As the author or translator of 18 books on Buddhism and as co-founder of Tibet House in New York, Robert Thurman has helped bring Tibetan wisdom and philosophy solidly into the American cultural mainstream. VOA's Adam Phillips has a profile of the Tibetan scholar from New York.
Even as a boy, Robert Thurman had a strong philosophical bent. Born in New York City in 1941, he says he was equally dissatisfied with traditional religion and Western philosophy, which he found too dry for his highly emotional nature. But when Thurman discovered Buddhist philosophy as a teenager, he felt it offered a middle path between bloodless secularism and blind faith.
"While Buddhism has a religious aspect, its central drive is towards wisdom… and that really inspired me, that reason and emotion could be brought together [and] harmonized," says Thurman. He adds that Buddhism is an ancient academic and philosophical discipline that embraces many sciences "but the key science is psychology. Because the key to the good life is how your mind is regulated."
Thurman went on to study at Harvard University, where he says his knowledge of Buddhism remained mostly theoretical, while he lived the life of a carefree undergraduate. But that changed shortly after he turned 20, and lost his left eye in an accident. "And that was like a visceral experience of impermanence - and woke me up [to the fact] that I have to live what my ideals are."
In 1961, during his senior year at Harvard, Thurman took what he jokingly referred to as an "infinite leave of absence," and traveled to India for a year, to deepen his scholarship and meditation practice. After returning to the U.S., he learned to speak Tibetan fluently, and to read and translate classic Buddhist texts.
"It was like meeting a superior civilization, a civilization that did not believe that human nature was inherently violent," he says."[It seemed to me that Americans] were like far away barbarians with our tanks and our aircraft carriers and our nuclear weapons."
Befriends Dalai Lama
Back in India in 1964, Thurman befriended the young Dalai Lama, who ordained him the next year as a monk in the Tibetan tradition; it was the first time any American had been so honored. But finding himself unsuited to the monastic life, he renounced his vows two years later.
Thurman returned once more to the U.S., married, and went back to Harvard. In 1972, he was awarded a PhD in philosophy, based on his dissertation on the esoteric Buddhist doctrine of "sunyata," or emptiness.
The decade of the 70s was a fertile era in America's spiritual life, when meditation and other Eastern spiritual practices were beginning to enter the cultural mainstream. But Thurman detected an anti-intellectual strain among American Buddhists, who felt that meditation meant merely "unlearning."
Thurman opines that from the Indo-Tibetan perspective, that is a serious mistake. "The 'unlearning' involves using your critical intellect. You need to debate and develop a way of being deeply critical about your own dogmatic ideas. So you haveto learn!"
Teaching others about Buddhism
Thurman has devoted his life to helping others learn about Tibetan Buddhism, both as a professor at Columbia University, and as an author and translator of nearly 20 books, including national bestsellers such as Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness.Other works have made previously arcane Buddhist subjects, such as the philosophy of conscious dying and sacred Tibetan architecture, accessible to mainstream Americans.
In 1987, with his friends the Dalai Lama and actor Richard Gere, Thurman co-founded Tibet House in New York, a non-profit group dedicated to presenting the spiritual and cultural riches of Tibet to the world.
But Thurman says he does not wish to "convert" anyone to Buddhism. In this, he says he is following the Dalai Lama's example. "He really has been a leader in… telling Christians and everyone else 'praise the glories of your religions to the skies' and say 'it's best for you,' but don't try to impose it on others.' That's the best way in the pluralistic world!"
At nearly 70, Robert Thurman refuses to slow down. His projects include the continuing translation of a massive collection of Buddhist scientific texts, the creation of a center for Tibetan medicine, and the promotion of his current book Why the Dalai Lama Matters, which explains the Dalai Lama's proposal for peace between Tibetans and the Chinese.