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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Seeing the Light -- Questions for Robert Thurman

June 29, 2008

Interview by DEBORAH SOLOMON
The New York Times (USA)
June 29, 2008

Deborah Solomon: As a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia
University and the first American to be ordained as a Tibetan monk,
you don't need to be reminded that the people of Tibet want to
reclaim their country from China. Why won't the Chinese give it back?

Robert Thurman: The Chinese have been brainwashing their people into
thinking that Tibet is an inalienable part of their territory. No
Chinese people lived in Tibet before 1950. Zero. It's absurd they
claim that they were there.

DS: We should point out that you're a friend of the Dalai Lama and
your new book is called "Why the Dalai Lama Matters." Does he ever
visit you at your apartment in Manhattan?

RT: He used to come to my house in the old days, but nowadays the
State Department is all over him, so he stays in a high-security
hotel. I get a handshake and a hug in the hall.

DS: Why do you think President Hu of China keeps denouncing the Dalai
Lama and has not met with him?

RT: Fear. The only reason I see is fear.

DS: Do they actually need to meet? Can't they just talk on the phone?

RT: They haven't given the Dalai Lama the number. The Dalai Lama
would definitely call.

DS: What do you say to Tibetan dissidents who feel that the Dalai
Lama needs to be more aggressive with Beijing?

RT: I think he's been a bit too appeasement-oriented myself.

DS: Yet, like him, you recommend autonomy for Tibet as opposed to
complete independence, which would leave the country within Chinese borders.

RT: The Tibetans have been oppressed for almost 60 years. It's not
practical to demand independence at this time.

DS: In a recent article Slavoj Zizek argued that the Tibetans are not
necessarily a spiritual people -- that we've created that myth out of
a need to imagine an alternative to our crazy Western consumerism.

RT: Zizek is simply misinformed. It's leftist propaganda meant to
legitimize China's aggression in Tibet.

DS: As a Buddhist, how do you reconcile your pacifism with the roles
your daughter Uma has played in films like Quentin Tarantino's bloody
"Kill Bill"?

RT: Quentin is kind of obsessed, he's a wild guy. But he is very
brilliant. We trust that his motive is to show people the foolishness
of violence rather than to glorify it. I hope that's true.

DS: You initially discovered Buddhism after leaving your first wife,
Christophe de Menil, of the art-collecting clan, and running off to India.

RT: Actually, she divorced me. She didn't want to go with me to India
to seek enlightenment.

DS: Has Buddhism become more accepted in America since the early
'60s, when you first embraced it?

RT: People still think the Buddha was some weirdo who said, "Life is
suffering."

DS: What do you think about when you meditate?

RT: Usually, some form of trying to excavate any kind of negative
thing cycling in the mind and turn it toward the positive. For
example, when I am annoyed with Dick Cheney, I meditate on how Dick
Cheney was my mother in a previous life and nursed me at his breast.

DS: You mean you fantasize about being breast-fed by Dick Cheney?

RT: It's a fantasy of releasing fear and developing affection. It's a
way of coming back to feeling grateful toward him and seeing his
positive side, finding the mother in Dick Cheney.

DS: What would Freud say about that?

RT: Freud would freak out. He would say, "Well, you are seeking the
oceanic feeling of the baby in the womb." Infantile regression --
that's what he thought the quest for enlightenment was.

DS: When I want to feel compassion for an unlikable person, I imagine
him as someone's adored son.

RT: Some lamas do that. They say that that's easier for Americans,
because often Americans have personality problems with their moms.

DS: Do you consider yourself enlightened?

RT: Someone who goes around saying, "I'm enlightened," is almost
categorically not.
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