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Inspired by the Dalai Lama, Billionaire T. Denny Sanford Donates US$100m for Compassion Research

T. Denny Sanford. From
T. Denny Sanford. From

Inspired by a conversation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the philosophy of compassion as a source of happiness, US billionaire Thomas Denny Sanford has donated US$100 million to the University of California San Diego to fund scientific research into empathy and compassion and into ways to cultivating these qualities among healthcare professionals for the benefit of themselves and patients.

Banking tycoon and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford had a private meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader in 2017, when His Holiness visited UC San Diego as a commencement speaker during his “Compassion Without Borders” tour of the United States.

“I have been inspired by the work and teachings of the Dalai Lama, whose interest in the intersection where science and faith meet is deep and profound,” Sanford said a statement. “I have had the opportunity to see how grace, humanity, and kindness can change people and the world. This gift extends that vision. Doctors work in a world where compassion is essential, but often lost in the harsh realities of modern medicine. If we can help medical professionals preserve and promote their compassion, based on the findings of hard science, the world can be a happier, healthier place.” (UC San Diego News Center) 

Thanks to the funding, researchers at the newly established T. Denny Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion at UC San Diego will study the neurological functions of compassion, seeking to establish empirical evidence that can be used to create a compassion-focused curriculum for training medical professionals and to develop methods for protecting the well-being of both caregivers and their patients.

“The new institute will employ state-of-the-art neuroscience technologies, including sophisticated neuro-imaging, to identify and map brain activity created by empathic behavior, quantify the factors promoting or inhibiting compassionate behavior and then design new methods to increase empathic signals in the brain,” UC San Diego said in a statement. (UC San Diego News Center)

The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper described the gift as among the largest of its kind ever made in the US, noting that Sanford previously donated US$100 million to UC San Diego in 2013 to establish a research center to accelerate the process of turning discoveries into new drugs and therapies. In 2018 he gave San Diego’s National University System US$100 million to establish a teaching program for children on civility and thoughtfulness, with the aim of eradicating violence, bullying, and discrimination. In the past 12 years, the newspaper added, San Diego-based institutions have received at least US$459 million from the 83-year-old philanthropist.

“People talk about compassion, but almost no one has ever studied how it exists in the brain. We want to find the irrefutable scientific data that validates the immense power of compassion, identify and understand its biological underpinnings, and then use that knowledge to teach empathy to new doctors, benefit current ones, and, most importantly, improve healthcare for everyone, patients and providers alike,” said Prof. William Mobley, associate dean of neuroscience initiatives at UC San Diego. (UC San Diego News Center) 

The Dalai Lama has frequently spoken on compassion as a life practice and as an essential foundational element of education for creating more realized individuals and a more compassionate global society. In May this year, His Holiness met with a group of scholars from UC San Diego at his home in Dharamsala to discuss the creation of an Institute for Empathy and Compassion. The delegation was led by Dr. David Brenner, vice chancellor for health sciences at the university.*

“Denny believes that people can be better than they are and he wants to help them change. You see this through his giving. He believes in compassion, civility, being engaged,” said Brenner. “The Dalai Lama said that we must show that there is a scientific basis to empathy and compassion. That’s what Denny’s gift will help scientists do.” (The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Dr. David Brenner, second left, and colleagues meet the Dalai Lama in India. From

Sanford (b. 1935), is the founder of the South Dakota-based First Premier Bank and chairman and chief executive of its holding company, United National Corp. He is one of a growing number of high-net-worth individuals and philanthropists who are choosing to disburse their wealth within their lifetimes, rather than establish a charitable foundation to hold it in perpetuity, based on the reasoning that spending down, or “giving while living,” will lead to a greater and more effective redistribution of wealth. As of October 2018, Sanford, who has repeatedly said that he wants to “die broke,” had reportedly donated more than US$1 billion to various causes, although he remained wealthy enough to remain on the Forbes list of billionaires with a net worth of US$2.6 billion. (West Fargo Pioneer)

UCSD Leaders Seek Advice from Dalai Lama on Creating an Institute for Empathy and Compassion (Buddhistdoor Global)

See more

With Landmark Gift, UC San Diego Will Map Compassion in the Brain, then Prove its Power (UC San Diego News Center)
Denny Sanford gives UCSD $100M for landmark studies of empathy, compassion (The San Diego Union-Tribune)
Billionaire donates $100 million to compassion research after conversation with Dalai Lama (Lion’s Roar)
Q&A: Launch of the T. Denny Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion (UC San Diego Health)
T. Denny Sanford’s donated over $1 billion, and he still made Forbes billionaires list (West Fargo Pioneer)

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