Maybe forty years ago as a Buddhist monk, or maybe earlier in another life, Robert Thurman lived a quiet, orderly existence. Today, relentlessly poking, prodding, weaving his Cool Revolution into the fabric of America, today try these words for Bob Thurman: passionate, hectic, unrestrained.
Here he is, six-foot-four with a footballer’s shoulders and tousled hair, coming noisily through the door of the stately, four-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He thumps luggage on the floor from a weekend spent hiking in the Catskills and giving dharma lectures related to his latest project, a Tibetan medical center at a mountain retreat in upstate New York—“my last sort of great excitement,” the sixty-five-year-old Tibetan Buddhist scholar says.
His wife, Nena, is calling to him from an inner room to check beets boiling on the kitchen stove. Thurman is answering her in his booming voice. Liberated from the confinement of the Catskills car-trip, the Thurmans’ three Lhasa apsos—true Tibetan temple terriers, says Thurman, not the more common North American apso-shitzu hybrid—are dashing about frenetically. The apartment is a jumble of Buddhist shrines and artwork, with books and newspapers stacked on every surface, including the floor.
The living room is dominated by two huge, black leather couches facing each other across a coffee table. The thought sneaks unbidden into a visitor’s mind: Uma Thurman has sat here on these couches, in her parents’ home.
Bob Thurman, amidst all this action, is talking intensely about his future.
He is retiring from Columbia University, where he has been chair of the department of religion and Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, America’s first endowed university chair for the study of Buddhism. He has added a second endowed professorship in Tibetan studies to the department (he’d hoped for two, but a downturn in the stock market blew the money away), and he is determined to create a Tibetan institute at the university before he severs his Columbia connection. He plans, he says, never to stop teaching.
He and his wife, a psychotherapist, will continue doing volunteer work at New York City’s Tibet House, the informal cultural and political embassy of the Tibetan government-in-exile that he and actor Richard Gere founded in 1987. His son Ganden, 38, the eldest of his four children, is its executive director.
Thurman has written more than a dozen books on Tibet and its Buddhist tradition. He has testified before U.S. government bodies on China’s half-century occupation of Tibet. He lectures tirelessly. He has been dubbed Buddhism’s Billy Graham (“Nonsense,” he says. “I’m not trying to get anyone to join anything”) and Time magazine in 1997 pronounced him one of the twenty-five most influential people in the U.S., another label he scoffs at.
Thurman shepherds his close friend the Dalai Lama around the United States whenever he visits. He lives in a world of celebrity dazzle as a pal of fellow Buddhists or Tibet supporters like Gere, Harrison Ford, Sharon Stone, composer Philip Glass, rock star Michael Stipe, singer Natalie Merchant.
The Tibetan medicine institute—a spa, training school, and revenue operation for Tibetan exiles—has been his dream for the past fifteen years. The dream took a big step forward five years ago when an organization with a spectacular 320-acre property in the Catskill Mountains, complete with conference facilities and accommodation for sixty visitors, threw in the towel on its efforts to create a healing center based on Greek mysticism and donated the estate to Tibet House.
Above all, what engages Thurman and draws public and media attention to him (apart from his Hollywood hobnobbing and romantic life story) is his position at the epicenter of America’s Buddhist Third Wave: first wave, the nineteenth-century transcendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller weaving their metaphysics out of Buddhism and Hinduism; second, the 1960s counterculture trek to Himalayan gurus; and now, third, the growing appeal of Buddhism to Americans alienated from theistic religions and in search of a moral and ethical compass, the fertile society for Bob Thurman’s hoped-for Cool Revolution.
Thurman is the Third Wave’s chief messenger, an articulate, accessible bridge between Tibetan Buddhist teachings and American culture, the first Westerner to be ordained a Buddhist monk (by the Dalai Lama himself in 1965), a brainy and charismatic speaker, a colorful, totally engaging, funny Buddanarchist with the devastating verbal skills to draw beads in a single sentence on the Bush administration, Christian fundamentalism, and Americans’ mythological delusions and dogma of materialism.
He offers Buddhism not as a religion—“The Dalai Lama and I agree, or really I agree with him, that in the modern period it’s too late to go around peddling a religion”—but as a service. Not as a church but a school, what Thurman calls “Buddhism without Buddhism,” to the annoyance of more earnest adherents (“I made official Buddhists a little jumpy,” he says).
