Thupten Jinpa is a former monk turned family man, an author and, for the past 30 years, the Dalai Lama’s chief English translator.
A Buddhist scholar, Jinpa created a course at Stanford Medical School called Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT), which teaches people a series of meditative techniques designed to help build compassion. His book, “A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives,” serves as a guide that uses scientific study and Buddhist traditions to explain how practicing compassion can improve our quality of life.
“The first benefit of compassion is yourself," Jinpa told ABC News’ Dan Harris in an interview for his podcast “10% Happier."
"It’s in your own self-interest.”
“Compassion is the natural response that you experience in the face of someone suffering, where you’re able to connect with that person’s experience and wish to do something about it,” Jinpa continued. “If you are able to train your mind so you are responsive enough to empathy, and then move on to compassion, then your focus will be more on the solution rather than getting stuck in the suffering.”
Jinpa sat down with Harris to talk about his background, his work with the Dalai Lama, compassion training and research, and the relationship between compassion and competition. Jinpa argues that being compassionate towards ours, no matter how sentimental it seems, is to our benefit.
“If you are able to bring some compassion into your life, you benefit because you become happier,” Jinpa said. “There’s not much point in being, conventionally, being very successful but at the same time deeply miserable. Then, what’s the point of being successful?”
Jinpa has worked with His Holiness for over three decades. He joked that even the Dalai Lama gets upset from time to time.
“Of course, he is a human being,” Jinpa said. “For me, honestly, when I see him occasionally lose it, and scold me, I actually feel more respect for him, because he’s not trying to hide it. He’s very genuine, he’s very authentic. What you see is what you get. Of course he has a mastery of his mind that is very impressive, but at the end of the day, he is also a human being.”
Jinpa’s childhood was full of turmoil. In 1959, when the Tibetan Uprising against China occurred and Jinpa was only about a year old, his family fled Tibet and resettled in India. When he was 9 years old, his mother died and his father left to join a monastery. Jinpa himself became a monk at age 11, while he was still in boarding school.
“The reason why I chose to become a monk, I remember very clearly that a group of monks came and stayed for a couple of weeks at our school, and each class was assigned a monk,” he said. “The stories they were telling about classical India and Buddhism and the life of the Buddha [were] fascinating. And, of course, as an 8-, 9-year-old kid, I just wanted to be like them.”
Jinpa left school in the 70s at a time when he said a large concentration of hippies had flocked to India. Jinpa said he picked up English from meeting with “one particular person” from the hippie movement on a regular basis.
In 1985, Jinpa said he became the Dalai Lama’s English translator by “pure coincidence.” At the time, Jinpa said he was visiting his siblings in Dharamsala, India when the Dalai Lama happened to be visiting the area to give a series of teachings. As it turned out, His Holiness’s original translator couldn’t make it on the first day.
“They were looking for someone to stand in for him,” Jinpa said. “And then the word spread around that there’s this young monk who has a reasonably good command of English, maybe he could do it. One thing led to another and I was plucked out of my seat and put in there to translate for His Holiness.”
A few days later, Jinpa said he got a call from the Dalai Lama asking him to be his translator full-time.
“I just broke down in tears,” Jinpa said. “You know, for a Tibetan, for someone of that age, for us, His Holiness is someone who is a very elevated figure, the source of our meaning, the source of our purpose, our existence in our community. And I was, of course, tremendously touched.”
Jinpa eventually left the monastery because he desperately wanted to have a family.
“One of the things I always kind of struggled with as a monk was the yearning for a family,” he said. “It’s probably because I missed family life from a very, very early age."
"I never really had a real family of warm, kind of, memory," he continued. "So I think there was a yearning for a family and that never really went away.”
He got married and now he, his wife and their two teenage daughters live in Montreal. In addition to his service to His Holiness, Jinpa also serves as a chair of the non-profit Mind and Life Institute, which conducts scientific research on the effects of mindfulness techniques on the brain.
“Increasingly now there is some indication that the more compassionate you are, the more you’re able to bring into account other people’s well-being as part of the equation, you feel less stressed,” he said. “By opening up ourselves, giving space to someone else, it kind of tones down the intensity of our own anxiety and our own suffering.”