Report: Sogyal Rinpoche on the Nature of Mind

It was our great pleasure to host Sogyal Rinpoche at UBC, where he gave two lectures, “Finding Peace and Stability in a Troubled World” and  “The Heart Essence of Tibetan Buddhism.”

He delighted his audience by introducing Tibetan Buddhist understandings of mind and meditative practice, commenting on how these impact contemporary society and relate to neuroscientific notions of mind. The two evening lectures drew between 900 and 1,000 people to the Chan and Asian Centres.

According to Sogyal, realizing the true nature of mind is key to stability and happiness in a troubled world. The human mind troubled by distractions and a never-ending series of thoughts. Underlying these fleeting thoughts is the originally clear, pure nature of mind. Meditation is the method for prolonging our experience of this original mind. Just as clouds obscure the clear blue sky, so do thoughts cloud the mind. He piqued our interest with a variety of metaphors and descriptions of our deepest mind, and indeed, according to Buddhist teachings, the deepest nature of mind and the fundamental nature of reality are one in the same: metaphor of SKY—he compared the true nature of mind to the Sky, clear, expansive, and unstained by the clouds that pass through it; metaphor of SPACE—he told us of dwelling “spaciously” and about letting the mind graze as in a wide field;  metaphor of CRYSTAL—he described the mind as crystal, as taking on other colors, but having no color of its own, remaining pure and clear.

Sogyal has had tremendous impact on popular knowledge of Buddhism around the world, especially through his influential book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, published in 1992. The book is a reflection upon beliefs, rituals, and meditative practices related to the bardo—the Tibetan term referring to the liminal period between death and the next rebirth proposed by several Buddhist traditions. In Buddhism, the period leading up to death, the moment of death itself, and the liminal bardo—are crucial times when the future of the transmigrating being may be affected.

In this book, Sogyal Rinpoche goes further, argues strongly that the bardo and its beliefs, rituals, and meditative practices are relevant for all of life—and particularly for people living today. This influential presentation of Tibetan teachings for death and for life went on to inspire the social engagement of his organization, Rigpa. Rigpa works with volunteers and professionals providing care to the dying in clinical, hospice, and palliative care settings.

The paired movement demonstrated by Sogyal Rinpoche and his organization is found over and over again in contemporary Buddhist forms: (1)  The first movement—Connecting Buddhist ideas and practices to our lives and current social issues through teaching and writing; (2)  The second movement—Acting on those connections within society through organizing and institution-building. Sogyal Rinpoche adeptly connects Tibetan teachings with psychology, science, philosophy, and topics of contemporary concern, such as our global environment, education, peace, ethical economic practices, health care, cultural preservation, and caring for those who nearing the end of their lives. He and his organization engage these connections in society, working together with people from different professional and religious backgrounds towards common goals.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying reveals much about Sogyal Rinpoche’s own life: his formative experiences, education, and religious training. He was born in Eastern Tibet. While still an infant he entered the monastery of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, who later recognized him as the reincarnation of a 19th century Tertön, or discoverer of hidden teachings, named Tertön Sogyal Lerab Lingpa. After he left Tibet, he pursued education outside of the monastery.

He attended Catholic school, and later, university in India. In 1971, he traveled to England, where he studied comparative religion at Cambridge University. Since those early years with Jamyang Khyentse, Sogyal Rinpoche has encountered many prominent Tibetan teachers and spiritual leaders, including His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

His first teacher, Jamyang Khyentse, did not remain within sectarian boundaries. Jamyang Khyentse’s approach to Tibetan Buddhism drew widely from across the spectrum of Tibetan schools, and Sogyal Rinpoche’s approach is similarly inclusive. His work is replete with stories, memories of his own experiences, and memories of his teachers (both Tibetan and otherwise). His presentations of Buddhist teachings draw widely from a variety of sources (both Buddhist and otherwise). His lectures at UBC were full of stories and examples from many traditions.

by Jessica L. Main.
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