Hopkins, Jeffrey

Rambling Through my Life and Career

Jeffrey Hopkins


Walking the mile to kindergarten, I passed over the railroad tracks and looking down to a sign saw Barrington. I was super delighted to know where I was. Eleven years later, going to private school at Pomfret in northeastern Connecticut in the tenth grade, I was delighted to be leaving Barrington public schools even though Latin class had been particularly helpful at introducing my mind to complex grammar and thus opening up English grammar so well taught in the ninth grade by Mrs. Smith. It was my fortune that an intelligence test had been given in the eighth grade, and I had been found to be intelligent indeed, rescuing me from obscurity such that even Mrs. Smith apologized one marking period for giving me a B, or maybe even a B+. I did, however, perform pathetically at the part testing ability for mechanical drawing. This opened the way for more humanities throughout the rest of my academic career and actually was very helpful because when I stumbled in second semester geometry at Pomfret, I knew not to go on doing anything deeper in Math in 11th and 12th grades and should stick with more Latin, Ovid and so on indeed being illuminating until I got to Harvard where my advisor and chair of the Classics Department told me on the first day that he did not much like seeing advisees and my beginning Greek prof spent an inordinate amount of time giving the many different ways that the first letter of the alphabet could be pronounced such that I put away my notebook and never came back to that class or to my advisor. I did stay on to finish that semester of Latin with a somewhat uninspiring Latin professor, the son of Henry Steele Commager, no verve compared to my alcoholic teacher at Pomfret whose inspiration could be felt.

Still, the first year at Harvard was fantastic because of a yearlong course in the deliberate slow reading of English and American literature with the famed Reuben Brower whose lectures to more than 300 of us once a week were a horrible bore (he disliked large venues and eventually switched to Amherst) but the two section classes per week with a great graduate student, Richard Poirier, were simply mind-blowing fantastic, making me laugh with soul-touching wonder. And a yearlong Social Sciences course with the anthropologist Klyde Kluckhohn and the psychologist Henry Murray (developer of inkblot thematic apperception tests, a sweet stuttering guy who unbeknownst to us was at that time, 1959-1962, subjecting the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski to psychologically-damaging experiments, hitting me smack in the face and deep in the gut when learned decades later!) the course taking us through a great span of world culture within their own highly motivated outlooks. I was inspired, and by having worked during the college year dishing out food and cleaning toilets in upper class Houses and other work during the summer was able to take time off in my 1947 Plymouth and retreated to read literature and write poetry in Concord Vermont September to November of 1959. O the beauty of looking from my cabin on a rise above Shadow Lake near St. Johnsbury over to the mountains of New Hampshire! The exhilaration of walking so far it was impossible to get back to my place—I hit a highway and got long long rides back to the road somewhat near the cabin!

        The cold of November lead to a short stay at a house in the woods of Rhode Island where the funniest happening was a couple of hours waiting in the Woods with the owner’s shotgun for a deer to wander into my site to discover if I could pull the trigger, but of course the inanity of waiting stupidly while all sorts of sounds in the woods made me think all sorts of things and while in the house even the appearance of a mouse made me cringe with terror, so I retreated without learning what it is like pull the trigger and never touched a shotgun again. Never mind the tradition in the Hopkins family based on the death of an ancestor from a falling shotgun over the door, such that the family never ever even owned a gun, though after the death of my grandfather it was found that he had a hidden shotgun in the house!

In any case, inspired by reading Melville’s novel Typee about the Marquesas’ islands and Somerset Maughan’s The Moon and Sixpence about Paul Gauguin’s life in Tahiti, I was drawn to sign on as a passenger on a freighter out of New York to Tahiti that took eight passengers on a 45 day trip down the turbulent Atlantic and into the Gulf of Mexico on many stops to load freight astoundingly copiously through to Freeport Texas and on down to the Panama Canal and ten more days on the very pacific very blue Pacific Ocean to Tahiti where the French customs agent somehow did not notice that I did not have a visa and let me in.

        I will not recount the eventually boring kaleidoscope of fantastic colors and myriad churches of the island. I would like to tell you about the marvelous local music at a particular bar at night where I did not drink, but there is no way convey in words the round percussive alive sounds that is still resounding. The police finally put it together that I did not have a visa and indeed by that time I was fed up by the fact that none of the vagabonds my age wanted to talk about their situations; they seemed to be running so hard that the past had to be a public blank, stunned into personal silence. And beyond that, I did not have much money left and, more so, lost interest in my actual intended destination, taking a copra (coconut) boat up to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas’ islands at the equator where Melville had been and where there was only one Jeep.

         I was called to the police office where an officer behind a desk out of a B movie told me I should leave the country! I was staying with the Toronto pharmacist who was my cabin mate on the freighter and had with a kind heart taken me into his hotel room.

         I decided to go forward and ended up taking a PanAm seaplane (there was nothing else, this was before the landing strip) to Western Samoa which was stormed in and so had to proceed on to a magnificent hotel in Fiji for 10 days and then to Western Samoa for a week and then Eastern Samoa for a few days and then Hawaii. I won't tell you about hanging out with Mormon (I was shocked to hear about Joe Smith!) missionaries in the jungle in Western Samoa watching them recruit converts, nor will I speak about living for maybe a month with the kind Mormon UCLA football player’s family in Honolulu, working for the father cleaning construction sites and then preparing to work for a short period with an alcoholic boss of his explosives division, until I called my parents for a ticket back to New York where with my tail between my legs I returned home to Barrington, Rhode Island. Soon to leave for a couple of jobs in New York State as a gardener’s assistant among gnats (O so thankful for a job through a soccer friend at Pomfret for his family!) and then as a tutor (through the mother of my intended roommate at college), eventually to return to Harvard where my most impressive courses were Russian literature, learning Anglo-Saxon in my final year with William Alfred and his two graduate students, and another course with Alfred as well as his kindness over meals, drinking too much, showing up in Russian Literature class at eleven in the morning still drunk, and then laughing at myself one morning in bed for turning into Raskolnikov, auditing Paul Tillich’s class totally sober and wondering how long one could retain doubt and faith together, and in my final year auditing TRV Murti’s class on the classical Indian systems while beginning my first trips to the Tibetan and Mongolian monastery in New Jersey. Murti was fantastic, as indeed was a Ravi Shankar concert where in 1962 I got to sit on the stage—merely because of arriving so late that there were no more seats left—in the acoustically astounding Sanders Theatre where I also got to sit the next year in a perfect seat belonging to a former Chair of the English Department, Professor James B. Munn (who later died in 1967 at age 76 and whom I served while he had what was not known then as Alzheimer’s and had unused season tickets to Sanders) to hear the individual instruments of the Boston Symphony. What blessings indeed! Full body blessings! With no drugs. I won’t tell you about my meditation—except that it started in the crib out of boredom; not much later I was crawling in a small room outside my father's bedroom and seeing a small cushion pushed it behind the series of drawers my mother had shown me behind a closet and propped myself sitting up on it in that tiny space meditating on a vajra (a scepter) at my forehead that divided into two which each divided into two and so on. My mother noticed my absence and came to find me in the small space. Over time, in childhood I found private places in the house, which she in her ingenuity had fashion when designing the house, to meditate much as, I imagine, many children do. It is not the time to describe these.

        After five years in the Monastery in New Jersey I applied to the University of Pennsylvania where one of the monastery members, Christopher George, had gone on to study in graduate school and near where a visitor to the monastery, Professor Paul Desjardins of Haverford College had asked me to come serve as a resource assistant for a course on Buddhism that spring semester. I arrived in January of 1968 at the Department at U Penn to discuss my course of study and slowly became bummed out by their insistence on my taking up language after language, after which I politely needled them, “I suppose I should also take Khotanese?” They had already told me I could study Tibetan but could receive no credit for it, so instead of registering, I took the train on to Haverford, and began looking into applying at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard. Both gave me National Defense Education Act Fellowships, but I chose Wisconsin because of Geshe Sopa’s presence and likely also because of my memory of Professor Robinson from his visit at the Monastery. It turned out to be a momentous choice.

        Elvin Jones, Geshe Sopa’s Assistant, had found me a nice one room apartment, but my neighbor had a huge speaker booming base through the wall into my room and despite this the noted professor of Chinese Buddhism, Arthur Link, who was visiting the Department of South Asian studies from the University of British Columbia and was parked in a room in the Faculty Club eagerly took on my room while I moved around the corner into an alley and up the stairs into a tiny room that had outside access to a kitchen in the basement. The room was so small that it allowed for a single mattress on the floor and a small desk with a chair such that when I pulled it out a bit, it hit against the mattress. I had to walk over the mattress to get to the closet which, of course, had no door. It did however have a couple of windows next to each other. It was ideal for buying a brand new 4 door Volvo in my second year, it was so cheap! An no one, believe it or not, was blasting music or thudding drums.

        One day a couple months into the fall of my second year, a knock on the door. Richard Robinson. He moved slightly to enter but obvious there was no coming in, no place to go, he said why he had come, “Let’s get a place in the country.” Richard (I always called him “Mr. Robinson” maybe because he was an imposing figure in terms of both his size and personality but more likely because of my three years in prep school) said this after only after a micro-hesitation. Within what seemed a few days, we had lined up a farmhouse in Cambridge, Wisconsin; four grad students: Harvey Aronson, Anne Klein, Leonard Zwilling, and Michael Sweet; an undergrad, Rick Munn; and after a while Khan-zur Ngag-wang-leg-dan (Abbot Emeritus of Gyu-me Tantric College in Lhasa) with whom I had been studying after returning to the Monastery in the summer of 1968; and later Natalie Maxwell and Elizabeth Napper.

Richard lived in the large bedroom off what would have been the large living room downstairs but became the meeting room for the Ngag-wang-leg-dan’s talks on the three principal aspects of the path to enlightenment. Richard was waiting for the return to Wisconsin of his girlfriend, Kathy Cissel, from UBC where she had enrolled to study Chinese Buddhism after picking up Chinese while serving as a secretary in the East Asian Department on the same 12th Floor of Van Hise Hall as our South Asian Department where Richard was Chair. Richard was breaking up with his wife, and thus needed a place to stay. I guess he knew from Arthur Link, my frequent dinner companion, that I needed a better place though indeed I did have both over for my famous broiled chicken dinner one night in the cellar kitchen, when I dumped on a certain scholar of Tibetan for mistakes in a translation and both jumped on me for my arrogance. A lesson for my later career that I must admit I did not utilize in an article in which I took on both that scholar and his hated rival in a manner that made them both look equal. What an idiot, since that did not reflect my opinion!!

        Several times when Richard was cooking at the Farmhouse he did not notice that one of the gas burners was not lit, and I had to point out that there was an odor of gas. After a number of months when Kathy was about to arrive, she understandably asked that they live elsewhere, Richard found a small place on a farm some distance away. It had a bad smell on the tiny front porch; I could not determine its origin despite my wondering and could only think it was due to dogs pissing in that small area over a long period of time though I could not imagine dogs pissing on a porch, so I named the place the Pig Pen, of course not sharing the name with Richard and Kathy.

My time in the Wisconsin Buddhist Studies Program was thrilling in many ways and was certainly a crucial choice for my career. I joked once when a bunch of us were talking about a popular aide for speed reading, which utilized a finger running down the middle of a page just reading the words at the finger, saying that Richard would not need such and might not even need to turn the pages, the brilliant light of his mind penetrating through the pages of the book! One day when he was driving out to the farm he was talking about aspects of Chinese Buddhism, and I happened to be able to correct him three times in a row based on what I happened to be translating from Tsong-kha-pa, and that turned out to be the final wall between us as friends—despite still calling him Mr. Robinson, although often attempting to avoid using any appellation. Later at a gathering of all the graduate students at an evening meal at a restaurant Richard explained his theory that he wanted his students to rise up and kill him as their teacher-figure. This seemed to make all of us shudder since he was such an imposing figure though I realized that this is exactly what had happened when I just off the top of my head so easily corrected him by the meager knowledge that I happened to have picked up from my reading Tsong-kha-pa even though I had done so without any sense of jousting or tearing down a figure; I guess he was looking for a chance to drop his own posture. When his own father showed up at the farm at the time of his funeral which was held elsewhere, I could easily see why Richard was intent on father killing. His father was a short stout swaggering fellow, and I could only guess what a Horror Story he was to live under.

        I took my prelims with Richard as the chair and soon thereafter had lunch with him at the Faculty Club to discuss my thesis during which I explained how Murti’s Central Philosophy of Buddhism had no explanation about how to meditate on emptiness whereas the tradition I had been studying for seven years had plenty of such discussion and thus in this context I had something to say in reaction to Murti’s fascinating book that might make a good thesis. So during that luncheon we settled on that topic.

My girlfriend Betsy Napper who had moved into the farmhouse after returning from a semester abroad in India and went another summer semester for study at U Michigan, and since Khan-zur Ngag-wang-pal-dan had returned to New Jersey, I went with her to Ann Arbor. We received word at some point that Richard had gone down into the cellar of the Pig Pen To light the hot water heater whereupon immediately the escaped gas exploded even raising the top two layers of cement block of the cellar an inch (I saw a picture). Richard had breathed in the gas, and thus it had seared his lungs, but he walked upstairs, laid down, and told Kathy to call an ambulance. He lived for a month or so during which Geshe Sopa and Ngag-wang-pal-dan tended him, and I returned from Ann Arbor; I was told I was allowed to visit him, but I chose not to since others had not and since I was told he was pleased I had returned. Indeed I felt so sad that I had not put it together that the stink on the small front porch was very old gas. Ngag-wang-leg-dan one day had predicted to me that Richard was going to run into trouble, which I had ignored as the excessive moralistic musings of an old man worried about Richard’s leaving his family, but indeed Richard himself at one point told me that his yearly Indian astrologist had refused to give him a prediction for this coming year but had at his insistence only told him about a problem with fire and water. When Richard moved out to the Pig Pen, he gave me a simple bookcase he had made which when I related this to someone after his passing I was not believed, so I quickly learned to keep my mouth closed.

        Stephan Beyer, one of Richard students whom I had not known, returned to Wisconsin while I was away in Germany and India on a Fulbright Dissertation Fellowship, began teaching in our program and applied for a job at the University of Virginia which he gained but he also gained a steady position at the University of Wisconsin which he chose over the job at Virginia. So when I returned to Wisconsin finally after a very rich period of a year and a half away, meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala after a sixteen-day series of lectures on Tsong-kha-pa’s Middle-length Exposition of the Stages of Path and being shocked to learn to a governmentally appointed reincarnation was deeply educated and came to be frequently taught by him, and defended my thesis and sent out 20 letters to departments across the US as well as the University of British Columbia where my friend Arthur link was seeking to place me, Steve strongly suggested that the University of Virginia might be a good place for me especially since it had a full PL0480 Tibetan collection, and indeed when I interviewed there UVA had an avid South Asian bibliographer in the person of Skip Martin who was particularly interested in the Tibetan collection although he did not know the language. Also the Department of Religious Studies as well as the University was intent on internationalizing programs; the Department was led by David Harned who had brought the chair of Yale’s Department of Religion, Julian N. Hartt, as well as David Little, to Virginia where the great ethicist James Childress was already teaching and there were professors like Daniel Via, Harry Gamble, and Seshagiri Rao so forth filling out a strong Department of Religious Studies that was seeking to add on a Masters though unsure about a Ph.D. program. During my interview I happened to be crossing University Avenue with David Harned who mentioned that the man over there was Julian Hartt. I asked with emphasis “Julian N. Hartt?” He said “Yes,” and I went running over to him in the middle of the street telling him that I had written him at Yale, and he had not answered. In the midst of the moving cars I asked him what he was doing in Charlottesville, and he explained how Harned had drawn him to the program. This was the beginning of a strong relationship leading eventually to cooperation on a Graduate Committee.

        I was the last person to be hired that year, so when I finally showed up in mid-August, and the summer chair Seshagiri Rao showed me my office in the basement where most of the offices indeed were, it was covered with green mold on three of the walls, I said with a calm, quiet voice, “You can assign this office to me, but I will not use it.” My main reason was that after India my stomach was particularly sensitive, and I knew I could not survive the basement of Cocke Hall, never mind one with green mold. Seshagiri Rao looked at me kindly and said even more quietly that he would look into it. I ended up with a magnificent office with a huge window in a building near Alderman Library that had an adjoining seminar room that no one else used.

While in India I had produced two translations, which were published in London by George Allen and Unwin and in New York by Harper and Row, the Dalai Lama’s The Buddhism of Tibet and the Key to the Middle Way and Nāgārjuna’s The Precious Garland and the Dalai Lama’s The Song of the Four Mindfulnesses, so I had a little strength and asked to begin teaching Tibetan from the start at Virginia. This was accepted but had been forgotten by the time I arrived, so they asked that I teach beginning Tibetan in a course labeled Hinduism Seminar in my first semester, and that is how Tibetan began to be taught at the University of Virginia.

        I had extraordinarily good relationships with all of the Deans of the College throughout my 32 years except for the very last one whom I never saw personally. From the beginning, my intention was to establish a program modeled on Wisconsin’s three area program, South Asia, Tibet, and East Asia, utilizing Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese / Japanese. During my interview Walter Hauser, the prime mover of the South Asia program, was very genial; nevertheless I approached East Asianists after arrival but felt looked down upon and thus quickly turned to Walter Hauser and found a quick home in South Asia much like Tibet’s home at Wisconsin.