“The biggest finding of the Buddha,” he says, “is not a religious ‘Eureka! I met God and he told me to make you believe in something.’ The biggest finding of the Buddha is that human beings are capable of understanding themselves and their world, and only by doing so will they become happy. Which is their aim, the aim of all living beings, to be happy, and you can only become truly, reliably happy by understanding your world.
“That’s a shocking discovery, actually. And in the end the Buddha may be wrong, but we can’t be sure unless we become a buddha ourselves. But that’s what he discovered and announced.”
And that’s what Thurman is announcing, in his own unique way.
In two recent conversations—in Toronto and New York—he talked about Buddhism as an agent of individual and social transformation, about the meaning of true individualism as the key to the path to enlightenment and a response to the false individualism of American cultural mythology, about reincarnation, about his thoughts on theistic religion and its fundamentalist believers and proselytizers (Thurman would have some of them prosecuted for human rights violations), about dropping out of George Bush’s America, and about his vision for a Tibetan medicine center.
He addressed criticisms that Buddhism is being adulterated for trendy Western consumption, stripped of its spirituality, and turned into mere humanism and a me-first focus on winning enlightenment only for the self.
Buddhism, said Thurman, is perfectly applicable and adaptable to Western culture. “It can be delivered anywhere, and has been historically. It went to China, it went to Japan, it went to vastly different cultures from India. It kept developing wherever it went and it changes at any one place where it stays because people’s needs change.” Quite rightly, he said, it is called humanism, “maybe the first true humanism,” but it is not secular humanism “with its dogma that only matter exists—no soul, no spirit, and the mind reduced to a bunch of neurons so they can give you Prozac and other sophisticated drugs because your whole consciousness is nothing but some neurotransmitter.”
Far from being a me-first philosophy, Buddhism is a moral and ethical force for social activism, he said, because it teaches an awareness of the world from everyone else’s perspective—“a unique evolutionary opportunity to become awakened to this truly different way of being aware to the world.” And with David Henry Thoreau’s words echoing in the background, Thurman said the teachings of Buddhism advocate civil disobedience for Americans when the rules of their society are counter to the ethical development of their beings.
Robert Thurman grew up in a household of WASP privilege. His mother, Elizabeth Farrar, dropped out of college to pursue an acting career. His father, Beverley, left his doctoral studies at the College of William and Mary to follow Elizabeth to New York, and wound up working as an editor for the Associated Press. Augustin Duncan, the dancer Isadora’s brother, conducted weekly dramatic readings in the Thurmans’ home, where Robert and his brothers read parts alongside guests like Laurence Olivier. But Thurman also sneaked comic books inside his Shakespeare folio.
He was enrolled in the exclusive New England preparatory school, Phillips Exeter Academy, where he was co-captain of the lacrosse team and a National Merit scholar, and was admitted to Harvard. “Everything was predetermined,” he says. Although not everything. Thurman and a wealthy Mexican schoolmate played hooky to go join Fidel Castro’s Cuban guerrilla army in the spring of 1958. The boys never got beyond Miami Beach—and they were both kicked out of Exeter just before graduation.
Nevertheless, with top grades and SAT scores, Thurman was allowed to enroll in Harvard where, in his first term, he fell in love with Christophe de Menil, heiress to a considerable French fortune and art collection, and married her in 1960 at the age of eighteen. The couple almost immediately had a daughter, Taya.
Then, in the spring of 1961, while he was fixing a flat on his car at his family’s Connecticut home, the tire iron slipped and destroyed his left eye. It brought him face to face with mortality and an awareness that life was not something to be dabbled with. In Thurman’s words, he realized he did not want to waste his life “drinking champagne and staring at Rouaults.” He told The New York Times a few years ago that, having read Nietzsche and Buddhist texts, he made a young man’s vow to act on his highest aims. “I was ready to go to the East,” he said, but “my wife was nervous, scared of the whole thing. I then started identifying with Buddha, left my wife and child and went over there. I was very sad about that, but I felt—even as a father—what’s the use of not being enlightened?”
