The Galileo School met with Dr. Robert Thurman on a rainy Sunday in July, 2011. This was not an easy meeting to arrange. After seven months of emailing back and forth, and crossing a lot of fingers, we were finally able to sit down and talk with renowned Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. After meeting with experts and academics from many of the subjects we covered this year, Robert Thurman became the jewel in the crown. While preparing the curriculum for ancient China and ancient India in January 2011, it became evident that we would be devoting a great deal of time to the origins and emergence of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. I wanted to meet with Robert Thurman. He was the first westerner ever to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, he has been a close friend of the Dalai Lama for the last 45 years and he is the Jey Tsong Khapa chair in Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University. He has cultivated a worldwide awareness of Tibet through his writing, translation of important Buddhist texts, and activism. He is the co-founder of Tibet House US and has dedicated his life to the study and preservation of Tibet’s cultural heritage. Perfect, I thought I’d ring him up and we’d pop into the city one morning for a little meet and greet. Not so much. My first email to Dr. Thurman went unanswered for a month. I hated to admit to Sean that he was right when he said that Dr. Thurman was way too busy to meet with three kids from Queens and that I would probably not even get a response. Thankfully, I didn’t have to. One morning in March I woke up to this email:HiVanessa,
Sorrto be slow digginoutfromunder piles of emails. Open tometing and discusssion. Just have to find a time. When are you innew York. I leave for a month inThailand and Bhutan on March 24. IKNtown a bit next week, but busy, After April 20th might be easier tikme. OR summer – THOUGH THEN AM UP IN PLEASANT CATSKILLS MOST OF THE TIME. YOU;D BE WELCOME TO VISIT THERE,.
Although it would take months of emailing back and forth and the children would have moved on to studying The Brits and Celts at the time of the meeting, it was well worth the wait. Dr. Thurman, or Bob T as he signed his emails, invited us to come up to the Catskills where he lives during the summer months to have our conversation. We were able to visit the Menla Mountain House, a Buddhist Retreat Center opened by Tibet House, for a lovely lunch of tabouli, humus, warm pitas and ripe plums while looking out over the mist covered mountains. Later that afternoon, Dr. Thurman was scheduled to give a lecture to a large group at the retreat house, but for one hour of his extremely busy schedule he devoted his full attention just to us. He greeted us warmly and, as if we had all been old friends, he immediately shared the details of a new project he is working on. We were treated to a sneak peek at a comic book style story of the life of the Dalai Lama. He was patient and kind, taking care to explain his ideas to us. I was inspired by his enthusiasm. He has been talking about Buddhism for over 45 years. Our questions were ones he has probably answered hundreds of times, yet he explained his answers to us as if it was the first time the questions were ever asked. Robert Thurman has been called “a living treasure, one of today’s most provocative spiritual thinkers.” After meeting him in person I would have to agree.
Below is a transcript of part of our conversation with Dr. Robert Thurman:
Jack: ” What religion did you practice before Buddhism?”
Dr. Thurman: “I really didn’t practice any religions before I got involved in Buddhism. My mother said when I became a Buddhist, she said ‘I would have known. When I took you to be baptized in church, which was the Presbyterian church, you were making such a fuss and you kicked over the urn with the water in it. The priest was so annoyed, he just wrang just two drops of water over your flailing feet and that was about it.’
So, in my youth I sang in Choir and I played basketball in the church and we would go occasionally to church. The family was not particularly religious, and I personally liked Jesus but I didn’t like God very much. I thought he was kind of mean to Jesus and I really didn’t like that. So I always argued with the pastor and therefore when I was a little older I did not go myself(to church) and I did not consider myself religious because I didn’t like a lot of things about the church. And as I say, I didn’t even like the personality of God, so called. I never believed that an omnipotent person could control the universe- that was a ridiculous idea, frankly. Honestly, I hope that doesn’t upset you, but I just thought that was the most silly idea because of the problem of evil. If someone is omnipotent, that means has power over absolutely everything, and they’re nice- then there can be no evil in the world. Nobody gets killed, no war, no sickness, the world would be perfect- so you can’t get around that logic.
