Solitude is hard to find. That is the problem facing Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche at the beginning of Paul MacGowan’s documentary Wandering . . . But Not Lost. A renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher, best-selling author, abbot of multiple monasteries, and leader of an international network of meditation centers, Mingyur Rinpoche shocked his followers in June 2011 when he left everything behind to take up the life of a solitary wandering ascetic.
The plan was to have no plan. Following in the footsteps of the great meditation masters who sought to deepen their practice through solitary retreat, Mingyur Rinpoche absconded from his monastery in the middle of the night. With only a small backpack, a few dollars, and the robes on his back, he eluded the watchful eyes of the many aides, minders, and assistants who had tended to him since his youth. Over the next four and a half years, Mingyur Rinpoche would wander throughout India and Nepal, stopping at many of the region’s holiest sites: Varanasi, Kushi-nagar, Rishikesh, Vaishno Devi Shrine, the Boudhanath Stupa, and Lapchi Mountain. Each day he welcomed the physical and psychological challenges of the wandering life (like the lack of food, water, money, and shelter) as opportunities to develop mindfulness and nonattachment.
Wandering is decidedly in the genre of the reverential “teacher documentary”: films celebrating (and sometimes complicating) the life and legacy of influential Buddhist masters. Like Johanna Demetrakas’s Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche or Lesley Ann Patten’s Words of My Perfect Teacher about Khyentse Norbu, the film Wandering touches on the pressures of being a famous teacher and the ambivalence that such responsibility can entail. However, unlike those two films, which explore the moral complexity and fallibility of their protagonists, Wandering’s portrait of Mingyur Rinpoche is squeaky clean. Although his act is radical—undertaking a solitary spiritual quest, often at the risk of his own life—he seems to face each challenge with childlike innocence. At one point, he describes his sheltered upbringing: at 12 years old he was identified as the seventh incarnation of the 17th-century
enlightened yogi Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and was swept up in a privileged life of tutelage and training. Though his struggles intensify over the course of the film, some of the greatest shocks early on during his retreat journey were quite mundane: having to buy his own train ticket (previously, assistants had arranged all his travel), navigating lines in a crowded station, not finding a seat on the train, buying simple food on a tight budget. As a wide-eyed Mingyur Rinpoche recounts the anxiety and disorientation these experiences provoked in him, one gets the impression that he is indeed like a sheltered prince who left the palace for the first time. His journey was perhaps half spiritual retreat, half coming-of-age story.
Although Wandering is ostensibly about the spiritual work of solitude, there is another message that rises to the surface of this film: that solitude, paradoxically, is consummately social. Despite Mingyur Rinpoche’s best attempts to escape the madding crowd, at every turn the wall of his solitude is pierced by the presence of others, like flowers growing through the cracks in concrete. Mingyur Rinpoche’s recollections of his retreat are marked by the constant presence of people: he describes the overwhelming smell of passengers on the packed trains, the hustle and bustle on the streets where he slept, the dogs that stalked him on the road as he wandered. Though he has taken pains to go incognito, he is eventually recognized by one of his students, Tashila, who then drops everything to accompany him for the rest of the journey. From the Indian food peddler who donates his daily leftovers so Mingyur Rinpoche can eat, to the many Nepalese villagers who, despite their modest means, go out of their way to bring blankets and firewood to his cave, to his devoted student Tashila, who spends all his money on sleeping bags and warm shoes for his teacher, it would seem that solitude is supported by the net of sociality.
Although Wandering is ostensibly about the spiritual work of solitude, another message rises to the surface of this film: that solitude, paradoxically, is consummately social.
In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Mingyur Rinpoche recounts having nearly died—likely from food poisoning or botulism—on the steps of the stupa at Kushinagar, the site of the Buddha’s own parinirvana. Unconscious and unrecognizable—having changed out of his monastic garb to avoid attention—he awakens in a hospital to learn that he was rescued by a pilgrim he had briefly encountered a few days earlier. We know next to nothing about this man. Who was he? Where did he come from? Was he rich or poor? What did it cost him (financially and otherwise) to arrange and pay for Mingyur Rinpoche’s lifesaving medical care? One thing we do know is that Mingyur Rinpoche likely would have died—and his students would have lost their teacher—had it not been for the swift action and generosity of this stranger.
That Mingyur Rinpoche survived and could continue his ascetic practice is thanks to this unknown man. The gift of solitude, it turns out, is given by others.
Solitude is not only made possible but made meaningful by sociality. Throughout Wandering, the most profound of Mingyur Rinpoche’s contemplative insights—even when alone—lead him right back into the social world. On the brink of death, he recounts the unbinding of his mind: unable to move, he transcended his body, and his mind became a formless expanse. But within that expanse, he found others: “It felt like you’re almost unconscious and then, suddenly, completely open. No time, no direction, no up, no down. It’s completely free. . . . I am everywhere and at the same time nowhere. I was in that state for a few hours. And then I felt the connectivity with all beings. And from that connectivity, the wanting to help, was the sense of compassion. . . . The sense of compassion became stronger and stronger, connecting me with all beings.” Mingyur Rinpoche even describes his solitary struggles in terms of other people: “Some days, I didn’t have any money and nothing to eat . . . but then something happens, people give me something. . . . I thought, ‘When I love the world, the world loves me back.’”
One is left with the sense that Mingyur Rinpoche’s journey began as a retreat from the world but became a deeper immersion into it. “Now,” he says, “I feel like the street is my home. Wherever I go, I am at home.” In solitude, Mingyur Rinpoche did not escape the web of social entanglement; through solitude, he learned to experience it more fully.
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