Robert Thurman Doesn’t Look Buddhist
From The New York Times Magazine
By RODGER KAMENETZ
ALL AND IMPOSING, IN A DARK BLUE SUIT and bold red-and-yellow tie, Prof. Robert A.F. Thurman, a former Tibetan Buddhist monk and New Yorker to his bones, marched to center stage at Carnegie Hall. Thurman, who is also the president of Tibet House, was introducing the organization’s annual benefit concert. He announced to the sold-out house, with a certain wry hilarity, the Tibetan New Year of the Fiery Rat. He praised the evening’s performers, Michael Stipe and Emmylou Harris among them, for “putting a shield of poetry around the heart of a suffering people.” Later on, Thurman kicked and shuffled his way across the stage, eyeing his feet nervously, arm in arm with the singers Natalie Merchant and Patti Smith as Dadon, an exiled Tibetan balladeer, led them in a Tibetan New Year’s dance. After the concert, Thurman rushed upstairs to introduce reporters to one of his daughters, the actress Uma Thurman, and to Harrison Ford, hosts of the late supper party to come. There, Thurman held forth energetically, in a swarm of rock stars, models, movie stars and other wealthy patrons of Tibet House.
When I asked him how a meditative Buddhist type could handle so much action, Thurman said, “There’s a stereotype that Buddhism is quietistic: leave the world, drop out — drop dead basically.” Then he laughed and talked about how meditation can also release enormous amounts of energy. Thurman enjoys his contradictions. To him, Buddhist enlightenment is “the tolerance of cognitive dissonance, the ability to cope with the beauty of complexity.”
Cognitive dissonance is Thurman’s way of life. Though a highly respected scholar — he is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University — Thurman can also come on like a dharma-thumping evangelist. In fact, he has emerged as the most visible and charismatic exponent of Tibetan Buddhism in America: he is a prolific translator and writer (“Essential Tibetan Buddhism,” an anthology of key texts in translation, was just published by HarperCollins), a powerful advocate for the liberation of Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s cultural liaison to America.
In San Francisco recently, he talked four hours straight over lunch until a vacuum cleaner made it clear that the restaurant was completely empty. We then raced across town in his rented red Mustang, and he spoke for another three hours on dharma, the Buddhist teachings, at the California Institute for Integral Studies. His lectures are multivocal psychodramas. Prof. P. Jeffrey Hopkins of the University of Virginia, Thurman’s colleague and fellow translator, calls him “the Red Skelton of Tibetan Buddhism.”
Thurman’s large head is framed with wavy, reddish blond hair, which curls back over his ears in wings. After a while you notice that his right eye roves, while the left stays fixed. Ask one question and Thurman’s booming, reedy tenor rises off at odd angles and zooms into open rhetorical space. Speaking about the Buddha after his enlightenment, for instance: “He was a seething energy field. His skin was all gold. You know this little tuft of white hair, this third eyebrow that he had? It came into its own finally, like a transistor — zzzzzz — and light rays would beam out all over the place.”
Thurman, at 54, seethes with energy himself. Natalie Merchant, a family friend, remembers Thurman singlehandedly clearing a huge boulder from his country house in Woodstock, N.Y.; his son, Dechen, recalls his father shimmying up a tree with a chain saw, cutting off a limb that was threatening to crash into a window. “He was a monk, and monks take 252 vows,” says Thurman’s wife, Nena von Schlebrugge-Thurman, who serves as the treasurer for Tibet House. “And a lot of those vows have to do with not thinking about yourself and being there to help other people. He has developed a bad tendency to say yes to everything. So the entire family is joined together in a desperate effort over all these years to get him to cut down on these things, and he’s become much, much improved lately.”
Well, maybe. In the past two years, Thurman published a new translation of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” wrote the text for a picture book called “Inside Tibetan Buddhism” and published “Essential Tibetan Buddhism.” Another book, on Tibetan politics, is in the works. A few years ago, he helped mount a major traveling exhibit of Tibetan art, “Wisdom and Compassion.”
Thurman says he believes that the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism — as lived by the present Dalai Lama — can help save us all. Among Thurman’s greatest passions is Tibet House, which he, along with the actor Richard Gere and two others, founded in 1987 at the Dalai Lama’s request. It serves as a cultural embassy for an occupied nation; among other projects, Tibet House is creating a museum without walls — a library and an archive of artwork and ritual objects — that could eventually be returned to Tibet, and is sponsoring a peacemaking conference in California, to be attended by the Dalai Lama.
In his earlier years, Thurman felt little obligation to support the Tibetan political struggle. “I thought, Tibet had done me the kindness of preserving the dharma from ancient times in India and handing it to me,” he says. “I woke up to how callous that was about 15 years ago and decided that I could try to repay their kindness, by helping to get the world’s attention focused on this massive injustice.”
Thurman, with his intellect, savvy and high-profile connections, is particularly qualified to undertake such a task. Yet as a young man, he spent years as a celibate monk. As he tells it, in his 20’s, Thurman was as intensely set on leaving the world as he now seems to be on changing it.
