Thupten Jinpa on Fearless Compassion

Thupten Jinpa on Fearless Compassion

by David Bullard
Dr. Thupten Jinpa's family escaped from Tibet to India when he was just a year old and he began his monastic life shortly thereafter. He has been the Dalai Lama's primary English interpreter and book editor for nearly 30 years and is the author most recently of, A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives.
Filed Under: Mindfulness


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A Fearless Heart

David Bullard: I am so pleased and honored to meet you and to have this opportunity to talk a little bit. I’m also looking forward to seeing you when you come out to the Bay Area next month on your book tour for A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives and for some talks and workshops. I just read the book and I couldn’t put it down. It’s fantastic. And to prepare for this interview and to learn more about your work, I also bought and am reading your first book based on your Cambridge PhD dissertation, Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy (2002).
Thupten Jinpa: Oh yeah, that was a heavy-duty undertaking.
DB: Heavy duty reading, too! It will require further slow reading! But the new book is very accessible. I even feel calmness in talking with a revered and accomplished person like you right now because of all the compassion I felt from the book for all of us.
TJ: That’s great.
DB: Those first 100 pages impact the reader at the intellectual level, because of the all of the research, and all you bring to bear from Western science. But you integrate feelings so well with stories from your own life, many wonderful quotations, and the suggested meditation activities from the compassion training you helped develop at Stanford. It’s going to help many, many people.
TJ: Thank you. That was the motivation for writing it.
DB: How did you decide to make compassion the central point of your work in this book?
TJ: As someone who grew up with refugee parents in a refugee community, the impact of compassion was real on a day-to-day basis. The schools that we went to, the clothes that we received all were donated from around the world.
From a very early age I knew that almost everything for the development of our refugee community was made possible thanks to other people’s generosity.
From a very early age I knew that almost everything for the development of our refugee community was made possible thanks to other people’s generosity. I think that probably was a very important fact in my life.

The second thing is, because of being brought up in a traditional Tibetan society, compassion is probably the highest spiritual value and is very present in the religious and spiritual consciousness of the Tibetan people. Starting from the Tibetan symbol of the Dalai Lama being a kind of manifestation of the Buddha of compassion….being an embodiment of compassion. Then there is the everyday mantra that we recite, “Om mani padme om,” being a symbol of compassion. So compassion is very, very present in the everyday religious and spiritual life of a Tibetan person.

Also the work that I continue to do for His Holiness is very much around compassion. Because if there is one thing that His Holiness promotes everywhere, in addition to peace, it’s compassion. The bottom line of his message, wherever he travels, is really about compassion. I’ve done a lot of that service for him, which is a service to the promotion of compassion.
DB: Both in what you lived by experiencing it as refugees, and in the whole teaching that’s infused your culture for thousands of years.
TJ: Yes, exactly. I remember when I was growing up and I was in a boarding school, and once in a while the school would arrange for some of us children whose parents were working on road constructions in the local Simla area to be driven there for a couple of days. My parents were moving from camp to camp in these tents as the roads were progressing, and every morning, I remember waking up in a tent full of smoke and steam from Tibetan tea being made, and my mother chanting the Four Immeasurables prayer: “May all beings be free of suffering and its causes.” These are things that I grew up with. Of course, as a kid, you know, words are words— they may not mean much. But the sound of these prayers and these lines were deeply imprinted in me.
DB: I understand what you mean by, “words are words” for children, but I have to share with you, a friend has a wonderful granddaughter who, when she was three-and-a-half or four years old, said, “Loving people is so much fun!” Which I think also could have been one of the chapter titles of your book!
TJ: That's so!
DB: You have such wonderful quotes beginning each chapter of the book, pairing up East and West: A Tibetan saying with one by W.H. Auden, the First Panchen Lama and Charles Darwin, Gandhi and Aristotle, and even a quote by Tsongkhapa with (revealing Canada as your adopted home!) one by the writer Alice Munroe.

