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: Who are you?
Robert Thurman: My name is Robert Thurman.
I’m the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Colombia University.
Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?
Robert Thurman: New York City. Well, it was like growing up in a lunatic asylum, a bunch of theatrical people with their theatrical emotions. I was a middle son and I was the family peacemaker, and they were all having their storms and drunk all over the place. But my father was more mild than my mother, basically her and my older brother were kind of wild and they were, thespian, acting, theater in old thyme, so it was a little bit nutty, but, it was stimulating.
Question: When you were a child, you once tried to enter Cuba, what was your intention?
Robert Thurman: Well it wasn’t really childhood, I was seventeen years old, and I was, I had a thing, I went to Phillips Exidor, a various Nodby school, but I had a lot of friends from Latin America, and, the kind of young boys who would be in such a school in Latin America would be from the wealthiest classes in the different Latin American countries. And my friends were romantic therefore rebelling against their parents, and we were idolizing Fidel Castro, who was a poet and he didn’t win yet, you know, he was a rebel and a poet, and I was speaking Spanish with them, we were reading Spanish poetry, and one day we got into a “dare you” sort of competition, and I and a Mexican friend tried to join up with Castro.
Heavens knows why, it was just a sort of hormonal impulse at the age of seventeen on April 17th, having more than finished school and just waiting to go to college senior year you know, but they didn’t accept us so we went to Mexico for a year.
Question: Was there a pivotal moment in your development?
Robert Thurman: Yes, that was not before. When I was twenty years old and I met my teacher, first teacher, serious spiritual teacher, Mongolian Yishe, who I mention on purpose, name is Yishe Yon Jhau, in New Jersey, then he sent me, that was three years later, he sent me to the store to buy milk, and I had been studying with him the Buddhist Concept of the Begininglessness of the universe. The idea that the Western idea that there has to be a first cause, that the universe comes out of nothing, there was no Big Bang theory in those days, but there was a religious idea and then there were various astronomical ideas.
And so one was not accustomed to the idea that the universe could be begininglessness without it feeling sort of weird, and so I had been studying it, and thinking about it, and as I was walking I had the epiphany where I suddenly realized that I had not – was not beginning at a certain point and being driven towards another point in a certain way, and I felt almost like a pressure in my spine or something released, and I was suddenly just floating along in a more relaxed manner without so – such a determination to reach a destination, and without a sense of having been pushed from some sort of first beginning in a certain way, it was really a wonderful releasing feeling.
Recorded on: June 1, 2007
Robert Thurman: Everybody has a Buddha in there and Buddhas have more fun.