Big Think Interview With Robert Thurman

Buddhist Scholar
A conversation with the Jey Tsong Kappa Professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and the President of Tibet House U.S.
  • Transcript


Question: Why was it important to write a book on the Dalai Lama?

Robert Thurman: I wrote the book because everybody likes the Dalai Lama, and think he’s cute, and they like his spiritual teachings—but they think his nonviolent political leadership is useless, and they think he doesn’t know what he is doing. It’s all so sad, and you got to really fight because that’s the ideology of our militaristic culture; the premise of the book is no, he’s nonviolent leadership, his global leadership is the leadership of leaders and we have to follow that advice now.

If we go on with the militarism, if we go into World War III—which we have waiting on every front—everyone will lose, and those people who are relying on conquest, like the Dick Cheneys of this world, have lost. They are shouting that they have it, they did great, and all this, but it’s just a complete lie and everybody knows it.

The Dalai Lama is the person who walks the talk of nonviolence here. He’s been under genocidal threat and actual action by the Chinese People’s Republic for many years—50, 60 years—and yet although he is very discouraged and he admits he’s sick of them, especially the government and the people he knows don’t have the true information about Tibet, he insists on the nonviolent approach and he insists on bringing China into the family of peaceful nations—not leaving them as the imperialist imitation of imperialism that they are now.

We have been tripling our imperialist behavior in the last centuries in a few decades, and that is just totally destructive to the world. So, the premise of my book is we have to listen to him on the social-political level, as well as the spiritual level—and therefore he really does matter. That’s the premise, and when people have read the book, I’ve had gratifying experiences.

Over the last year and a half, even Tibet supporters, I noticed, will go out and say, “Free Tibet”, and then you ask them, “Do you think it will be free?” They say, “Oh, no. Never be free. It can’t. Too big. China. They have no weapons.” And so, what’s the use of their shouting free Tibet if they’re hopeless?

When they finished reading my book they realize that it’s got to happen. It actually is realistic. What’s unrealistic is to think that everybody is going to conquer everybody. The U.S. is finished. We can go and blow up some more countries but that will just make people more mad with us later, when we really can’t afford to do so anymore. They won’t let us just print any amount of money we want.

Then China just wants to go conquer everything , and Tibet is the place to make a stand against them, nonviolently, preempting the danger of World War III—which will otherwise definitely happen. So that’s my premise, and I emphasize the positive. I emphasized the vision of the watershed of Asia—the water tower of Asia, nourishing 3.7 billion people with water from the glaciers of Tibet, which are melting not just by global warming but by Chinese mismanagement and destruction of the environment—three times faster than global warming. We’ll soon be having them melting and that’s going to dry up the river systems of 3.7 billion people in Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan—all the way to China itself. So that’s my book. That’s the main premise of my book, and then I show explicitly—based on the Dalai Lama’s own statements, his own arguments, his own proposals over 4 or 5 years—what he offers the Chinese and what a bonanza it would be for them to change their policy and befriend a person who is friendly to everyone in the world and who is the most popular.

Last November he was voted most popular man on earth by Harris Poll International Herald Tribune worldwide, including Asia. Of course, not China—they’re not allowed to vote, you know, they are not allowed to mention his name because of the silly behavior of the government. But he is. The Chinese, if they join in liking him and working with him, they would benefit—not lose. They would benefit enormously, and I proved that in the book, and people like it.

Question: Is today’s Dalai Lama particularly important?

Robert Thurman: The one at this time specifically is very, very intensely mattering. I think the future will also mater, but unfortunately, if the Chinese miss this opportunity and the world actually misses this opportunity by not supporting him enough to make the Chinese see that they really must switch their policy, then it will be a lot worse of a mess—really bad.

When the Chinese attack Siberia—which is where it will start, when North China is completely dried up and they want the rivers North Asia—and then the U.S, Russian, Japanese alliance, European-Japanese Alliance goes against them, and there are cyber wars everywhere—and probably nuclear because they will have an unstoppable huge army—it’s going to be just terrible. That would happen, I think, if there is no switch in the next four or five years; maybe in eight, ten years that will happen, in the 2020s because there will be no more water.

People you see these programs say, “Oh, by 2100 we’ll be in tough shape.” We are in tough shape now! It’s going to accelerate beyond people’s imagining; the whole thing, and the Yellow River in North China, the cradle of their civilization, is nearly dried up already, and their headwaters are Tibet. It’s a water tower and it’s where everything is stored, and it flows down there when it’s not the monsoon cycle, and without it Asia is finished, and tremendous distress arises, and upheavals, and migration. It’s beyond conceiving, it really is.