Your first chapter “The Best Kept Secret of Happiness: Compassion” is introduced by a comment attributed to the Buddha: “What is that one thing, which when you possess, you have all the other virtues? It’s compassion.” This is paired with Jean Jacques Rousseau “What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” These are beautifully chosen. And you also point out that when we are being compassionate and being kind, the paradox is it helps us all feel better.
TJ: Definitely.
Compassion and empathy—and an instinct for these—are very natural, and they are a deeply ingrained part of our psyche.
We are living in a very scientific age, and science carries a kind of weight at the societal level. But despite all of this, if we look at our own personal experience, on a day-to-day level if we try to remember when we were most happy, when we felt most full and complete, most of the time we will find that this was in the context of some kind of healthy relationship—something where we felt deeply connected; something where we felt deeply open and free in our interaction with someone. These are all expressions of compassion. One of the key points I try to argue in this book is that compassion and empathy—and an instinct for these—are very natural, and they are a deeply ingrained part of our psyche. We can make the choice to live as much as possible from that place, and if we are able to do that, then at the end of the day, we ourselves stand to gain more. It does sound kind of paradoxical. It’s almost like using a self-interest logic to advocate compassion.
DB: But you point out it’s more of a side effect than a motivation.
TJ: Exactly.

Compassion Cultivation Training

DB: I’m remembering when reading the book that I was not at all surprised to see that you are friends with Paul Gilbert, PhD, from the University at Derby, UK, who came last year to speak with us at UCSF and Stanford. The first thing he said to us was, “You know, your brain is a mess.” He waited, and then he said, “Because it’s hard-wired for fight or flight. Anger or fear. And you have to cultivate self-compassion,” which is what your book is all about—cultivating self-compassion and compassion for others, and understanding why it’s so important; but also how to do it. Which brings me to my next question. Can you tell us about the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) at The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) program at Stanford.”
TJ: My work at Stanford gave me an opportunity to really bring a much more systematic structure to what can be brought consciously into a secular environment. I took inspiration from the amazing success of the mindfulness movement, where a group of people—individually and later collectively—decided to look into the Buddhist contemplative sources to see what are the specific types of contemplative practices that can be brought out of the traditional context into the wider world, for the benefit of helping people. The focus was on overcoming problems and suffering, promoting a greater sense of well-being. Along with that came science and research. Ordinary people and secular-minded people can begin to look at these things and see if they work for them.

I thought that we could do something similar with compassion. One of the powers of mindfulness is it teaches us the skills to disengage. When we over-identify with our problems and thoughts, and start to believe the contents of thoughts as reality, mindfulness practice shows us that we can actually disengage and observe what’s occurring in us so that we don’t get swept away by the story we’re telling about ourselves.
DB: You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that says, “Don’t believe everything you think.”
TJ: No, I haven’t seen it. That’s funny! And true!
DB: You’ve got several research articles, with Kelly McGonigal and others, showing that the compassion training decreased fear of compassion and increased self-compassion. How do you conceptualize compassion itself?
TJ: We’ve identified four components: An awareness of suffering which is cognitive; an affective sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering; a wish to see the relief of that suffering, which is an intention; and a responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering—a motivational component.

Our most recent article in the Journal of Positive Psychology, “A wandering mind is a less caring mind: Daily experience sampling during compassion meditation training,” found decreased mind wandering to neutral topics and increased caring behaviors for oneself and others.

We are also collaborating with psychologist and neuroscientist, Dr. Brian Knutson, researching the neural correlates of components of compassion in Buddhist adepts and novices. Together with many other researchers, there is quite a range of activities at CCARE deepening and broadening our awareness of the benefits of compassion and how best to cultivate it in people.

And the beauty I see is that, in a sense, compassion training is the next chapter in this very interesting cultural phenomenon. What compassion brings is, to use vernacular language, the “wet stuff”—our emotion and experience. And also, compassion is part of our motivation system: empathy, a sense of love and connection. Compassion plays a powerful role, if we allow it, as part of our motivation system.

