The following interview appears in the Fall 2011 issue of Inquiring Mind

An interview with Geshe Thupten Jinpa

Most English speakers who have attended the teachings of the Dalai Lama have actually heard his wisdom through the voice of Thupten Jinpa, who has served as translator for His Holiness since 1985. A highly trained Buddhist scholar and practitioner in his own right, Jinpa's monastic training at the Shartse College of Ganden culminated in the distinguished Geshe Lharam degree. He then obtained a BA in philosophy and a Ph.D. in religious studies, both from Cambridge University. He has translated and edited more than twelve books by the Dalai Lama and written books of his own. And yet, what is striking about Jinpa's presence with His Holiness is not only his exquisite fluency with the English language, and the depth of his understanding of complex and subtle aspects of Buddhist philosophy, but the genuine warmth, humor and unstinting affection displayed on stage between these two remarkable men. More often than not, they are leaning in toward each other, the tops of their heads almost touching, until one or the other roars with laughter.

Jinpa was invited to be a visiting research scholar by the recently established Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University, where he has developed a program titled Compassion Cultivation Training. This eight-week secular program consists of a sequence of exercises that progressively cultivate mental stability through present-focused attention and compassion for friends and family, self, strangers and disliked people. (To learn more about this program, read the accompanying article Opening the Heart at Stanford, Google and Beyond.)

Inquiring Mind editors Sandy Boucher, Barbara Gates and I interviewed Thupten Jinpa via Skype on May 19, 2011.

—Margaret Cullen

Inquiring Mind: Compassion training speaks to such a profound need in the world. How did this secular program come about?

THUPTEN JINPA: A group from Stanford went to see His Holiness [Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama] to bring him a proposal for establishing a center for research and education in compassion and altruism. After a long discussion, His Holiness made a generous offer of quite a substantial donation to seed the program and said, "I have two requests: Whatever science you do, make sure that it is impeccable from a scientific standard. And secondly, whatever program you develop for teaching compassion, make sure it is completely secularized and universalizable. No back-door Buddhism." That was really the starting point. We developed the compassion training program something along the lines of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR has been tremendously successful in secularizing a particular form of Buddhist practice, taken primarily out of the Theravada context, although there is an element of Zen as well. It is clearly articulated in a very structured way and is also measurable. So I thought that perhaps we could do something similar by focusing on compassion, drawing primarily from tonglen and lojong in the Tibetan Mahayana tradition. The idea was to study the texts, understand a clear articulation of the steps and unpack the concepts. Our primary motive was to identify the active ingredient, as it were, and bring it out into a framework that is much more universal, that can be adapted in a purely secular setting.

IM: In terms of outcomes, what would you like to see from a graduate of the compassion training? If I were to take it, what would you hope for me?

TJ: A couple of things. One is that I think individuals who take the course probably will feel a greater sense of ease within themselves, a kind of settledness, of becoming more friends with themselves, which then creates an oasis of settledness and expresses itself in the way you treat the intimate people around you. It also hopefully creates a more optimistic perspective on the world on a day-to-day basis; though I don't expect people to come out and start joining the Peace Corps. We did not make a strong connection between action and state of mind in this particular protocol, because that can be quite problematic. But the idea is that people will feel a greater sense of well-being within, which will then naturally translate into ways they will treat or interact with others, ways in which they will see the world and act within it.

IM: In developing this curriculum, you returned to fundamental Buddhist teachings about compassion and unpacked the steps for generating it. How would you define compassion?

TJ: When we talk about Buddhist ideas in English, inevitably we are using English terms which emerge within the context of a particular culture and background of intellectual and spiritual traditions. So when we use terms like compassion, and other related words such as sympathy, altruism and empathy, we need to be cognizant of their cultural embeddedness and the sense that these terms have acquired in the English-language community. The challenge is to bridge the gap between talking in a particular cultural vessel about concepts and ideas from the Buddhist tradition, and using a medium that is part of some other tradition. Amazingly, there seems to be a convergence between the way in which the Buddhists understand karuna (Sanskrit) and nying je (Tibetan) on the one side, and the way Western traditions understand compassion on the other.

In the term "compassion," coming from the Latin, there is already embedded some notion of a focus on another's suffering and of sharing in that suffering. Then, particularly in the Buddhist tradition, there is the element of a wish to see that other person be relieved from suffering. So that really seems to be the core of what we mean by compassion in Buddhism, and in the Christian tradition as well, which is quite striking.

But when it comes to the terms associated with compassion, there is more of a translation problem. For example, the term sympathy doesn't really have any direct correlation in the Buddhist world. Even in the West, people disagree on what sympathy means. Some, like the psychologist Nancy Eisenberg, would argue that sympathy is the same as compassion. But others believe that sympathy is like feeling sorry for someone, whereas compassion is more elevated, as in wanting to see that other person freed from suffering. Now altruism, in the way in which Western psychology understands it, is an act that is motivated primarily by wanting to bring benefit to the other. It may involve a kind of sacrifice for the person who does the act.

