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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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!"
others about Buddhism
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
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.
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!"
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.
Previous American Profiles