Compassion is Natural. So Why Is It So Hard for Us?
The short answer: Fear inhibits our natural compassionate instinct.
Thupten Jinpa Langri has been a principal English translator to the Dalai Lama since 1985. He has translated and edited more than ten books by the Dalai Lama including The World of Tibetan Buddhism (Wisdom Publications, 1993), A Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus (Wisdom Publications, 1996), and the New York Times bestseller Ethics for the New Millennium (Riverhead, 1999).
Thupten Jinpa Langri was born in Tibet in 1958. He received his early education and training as a monk at Zongkar Choede Monastery in Hunsur near Mysore, Karnataka, South India and later joined the Shartse College of Ganden monastic university, in Mundgod, Karnataka, South India, where he received the Geshe Lharam degree. He taught Buddhist epistemology, metaphysics, Middle Way philosophy and Buddhist psychology at Ganden for five years. Jinpa also holds a B.A. Honors degree in Western Philosophy and a Ph.D. degree in Religious Studies, both from Cambridge University, UK.
From 1996 to 1999, he was the Margaret Smith Research Fellow in Eastern Religion at Girton College, Cambridge and he has now established the Institute of Tibetan Classics where he is both president and editor-in-chief of the Institute's translation series Classics in Tibet. He is also a member of the advisory board of the Mind and Life Institute, dedicated to fostering creative dialogue between the Buddhist tradition and Western science.
He is a Visiting Research Scholar at the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences at Stanford University.
Geshe Thupten Jinpa has written many books and articles. His latest is A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives.
Thupten Jinpa: I would define compassion in a nutshell as a natural sense of concern that arises in us in the face of someone who is in need or someone who is in pain. And accompanied by a kind of a wishing to see the relief or end of that situation and wanting to do something about it. So compassion is not just an emotional reaction. There is also a more motivational kind of element, which makes us want to do something about the situation. One of the interesting things about our contemporary modern society is that given the highly competitive nature of society and also the way in which we bring up our children and the way in which we ourselves grew up, which involved a huge amount of evaluation and judgment and comparison with others from a very, very early age. We have kind of internalized a certain kind of way of being in the world and perceiving our relationship with others. And that dynamic has created a certain kind of, you know, inhibitions against our natural compassionate instinct. So and these inhibitions really take primarily in the form of fear. So for example many people worry and are afraid that if they are too kind and too compassionate that other people will take advantage of them. They will see them as pushover or weak or losers. So that’s one type of fear that we bring.
Another type of fear that we bring is that, you know, because in popular understanding of compassion it’s so dominated by compassion as an emotion, kind of a soft heart, tender heart, and so on. So people worry that if they allow their compassionate and kinder instinct to become more dominant in their way of interacting with the world and others, you know, somehow it might undermine their more rational, tougher side so that they may not be able to succeed in the life and compete. That’s another type of fear. And then sometimes in intimate relations, particularly, you know, between parents and children on the part of the parents sometimes we also worry that if we are too kind to our children, we might be spoiling them. They might become over dependent upon us and that somehow we will end up having to do everything for them. So these are various types of fear that we bring into our expression of natural compassionate instinct. And a lot of these are subconscious biases that we bring, you know. People may not necessarily sit down and think that’s what I’m going to do. But these are culturally acquired sensibilities and biases, which also makes us suspicious. When someone is being kind to us, compassionate towards us, we start wondering there must be a hidden agenda, you know. That person must want something from me. So it’s very unfortunate that these are various forms of culturally acquired fear that really undermines the expression of what is really natural to us as human being, which is the ability to connect with someone and the ability to relate to that person at a deeper level and have a much more open-hearted kind of interaction.
To paraphrase a common proverb: Show me a mean and callous person and I'll show you someone whose prior compassion got mistaken for weakness.
If we understand compassion to be the natural sense of concern that arises when we encounter someone in need of help, then the main inhibitor of our natural compassionate instinct is fear. Author Thupten Jinpa, who is perhaps most well-known as the long-time translator for the Dalai Lama, explains in this video interview that social fears and pressure often lead us to repress our compassionate inclinations. Among these fears is the feeling that someone will exploit your kindness, as well as the worry that compassion is most often linked to emotion and therefore leads to irrational thinking.
"It’s very unfortunate," says Jinpa, "that these various forms of culturally acquired fear really undermine the expression of what is really natural to us as human beings, which is the ability to connect with someone and the ability to relate to that person at a deeper level and have a much more open-hearted kind of interaction."
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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
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