THURMAN GREW UP IN A HOUSEHOLD shaped by romance and drama. His mother, Elizabeth Farrar, dropped out of college to pursue an acting career; his father, Beverley, left his doctoral studies at 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. In April of his senior year at Phillips Exeter, he ran off with a friend to enlist with Fidel Castro. Fortunately, Thurman says, for the revolution’s sake, the boys were turned back at Miami. Exeter expelled him for that adventure and he waited out a year in Mexico before entering Harvard in 1959.
That spring, he married Christophe de Menil, heiress to a considerable fortune and fine-art collection. In the late spring of 1961, while Thurman was changing a flat on his car, the tire iron slipped and destroyed his left eye. It was a turning point; Thurman realized he did not want to waste his life “drinking Champagne and staring at Rouaults.” He made a young man’s vow — fed by his readings of Nietzsche and Buddhist texts — to act on his highest aims. “I was ready to go to the East,” he says, 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?”
Dropping out of Harvard, Thurman wandered toward India through Turkey and Iran, “like a beggar.” His mother thought he was crazy, but his father, for whom St. Francis was a spiritual ideal, defended him. “You’re doing what I always wanted to do,” his father said.
“I was already by about that time like St. Francis,” muses Thurman. “I had an empty socket, long hair and a scraggly beard. I wore black baggy Afghani pants, a T-shirt with a white shawl thrown around me and leather sandals.” In India, he was hired to teach English to exiled tulkus — young reincarnated Tibetan lamas. “I was in heaven, because the minute I met the Tibetans, I knew they had what I wanted.”
But Thurman was called back to New York by his father’s sudden death. He visited the Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America, in Freewood Acres, N.J., and met his first guru — a 61-year-old Mongolian monk, Geshe Ngawang Wangyal. (Geshe is a monastic title indicating years of advanced study.) Thurman was moved by the monk’s quiet intensity and began to study with him. “That was a rebirth for me,” he says. “I learned to speak Tibetan fluently in 10 weeks.”
Thurman helped his mentor build a temple. He meditated. “I’m not saying I attained nirvana — I still don’t know what that is — but I attained a sense of relief,” he says. “I still had many of my bad egocentric habits, and one of them was that I fanatically wanted to be a monk, because I wanted to live like this for the rest of my life.”
Geshe Wangyal advised him against this career move, but he agreed to take Thurman with him to Dharamsala, India. “Since you are so stubborn, I’ll tell the Dalai Lama you want to be a monk,” he said. “Maybe he’ll think that’s not a bad idea.”
THUS BEGAN AN EXTRAORDINARY relationship. Thurman was 23, the 14th Dalai Lama, 29.
“You don’t really study with the Dalai Lama,” Thurman says. “If you’re under his protection in the community, he assigns this or that teacher. He wanted to see me a lot. 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 madhyamika thought?’ And he’d say: ‘Oh, talk to blah blah about that. Now what about Freud? What about physics? What about the history of World War II?’ ”
Thurman was personally 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: “Uma said recently, after seeing a photograph of me in my monk phase, ‘Oh, look at Daddy — he looks like Henry Miller in drag.’ ” That phase lasted only about a year. Geshe Wangyal asked Thurman if he thought the world truly needed — or wanted — a white geshe. “He convinced me that the alternative was to become a Protestant monk,” Thurman says. “That is, a professor.”
Thurman met Nena von Schlebrugge, Timothy Leary’s former wife, at a party in New York, and they were married in 1967. (They have four children and now live in Manhattan near Columbia. ) Thurman returned to Harvard, completed his degree and enrolled in graduate work at the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. “I created the field of Buddhology,” he says. “I just wrote it down on the form and they said, ‘We don’t have this field here, but I guess it’s all right.’ ”
Tibetan, Zen and Theravada are the three most popular forms of Buddhism among Westerners today. Of the three, Tibetan Buddhism is probably the most difficult and exotic path, with its emphasis on prostrations, visualizations, guru worship and deity yoga, in which the practitioner identifies with Tibetan deities as a path to higher states of consciousness. Tibetan Buddhism now has four main groupings, of which the Geluk, the Dalai Lama’s order, is considered the most philosophical and scholarly.
Thurman’s major contribution to understanding Tibetan Buddhism is his translation of “The Essence of True Eloquence” (now published as “The Central Philosophy of Tibet”), by the 14th-century Tibetan sage Jey Tsong Khapa. Thurman had returned to India in 1970 to work on this project, spending hours with the Dalai Lama, who provided the benefit of his personal notes. Thurman speaks of translation in Tibetan terms as lotsawa — “a world eye,” or window on a new world.
To some observers, a tremendous opening of the Buddhist “world eye” has occurred in the West over the past 30 years. Tibetan Buddhism in particular has been well served by pioneer professors like Thurman and Jeffrey Hopkins, both of whom have established successful graduate programs. A new generation of Tibetan textual scholars has come forth, and mainstream publishers produce a steady flow of translated Tibetan dharma texts.
