Robert Thurman

Professor Robert Thurman,
Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies
& Chair of the Department of Religion, Columbia University

"Buddhism More than Religion:
The Gifts of the Tibetans"

History Corner, Building 200, Room 02, Stanford University

Friday, March 3, 2006, 7 pm-8:30 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: I first came across Robert Thurman in the Sunday New York Times Magazine issue of May 5, 1996. In Rodger Kamenetz's article "Robert Thurman Doesn't Look Buddhist", I learned that this former Tibetan Buddhist monk is now teaching Buddhist Studies at my Alma Mater, Columbia University. Thurman was expelled from Exeter and dropped out of Harvard in 1961 at age 20. He lost his left eye while changing a flat tire, left his wife and child for the Far East in search of enlightenment. He was 24 when meeting the 29-year old Dalai Lama, who ordained him as the first Western Tibetan monk. When Thurman returned to the States, he completed his degree at Harvard, and went to graduate studies in Sanskrit and Indian Studies. Thurman's academic career blossomed as he translated many of the Tibetan texts and wrote books expounding the Buddha's Dharma (teachings). After receiving an email about Thurman's Stanford lecture, I was excited in meeting him. I assembled 15 of my poems and the Dalai Lama's Nov. 4th talk at Stanford into a mini-book— Selected Poems for Robert Thurman as a gift for him. I got to History Corner at 6:30 pm and planned to seat in the second row. However the first two rows were reserved for named guests & faculty. As the third row was occupied, I sat near the aisle in the fourth row. At 7 pm, Room 02 which seats 160 was packed, with buzzing conversation amidst the audience. Carl Bielefeldt, Chairman of Stanford's Buddhist Studies introduced Professor Thurman. Bielefeldt mentioned that the Tibetan Lectures Series began with the Dalai Lama's November talk, and was made possible by an anonymous donor. To keep this lecture series and Tibetan program going, another $4 million donation is needed. Bielefeldt said that Thurman is the best known representative of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. He cited Thurman as the Founder and President of Tibet House U.S., Chairman of Columbia University's Dept. of Religion, and the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies. He also cited some of Thurman's books including Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well. Professor Thurman is a dynamic speaker and quite animated in his presentation. His humor brought much laughter in the audience. His lecture ended at 8:35 pm. The Q & A session ended at 8:55 pm. Refreshments were served after the lecture. Many in the audience went up to chat with Professor Thurman. When it was my turn, I shook his hand and told him how much I enjoyed his presentation. He autographed a web page for me on his reincarnation experience when he was a youth walking in New Jersey. Thurman appreciated my little poetry book assembled for him. I told him about attending four of Dalai Lama's talks in Boston and at Stanford. Thurman knew my first spiritual mentor, Anthony Damiani, whom the Dalai Lama called "one of my closest spiritual brothers". I requested Thurman's business card, which he gladly gave to me. Here are my 15 pages of notes transcribed during Thurman's talk to share with those who wish to live the enlightened life. I've added web links with supplemental information in [brackets]. Since I don't watch TV or see recent movies, I didn't know that the supermodel and film actress Uma Thurman is Robert Thurman's daughter. When told about it, I could see how good karma brought him such wonderful children.

[Walter Y.] Evans-Wentz [1878-1965] was an alumnus of Stanford [B.A. 1906, M.A. 1907]. He translated The Tibetan Book of the Dead [1927]. He was interested in Saint Patrick who introduced Christianity to Ireland [The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911)], and this led him to the "Tibetan Saint Patrick", Padma Sambhava [717-762] who introduced Buddhism to Tibet [8th century AD]. I'm glad that you've opened up Tibetan studies at Stanford. You should have an Evans-Wentz chair at Stanford in his honor [applause]. When I lecture, I have an academic version and a fun version. Judging from the buzz in the audience before my talk, this is an animated crowd— so I'll give my fun version talk tonight. Buddhism is thought of as a world religion. But Buddhism is only 1/3 religion. Buddhism is Dharma (holding something)— the Law, Truth, Reality. There are two kinds of Dharma— the verbal dharma and the practical dharma:

Verbal DharmaPractical Dharma
Vinaya (actions & judgments)Ethics
Sutra (Buddha's teachings)Meditation (Mind)
Abhidharma (Systematic organization)Wisdom