Then I read a lot of philosophy and a lot of psychology in different schools that I went to. I went to a lot of schools. And I wasn’t satisfied with the western answers to things, although there were a lot of interesting things.
Then I decided at some point that India must have better philosophies, better answers. I wasn’t looking to go find another religion. I didn’t find having to believe something that doesn’t make sense to be interesting. So, then when I found Buddhist philosophies, they captured my mind. Not that it gave me a set of neat answers, but it helped me with thinking about how to figure things out. And it didn’t tell me that I couldn’t understand things, like the other traditions did. “You can’t know, you just have to accept it.””
Ava: “What did you have to do to become a Buddhist Monk?
Dr. Thurman: “Well, not too much. I had to shave my hair. I was twenty-one. I was advised actually by my teachers not to become a monk. They said, ‘We know you are sincere, and you want to be a lifelong monk…’ Because becoming a monk means you do it for life-long. ‘…and we know you want to do that and you are sincere, you’re not pretending and you really like it. But we can tell you that in the future you will not be a monk because you are from America and you are from a country where they do not have Buddhist monks. In the future you will be connected to where you were born and therefore you will not stay a monk.’ In the Buddhist tradition, you don’t become a monk unless you are going to stay your whole life. To do that you have to give up owning property, except for a very minimal amount. You give up eating after twelve o’clock, so that you can be more alert when you meditate in the evening. You don’t tell lies, and you don’t pretend to be enlightened when you are not. You don’t kill people, you don’t take any kind of intoxicant and you don’t get married or have children. So, those are the vows of a monk and you basically spend your life in study and meditation. And also you can help people. You can become a doctor or a nurse, an astronomer or a scientist. You throw away your ordinary clothes and you wear robes. And you get a free lunch. Society takes care of you, free food and a free room and everything. You don’t have to pay taxes or join the army and people will feed you and take care of you but then you are expected to study and meditate and teach. I lived as a monk for 3 and ½ or 4 years. I was formally ordained for just shy of two years. They were right, I didn’t fit in in the long run. My old teacher was wise, I was foolish.
There was a funny thing, when I became a monk I gave away all of my regular clothes. Then when I resigned as a monk, two years later, I asked a friend to go out to buy me some blue jeans or something to wear. At that time my teacher went into the closet and took out my clothes that I had given away two years earlier. He kept them because he knew this would happen.”
Payton: “Do you feel that you have achieved Nirvana?”
Dr. Thurman: “No. I know that I haven’t. However, I have, what I call, a consolation prize. Which is this: That the Buddha said that this reality it is Nirvana. And in this reality is happiness, it’s made of happiness. Contentment and satisfaction is what the world is made out of. That is the strong energy of the world. You don’t experience it as happiness unless you understand that. It doesn’t help just to BELIEVE that. It has always been happiness and it always will be happiness. You can change your ignorance to understanding but when you learn what reality is they say you have a funny experience. I can’t tell you that for sure, but this is what they say.”
“It’s like, did you ever learn something and once you learned it, you say, ‘oh, I always knew that.’ You feel happy because it confirms what you knew but you weren’t paying attention to. So, in that light, when you learn that the nature of reality is happiness and it’s Nirvana. It’s one of those things where you think, ‘I always knew that’. But I was not really knowing it completely so therefore I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that actually I am okay. I was worried about things: this doesn’t seem right, that doesn’t seem right. When actually all of it is in fact all-right. And so, when you do learn that, you realize you always knew it. When you realize you always knew it you remember everything you ever did because apparently your mind gets very strong at that time and you understand reality. But you find that you actually knew it before. So I don’t know I’m in Nirvana now by experience. I know by theory that I must be in Nirvana, because Nirvana is reality, but I am in unreality because I am making a wrong understanding of the world. You get it? So what it means is that when I do attain Nirvana, which will be maybe another life, a future life or maybe later in this life, I don’t know, I don’t have much left (laughs) two years? I will know that I was already in it now, so I will revise my experiences now. I will enjoy this time, right now talking to you as Nirvana, retroactively. You get it? (Pauses)
So, that’s my point, the consolation. You see, I don’t really feel that now but I console myself that later I will feel that way about now. (Laughs) It is a little complicated. (Laughs again)
Vanessa: “What is the concept of Linear Time as it relates to Buddhism?”
