The Buddhist practice of mindfulness caught on in the west when we began to understand the everyday, personal benefits it brought us. Now, in this extraordinary book, the highly acclaimed thought leader and longtime English translator of His Holiness the Dalai Lama shows us that compassion can bring us even more.
Based on the landmark course in compassion training Jinpa helped create at Stanford Medical School, A Fearless Heart shows us that we actually fear compassion. We worry that if we are too compassionate with others we will be taken advantage of, and if we are too compassionate with ourselves we will turn into slackers. Using science, insights from both classical Buddhist and western psychology, and stories both from others and from his own extraordinary life, Jinpa shows us how to train our compassion muscle to relieve stress, fight depression, improve our health, achieve our goals, and change our world.
Practical, spiritual, and immediately relevant, A Fearless Heart will speak to readers of The Art of Happiness and Wherever You Go, There You Are.
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A former monk, THUPTEN JINPA holds a PhD from Cambridge University and has been the principal English translator to the Dalai Lama for nearly thirty years. He is an adjunct professor at the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University and chairman of the Mind and Life Institute, which is dedicated to promoting dialogues and collaborations between the sciences and contemplative knowledge, especially Buddhism. He lives in Montreal with his wife and daughters.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I remember walking excitedly next to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, holding his hand and trying to keep up with his pace. I must have been about six when the Dalai Lama visited the Stirling Castle Home for Tibetan Children in Shimla, northern India. I was one of more than two hundred children of Tibetan refugees resident there. The home was set up by the British charity Save the Children in 1962 in two former British colonial homes located on a small hill. We children had been busy preparing for the visit, rehearsing welcoming Tibetan songs while the grown-ups swept the road and decorated it with Tibetan symbols in white lime powder—lotus, infinite knot, vase, two goldfish (facing each other), eight-spoke wheel of dharma, victory banner, parasol, and conch. The day the Dalai Lama came, there were many Indian policemen around the school; I remember playing marbles with a few of them that morning while we waited. When the moment finally arrived it was magical. Thick smoke billowed from a whitewashed incense stove built especially for the occasion. Dressed in our colorful best and holding kata, the traditional Tibetan white scarves of greeting, in our hands, we stood on both sides of the driveway leading up to the school and sang at the top of our lungs.
I had been chosen as one of the students to walk alongside the Dalai Lama as he toured the school. While we walked, I asked him if I could become a monk, to which he replied, “Study well and you can become a monk anytime you wish.” Looking back, I think the only reason I was so precociously attracted to being a monk was because there were two monk teachers at the children’s home. They were the kindest of the adults there and also seemed the most learned. They always looked happy and at peace, even radiant at times. Most important for us children, they told the most interesting stories.
So when the first opportunity came, at the age of eleven—and as it happened, on the first day of Tibetan New Year (toward the end of February, that year)—I became a monk and joined a monastery, despite my father’s protestations. He was upset that I was squandering the opportunity to become the family breadwinner—parents of his generation wished for their children to get an education and work in an office. For nearly a decade afterward, I lived, worked, meditated, chanted, and belonged in the small community of Dzongkar Choede monastery. It was there in the quiet evergreen hills of Dharamsala, northern India, that I practiced my rudimentary English with enlightenment-seeking hippies.
I developed friendships with John and Lars. John was not a hippie. He was an American recluse who lived alone in a nice bungalow he’d rented close to the meditation hut of a revered Tibetan master. I met with John once or twice a week. We would speak and I would read from a Tibetan text, which itself is a translation of an eighth-century Indian Buddhist classic. It was John who introduced me to pancakes and ham.
Lars was a Danish man who lived quite close to the monastery. Often I would visit him to chat and have toast with jam.
In the spring of 1972, the monastery moved to the scorching heat of southern India, where a Tibetan resettlement program had begun. There, like the other monks of my monastery, at the age of thirteen, I joined the resettlement workforce clearing forests, digging ditches, and working in the cornfields. For the first two years, while the settlement was being prepared, we were paid a daily wage of 0.75 Indian rupees, or roughly 1.5 cents.
