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Dr. Thupten Jinpa on Buddhism, Science, Compassion, and Climate

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Dr. Thupten Jinpa on the intersection of science, Buddhism, and critical thinking; how Buddhist principles can help us solve the climate crisis; and how to lead fulfilling lives at home with our families and relationships.

Dr. Thupten Jinpa Bio

[00:00:32] Scott Snibbe: Dr. Thupten Jinpa is one of the most renowned living Buddhist scholars and practitioners. In addition to his own powerful books, like A Fearless Heart, he’s edited and translated many of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s books, including Ethics for a New Millennium

Dr. Jinpa has served for decades as the Dalai Lama’s principal translator and was a Buddhist monk for the first decades of his life, achieving the highest monastic degree of Geshe Larampa, in addition to his PhD in religious studies from Cambridge University. 

Thupten Jinpa is the chair of the Mind and Life Institute that conducts dialogues between scientists and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And he’s the co-founder of Compassion Institute.

We spoke at length about the intersection of science, Buddhism, and critical thinking, and how Buddhist principles can help address the climate crisis as well as helping each of us lead better lives at home with our families and in our relationships. 

We bring this interview to you today in partnership with Science and Wisdom Live: where science and meditation meet. I regularly serve as the host for Science and Wisdom Live’s podcasts and events, and you can learn more at sciwizlive.com

Interview with Dr. Thupten Jinpa

Scott Snibbe: Dr. Jinpa, I’ve been deeply moved by your talks and your books and your translation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings over the years. So it’s an honor to have a chance to speak with you today.

[00:02:05] Thupten Jinpa: Thank you for having me, Scott. I love the very idea of the science and the wisdom series, trying to bring the two together. 

Why do you and His Holiness the Dalai Lama engage so much with scientists?

[00:02:18] Scott Snibbe: We wanted to start out talking to you about science and wisdom, because you’ve worked closely with His Holiness the Dalai Lama for many years in dialogues with scientists all over the world, including of course your role as the chair of the Mind and Life Institute. Can you talk a little bit about why you and His Holiness have put so much effort into engaging with scientists?

[00:02:36] Thupten Jinpa: Well, I mean, to be frank, it’s not me. It’s really His Holiness. And my engagement with scientists happened to take place because of my service to His Holiness as his principal interpreter. To be honest, at the beginning, my interest with respect to contemporary Western culture was primarily more in philosophy and literature. I wasn’t that keen on science. Partly because I grew up in the monastery and the science to me seemed very factual and quite technical.

Having become His Holiness’ principal English interpreter, I realized fairly soon that engagement with science and scientists was a major interest on his part and that there was a deeper objective underlying his interest, which really took me through a very fast learning curve, trying to keep abreast myself and educate myself, especially in the domain of physics, which is quite technical. And I don’t have the math to go with it. So, being aware of my own limitations, I had to do a lot of reading. And then of course, once I began to appreciate the broader context and the motivation behind His Holiness’ engagement of science, I was deeply moved. 

There’s a reason why in many practices, we contemplate upon the benefits of X, Y, and Z at the beginning to help us inspire. So once I really appreciated the objectives of His Holiness, I then acquired an intrinsic motivation to take science seriously. Then, over 35 years of service to him and especially through the Mind and Life Dialogue Series, I’ve had the privilege to meet with so many scientists and even before Mind and Life or outside the Mind and Life, His Holiness has had long-term friendships with the key figures of 20th century science, Karl Popper, for instance, and David Bohm.

And I was present at informal dialogues between His Holiness and David Bohm. Then, once I had appreciated deeply His Holiness’ broader view and the objective and the context in which this dialogue is taking place, of course, then my own engagement became deeper.

What have scientists learned from Buddhism?

[00:04:49] Scott Snibbe: What have scientists learned from Tibetan Buddhism’s understanding of the mind through all of these dialogues?

[00:04:56] Thupten Jinpa: It’s difficult to say scientists have learned X. And also, I don’t think it’s His Holiness’ intention to actually have scientists learn X, Y, and Z from Buddhism. 

But one thing that has definitely happened as a result primarily of His Holiness’s engagement with scientists, he began to characterize his dialogues with scientists as something beyond his personal interest fairly early on, as representing an exchange of views from two investigative traditions. So that’s one helpful way of looking at it.

And just as science emphasizes empiricism, evidence, observation, rigor, coherence in the theory, and so on, we know that in the Buddhist tradition, too, similar emphasis is placed upon coherence, empiricism, observation, rigor, and conceptual clarity and so on.

