By Phakyab Rinpoche with Sofia Stril-Rever
“Why do you seek healing outside of yourself?”
When Tibetan lama Phakyab Rinpoche received those words in a letter from the Dalai Lama, he was facing an impossible decision. Six months had passed since a refugee advisor admitted him to the emergency clinic of the Program for Survivors of Torture at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital. His wounds, the result of brutality in a Chinese prison and exacerbated by a daring escape and a trek across the Himalayas to freedom in India, continued to worsen by the day. His right ankle had deteriorated into gangrene; the joint was shattered, and infection was seeping into his bones. Spinal tuberculosis was strangling his breath. Doctors unanimously advised leg amputation to avoid a slow and certain death.
And yet, a voice inside Phakyab Rinpoche told him to resist because cutting is not curing, and he sought the Dalai Lama’s spiritual counsel.
“You have within you the wisdom that heals.”
With tens of thousands of hours of meditation under his belt, deep knowledge of the tonglen and tsa-lung inner energy practices, and unconditional compassion for all beings, Phakyab Rinpoche decided to leave the hospital and embark on an intensive healing retreat in a small Brooklyn studio apartment, spending fourteen hours a day in meditation and prayer. No one at Bellevue Hospital expected to see him again. But as he returned for regular check-ups, something extraordinary happened. His ankle began to heal. The infection slowly disappeared and the joint rebuilt itself, feats never before seen in the medical community. Three years after leaving the hospital with a terminal diagnosis, Phakyab Rinpoche now walks normally, completely healed.
Meditation Saved My Life is the fulfillment of the Dalai Lama’s final words to Rinpoche that fateful day in 2003: “Once healed, you will teach the world how to heal.” Phakyab Rinpoche does this by sharing his story, a frank, heartfelt account filled with humility, eloquence, and grace. The narrative often shifts from the linear evolution of Rinpoche’s illness to stories from the lama’s childhood and his first steps on the spiritual path. As these different perspectives weave, a rich portrayal of Tibetan culture emerges, as well as an understanding of the country’s harrowing struggles against Chinese oppression. Phakyab Rinpoche’s descriptions of the limitless horizons seen from the mountain tops and the gentle, devoted people who inhabit the snowy slopes are so idyllic that the reader’s heart aches with anger at the actions of the Red Army. But this is where the most powerful lesson of Rinpoche’s story appears: Even while blows reigned down on him in prison, Phakyab Rinpoche meditated on compassion for his persecutors.
“In my experience of the world,” he told co-author Sofia Stril-Rever, “I have adopted an open-minded, trustful, and spontaneously welcoming attitude toward all those who cross my path through maturation of karma. Nobody I meet is foreign to me. In each one, I find my brothers and sisters in humanity. As human beings, we all have within us the jewel of an awakened mind, which is our extraordinary potential for kindness and inner transformation.”
Healing is a process of the mind, not the body. As Phakyab Rinpoche shows us, his healing is possible, in some capacity, to all of us. It likely won’t take the form of a so-called medical miracle. It may not even be an illness. Cultivating compassion and focus through meditation works on many levels of the human experience, and the path to mastery begins with the intention to heal.
A Talk with Phakyab Rinpoche, author of Mediation Saved My Life
How do you create inner peace?
Most important is to practice compassion and loving kindness in your meditations. We need to understand and have compassion for others. Without compassion you cannot open the inner door to peace. When you think too much about yourself, when you have too much self-cherishing, you close the inner door. Compassion is the opposite of thinking about yourself. When you have compassion, thoughts of self-cherishing and self-thinking, lose their power. You will then have a more open mind, a more open heart, and experience more peace. With shamatha practice (meditation), the mind calms the body. Meditation is important because it stops the distractions of the mind.
Shamatha is calm abiding on one single point, on one object. If your mind is thinking too much it takes your energy. With shamatha practice, you focus on a single object, and your mind gets more relaxed.
If you have a really busy mind, you have more stress, depression, anger, illusions, ego, and desires. If you think about the past and the future, you cannot have peace. When you do shamatha and concentrate single pointedly on one object, you can learn to control and relax your busy mind. Then you have space, you close the mind from distractions. The more you care about and forgive others, the more inner peace and happiness you have. If someone gets angry at you, it doesn't bother you. It doesn't destroy your inner peace. If you're really angry, it destroys your peace.
