From arriving as a Tibetan child refugee in India at a tender age of 1, to relocating to a children’s home in Shimla, to quitting formal school at 10 to adopt monkhood, to being called upon by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to be His interpreter, to earning a B.A and Ph.D from Cambridge and subsequently relinquishing monkhood, Dr. Thupten Jinpa’s journey through life is a fascinating tapestry of hard work, faith, self-enquiry, serendipity, luck, ambition, drive and above all, compassion. An extraordinary individual, Dr. Jinpa is a great example of high achievements, with his heart in the right place. A globally acclaimed expert on compassion, Dr. Thupten Jinpa has been the principal English translator to the Dalai Lama since 1985. He has translated and edited more than ten books by the Dalai Lama. He is also the architect of the Compassion Cultivation Training at The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), Stanford University, California, USA.
Show Transcription >>
Nitesh Batra: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Mindful Initiative podcast. Today we are very, very fortunate to have amongst us Dr. Thupten Jinpa, who has been the translator for the Dalai Lama for over 30 years. He was brought up in India and he currently lives in Montreal in Canada and I live in Bangalore, India and we are here in this beautiful city of Rhinecliff at the Compassion in Connection conference and that’s where we are meeting. So thank you very much for being a part of our show and welcome.
Dr. Jinpa: Because a lot of people have this assumption that compassion is something that either you have it or you don’t have it and there’s not much you can do about it. But now we’re recognizing from science that it is not that simple. Everybody has some basic level of compassion. Whoever can do this, is going to have less stress, is going to have less fear and anxiety in their life. Because in the end, you know, their understanding of the life and difficulties is going to be completely different from someone who’s going to be operating from a place of fear, judgment and anger.
Dr. Jinpa: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me to be part of this podcast. Thank you.
Nitesh Batra: So one of the first things which I do when I, interview the guest, I like to go back to their childhood days and talk about their experiences in life and you’ve gone through a lot as a child. Being in Tibet, being in India and then going on from being a monk to a family life and doing your Ph.D as well in the same field. So my first question to you is, how has this transition shaped you as an individual? What has changed in your mind and what have been some of the key foundations in your childhood that have made you who you are today?
Dr. Jinpa: Well, that’s actually quite a difficult thing to look back. I suppose if I look back in my childhood, you know, although I grew up as a Tibetan refugee child, in the early ’60’s in India and my parents were refugees directly coming from Tibet and I was put in a boarding school specially setup for the Tibetan children. So I was away from my parents for a long time. So although looking back, the childhood that I went through was a difficult one, but on the other hand, whenever I think about my childhood, you know, I find myself really getting a sense of fondness for the way in which some of the people in my childhood had really shown so much warmth and kindness. I’m thinking particularly of the teachers–specially there were two monks at the Tibetan children’s school in Shimla. It was Sterling Castle that was termed as a children’s home run by the Save the Children’s Fund. And also my own parents, you know, they were working on road construction camps and once in a while my parents would take turns to come and visit me and once in a while the school will also send me to visit them and they will drive me to wherever the road construction camp happened to be for a couple of days.
Dr. Jinpa: So, looking back, you know, the primary image and feeling that I evoke from my childhood is really that of warmth and caring. So I think that probably made a huge impact in my life later on. And also you know, my accidental kind of, you know, opportunity to serve as the principal interpreter to His Holiness for so many years. I then had the chance to think more explicitly about the place of compassion in human relation and how, when compassion serves as a powerful, explicit guiding force in someone’s life, how that affects the relationship and the tenor and the tone and the quality. So I think probably looking back in my childhood, the most important influence really were these expressions of kindness on the part of the adults who were looking after us.
Nitesh Batra: You touched on so many different topics which I want to talk about and knowing a little bit about your background, it’s interesting that you choose to remember warmth as one of your childhood memories because it wasn’t easy as a child for you losing your mother at a very early age and some of the other difficulties you had in your childhood. And we’re at a time in our lives where we’re dealing with lot of these issues outside. Whether they’re political, whether they’re in some other format. How is that,that you were able to use that as your strength in your day to day life? Just remembering that particular incident or that particular feeling of warmth from your childhood?
Dr. Jinpa: I think, I mean, one of the things that I often consciously bring to my interpretation and understanding of the events around in my life also around in the world, is always remind myself that in the end, all these stories are human stories. Whether it is a story of conflict or whether it is a story of disagreement, whether it’s a story of political struggle, you know, behind all of this, you know, there are of course societal level dynamics and forces and all of which bring a lot of complications, economic considerations, power dynamics, you know, issues or injustice and all the rest. But at the end of the day, all of these are really activities of individual human beings, just like myself. And I know I can speak with confidence from the depth of my heart that every single person who is involved either in a good work or in a bad work, at the individual personal level all they want is something good for their children.
