Teachings from Tibetan Buddhism: On Course for Compassion

Mindfulness is not enough — we must develop our capacity for altruism, a Buddhist scholar argues.

| Summer 2016

Thupten Jinpa remembers waking up as a small boy in smoky tents in refugee settlements in remote parts of northern India to the undulating sound of his mother chanting prayers as she churned Tibetan butter tea for breakfast. It was the early 1960s and his parents had been put to work building roads in these border regions after fleeing Tibet following the invasion of their homeland by Chinese troops and the Dalai Lama’s escape into exile.

As his mother turned the vertical wooden tube holding the tea, it would make a soothing, repetitive, gushing noise that followed the rhythm of her prayers. One prayer that Jinpa remembers his mother often chanting is known as the ‘four immeasurables’ in Tibetan Buddhism. At the heart of the second line of this prayer — “May all beings be free of suffering and its causes” — is the key Buddhist principle of compassion.

More than five decades on from those childhood days, Jinpa has written a moving book called A Fearless Heart: Why Compassion is the Key to Greater Wellbeing (Piatkus, 2015). It outlines a landmark initiative he has spent years developing at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), which he helped found. This initiative takes the form of a standardised eight-week secular training course called Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT), which Jinpa describes as a way of training the compassion “muscle” that is innate to us all. In the wake of so much coverage of mindfulness in the global media in recent years, he describes this course as “the next step on from mindfulness training”.

Mindfulness training, in the classical Buddhist tradition, is something that Jinpa became a master at after ordaining as monk when he was just 11 years old. As a talented scholar, he went on to become the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator, which he has remained for the past 30 years, translating and editing books such as the 1999 New York Times best seller Ethics for the New Millennium.

His academic flair eventually led him to study for a PhD at Cambridge University, followed by his work at Stanford University and a current position as an adjunct professor at McGill University in Montreal, where he now lives with his wife and two daughters after disrobing in the 1980s. In addition, he now chairs the highly regarded Mind and Life Institute, dedicated to fostering creative dialogue between Buddhist tradition and Western science. This track record in both the monastic tradition and the secular world has given Jinpa a down-to-earth perspective on the challenges we all face in life.

Shortly after the publication of A Fearless Heart in the UK last year, I sat with Jinpa in an airy room of the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in Lambeth, south London, to discuss the way in which he believes compassion training can take mindfulness to the next level. “Mindfulness in itself is not adequate,” he said bluntly, describing the practice as a personal and sometimes solitary exercise. “It opens the door to greater awareness and understanding. But compassion training brings this out into the world; it is all about how we relate to one another.”