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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Interview: Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman on 'Why the Dalai Lama Matters'

June 17, 2008

David Ian Miller
San Francisco Chronicle (USA)
June 16, 2008

Robert Thurman, standing before Mt. Kailash, a place of p... The
Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman in a relaxed moment amo... Book jacket
for "Why the Dalai Lama Matters" by Robert Th...
The plight of the Tibetan people, whose cultural and religious
heritage has been steadily undermined since their country was invaded
by the Chinese government in 1950, has become a cause celebre for the
likes of Richard Gere, Mia Farrow and K.D. Lang. At the center of
that effort has been Robert Thurman, an influential and prolific
American Buddhist scholar and activist who is a long-time friend of
the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader in exile.

Thurman, 66, the Je Tsong Khapa professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist
Studies at Columbia University, has devoted his life to the study and
preservation of Tibet's unique cultural heritage. He is the author of
several books on Tibetan Buddhism and the co-founder, along with
Gere, of New York's Tibet House. Thurman was chosen as one of Time
magazine's 25 most influential Americans in 1997.

At a time when the world has been particularly focused on Tibet since
the territory erupted in mass protests this spring, Thurman has come
out with a new book, "Why the Dalai Lama Matters," to present his
view on how the conflict can be resolved. In the book, he argues that
establishing Tibetan cultural and religious autonomy -- while keeping
Tibet as a part of China -- is a benefit to Tibet, China and the
world at large. I caught up with Thurman last week while he was
visiting the Bay Area on a book tour.

David Ian Miller: The news from Tibet has been pretty grim lately,
but you remain optimistic that the situation will improve ... that
the Tibetans will one day be able to live there freely and practice
their religion. What gives you hope that will happen?

Robert Thurman: I base my hope -- as the Dalai Lama bases his -- on
what is realistic. And I believe reality dictates that the Tibetans
are the ones who can live sustainably in Tibet. They're the ones who
can restore and maintain the Tibetan plateau, their ancestral home,
as they have for thousands of years. And it has to be healthy in
order to be of benefit to its neighboring regions. It's the water
tower of Asia — it's where everybody's water comes from, India,
China, Southeast Asia. It's also the source of the wind -- the jet
stream that rises up out of the plateau, affecting the weather all
around the planet. So if Tibet is messed up then the world gets
messed up. This is why Tibet should matter to everybody.

Q: Why are the Tibetans the only ones who can take care of Tibet?

Thurman: In part, because it's three miles above sea level. If
Chinese people could live up there comfortably, they would have been
there 500 years ago in huge numbers. They are not genetically adapted
to live at that high altitude without serious health problems.

Q: You argue in your latest book, "Why the Dalai Lama Matters," that
the Dalai Lama could be one of China's greatest assets. What is it
that he can offer them?

Thurman: He's a great asset for several reasons. First, he is the key
to giving them legitimate sovereignty over Tibet as an autonomous
region within China because he would inspire his people to vote that
way. Secondly, he can help to restore some sense of contentment and
calm within the Chinese populace, especially among those who are poor
and have not yet benefitted from China's economic rise. Thirdly, he
could become a true ambassador for China in the world, which they are
going to need increasingly as they rise to true superpower status.

Q: And you think the Chinese government will eventually see this?

Thurman: Yes, I am hopeful because the Chinese are smart, pragmatic
people. In fact, the leaders have never actually met the Dalai Lama
face to face. I am confident that once they do that there will be a
shift in their thinking.

Q: Many people, including you, have described Chinese actions against
the Tibetan people as genocide. How do you make peace with people who
want to wipe you out?