Compassion also has an important role in shaping our intention. If we can bring conscious cultivation of compassion to help us shape our intention, we bring a more enlightened content to our motivation and intention. When combined with mindfulness, then it can create something that can lead to real personal transformation.

Those were the kinds of ideas behind the Stanford program, and then I sat down to develop an eight-week training and sought the help of some other colleagues to refine it. We developed the program in such a way that it does not rely entirely on quiet, formal sitting practices alone.
DB: Beyond meditation alone, or “just” being present….
TJ: We have interactive exercises. Many of them are dyadic. But also, there’s psychological education that allows people to observe, based upon their own experience, how attitudes and thoughts shape the way we experience the world, and how that affects how we behave, and that has a kind of a loop-back effect. So we come to recognize that there’s a complex dynamic relationship between our perception of the world, what we bring to the world, and how we experience the world.

And then, of course, we have one of the central elements—the contemplative practice—which includes a series of guided meditations. We also have what we call informal practices, taken from the Tibetan mind-training teachings, where the instruction is, “Whatever you may encounter, bring them right now into your practice.” It’s a beautiful line in the mind-training practice.

Throughout the eight week course, whatever specific topic we are focusing on, we advise the course participants to use that particular week to try to see if they can find, in their everyday life, moments when they can actually use their experience as an informal practice.

We were surprised when we started the compassion cultivation work that we couldn’t start with the traditional Buddhist compassion meditations, because the first step is based on an understanding that self-care and self-compassion are instinctual. But we found that many of our Western students needed additional help to learn to have self-compassion; they couldn’t start with this as step one!

Perhaps a Tibetan quote from my book illustrates this: “Envy toward the above, competitiveness toward the equal, and contempt toward the lower.” These often lie at the root of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

DB: I’ve heard people ask, “What if you’re mindful and present, and you’re feeling really bad about yourself and your situation?” That’s why you’re bringing it to this next level, so that when you are mindful, you can be mindful with compassion for yourself and others, even if you’re suffering with painful thoughts, situations, feelings or attitudes.
TJ: Exactly. Yes. For example, I don’t have any expertise in parenting—other than having parented my own two daughters. And having lived most of my life as a monk, I probably would be the last person to claim such expertise! But on the other hand, I do believe that one of the key dimensions of compassion is a sense of connectedness, which is the active ingredient of a relationship. Increasingly, modern research on happiness is pointing out that one of the major sources of happiness for ordinary folks like us is our intimate relationships, the important relationships in our lives.

Compassion and loving-kindness are very social emotions; they are sentiments and states of mind. My hope is that therapists like yourself will look into compassion training as a resource to incorporate into your own practice, so that you can better help people who are in difficult relationships, where something has broken down in the line of communication and in their relationship dynamic. If both sides are able to somehow return to their base, to what connected them in the first place, which is where there’s a genuine recognition of each other as individuals, but also there is a shared kind of affinity and identification with each other. It’s here that compassion training, and greater awareness of feelings and thoughts about compassion really have some resources to offer.

Attachment and Non-Attachment

DB: I’m eager to understand more from your book about how to integrate that with my own work with couples, for example. You have sections on why we fear compassion, breaking through resistance to compassion, turning intention into motivation, the benefits of focused awareness, “escaping the prison of excessive self-involvement,” expanding our circle of concern, how compassion makes us healthy and strong, and the way to a more compassionate world.

So let me ask about the question of non-attachment, which is such an important concept in Buddhism. In the Western sense, for child-rearing and marital and relationship issues, we talk about secure attachment. I have some ideas about the differences between the two and how they are actually compatible, even though on the surface they sound like they’re not. Can you share any thoughts on that particular point?
TJ: I think it’s a very important question.
Quite often, people get the wrong impression about Buddhist teachings on non-attachment and equanimity…. and think that compassion and equanimity from a Buddhist perspective means that we shouldn’t be favoring our own children.
Quite often, people get the wrong impression about Buddhist teachings on non-attachment, and also about equanimity. I have consciously avoided over-emphasizing the equanimity step in this compassion training, which is the first step in the Tibetan tradition, in which you view three different people, and then you even out your emotional reaction to all of them, and then build on that.

