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Contentment and Ambition with Yangsi Rinpoche

Scott Snibbe and Yangsi Rinpoche - Contentment and Ambition podcast interview

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Yangsi Rinpoche’s gave a beautiful talk a couple of months ago with the intriguing title “Contentment Plus Ambition.” He was generous enough to sit down with me afterwards for an interview about the same topic in which he talks about how to practice real self-compassion and even how we can create the causes for world peace.

Yangsi Rinpoche studied at Sera Jey Monastery in south India until 1995 when he graduated with the highest degree of Geshe Lharampa. Rinpoche now lives in Portland, Oregon where he’s president and professor of Buddhist studies at Maitripa College, a Buddhist Institute of higher education, striving to integrate modern academics with ancient wisdom.

[00:01:17] Scott Snibbe: Yangsi Rinpoche, thank you so much for agreeing to do an interview with me and A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment.

[00:01:25] Yangsi Rinpoche: My pleasure.

What does it mean that faith does not require belief?

[00:01:27] Scott Snibbe: Our podcast tries to share the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism with people who don’t necessarily share the worldview of classic Buddhism—like karma or rebirth or other realms—but still want to benefit from the tools, particularly analytical meditation. His Holiness has been saying lately that analytical meditation is good for people to practice. We try to share interviews with great teachers like yourself to think about how we can keep Buddhist practices authentic while adapting them to cultures and people who don’t believe in those things.

I have a quote from you, “Faith does not require belief.” What does that mean?

Faith does not require belief.

[00:02:19] Yangsi Rinpoche: In Tibetan tradition we say, Unification of wisdom and faith. Belief seems like you get to the destination and there’s no challenge. When I say faith it’s basically setting up the perfect foundation, perfect environment for wisdom to take off. Otherwise our wisdom becomes very critical, very negative. That kind of negative approach really doesn’t open up. I’m using the word faith, but basically a clear, genuine mind is the perfect environment to launch wisdom.

A clear, genuine mind is the perfect environment to launch wisdom.

[00:03:19] Scott Snibbe: What does it mean to have a clear mind?

[00:03:23] Yangsi Rinpoche: A clear mind is non-aggressive, gentle, and fresh. It’s a mind that doesn’t have much influence or habits. It’s very present, alert, and open. When we get this wisdom launched into that kind of environment, there are more benefits than side effects.

[00:04:20] Scott Snibbe: That’s how you would explain faith, an open, clear, and stable mind?

[00:04:27] Yangsi Rinpoche: It’s not so much about belief, trust, or faith, particularly in the Tibetan Buddhism. Culturally, we might understand it in a different way, maybe the definition can be more open from my point of view, it should not be so narrow.

[00:04:41] Scott Snibbe: It sounds like confidence without the ego, or just openness.

[00:04:49] Yangsi Rinpoche: This less judgmental mind is running in the background. It really wants to deeply listen and pay attention. Usually you pay attention, but then the judgmental mind comes. In Tibetan Buddhism, we make the analogy of faith as pure water. Once the water is pure and clear, reflections of a full moon are spontaneous. Therefore, this is like all of the blessings, all of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are present once the mind is pure, like water.

buddhist monk sitting on rock watching moon reflecting on ocean

In Tibetan Buddhism, we make the analogy of faith as pure water. Once the water is pure and clear, reflections of a full moon are spontaneous.

The Four Noble Truths and karma

[00:05:39] Scott Snibbe: That’s beautiful. Today you were teaching a very original teaching on the three turnings. You use the terms, contentment, calm-abiding, and concentration. I wonder if you could explain the first one about contentment. In my notes you said, “The Four Noble Truths teaching is a way to assess ourselves at a deeper level: where we are and where we’re from.”

The Four Noble Truths teaching is a way to assess ourselves at a deeper level: where we are, where we’re from.

Can you talk about how you could do that? Especially for someone who’s unfamiliar with the Buddhist worldview.

[00:06:12] Yangsi Rinpoche: We are always making assessments: what’s our background, where we are, and where we’re going. The Four Noble Truth approach is a kind of similar assessment, but expanding further and deeper. That includes karma. It comes down to what is a self, what is a consciousness? Are we just here, that’s it, or is this something that continues?

[00:06:49] Scott Snibbe: For a person who doesn’t understand karma, doesn’t have faith in karma, how would you explain that concept to them so they understand it more psychologically?

[00:06:59] Yangsi Rinpoche: Karma basically means cause and effect. If people don’t accept cause and effect, then there’s no way to explain karma—negative cause and effect and positive cause and effect. Then this karmic situation, some you can kind of predict, it’s logic-based. Then karma goes to the next level, You cannot see the cause. You cannot observe. I think lots of people see this as random. I was lucky, I have a good parking karma.