Dr. Jinpa: Something good for their family. Something good really for the people that they love. The way in which that goal is being pursued maybe sometimes misguided or unskillful. So I actually, you know, sometimes people may think this kind of approach is naive, but on the other hand, I do think that this kind of approach and perspective really has an ability to simplify the problem and then not to get caught up on objectification and demonization of different groups because you really are making the choice that behind all of this, I’m never going to forget the humanity that lies behind all of these actions. That’s one thing that I really have learned from being at such a close sort of, you know, proximity to His Holiness. The way in which he instinctively relates to situations or stories. First,from a human perspective and that you know, whether that perspective actually helps solve the problem is another matter. But what it does do is to help you maintain your optimism and hope. Because the moment you lose hope in humanity, then you have lost something very big. And so long as you don’t lose hope in humanity and so long as you trust the basic goodness of human heart and we always have an opportunity to call up on that in an individual, even our adversary, we can engage in a conversation where we may succeed or may not succeed, but so long as you have not given up the hope, there is always that possibility to allow your opponent to dig deep and find that good place and every single person has that good place.
Dr. Jinpa: At the basic level, our nature is exactly the same. You know, whether we come from east or west or whether we are educated, uneducated, whether we’re rich or poor. You know, when the time comes to be truly human, we’re all exactly the same. So, I think this is why the message of compassion, the idea of compassion and the philosophy of compassion is so powerful because it is touching upon truth that are so universal. It’s so fundamental to human reality.
Nitesh Batra: That is so beautiful and deep at many levels. And before I jump into compassion and talk about specifically what is happening in the world of compassion, I would like to go back in your childhood days and I don’t know how you did it and that’s what I want to find out about the place you stayed in, in your school where you were treated in not so easy ways, if I put it very simply. And later on, you met the same woman and you had this feeling for her of no animosity, just love for her. How do you as a child have that? That’s my first question. Second, for parents who are bringing up their children, how do they put the same feelings or at least show them that this is also another path to humanity?
Dr. Jinpa: Yeah. Well, you know, the interesting thing about human mind is that we always rewrite our past. There is something in the statement that memory is always some form of reconstruction. And that is from a philosophical point of view, it makes perfect sense because even when you remember something, you’re remembering from the point of view of where you are right now, which has been informed by all the things that you went through. So we like to think that we are smart, we have somehow found our way and we were pursuing that path, but you know, I genuinely believe that most of the important –or not most– but many of the important things that really define your life, you don’t plan. They tend to happen and that the real question is when the opportunities arise, did you choose the right path? You seized the opportunity or not. And I just happened to be lucky. So when I left the school to become a monk, that was a major decision that I made and I don’t think I had any forethought about how this was going to unfold.
Dr. Jinpa: I just, you know, I don’t have clairvoyance, but it happened to be the right decision I made and later when I changed monastery to join another monastery, it made a huge impact on my life. When I went to study in Cambridge and when I decided to leave, I mean all of –the monastery– so I think if we’re looking back we can show some kind of wisdom, but when you’re actually in the process, a large part of that is I think it’s a sort of a matter of luck and good fortune and meeting the right people. You know, for example, in my own life, I had an uncle on my mother’s side, who was very, very kind. After my mother died, he played a very important role. There was a German woman in Bangalore actually at the Max Bhavan Institute. She was the wife of the Director then, in Bangalore, and she took it upon herself to really help me with my English education.
Dr. Jinpa: So those are people that I happened to meet in my life. So I think the story that you’re referring to is the foster mother who was at my school in Shimla. This is not the school that was run by the Save the Children’s Fund. Save the Children’s Fund school was only for small children. And at Grade 2 we were moved to the Central School for Tibetans in Shimla, what we call Bada Shimla. The other one is in Chhota Shimla. So, this was in Shimla. So it was a very large school –somewhere around 600 students and it was organized around foster parents, the younger kids. And, you know, in school I was kind of arrogant. Probably because I was quite bright. It went to my head and I was thinking that I’m special. So in my foster home, the foster mother, somehow couple of us, we were often disciplined.
Dr. Jinpa: I remember one particular winter actually. I spent the entire winter with no shoes or just flip flops. And Shimla– it snows. Your feet, soles get cracked. I remember that very vividly. And to this day, the memory which is very acute, is that when you are cold at night and if your feet are cold, your body never gets warmed up. So I mean, I have those kind of memories. So she was not kind to us. But then when I met her a couple of years later, I was about 17. She was in the same Tibetan settlement in South India and one day I just bumped into her and she was carrying a load of firewood on her back and it was very hot, sweating and she had been completely dark because South India is quite warm, you know. Especially if you need to walk in the farms, you’re completely exposed to the elements.
