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: 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.