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 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.