So there are a lot of striking similarities in the commitment to the mode of inquiry. That’s one important thing.

But science, up until recently, is so dominated by the paradigm of material science that the primary perspective science brings is something we might call “looking at a phenomenon from outside.”

It’s technically referred to as the third person perspective and that’s for an important reason. Because a key value in science is the emphasis on objectivity. You know, you cannot have a subjective view that is very relative to individuals as scientific views. Science in the end is about description, understanding of facts, and the fact needs to be verifiable, not just by you and your group, but actually by other scientists as well. 

Of course, it doesn’t completely pan out. But the ideal is that your experimental design is such that, if someone replicates that experiment, they should be able to find at least similar results that you have found. Of course, it turns out that in psychology papers, many of the studies, the ability to duplicate is very low, but at least in principle, there’s that idea. 

So this means that the objectivity is so prized. And the objectivity is also presented through primarily a modality of measurement because you have to measure, you have to calculate. You know, in the end, the language of science is that of math and description in scientific language. That definitely has a lot of strengths, of rigor, inter-subjectivity, verifiability, duplicability and all of that, but it also imposes certain restrictions and limitations, which is the inability to capture what one could argue is the essential character of mind, which is the subjectivity. 

And here, I think what His Holiness has done and broadly engagement with science in general, and particularly the scientists who are interested in studying consciousness, have really been able to have a more critical self-understanding of the limitations of current science and the challenges the study of consciousness poses to science itself. 

Because up until recently, scientists who are supposedly studying consciousness actually reject what is primary about consciousness, which is the subjective experience. I remember when I was a student at Cambridge, quite an important book came out called Consciousness Explained, and there was a very acute kind of review of this. The reviewer basically said at the end, he said this book should have been retitled as Consciousness Explained Away. So that was really the science way of reducing everything so that in the end you have a material language to describe what is essentially non material.

So I think what has happened is that engagement with Buddhism has really, at the theoretical, conceptual level brought to the fore is the enormity of the challenge that science faces if it is to have some handle on understanding the nature of consciousness. 

Now, of course, on a more practical level, scientific disciplines and clinical disciplines have benefited hugely from engagement with science. And there it’s not so much at the conceptual, theoretical, philosophical level, but it’s more at the level of practice. 

Because the Buddhist tradition is so rich in mental training practices. Scientists and the clinical disciplines have the ability to really look at various types of applications and their effect and their connection with mental wellbeing. 

And there, I think even though I characterize this as less revolutionary, but in some ways it is very revolutionary because what is happening is that, for the first time, science and clinical science particularly, is able to develop and embrace therapeutic techniques that rely heavily on the person’s own inner agency, helping the patients to turn their own mind into an ally towards promotion of their own mental wellbeing.

So this is a really quite a radical step for clinical science, which tends to rely heavily on pharmacological interventions. So in these areas, the engagement between Buddhism and science, and more specifically with His Holiness and the scientists, has had a huge impact at the cultural practice level, as well. 

How has science affected Buddhism?

[00:10:34] Scott Snibbe: I heard His Holiness say more than once that he’s also been influenced in his Buddhist practice by science, that he said when he meditates on emptiness, he now spends a good amount of time thinking about quantum mechanics. So I’m curious if you can talk about how, your Buddhist practice, His Holiness’s Buddhist practice and teachings, how has science affected your side of the equation of the Buddhist side?

Dalai Lama and Scientists

[00:10:59] Thupten Jinpa: Well, on the Buddhist side, clearly the most important kind of impact has been really on the physical science side. Because Buddhism, even though it is historically came to be known as one of the major world religions. But Buddhism as a tradition and Buddhist thinkers in general were way more ambitious. They were way more interested in just spiritual awakening. 

And we find in early abidharmic texts, a very complex and sophisticated theory about atomic structure of the material world and the various, molecular aggregation of atoms leading into molecules and so on and so forth.

So there is quite a lot, but they are admittedly quite outdated and many of these are theoretical. And what engagement with science has offered is a way to update them and also begin to really use the modern scientific understanding, which is based on observation and experiments. So I think that on the physical theory side, I think there has been a huge benefit for the Buddhists. 