There was very little formal education at Dzongkar Choede. It’s not the custom for young monks to go to regular secular schools either. By the time our community moved to South India, I had finished memorizing all the liturgical texts that were required. The day’s labor at the settlement finished by four in the afternoon, so I had some free time on my hands and I decided to pick up my English again. However, with no opportunities to practice conversation, I made do with reading comic books. One day, I obtained a cheap used transistor radio, and after that I listened to the BBC World Service and U.S.-based Voice of America every day. In those days, VOA had a unique program “broadcasting in special English,” in which the presenter spoke slowly and repeated every sentence twice. This was immensely helpful, as I had only a very basic grasp of the language at the time.
Since I was the only young boy at the monastery who could speak and read English, rudimentarily though it was at first, it was a source of pride and also a way of individuating myself from the others. Here was a world—figuratively and literally the whole world beyond the refugee community, beyond the monastery—that I alone from my monastic community could enter. Through English I learned to read the globe, which made all the great countries I was hearing about in the news come to life—England, America, Russia, and of course, our beloved Tibet, which had tragically fallen to Communist China.
Around 1976, when I was seventeen or eighteen, I met a remarkable woman who changed my karma with English. Dr. Valentina Stache-Rosen was a German Indologist with expertise in Sanskrit and Chinese texts, living in Bangalore (where her husband headed the Max Muller Institute). Dr. Stache-Rosen took a keen interest in the progress of my English. She introduced me to Western literature and sent me books—Hermann Hesse and Agatha Christie, Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China, and, most helpfully, a large English dictionary with many examples of words used in sentences. And I first learned to use a knife and fork at Dr. Stache-Rosen’s home. We corresponded until her death in 1980. Without her kindness, I can’t imagine how my English would have escaped from where it remained back then, or for that matter, where my life would have taken me.
I also read Trevor Ling’s book The Buddha, a portrayal, written in English, of the life and teachings of the Buddha as a revolutionary, philosopher, and spiritual teacher. In this book in particular, the evocative power of the English language deeply impressed me. There was a liveliness and immediacy that I had never felt with written Tibetan; it was like someone speaking. (The gap between written and spoken language in Tibetan is huge.)
Around the same time, I met the Tibetan teacher who later became one of the most important influences on my classical Buddhist education. Famed for his erudition and poetry, Zemey Rinpoche was the gentlest person I have ever known. He was living a semiretired life then, dedicated to quiet meditative reflection, in another Tibetan settlement about an hour’s bus ride from my monastery. I was already familiar with Rinpoche’s name from the many Tibetan language school textbooks he had edited. Meeting him in person and speaking with him rekindled the enthusiasm for learning that had originally inspired me to become a monk. From our first meeting, Rinpoche recognized my restless intellect and took me under his wing. So, in the summer of 1978, I left my small monastery to join Ganden, a large academic monastery in another part of southern India, about a ten- to twelve-hour bus ride away.
In 1985, while on a visit to Dharamsala, North India, twenty years after I’d hurried to keep up with His Holiness as a small boy, I had the wonderful, if accidental, honor of being asked to interpret at a teaching given by the Dalai Lama when the scheduled English interpreter couldn’t make it on the first day. A few days into the teaching, the Dalai Lama’s office informed me that His Holiness wished to see me. At the appointed time, the secretary ushered me into the audience room that is part of the Dalai Lama’s office complex, a simple colonial-style bungalow of stone and wood with a green corrugated tin roof. As I entered, His Holiness said, “I know you; you are a good debater at Ganden monastery. But I did not know you spoke English.” Some Westerners who had heard my interpreting had told the Dalai Lama that my English was easy to listen to. His Holiness asked me if I could be available when he needed someone to interpret for him, especially on his travels. I was in tears. I had never, even in a dream, imagined that one day I would have the honor of serving the Dalai Lama so closely. Needless to say, I replied that this would be the greatest honor.
For a Tibetan who grew up as a refugee in India, serving the Dalai Lama—so deeply revered by the Tibetan people—is also a way to honor the sacrifices our parents had to make in their early years of exile.
So I began accompanying the Dalai Lama on his international travels, interpreting for him with English-speaking audiences and colleagues in the multidisciplinary field of contemplative studies, including at major scientific meetings like the Mind and Life Dialogues, and assisting him on his book projects. In these capacities, I have been the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator since 1985, serving this remarkable voice of compassion for nearly three decades now.
Right from the beginning His Holiness was clear that I would not join his permanent staff. He said that this would be a waste of my monastic education and talent. He advised me instead to concentrate on my studies and pursue an independent life dedicated to scholarship. This was truly compassionate.
