Going at Our Own Pace on the Path of Meditation
by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

The Buddhist teachings are as vast as you can possibly imagine — and beyond that. At some point you might think you understand, but the reality is that the teachings are infinite. Even if you’re a bodhisattva on the fifth level, the person on the eighth level knows more. The dharma is like a huge mountain that we climb very slowly, taking little steps. But each step is profound; each step is amazing.

Practicing the dharma is traditionally said to be like walking through a heavy mist. It slowly, slowly enters into our bones; it slowly enters into who we are. People think of enlightenment as sudden transformation, like a light bulb that’s off one second and on the next: Prince Siddhartha is under the tree, you turn on the light, and he wakes up as the Buddha. But his enlightenment was not a sudden thing; he went through a process. He actually purified and transformed himself.

Many people have the idea that meditation means not thinking: the less we think, the better our meditation is. But meditation is really about changing our perception of the world. That is a scary idea, because we would like to follow the path to buddhahood but end up more or less the same person. We think, “I’m going to be enlightened and I’m going to be me. I’m gonna get all the goodies.” None of us thinks, “Maybe I’m going to be totally different. Maybe my process of engaging the world will be so different I won’t even recognise myself.”

Meditation helps us to do one particular thing: to change. Meditation changes how we relate to the world — that’s why we do contemplative practice. In a sense, we are re-educating ourselves — not in some esoteric spiritual sense, but just as human beings. Meditation is a practice through which we really become human. We become decent and workable. We have caught ourselves, our habitual selves, and we begin to change the way we look at things.

In meditation, we begin to learn about ourselves as basic human beings, and when we learn about ourselves, we learn how to change. Our mind is like hard ground that has not seen water for a long time. That ground is not capable of giving nourishment to anything. Whatever is planted in it dies. Nothing grows. As meditation practitioners, we begin to till our mind so that we can grow something, the mind of enlightenment. We’re trying to change.

The mind of enlightenment manifests as bodhicitta, which means that one is constantly and naturally thinking of the benefit of others. We could ask whether our own mind is like that. When we get up in the morning, is our immediate feeling one of warmth toward others and how we can benefit them? It could happen. But generally we think about ourselves. So how do we get from here to there?

Mindfulness, or shamatha meditation produces a mind that is able to settle. When we are doing spiritual practice, we have to have a mind that is able to stay in the moment, stay in the situation, long enough to absorb and understand. If we say, for example, “May the suffering of all sentient beings cease and may they enjoy happiness,” the mind that contemplates this has to be able to remain in the space of compassion long enough to be truly changed. If it can’t stay there, then bodhicitta will never develop; it will never take root.

There are said to be five aspects of the mind that are always present, no matter what we are doing. One of these aspects is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the aspect of conventional mind — the mind we have right now — that holds on to something. It is the ability of the mind to rest on a cup long enough to allow our hand to pick it up. It is the ability to hold an image in our mind or to stay on a spot long enough to understand what is going on.

In mindfulness practice, we are learning to extend this very basic quality of our mind. The project of training the mind in this way is much like the way we relate to children: when we’re teaching them what to do, we have to remind them again and again. We are training the mind in a similar way — bringing it back, bringing it back, bringing it back.

At this point, we aren’t even talking about Buddhism, really. The original texts that talk about mindfulness come from a meditative tradition that existed in India prior to the time of the Buddha. These teachings were incorporated into Buddhism because it was understood that if you wanted to train spiritually, you first needed to do this practice to stabilise the mind.

What is it that hinders mindfulness and the development of stable mind? In the course of meditation we begin to see that the mind is perpetually in motion. If we watch our mind, we realise it is always in turmoil — not necessarily in a dramatic way, but always moving, like waves on the ocean. We see this movement as thoughts.

When we do mindfulness practice, we learn to recognise this movement of mind and to separate out the many levels of thought. We do this by using the breath or other object of meditation to get some perspective on what is going on. When mindfulness is stabilised with the breath, we are in the immediate moment and awareness is right there, just seeing. As soon as we go off and start thinking about something, awareness will bring us back.

