Jeffrey Hopkins – On Compassion

Jeffrey Hopkins

Photos Courtesy Colleen O’Neill

If you’re interested in the topic of Compassion as it’s discussed here, please take a look at a recent book by the Dalai Lama and Jeffrey Hopkins:

How to Expand Love: Widening the Circle of Loving Relationships

Jeffrey Hopkins came to Maitripa Institute on July 6-8, 2007. The topic, Compassion, was a surprise to me. I figured he would talk about Emptiness and that it would be some kind of heavy duty intellectual session that would be next to impossible to follow. But it wasn’t like that at all. He was really fun and easy to listen to.
As our resident Tibetologist, Dr. Jim Blumenthal put it, “Professor Hopkins is the world’s leading Tibetan scholar”. And as the Dalai Lama’s translator for 10 years, he had a lot of little anecdotes about His Holiness that were just fascinating. Jeffrey, as he insisted we call him, has been in the Dharma for 45 years, taught for over 30 years and has published many seminal works of his own, and in conjunction with great lamas. He is a personal student of His Holiness Dalai Lama, and has taken direct teachings with at least 20 Tibetan lamas over the years, many of whom he taught English. So it was an honor and a real treat to meet this amazing individual.

I just love the Western teachers when they can break down the synthesized teachings.
The handout was, to my limited understanding, a compilation from Chandrakirti, Nagarjuna and Kamalashila. The commentary on the commentary, as he put it, with the title ‘The Difference Between Compassion, Great Compassion and Special Great Compassion’. If you look at the handout, it makes almost no sense. But when you listen to Dr. Hopkins, it makes perfect sense. To me, that’s the quality of a genius. Or at least a really, really smart guy.
The teaching began with the notion that all beings, even a dove, have a seed of compassion, as in the example of a dove’s sympathy for it’s offspring. In trying to make the distinction between sympathy and empathy, we learned that it’s really about both, and is very difficult to discern one from the other in the translations. That’s regular compassion, the seed of sympathy or mercy that all beings have at least a tiny bit of.
Then Great Compassion is “thoroughly knowing the ways in which all sentient beings are pained by suffering and generating sympathy for all sentient beings that is like a mother’s sense of sympathy for her sole child who has slipped into a pit of filth or been carried away by a river.”
Knowing the 3 types of suffering that beings experience, a Bodhisattva is said to have Great Compassion. On the point of the 3 types, Jeffrey defined the Suffering of Suffering as physical and mental “ouch” pain. The Suffering of Change happens with “eww” pain. We experience pleasure, which makes us go ‘eww’, based on some object that we determine has an inherent nature of being pleasurable. Ven. Robina always gives the example of chocolate cake. We think that chocolate cake is going to make us happy because chocolate cake is ‘good’. But if we keep eating chocolate cake, seeking happiness, eventually we’ll start to vomit. So it isn’t the cake itself that contains happiness, it’s our conditioning, our perception and our mind that decides that it is so. And when the object of perceived happiness stops making us happy, it becomes an object of suffering.
The question we can ask ourselves can be about anything that we’re ready to die for, fight for, kill for, manipulate for or do what we’ve got to do to get or keep. We can inquire to the inherentness of this seeming source of endless happiness like this, “Will this thing, person, or substance bring me the same pleasure as I think it’s now going to bring me under any and all possible conditions?”. The answer will always be no. But try it. It takes the steam out of obsessions, and the edge off of attachments. This is a kind of cool thing about meditation by analysis. Don’t try this with your Zen friends. They might become un-Zenly. I just made that up, feel free to use it.
Ordinary sentient beings are caught in this endless cycle of suffering based on ignorance, creating afflictive emotions and endless rebirth, yet a Bodhisattva at even the 10th ‘ground’ or ‘bhumi’ (stage) will still be caught by the Two Obstructions to Omniscience, albeit at levels much more subtle than ordinary beings. One of the qualities of Omniscience is the skill of Super Clairvoyance, which is necessary to be of maximum service to suffering beings. Even after making it through the 9 levels (described in detail in the Dasabhumika Sutra) of a Bodhisattva, they can still be held back by the same obscurations that stand in your way, and in my way, right now. According to, “This is the gradual path to enlightenment traversed by bodhisattvas practicing the six perfections (charity, morality, patience, enthusiastic perseverance, concentration, and wisdom) through the ten bodhisattva levels (bhumi) over countless eons of rebirth in samsara for the benefit of all sentient beings. Also called Sutrayana or Bodhisattvayana.”