He wandered for months through Turkey and Iran, heading toward India, dressed in Afghan pants and sandals and letting his hair and beard grow, until he was called home because of his father’s unexpected death. He visited a Buddhist monastery in New Jersey and met his first teacher, a sixty-one-year-old Mongolian monk, Geshe Ngawang Wangyal. Thurman described studying with the monk as a “rebirth.” He quickly learned Tibetan. He meditated, helped his mentor build a temple, and declared that he wanted to become a monk and live this life forever.
Geshe Wangyal advised against it but agreed to take Thurman with him to Dharamsala, India, headquarters of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile community. “Since you’re so stubborn,” the monk told his young pupil, “I’ll tell the Dalai Lama you want to be a monk. Maybe he’ll think that’s a good idea.” Thurman was twenty-three; the Dalai Lama was twenty-nine. They formed a lifelong bond.
“He wanted to see me a lot,” Thurman once recalled. “I soon found out it wasn’t to teach me but because I spoke Tibetan. Basically he got my Exeter and Harvard education over that year and a half. We met once a week. Every talk I’d say, ‘What about this problem in Madhyamaka thought?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, talk to so-and-so about that. Now what about Freud? What about physics? What about the history of World War II?’”
Thurman was ordained by the Dalai Lama in 1965, becoming the first Western Tibetan Buddhist monk. He returned to the United States with a shaved head and maroon robe. His family, as he has said, was “weirded out” by the sight of him. Years later, Uma came across a photograph of her father in his monk phase and declared, “Oh, look at Daddy—he looks like Henry Miller in drag.” The phase lasted only a year. Geshe Wangyal persuaded him that the better course was to become an academic.
He returned to Harvard, completed his bachelor’s degree, and continued into graduate work. At a party one night in New York, he met Swedish fashion model Nena von Schlebrugge, who had been briefly married to Timothy Leary and whose mother was immortalized by a nude statue in a Swedish harbor. She and Thurman married in 1967. He went on to become one of the world’s major scholars on Tibetan Buddhism, both through his own writing and his translations of works of some of the great Tibetan masters.
Thurman sees an America today that is ethically confused and wandering, pathologically self-deluded and doing itself harm. He is not offering Buddhist teaching as a magic bullet or a panacea. He insouciantly acknowledges that what he is offering may be no remedy at all, that the Buddha could have been wrong—no one can know for sure until they become a buddha themselves.
But he’s sorely distressed. And he’s possessed by the conviction that fundamentalist theism is precisely the wrong spirituality for the Empire of the Potomac. The United States, he says, is founded on a frontier-thesis mythology of American individualism that is in contrast to the Buddhist view of the individual. In other words, the notion of a fixed, ascribed individual nature (“Only a Brahman has a Brahman’s soul, an untouchable has an untouchable’s soul”—and an American has an American’s soul) versus the idea that a person has only a temporary individual identity relational to all existence in the universe (an American today, reborn an Iraqi tomorrow).
To begin with, says Thurman, the mythology of American individualism is a “totally pathological, flawed, Eurocentric perception.
“I have my acid test for the Western individualist,” he says. “If you want to see how individualist New York is, what you do is you take off all your clothes, paint yourself blue, get yourself a big tribal staff, make a hairdo of dreadlocks with cow dung, and—stark naked, painted blue, with some stripes on your forehead—walk down Broadway and demand lunch from any particular restaurant. And how many blocks will you get before you are in a straightjacket and hauled away and injected with things to make you sociable?” But in India, you can have 85 million people gather on the banks of the Ganges and they are all done up like that.
Thurman was fascinated by the book Lame Deer Speaks, written by the Lakota medicine man John (Fire) Lame Deer. “The thing that really struck me from that book is what he says about the Lakota warriors, when they were fighting the U.S. cavalry. He said that the Lakotas would get all geared up to fight; each one would be painted up with their own totem, and each completely individual. The Lakotas would feel so sorry for the pony soldiers, because the Western guys looked like little toys—all exactly the same, sitting on their horses, all blue motion, nothing individual about them at all, like little robot pieces. They felt sorry for them. They didn’t comprehend of what sort of discipline and what sort of whippings the soldiers had had as children to make them conform so exactly to one another, like the machine. That really blew my mind when I read it.