There’s something that goes beyond “because of this, because of that.” Something that we are not able to explain, but becomes like an intuition. And something that you read that reality a slight different way than how normally how we read it. We need to slowly open that up, allowing them to see different ways of reading yourself and the world around us. We can slowly bring a deeper understanding of karma. It’s so much, then you come, that different method, a way of reading reality can bring belief in the karmic cause and effect. That is personal and individual, it doesn’t have to be universal.

[00:08:39] Scott Snibbe: As you say, everyone accepts cause and effect and a lot of the modern view is that things happen at random, but there is somehow a cause and effect .

[00:08:51] Yangsi Rinpoche: Usually in classical texts, we say karma and condition. From the Buddhist point of view, they say, Okay, set the right condition, set the right condition, set the right condition. That makes the ideal karmic seeds flourish.

[00:09:11] Scott Snibbe: From the Buddhist perspective, delusions are the dominant factor. Even if you have a propensity for some negative action, if your mind has less or no delusions, then those seeds can’t ripen. Those things won’t happen.

[00:09:25] Yangsi Rinpoche: Delusion is the obstacle on the path. Therefore, the purification practice is really the ultimate practice, because you are taking out the fuel for the fire. Taking out fuel for the obstacle, or the condition for the obstacle.

Dissatisfaction and destructive emotions

[00:09:40] Scott Snibbe: You were talking today about how the fuel of anger is dissatisfaction. Can you talk more about that, how dissatisfaction is that inaccurate state of mind that becomes the seed for more destructive emotions?

[00:09:59] Yangsi Rinpoche: In Shantideva’s patience chapter, he talks about that element of dissatisfaction, fundamentally there is something unsettled or ungrounded. Although, externally it looks like a perfect environment, perfect setting, emotionally, psychologically, somehow that ungrounded, unsettled, unsatisfied state of mind is the perfect condition to ripening negative karma.

[00:10:33] Scott Snibbe: That’s how even if you’re a billionaire, even if you have a comfortable life, even if you have a nice family, you can feel that dissatisfaction.

[00:10:40] Yangsi Rinpoche: External things just paint the mind and the experience. You can have a mansion, but it’s like a painting. Sometimes you’re at the airport, you don’t need so many things, you just need one small bag. You can survive. If we have a culture and norms that we can say, The mind will do everything, that would be really good. It’s not easy, but that kind of norms and understanding.

[00:11:22] Scott Snibbe: The mind is the primary source of our satisfaction and dissatisfaction.

The mind is the primary source of our satisfaction and dissatisfaction.

[00:11:29] Yangsi Rinpoche: Yeah, that takes lots of practice to shift. It’s easy to say, but it is a journey to take.

How do we cultivate contentment?

woman gardening sunflowers in sunny field

[00:11:38] Scott Snibbe: The opposite of dissatisfaction, you say is contentment. How do we cultivate that?

[00:11:44] Yangsi Rinpoche: This is like not drinking salt water. You just have the pure, natural water, not the soft drinks that you drink and you want to have the next sip, then you have the next sip, then next. Just drinking pure water is healthy for the body and mind.

[00:12:03] Scott Snibbe: It’s the old metaphor in Buddhism that with salt water, you could drink as you want, but you’re never satisfied. Now we have many new types of salt water, we have sweet water, which has the same problem, it’s addictive. You’re never satisfied and it’s not good for you.

[00:12:18] Yangsi Rinpoche: Exactly, if it’s good, then yes, we’ll drink as many as we want, but ultimately it’s not good.

[00:12:25] Scott Snibbe: One form of dissatisfaction is wanting things, that your life isn’t complete if you don’t have certain physical things, a partner that you love, circumstances that you like. Can you talk about how you come to contentment on that side?

[00:12:41] Yangsi Rinpoche: If we’re talking about contentment, we first we need to accept our own self, that’s the fundamental step. We are looking outside there because we forgot ourselves and didn’t really pay attention. This is step number one to learning contentment. Once you accept yourself and are kind to yourself, the real hole is covered. In the West, you call this self-compassion. I think it is something that is not necessarily egotistical, but you have to feel yourself not negatively. When you get up in the morning, treat yourself well first.

[00:13:31] Scott Snibbe: How would you advise someone to do that practically?

[00:13:35] Yangsi Rinpoche: Breathe and move, circulation is good for our body. These two together will help our mind to clear up. Like the practice of yoga, breathing exercise, meditation, we need to see as a part of self-compassion. Once we do all these things, then we have a perfect foundation to not want so much all the time. “I’m lacking something” is the key ingredient for dissatisfaction. “I want this,” is a follow-up, “I want this, I want that.” Some kind of absence and lacking, where that comes from is because we never pay attention to self-compassion. Just by doing simple things we can naturally balance that kind of dissatisfaction.

[00:14:49] Scott Snibbe: What about things that might feel good? You’ve mentioned the benefits of fresh air, exercise, nature, this is what scientists also say is good. But is it okay to like those things?

