Robert Thurman

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Robert Thurman Photographs courtesy of Robert Thurman

Robert Thurman

Meet the First American Monk of Tibetan Buddhism

Dr. Robert Thurman has some unique distinctions. In 1965, he became the first Westerner to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist Monk by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Not only was he a student of the Dalai Lama, but he became the spiritual leader’s tutor, sharing his Harvard University and Phillips Exeter Academy education on topics ranging from psychology to physics and world history. He went on to create the field of “Buddhology.” TIME magazine chose Professor Thurman as one of its 25 most influential Americans in 1997, and The New York Times stated that he “is considered the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism.” His search for enlightenment began while he was a university student. After losing the use of his left eye from an accident, he left Harvard to go on a spiritual quest through Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He first saw the Dalai Lama in India in 1962. Not long after being ordained, however, he decided he could be more effective in a university than a monastery, and in 1967 he resigned his monk’s vows of celibacy and went on to obtain an M.A. as well as a Ph.D. in Sanskrit Studies from Harvard University in 1972. He is now a Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo- Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University (the first endowed chair in this field of study in the U.S.). He is also President of Tibet House US, a nonprofit organization he co-founded with actor Richard Gere and two others dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Tibetan civilization. He’s also President of the American Institute of Buddhist Studies, a nonprofit affiliated with the Center for Buddhist Studies at Columbia University dedicated to the publication of translations of important artistic and scientific treatises from the Tibetan Tengyur. He is a speaker and an author of books on Tibet, Buddhism, art, politics and culture. His daughter, who also serves on the Board of Trustees of Tibet House US, is the Academy Award-nominated actress Uma Thurman. Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie spoke to Robert Thurman about the Global Compassion Summit and 80th birthday celebration for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Buddhism, his extraordinary life and his current projects.

TJ: How did you feel about the 80th birthday celebration for His Holiness the Dalai Lama?
THURMAN: I enjoyed it. Some people had some mixed ideas about it, but I personally enjoyed it because I always enjoy being with His Holiness and his presence. I liked the young students who were Dalai Lama Fellows at Irvine, and I liked a number of the people who were there. The White Goddess coming out of the lotus from the ceiling offended some people because I think they have an overly puritanical idea about what a Buddhist monk is. I mean, they are celibate but they are also able to visualize human beauty and so on, so they are not that prudish. They are not Victorians. So I don’t think it was too bad. I think it was efficiently run. And people seemed mostly happy, I thought.

TJ: What was the highlight of the event for you?
THURMAN: The highlight for me was the reaction of the audience when I told them after all this “birthday, birthday, birthday...,” the real birthday that His Holiness could have would be if they would do something for Tibet and try to improve the position and the situation of Tibet under the very difficult oppression, which in my personal opinion is a leftover of the Hu Jintao administration. I’m sort of a lonely voice there. Other people have sort of given up on Xi Jinping. They think he’s against human rights, he’s been very tough, and blah, blah, blah. But I think they don’t really appreciate what it’s like to get control of such a huge thing. I think he’s had to stay strong and I believe his intention is to make what you’d call the government’s minority policy saner, kinder and less oppressive. But he has inherited a system that basically is more or less genocidal, actually. Hu Jintao was the party boss in Tibet before he became president. He was quite notorious for being harsh on the Tibetans, and so was Xi Jinping. It’s taken a long time to get around to where somebody might decide that it’s in their own self-interests that the Chinese government be friendlier towards those in power, which would then make their foreign relations better because people would decide they could be trusted. You talk about peaceful rise and being trusted and they want to talk to everybody .... Although they’re doing that in the South China Sea and other places, their assurances ring hollow when they’re being harsh on the Uighurs and the Tibetans and the Manchurians and the Mongolians, their so-called main minorities. Horribly harsh .... So I feel that Xi Jinping wants to be more sensible and he’s more aware of the international view of what it looks like. He’s more secure in that China has been an economic success in some sense — maybe not the final success he hopes it to be, but it has become somewhat of a success, and he can be more secure and be more generous. I brought that up at the conference because other people were not necessarily bringing up Tibet itself, because His Holiness is much too genteel to put his own cause out front all the time. When I embarrassingly brought it up, the audience was very positive and there was a great whoop of support and applause. I’d like to think if 10,000 people had that thought, maybe 500 did something — wrote a letter, thought of something, gave somebody 10 bucks, learned something about Tibet ... because when people learn the true story, they do change their view of the world. There was another high point [at the Global Compassion Summit]. The Indian-American scientist [Veerabhadran Ramanathan], who had worked with Pope Francis on his environmental [document] Laudato Si, said that if everybody on the planet would give $450 each, it would be enough money to completely cover the “renewablization” — if there’s a word like that — of the energy needs of the entire planet, easily. He added that there is also a need to provide everyone with clean energy and suggested the cost of that would be another $250 per person. So I went up and said, “Who can I give my contribution to?” and he said he wasn’t ready to accept it yet. I had read Laudato Si myself — most of it. It’s quite long and it deals with things other than the environment and the rich-poor thing. But it’s really turning the Church back without going into the leftist, Marxist liberation theology of Latin America. Pope John Paul and Benedict were very against that sort of liberation theology and really muzzling down. The Polish Pope [John Paul] was so strongly anti-communist. He was going with all the right-wingers that are in Latin America pushing down poor people. So this guy is now really trying to bring that back up, without maybe going over to the Marxist extreme. The Dalai Lama was pleased that I was in favor of that.