And then of course, on the evolution of the cosmos side, although the basic intuition of the early Buddhist texts seem to be spot on, which is there is no beginning and the universe is in a perpetual evolution and destruction. And then the destruction goes through temporal stages of heating up, those broad structure or pattern of understanding evolution seems to be fairly spot on and close to the way in which current physics and astronomy understand. 

But when it comes to the specific evolution of our cosmos and life on earth, then the Darwinian evolutionary theory gives a lot more richness and detail to the content and the connection between organisms like plants and so on, and between animals, the sentient creatures.

Because in Buddhist thinking the concept of life, as opposed to sentient life, isn’t that clear. Even though in science, they wouldn’t make that clear distinction, but there is in principle an understanding that there is a kind of a difference between life, like plants on the one hand and sentient creatures on the other. Whereas in the Buddhist tradition, the big divide is between inorganic matters like rocks and so on, on one hand and sentient creatures on the other. 

Now, Darwinian evolutionary theory gives a lot of richness to bridging that, providing this interim stage, which is life, organic life, before sentient nature. And so that whole description is very rich and there is no contradiction in Buddhism in incorporating these. 

On the actual practice, I know His Holiness is a big fan of quantum physics. He knows far more about quantum physics than I do. I prepared just enough so that I can be of service when it comes to translating for him. So that at least I know the kind of direction that the presenters are going. 

But beyond that, His Holiness has taken tutorials from famous German quantum physicists, so he knows a lot more. And then His Holiness seems to take quantum physics really quite seriously, particularly the role of observer in being constituted part of reality itself. Clearly there is some benefit that can be brought in. 

Also I’ve heard His Holiness speak of how physics’ explanation of the dynamic nature of the physical world can be very helpful for understanding the Buddhist teachings on impermanence. Again, bringing a lot more richness and concreteness to the actual description of the principle of impermanence. While the Buddhist approach is a bit more theoretical and conceptual, the science, physical description is much more visceral. So I think those are areas where clearly a science can help a lot. 

What is the overlap of critical thinking in Buddhism and science?

[00:14:59] Scott Snibbe: There’s also, I think, a similarity between science and specifically the Nalanda tradition of Buddhism; that Tibetan Buddhism comes from with the emphasis on critical thinking and debate. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the role of critical thinking in your strain of Buddhism, and how it’s similar or different from scientific criticism and skepticism?

[00:15:19] Thupten Jinpa: You know, although it is the Nalanda tradition that emphasizes critical thinking, but to be pedantic, 

I would argue that to respect the original spirit of the Buddha himself, if you are serious about Buddhist practice, you also need to take critical thinking seriously.

Because the famous quotation from the Buddha: Test what I’ve said and don’t accept them just because you have devotion for me.

In other words, he’s saying that in order for dharma practice to really have an impact it needs to be internalized. It’s only through internalizing the teaching that there can be a real impact. But the internalization process would involve processing whatever teaching you have received, and that processing cannot be done by someone else for you. It has to be done by yourself. 

So some element of critical thinking, whether we call it critical thinking or critical reflection or contemplation, or, application of a disciplined mind, whatever language we use is assumed. 

Now, of course, Buddhist teachings does allow that some individuals may approach the Dharma primarily through devotion. And faith can be a very powerful experience because there you are completely able to let go and trust yourself. So that can take you up to a point.

But in the end for insights into the key truth of reality, impermanence, no self, emptiness, there’s simply no way without application of some kind of disciplined analysis. In order for these insights to be internalized, you have to process them yourself. You have to make them real for you. And that making real has to involve critical thinking. 

Now, of course, historically the Nalanda tradition is the one that has really taken Buddha’s injunction to heart and then fleshed it out, formalize it and develop a methodology of applying it.

If you look at Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Treaties on the Middle Way, they’re a series of arguments: if this were to be the case, they will be these kinds of consequences. Given these consequences are unacceptable, therefore the original assumption must be false. And because in the end, you know, one has to admit that language and thought can never capture the entirety of reality, that is a fact. 

And also our conceptualization, our habitual thought patterns often underlie many of our own problems, afflictions, grasping, so on and so forth. And all of that is all true. 

But because of this, sometimes there is a tendency in the West with those who are inclined towards Buddhism to even then reject the disciplined application of thought; Saying that all thoughts are to be rejected. And that is a dangerous path because if you shut out disciplined application of thought, then what do you have? You have faith and then you just close your eyes and wait for something to happen. 

And then that approach to be honest, is based upon some kind of belief in a miracle, you know, meditation is like a miracle. You sit down, close your eyes, don’t think, and then something will happen. That’s not really what Buddha had in mind. 