Some call the three practical dharma, training. But training is for dogs. I prefer to call them "three higher education" (shiksha). Meditation is focusing in a structural way on something already achieved. There is pattern maintaining— hold mind in certain patterns and pattern transcending— free from patterns. Ethics: society related to politics, such as non-violence and kindness. Obedience is not main mode. There is good and bad news about Buddha's teaching. The good news is there is a way to rid oneself of suffering. Not to end one's life by suicide ("the quick Western approach to one's problems"). The bad news is that no one can do it for you. You have to do it yourself. This is the non-dual form of Buddha's teaching. Oh there is a joke on this matter told often in religious conferences, but I won't do it now. [Member in audience: "Please do!"] OK, I'll tell it. A preacher asked his congregation to define faith. Nobody answered except a little boy Johnny who raised his hand. Preacher: "Johnny, What is faith?" Little Johnny: "Faith is believing what you know it ain't true." It's the blind faith that lemmings have.

Wisdom is Prajnanapra means "super" and jnana is "knowledge". So Wisdom is "super-knowledge". It is the intelligence that can discern the difference between chocolate and mud, or gold and copper. It is the knower and the known merging together as one. Like what Basho, the Japanese haiku master, said "become the pine tree or the moonshine if you wish to write or paint it" {Basho's Kawazu Awase (1686)]. Wisdom is not being omniscient. It is knowing what to do in whatever situation one's facing. Someone said, "I'm not a vegetarian, I'm omnivorous. Ready to eat anything." The good news is that we'll all become Buddhas someday. The bad news is that life is for education. Education is preparing your way of life. Your highest duty is to learn something new each day. Neuroscientist say that 93% of our brain is redundant. We're like bugs on a highway. But our brain is for knowing infinite knowledge. Read Stephen Hawkings book [A Brief History of Time] or Brian Green's book [The Elegant Universe] to understand this universe and yourself. We have to learn three things— (1) knowledge of ourselves and others, (2) critical reflection (debate) to sharpen our critical thinking, (3) meditation for deeper levels of understanding. We learned a lot of what we don't know. Only God is supposed to know everything. Maybe we don't want to know. When Buddha had his eureka moment— "The uncreated, untroubled, luminous truth I've discovered!" Then the Buddha smiled! He could've frowned "Oh no!" But he didn't. For Buddha, Reality is Nirvana! The Four Noble Truths— the first was "Life is suffering." Because of this, Buddhism has been called a negative religion of pessimism. But from Buddha's perspective, the unenlightened life is suffering. Enlightenment is free of suffering. An enlightened mind knows what is real. The Third Noble Truth is the Truth of Nirvana (cessation of suffering). What is this truth?— We're in Nirvana right here and now. You'll say "Oh no! This is Nirvana. Stuck in the basement of Stanford's History Building on a Friday night! All I need is get it! Get the message and get out of here." Well, I've got a consolation prize for you at the end of my talk.

My latest definition of Buddhism: Engaged Realism— looking at reality itself. Maybe Buddha was deluded. Buddha proclaimed "I am enlightened." The Zen guys would say "Kill the Buddha!"— don't swallow his words. Investigate the truth for yourself. Study it like science. Get away from the beliefs of the churches. Get out your telescopes and track the precession of Venus and the distant galaxies. When you're enlightened, you'll be unafraid of death because there is no death. [Muhammad: "Die before you die, so you don't die when you die."— Die to you ego before your body dies, so when your body dies, you're not attached to form but your essence. You are unborn & undying, like water and not the ocean waves that rise and fall.] People were scared of future lives. We're here forever— if you don't get it this time around, there's the next life. We've all had infinite lives. I may not look like a female today with my unkempt hair and demeanor, but rest assured I've dished out plenty of milk to all of you in previous lifetimes, and so have you all. A Buddhist told me once when we're on a buffet dinner line, "It's everyone for himself!" The Second Noble Truth— the cause of suffering is misknowledge. Usually it's translated as desire or poisoning, but I prefer to call it wrong-knowing is the cause of suffering. You know you're you— your social security card, ID number, and credit card. But in the film The Matrix, do you know you're really you? The minute you think you're the most important person, you fail to realize that everyone else thinks they're the most important person too. When someone is in love with you, you're happy because that person agrees with you. There is no winning that you're the greatest. The big realization is that you don't exist. Nobody is home— I'm not here. Usually there are lots of snickering at Zen talks. After a Zen sesshin, you haven't disappeared. Still have to pay the parking ticket, cook the meal, do your errands and all the other chores. What is Buddhahood? The Buddha is totally for other people. My existence is equal to others. I care more for others than myself. That's the Bodhisattva ideal. We're in a food-fighting universe— "Here have my food." Buddhism is a type of science to discover the nature of reality. Buddhist ethics is utilitarian and pragmatic. If everyone is happy, then you're happy. If you're happy and everyone is grumpy, you won't be happy for long. There is a marvellous vision of Buddha-land and Buddha-verse [cf. Pure Land Buddhism].