Question: What will happen to Tibet when the Dalai Lama dies?

Robert Thurman: He will die in Tibet, and Tibet will be in the path of being restored. It will have its internal true autonomy, the whole plateau, and the Tibetans, as they have for thousands of years, will be taking care of the environment in that plateau—slowing down the rate of warming. Then, if China is rekindling its Buddhism, which they would have to do if they recognize him, and behaving nicely—they would have to let their own people—that’s 700 million Buddhists—they would be going nuts. They will be coming down about this greed driven, industrialized—wreck your rivers, poison the air and make money, money, money. You can’t eat it. You can’t breathe it. You know, it’s not medicine. Money is a piece of paper, and they will stop that, or they will lessen that, as Europe has to lessen it.

Then, we’ll be on the good path; in other words, a switch over will occur. I call it the Obama Dalai Lama Revolution—peaceful revolution. If this happens, everything will be fine.

So, I’m not in a panic like he’s going to go any minute. He’s only 74, and he can last another couple of decades easily, but even that won’t be necessary because human beings, when under the gun, can do amazing things. I know people in Central Europe, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia—Lech Wałęsa ,these guys—nobody believed they could be free of the Russian domination without violence, but they just said no and they stood up, and that will happen. It’s going to happen everywhere. That’s our new age. It will happen definitely before the Dalai Lama dies, and he will be a leading hero of that event worldwide.

Muslims, Christians, Atheists, seculars, everyone will think of him as having helped turn the tide. He was the one who reacted to 9/11 writing George Bush a letter: “You know, of course, Mr. President, that violence never helps a violent situation, and I’m sure you’ll have a wise response.” Unfortunately, he didn’t, because of the manipulation by whatever. Poor fellow.

But The Dalai Lama shows us how hopeless that approach—trying to conquer everybody—is. He does show us that.

Question: The “East meets West” paradigm has been around for awhile. Has Eastern thought improved Western lives?

Robert Thurman: Definitely, it has—although I think that’s the wrong way of putting. There is also the integration of Westerners into Eastern thought. The Western way of life has been revealed to anybody with eyes to be self-destructive, actually—which means it isn’t actually intrinsically the Western way of life.

We have Plato. We have Socrates, who advocated a vegetarian diet—not eating meat and so on—back in The Republic. He advocated that, and he said if you eat too much meat, people will be sick, and you’d have to have a lot of doctors. Twenty-five hundred years ago, I was so amazed and now—you know.

In Asia, they didn’t try to eat 30% protein and get cancer and all these diseases of our diet, and our way of living, polluting our environment. Industrialization is not actually a genius invention—it is self-destructive. It’s like cancer, actually, on the planet—planetary cancer.

What cancer is random growth of cells: healthy strong growth without regard to the host, so it then becomes self destructive. Industrialization is big growth, destroying the host—which is the planet.

Economics is a demented science. It’s not just dismal, it’s demented, because the resources in economics are free, and the waste disposal is free. Then, it’s just how much money you’re making: there is your domestic product. That’s silly because, obviously, the resources have a cost, a tremendous cost, and the waste disposal has a huge cost too. That has to be factored in, and if it was there would be very different decision making in our industrialization. We have to get into a more holistic, well-lightened vision.

Asia was thousands of years ahead of us with nonviolence. Jesus was teaching us and many rabbis, rabbis other than Jesus, but nobody was listening—particularly not the Roman Emperors. But the Asian people, their rulers, did more listen to the Buddhas and the Lao Tzus and the Confucius’s, and so they are much more into nonviolence, and have been for much longer. Therefore they prospered and thrived; Columbus was trying to get to India because they were more prosperous 500 years ago.

We have to realize that we’re not actually the center of the universe. The Mediterranean is not the center. It’s peripheral, and we have to learn to live more in harmony with nature. Men have to live more in harmony with women and stop driving around in their tanks. It’s just useless. We’re making progress, but the rear guard action—Michael Dukakis in the tank and Dick Cheney has in his wheelchair, his bionic wheelchair, or whatever it is, George Bush and his little fighter plane. We have to overcome that childishness, we have to live more organically and normally, and we have to control our government.