The Buddha himself has this famous example of the raft. The raft is necessary to cross the river. But once you have crossed it, you don’t carry on your back. But without the raft, you can’t cross the river. That does not mean getting rid of the raft in the first place, right from the beginning.

So I think here, the Nalanda tradition that which is powerfully represented in the Tibetan tradition by Je Tsongkhapa’s teaching is to really say that disciplined application of thought is what leads us to what Tsongkhapa calls ascertainment. It is through deepening our ascertainment, making it clear, making it more enduring, making it stronger that we will then be able to counter its opposites, all the distorted perception of reality. 

And the distorted perceptions of reality can only be removed by directly opposing the perspective they bring. Simply stopping to engage with them is not going to do the trick. So I think the disciplined application of thought and the critical thinking that the Nalanda tradition proposes sits really well with science. Because in the end, you know, what matters most is the evidence.

And the evidence is discovered through a process, okay? Then, through rigor of inquiry, you then see all the counterfactuals, counter examples and so on and so forth. And then you begin to see the flaws in your thinking. It is only through subjecting your thought and assumptions to critical inquiry that you are able to see the falsity of them.

So I think there, science and Buddhism really share a lot of similarities, at least on the method level: a certain commitment to rigor, certain commitment to conceptual clarity and certain commitment to the prioritization of evidence, not the method itself, and when the process of inquiry reveals certain limitations in your original assumption, the willingness to make changes.

Now, of course, on the Buddhist side, it may be a little harder to change because the tradition matters. And then especially if it’s something that has been said by a revered master, then letting go of that becomes harder. Whereas the scientists have much less loyalty, you know, the tradition matters in terms of history. But in terms of loyalty, scientists generally don’t have to worry too much about that. So that’s one difference. 

But then within the history of Buddhism, we also see great masters who are truly original. Nagarjuna, his critique of Abidharma Buddhism, which was the mainstream during his time. Then you’ll see, Tsongkhapa in Tibet who basically rethought the entire heritage of Indian tradition in Tibet, and came with his own kind of synthetic version.

Every now and then you see great masters in the Buddhist tradition that completely take stock of what the tradition has given up to now and then bring a fresh perspective. And the fresh perspective in Buddhism really involves constant correlation to the personal practice and experience.

That’s one big difference between science and Buddhism. Because in the end Buddhist inquiry into the nature of reality is motivated not simply by wanting to know reality, which is what science says. But a Buddhist inquiry is motivated by deeper objectives of finding liberation, freedom from suffering, gaining insight as a way to enlightenment.

Are there limits to what science can understand about our inner reality?

[00:22:11] Scott Snibbe: You talked about evidence a couple of times and I’m curious if you can reflect on how much of Buddhist practice can be validated by science. Do you think there are limits to what science can understand about our inner reality?

[00:22:24] Thupten Jinpa: I think so. I actually caution my fellow Tibetan Buddhist scholars who are engaging with scientists, and occasionally I give talks in Tibetan to monastic communities who are interested in this whole science-Buddhism dialogue, where they see His Holiness is spending so much time.

And I often remind them that there can be three possible standpoints one can represent on this question of science-Buddhism dialogue. Two of them on the extreme. One is to look at science as a rival that we must critique in order to prove the veracity of Buddhism. That’s an extreme.

The other extreme also reflects a kind of naivety actually, believing that Buddhism and science are the same, Buddhism is a kind of science and ultimately, or eventually science will prove all the important points of Buddhism to be correct. 

That is also naive. And, even though a positive kind of attitude towards science, it’s more dangerous, because science has ultimately no commitment to venerable concepts in our positions, because if there is a contrary evidence, they have to change. Paradigm shifts.

Now, if you align Buddhism with science and say science is saying this about this aspect of reality, Buddhism is saying this about this as for reality, they’re exactly the same. And then out comes new evidence, which forces science to modify that original position, then what do we do? Okay. So I think that is also a naive standpoint.

The third standpoint is what is represented by His Holiness. You know, you look at science as a particular way of inquiring into the nature of reality with a certain unique methodology, and also its domain is vast, but it’s not comprehensive. 

You know, science has nothing to say about good and bad. I mean, that’s a simple fact, and science has nothing to say about enlightenment.

My own personal hunch is that science probably will never be able to capture the nature of consciousness. 

