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 Jos 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.
Since China 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 imperiled."
Thurman's path to activism stretches over four decades.
After an accident, Thurman left Harvard University in 1959 to wander through India, Turkey, and Iran 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," he says.
For the Tibetans to have survived their current occupation, including a refugee population of about 100,000 that lives in neighboring India, explodes two major misconceptions about Buddhism that linger in the West, Thurman says.
"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."