Robert Thurman is Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, President of Tibet House US, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Tibetan civilization, and President of the American Institute of Buddhist Studies. The New York Times recently hailed him as "the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism."
The first American to have been ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk and a personal friend of the Dalai Lama for over 40 years, Professor Thurman is a passionate advocate and spokesperson for the truth regarding the current Tibet-China situation and the human rights violations suffered by the Tibetan people under Chinese rule. His commitment to finding a peaceful, win-win solution for Tibet and China inspired him to write his latest book, Why the Dalai Lama Matters: His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet and the World, published in June of 2008.
Professor Thurman also translates important Tibetan and Sanskrit philosophical writings and lectures and writes on Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism; on Asian history, particularly the history of the monastic institution in the Asian civilization; and on critical philosophy, with a focus on the dialogue between the material and inner sciences of the world's religious traditions.
Question: What life lesson had the most profound influence on your development?
Robert Thurman: Well I wouldn’t say that there was a greatest lesson like one single aphorism that you could say that’s the thing, you know, not really. I think that the discovery of what it’s called, selflessness, the idea that the sense of absolute self is illusionary and what is only relational self, and the sort of understanding that philosophically, resolved my philosophical quests, which is what I had been on, and had really presented answers. So the concept of selflessness, or emptiness, is the one that I would say made me feel most released and wonderful, and I would say it fit with a concept that I had naturally had from youth, which I had, for which I had defended myself, intellectually, from being boxed into various dogmas, which was the concept of infinity, I was very fond of the concept of infinity, as a, as a youth, before I really knew much about it. But emptiness and selflessness is really in that same category, and it’s sort of a releasing concept where, you know, really leading to a real experience of true relativity, not only a partial relativity like Einstein’s but a complete relativity.
Question: How is selflessness taught?
Robert Thurman: How does one encounter it? Well, they say that you can only understand selflessness yourself, and they say you can only really understand it when you encounter someone else who understands it. They have this funny double bind sort of thing in the tradition, and I think that does work out kind of in a certain way. Of course, people will only understand selflessness in the West, including many Western Buddhists, as meaning somehow that you don’t exist, that your real nature is that you don’t exist. And that it’s a big discovery, like a big sense of disappearing that makes you feel better, you know. But that is not the case, it’s much more subtle, it is a gradual melting down of the rigid sense of the – separate, absolute self apart from the world into become a relational interconnected self that is more aware of its relativity and therefore more responsible for its shaping of itself. Constant shaping and reshaping, and aware of influences that also shape it, and guarding against negative ones and cultivating positive ones because of the fact of you having become, having recognized that you are, know what’s happening, you know, totally relational, and there’s no non-relational component of us and so that’s a gradual thing that sort of dawns in a slow and steady way, and there are little leaps and little moments like epiphanies, but the idea that there’s going to be this sudden poof experience –
Because you sort of disappear, and that disappearance is your real being of no self, or something, that’s the way people understand it, but that’s not correct.
Recorded on: 6/1/07