According to a famous Zen saying, bringing Buddhism to a new culture is like taking a flower and holding it next to a rock. Hopefully the flower will take root, but it takes a long time. Our minds are like the rock, and the dharma is a beautiful flower. How long is it going to take for this flower to take root in us?

Change is not going to happen instantly; it is a natural evolution that takes time. The more you learn about the so-called high level teachings, the more you understand the importance of patience. Patience means dealing very literally with every kind of situation in our lives. As each thought and situation arises, we can slow down and begin to train ourselves, little by little. Ironically, the quickest way to understand the great nature of mind is to have this mundane patience. We are not content with our neurosis, but we are content that we will go at our own pace.


The appearances of this life — all the various appearances of forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and bodily sensations we perceive — seem to truly exist. But life’s appearances do not say to us, “I am real.” They only seem to be real from our confused thoughts’ perspective when we think, “Those things really exist out there.” That is like what we do in a dream when we do not know we are dreaming.

Similarly, we mistakenly believe that aging, sickness, and death are truly existent… but this is just confused consciousness at work. The Buddhas’ perfect wisdom does not view this life, or the aging, sickness, and death that occur within it, as truly existent. The noble Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with wisdom that sees genuine reality do not see these events as real. Training in the view of the Mind-Only school that all phenomena are mind, and in the Middle Way view that all phenomena are emptiness, helps us transform our confused consciousness into perfect wisdom.

— Khenpo Tsultrim Rinpoche























Whenever you hear that someone has been successful, rejoice. Always practise rejoicing for others — whether your friend or enemy. if you cannot practise rejoicing, no matter how long you live, you will not be happy.

— Lama Zopa Rinpoche

The Man Who Told the Future
by Pico Iyer

Kristin and I were scuffling around the back streets of Kathmandu on a lazy November afternoon. We’d already gone to the zoo that day, and been unsettled to see a brown bear clutching at the bars of his cage, wailing piteously. We’d trudged around the National Museum, where every artifact of the King’s life was recorded, with particular reference to “The Royal Babyhood.” We’d passed an early evening amongst the spires of Durbar Square, watching bright-eyed boys play Carom while their elder brothers brushed against us in their jackets, muttering, “Brown sugar, white sugar, coke, smack, dope.”

But now the afternoon was yawning ahead of us and we didn’t know what to do. It was a rare opportunity for shared sight-seeing: Kristin was accustomed to heading out every night at 10 p.m., reeling through the pubs and bars of the old city, being chatted up by self-styled mystics before fumbling back to our tiny room in the Hotel Eden as the light was coming through the frosty windows. I’d take off, a little later, into the heavy mist, notebook in hand, to record the bearded sages who sat along the streets peddling every brand of cross-cultural wisdom. She was collecting experience, we liked to think, I was collecting evidence.

We’d met in New York City eight months before and, on a wild impulse, had decided that Kristin should join me on the last stop of a four-month tour through Asia that I was planning to take. She had a charming boyfriend back on East 3rd Street, and I was romancing my notebook, so it felt more than safe as we settled into our sixth-floor room on Freak Street.

I opened my Lonely Planet guide — my companion through all the countries I’d visited — and pointed out to her one item that had long intrigued me. There, tucked among long lists of trekking agencies and meditation centers, explanations of living goddesses, and reviews of apple-pie emporia, was the single most startling entry I had seen in such a work: “The Royal Astrologer.” For a price, the write-up said, this mage who consulted with the palace on even its most important decisions — When was the right day to pass some edict? Which time boded well for a royal birth? — was available to anyone who wished to see him.

How could either of us resist?

I had grown up in England, among little boys at boarding school who defined ourselves by everything we imagined we could see through. By day, we committed to memory the lines of Xenophon and Caesar; by night, we proved ourselves “superior” to everyone around us with cascades of fluency and quasi-sophisticated airs we’d borrowed from our books.

