Cultivating Compassion

An interview with Tibetan scholar Jeffrey Hopkins and an excerpt from his new book.

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© Jeffrey HopkinsThis book is different from your earlier books, so much so that the press release actually refers to it as your first book.

Well, it’s actually my twenty-eighth book. Most of my other books have been academic, seven of them for the Dalai Lama, working with him to produce works of his own. I wanted to do a book about compassion that spoke in my own voice and used my own life and experiences as a means to get the message across; it’s not a thousand-page treatise on emptiness!

Why have you written this book now?

There are certain things I want to get out before I die, not that I plan on dying any time soon, but if I don’t get them out now, I never will. And you can save up things to say for only so long. My speaking voice and my writing voice are usually very different. For this book I just used my speaking voice.

Were you interested in reaching beginning students?

Very much so. One of the difficulties in Tibetan systems of meditation is that you’re told to do this, do this, do this. There’s not much practical instruction on what it feels like to do item one, item two, what are the blocks, what are the ways of freeing up those blocks. People don’t write books from the viewpoint of experience, it’s just not the genre. So I felt it would be worthwhile to do that.

Can you give an example?

Well one of the practices is to recognize all beings as having been as close as your own mother. But what if one is not that close to one’s own mother—which I wasn’t, or after a certain point I wasn’t. You have to know how to substitute in your best of friends. You start with your best of friends, and then you equate your best of friends with your second friend, third friend, build up experience, going down the list of friends, get to neutral people, and finally get to those who make trouble for you.

The technique is to develop the same kind of feeling that you have for your closest friends, which in this case is: just as I want happiness and don’t want suffering, so this person wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. It’s really quite revolutionary to regard the person who’s selling the newspaper that way, or the person on the subway. It’s a real shock to work with neutral people, and find out how alive they are. And then, as you’re working on enemies, you eventually get to your own mother. And by working in this very gradual way, building up experience, you can begin to change.

What’s your own experience with this practice?

It’s a matter of recognizing my own crappy emotions. And having a sense of humor and recognizing in what ways I hate people and lust after them. Having a sense of humor about myself and my shortcomings. So that’s one of the big clues—not to saccharinize one’s compassion, “Oh, I’m a Buddhist, how could I possibly not want everyone to want happiness!” That’s silly, unreal, even surreal. ▼

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