I don’t think so, because science, the very nature of science is studying phenomena from outside, measuring it, quantifying it, and consciousness just doesn’t fall into that category. Aspects of it, expressions of it, manifestations of it like mindfulness, mental awareness, many of these faculties that are part of our experience of being conscious can be discovered, but the nature of consciousness itself. I don’t think so. So I think there’s this third position is where His Holiness, at least in my reading stands, where he takes science seriously. Because science is a unique way of inquiry into the nature of reality, facts found by science need to be taken seriously.

But on the other hand, because we don’t admit science to have a universal scope, then we don’t expect science to prove rebirth. You know, we don’t expect science to prove emptiness, even though it may be able to. And there, I think you respect the integrity, the two sides: the Buddhist tradition and its agenda, its objectives and science, its agenda, its discipline, its tradition.

And then I think there’s a healthy way where there is a genuine of mutual respect and dialogical encounter and no urge to reduce the other into one’s own paradigm. 

How can we integrate ethics into our culture and society?

[00:25:51] Scott Snibbe: You talk about how science may never be able to prove what the mind is, as you understand it through Buddhism. But what about the next level underneath that, states like compassion and ethical behavior and so on? I was really struck by a lecture you gave at George Washington University a couple of years ago that I was watching recently, where you talk about how ethics is optional in Western society and how one goal in your life is to maybe make ethics less of an option and more of a requirement in culture and society.

Can you talk a little bit about that? And what society might look like if it integrated ethics and compassion more into our culture, even our laws? Is your role in Compassion Institute, where you’re the co-founder, is that part of fulfilling this goal?

[00:26:39] Thupten Jinpa: Yes, I agree with you that there will be many aspects of consciousness or mind, like compassion which definitely can be studied. Because we can find brain correlates of these faculties of the mind such as attention, mindfulness, mental awareness. These can be studied, measured because they are functionally defined aspects of the mind.

Similarly, qualities like compassion, love, even though they are harder because they tend to fall into the category of the emotions rather than thoughts. Even though they are harder because they also have behavioral body components associated with them and so forth, but I still believe that you’re right, that these aspects can be studied as well.

And futhermore, compassion, which His Holiness has been a major focus and my own, and thank you for mentioning the Compassion Institute. My own personal vision for Compassion Institute is to really help make real part of His Holiness’ vision for the world. Which is to find ways to make compassion active and real, and not just in individual human lives, but actually in society. 

And one of the things about compassion is that increasingly, and this is one area where His Holiness has made a huge contribution, which is to naturalize the language of compassion. Because up until recently, compassion is seen as a moral value. It’s part of a religious teaching and quite removed from science and quite removed from everyday human condition.

His Holiness has made really great efforts to, in some sense, extricate compassion and the language around it from traditional religion, particularly, and even from morality, moral language. And to ground it as a fundamental aspect of human nature, human condition. And now with the advances in science, particularly understanding the social nature of human beings, there is a growing understanding. 

All of this is part of a process. For example, until recently there was no affective neuroscience, which is the study of emotions from neuroscientific perspective. It’s a new field. And now there is growing appreciation of the social dimension of human nature. There’s something called social neuroscience.

So science itself is progressing. And part of the reason why it has taken long is that when it comes to social aspects of the human being like compassion and so forth, then you have to understand these only in the context of relationality. And the moment you bring more than one individual in the context of a relationship, it becomes very difficult to study it in the lab.

So therefore the science is progressing slowly. But while science is progressing slowly, they stand to gain extensively by taking seriously the Buddhist perspectives. At the conceptual level, the Buddhist tradition is very rich in what it means by compassion.

It’s no coincidence that today most of the neuroscientists who are doing research in compassion, whether consciously or subconsciously, are using the definition that the Buddhists are using. So it’s interesting. 

For example, just to give an example is like meditation. “Meditation” is an English word, “mindfulness” is an English word. People forget, Descartes wrote a book which was translated as “Meditation.” But now, because of scientist’s engagement in Buddhism, when people are now using mindfulness and meditation in a disciplined manner, they actually mean the way in which Buddhist tradition understands that. 

The same thing is happening with compassion. Loving-kindness is a bit more tricky because it’s a newly coined term with a hyphenated loving and kindness. But “compassion” is a very simple English word, and the meaning it acquires is now in accord with the way in Buddhist tradition understands it. 

And this is the way in which Buddhist tradition is really influencing and informing the current scientific research. And of course on the practice side, the cultivation side, Buddhism has a lot to offer. There are now quite a few compassion cultivation trainings in the secular domain, including Compassion Cultivation Training, which is CCT that is housed in Compassion Institute.