Thurman: I don't think the Chinese people do want to wipe them out. I
do think they want to assimilate them -- which is cultural genocide.
That's what they've done to other neighboring peoples and tribes
throughout their history, by bringing them into their language and
their way of living. The big trend around the world since the '90s
has been that people are demanding self-determination, whether it's
Kosovo or Lithuania or Ukraine, and the Chinese realize that the
trend is very hard to stop. So they want to get rid of Tibetans
because the Tibetans are living, cultural proof that Tibet doesn't
legitimately belong to China. It's a sad situation, but it isn't any
one person's fault. It's just a mistaken policy by the country's
leaders. And that policy could be turned around with the stroke of a
pen -- President Hu's pen.

Q: Many Tibetans want independence from China, but the Dalai Lama has
embraced something called the middle way. What is that, exactly?

Thurman: The middle way, which is a central concept in Buddhism, is
the path between, on the one hand, demanding independence fruitlessly
when no one will give it to you, and, on the other hand, caving in
and saying, "Let's become Chinese." It means establishing Tibet as a
free, self-governing region within China because that is the only
realistic solution.

Q: Understand that the Dalai Lama himself says that he wants
independence, too. I mean, people want to be free. That's what
anybody would want. On the other hand, he is a pragmatist, and it is
a deeply important thing to the Chinese leadership to feel that they
have what you might call a "big map" profile. So why bother to have
paper independence and then be isolated and persecuted and starved
and get nowhere? Better to join up with a big power in a federation
and have their help in your development. So far the Chinese
leadership has only used Tibet as a resource depot and a place to
colonize. Their big investment has been to bring Chinese into Tibet
rather than to help the Tibetans. But they could help them. And
that's needed, because the Tibetans have been driven into great
destitution by their country being taken over by outsiders.

Thurman: Some people say that the Dalai Lama should just stick to
religion, but you see him as a great statesman. Why?

Q: What makes him a great statesman is that he understands this
century. This is no longer the age of 19th century imperialism or
20th century economic imperialism. It's the information age, a time
of pluralistic societies where people are mixing around in every
which way, immigrating around the globe and learning about what's
going on in other places. Even if they are dirt poor, they often have
access to TVs or computers. You simply can't dominate people in the
same ways that were once possible. And wars are no longer viable. You
just can't win them. The Dalai Lama is the one who understands that,
I believe, and dares to say it.

Thurman: The Dalai Lama says: Nonviolence is it. You destroy
yourselves if you destroy your neighbor. And this is an ethical
principle to be acted on by governments and people. They are saying
that he is naive, and that violence is the truth -- but that's an
outmoded view.

Q: You became a Buddhist as a young man. I read that you made this
decision after having an accident where you lost the sight in your
left eye. What was the connection?

Thurman: When I lost my eye, it was a big shock, and a big tragedy
and all that. I was very unhappy. Yet it was a wonderful thing in
that it jolted me out of my complacent life. I was a Harvard student
who had married young, with a beautiful daughter and a bit of money.
I was running around a lot, riding motorcycles -- I could easily have
run something off a cliff. I was earnestly reading the Buddhist
sutras and "Siddhartha" and thinking about the Great Quest, but I was
really just fooling around. So what the eye loss did was make me
realize this is serious. Life is over in the blink of an eye or can
be, and what does it mean? What is it really? And that sent me an on
a quest to India because I sensed there was something there that
wasn't in New York or Massachusetts. And while on that quest, I found
the Buddhist philosophers that I really liked and have been liking ever since.

Q: Why Buddhism?

Thurman: I love Buddhist thought because I believe it's the most
scientific and the most realistic way of thinking. And the religious
part of it, well, I am still not even that terribly religious, I
think; in a way, I'm against dogmatic beliefs, and so I like Buddhism
because it is also against dogmatic beliefs and fanaticism, and it's
into experiencing reality as one way to be a little bit less unhappy.

Q: I read something that your daughter, Uma Thurman, said recently:
"My father didn't impose his religion on us as children to the point
that maybe it would have been nice to have a little more. Something
to rebel against." What do you think about that?