TJ: The Dalai Lama always speaks of compassion. Do you feel that the world is more or less compassionate than when you were a child?
THURMAN: It’s more compassionate, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t still some horrible things going on that are really very bad. But before the invasion of Iraq, for example, I think there was a count of 30 to 40 million people worldwide who protested that invasion and who begged and pleaded [for it] not to happen. The media in Australia, Japan, India — anywhere where they were free to do any protesting, they did. It was not really given much play in our corporate media, which doesn’t give these things much play, because the military industrial complex ... the corporate complex ... pay for the commercials. The Dalai Lama himself said that at the turn of the 20th century from the 1920s, the population of the world assumed that wars were always going to happen and that everything was fine and decided by who won the wars, whereas today World War II was sort of the last good war. And since then there have been these various kinds of wars. Nobody has really been able to win any of them. The U.S., with all its power, lost totally in Vietnam — however, they tried to cover it up with Rambo movies. The Russians totally lost out in Afghanistan, and we lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, again. So nobody can win them anymore. There’s good scholarship about why that is — because the weaponry is too powerful and because you destroyed a whole place, all you can get in response is terrorism, because people are upset that their grandmother was bombed. So then the civilian casualty level is way too high and there’s no longer a winnable war, basically. If we had an all-out world war — forget it. The Northern Hemisphere would be blanketed with radioactivity, if not the whole planet, and so the general copular feeling in the world is more compassionate, I feel. Chinese people have come to like Western movie stars. Western movie stars got to like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. So people are less racist. There still are pockets of racism — anti-Semitism, anti-black, anti- white, anti-yellow, but there’s been enormous progress in all of that, I think. Also, women — although still highly suppressed in many places, their visibility and the attitude that their oppression leads to a disaster for whatever society inhabits it have become widespread. So on the mass level, I think it’s more compassionate. I totally have that optimistic view. On the governmental world leader level ... corporate level, entrenched militarism worldwide is still going on. And the arms business and arms trade is a terrible, terrible thing. Crazy people get out and shoot people in schools. People seem powerless to stop that. There’s a leadership that I think is still stuck in the 19th century Wild West. So people could get very depressed and cynical and say it’s much worse than it’s ever been and it’s doomsday. But I don’t agree with that. I just think there’s a leadership gap.

TJ: You think it’s a leadership gap that’s responsible, not society?
THURMAN: Right. That doesn’t mean society is perfect. People are flooded with the faces of each other. They look at Facebook. Imagine a million people, or whatever the number is, in all the countries. They can trend people of other races that they never would have dreamed of back in their village. White people would have yellow peril-itis about Asian people, and that has all been eroded by this immense information age, which some people experience as chaotic. And you have atavistic ... “let’s kick out all the immigrants,” etc., but it’s not possible and people are going to have to come around to it. That’s all. And then ... we had this absolutely idiotic war. The First Gulf War might have had some legitimacy in that it was simply expelling someone who took territory, who was against the new world order of 1947 at the founding of the UN. So that guy was expelled and they restrained themselves from going in and destroying bad guys. But the second one, under the lie of nuclear weapons and all this fake business, that is just a huge loss for everybody concerned and its consequences are still unfolding. So, which people want war when they see those huge heads running here and there? Who wants it? Whereas a hundred years ago you could [play] “Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Fife and Drum to Town,” and the girls are looking at some guy in uniform, and they’d all act like it was going to be great. So that’s what I mean by greater compassion, I think. But of course we have to work at it still.

TJ: What were you doing before you became involved with Buddhism and went to India and the Middle East?
THURMAN: I was a WASPy [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] kid coming from an impoverished gentry background. Father was intellectual. Mother was a Broadway actress. She dropped out from Wellesley [College] to become an actress. My father had dropped out of [the College of ] William & Mary to get away from a weird Southern family of a bunch of generals and so on. So I grew up in Manhattan, removed from that certain kind of Americana. I went to a British-style school, Phillips Exeter, and Harvard. But I always felt like I was in a weird place. I have remembered since then that I had previous lives in Tibet and Mongolia and Asia. I felt kind of estranged in this culture. To me it was a homecoming to discover Tibet, the Dalai Lama ... although I still look like a WASP!

