Sample from the Fall 2005 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine

My Experiences with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

An Interview with Dr. Jeffrey Hopkins by Ramanan Schultz

After 31 years as Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, where he has taught Tibetan Studies and Tibetan language, Dr. Jeffrey Hopkins retired in 2004 to pursue a full-time writing career. In this candid interview he discusses his close association over those many years with H. H. the Dalai Lama

Ramanan Schultz: How did you meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama?

Jeffrey Hopkins: I began studying Tibetan Buddhism in 1963, and in 1971 left on a dissertation Fulbright ending up in India in 1972, and that was my first encounter with him. I went to his talks, which were four to six hours a day for 16 days and did not expect his teachings to be very interesting–I had studied with some really good people. So you see, I was starting from the negative, and it’s really a good way of starting. At first I was surprised at how loud his voice was and how quickly he spoke, so that if you listened, you couldn’t be distracted because he was going so quickly. I gradually began noticing, “Oh, that’s interesting. That’s helpful.”

And a month or so after the lectures, I had an audience with him, and I said to him, “Oh, a few of the things you said were interesting to me.” And I realized how arrogant that was–a person talking four to six hours a day for 16 days, and this guy comes in and says, “a few.” And I looked at him and he was beaming, and he said, “What were they?!?” And so I told him, and we had a very good audience, and it was most interesting. The impression I got was that you had to be frank, honest, and to the point with him. Eventually I began writing down these small points that were of interest to me, and I wrote a poem in Tibetan with 23 such teachings that had been so important to me and eventually gave it to him. It’s in that sort of an attitude that our relationship started.

RS: For a decade you were His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s chief interpreter, also translating several of his books. How did that come about?

JH: He asked me if I would translate something for him, his Key to the Middle Way, and I said I would do so if he would answer of all my questions, and that just meant that I had access to him, not to somebody else. He said, “Sure.” So often I would write out questions, and he would call me to have an audience, often at the end of the day. I went back to India probably 13 or 14 times in the period up through 1983.

He had quite a bit of time compared to nowadays, when his schedule is booked two years in advance. Then I had really unimpeded access, and he taught me individually, and the timing was just right–it was perfect. He also asked me to translate for a group of English-speaking guests. He appreciated that I was able not only to translate but also to convey the meaning of what he was trying to get across. So then when he came to the United States for the first time in 1979 he contacted me and asked if I would be his interpreter. I gladly accepted and was his interpreter until 1989.

RS: What was the experience like personally?

JH: It was tremendously inspiring because he is so devoted to shaping a message that is hopeful to everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are Buddhist or not, if you are even spiritual or not. It doesn’t matter if you are religious. I would see how devoted he was and how hard he worked. It didn’t matter if it was to a large audience or to a small venue. It was a tremendous challenge and he was able tirelessly to take it on. I was also impressed with his strong interest in pursuing philosophical topics. He was curious about what others think and what views and philosophies drive and motivate them. He is open-minded in that way.

RS: What was it like to be in a room with His Holiness when you were not translating; did you ever share a cup of tea?

Read the rest of this article in the Fall 2005 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine