Jeffrey Hopkins, a brilliant scholar, author, teacher, and translator who founded one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist Studies programs in the West, died on July 1 in Vancouver, Canada. He was 83.

For more than three decades, beginning in 1973, Hopkins was a leading light at the University of Virginia. He directed UVA’s Center for South Asian Studies for twelve years and taught Tibetan Buddhist studies and Tibetan language for thirty-two years, but his signature achievement was the Tibetan Buddhist studies doctoral program he established in 1975, which became the largest in North America. Among its graduates are some of the most esteemed academics in the field today, including Anne C. Klein of Rice University, Donald Lopez of the University of Michigan, Georges Dreyfus of Williams College, and Bryan Cuevas of Florida State University. Hopkins’s program, by placing Tibetan Buddhism (rather than Indian, Chinese, or Japanese Buddhism) at its center and bringing prominent Tibetan masters from India to Charlottesville to teach the classic texts of that tradition, “changed the way Buddhism is taught in the American academy,” Donald Lopez says.

Hopkins’s singular force was evident from the moment he arrived at UVA in 1973. Lopez, a senior when Hopkins joined the faculty, remembers: 

Despite being a newly arrived assistant professor, he immediately gained a large following among the “Be Here Now” crowd. By the second semester, students were walking around campus wearing buttons that said, “Buddha’s Slogan: Dependent Arising.” In a men’s room on campus one day I noticed something written on a urinal. Assuming it said “R. Mutt” [as Marcel Duchamp had signed his urinal artwork, “The Fountain”], I went closer and saw that it was four words stamped in red letters: “DOES NOT INHERENTLY EXIST.” Inspired by such visions, I wrote my senior thesis, master’s thesis, and doctoral dissertation under Hopkins’s direction.

Convinced that scholars of Tibet must be able to both read classical Tibetan and speak modern Tibetan, Hopkins established the first Tibetan language program at UVA and coauthored a comprehensive language course, Fluent Tibetan: A Proficiency Oriented Learning System. He also compiled a 900-page Tibetan-Sanskrit-English dictionary of Buddhist terms that is posted online

During his career, Hopkins also held visiting professorships at the University of Hawaii and the University of British Columbia. After he retired from UVA, he focused on translating. He was the founder and president of the UMA (Union of the Modern and Ancient) Institute for Tibetan Studies and from 2011 directed its Great Books Translation Project, set up to make Tibetan texts freely available. 

Hopkins was also a peace and human rights activist and published The Art of Peace, edited from talks at a conference of Nobel laureates he organized in 1998 for UVA and the Institute for Asian Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that promoted self-governance in Asia, particularly in Burma. Hopkins was president of the institute from 1994 to 2000.

One of the most respected Tibetologists of his generation, Hopkins authored, edited, or translated more than fifty books. His extensive published work includes scholarly books on emptiness and tantra, as well as translations of works by such famed figures as Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, and Tsongkhapa. His first and most influential work was his massive 1973 doctoral dissertation, Meditation on Emptiness, which provided the first detailed presentation of the Geluk synthesis of philosophy and practice. After circulating widely as a bound Xerox copy, it was published by Wisdom Publications in 1983. A fortieth-anniversary edition will be published next year. Much of Hopkins’s work was devoted to the Geluk founder Tsongkhapa, translating major sections of his massive exposition on tantra, Stages of the Path of Mantra. Later he turned to Tsongkhapa’s most beloved work among Geluk scholars, Essence of Eloquence, a text recited from memory by the monks of Ganden Monastery at his funeral in 1419. Although Tsongkhapa’s text is rather brief, Hopkins devoted three large volumes to it: Emptiness in the Mind-Only School, Reflections on Reality: The Three Natures and Non-Natures in the Mind-Only School, and Absorption in No External World

In 1979, Hopkins was instrumental in arranging His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s first visit to the United States and served as his chief translator from 1979 to 1989 on tours of the US, Canada, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Hopkins translated and edited His Holiness’s teachings for sixteen books, including The Dalai Lama at Harvard, along with titles aimed at a general audience, such as Kindness, Clarity and Insight; How to See Yourself As You Really Are; How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, Mind of Clear Light, Mind of Clear Life: Advice on Living Well and Dying Consciously; How to Be Compassionate; and How to Expand Love: Widening the Circle of Loving Relationships

Hopkins collaborated with the tulkus Lati Rinpoche and Denma Locho Rinpoche on Meditative States in Tibetan Buddhism, based on a text by the Geluk master Panchen Sonam Drakpa. With the Nyingma lama Khetsun Sangpo he published Tantric Practice in Nyingma, a translation of a famous work by Patrul Rinpoche that would later be translated as Words of My Perfect Teacher. Though generally associated with Gelukpa and Nyingma teachings, Hopkins also published the first translation of a foundational text of the Jonang school of Tibetan Buddhism, famous for its “other emptiness” doctrine, a doctrine that Tsongkhapa criticized. His commitment to translate this long and difficult text again demonstrated his ecumenical approach to the Tibetan tradition.

Those who knew Hopkins as an academic powerhouse were often surprised to learn of another compelling interest: sex, including gay sex, and its role in Buddhist practice. This was the subject of Hopkins’s chapter titled “The Compatibility of Reason and Orgasm in Tibetan Buddhism: Reflections on Sexual Violence and Homophobia,” in a 1993 book, Gay Affirmative Ethics, and of his own 1995 book, Sex, Orgasm, and the Mind of Clear Light. Subtitled The 64 Arts of Gay Male Sex, it is a reworking of 1992’s Tibetan Arts of Love, a Hopkins translation of a 1939 work on passion and sex play by Gendun Chopel, a scholar, poet, and former monk. 

Hopkins discussed sex and Tibetan Buddhism with psychotherapist and author Mark Epstein for Tricycle’s Summer 1999 issue. Noting that many tantric practices call for envisioning oneself as a dakini [female embodiment of enlightened energy], Epstein asked Hopkins why he felt it necessary to “retranslate a text with heterosexual imagery into a specifically gay manual.” Hopkins, who was very open about his homosexuality and had led Buddhist retreats for gays, replied, “I did this in order to support one of my own communities—an important one. I felt I would be betraying them if I did not. It might have looked as if I was hiding. I am not.” He further explained, “I’m not necessarily talking about the practice of tantra but of using ordinary sex as an opportunity to do something that’s like what’s done in tantra.”

Sex is not the only hot topic Hopkins addressed. For Tricycle’s Fall 1998 issue, he and Zen abbot Bodhin Kjolhede reflected on whether enlightenment and alcohol mix. Hopkins noted that in highest tantra yoga, “small amounts of alcohol are deliberately used to alter one’s state of mind in order to enhance the spiritual path.” But he recalled that when he told his teacher, Geshe Namgyal Wangyal, about his heavy drinking as a teen, Geshe Wangyal said, “If you drink another drop, I won’t teach you another word.” 


orn Paul Jeffrey Hopkins in 1940, he grew up in Barrington, Rhode Island. A rebellious youth, he was a member of what he later described as a “suburban gang . . . disgusted by the aims that were being presented to us: merely making money and so forth.” Hopkins was then sent to Pomfret, a prep school in Connecticut, where he thrived. During his freshman year at Harvard, he read Thoreau’s Walden and retreated to the woods of Vermont, where he lived in a one-room cabin, wrote poetry, and “began finding my own integrity,” he later told an interviewer. Further inspired by Herman Melville’s Typee and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, he hopped a freighter to Tahiti. It was during this period that Hopkins began meditating—in a fashion. 

Hopkins returned to Harvard after a year and a half, then between his junior and senior years, took off again. While floating down a river in Oklahoma, he saw a dead man propped up on a bank. It was a turning point. “I suddenly realized that his last perception in this lifetime would be no fuller than any of his other perceptions,” he recalled. “I began to recognize the ultimate futility of external activities and to turn my attention inward, to a light within. When I returned to Harvard in the fall of 1962, it was as if a coffin had been opened. I had been living my life in a coffin and had not recognized the presence of the sky.”

During Christmas vacation from college that year, a classmate drove Hopkins to Freewood Acres, New Jersey, to meet Geshe Wangyal,  a Kalmyk Mongolian Tibetan Buddhist who had established a monastery there in 1958. In 1963, after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard—an English major, Hopkins won the Leverett House Poetry Prize for his translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer”—Hopkins spent seven years studying with Geshe Wangyal in New Jersey. After a false start in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, he enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Later, Hopkins called his time in the Buddhist Studies program at Wisconsin as “thrilling in many ways and . . . certainly a crucial choice for my career.” At Hopkins’s urging, Richard Robinson, the head of the Buddhist Studies program, hired Geshe Lhundup Sopa, a Geluk scholar who had been living at the Kalmyk monastery in New Jersey. He was instrumental in the hiring of renowned tantric master Kensur Ngawang Lekden, former abbot of the Tantric College of Lower Lhasa. Anne Klein, then a master’s candidate at Wisconsin, recalls that Hopkins, with Robinson, “founded Tibet House on a farm outside Madison, where Kensur, Jeffrey, and grad students could live, learn Tibetan, and share kitchen duties. Jeffrey served ice cream on small, flat plates, which, as Kensur demonstrated with delight, meant you could lick them clean.” Hopkins read with Kensur daily, Klein remembers, material that formed his dissertation, Meditation on Emptiness.

Throughout his career, Hopkins’s interest in Buddhist studies was broad, encompassing South Asia, Tibet, and East Asia. He was the recipient of three Fulbright fellowships and made twelve trips to India and five to Tibet for research.

As a translator, Hopkins had an approach unusual among his peers at the time: working closely with Tibetan scholars and regarding them not as “native informants” but as collaborative partners. “I thought it was . . . extremely important to treat every Tibetan scholar fairly, to give them credit for their part in producing any book,” he said. “If I couldn’t understand the text without somebody informing me of its meaning, then that person has played an equal role in its translation even if they don’t know English.” 

One thing he remained mum about was spiritual attainment. “There’s a tradition about not being open about your own attainments and your own deeper experiences, and I don’t even tell my friends,” he told an interviewer for Mandala. “One of the marvelous advantages I accrued from traveling with the Dalai Lama,” he wrote in a piece for Tricycle (Summer 1999), was repeatedly hearing His Holiness’s message that everyone wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. “I understood that on a personal, practical level, I had to bring this orientation into moment-by-moment behavior. This requires paying attention to others’ feelings rather than to their color and shape.” Still, “for compassion to develop toward a wide range of persons, mere knowledge of how beings suffer is not sufficient,” he wrote for Tricycle‘s Summer 2002 issue. “There has to be a sense of closeness with regard to every being.” 

In 1991, Hopkins suffered a debilitating, near-fatal case of Lyme disease that temporarily left him partially paralyzed with noticeable mental gaps. He recovered, but “I had to reconstruct my mind,” he later told Tibetan Buddhist nun Robina Courtin. “In any field, I had to consciously make a logical connection, and then once the connection had been made, that area was reopened.” What saved him, he ventured, was a habit formed in his years at the monastery in New Jersey: repeating the intelligence mantra of Manjushri, bodhisattva of wisdom, aimed at enhancing mental acuity: Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih. “I overheard Geshe Wangyal tell one Mongolian boy who was having trouble memorizing it, ‘Then do dhih dhih dhih . . . endlessly,’ ” he recalled. 

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