TJ: [Laughs.] How did you transition?
THURMAN: It wasn’t a religious conversion. It was philosophical. I was not satisfied with the religion: in my case, Presbyterian. I never actually believed in a creator — God. Didn’t think any one person could be blamed for the mess. I liked Jesus. I thought he was nice and got a raw deal from his mean dad, actually. As a youth, I used to infuriate the pastor at the church where I was dragged to on holidays. On the other hand, the scientists go around like they know there’s no soul and they know it’s all random mutation, but actually they don’t know anything and need a big grant to do more research. Both of them have the idea that your common sense and your philosophical thought can never understand and figure things out yourself, and you have to believe some authorities. I never liked that. When I discovered the philosophy of the Buddha, especially the Mahāyāna version as elaborated by Nāgārjuna, Asanga and the great Indian philosophers, it just blew my mind. It was just what I wanted. It was like super Liechtenstein because I was very philosophically oriented, and their psychology was super Freud and all the great psychologists that I liked a lot. It was wonderful. I say I was always in search of a logical alphabet — “a, b, c, d” is not at all logical. The Sanskrit written alphabet is guttural — labials, palatals. They put them all into categories. They separated the vowels and consonants — incredibly linguistically thought out. You guys are Tokyo Journal. That’s where you get “ka, ki, ku, ke, ko” and the Japanese hiragana and katakana. The character system is not rational, but it’s beautiful visually. The hiragana-katakana part is from Sanskrit to Kūkai [Japanese monk who created the kana syllable system]. So I was just trying to escape from “a, b, c, d, e,f,g,h,i ...”

TJ: How old were you when you first met the Dalai Lama?
THURMAN: I saw him when I was 21, but I got to know him when I was 23.

TJ: That’s a pretty young age! So you’ve been best friends since then?
THURMAN: Fifty-one years. He has a lot of best friends, but I’m his oldest Western friend who speaks his language.

TJ: What do you like most about him as a person?
THURMAN: I love his laugh, his intelligence, his determination, his walking his talk and his accessibility. I really like all of that. Honestly. He’s really terrific. He would be the absolute best friend of Xi Jinping and the Chinese people if they would get rid of this older policy of “crush the minorities” ... “kill the Indians.” The previous communist leadership has shown for 50 or 60 years that they realize that doesn’t work in this century. I actually promised the president of China his own Nobel Peace Prize if he would befriend the Dalai Lama and change that policy and completely change the face of China for the world. PR-wise it would be a super bonanza, actually. And [the Tibetan people] don’t want that much. I would like to say he would be Gorbachev without losing the Ukraine. The Dalai Lama says, “Keep Tibet, just be nice to us. Don’t colonize us. Don’t extract our materials. Don’t genocide us. And let us take care of our grasslands and our high altitude where you guys can’t live here anyway because it’s too high and it’s bad for your lungs and your heart to live all the time at that altitude.” [The Chinese] stay two or four months down at lower altitudes when they try and colonize there. They can’t stay the whole 12 months there.