Dr. Jinpa: Your skin gets really dark and I bumped into her completely unexpectedly. And the sight of her struggling, carrying this heavy load of firewood completely changed. And I’ve occasionally wondered how I might react to this woman if I meet her because some of my friends from those years, even to this day, haven’t, can’t let go. And this is where I recognize the power of empathy. When you see someone in a difficult situation, your response and your perception of that person completely changes. So I was actually quite surprised that at that moment, instead of having any kind of animosity, I actually felt compassion for this woman in front of me. Of course, at that point I just couldn’t speak with her because she was walking and also it came as a surprise to me, my reaction. The next time I made it a point to go and talk to her.
Dr. Jinpa: And it was a real revelation. And also the woman also felt very sorry. She apologized. And, by that time I was old enough to know that when I was a kid at school, you know, my parents left Tibet, but I, as a child, the innocence has completely protected me from any trauma of being dislodged from your home. Whereas this woman and her husband were freshly living the memory of their dislodgement, you know, from your home, the trauma of having lost everything and now having to do this work where you’re looking after 30 odd kids when none of them were yours. And some of them are a bit of a brat, you know, like me. So of course. So to expect them to be able to be kind all the time, it’s kind of too much to ask. So those kind of understanding really helped me deal with that.
Dr. Jinpa: And that one thing that here as a parent, you know, later on, one thing that I come to understand, and this is one thing that given that the majority of the audience listening to this podcast are Indians, one thing you know about parenting. You brought up the question of parenting. And in traditional societies like India and Tibetan community, parents play a very, very explicit and overt role in child’s upbringing and growth even after when they are grown up. When the society says after 18, you are grown up, in the West, then the parents kind of take their hands off and children kind of assume their own full identity or agency. But in India and in the Tibetan Community, we don’t do that. But sometimes where we do the traditional approach, do make mistakes, is that we invest the respect and dignity of the family too much on the child’s behavior.
Dr. Jinpa: And then sometimes that affects the basic motivation of your relationship with your children. So instead of worrying about, say for example, if a child comes home late. Instead of worrying about this because of your concern for the safety, your worry is more rooted in the idea of kind of fear about what your neighbors are going to think about it. You know this is going to be scandalous. So those kind of motives, it’s really worth checking. So that your interaction or your treatment of your child is really grounded in your genuine concern and love and respect for your child. And especially children as they grow up older, you really need to show that. And if we are able to show that, children will come to recognize that if the push comes to the shove, what matters most to my parents is my well being. If we can build that trust, everything else is really details. And this is where I think this compassion, the concern for the child’s own well being, and if you can articulate it, if you can demonstrate it, if you can embody it in your own interaction, that really changes the nature of the relationship between parents and children.
Nitesh Batra: You touched upon so many things that I have gone through in my life personally, of my friends that I see and you mentioned somewhere in the middle that there is luck associated with meeting the right people, but there’s a lot of hard work that goes in as well with parts of that. And for the awareness of the parents, I think it’s a good segue to talk about compassion, other xxxxally bring it up for them to be thinking about those things that initial awareness is required and compassion would help them. Can you talk a little bit about your journey with compassion and I think that would be a good way to introduce a lot of our listeners to what compassion really is from many different perspectives.
Dr. Jinpa: I mean, compassion as a value is universal, you know, and it’s not alien to any particular culture. You know, in the West, of course it’s front and center in the Christian faith and in the East, you know, it’s in all the major religions of India. And particularly if you look at like Sikhism, you know, service is really the primary form through which Sikh religiosity is expressed. So those kind of things are very, very powerful. But one thing that we can learn from the current psychology as well as the Indic approach here, I’m thinking particularly of the Buddhist approach to compassion is the idea that you can cultivate it. That it is part of our nature and it’s a sort of almost like the idea that it’s like a muscle that you can exercise and grow. And that idea is probably more pronounced in Buddhism and now in contemporary psychology.
Dr. Jinpa: And one of the basic things that I share with people, you know, for example, you know, my wife is French Canadian. In her family, it’s all a different world there. You know, they are brought up in a Catholic culture, but most of them are now atheists or kind of agnostic. And in a family kind of get together, once in a while, I get an opportunity and they ask me a question –because a lot of people have this assumption that compassion is something that either you have it or you don’t have it and there’s not much you can do about it. But now we’re recognizing from science that it is not that simple. Everybody has some basic level of compassion. People do vary a little bit in terms of where they are, their baseline. Some are more empathetic and more compassionate, naturally, disposition-ally.
