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.


Excerpt from:

Cultivating Compassion: A Buddhist Perspective

by Jeffrey Hopkins
Broadway Books: New York, 2001
176 pp.; $19.95 (cloth)

Shantideva, the eighth-century Indian master ... says, "Though beings want happiness, they rush to suffering." Our rush to suffering comes from deciding that we don't need to think about the fact that others want happiness and don't want suffering-that it's all right to look on others as things to be used in the process of gaining happiness. Usually, what we're trying to win is more happiness through money, friendship, fame, material goods, social status, and power, but the way we do it often undermines our chances for achievement in the short term. Furthermore, those attitudes double back on us later—we start complaining about others' having the very same attitudes toward us we had earlier toward them. We also gravely err when we mistake those things that were initially seen as means to happiness as happiness itself—more money in the bank becomes the goal.

Are we really this brutal? Sometimes greed is even a conscious credo. More often it is not raised to that level but is still our basic orientation, and if we dig deep enough, we find that it is our basic idea. It certainly is the way we act, and in this Buddhist system the way we act doesn't just come from instinct, but from fundamental ideas, such as "I'm first," which itself is built on the shaky foundation of failing to realize that others want happiness and don't want suffering. Ideas, not raw instinct, are at the basis of most behavior.

Joy is the wish that sentient beings retain whatever happiness they have, that they have happiness and liberation and never lose it. In meditation, imagine people retaining their happiness, their wealth, their good looks, and so forth. Think of someone who is rich, and take delight in her or his having so much wealth. Or, apply the meditation to other situations—to people who have compassion, people who have various abilities—wishing that they retain these treasures.

We often get caught up in competitiveness with others. Even if it's not our creed that we want others to fall behind or that we have to step over people, that is—in effect—what is happening. We're competing, and we want to win. In graduate school when I was learning Sanskrit, most in our class took it as a game, since the grammar is complicated, like chess. We would nudge each other: "Ah! You missed that," and carry on like that. We had a good relationship, and if someone else got the answer, we were quite pleased, but there was one student named Johnson who got ninety-nine or one hundred on a few tests, and the rest of us would wither in his presence. We began to feel, "May Johnson not do well! May he not figure this out!" We would think, "Poor old Johnson," unconsciously imagining that he would be sitting there stupidly; in our imagination the professor would ask, "What is the accusative dual of such and such?" and Johnson wouldn't know. This is what we were mixing our minds with; we were mixing our minds with stupidity ... Eventually, I realized this and made an effort to take joy in Johnson's fortune of doing particularly well. When he was asked a question in class, I consciously wished that he would know the answer immediately-in my imagination Johnson would out-Johnson Johnson. Wow, he was quick! After the final exam, I asked the professor how I had done and how Johnson had done. I was shocked to learn that I had done better than Johnson and immediately expressed genuine sympathy for him, but my previous karma had been so bad that the professor looked me in the eye and said, "Don't try to fool me."

Reprinted with permission from Broadway Books.

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