TJ: What would you say are the greatest misconceptions people have about the Dalai Lama?
THURMAN: Well, that starts with the big misconception about Buddhism. They don’t realize that Buddhism is founded on Nirvana. The Buddha himself discovered Nirvana, which means it’s possible for a human being to be truly happy and that, in the context, of scientific speculation and indeed almost proof, in those days and even possibly provable today, people are born and reborn; they don’t get out of life and the consequences of their life and their deeds just by dying. Something happens afterwards. It isn’t necessarily this god or that god, or this angel or that angel, or this devil or that devil, but something’s going to happen. So that context that it’s possible that the human life form is capable of perfect happiness and true under- standing — not just by believing it — is the foundation of the Buddhist movement in history. And that’s the first misconception, because people think Buddhists say everything is suffering. It’s really boring. Buddhists hate everything. They hate life. They run away. They don’t like steak. They don’t go to movies — whatever. Because Buddhist monastics are celibate and they’re renunciant, but they have mental pleasure — medita- tional pleasure, a very great bliss they can achieve. Mystical states. So that’s the first thing. So therefore, when the Dalai Lama is jolly and cheerful, and even in the midst of suffering practically the Holocaust of his people for the last 60 years, he still keeps good cheer. And he still takes an interest in others and has a good humor. That’s sort of surprising to people because they have that other preconception that Buddhists are sort of into misery, when exactly they’re into happiness. That’s one. The second one is the Chinese propaganda, the communist propaganda, which was built on a couple of centuries of Catholic missionary propaganda, because they were not able to missionize very effectively in Tibet. So they came up with a theory that Satan had made an antipope. They didn’t visit Church Lady on Saturday Night Live [laughs]. They came up with this all on their own. And Satan had gone over there to Tibet and made an antipope with the same red dress, same rituals and something, but it wasn’t Christianity. It was the saviorhood of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion and Buddha, and they were perfectly happy with that and they wouldn’t imagine shifting to a different one. And then these Catholic missionaries made a whole bunch of stories up about how the Tibetans were corrupt and they were like this and that. If they found one to be very cultivated and educated and kind and friendly, they said, “Well, that just shows how tricky Satan is.” There was even one guy who went out from Switzerland. There’s a sacred tree in northeast Tibet that has mantras in the grain of the tree — it is this special kind of magical tree. He went out at night with this Swiss knife and cut into the tree because he thought the monks were fooling people by carving those mantra syllables. Then he was shocked to find that they came out of the grain of the wood, you know, inside. But he concluded, “Gee, there’s a miracle here?” No. He said, “Satan is making magic.” So then the communists, when they took over, realized they didn’t want people to think they were being imperialistic. They were liberating people. They came up with this whole thing that Tibet was the land of The Borgias and Tibetan monks preyed on a Protestant attitude about monks, and they turned it all into Jeremy Irons in The Borgias, and they made propaganda like that. If they’re monks, they must be corrupt and they must all be having sex in the back room secretly, and all this. They’re oppressing the people and they’re feudal. They did not develop modern technology but they were not feudal. It’s a complicated political system. Until the 17th century they were feudal, but the Dalai Lama government deconstructed feudalism in a special way. But they didn’t take it in a direction of external industrial modernization. They did a kind of intellectual modernization where it became basically like a monastic university country. No army. They demilitarized. They had about 6,000 monastic universities, and they highly educated those who were going in that spiritual direction. And because they’re happily milking their yaks and paying very modest amounts of taxes because they didn’t have to support a big military, the people a thousand years ago were a conquest empire for Genghis Khan. So the sociologists and anthropologists, with our modernistic chauvinism, misunderstood about Tibet. Even the Dalai Lama himself said, “Yeah, we were feudal. We want to be modern democratic.” He caters to that because he doesn’t want to be defensive. But he doesn’t actually defend the nature of the country, except to say before they were invaded, Tibetans were happy, pretty cheerful, and they totally resisted being invaded. They didn’t want to be liberated, which meant being occupied and treated as secondclass citizens. That’s the second big misconception. And finally, I would say the third one is — this one I have to admit is a little out there myself — is that his nonviolence policy has been worthless and ridiculous and naive. If he wanted to be free, he should have really gone with the CIA, which he didn’t do. His brother tried to but he negated it. He said, “No.” He didn’t call for an overall uprising from his people. And he felt that Gandhi and nonviolence and Buddhist nonviolence was the only way to eventually get freedom back for his people. People think that’s completely silly. And they’ll say, “I love the Dalai Lama. He’s so cute, but boy, he should stay out of politics. He doesn’t know anything about it. Blah, blah, blah.” My response to them is, “How is Afghanistan doing with the violent liberation? How’s Vietnam? How’s any place doing with violence since the Second World War?” They’re not doing well. You can say Israel is good.They’re doing fine, but actually they’re having a really bad time with the settlers and the [Israeli West Bank] wall and people hating them. I mean, that’s not a way to live — some people trying to blow you up all the time, and high security, having to be very oppressive on people when you basically used to belong to the liberation kind of idea. So my answer is that violence doesn’t seem to work well in the 21st century or the late 20th century either. And if the Chinese see the light and want to be part of the international system and give up the dream — the Dick Cheneys of China do wish to conquer the world. They have their Dick Cheney. There’s no question, but getting into their heads that you can’t go to World War level today — you cannot. You can’t even successfully play economic warfare, which is what they kind of have been doing with this huge trade deficit they have with everybody. Even then, it’s like Japan where you have all that money but then you get stagnant yourself. You lose your export market because you’ve run jobs out of the countries you were selling back to, and they can’t buy your crap that you sell anymore, and then everyone goes into a big depression and your export-led economy doesn’t work. So I’m saying the misconception is that the Dalai Lama’s efforts of 60 years for people won’t work, but what I say is — it will work. It just takes time and the violence just keeps an endless cycle of revenge going back and forth, and nonviolence will work. You might call surgical violence illegal and wrong. If you’re bitten by a snake, you cut a hole in your arm and suck out the blood, which is a violent, surgical thing to do to avoid dying. So with something crazy violent like ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], you have to box them in. Obama’s done well to try to box them. It’s just that it’s gotten complicated with the Russians and that whole thing. But what you want is, instead of reinvading the same crazy place, he’s trying to contain it. Because if you contain such a violent, desperate behavior for people, where they have to get along with each other, then they are either going to destroy each other and fight, or they’re going to calm down. tj

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Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal as Editor-in-Chief.


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