talks nonviolence, tolerance to receptive ears
Robert Thurman has been called the Billy Graham of
American Buddhism, the Florenz Ziegfeld of the Tibetan cause, and a dharma-thumping
evangelist of Eastern thought to the West. (He also happens to be father
to actress Uma.)
New York-born, he was the first American to be ordained as
a Tibetan monk, in 1965. In recent years, he has become the West's preeminent
lecturer, writer, and translator of Buddhist texts. Through books, lectures, a cultural
embassy known as Tibet House New York, and as scholar at Columbia University,
Mr. Thurman trumpets his message: "The Tibetans could save civilization."
"In general, Tibetan society consists of people who
feel the purpose of human life is to open your own powers of understanding, not
just produce something for some collectivity," he said in an interview at
a seaside resort here. "The goal is to produce yourself as a higher form
of being than when you started."
Thurman is in California
to promote that message at an international conference on peacemaking,
expanding on workshops that Tibet's
spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has given in America since 1979. The conference
is being held today through Wednesday, June 11, at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
in San Francisco.
Nobel Peace Prize laureates - Dalai Lama, Rigoberta Menchu, and Jose
Ramos-Horta - as well as other well-known speakers - Alice Walker, Maxine Hong
Kingston, Dolores Huerta – will address ways to cultivate patience, compassion,
and tolerance amidst social conflicts.
Thurman says that such objectives have been the purpose of
the Himalayan kingdom for millennia, as seen through a national priority on
monastic education and the development of ritual and festival arts. This has resulted
in a country that - despite 50 years of persecution by Chinese forces - remains
one of the most spiritually focused on earth.
"They were inner-world adventurers of the highest
daring to the furthest frontiers of consciousness itself," he says,
"the Tibetan equivalent of our astronauts."
An `education nation'
The life ideal, Thurman says, is to cultivate powers of
justice, lovingkindness, and creativity. The idea runs counter to the
"barbarous mixture" of industrialization, consumer-capitalism, and
imperial militarism that thrives elsewhere.
"They became what I call a true education nation,
elevating compassion to the highest rank of virtues," Thurman says.
"They demilitarized, adjusted their life to perfect balance, and in the
last 300 years have become expert at helping people become civilized."
Thurman is a ubiquitous and vocal warning scout to the
outer threats faced by Tibet.
invaded, occupied, and annexed Tibet
beginning in 1949, more than 1 million Tibetans have been killed, he points
out. More than 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed, while language and
customs are being targeted for oblivion as China tries to assimilate the
sprawling country. Thurman's crusade to spotlight the Tibetan cause have won
him widespread praise.
"Without doubt, Robert Thurman has become the
preeminent scholar of Tibetan Buddhism in the West," says Dr. B. Alan
Wallace, lecturer in Tibetan studies at the University
of California, Santa Barbara. "Because of his charismatic
erudition and speaking ability, he draws thousands to his message ... that this
culture is not only utterly unique and remarkable, but terribly
Thurman's path to activism stretches over four decades.
After an accident, Thurman left Harvard
University in 1959 to wander through India, Turkey,
as a mendicant searching for spiritual solace. He returned to America after his father's death
and studied with an American lama, learning the Tibetan language in 10 weeks. Because
of Thurman's talent and zeal, the lama ("teacher") introduced him to
the Dalai Lama, who ordained him.
He eventually left the monkhood to pursue an academic
career. Now the Jey Tsong Khapa professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, Thurman is best known for an
anthology of key Buddhist texts "Essential Tibetan Buddhism"
(HarperCollins), and "The Tibetan Book of the Dead."
As president of Tibet House New York, one of several
Tibetan cultural societies worldwide, Thurman sponsors seminars and conferences
such as the current one in San
Francisco. He was also behind the recent establishment
of a chair for Tibetan studies at the University
of California, Santa Barbara.
Thurman is sanguine about the Tibetan situation. "I
feel the signs are ripe both within China
and the US for a major
change in Tibet's
fortunes," he says. The passing of Deng Xiaoping this year is important,
he says, because Deng was among those leaders who originally invaded Tibet.
"Other leaders of that generation will soon be gone, and that could bode
well for Tibet,"
For the Tibetans to have survived their current
occupation, including a refugee population of about 100,000 that lives in
explodes two major misconceptions about Buddhism that linger in the West, Thurman
"Many Westerners still think that Buddhists sit on
their cushions too long and deny the world," he says. "But the
Tibetans' ability to survive 50 years in the wilderness without crumbling,
while keeping their ascetic agricultural lives intact, shows they are fully
grounded, worldly people."
PHOTO (COLOR): ROBERT THURMAN: Now a professor at Columbia University, he says Tibetans have much
to teach about reducing conflict., DANIEL B. WOOD
Monitor, Vol. 89 No. 135 1997.06.09, P.4
Copyright by Christian Science Monitor