Many happy returns
Tibetan Buddhist master Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is possibly the world's happiest man, according to scientists, who initially thought their brain scanner was faulty. He's had lifetimes of practice; Rinpoche is an honorific given to reincarnated lamas and means 'Precious One'.
About a decade ago, Mingyur Rinpoche volunteered to have his brain tested alongside eight other monks, all of whom had spent more than 10,000 hours meditating, at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behaviour at the University of Wisconsin in the US.
'They put me in a huge scanner in the shape of an enormous white coffin,' he says, describing his experience in the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. 'It was very narrow, cold, dark and noisy. The scientists spoke to me through headphones and asked me to meditate on 'open present', 'concentration' and 'compassion' for 90 seconds each. During this time, they'd send noises of babies crying, children screaming and other things that might cause an emotional response. It went on for two hours.'
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson and his colleagues studied the brain activity of the monks in both meditative and non-meditative states. The findings were extraordinary. They knew that negative emotions registered in the brain's right prefrontal cortex and positive activity was detected in the left. But when the monks generated feelings of compassion, a standard meditation practice, their left prefrontal cortices showed previously unseen levels of activity.
When they ran the tests on Mingyur Rinpoche, his baseline activity was farther to the left than anyone else, so much so that they thought the machine was malfunctioning.
Mingyur Rinpoche brushes aside the scientists' conclusion that he is the happiest man alive. 'I don't think of myself like that because my teachers are happier than me. But the scientists did find our brains are capable of extraordinary things.'
The venerable ascetic arrived in Hong Kong last week to teach meditation and study programmes at his Tergar Meditation Community, which follows the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, focusing on the oral transmission of teachings. Mingyur Rinpoche is based in Nepal, but travels to teach at Tergar centres around the world. He will also launch a Chinese-language edition of his book, Joyful Wisdom: Embracing Change and Finding Freedom, on Friday at Southorn Stadium in Wan Chai.
Born in Nubri, on the Tibet-Nepal border, the 35-year-old monk began practising meditation at an early age, in time learning to control his thoughts, overcome fear and attain compassion. Looking like the archetypal Tibetan holy man, in trademark crimson and saffron robes, and with his head shaved, he displays no signs of materialism beyond a pair of orange Crocs and a black plastic watch. Brown prayer beads - which he counts to aid meditation - are coiled round his left wrist. His manner is cheery, befitting a man brimming with happiness.
He firmly believes in the goodness of human nature and that everyone has wisdom, compassion, capability, knowledge and skills. However, he thinks that many people don't recognise these characteristics in themselves. Through meditation and Buddhist teachings, he hopes to help people recognise and awaken these positive attributes.
Like the Dalai Lama, Mingyur Rinpoche has achieved tulku, a status conferred on great teachers who attain enlightenment and are then reborn repeatedly in order to pass on their philosophy to others. Born Lundup Lama, he was recognised at the age of three by a great Buddhist master to be the seventh reincarnation of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a 17th-century scholar. But the calmness that Mingyur Rinpoche now exudes is at odds with his character as a young boy, when he suffered debilitating panic attacks.
'I was overcome with panic, very strong bouts of fear,' he says. 'I would run off into the caves near my house. One day, when my grandmother was looking after me and thought she'd lost me, she sent all the villagers to look for me. Eventually they found me in the cave. She said to me, 'Don't do this next time', but I didn't listen.
'Then, when I was nine years old, I asked my father to teach me meditation. Through meditation, my father began to teach me how to deal with my panic.'
Despite his father's teachings, Mingyur Rinpoche suffered panic attacks into his teenage years. In an attempt to overcome them, he begged to be allowed to enter a three-year retreat at the Sherab Ling Monastery in India's Himachal Pradesh state. So at 13, he became one of the youngest students in the history of Tibetan Buddhism to undertake such a retreat.
'In the first year of my retreat my panic attacks got worse,' he says. 'But then I decided to really apply my meditation technique. I needed to say hello to my panic and make friends with it. I sat in my room, really concentrating for three days, and after that my panic became my friend, one of my best friends and teachers.
'This is one of the key things about meditation - you can befriend and learn from your problems.'
An average day in retreat starts at 3am and finishes at 9.30pm. The day is divided into individual and group meditation sessions, yoga and meals. It's a simple and repetitive programme that teaches how to meditate in many ways.
'Everything can be a basis for meditation,' he says. 'You can make a visual object, sound, smell, physical sensation or thought a support for meditation.'
When Mingyur Rinpoche completed the retreat at 17, he was made a Buddhist master and assigned to be the master of the next retreat - becoming the youngest person ever to take the job. He ran retreats for the next seven years.
Despite his spiritual leanings, however, Mingyur Rinpoche has never been sceptical of scientific teachings. As a child, he saw a well-known Chilean neuroscientist, Dr Francisco Varela, visit his father to study meditation. Varela, who earned his doctorate at Harvard, was bright and articulate, and grabbed the attention of the young Rinpoche. While Varela was keen to learn all about Buddhism, Mingyur Rinpoche absorbed everything he had to say about Western science.
'If I hadn't become a monk, I think I would have become a scientist,' he says with a chuckle.
Referring to the brain scan he volunteered for in 2002, he says: 'There are three reasons why this research is so important. The first is neuroplasticity - the fact that your brain is capable of change. So no matter how you are there is hope. The second is that, unlike drugs, meditation has no side effects and is more accurate at treating the brain. Third, meditation doesn't just change your brain and make you happy; it's good for your health, your immune system and other things.'
He says this was borne out by subsequent experiments by the same team in which a group of volunteers was given eight weeks of meditation training and then tested alongside a control group. Meditation shifted brain activity farther to the left; in other words, it made people happier. Both groups were also given flu jabs. The people who meditated showed an improved immune response to the injections.
This ability of the mind to change the brain's patterns could open doors for the treatment of mental illness. On a day-to-day level, many of us could improve our lives simply by changing the way we think.
Mingyur Rinpoche will go back into retreat next summer for a further three years, and in the meantime is keen to share the wonders of meditation.
'I really want to bring this wonderful experience and ancient wisdom into the 21st century. I feel it's needed nowadays when people suffer stress, emotional problems, anxiety, panic, low self-esteem. For me, the best solution is always meditation.'