[00:15:03] Yangsi Rinpoche: Anything can be an obsession, even meditation or healthy medicine. But I don’t think we need to worry about that right now.

Anything can be an obsession, even meditation or healthy medicine.

[00:15:17] Scott Snibbe: It’s not a problem yet for most of us.

[00:15:19] Yangsi Rinpoche: Obsession for doing good stuff because it was not done to fulfill the absence. Obsession is based on the absence, and there is that fear that triggers obsession. Basic gentle things for our own self, which are not really based on absence, it’s just pay attention for our own self, because it’s not trying to satisfy something.

[00:15:54] Scott Snibbe: From caring more than wanting.

[00:15:56] Yangsi Rinpoche: Exactly.

How do we fight injustice while staying content?

woman protesting injustice at rally

[00:15:59] Scott Snibbe: What would you say to someone who has a lot of anger at injustice, inequity, unfairness, the awful things in the world, war, racism, and socioeconomic inequalities? Some will say you don’t want to feel content about those things. How do we keep the energy to fight the things that we feel are wrong in the world while staying content?

[00:16:25] Yangsi Rinpoche: I think the most important way we fight, to not add more fuel on the fire, is using mindfulness and compassion. Aggression comes when we expect the change to happen now. This is our habit. It’s important to invest into the cause 100 percent and then let go. Right now there’s a vicious cycle. If we all united, invest into the cause, and let’s allow, I think there will be less separating “us” and “them” and less blaming games. We invest all the energy into the cause.

It’s important to invest into the cause 100 percent and then let go.

[00:17:15] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, the feeling of separateness, blaming, and anger are ways that just make problems worse.

[00:17:22] Yangsi Rinpoche: You don’t want that problem, but somehow you add from a different window.

[00:17:28] Scott Snibbe: Then how do you have the wisdom to know the cause? What is the cause for an equitable society, for example?

[00:17:36] Yangsi Rinpoche: Voicing your thoughts through compassion. It’s a bit complicated with billions of people to have a huge change immediately. It’s a huge wheel turning, it takes times, and we should accept that. But it’s never too late to take action in the cause.

[00:18:02] Scott Snibbe: With compassion, the motivation is very important. I think what you’re saying is with a compassionate motivation then your actions are most likely to be of benefit. Then what you’re also saying is think long-term, that you create the causes, but there are so many different conditions and beings involved that have been going on for thousands—if not millions of years—that to also have some patience. Is that what you’re saying?

With a compassionate motivation, your actions are most likely to be of benefit.

[00:18:28] Yangsi Rinpoche: Absolutely, just accept reality. There’s a diversity of ideas and ways of thinking. Everybody has a right to exist. You put that cause there and have more cause collected, that’s how you win.

How does meditation help our mind?

[00:18:51] Scott Snibbe: You were talking about how this is the basis of concentration, that we might use the word ethics as the ground layer of Buddhist practice; the mind is making sure that you’re content, satisfied, don’t feel longing, anger. Does that then become the ground for the next step of meditation, calm-abiding? How does meditation help our mind?

[00:19:17] Yangsi Rinpoche: To meditate you have to be quite ambitious. You are trying to dive into something in the history of the universe where few people have found success. I’m just mainly talking about contentment and ambition. It can be beautiful, peaceful ambition based on a contentment and compassion. We don’t want to have an ambition that is aggressive, violent, stressful, and competitive.

Buddhism is a big cleaning business; contentment sets the condition to do a thorough cleaning. Then, meditations are working on those subtle dusts, you don’t need an air purifier, it’s a really subatomic level, and you’re able to get out the that bothers.

man meditating in living room with dust

[00:20:38] Scott Snibbe: Meditation is like a personal cleaning business of your own mind. You’re trying to gradually clean your mind of its delusions. Can you talk about the ways to do that? Some of the ways aren’t literal. You’re not literally picking up pieces of dirt, but we do these purification practices. What are those and how do those work for people to clean your mind?

[00:21:02] Yangsi Rinpoche: I think a mind that is like a hurricane or tornado is a judgmental mind. Today’s mindfulness meditation has this message of not judging. That’s step number one, being nonjudgmental, fully aware, paying attention, acknowledging, and intentionally not judging. Then we need to look at the habits. What are my top 10 habits? It’s kind of like self-care or self-compassion. Really notice the habit, particularly how we interact with other people.

[00:21:42] Scott Snibbe: To start with the nonjudgmental view, which you say mindfulness is the foundation and the nonjudgment is toward yourself and also to others. Then look at your habits, look at what you say, your top 10 habits, which are probably some aversion, some attraction. Then what you said was very beautiful, to try to see through those habits to how people really are. What does that mean, how someone really is?