Much of the interest must be attributed to the tremendous appeal of the Dalai Lama. But other Tibetan teachers have influenced the West, including Chogyam Trungpa, who founded the Naropa Institute, in Boulder, Colo., and Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the best seller “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.” The success of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, a slick magazine devoted to contemporary dharma and profiles of prominent Buddhists, has also contributed to the movement.
But no wave arrives without some froth. Donald S. Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan and the author of “Prisoners of Shangri-la,” a forthcoming study of the effect of Tibetan Buddhism on the West, refers to a recent J. Peterman catalogue as a case in point: “They’re selling something called a Tibetan shaman’s jacket. The first line of the ad said: ‘It’s official. Crystals are out. Tibetan Buddhism is in.’ ”
Tibetan Buddhism has also attracted its share of celebrities, most notably Richard Gere, who serves on the board of the International Campaign for Tibet, a political action group in Washington. Gere is a frequent visitor to Dharamsala and a serious student of the Dalai Lama’s. On the other hand, few of the celebrities who attend Thurman’s Tibet House benefits are actual Buddhist practitioners, as they made clear. “Just because people want to help Tibet,” Thurman says, “doesn’t make them Buddhists.”
As a scholar, Thurman is especially critical of fuzzy thinking in popular Buddhism. As an example, he cites a 1992 article in Tricycle by Helen Tworkov, the magazine’s editor, in which Tworkov acknowledges strong anti-abortion teachings in Buddhism but also writes that “dharma teachings can be used to validate either pro-choice or anti-abortion politics.” To Thurman, “that’s simply incorrect. It’s the taking of life. The fundamentalists do have it emotionally right — the killing of fetuses is a mass massacre from the Buddhist point of view. It is not a fuzzy issue in Buddhism.”
Some of the confusion among Westerners has arisen, Thurman says, because Buddhism was introduced in this country primarily as a meditation technique. “Western people who were anti-Christian or anti-Jewish were thinking of it as a system that seemed religious but didn’t have a lot of rules,” he says. “That is simply wrong. In Buddhism, the foundation of meditation is a strong ethical system.”
To Thurman, Buddhism is primarily an educational program, and the monastery remains the Buddha’s great social invention. The monastery made spiritual seeking a credible alternative to the military ideal and fostered a nonviolent religious revolution in India. When Buddhism was wiped out there during the Muslim invasions of the 8th through 12th centuries, the monastic ideal and its philosophical curriculum found refuge in Tibet.
As Thurman sees it, the ultimate triumph of Buddhist monasticism came with the rule of the fifth Dalai Lama, known as the Great Fifth, who assumed power in 1642. “For the first time in Buddhist history, a monastic took the throne of a nation,” Thurman writes in “Essential Tibetan Buddhism.” “The military was gradually phased out, with three centuries of relative peace, a unique, mass monastic, unilaterally disarmed society.” While some scholars, including Donald Lopez, see a danger in overidealizing Tibetan history, Thurman remains unabashed. He says he believes the current Dalai Lama is taking Buddhist teaching onto the world stage.
Thurman and the Dalai Lama share a relationship whose warmth and depth is palpable. I saw them together in 1990 in Dharamsala at a meeting between the Dalai Lama and a group of Jewish rabbis and scholars. While the Tibetans treated their leader with extreme reverence, Thurman openly teased him, laughing and making him laugh, tweaking the Buddhist master for being too modest.
Thurman feels that the Dalai Lama, in his continuous nonviolent struggle for Tibetan autonomy, provides a new definition of heroism. Humans have succeeded on this planet in the past, Thurman argues: “because people have been heroic enough to sacrifice their lives for a group. At this moment, with the development of nuclear weaponry and technology, heroism has to be redefined as developing the power not to blow up in hatred.” That, Thurman asserts, “is the Dalai Lama’s teaching to the planet.”
Presenting the concert at Carnegie Hall, Thurman passionately echoed this idea of “cool heroism”: “We who claim we want peace should not reward violence. We should reward those who insist on making peace their method as well as peace their goal.”
Still, while the post-concert party was raging around him, I thought of the young man who set off for India in Afghani pants and returned as a Buddhist monk. With so much lecturing, writing and advocacy, does he miss the quiet, contemplative life?
“There are things you can’t develop in yourself if you just meditate apart from people. . . . ” Thurman shouted above the din. “You have to get out there where people annoy you and injure you. Then you have to take and tolerate that injury. As the Dalai Lama would say, If there’s no enemy, then you can’t develop tolerance. And if there are no people who need gifts, then you can’t develop generosity.”
A Tibet House donor approached, and Thurman turned to greet him. “Being a Buddhist does not mean leaving the world,” he called over his shoulder, “it means. . . . ” And whatever else he wanted to add got swallowed up in the crowd.
Rodger Kamenetz is the author of “The Jew in the Lotus,” a best-selling account of Jewish-Buddhist dialogue. With the film maker Laurel Chiten, he is working on a documentary based on the book.