Three times a year, I left my all-male internment camp and flew back to my parents’ home in California. There, in a blindingly yellow house perched above the clouds, my father was reading the palm of every stranger who visited, talking of Aquarian precessions and the “Ascended Masters of the Himalayas.” His students, graduates of the Summer of Love, were attuned to psychic vibrations, auras, and verses from the Bhagavad Gita, but I wasn’t sure they’d recognise real life if it punched them in the face.

What better environment for producing someone who loudly announced he believed in nothing?

Kristin, however, had never given up on magic. She was five years younger than I — twenty-three to my twenty-eight — and she had a powerful belief in herself (or some parts of herself), matched only by her conviction that life would reward that faith.

One time, she’d come to my office, on the twenty-fifth floor of Rockefeller Center, and I’d pulled out a backgammon set. I was one throw from victory, and the only way she could defeat me was by throwing a double six. She closed her eyes, she shook the dice again and again between her hot palms, she muttered something nonsensical, and then she sent the dice clattering across the board.

One stopped rolling, and disclosed a six. The other came at last to rest: another six.

Now, as we tried to follow the runic instructions to the Astrologer — what true sage would allow himself to be listed in a Lonely Planet guide, I wondered? — we found ourselves passing through empty courtyards and along a scribble of narrow lanes. We were directed toward a golden temple, and then through another maze of darkened backstreets, and then led out into an open space where a ladder brought us up to a second-floor redoubt.

When the Royal Astrologer greeted us with a business card listing his doctorate and his work for NASA, my every doubt was confirmed.

Still, I was sure I could get a good story out of this, so we agreed on neither the priciest of his readings, nor the cheapest. We padded off to while away the hours before he could give us his verdicts, and settled into one of those Kathmandu cafés that might have doubled as Ali Baba’s cave.

Nepal in those days was budget time-travel to all the revolutions we were too young to have experienced firsthand. Pillows and cushions were scattered across the floor of this (as of many a) café, and a swirl of peasant-skirt bedspreads turned the space into a kind of magic tent. A creaky cassette of “The Golden Road of Unlimited Devotion” unspooled blearily on the sound system, and any number of mushroom enchiladas and “secret recipe” lasagnas on the menu promised transport of a more mysterious kind.

Travel, for me, had always been a testing of the waters. Every journey is a leap of faith, of course, a venture, ideally, into the unknown. But for me a large part of the point of encountering the Other was to see what and how much to believe in. Every stranger approaching me with a smile posed a challenge of trust — and asked, silently, how much I could be trusted, too. Something was at stake in nearly every transaction, I felt, and it was as essential as whether you believed the world made sense or not.

Kristin and I had met when she, a former student of my father’s, had read a cover story I’d written on the Colombian drug trade. She dreamed of being a writer, though for now, just out of college, she was working as a temp in a succession of Manhattan offices, deploying her capacity for typing at a furious speed. I had similar dreams, though for the time being I was cranking out long articles every week on world affairs for Time magazine, drawn from the reports of colleagues in the field. The explosion of demonstrations that was convulsing apartheid-stricken South Africa, the manoeuverings preceding the Mexican election, the gas leak in Bhopal: I covered them all with the assurance of one who had never seen the places I was describing.

In the warm summer evenings, the two of us met often in the gardens of tiny cafés in the East Village, and she showed me the story she’d just written about Desirée, an Indonesian bride arriving in America. I told her of the book I was going to write on Asia. We swapped our latest discoveries from James Salter or Don De Lillo, and she told me of her girlhood adventures growing up in India and Japan and Spain (her father a spy under deepest cover).

By the time we headed out into the streets again, dusk was beginning to fall over the Nepali capital, turning it into fairy-tale enchantment once more. Oil lamps and flickering candles came on in the disheveled storefronts and faces peered out at us, almost invisible save for their eyes. We slipped and lurched across the uneven, potholed paths, the silhouetted spires of temples all around us. The noise and the crowds of the big city seemed to fade away, and we were in a medieval kingdom at its prime.