I think there’s a lot of development that’s going to happen, where we will be looking at aspects of consciousness, like compassion and so on and so forth. And there I think science will help. Because the more science is able to find a correlation for specific mental states, the more it becomes easier to then study it, refine the concept and then find a way to apply it in the context of interventions and therapeutic practices. And then all of this will ultimately contribute richly towards mental wellbeing practices that the individuals can themselves adopt. 

So I think there is a huge potential there, even though we may have to bracket what consciousness is in the final analysis. And in fact, His Holiness’ Universe in a Single Atom actually makes that point. And let’s bracket for the time being the essential, fundamental nature of consciousness, whether it is physical or nonphysical, he says. But we can make a lot of progress by engaging in dialogue by leaving that metaphysical question in a bracket.

So I think in the end whether consciousness turn out to be physical or not probably will remain a philosophical metaphysical question. I don’t think it’s a scientific question. 

How do you stay positive in the face of climate change?

[00:32:24] Scott Snibbe: I want to get more practical and global with you now, and start off by talking a little bit about the climate. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the recent COP 26 climate conference, the parts of it that you engaged with, and how you think that we can keep a positive mind in the face of the climate crisis?

There’s an awful lot of despair and anxiety that people are feeling — especially young people — about the climate. There’s a very practical question on this intersection of science and the mind and making a better world and ethics. What’s your perspective as someone who’s been in this intersection of science and Buddhism? What can we do?

[00:32:58] Thupten Jinpa: It was a very ambitious conference, and the source of quite a lot of hope for many people around the world, especially in this generation. Because in the end when it comes to environmental concerns, issues like climate, no nation, no matter how powerful alone, no single nation can handle it. It’s an issue that transcends national boundaries. It’s an issue that concerns the future of humanity as a whole. 

Having high level summits like COP 26 is the way to go. Now, of course, the challenges are how do we actually make adjustment and the changes that are required and whether we have enough time to be able to get there. Because one of the things that Buddhism teaches powerfully is that when you set the chains of causation in place, it’s very difficult to prevent the results that it could lead to.

The earlier we are able to intervene in the causal chain, the better the chance of preventing a catastrophe. And also the earlier we intervene, the easier it gets. Because one of the causation insights from Buddhism is that, sometimes in the West or in the Western thinking, we tend to think of causation in narrow linear terms. But Buddhism, with the principle of dependent origination or interdependence has brought out an aspect of causation, which is really important, which is that, as causation proceeds through an era of time, it gets more and more complex because it picks up other interconnections along the way. And then the more interconnections get trapped in, the harder it gets to then to stop the process of that causation.

This is exactly what we now see in the climate crisis. The climate crisis can only be handled if we bring a multi-pronged approach. It’s not simply a question of reduction of carbon emission, but it’s also a question of rejuvenating areas, forests, and so on and so forth. 

And then of course, each of the nations are caught in their own growth and economic and job issues, which is all legitimate.

But on the other hand, I don’t think giving up is a smart strategy.

We have no choice, but to soldier on. We can’t afford to let off our commitment and enthusiasm now. And in any case this is the only home we have. 

The earth from space

We have no choice, but to persevere. And every small action does matter. So I don’t think giving up hope is the way to go. 

And then also individually making some modifications in behavior as much as possible avoid air travel or think of the consumption lifestyle you have. I think those things can make a big difference. 

What lessons can we draw from the COVID pandemic?

[00:35:59] Scott Snibbe: The other huge global issue that we’re still in the midst of is the COVID pandemic. And so I wonder if you can talk about any lessons there that we can draw from the pandemic about our global society and how to improve it?

[00:36:10] Thupten Jinpa: The one thing that I hope will come out of this COVID experience is a deeper appreciation of what it means to be truly interconnected in the global economy. There was a time, I don’t know for what reason, about a decade now, where a sort of naive neoliberal kind of ideology began to take root where you can have transactional economic interactions and relationships, deep ones, moving manufacturers and supply chains and all of these different parts of the world as if you can do business by tapping into the strengths of different parts of the world for your own production.

And then not worry so much about the treatment of the workers where the plants are based and individual human rights and safety and all of this. So there was this very neoliberal kind of, very, transactional attitude where, somehow goods flow back and forth without humans ever interacting. 

