What do you do?
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: Beyond a simple title, how would you describe what you do for a living?
Robert Thurman: Well lately I’ve been sharing my department, so I’ve been doing a lot of administration, which is very annoying, but in a way it’s come to have a little bit of irrelevance, what it’s called a Religion Department in the University, because what has happened, what everyone’s astonished with in the last couple of decades is that the world religions have gone roaring back into the center of the public square with tremendous power, and unfortunately often in very distorted form, it’s very violent, very intolerant, and driving various kinds of negative agenda, and so the people who thought that religions would wither away and the triumphal science and secularism and, would take over and the rational everything would happen, are very freaked out, they can’t understand this. And religion departments have been studying the phenomenon of religion for thousands of years, and are not promoting the religions, they are trying to understand them.
And they are also not automatically dissing them, ‘cause if that was some sort of a solution and then we’ll get rid of them, trying to understand them, and trying to reinforce their positive contribution and trying to undermine their negative one, and that has become really relevant I think in the world, a very major issue you, you know you can’t deal with terrorism for example without understanding Christian terrorism, Muslim Terrorism, Jewish Terrorism, Indo Terrorism, ‘cause even Buddhist terrorism, which is more rare, ‘cause the Buddhists are a little more lazy I think, they’re a little less gloried in a certain way, but still even they manage to do it, like in Sri Lanka and some places, but, but, but less. But anyway that’s a very important thing, so it’s kind of worth doing the administrative, but what I do when I get up everyday is I do a little meditating to remind myself that life is, is worth all the hell, and then I, I really continue to work on trying to make the planet more happy, trying to get back to the smile I barely had on my face, even though I thought I was unhappy when I was younger, now that I’m older I’m professionally miserable, but I’m enjoying it in a funny way, it’s very strange.
But the point is I always felt I never liked tragedies, gloomy predictions, I don’t like doomsday prophets, I like people, I don’t see any reason why human beings can’t be happy, and also they could leave animals more alone the animals could be happier. So what I do is something I consider my best contribution toward that, and that is translating Buddhist science, and more importantly than Buddhist religion, I would say Buddhist science, Buddhist ethics, and the few aspects of Buddhist religion into terms that are usable by people in the West and in the World, whether without necessarily changing their religion but challenging a lot of their dogmatic ideas, and also challenging scientists dogmatic ideas as well. So that’s what I consider, like I’m a philosopher and, it’s what I always liked, and I consider it my duty to try to do that and my there is small and sort of against the trend way.
Recorded on: June 1, 2007
Thurman talks about being a professor in a Religion department.
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