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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."

Author, Educator Robert Thurman popularizes the Wisdom and Culture of Tibet

September 7, 2008

By Adam Phillips, VOA)
New York
04 September 2008

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."

Attends Harvard

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 

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.
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