Robert Thurman: The Danny Fisher/Shambhala SunSpace interview

Photo by Stephenie Hollyman, via

Photo by Stephenie Hollyman, via

Undoubtedly known to Shambhala Sun readers as a mighty figure in terms of the transmission of Buddhist culture and ideas to the United States, Bob Thurman is also Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University; co-founder and president of Tibet House U.S.; bestselling author of quite a few books, including the recent Why the Dalai Lama Matters; a prolific teacher; and, yes, Uma’s dad.

Dr. Thurman will make a rare public appearance in Los Angeles on April 30th at the invitation of InsightLA. (Seats are still available – reserve yours here.) I was very fortunate to speak with him ahead of the event…

Dr. Thurman, given the fact that you’re one of the leading experts on His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, I suppose the obvious place to start would be with the news coming out of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile recently. On Tibetan National Uprising Day, His Holiness indicated his wish to step down as political leader of his people. Candidates vying to be the next prime minister were identified, but the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies also resolved that the relationship between the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans is “immortal” and formally asked him not to give up his political role. Then, this past week, the A.T.P.D. reversed its position, and elections were also held. What do you see for the future of the Tibetan people politically? Also, what do you think the responsibilities of His Holiness will ultimately look like in the next few years?

The news is actually old news, in that, decades ago, His Holiness alerted the Tibetan people to his intention to get the Dalai Lama institution out of political focus. However, this formal resignation in the context of the election of Prime Minister and Parliament of the Government-in-Exile is exciting: the outgoing Parliament eventually accepted his resignation, and Tibetans are assuming a new sense of responsibility, while intensifying yet further their devotion and appreciation of their Dalai Lama.

Tibetans in exile have an exemplary political involvement in a nonviolent liberation movement, setting an example for world. When China eventually catches up to the contemporary political reality, they will follow the Dalai Lama’s wishes themselves, and, far from losing anything but their problems, will benefit enormously. The president who changes Tibet policy from genocide to restoration of the Tibetan people, landscape, and culture, will receive a Nobel Peace prize himself, and the turn-around will accompany a new openness to Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism as well as Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Confucianism, spirituality in general, and so on, and even a massive, peaceful shift internally to a multi-party democratic governance system. At that point, the Tibetan people will be able to make a great contribution to the United States of China, leading the way in the living practice of a nonviolent spiritual democracy, while the Chinese government and private citizens will make a great contribution repairing the damage wrought by the PRC/CCP to the Tibetan environment, people, and culture.

His Holiness will continue to inspire movement in that direction in the next few years, but, as he is getting more and more elder by the day, it is inefficient of the Chinese leadership not recognize that he is their best friend, and to avail themselves of his positive consultancy as soon as possible.

The leadership style of His Holiness in terms of the Sino-Tibetan conflict is something that is much discussed both by the Tibetan exile community and pundits in the mass media. As we consider His Holiness as a political leader, I’m wondering: What you feel His Holiness’s greatest successes have been in this regard? What do you think his legacy will be?

His Holiness is the living standard bearer of Buddha, Jesus, etc., up to Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King in responding to hatred with love, to violence with nonviolence, to prejudice and extremism with open-mindedness and moderation, to gloominess with humor, and to impractical confusion with intelligent realism. Worldwide this is well known by now, and more and more people are discovering every day to their amazement that there is positive, effective leadership somewhere on this massively misled planet. When people complain that his nonviolent effort to free his people is not working so well, one has to point out that neither are the various violent liberation movements working out, and that the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., the Velvet revolution in Europe, and the ANC experienced success after shifting from violent to nonviolent policies. These are examples of the inevitable eventual success of intelligent, calm, and heroic peacefulness.

Shifting gears, I understand that you will be talking about insight meditation as “the door to non-duality” during your talk here in Los Angeles. Would you say more about this topic?

I will say it when I get there, natch. For the moment, let me just say that the supreme, blissful non-duality life is actual reality, not some exotic state, and so the engaged and focused cognitive realism that mindfulness and critical wisdom open to and pursue are thus the practical doorway into the such a freedom.

I know the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra is near and dear to your heart, as it is to mine. (At one point, I had planned to write my dissertation about it.) Would you say something about its influence on you personally and how it has inspired you as a scholar and a Buddhist teacher? When did you first read it? What did you think initially? Have particular teachings in the text affected you more over time than they did at first?

When I first was commissioned to translate it in the early 1970s, I was amazed at so many things about it. Tibetan practice traditions work with the scientific-instruction-transformation manuals of the great Indian masters like Nagarjuna and Asangsa, and sutras are only read for pleasure and inspiration — so I had not read the sutra during my time as a Buddhist monk. The creation and beautification of the buddhaverse / buddhafield, the profound dialogues between “Vimkee” and Manjushree, the inconceivable liberation, the various magical operations, the lion’s roar of Vimalakirti’s empowering silence — all these things blew my mind. I remember when I gave a copy of my translation when it was published to my root lama, Ven. Geshe Wangyal. I said, knowing he didn’t really read English books, “This is dedicated to you and for the monastery library. I just translated it from Tibetan.” He took the book in his hand, and said, “Oh, you’re just beginning to study this!” I said, “No, I translated it.” He said, “Oh, you’re just beginning to study this!” And he was so right! Over the years, as I have looked at it again and again, teaching its messages to students in classes for almost forty years now, looking at its versions in various languages, I find new depths in it all the time. And it’s also a lot of fun.

