bodhisattvas work tirelessly to help all beings to recognize their innate perfection through compassionate action, such as teaching the sublime Dharma.

Wisdom: How can we awaken our innate Buddha nature, regardless of religion of origin?

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: Buddha nature is the essence of every being. It is like a seed that needs to be nurtured so it can blossom into a pure and beautiful flower. This essence must be discovered and actualized by accumulation of merits and purification of karma. Regardless of religious background, every human being is capable of purifying negativities and accumulating merits, if they are fortunate enough to have their priorities properly aligned. All religious practices are only stepping stones towards realizing this innate, unconditional nature.

Wisdom: Many people turn their will or power over to a teacher. How can we learn from and feel guided by teachers and know that ultimately we are responsible for our life choices?

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: First of all, before turning our will or power over to the teacher, we must take the time to examine our own intention and the quality of the teacher. Buddha always advised us not to follow anyone blindly. It is crucial for us to examine and verify the standard of the teacher you wish to relate to. When we are able to approach the teacher intelligently, we will benefit greatly from his or her friendship and guidance. Ultimately, the perfect external teacher embodies the perfect inner teacher, which is our true nature. There will be a time when everything we experience is our guide and teacher. When we realize that there is no "I" that is separate from "other," we become truly responsible beings. It may seem difficult to grasp this view, but through accumulation of good karma, it is obtainable by every living being.

Wisdom: How do we bring ourselves back to the ‘here and now’ when we get distracted by ‘life stuff’ and daily tasks?

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: The point is to pay attention. Whatever we do, we should do it 100%, so to speak. When we are paying attention we are not distracted. When we are not distracted, we are in the here and now, with insight. In this way, our daily tasks provide endless opportunities to wake ourselves up. When we are awake in the moment, our daily tasks are completely fulfilling because we are fully attuned to the essence of here and now. Our tasks are not the problem; it is mindlessly losing the sharpness of our awareness in an endless chain of discursive thoughts that is the issue here. The more the mind fabricates, the more we lose touch with the moment. The practice of meditation will pacify this tendency of getting lost in our thoughts. When we become familiar with mindfulness practice, we can bring this awareness into our daily tasks and not give in to distraction. Then we are paying full attention to the task at hand. Paying close attention to the task at hand is a form of meditation. Completing our daily tasks with awareness is indispensable, and it can be very fulfilling indeed.

Wisdom: How can we merge the secular and spiritual worlds, or are they really one and the same?

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: The secular way is the modern worldly way, which is not the same as the spiritual way. The spiritual way is the transcendental, divine way of living. The secular world without the spiritual way is devoid of true essence. It is every human being’s birthright to live as a spiritual person. Truly spiritual beings are capable of living in the secular world with great style and sophistication. I feel that you can live without religion, but you cannot live without spirituality.

Wisdom: What is your greatest joy?

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche: My greatest joy is to serve humanity to the best of my ability. It is indeed the greatest joy to live our lives meaningfully and benefit others.

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche is the author of LIVING FULLY: FINDING JOY IN EVERY BREATH (New World Library, February 2012). He is the spiritual guide of Shyalpa Monastery in Kathmandu, the founder of the Tibetan Refugee Children’s Fund, and the head of Ranging Yeshe, Inc., a nonprofit that organizes teachings and retreats throughout the United States. He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Wesleyan, and the Naropa Institute. He lives in Nepal and New York. For more information, please visit www.shyalparinpoche.org.

Rev. Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a colorfully creative journalist, dynamic and inspiring motivational speaker, interfaith minister and the author of The Bliss Mistress Guide To Transforming the Ordinary Into the Extraordinary. www.liveinjoy.org


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