Over time I came to recognize that my personal destiny might lie in serving as a medium for my own classical Tibetan Buddhist tradition in the contemporary world. Perhaps the strange background of my youth—growing up in a monastery yet with a fascination for the English language and things Western—had prepared me for this role. There weren’t many people trained in the classical Buddhist tradition who also knew English then. As my facility with English improved, it dawned on me that I might have a special role to play at the interface of two cultures I loved.
The motivation to fulfill this destiny more efficiently took me to Cambridge University, in England, beginning a new phase in my life. Thanks to the kindness of so many people, I have been fortunate to be able to dedicate my professional life to being such a medium of cultural interchange, whether through serving the Dalai Lama or translating key Tibetan texts into English. My experiences have confirmed that early intuition that a lot of good could come from the meeting of classical Tibetan Buddhist tradition and contemporary thought and culture, including science. This book is part of this larger work of cross-cultural interpretation.
I have been interested in compassion my whole life. In my childhood, I was at the receiving end of other people’s compassion. Thanks to thousands of ordinary British citizens who contributed to Save the Children, more than a thousand Tibetan children like me found a home to grow up in safely in the early 1960s, while our parents struggled to adjust as refugees in a land where they did not speak the language or know the customs. Thanks to individuals such as Dr. Valentina Stache-Rosen and Zemey Rinpoche, I found a purpose as I struggled through my very unconventional education. In my professional life, serving the Dalai Lama so closely, I have had the privilege of witnessing, from the front seat as it were, what it means for someone to live a life with complete conviction in this defining human quality we call compassion.
Today I am a husband and a father of two teenage daughters. I live in a North American city and lead a life very different from the one I was used to in a Tibetan monastery in India. On a daily basis, I struggle like most people with the typical challenges of a fast-paced modern life—balancing work, family, and relationships, paying the bills—while maintaining sanity, a sense of proportion, and basic optimism. Remarkably, it’s in the teachings of my own Tibetan Buddhist tradition that I find many of the tools that help me navigate the challenges of everyday living in the contemporary world. I hope to share some of these in this book.
What is compassion? Most of us value compassion and agree that it is important both in our own lives as well as in society more generally. Undeniably, compassion is also part of our everyday experience of being human. We love and care for our children; confronted with someone in pain, we instinctively feel for that person; when someone reaches out to us in a time of distress we feel touched. Most of us would also agree that compassion has something to do with what it means to lead a good life. So it’s no small coincidence that compassion turns out to be the common ground where the ethical teachings of all major traditions, religious and humanistic, come together. Even in the contested political arena, compassion is one value that both sides of the spectrum are eager to claim.
Despite our widely shared experience and beliefs about compassion, we fail to give it a central role in our lives and in our society. In our contemporary culture, we tend to have a rather confused relationship with values like kindness and compassion. In the secular West, we lack a coherent cultural framework for articulating what compassion is and how it works. To some people, it’s a matter of religion and morality, a private concern of the individual with little or no societal relevance. Others question the very possibility of selflessness for human beings, and are suspicious of sentiments like compassion that have other people’s welfare as the primary concern. A well-known scientist once remarked, “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed.” At the other extreme, some people elevate these qualities to such heights that they are out of reach for most of us, possible only for exceptional individuals like Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. Compassion then becomes something to be admired at a distance in great beings, but not relevant to our everyday lives.
Broadly defined, compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved. The English word compassion, from its Latin root, literally means “to suffer with.” According to religious historian Karen Armstrong, the word for compassion in Semitic languages—rahamanut in Hebrew and rahman in Arabic—is etymologically related to the word for womb, evoking the mother’s love for her child as an archetypal expression of our compassion. At its core, compassion is a response to the inevitable reality of our human condition—our experience of pain and sorrow.
Compassion offers the possibility of responding to suffering with understanding, patience, and kindness rather than, say, fear and repulsion. As such, compassion lets us open ourselves to the reality of suffering and seek its alleviation. Compassion is what connects the feeling of empathy to acts of kindness, generosity, and other expressions of our altruistic tendencies.
When compassion arises in us in the face of need or suffering, three things happen almost instantaneously: We perceive the other’s suffering or need; we emotionally connect with that need or suffering; and we respond instinctively by wishing to see that situation relieved. Compassion may lead to action; it is a readiness to help or wanting to do something ourselves a...
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