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Lions Roar : May 2017
highest level of academic achievement in Tibetan Buddhism. Then in 1985, twenty years after he had held the Dalai Lama’s hand as a small boy, Thupten Jinpa got a surprise call. His Holiness was scheduled to teach in Dharmasala but his English translator was not going to arrive in time. Jinpa had been recommended. At first, he tried to refuse. “I said, ‘No, no. I’ve never done this before,’” he remembers. Though nervous, Jinpa eventually agreed to do it. The audience responded well to his style of translation, and when the official translator arrived, the audi- ence requested that Jinpa continue. Afterward, the Dalai Lama asked to see Jinpa in his office, where he said, “I know you. You’re a good debater. You’re a good scholar. But I never knew you spoke English. How come I never knew?” Jinpa sheepishly explained to His Holiness that he’d kept a low profile because if others in the monastery knew how well he spoke English, he’d be inundated with tasks. His Holiness said, “People tell me that you have a very easy English to listen to. Would you come with me when I need you to interpret, and on my travels?” Jinpa was in tears. “In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would have the honor of serving the Dalai Lama so closely,” he says. “For a Tibetan who grew up as a refugee in India, serving the Dalai Lama was also a way to honor the sacrifices our par- ents had to make in their early years of exile.” Jinpa began translating for the Dalai Lama in India, and two years later traveled to the West for the first time. “The first country we stopped in was West Germany. I had never seen a supermarket or motorways with two lanes. The colors were very muted, even the houses and clothes. There were very few people, whereas in India there are people everywhere. It felt too neat and too clean. On the same trip, we went to the United States. Even the air smelled different.” “MY RELATIONSHIP with Sophie involved a bit of a learning curve,” says Thupten Jinpa about life as a married man. “It’s funny how the things that become so important in your life tend to happen accidentally.” Though he was now the Dalai Lama’s principal English trans- lator, Jinpa continued to develop a life independent of this role. He went to Cambridge University to pursue a B.A. in Western philosophy, and eventually got his PhD in religious studies. Away for the first time, he began to think that his future might not be in the monastery, because remaining a monk meant he would eventually become a teacher. “Right from the beginning, I recognized that in serving His Holiness, I was also serving the world,” says Jinpa. “Whereas, if I tried to be a teacher in my own right, I may be successful, but my reach would always be limited.” Six-year-old Thupten Jinpa once held the Dalai Lama’s hand during a school visit. In 1985, His Holiness asked Jinpa to be his principal English translator, which he has been ever since. LION’S ROAR | MAY 2017 49