Sometimes people take the wrong message out of this and think that compassion and equanimity from a Buddhist perspective means that we shouldn’t be favoring our own children—that we shouldn’t love them more than a stranger’s kids. I don’t think that’s the correct interpretation.

Instead the message is that you should train your mind and heart to a point where you would be able to love the stranger’s children as much as you love your own. But sometimes the message is taken in the opposite direction, as a sort of a license to disregard your responsibility as parents.

Similarly with attachment, what the Buddhist teachings are asking is actually quite subtle. It’s asking us to have the kind of passion and the dedication that normally comes with attachment, and engagement, and focus and commitment, without that stickiness that generally comes with self-referential thinking. You know, “I care for this person because this person is my spouse.” Attachment, in the Buddhist sense, has that self-referential component. But trying to convey that in the English word “attachment” is very complicated. So, that’s why in this book I try to avoid even getting into that kind of confusion.
DB: One thing I get from the book, but also get from the experience of being with many people in couples therapy who are working on forgiveness and trying to reconnect, is the idea that you can take another person’s feelings seriously… but you don’t have to take their feelings personally.
TJ: That’s right. And that would be one way to reconcile the nonattachment versus secure attachment issue. To not be attached to the part of their feelings that you would react to as if you were being blamed, but at the same time to be attached in a caring way.

The Secular Approach

DB: Your book is very secular. Could you say something about what secular means to you? Particularly for people who assume Buddhism is a religion.
TJ: The way I use the word secular is how His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses it. It’s meant to be a perspective that is inclusive of all possible perspectives, including religious ones. In a sense, it’s a perspective grounded on a certain understanding of human nature and human condition that does not presuppose a particular religious orientation. So, for example, to bring in the Buddhist idea of successive lives would be to bring a very specific cultural perspective—but we don’t need to reference such beliefs. When we talk about compassion and its role in our life, and how it’s part of our innate nature, none of this requires subscribing to, nor is it contradictory with, a belief in rebirth, or in believing in some form of theistic understanding of the evolution of human life. That is the beauty of secular language. It’s a much more, I suppose, basic language—a basic way of talking about these things. Because in the end, regardless of all the differences of culture and language and religion, when it comes to everyday human experience and the human condition, we’re all the same, you know?

We are happy when someone loves us. We feel angry when someone threatens us. We are afraid when we are confronted with a danger. And we are sad when we experience loss. At this basic level, there’s nothing to differentiate us.
We are happy when someone loves us. We feel angry when someone threatens us. We are afraid when we are confronted with a danger. And we are sad when we experience loss. At this basic level, there’s nothing to differentiate us. It’s just the reality of the human condition. There must be a perspective and way of talking about the human experience that can address our condition at that fundamental level, and that’s the kind of language I was striving for.
DB: So let me come back to a fundamental issue with resistance to compassion. At dinner recently, one friend asked, “How can you be compassionate when you’re really angry at somebody?” And I said, “Well, maybe that’s why Jinpa titled the book A Fearless Heart.
TJ: Yes.

Compassion is Not Compliance

DB: Our anger is one of the resistances to being compassionate. We have difficulty being compassionate if we’re angry. One mistake we make is to think that compassion and compliance are one and the same. “If I really understand how upset you are, I’ll have to do what you want so you won’t be upset.”