Now with the pandemic, we know, when economically interconnected people become, the countries become, then viruses go across borders. Viruses don’t need passports to cross the border. So then what I hope will come out of this is at least on the health side, there should be new protocols put in place. There is a need for transparency. If certain potential viruses are emerging in certain parts of the world, if you are going to be part of that global economy, interconnected, there needs to be a responsibility and accountability to being transparent so that it just does not spread across your border without check. I would personally prefer that kind of commitment should also include human rights and respect for human rights and so on and so forth.

At least on the health side, I think there needs to be a rethink of what it means to be truly interconnected on the global level. So that’s one area on the international level, I hope it will make a big difference. 

The second is on the national level. I hope, pandemic experience has really softened our hearts. Because the pandemic, when it hit, it hit disproportionately, depending on your privilege in life, socioeconomic privilege.

A lot of people suffered disproportionately. And that economic disparity really came powerfully into the open. And I hope nations will learn from this and find a way to create a more equitable structure. 

I also hope that the pandemic experience has raised awareness of the importance of paying attention to mental well-being. One of the things that I really worry about the pandemic fallout is the impact on young children who are robbed of two years of growth in their social life. And, we grown ups, we have gone through the social sort of development, but the young children, the first few years are critical in being able to play with friends, being able to learn to share, being able to negotiate arguments and differences.

All of that social learning was robbed. And I don’t know what the longterm impact of that would be. I worry for them. In any case, I hope that the pandemic will lead to a greater appreciation of mental wellbeing which should manifest in the individual governments’ budget on health. 

In the end, it’s better to work at the level of mind so that you prevent downstream effects. So there are many areas where I feel the pandemic, hopefully will have positive impact. 

We’ll will see. It needs to have. 

How do we bring Buddhist practice into our own family lives?

[00:40:04] Scott Snibbe: As a last question, I want to ask you a slightly more personal question about mental health, because you were once a monk and now you’re a lay person with a family. And I wanted to see if you’d be willing to talk a little bit about how those of us who are in relationships and who have families can use elements of Buddhist practice to make our own lives at home a little more compassionate and wiser? This is another kind of global challenge we’re all facing.

[00:40:30] Thupten Jinpa: Most of my friends from childhood are monks, and so they are quite curious about my dual experience of being monastic and then lay. And I tell my friends that I feel really fortunate and happy that when I chose to become a monk at age 11, that I did it because I can’t imagine my life without having been a monastic member all those years.

I’m also happy that when the time came, I was smart enough to leave, early enough to be able to have a family, you know, I left in my early thirties. So I was able to enjoy both. I mean, His Holiness once teased me, it was in the context of some lunch, it was informal.

And then he talked about the Buddha, the life of the Buddha. His Holiness explained how the Buddha was first a family member, had a son and then became a monk. And then he turned to me and he said, this guy did the exact opposite! He became a monk first, and then left it and started a family. 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama
His Holiness the Dalai Lama

So from my monastic experience, I learned a lot of things which I really find truly valuable. The discipline. And also the emphasis on simplicity when it comes to your own needs. There’s a phrase in the Tibetan tradition, which says when it concerns your own needs as little needs as possible, as simple life as possible. When it comes to the welfare of others, as many needs as possible and as many tasks as possible. 

We can see that in His Holiness, you know, I have had the privilege to visit his chambers, his bedroom and in his own personal space.

His Holiness lives like an ordinary monk. His bed is six by three, a single bed. And he sits on his own meditation cushion with the square cloth that the monks are supposed to use for their sitting. But when it comes to his vision for the world, he gets involved in so many things.

So this discipline, simplicity, and also one could call some kind of emotional independence. Just, you don’t dump your emotions on someone unnecessarily, just being able to contain it. And at the same time, don’t shut out others. Because in the monastic context, you have important and rich relationship with your teachers, your students, and then, ensuring that your relationships, horizontal as well as vertical, are rich.

So those are important lessons that I have learned. And also the monastic discipline of always connecting with your intention. What is the intention you are bringing? That I find really helpful in my own personal family life as well. Because sometimes we get so fixated, especially as parents on children’s respect to me, I’m not being respected kind of thing. And then it all becomes about you. 

Whereas if you’re able to connect with your intention, then in a difficult situation, you’re able to see with clarity. Are you doing it for yourself or purely for your child? And then similarly in an intimate relationship where both sides ideally, are truly open and naked with each other, we need to create a safety zone there so that you can be just yourself.