As we climbed the stairs back to the Royal Astrologer’s chamber, we might have been stumbling into an emergency room after an earthquake. Half of Nepal was there, so it seemed, shivering in the near-dark as everyone waited for his or her fortune. A family wondering when to take its newborn to the temple, and how to name him; a nervous couple thinking about auspicious marriage dates.

Quite often, a sudden thump at the door announced an urgent messenger — from the palace perhaps? The Royal Astrologer handed out futures as easily as a doctor might, and the people who left his room were seldom the same as when they came in.

Finally, he summoned us closer and pored over the charts he’d drawn up from our times and places of birth.

“So,” he said, turning to Kristin — she craned forward, taut with attention — “generally, I have found that you have a special talent.” She braced herself. “This gift you have is for social work.”

I’d never seen my friend look so crushed.

“Does it say anything about creative work, an imaginative life?”

He looked again at the circle with all the partitions and said, “Your talent is for social work.”

She didn’t say a word at first. “Nothing about writing, then?”

He shook his head.

When it came to my turn, I worried it might prove awkward once he confirmed my future as a ground-breaking writer after what he’d said to my friend.

“So,” he said, looking down, “generally I have found that your strength is diligence.”


He pointed out the calculations and quadrants that confirmed this.

“‘Diligence’ in the sense of doing one’s duty?”

“Yes,” he said, and began explaining every scribble, but to someone who was no longer listening.

I knew that diligence was the quality that the Buddha had urged on his disciples in his final breath. But the Royal Astrologer wasn’t a Buddhist, and nor was I. To me, the word smacked of Boy Scout badges and “to do” lists.

“I think,” he went on, perhaps sensing our disappointment, “that every month, on the day of the full moon, you should meditate for an hour. And eat no meat all day.”

This sounded like the kind of thing my father would say. He’d been a vegetarian all his life and was full of talk of the virtues of stilling the mind and fasting so as to access a deeper wisdom.

I negotiated the sage down to fifteen minutes a month and a day without meat, and we filed out.

My four months wandering amidst the conundrums of Asia changed my life more irreversibly than I could have imagined. I went to California to write up my adventures, and when my seven-month leave of absence was over, and I returned to New York City, I knew I could never survive in an office now that I had such a rich sense of how the world could stretch my sense of possibility in every direction. While writing up my droll account of the magicians of Kathmandu — and the others I’d met across the continent — I’d remembered to keep an eye out for the full moon and had sat still for a few minutes once a month, restricting myself for one day every thirty to Panang vegetable curries.

It hadn’t seemed to hurt.

So now I served notice to my bosses at Time, packed up my things in the elegant office overlooking another 50th Street high-rise, emptied my eleventh-floor apartment on Park Avenue South, and moved to a small room on the backstreets of Kyoto without toilet or telephone or, truth be told, visible bed.

As I was settling into my cell, on my twentieth week in Japan, I found a letter in my mailbox downstairs. It was from Kristin, in New York. Her father had died suddenly the previous year, she told me. She’d been distraught, hadn’t known where to turn or how to get her longing out, so she’d taken to her desk.

Every night, while everyone around her slept, she’d typed — and typed and typed. When her novel was finished, she’d sent it out to publishers. Within hours, Random House had signed her up for a six-figure sum, and by now rights had been sold in a dozen countries around the world; she and her friends were spinning a globe as the number mounted.

At twenty-six, she seemed assured of a glorious future. She’d rolled a double six again.

A few weeks later, I walked, as I did every Wednesday afternoon, to the little shop across from Kyoto University that stocked a few foreign magazines. It was my one tiny moment of connection with the world I had abandoned. I forked over 700 yen, collected the week’s edition of Time magazine and consulted it, as I always did, while ambling back through the quiet, sunlit lanes to my tiny room.