Dr. Thurman, you’ve long participated in both Buddhist Studies and practice. I’m curious about insights that you’ve arrived at in terms of the relationship between the two. What do you think a mutually beneficial relationship between Buddhist Studies and practice looks like?

Buddhist Studies is practice. There are three “baskets” of Buddhist scriptures (Agamadharma), and three higher educations constitute Buddhist realization/practice (Adhigamadharma). The middle basket is the sutra basket, which corresponds to the middle practice which corresponds to mind or meditation higher education (chitta- or samadhi-adhishiksha), the other two practices / spiritual educations being ethical actions and wisdom scientific experiential insight discovery and understanding. So it’s all of a single piece, the vehicle of study, meditating, understanding, and putting into practice and life.

I’m going to give you a broad canvas for this next question… You’ve made significant contributions to the development of Buddhism in America, and you’ve been present for many large gatherings on the subject (like the one in Boston in 1997, and the one in New York in 2001—where I first had the opportunity to meet you). I’m curious about any stray, “State of the Union”-style observations you have about Buddhism in America right now, broadly-speaking. What’s exciting to you? What needs work, in your view?

We need to be intensify our meditative practices in order to stay cool and cheerful, while being more active and committed socially and politically, in that America and the world is in extreme danger of losing our democratic traditions and freedoms and falling into corporatist fascism, militarism, and environmental self-destruction. Tibetans being like the canaries in the mineshaft, the fate of Tibet is at the heart of this danger, and the key focus of the horizon of opportunity. What happens on the roof of the world, the headwaters of the rivers of the life of the masses of Asia, the former empire that chose nonviolent Dharma realistic living unto death (and new life) if need be, this resonates globally around the planet.

Changing topics again, you were one of very, very few prominent Buddhists in North America to comment publicly on the Park51 controversy. At The Washington Post’s On Faith, you wrote, “It is a wonderful idea to build a mosque near Ground Zero!” You’ve also written about how true compassion “doesn’t require conversion” for On Faith. Would you say something about the importance for Buddhist practitioners of interfaith understanding and supporting religious others?

I’ve always said that Buddhism has always offered its services of ethics, mind and meditative calming, scientific realism, and technological transformation without insisting on “being Buddhism.” I gave lectures in San Francisco in the nineties entitled “Buddhism without Buddhism,” which propounded this systematically. The last thing the country or planet needs is intensification of inter-religious competition, institutions fighting for market share of memberships and so on, which only lead to extremisms, paranoia, and intensification of insecurity, selfishness, divisiveness. So our first job is to calm and enlighten ourselves, then help others to work with where they are to be more realistic, happy, and kind. There was no word “Buddhism” for many centuries in India; there were simply those persons “inside” the joyful evolutionary life of positive self and social transformation, and those not yet “inside” it — whether they called themselves priests, merchants, warriors, workers, artists, or even servants, whether they found the transformative path through the Buddha’s instructions or Mahavira Jina’s or the Upanishads or Bhagavad Gita, etc. So we should stick with that in the inevitable pluralistic settings of almost all world societies.

Lastly, you teach a lot about anger. In fact, you wrote a really wonderful little book on the subject. We seem to be having a national debate right now about civility in light of horrible tragedies but also just the general tone of political discourse in our country right now. What role do you think anger plays here, and what might you offer as an antidote, or even just a constructive criticism?

After a lifetime of losing my temper and always regretting the results, I must re-affirm Buddha’s, Jesus’s, master Shantideva’s, and lots of others’ great teaching that the only thing one can rationally be angry with is anger itself! And since anger wants to destroy what it perceives as obstacle, anger will thus self-destruct, and all the immense power of hate-free fire will become available for the force of peace!

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  1. RebeKunga says

    I love Robert Thurman and think he is an amazing individual, however, he fails time and again to talk about the rather large split within the exiled Tibetan community and instead only talks about HHDL's stance on Tibet/China. His latest belief is captured in Danny's interview with him which I've read in other interviews.
    The truth is that many within the exiled community and this includes Parliament leaders, activists, lay people, and other Tibetan Government in exile folks do not agree with His Holiness' adoption of autonomy for Tibet. They want all out freedom and many express a call for all Chinese out of Tibet as well. I spoke with a long time member of Parliament who was all for taking Tibet by force if necessary and candidly voiced his opinion on this issue. He is not alone in this opinion as I have since discovered however as he stated to me, few Tibetans will speak out against His Holiness out of utter respect and devotion. Without a unified exiled community, gaining anything from China will prove impossible.