You don’t need to pretend to disarm them. So the trust in addition to love matters. 

When you’re able to constantly check with your intention, then, the less self agenda and self-centeredness you bring in the interaction with your spouse, the easier the relationship becomes. Because a lot of the conflicts in intimate relationships comes from insisting on your story, you know, my way or the highway.

I have this line, it’s not enough to be right. You have to be right at the right time, because sometimes we are so obsessed with, I’m right. And then we become blind to the vulnerability that your partner is feeling at a particular moment.

That’s not the time to remind your partner that she was wrong, he was wrong. You are right. There will be a time when you can point it out. So those sensitivities are all really about awareness, the self-awareness, intention, love and respect and trust. 

Sometimes you have arguments and you fight and the fight may be so intense, but at the end you don’t even know what it was about. So that shows the sort of the futility of that fight to begin with.

In a good, healthy relationship, because the two sides know each other so well that the two sides will know when the other person is in a vulnerable position, then you back off, you create the space.

Those kinds of dynamic dances can happen more easily if we are able to connect with our intention, we bring self awareness, we bring sensitivity, we learn to move further away from our own self agenda and self-centeredness. 

I have found all of these to be truly, truly helpful. And these I’ve learned from my own tradition. I haven’t really studied or read any family therapy books or family counseling or relationship. 

You know, when our first child was born, my wife and I, we were in England and a lot of our friends gave us books on parenting. And I said, I’m not so sure. I said, we humans are capable of parenting ourselves, our children! So I think sometimes we in the West, we, and I know I can understand partly because the structure of the society, each family is nuclear and each family is starting new. So because we don’t live in an extended family, we don’t derive the wisdom of the elder generation who has gone through all of this. We forget, when we have children, we forget that human beings have been having children for thousands and thousands of years.

Somehow we feel that we are the first one learning about it. So that’s a distortion of a perception in the Western context, partly because we live in nuclear families. And culturally, also, parents don’t want to intervene or interfere. New parents also don’t want to have your own parents interfering in your child rearing: Don’t tell me how to bring up my kid! 

All of this makes parenting just unnecessarily complicated and extra self-conscious. Whereas parenting should be very natural. So here, I think I’m very fortunate to be able to be born in traditional Tibetan society, where I have seen many of my own cousins and families and aunts and uncles bring up children.

I feel that, in the end it’s the same old values of trust, love, respect, and dignity. These are what matters. 

[00:47:41] Scott Snibbe: Well, Thank you so much, Dr. Jinpa. Part of me feels if we all followed your advice on how to treat our intimate relationships, it might solve the other global crises we’re having at the same time. So it’s a wonderful way to end the interview. And I can’t thank you enough for granting us some of your precious time.

It’s an extraordinary interview and you’re a great inspiration to me and to all of us. So thank you.

[00:48:05] Thupten Jinpa: Yeah thank you so much for really doing this podcast series, because I truly believe that the encounter of science and Buddhism has a tremendous potential to offer to broader human society and wellbeing. I think these are two very important developments and disciplines in human history and each brings its own rigor and insights and wisdom.

And the Buddhist tradition, particularly when it is engaged with contemporary perspectives, has more to offer because in the end, as a Buddhist, it’s strange to say so, but I would argue that the Buddhist tradition represents one of the most sophisticated human disciplines of thinking, where so much focus and attention has been paid to understanding the workings of the mind and how can we turn our mind into an ally for our own wellbeing.

The more science is able to engage with Buddhism, the more Buddhism is able to engage with science, the end result of that, whatever hybrid products that come out of it will be really, truly beneficial. So thank you for the interest in doing this. 

[00:49:13] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. Thank you again. 

Learn more about Compassion Institute

Thanks for joining us for our conversation with Dr. Thupten Jinpa. 

If you’d like to spend more time learning from Dr. Jinpa, he’s currently leading an online class at Compassion Institute on Building Compassion from the Inside Out. This class is regularly repeated and you can learn more at compassioninstitute.com

If you enjoyed this episode, please consider making a donation to our podcast. A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment is a nonprofit organization supported entirely by your donations that keep all our content free and ad free. 

This episode was produced in partnership with Science and Wisdom Live, where science and meditation meet. I regularly serve as the host for Science and Wisdom Live’s podcast and events. And you can learn more at sciwizlive.com


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Audio mastering by Christian Parry
Produced by Tara Anderson
Social Media by Isabela Acebal


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