Layers of Tibetan Buddhism Unknown in the West
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
photo: Nancy Rosenbaum
Watching Krista’s conversation on stage with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, you may have noticed a demure man in a dark suit seated next to him, a man constantly at his side. He’s the Dalai Lama’s chief English translator, Geshe Thupten Jinpa. Krista sat down with him while in Atlanta for a rare chance to hear him speak from his own experience and perspective.
Thupten Jinpa has inhabited this ancient tradition of Tibetan Buddhism at its most esoteric. His life story parallels the tumultuous modern history of the Tibetan people. In 1959, the then-23-year-old Dalai Lama escaped Lhasa in secrecy under fear of capture by Chinese troops. Thupten Jinpa’s parents followed one year later, with their four-year-old son and his two siblings in tow. He entered a monastery as a boy, studied philosophy and religion at Cambridge, and was a practicing monk for more than 20 years before he left his monastic community in India to become a husband and father living in Montreal, Canada.
He’s created and directs a project to bring Tibetan Buddhism’s classic texts into the world’s languages. He’s also involved in teaching and research at McGill University and at Stanford. And he’s a core member of the Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institute. This is an ongoing global project that brings scientists and Buddhist practitioners into dialogue, with their very different approaches to human consciousness and knowledge.
The Dalai Lama listens to his interpreter, Dr. Thupen Jinpa, while leading a discussion during the Seeds of Compassion Conference at Key Arena on April 11, 2008 in Seattle, Washington. (photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
There are whole layers of Tibetan Buddhism that are unknown in the West. Thupten Jinpa discusses what happens when these metaphysical and human worlds meet modern science and contemporary lives. And, he adds complexity to these popularized concepts of this tradition. Once some of these terms go mainstream, he says, they become a victim of their own success. The nuances in an English context get left out. He explains the limitations of terms popularized in the West, concepts such as the nature of consciousness and how reincarnation fits in, the discipline of compassion, and the reduction of the word “meditation” in mainstream culture:
"People tend to immediately think of meditation as someone sitting quietly, emptying their mind. But if you look at original Sanskrit term, bhāvanā, and the Tibetan term, gom, from which this term meditation is kind of being used now as a translation. Bhāvanā has the connotation of cultivation. It’s like cultivating a field. So there is this connotation of cultivation, and the Tibetan term gom has the connotation of familiarity, a process of familiarity. Meditation can be, as His Holiness often points out, analytic where it’s not simply sitting down and quieting your mind, but it can actually be a process where you use kind of discernment and move from stages and stages to, in some sense, uncovering layers and layers to get to a point.”
Thupten Jinpa also talks about how much “tougher it was to have an intimate marriage partner and to live in a truly sharing life” than living in a monastic community. And, at the same time, he experiences “a certain visceral feeling of love and compassion” for his two daughters that would “take ages to cultivate” for most monks. It’s during these moments that I sense his great happiness and how he truly puts into practice what he’s learned from his Buddhist instruction. And, working in the presence of the Dalai Lama, he’s able to contribute and be part of the transformation he sees as necessary in the world today.