IM: From a Buddhist perspective, do you see altruism as, in some way, a higher good than compassion? For example, does compassion training hopefully lead to altruistic behavior?

TJ: Yes, altruism is in some sense a more active form of compassion. In order for compassion to culminate in altruism, I think there needs to be a strong motivation or urge to do something. In the Tibetan tradition we distinguish between compassion, nying je, and what is known as altruistic resolve or intention, lhagsam. Compassion can be as simple as having a wish to see the other person relieved from suffering, but in order for that compassion to be altruistic there needs to be an urge on your part, of wanting to do something about it.

IM: At a 2010 conference of eminent Western psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers and Buddhist scholars, hosted in Colorado by CCARE, you discussed the language of mental life. What came up when you talked about terms clustered around compassion?

TJ: When we focused on how compassion and its family of emotions are conceptualized and thematized in the Western-language tradition versus the Buddhist tradition, there was a lot of discussion about the term empathy. In the Buddhist tradition, there isn't any direct equivalent to the term. We use a phrase in the Tibetan tradition which suggests that the sight of the other's suffering feels unbearable. The parallel Tibetan or classical Buddhist term that connects with empathy is yi-ong, which literally means "appealing." The idea here is an ability to be able to hold others dear, to value others. This is the term the Tibetan scholar Alan Wallace translates as "affectionate love."

IM: Is it an element of compassion?

TJ: Well, it is a sort of prerequisite. This is a very difficult concept to define in English, and there is no equivalent in the Western conceptualization. The heart of this concept of yi-ong is the sense of connection with the other. And the yi-ong is supposed to establish that connection. The implication is that you don't find the other person repulsive; you have the ability to see that appealing quality, a kind of lovability, in the other. The stronger your yi-ong with someone, the more your heart will open to that person, and the more strongly you will feel that other person's pain to be unbearable. The reason why you don't feel the pain of your enemy's suffering as unbearable is because you don't have that yi-ong for your enemy.

IM: Hasn't His Holiness sometimes talked about generating compassion for the Chinese, for those who one might imagine to be his enemy? Can you provide insight into how one might contact one's enemy's "lovability" and generate compassion for that enemy?

TJ: Here, I think it might be helpful to bring up a distinction that His Holiness often makes when speaking of compassion. By this, I am speaking of distinguishing between what a person has done versus the person himself or herself. The Dalai Lama calls this distinguishing between "the act and the actor." Toward the act, if it is a harmful act of injustice, even a compassionate response calls for a strong measure; in contrast, toward the person, the actor, we should never lose sight of the fact that he or she too is just another human being, who, like our-selves, aspires to happiness and shuns suffering. So, regardless of what the other may have done, the person always remains deserving of our compassion and our sense of concern. Once we accept this principle, we can then see how to retain genuine compassion toward even our adversaries or enemies. In fact, a true measure of whether our compassion has reached the level where it is unbiased comes from how we relate to our adversaries. If we can feel a sense of concern, instead of joy, when we see our enemy suffer, then we are moving toward a genuine unbiased compassion.

IM: When you feel compassion for someone or for a group of people in war or some other traumatic situation, do you, yourself, suffer as well? In other words, when you feel compassion, is that compassion free of suffering?

TJ: I think initially there has to be some element of distress because, in a sense, you resonate. But one need not stay on that for a long time. In a discussion between the psychologist Paul Ekman and His Holiness on this very question, Ekman seemed to think that there must be a route through which you can get to compassion without feeling pain. His Holiness's position seemed a bit more nuanced. He seemed to think that initially you do need to feel an element of pain, but as you become a more advanced compassion practitioner, that feeling can be very swift. So the moment you see the suffering there is a good bit of twinge, and then you move on to the wish.

IM: What allows that transition to the experience of compassion free of suffering?

TJ: Partly it's a matter of training, because there is no point in just staying in the state of feeling. It doesn't do good for anybody, either yourself or the other. The initial feeling response is important, because that's what is going to move you to do something. That's where emotions are very powerful, unlike cognitive processes. Emotions are much more powerful and motivating. But at the same time, if you just get caught in that feeling state, then you can get drained and paralyzed. This is where in the Buddhist tradition the discernment, the wisdom, comes in, because wisdom is what guides compassionate motivation, so that what comes out is best suited and most beneficial to any given situation. So in the case of someone like His Holiness, immediately the sight of suffering gives rise to an emotional response, which immediately leads to the wish and then the wish leads to what can be done. I remember vividly an encounter between His Holiness and a psychologically disturbed man that took place in Newport Beach, California, many years ago. As the Dalai Lama was getting out of his car, a man ran directly toward him. When security stopped him, the Dalai Lama went over to the person to talk. The man was suffering from suicidal thoughts and said that he could not quite see the point of living. His Holiness spoke for few minutes about the various things that the person could appreciate in his life, the fact that he is living in a free country, that he might have family and friends who care for him. Clearly, none of this was having any effect. So finally, His Holiness just gave him a bear hug, and the man broke down in tears. This simple physical contact helped the person connect with something deep within himself.

