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 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.
Robert Thurman: Everybody has a Buddha in there and Buddhas have more fun.