Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche: Drinking tea with death

- through Fabrice Groult

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Dying before dying, seeing death as good news… during his long-term retirement, this unconventional tulku has an experience that will forever change his outlook on things: it is dying moment by moment on a daily basis that we become alive. An embodied lesson in impermanence.

Rinpoche, your book is an invitation to be aware of death at every moment in order to become alive and realize its deep nature. Why is it so important to be in constant contact with impermanence?

What is important to understand is that by connecting to impermanence, we can develop a form of resilience, cultivate a form of creativity and a certain flexibility, because our mind opens more. We know it, we are plagued by fears, doubts, suffering. But the basis of these fears comes from the fact that we do not accept the death. As I write in the book, we die every day. If we accepted death, we would understand that we are also reborn every day. Understanding the dying process is a way to live fully.

You say that one must "die before dying" and even that one should take tea with death! That's to say ?

This is a fundamental concept of Buddhist teaching, the bardo. In Tibetan, this term means "between", "transition" or "space". Existence is like a stock market, it is made up of ups and downs. These cycles of our lives are extremely precious times that allow us to grow, learn, and ultimately achieve deep self-understanding. Generally, they appear when we face unexpected moments. In these moments, obstacles turn into opportunities, we can become creative.

When I was young, my father said to me: “When you decide to go somewhere and realize that it's a dead end, because it's blocked by a wall. The first thing to do is throw your backpack on the other side. You can then jump over it and continue on your way.

Would this backpack represent all the identifications that we build throughout our lives, with their share of fears and sufferings. What do you recommend to free us from it?

Letting go should not be confused with giving up. In our lives, we all experience problems, so it is important to accept that life is made up of these ups and downs in order to be able to develop a form of resilience, relax and let impermanence take its course. Otherwise, the rigid mind remains fixed on these obstacles, and we smash against the walls. Whereas if we accept this reality without giving up, then there are a lot of possibilities open to us – to go through this or that side of the wall, above – and we can focus on our fundamental beauty. It is important for Westerners to explore these turbulences of life in order to agree to change their habits. We can all understand the value of letting go, but it doesn't come that easily. To achieve this, it is important to recognize the feelings that we experience, not to push away sadness, remorse, or nostalgia; not to allow oneself to be imprisoned in the story that the self tells us, etc. All of this frees us from the spirit of control and concepts, and our perception of conventional reality changes. There are many bardos in our lives and therefore the possibility of confronting them without experiencing the death of the body: when at 18, we leave the parental home; when at 25, we return to our parents (laugh) ; when you separate from your spouse and then find another one; when you lose and then find a job, etc.

About the bardo of death and the bardo in general, you evoke a form of dissolution. Can you detail?

The bardo develops in three stages: the first is the moment of dying; the second is what is called spontaneous presence, a particular form of consciousness, and the third is the bardo of becoming.

When you lose your job, for example, you may have the impression of collapsing, burning or disappearing, it is symbolically the bardo of death. If we manage to let go without giving up, we arrive at the second stage, the bardo of spontaneous presence and, from then on, it is possible to experience a form of state of lucidity, of openness, of liberation. Then comes the third stage, which is a form of transformation: we “become” something, bigger, more vast, more serene. It is like opening the closed circle in which we find ourselves to go beyond its limitations.

“Understanding the dying process is a way to live fully. »

At the time of death we may feel in shock, in collapse, but at the very end we may have an experience of fullness, there is a form of extension of consciousness. All our beliefs evaporate to give way to a space of novelty, in which nothing exists except total openness. In short, the letting go that we are talking about here makes everything easier.

Our deep nature, our fundamental goodness is characterized by conscience, love or benevolence, wisdom, three qualities that we all have. When at the time of death or during the experience of another bardo, we experience this space, we are closer to our true nature, and it is then a form of total recreation. The mere fact of being in connection with this true nature means that then a true transformation can occur.

Your book stands out from the standard literature on Buddhist teachings in that it offers a mixture of autobiographical elements, your traveling retreat, and non-academic detailed dharma notions. Why this choice of treatment?

In Tibet, there are many pedagogies: academic teachings, those of scholars, those based on experience, presentations specific to the style of authors, hermits, monks, grandfathers and grandmothers... (laugh) I think this experience-based style, which is in keeping with our times, can be beneficial, because we don't have much time to study all that is dharma.

Has this traveling retreat experience changed the way you teach?

This retreat was a wonderful moment, because I learned a lot about meditation, but also about life. What we can understand through this experience is that what we discover about death... is not death! Death is a transition and we can learn to our last breath from all the bardos we go through. Thus, I discovered that life is the greatest of adventures and that everything I had learned during this retreat came true.


Translation by Frédéric Auquier, director of the association Tergar Paris

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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