Thurman: (Laughs.) It's true. I give my wife a lot of credit because
when I was younger I might have been a little more oppressively
enthusiastic, like a country preacher or something. And she made sure
that didn't happen. I also give the Dalai Lama credit in that he
taught me that it is a mistake at this time in history to even think
that somebody should convert to your worldview. You can argue with
people or hope that they will understand things as you see them. But
you can't force it.

QYou were ordained in 1965 as a Buddhist monk by the Dalai Lama, but
you later abandoned that life. What changed your mind?

Thurman: I had been living as a monk for about two or three years
before I was ordained -- and my old Mongolian teacher said, "Don't
formally ordain because you won't stay." He knew I was totally
sincere in wanting to stay, but he just knew the circumstances, which
I didn't. In Tibetan society it is considered very easy and very much
a privilege to be a monk. But people don't often leave it, and there
is a big stigma attached to leaving it. So the old lama said, "Don't
do it." He even told the Dalai Lama, "This boy is very sincere, and
he wants to be a monk just so he can study more, but it is not a good idea."

When I got back to America from India, we were in the throes of the
Vietnam War protests, the civil rights movement. All my friends from
college were out there, either getting beaten up in the South
marching with Martin Luther King or they were stoned or they were in
fact fighting the war and running to Canada, and it was a really
turbulent time. I got restless and wanted to be more of an activist.
And I soon discovered that there was no support in our society at
that time for anybody to be a Buddhist monk. It was considered a
complete cop-out — people thought you must be crazy. I had no way of
representing the wonderful ideas and practices I had discovered, and
so, sure enough, I decided to offer back my robe because I recognized
I had made a mistake.

Q: How did the Dalai Lama react to your decision?

Thurman: He was kind of upset with me for a couple of years until we
met again, and then he got to know my family, and he realized I was
still very secure in my study, and I was going to be a professor.
Then we became good friends again.

Q: We're still living in turbulent times. How does Buddhism make
sense of the upheaval and chaos of the world, and how do you
incorporate that perspective into your daily life?

Thurman: Chaos is something that we imagine is there and we fear, and
therefore we strain ourselves to maintain some sort of order because
we think we are different from the universe -- we think the universe
is therefore kind of dangerous, but it isn't. From the Buddhist
perspective, the nature of things is really all right. And that gives
me the energy to take action. There is a great teaching in the
Shantideva tradition about how to conquer anger, which is: You don't
let anything disturb your good mood. You try to be cheerful in all
cases. You try to do your best about something. Why be bitter and
hateful about some bad thing that's already happened? It's a
brilliant teaching.

Maybe I'm just imitating the Dalai Lama, but I think that is his
secret of how he has kept up for 50 years. People do ask him, "The
Tibetan people are badly oppressed and wandering in exile, and you
haven't managed to stop this. How do you keep trying and not give up?
You are so cheerful. How do you do it?" And he says, "Well, because
everything is all right, really." It's not all right on the
superficial level in terms of the way people are living, and we
better keep after them to try to get them to recognize that it can be
all right, but ultimately it is all right, and what good does it do
to be miserable, to act angry, to say that we have to destroy the bad
people and be like them?

Q: Buddhists believe that it takes lifetimes to reach the level of
someone like the Dalai Lama. How can spiritual practice really help
in the here and now?

Thurman: Well, here I resort to my American guru Bill Murray. As he
demonstrates in the film "Groundhog Day," it's all about taking baby
steps. You know? Bit by bit. We can be a little less angry, a little
less greedy and dissatisfied, a little more insightful.

Q: You said before you have gotten a glimpse of Nirvana. What did you
mean by that?

Thurman: I think we all have our moments, those kinds of poetic
moments, where you get a glimmer of truth about the way things are.
You know, you read Emily Dickinson or you get into an Emily Dickinson
world where she sees heaven in a dewdrop on a plant in the early
morning in her garden. You feel you are there, you know? But
unfortunately not all of the time. Being there all of the time is
what Buddhahood is, where you can be in the middle of Highway 101,
zooming along, shifting lanes, trying to get to an appointment, and
yet you are in Nirvana.

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