How do you develop compassion?
According to Buddhist thinking, all sentient beings have been your mothers. If you think about how your mother in this life took care of you, how in other lives she took care you, you can develop compassion.
When you think about how you are suffering and how all beings are suffering, you realize we are the same. Everyone suffers. When you think about how you don't want to suffer, you also think how other beings don't want to suffer. When you have compassion for others, you also have compassion for yourself. You have many great opportunities in this lifetime, in this precious human birth, and you can become enlightened. If you lose the opportunities, then you are lost. When you have negative thinking, and do negative things, you create suffering for yourself and you create suffering for others. We all want peace and happiness.
What are the healing benefits of meditation for the mind and the body?
If we develop our meditation, the mind has power. Mind and body are completely connected to each other. There are both mental and physical diseases. Mental diseases are illusions, anger, desires, attachments and ego. Meditation helps to make the mind more positive and that heals your mental disease. If you have stress, illusions, depression, loneliness, sadness, and a negative mind, you lose your energy. Then the disease becomes stronger more quickly. If the mind is at peace, if you are more relaxed, sleeping and eating better, then medicine will work better and will help heal your disease.
What is the difference between brain and mind?
The brain is matter, and it is for material things. Mind is not material. It is energy and consciousness. If they were the same, when the brain disappeares, the mind would disappear. Buddhists believe in reincarnation. We believe that once you die, the brain disappears, but the mind continues and you reincarnate. The mind, your consciousness, reincarnates in your next life. That's the difference. Where does the mind exist? Mind is in the whole body. The whole body has consciousness. Some think mind is in the heart, but it's not in only one place.
What did you learn from illness and suffering?
The illness taught me that it is human nature to suffer. Suffering is really a teacher. When you suffer, you understand the suffering of others more. This helps you to develop compassion. If you don't have the experience of suffering, how can you have compassion for the suffering of others?
When you suffer, you also have to understand karma. When you understand karmic causes and conditions, you see that suffering is karma from past lives. Buddhists think the karma from past lifetimes comes into this lifetime. And it's wonderful if you clear the karma in this lifetime. The more you clear, the less you'll suffer.
Sometimes we have spiritual obstacles that regular medicine cannot heal. If you have a headache, medicine will help, right? But if you have karmic causes, if you have a disease from past life karma, regular medicine won't heal this. That's why you need meditation, and practices to cleanse your karma. Meditation, prayers and practice, purify karma and heal the root causes of the disease.
What is the difference between sciences of matter and inner Buddhist sciences?
Scientists say that when the brain stops, you die. Buddhists don't believe that. We believe that when you die there are eighty levels of consciousness that dissolve into each other—gross levels and subtle levels of consciousness. The five elements dissolve into each other. Earth dissolves into water, water into fire, fire into wind, wind into space. And when these elements leave the body, then you die. That takes three days. Westerners believe when the brain, breath and heart stop, there is death. That's a difference between western science and Buddhist science.
What is the best approach to meditation for Westerners?
We have a different life in India and Tibet then in western countries. Here in the West, people are very busy with work and family, and cannot do three year retreats, or even retreats of three or six months. But they can meditate every day, or whenever they have time, for 15 or 30 minutes. And when you have a vacation, if you can do a one or two-week retreat. It’s important to understand what meditation is. Many people think if you sit and close your eyes, that's meditation. That's not meditation! You need to take instructions from a teacher—about how to sit and how to train your mind. You need both. Just closing your eyes isn't meditation!
What did you learn from fourteen years in the West?
I learned many things in fourteen years—especially in New York! Before I came here, I lived in monasteries with only with Buddhists and monks. I was separate from society, from other people and knew nothing about how other people work and live. I just studied, meditated, chanted and memorized texts. When I got to the United States I was really shocked! Everything was so different—the traditions, the food, so many things! I heard different languages. I saw how different people think, and I saw so many different personalities. Slowly, slowly, I understood.
I changed a lot in New York. I learned so much. My karma, both good and bad, happened in New York. I was really sick here. I understood my karma, and how other people suffered with sickness, with so much pain. New York is special for me. When I'm here, I feel I'm home.
How can we educate the younger generation to bring about world peace?
Scientists and educators are coming to understand that we need to learn loving kindness and compassion. If we teach compassion and loving kindness in schools, it will spread to more children, more people. Then possibly, we can change the world.