As I was paging through the magazine, from the back, something caught the edge of my gaze that looked like a misprint — or, more likely, a projection of an over-eager imagination. There, in the Books pages, was a picture of someone who looked a bit like me — or, rather, like me in my previous life, in button-down shirt and striped tie.

I knew the magazine was eager never to take notice of books written by its staff — even former members of the staff — but I looked again and there, among the eminences, was a small, friendly review of my book about whirlwinding across Asia, accompanied by a visa-sized picture. I had any number of other projects I’d been chafing to complete, and now, I felt, I could try to be a writer at last.

“Diligence” and “social work” indeed! The Royal Astrologer didn’t know a thing.

That was half a lifetime ago, almost to the day, and more than a hundred seasons have passed. A few years after our visit, the palace in Kathmandu was torn apart by a crazy massacre and I had no doubt that the Royal Astrologer was no longer in service (if only because he would have been in trouble if he had predicted such a bloody coup — or if he hadn’t. Telling futures for the powerful has never been a reliable source of income).

As for Kristin, her path of double sixes had continued, almost impossibly, for quite a while. Her boyfriend in the Village, like so many, was a committed Star Trek fan and, like thousands of Trekkies, no doubt, had sent in a script on spec to the program’s showrunners in Hollywood.

Unlike most such fans, though, he’d seen his script accepted. He’d been flown out to L.A. and offered a full-time job with the program. He’d taken up a big house with Kristin in the Hollywood Hills, a chief architect of the universe he’d once worshipped from afar.

Few couples of my acquaintance had found such lustrous futures in their twenties. When I visited, Kristin and her beau seemed to have exceeded anything they might have hoped for, with their Spanish-style villa above the canyons, the red, open-top sports car, publishers and TV executives waiting to turn their words into pictures.

But Kristin had always had a restless soul — perhaps the same soul that had brought her to Nepal and sent her out into the streets every evening — and somewhere along the way, in flight from stability but not sure exactly of what she wanted instead, she’d burned the life she’d found and lost it all. Now, in her early fifties, she lives alone with a beloved cat, tending to every lost animal, still writing, but in a world that doesn’t seem very interested in novels, especially from the not so young.

Her strongest quality, though, remains her fierce attachment to her friends. She lives through them and with them, the centres of her universe, and keeps up with pals from high school in Tokyo and Delhi on a sometimes daily basis. She sends me warm and mischievous messages on my birthday and remembers every last detail of 1985. As the years have passed without bringing all the adventures that once seemed inevitable, she tells me that the trip to Kathmandu was one of the highlights of her life.

And me? A couple of years after my first book came out, I sat in a car just under the yellow house above the clouds and watched a wildfire take it apart, every inch of it, so that everything I and my parents owned — not least the notes and outlines I’d drawn up for my next three books — was reduced to ash.

In any case, I’d fallen under the spell of Japan and silence by then and decided to take on a wife and two kids, giving up my thoughts of becoming a writer, and simply turning out several articles a week to support an expanding household.

Writing, I’d seen, demands a ferocious, all-consuming commitment, a refusal to be distracted — or, sometimes, even to be responsible. That would never be my gift.

I smile when I hear people say that the young are too credulous, too open, too ready to be transformed. I and my school friends were so much the opposite. It was only travel — being propelled beyond the world we thought we knew and could anticipate — that stripped us of our petty certainties, our flimsy defences, our boyish confidence. It was only figures such as the Royal Astrologer who showed us that we didn’t know a thing.

We sit on opposite sides of the world now — Kristin essentially a model of social work, with the passionate attention she brings to her friends, while I steadily meet my daily deadlines, the very picture of diligence — and see that life has much wiser plans for us than we ever could have come up with. The only one who really was exercising a writer’s imagination, the kind that sees the future as easily as the past, was the well-meaning man I had mocked as he tried to nudge us toward a truer understanding of who we really are — and were.

If, like a cracked gong, you silence yourself, you have already attained Nirvana: no vindictiveness will be found in you.

— The Buddha