I think it’s interesting that a 10th ground Bodhisattva who has made it through countless eons of rebirth in Samsara still has the same fundamental problem that face all beings with consciousness, namely, ignorance of the truth which keeps us buried in karma. To put it in context, Chandrakirti makes some distinctions on the qualities of those with what some schools call Special Great Compassion. Some scholars make the distinction, others don’t. It’s a scholarly question which I’ll leave to the scholars. For our purposes, I think these qualities are worth noting:
A Solitary Realizer (like a cave-dwelling yogi) or a Hearer, on the Hinayana path who are concerned with enlightenment, not for the sake of all beings but for their own sake, would, knowing emptiness and compassion, and seeing the suffering of others, feel pain like fire striking the skin. But a Bodhisattva, whose main concern is at three levels, 1) Considering, ‘If beings could become free of suffering‘, 2) Having the wish, ‘May all beings be free of suffering‘ and finally 3) Taking the responsibility, ‘I will, by myself alone, save all beings from suffering.‘, feels the suffering of others like ‘fire burning the skin and striking the flesh’ below. It’s deep, and this sense of suffering with others is automatic, in that it ‘arises spontaneously’ and doesn’t require any meditation, be it analytical or otherwise.
For you and I, we can feel the suffering of those we care about, but how about those we could care less about? How about those with whom we are neutral, or those with whom we are resentful? The good news is that there is a solution, namely the Mind Trainings, e.g., seeing others as equal, in that we all want to not suffer and we all want to be happy, seeing that beings have been our friends or mothers countless times in beginningless past lives, wanting to repay their kindness, contemplating the advantages of cherishing others, and so on. These can be found as the Seven Mind Trainings but have also been combined to Eleven Mind Trainings. Jeffrey got confused when trying to explain that, because he doesn’t combine them. He said that since he doesn’t practice it, he shouldn’t really try to teach it. I liked that about him.
This stuff all makes great sense, but how do we actually practice with it? How to apply in daily life is always the challenge. Well, the cool thing about Jeffrey Hopkins is that he really walks the walk, and talks of the walk (not just the thinking) of a practitioner. He breaks all these way too hard to understand, super philosophical, heavily translated and often widely disputed fine points into bite size, applicable pieces that us mere intellectual mortals can work with. He talks about these levels of Bodhisattva-ness, replete with quotes from multiple lamas, stories of the Dalai Lama and personal life experience. He said that when you consider how Great Compassion or Special Great Compassion operates in the mind and heart of Bodhisattvas, that his understanding was at the level of a bug. A bug! This is the guy who writes the definitive English translations of the Madhyamika school, which is the peak of Buddhist philosophy.
I asked Jeffrey what he’d say to someone who saw him do something selfish or angry or otherwise normally human, and, knowing he was a lifetime practitioner, said something like, “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be a Buddhist?”. He said, without hesitation, that his reply would be, “That goes to show you what a pathetic practitioner I am”. I was dumbfounded by the man’s humility! And you know what, the next time someone wants to know why I’m still angry or selfish or otherwise impure and not like the driven snow, I’m going to try to remember what Jeffrey said. I’d like to be able to look at them and say something like, “You’re right. I could do better, and I’m working on it”.
So thanks Jeffrey. Thanks for learning all those languages, writing all those books, and doing all of those practices with all those lamas for all those years. And thanks for coming to Portland not, as you said, as a lama, a sensei, a Roshi or a rishi, but as someone with whom we could consider these topics. Consider them we did. And it was a truly inspiring experience.


P.S. Jeffrey added something to the dedication that we do at the end of teachings, study and practices that I found helpful. We first dedicate the merits to someone close to us, to make it real, before dedicating to all sentient beings.

may you, the reader, be free of suffering, and it’s causes
may all beings be free of suffering, and it’s causes

How many Buddhas do you give this article?



  1. lucyb

    That is totally true, in this human condition, it is really all about practice.

  2. lucyb

    Thanks by the way for that story that was awesome!