[00:22:16] Yangsi Rinpoche: Instead of voice, my imposing onto you, let me see whoever you are. That’s step number one. The meditation of emptiness, all this advanced meditation, is trying to see without any kind of dust: direct and kind of see-through. The dust will be there, but it’s like those MRI machines that you can see through.

[00:22:42] Scott Snibbe: I used to remember as I got to know a person, they often start to look very different to you. When you see someone at first, without knowing them, their face looks a certain way, then once you know them they almost look entirely different. Sometimes I try to remember back to what that person looked like when I first saw them. I wonder if that’s some of my habits laying on to that person.

[00:23:11] Yangsi Rinpoche: Yes, lots of time our close people, people who we have a lot of history with, we don’t see that person. We see all the stories, narratives, and histories. I think meditation’s whole purpose is to see without imposing your own story. Can you push away a little bit of history and see the real person? That’s the training, if you can see deeper with the mind.

I think meditation’s whole purpose is to see without imposing your own story.

[00:23:54] Scott Snibbe: I’m married and I feel that with my wife sometimes. I’ll think, She’s driving me crazy, why do we always have the same argument? Then other times, I think, She’s the most wonderful person in the world, I’m so lucky she’s my wife, and she’s wonderful. Then every once in a while, it’s like she’s a stranger, in a good way like, Oh, who is this person, really? That’s the one that does actually feel good. It’s a feeling of, Wow, I don’t actually know you, even though we’ve known each other for 25 years. It’s a nice feeling.

[00:24:33] Yangsi Rinpoche: Exactly, and from a Buddhist point of view it’s not only that, but I don’t even know myself. The Buddha said, You don’t know yourself, don’t lie, just leave it alone, and other people. It’s this popular statement, the meditation of emptiness of the self, do that first.

Contentment with ambition

ballerina behind curtains with glowing lights

[00:24:57] Scott Snibbe: Is there anything else you’d like to say about contentment, calm abiding, and self-compassion?

[00:25:04] Yangsi Rinpoche: One thing is that contentment can be misunderstood, so I say contentment with ambition. I add these qualities. We need to see there is a powerful strength, it’s not passive, contentment and ambition go together. I was kind of pushing that narrative. Contentment and driven energy can go together, but that’s much more gentle.

The mind is the source of everything. Our education, our culture, many things—we need to really pay attention to our own mind, it’s the best way to pay attention to yourself. If we’re not able to pay attention to ourselves, how we can pay attention for other living things?

Compassion doesn’t happen. Therefore, training to pay attention for awareness is the first training to have self-compassion. I can say these words, but I myself am also trying. I really believe this perspective, I see that world peace is possible. No one wants suffering, we all want some kind of peace. So from that point of view, we’re all on the same track.

[00:26:32] Scott Snibbe: It’s a very nice thing to hear that world peace is possible. I think very few people believe that right now, and through what seems like a contradictory combination of things of contentment, ambition, and patience to balance. As I’ve gone deeper into Buddhism, I’ve seen these balancing factors, that you find the middle way, as you sometimes say. That it is possible to be content, ambitious, and patient, to find happiness for ourselves and also to change the world for the better.

It is possible to be content, ambitious, patient, happy, and also change the world for the better.

[00:27:12] Yangsi Rinpoche: Exactly, I think there are all the ingredients within us for everybody to able to create world peace. There’s just this huge noise that is in the way. From the structure of the mind and how we are set up, what we want, we all want simplicity. From a bigger picture point of view, we all want the same thing. I was watching a documentary and it’s in Pakistan where there’s a Christian minority and the Muslims and the Christians all look like same. They dress the same, eat the same, live very much the same way.

[00:28:15] Scott Snibbe: We emphasize the tiny differences between ourselves when really we have such a ground of similarity. All humans basically want the same things: happiness, satisfaction, good relationships, and peace.

We emphasize the tiny differences between ourselves when really we have such a ground of similarity.

[00:28:27] Yangsi Rinpoche: It’s very simple. Nobody has three heads and six noses or something like that. We’re not dreaming for something impossible. I think we should have that dream; world peace is possible because we are so similar. We shouldn’t zoom in on this one small tiny dust particular.

[00:29:01] Scott Snibbe: Don’t emphasize the differences, try to emphasize what we have in common together, probably over and over. As Buddhists, we do that every morning through meditation.

[00:29:11] Yangsi Rinpoche: See the similarities rather than focusing on the differences.

See the similarities rather than focusing on the differences.

[00:29:16] Scott Snibbe: Focus on what we have in common. Rinpoche, thank you so much for spending a little time with me. I think people are going to really enjoy hearing your voice and wisdom.

[00:29:26] Yangsi Rinpoche: Thank you. You are doing a wonderful job, I rejoice.

[00:29:33] Scott Snibbe: Thank you, that’s very kind.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe

Produced by Annie Ngyen

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