“So now, for example, King George tells me, ‘Go and fight in Iraq, because my daddy was insulted by the leader, and we want a lot of oil, and we want some more land.’ Then he says,
‘You have to do it because you are American, and you are a patriot: You have an intrinsic identity as an American. You have to obey me, and that’s your sole duty.’ Or, ‘You are a Christian and this is a Christian war, and that’s your sole duty as a Christian.’ This is your essence and there is no other way.
“On the contrary, what I say is, No, I am only temporarily an American, that’s a relational thing. This thing about being a Christian is a temporary, relational thing—it’s part of being in a culture and relational system. I am actually a product of what I do, what I experience, in my relationship to beings and the universe.
“So my individuality is only temporarily part of your collective, and I don’t have to obey the rules of your collective. I mean, I might obey if it is important to me to be part of your collective. But in the long run, I will die out of your collective and I might be reborn as an Iraqi. I might be reborn as a Russian, if you are going to say that they are my archenemy. I might be reborn as a Chinese, if you are going to say that they are my archenemy. I might be reborn as a Jew if you are going to say that they are my archenemy. I might be reborn Black.
“In other words, I am a unique temporal event. I have to look at the causation of my unique event, and I will not be labeled or trapped into any collectivity on the basis that I have some fixed essence that belongs to that collectivity.”
Enlightenment, he says, means understanding the other just as well as we understand ourselves. “We can empathize with another being, right? We do fall in love. We do have children we totally identify with. A buddha perceives every being as a mother would perceive her beloved child.” Whereas, he says, the George-Bush rules, and the religious-fundamentalist rules deny the validity of the other.
Thurman says that Christianity would be on the same page as Buddhism—he calls Jesus a buddha and the Sermon on the Mount a buddha’s teaching about the other—if it stuck to its emphasis on meeting hatred with love, and got over the irrational idea of an omnipotent God who is some kind of transcendent other. We’re sitting in the empty restaurant of a Toronto hotel as he says this. He leans forward, tightens his shoulders, and lowers his voice in a mock-dramatic whisper: “Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount and he says, ‘Now, you guys better do this. If you don’t do what I’m telling you then you’re like a man with a house on sand, and if you do it, then you’re like a house on a rock.’
“And then Jesus says—and this is where I see Dick Cheney rising out of scripture, and George Bush—‘In the future when I’m at the right hand of God, there will be people coming unto me and saying, “Lord, Lord, we have cast out devils in thy name, and we have done great deeds of power in thy name, now let us in,” and I will say to them, ‘I know ye not, get thee gone, ye evildoers.’ ”
Robert Thurman shouts: “‘Get thee gone, ye evildoers!’ Now that is an ethic, and it is not the ethic of the church triumphant, out there marching and killing infidels and having a rapture and blowing the hell out of everybody and pretending that the A-bomb was given by God!”
Shift to the final scene in New York. The Tibetan temple dogs have settled down in the sepia-elegant apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The beets have cooked. Robert Thurman is talking about health care. “Our medical system is like a big giant train wreck. With cars scattered everywhere and people uninsured and uncared for and people badly fed and badly drugged. It’s really bad. So all of that boils down to this: For the last ten to fifteen years I’ve been trying to start a Tibetan medicine center of some sort. The Dalai Lama likes it.
“When the Dalai Lama was first visiting America years ago, I was interviewing him and I said, ‘Your Holiness, we all want to help Tibet get its freedom, but if Tibet were free, what would you do? What would its economy be? You couldn’t go back to being closed Tibet. What would it be? What would you do?’ He said, ‘I don’t want to talk about that. We don’t want people to think we are scheming about what we will do. I just want to get a fair shake for my people, you know, that’s all. I don’t even have to go back to Tibet, as long as they are treated well.’
“He kept avoiding answering until finally he said, ‘Well, if you just want me to speculate and tell you my wish, I want Tibet’s major industry, if we were to go back, to be Tibetan medicine. I would like it to be a spa sanatorium country like Switzerland. We have beautiful hills, mountains, streams, mineral baths, hot springs, and a great herbal medical tradition and a very insightful medical tradition. I would want that to be our national contribution to the world as a service industry.’”
That’s what the messenger of the Cool Revolution is trying to create in the Catskills.