         After a student of Geshe Wangyal and then a friend of mine, Joel McCleary who had a high position in White House, called me there for a meeting with Zbigniew Brzezinski for the final step in a decision to open the way for the Dalai Lama to come to the US, David Harned easily assented to my serving as the interpreter for lectures on a forty-five day ultra-busy tour that has set the tone for his visits throughout the world. I served for ten years as interpreter into English on tours in North America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia, being stretched into areas of Buddhist philosophy, psychology, and practice that I had not imagined broaching. At my retirement party at the Department of Religious Studies which was fused with a celebration of retired faculty living in Charlottesville, I saluted David Harned for his wisdom in letting me leave, with pay, for such a long periods since the academic world which hosted many of the venues developed interest toward the Virginia Program. David answered that his decision was easy, given the high quality of graduate students who were taking over my courses.

       Back to the Farmhouse in Cambridge, Wisconsin: At one of the few times when Richard Robinson attended Ngag-wang-leg-dan’s weekly lectures along with his daughter, Richard asked if she could attend without paying the small fee. I briefly thought and said no. After a moment he smiled and said, “Someday you will be a Center Director.” And indeed through the intense effort of Walter Hauser and our working together, his Center for South Asian Studies became funded by Washington and after six years of his leadership, he made me Center Director of this Undergraduate Center with a healthy number of graduate language fellowships, over time for 12 years merely following the pattern of his leadership, eventually becoming a Graduate Center. Walter had a way of positively affirming everything that was going on in South Asia, never nitpicking or backbiting about anyone in South Asia, but as he said. he was willing to go in and clobber the Deans; still, as one of the Deans told me, Walter’s manner indicated how much he cared about South Asia and its multifaceted programs. This made me wonder if I should drop my soft-sell approach, but I never did.

In my own Department I just kept pushing and pushing, bringing up the need for expansion into Buddhism and other religions and finally despite my proposal for a Ph.D. program utilizing the South Asia and East Asia resources being turned down the first time, it was adopted soon thereafter. I would ask the Deans for a small amount of money to fund the teaching of more Tibetan but each year my Department would grab that money for some use of its own until I learned to request the Dean to put the funds in the Center for South Asian studies to keep these meagre funds in a safe place.

        Back at Wisconsin during the spring term of my first year, Richard moaned one day that there were too many good students applying for the Buddhist studies program, and he did not know what to do with so many good applicants. I guess I just happened to stop by at his office door at the right time, so I suggested that he let everyone qualified into the program if they were willing to pay their own way, and it turned out Richard accepted the idea. This created a large entering class and indeed some friction within faculty in other areas, but it was exciting to see so many good students. I used this same approach at Virginia, accepting a larger number of students than might have been expected and pointing out to other students that they could enroll in Continuing Education with hopes of possibly entering into the program. We found that sometimes those students did better than others who looked better on paper.

We already had an East Asianist in Rodney Taylor who was hired just before me, and Harvey Aronson who was strong in Theravada Buddhism was hired to teach Southern Buddhism, Pāli, Methodology, and to supplement John Roberts’ teaching in Sanskrit. The three areas developed in various ways over time with the comings and goings of faculty, ultimately during my era thriving with Paul Groner in East Asia and Karen Lang in South Asia, and with Dorothy Wong specializing in the Buddhist art of medieval China and H. L. Seneviratne in South Asian Buddhist Anthropology (who was there before I was) and Nicholas Sihle in Tibetan Anthropology. Twenty Ph.D. students graduated with my guidance, and another five did with the guidance of David Germano and Karen Lang after my retirement in 2004 (officially 2005) while I served as an outside member on their committees. I have no count of those who gained Ph.Ds. in the other two areas.

        When I retired, I kept my house in Boonesville, VA, but pretty much left town and totally kept out of contact with the Programs that I had founded and with the Department since this had been the custom. One day the department chair James Childress was coming down the stairs in Cocke Hall as I was ascending (we both had offices upstairs), he stopped for a moment and reported that retired members still living in Charlottesville had formed a super-group to exert political influence in the Department. Jim asked for my opinion, and I said, “It’s time for the younger members to have influence,” and that was the end of it. That is how I have felt about any continuing presence for myself there.

       Thus it happened that a new chapter opened fulfilling the very reason that I retired just before age 65: To write and translate more. An UMA Institute for Tibetan Studies formed with fourteen Translators, which so far has produced 48 publications, and my own list of books has grown to 55. UMA’s list of books and my vita are in separate places at uma-tibet.org.