Question: What is real happiness and how do we know when we have it?

Robert Thurman: Actually, we don’t know when we have it. That’s the great thing about it. Real happiness is that which comes up right out of your own self when you let goof striving for happiness—peak sexual experience, peak meditative experience, delicious food, friendly conversation: when you forget about yourself and how unhappy and miserable you are. The drive is to do something, eat somewhere, then somehow your cells and your system and your mind and your brain—which is very sensitive, ready to perceive aesthetic experience and have a great time—is reaching out and realizing that the universe is a place of blissful energy. That’s when you’re really happy, and you don’t know it because you don’t pay attention to that. You’re engaged in what you’re doing. It could be just a conversation with a loved one; quality time. A brief two seconds between making money or running here and there— that’s what real happiness is, and you don’t know it because you don’t pay attention to it.

The minute you try to know it, and say, “Oh, how happy am I. How much high quality is this time,” you’ve immediately evaluated it. And then it is not good enough; now I have to leave 5 minutes from now, so now that ruins the next 5 minutes because I’m going to be leaving after five, and then I will start weeping instead of enjoying being together.

So the key to happiness is loving people, enjoying your life, not worrying about a lot of things, letting your mind not live in a fantasy that’s life is going to be better, and appreciating what’s in the moment. It’s a very lovely paradox. Life is very paradoxical.

Question: Why do we fall into cycles of negativity and defeatism?

Robert Thurman: We fall into the cycles of negativity because of our ignorance of what’s really going on. That ignorance is not just personal, like we didn’t learn enough in school. It’s like the ignorance handed down in our cultures telling us, “Well, you’re worthless,” especially in the West.

Jesus’ wonderful teaching is, “The kingdom of God is within you, and there’s a special providence with the fall of every sparrow. Relax, look at the flowers in the field” –all this beautiful stuff. Thousands of rabbis in Jewish history were teaching the same beautiful vision; he was a rabbi after all, Anglos should remember that. Now, that’s been distorted into, “You’re worthless and only God is great.”

You look what Jesus had to do for you, and you therefore get out and make some money or do something, thinking that you’re so worthless. Then, there’s a couple of scientists supposedly liberating us from that, and then of course there’s the threat of eternal damnation in hell by this “friendly” god.

Scientists say you just die, you’re thirteen cents of cheap chemicals. Basically, we’re totally worthless, and therefore we want to justify our existence; we rush off to be famous or make money or do something else—even to be a martyr, to do something for someone in some sort of resent-breeding and not helpful way. We have to wakeup from that, and develop our critical wisdom and intelligence.

Question: What is the difference between spirituality and religion?


Robert Thurman: Spirituality is love and compassion, as far as I’m concerned; meaning that you are not just being rationally stuck within what you think your body is wired to. You’re going into a deeper area of your mind where you are asserting your free will. You’re choosing to be friendly and compassionate with people whether or not they irritate you, or whether or not they’ve done something to you. You‘re nevertheless choosing some sort of extraordinary—it shouldn’t be extraordinary really—response or outreach to people. Spirituality really is touching; you let go of your self-protective and defensive controls, and what you tap into is the nature of the universe, the flow of energy interconnecting things. Then, you naturally feel like interconnecting. Spirituality is where you let go, therefore, of your narrow control of identifying yourself just as your body: “I’m holding on to my chair;” this kind of thing.

That is, of course, the heart of religion too, but unfortunately religion has this other component where it goes into something instead of what the sociologist might call “pattern transcending activity” or “mental activity.” It becomes a tool of the state and society, and their conventional culture, to control people. To say, “you have to do this,” and “you need that ritual, obey this rule.” It stifles people and spirituality, and in the name of it people will kill each other, and they’ll hate people who don’t have the same belief instead of being loving and friendly. They will misinterpret or they will allow the priesthoods to misinterpret the teachings of the great founders—who are truly spiritual, and who said, you know, “Don’t behave like that”—and they start behaving like the Roman Catholic Church.

The Catholic part is great: universal. The Church of Jesus is great. But the Roman part is the Roman Empire from Constantine, and it’s a dominating thing, and it’s conflicting even for the priesthood, and of course many of the priests were still saintly and wonderful, when they are more great mystics. They were better before the Protestants made then try to be more social, but to compete with them they too much adopted the stance of the Roman Empire is the problem. Religions do that. Buddhism too. It becomes a control mechanism rather than a liberating mechanism.