But if we think of how we deal with a child who’s really upset—“I don’t want to go to bed. You’re a jerk, Daddy, for making me go to bed!” I can be compassionate and say, “I know, it’s really hard to be young sometimes… you see the grownups are staying up later and you think you’ll be missing out. Name-calling is not OK, but I know you don’t want to go to bed now. It’s really hard, but… you’re going to bed now!”
TJ: Yeah, exactly. That’s true. I love the way you put it. Compassion and compliance are not the same things. And there is confusion about this for a lot of people. Somehow, when they think of compassion, they think of “giving in” and just letting the other person do what he or she wants. That’s not really what compassion is all about. Compassion is being in a position, or being in a state of mind that understands the other person’s situation—not from your own perspective, but from the perspective of the other person—but at the same time, being able to bear in mind what is the best thing for you to do in that situation to help that other person. That may require firmness sometimes.
DB: And we also often live in an illusion or “paradigm of blame,” as if it’s a zero-sum game. So that, if we’re not blaming the other, we’re afraid the blame will come back at us and make it our own fault. The Buddhist ideas of dependent origination have something to say about that
TJ: I also think that one of the interesting things about Western culture is that—and maybe it has something with the Judeo-Christian heritage—justice is a very powerful concept, as is accountability for something that has happened. When you have accountability needs, you want someone to be responsible. When something has happened, someone has to be responsible. And if no one is responsible, then you feel something’s quite wrong.

There’s almost a terror that everything’s going to fall apart. And this is where, even in a personal relationship, you want to blame someone, or you want to take the blame upon yourself. Because it’s very difficult for a lot of people to try to understand, “Well, actually we are both responsible. And also there were certain things which are beyond our control.” That kind of nuanced approach, for a lot of people, is like explaining it away. It’s almost like not doing justice to the actual problem, and not taking it seriously. And this is one area where I think in the West, we do need to work a bit harder.

"I've Never Met a Stranger"

DB: I appreciate so much the gift of this time together and remember what you were saying earlier: The Dalai Lama’s comment that he has never met a stranger…
TJ: Yes…
DB: I think that the readers of this interview, as I now do, will feel that we have met you. So, I deeply thank you for this opportunity.
TJ: Thank you very much, David, and I look forward to seeing you in May in San Francisco.

NOTE: For information about A Fearless Heart book tour please see or find him on Facebook.

**This interview was completed just a few days before the devastating earthquake which took thousands of lives in Nepal and also caused death and injuries in Tibet and India (where Jinpa was at the time the earthquake struck). If so moved, he recommends any donations can be sent to one of the below organizations.

The American Red Cross

UNHCR (UN refugee agency)

Copyright © 2015 David Bullard
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Thupten Jinpa Thupten Jinpa, PhD, is the chief English translator to the Dalai Lama and is the translator and editor of many books, including Ethics for the New Millennium and Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World's Religions Can Come Together. His newest book: A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, will be released May 5, 2015. A former monk, he completed his doctorate in religious studies at Cambridge University. He was a major contributor to Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University. He currently resides in Montreal with his wife and children, and teaches at McGill University.
David Bullard David Bullard, Ph.D., David is the current president of the San Francisco Psychological Association for the third time and has had a private practice of individual psychotherapy and couples therapy for over 40 years. He is a clinical professor in the departments of medicine, and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, where he has been an advisor to spiritual care services and a consultant to outpatient palliative care staff at UCSF’s Helen Diller Family Cancer Center. David also has been a mentor in the center for psychedelic therapies and research at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

His latest publications include research on a paradigm-shifting trauma therapy, “Flash Technique in a scalable low-intensity group intervention for COVID-19 related stress in healthcare providers,” (2021, Manfield, P., Engel, L., Greenwald, R., & Bullard, D.G., in the Journal of EMDR Practice and Research. Vol 15, Issue 2); the chapter “Allan Schore on the science of the art of psychotherapy: Interview” (2019, Schore, A.N., Right brain psychotherapy, New York: Norton); and the chapter co-authored with Christine Derzko, M.D. “Sexual Problems” (2019, in Behavioral Medicine: A Guide for Clinical Practice, 5th edition (2019, McGraw-Hill Medical).

David has published additional interviews for with H.H. the Dalai Lama’s translator/editor Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., and with the psychotherapists Allan Schore, Ph.D.; Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.; Mark Epstein, M.D.; Ida Gorbis, Ph.D.; George Silberschatz, Ph.D.; and Lonnie Barbach, Ph.D.; and has published conversations with Tibetan Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, Ph.D.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the socio-historical events that shaped the DSM's development
  • Recite the four aspects of compassion
  • Describe the implications of the research being done at the Compassion Cultivation Training program

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here