A friend in an unexpected place: Behind the Dalai Lama

“Welcome!” to the Rev. Mpho Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s daughter and co-author with him of “Made for Goodness,” a new collection of stories about real-life experiences that taught the Tutu family about cultivating goodness in daily living. Mpho Tutu is a guest this week at ReadTheSpirit magazine, talking about their new book that includes a story about an unexpected cross-cultural friendship.
For ReadTheSpirit, Mpho Tutu expanded on the story about her father’s longstanding friendship with the Dalai Lama—and her own discovery of a connection with the Dalai Lama’s translator, Geshe Thupten Jinpa, a man often lost in the background of events. She is a South African-American Episcopal priest; Thupten Jinpa is a Tibetan-American Buddhist scholar. Sometimes the most important connections we can make are with people who we could easily overlook.

Here is Mpho Tutu’s story Thupten Jinpa …


Me? A friend of the Dalai Lama? That’s my father, not me! (Laughs.) Oh, I’d love to say I’m a close personal friend of the Dalai Lama, but it’s actually my father who has become such a friend to him. There is a playfulness when those two get together. Together, they’re like two boys you would not want in your classroom! These two would be getting into mischief all the time with those playful qualities they have. And, you could never get angry with them because they are so good in their joyfulness.

The only reason I appeared on stage with the Dalai Lama was that I agreed to substitute for my father at last year’s Peace Summit in Vancouver. I was touched that the Dalai Lama even remembered me.  There were so many luminaries on that stage, it was enough to give anyone an inferiority complex! (Laughs.)

There I was with all these Nobel laureates. And sitting through session after session, I have to admit that it was hard to keep my attention through all of it. That’s when I began to appreciate what Thupten Jinpa does. We included him in our new book because I admire his work and I learned from him.

There were moments when I felt my own attention flagging but I noticed in Vancouver how this man could never let his attention flag, because he never knew when the Dalai Lama would need him. The Dalai Lama might not have a grasp of the English he was hearing. Or he might be reaching for an English word himself and need the translator’s help. So, this man sitting beside us had to stay present, had to stay “on,” had to hold his attention on the conversation at all times.

I learned he’s actually a Cambridge phD. Spending time watching him at his work, I have to say: I work in spiritual direction and I need to have that kind of focus when I am working with people. I’m interested in learning from him how he is able to sustain that kind of intense attention for such a long period. There is “tension” in real “attention.” There is this sense of being pulled. That quality of attention requires real energy. And the lesson I learned from him, and that we talk about in the book, is that this level of real energy and real attention requires real rest in our lives as well.

Why was I drawn to observe this man, then to learn from him? He was not the center of attention in Vancouver. That was the Dalai Lama. Maybe this way of noticing people who are not at the center of our attention comes to us from our lived experience in our family. You know both of my grandmothers were maids in one way or another—domestic workers.

Many of the people who attended our church in South Africa are people who throughout the week would disappear into the background of society. Their jobs were to be invisible and yet they really were so important to the quality of life.

And so, how could we not notice these people? How can we not make them our friends?

In Vancouver, this translator made it possible for all of us to fully engage in a conversation with the Dalai Lama. What he did was so important for all of us.

Daddy says that he has three patron saints—because he needs a lot of help! It takes three! (Laughs.) And, among his patron saints, he has chosen St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower of God. What she says is: “I can’t do great things, but I can do small things with great love.”

I think that is true of all of us, isn’t it? I find myself thinking a lot about my own little life. I’ve been around so many people who have done so many incredible and fabulous and wonderful things! I know people who have made earth-shattering changes with their lives!

Then, I look at myself and I think: Oh, great! What am I doing? What can I possibly do to make life better on planet Earth with just my little life?

The truth is that if—like this translator or the people in our church in South Africa—if we can make life better for one other person on planet Earth, then we have made life better on planet Earth.

I can do what I can do right now. What I need to reach for is the thing I can do right here where I am standing. Then, my little life can truly make a difference, too.

As readers, we welcome you to contribute your own stories of cross-cultural friendship via Email to [email protected]

You can help in many ways! Purchase our book “Friendship and Faith,” which is packed with dozens of stories by women about their real-life experiences with cross-cultural friendships. Bookmark this page—or subscribe. (See link upper right.) Share these stories with friends. (See links below.)

(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)

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