IM: Is compassion training always appropriate, or can you imagine cases where it might not be helpful?

TJ: I do think that to jump into thinking about another's pain and suffering is a tall order, and it can be problematic for some people. So compassion training needs to start very strongly with the self-compassion component. Otherwise what happens is that people get either completely overwhelmed or they use the focus on others' suffering as a way of escaping their own internal anguish. On the other hand, I would argue that something like the self-compassion component could be very helpful in many circumstances. For instance, for the parents of autistic children, the self-compassion training might help them protect themselves against the constant struggle they face in bringing up their child.

An interesting thing coming out of contemporary research on empathy is the distinction between the personal distress response and the empathy response. If you look at how people react in the face of others' suffering, some are not able to see it and they want to run away, whereas others react in empathy and they reach out. The difference between the two is that in the case of the former, where the person reacts in a personally distressed manner, there is a confusion of one's own suffering with the other's. But in the second case, when a person is able to respond in an empathetic manner, although that person does experience some distress, the person is very clear that it is not actually his or hers; it is that other person who is suffering. This distinction is really important, because often you get swept into the middle of the experience.

Returning to the example of the parents of an autistic child, I think it is important that they see the distinction between their child suffering and their own empathetic response, in order to not be swept away by the distress. While being completely there for and compassionate toward the child, they can also create a protective buffer, so that they have more reserves to help their child. Everybody benefits from this. If you get totally enmeshed in the problem, in the end you just get exhausted.

IM: Is there a way that we can assess from the outside, or even from the inside, what genuine compassion is, as opposed to a near enemy of compassion or some artifice?

TJ: When someone is experiencing genuine compassion, in contrast, let's say, to its near enemy, grief, there is very little self-reference; this is one important distinction. Also, in the Mahayana texts, cultivating genuine compassion for all beings is seen as an indication of having awakened Buddhanature. There is a beautiful discussion in Mahayana scripture where it says that just as one can infer the presence of fire in a high pass by seeing smoke, and just as one can infer the presence of a body of water by observing many seagulls hovering above a valley, in the same manner one can infer the presence of awakening Buddhanature in an aspirant. Then the sutra lists some of the signs, such as tears falling naturally from the eyes in the face of suffering, or the hairs of the bodily pores standing up. Clearly the body language and expressions are indications of someone who is moved in the face of suffering, but not overcome.

IM: Before we close, we'd appreciate hearing a few of your thoughts on the evolution of teachings about compassion from Theravada to Mahayana Buddhism.

TJ: Although sometimes the impression is given that compassion, particularly the universal compassion, is a special purview of Mahayana Buddhism, in fact that is not true. If you look at the history of Buddhism, from a very early stage, when it comes to popular religious practice, the Jataka Tales can be seen as having become important objects of worship. We see these tales adorning such Indian monuments as the Bharhut and Sanchi stupas. So from a very early stage, once the Buddhists started using iconographic depictions, the Jakata Tales became a deeply important part of the Buddhist identity as a community. For me, this represents a powerful celebration of compassion as a key spiritual principle. Each of the stories of the Jataka is in one way or another a depiction of the Buddha's previous life in a compassionate kind of action.

Many of these are selfless acts of compassion, some of which involve giving of even his own body. There is, for example, the beautiful story of how once when the Buddha was born as a monkey king, he saved his entire troupe by using his body as a bridge, allowing the other monkeys to jump across to another tree for safety. As a result, the monkey king broke his back and lost his life to a hunter.

This emphasis on compassion remains throughout the whole development of Buddhism. There is a memorable line in an eighth-century Indian Buddhist philosophical text, titled Exposition of Valid Cognition, where Dharmakirti argues that buddhahood is nothing other than the perfection of the quality of compassion that we all possess. That's why, when talking about Buddha as an enlightened being and authentic teacher, the term pramana is used. Pramana means authentic or valid. This usage of the word is very important, because it implies that the Buddha was not someone enlightened from the beginning. There is no such thing as absolute primordial buddha in the true sense of the word; the Buddha became a buddha. And then in explaining the meaning of "became a buddha," Dharmakirti says that this process of becoming can be understood in terms of the development of compassion. And the highest development of compassion is buddhahood.

© 2011 Inquiring Mind