Dr.Thurman: “Sure. When you become a Buddha you know past, present and future are equal and fully available to your consciousness. You know the whole past and can in a way revise your whole experience of the past and you know the whole future. Although the future is not set, like by some mechanical fate. That’s where Buddha’s compassion come in. If I as a Bodhisattva know that we are all interconnected than I cannot abandon the beings that are in suffering. So if I am awakened to reality and am enjoying it, I have to bring other beings with me before I completely go there.
Sean: “How does one reconcile the accumulation of material possessions with becoming a Buddha?”
Dr. Thurman: “You can’t really reconcile that. Except, Bodhisattvas like to get rich to give. And there’s a whole interesting thing called getting wealth to give it away. Sort of Bodhisattva entrepreneurialism. (Laughs) But it’s like the Potlatch. The Pacific Northwest Indians have this thing called the Potlatch. The successful chief, the good hunter, builder of lodges etc. They give all their possessions away as they get older and it is considered a great thing and everyone admires them for it. And the real joy is the giving not the getting, but they like to get first to be able to give. Afterall, when you die you have to give it up anyway.
Someone who is practicing Buddhism should have a practical attitude toward material possessions. If you are too attached to material possessions you will have a very unhappy life. Look, there are some billionaires who are very nervous and they work like fifteen hours a day. They’re always on the phone, they don’t talk to their children or their wives because they want to make another billion. Meanwhile, they have so much money that they couldn’t possibly spend it in their entire life. They could not spend it, but they want more still. So, being attached to possessions is a kind of slavery actually. On the other hand, if you are destitute you have to depend on others. And if you go hungry and get sick than that’s not good either. So you have to take care of yourself. So, there is a middle way, a practical way. You work and you make things but you don’t go crazy. You can make more if you have a plan to do something with it. Especially if you want to help people who are really poor or you want to do things for people who are having a lot of trouble. And that is very good.”
Vanessa: “Do you think that the Dalai Lama would come over to our house for spaghetti?”
Dr. Thurman: “He would if he could. But, he can’t probably, because he has a million invitations. In fact this seems to be so well known that in ancient India there are prayers that were recited saying,‘when I get to be a Bodhisattva I want to have as many bodies as I can so that I can accept everyone’s invitation to go to their houses and have spaghetti. But except they don’t mention spaghetti.”(Laughs)
“Really, there are actual prayers like that. So the Dalai Lama, unfortunately is only manifesting in one body, at the moment. Avalokiteshvara or Guan Yin, that sort of Messiah figure is popular in Buddhism. The form of one head and a thousand arms.”
“That is one difference between Buddhism and Christianity. In Buddhism they feel that the messiah figure gains such a power of compassion that they can manifest many bodies.”
“Did you see the movie The Matrix?”
Dr. Thurman: “All three?”
Dr. Thurman: “Oh, good. Well, did you notice when Neo realized he was the one, which meant that he was aware that he was one with the entire program, that he could manifest into many bodies?”
“But then, the bad guy, also got that ability. How did he get that?”
Jack: “He went into him.”
Dr. Thurman: “Yes, he merged with him. So the bad guy becomes one with the good guy.”
“Why did the good guy win? Because the bad guy remained with the idea that he was different from the good guy. The good guy wins because he realized that they were the same.”