Dr. Jinpa: Some are less. But the quality and the impulse for kindness is there everybody. So one thing that I really find helpful when I can tell about this to others is that, given that compassion and kindness is part of who we are, it’s part of our natural impulse. If we can learn some skills, some techniques, some practice or habit that makes us more consciously able to tap into this in our day to day life, whether we are confronting with the difficult challenges in our own lives with health or job or financial concerns or experience a loss, or whether it is in the context of our relationship with others that are important that we can’t avoid on a day to day basis–our spouses, our children, especially teenage children, you know, when they are beginning to assert their identity or at workplace. You know, we as social creatures, unless we choose to lead a hermit life like a Yogi in the wilderness, which Indian tradition, you know, advocates. But most of us are not going to do that. So long as we lead a life as an ordinary human being and human society, interaction with others, relationship with the others is going to define a large part of our experience of happiness and pain.
Dr. Jinpa: So here, if we can find a way to consciously tap into the better part of us where there is this impulse for wanting to understand, not immediately rush to judgment, relate to someone from a place of kindness and take the time and be patient, that changes a lot of stuff. And this is in the end, I think one of the most important promise of taking compassion seriously. The compassion training, something thinking more consciously about it, will give us some ability to tap into this part of ourselves so that we can relate to events, situations from that place. And that I think is, you know, whoever can do this is going to have less stress, is going to have less fear and anxiety in their life because in the end, you know, their understanding of the life and difficulties was going to be completely different from someone who’s going to be operating from a place of fear, judgment and anger. So I think that is a very simple message that everybody can share. Where, in the end if you take compassion seriously and make it more active, you yourself stand to gain.
Nitesh Batra: Without doubt. And I think there is an absolute necessity right now for us, and I think talking about compassion makes me think and more that it is one of the moral values that should be inculcated into our day to day life and it’s available not just to adults, but as a child, if you start putting it in, you will find that it’s going to help you during those times of difficulty. So that’s the way I understand it.
Nitesh Batra: The other thought that you shared was common humanity. Which is part of a lot of cultures– whether it’s Sikhism, Hinduism, Christianity. Now the shared common humanity is something that a lot of us need, but there’s still some skepticism out there about this common humanity through compassion. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Dr. Jinpa: I think, I mean this is a very, very important question because the reality is that while, we all share fundamental human condition, which is, everybody wanting to be happy and nobody wanting to have problems and suffering. We are all emotional creatures, you know, who respond to situations with emotions and pain and so on. So there is the fundamental level of human reality that is shared, but at the same time there is also a level of reality where we are all quite different. You know, we come from different places, different culture. So this is where individual identities are formed. So now, in today’s age, because the pressure for co-existence is much stronger in the globalized world where everybody’s interconnected, where images from one part of the world is beamed to another part of the world within an instant, where we’re digitally connected, where we see specially through the social media, you know, kind of the whole world.
Dr. Jinpa: I think in this day and age, what this does is this amplification of the information really brings to the fore the diversity and the differences and which then forces us to really find a way to co-exist. And this is part of the problem that we’re seeing today in the world-this growing tribalism and assertion of nationalism and all of this. And I don’t think the solution lies in explaining these away/dismissing these real differences. But the solution lies more in rising above these differences while acknowledging the differences, but also calling upon recognition of the shared humanity. And this is that we can do. I think this is why I think the message of compassion and compassion education is all the more important in today’s time.
Nitesh Batra: Well, thank you so much Dr. Jinpa. We are getting to the close of our interview and one of the things that I like to do is do a little rapid fire, maybe three or four questions? You can answer in one word, one sentence, and then we’ll close the interview if you have any closing thoughts on it.
Nitesh Batra: So the first question is, two fond memories from your India days.
Dr. Jinpa: My childhood and Shimla, definitely. And then also some of the early Bollywood movies.
Nitesh Batra: What’s your favorite song from India?
Dr. Jinpa: Favorite song? That’s a difficult one. There is, a song from a very old movie, actually not that old, probably from the ’80’s. There was a song sung in the bus by a blind beggar with a little girl. “Aadmi musafir hai” –that song is probably my favorite.
Nitesh Batra: Do you remember how it is sung?
Dr. Jinpa: “Dr. Jinpa sings…. 🙂
Nitesh Batra: Beautiful. One last question. If you had one place to go in the world and that, what would that place?
Dr. Jinpa: That’s a tough one actually. I always find high mountain places really, I mean, the the experience of being able to view a huge vista from the top of a mountain. And then you have these places in Himalayas and Ladakh. That’s really- but there’s no one particular place.
Nitesh Batra: I think those are a few of my favorite places of all. Thank you so much for being a part of this show. We’re truly privileged and honored for you to taking time and sit with us with your busy schedule. Thank you so much.
Dr. Jinpa: Thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me to be part of this.
Nitesh Batra: Thank you so much everyone for listening to The Mindful Initiative podcast. Please remember to listen to us on iTunes or Google podcast. If you like the show, please remember to share it with your friends and family. Thank you so much.
Editing: Juan Pablo Velasquez Luna
Transcription and Everything else: Gita Venkat