Max Weber wrongly characterized Buddhism— "Buddhism is apathetic. Buddhists disappeared from the world. They withdrew and had no impact on society." He was speaking from the standpoint of Protestant ethics. The European monasteries became the richest organizations and were supported by rich patrons. The viewpoint that all beings are equal will erode the caste system. To follow a warload in killing others to grab more land and power is insane. To take more oil wells is also insane. To kill your boss because of some slight is insane. Because karma will cause suffering in you later. Some chronology of Tibetan history:
600-700 AD— The really rough Tibetans were feared by their neighbors.
                          [King Song Tsen Gampo was given two foreign princesses to wed.]
                          Then they became a demilitarized society based on nonviolence.
842 AD— Tibetans were persecuted by the Chinese. King Lang Dharma
                  took the monastic wealth of the Buddhists.
1400-1800— After the worldwide conquest by Genghis Khan [1162-1227],
                      the Tibetans inflicted their Buddhist's way of life on Mongolia.
20th century— Both the Tibetans and Mongolians became peaceful and nonviolent,
                        chanting Om Mani Padme Hum from the Lamas, and became docile.
So they were conquered by more aggressive neighbors, the Chinese and the Russians. You can picture them imitating Marlon Brando [On the Waterfront]— "We could've been contenders." [laughter] However, it could be that the demilitarized society will survive in the long run. Lemmings don't recognize their fate.

The Dalai Lama in his recent book [The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality] said "There might be a mind in the atom." Now people are saying "Buddhism is into Intelligent Design too." You're here at Stanford, studying Darwin and that human beings are embedded in nature. I had a recent debate [Miller Theatre, Columbia University, Feb. 13, 2006] with Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained [1991]. I told him that we're all connected to nature. That when you're enlightened you can have a womb-shot and choose your next parents instead of being reborn willy-ninny anywhere without your choice. Dennett said, "I'm happy to be nothing." I replied, "So am I when I go to sleep each night. But you— Daniel Dennett is in truth absent." The Buddha anticipated Darwin more than two millenia ago. We're all connected to every sentient being. There is continuity in all of nature. The Buddhist ethics is based on the nature of reality. We're the most techonological advanced civilization, then how come we're destroying our environment? The futurist Hazel Henderson said, "Our society is irresponsible." We're playing as if this is a global casino with no consequences. We got to have plenty of gas and oil, no matter how we pollute our environment. The Buddhists have a caveat that's contextually valid. There is relative reality and absolute reality. Buddhism is not just religion. It is a science and social matrix. Buddhists are realistic. We need to improve the environment because we're connected to the earth and everyone here. You don't walk through the wall after this class, but through the door. The second gift of the Tibetans is that the purpose of life is education. Use our consciousness because we're totally malleable. We're self-reprogrammable. I love Parent's Day when the students' folks come to see how their kids are doing in school. They want to be sure that they stay in school and graduate. When my mother died, I found a cache of her letters in the attic. She describes her classes at Wellesley to her parents. But she dropped out of Wellesley for a year for the theater. It seems like a family tradition. [Thurman got kicked out of Exeter, and dropped out of Harvard.]

Buddhism was raised on the free lunch [begging for alms]. The Protestant ethics is "There is no free lunch." [You must work for your meal]. The Buddhist's psychology was discovered long before Freud. Everyone has had a primal scream. You die and you think you're still here. It's like the Ghost movie [1990] starring Whoopie Goldberg. You go up and down New York's 5th Avenue or San Francisco's Market Street. You see a beautiful couple and decide you like to be their baby. You pass out and get conceived. That's the Buddhist's primal scream. Freud's primal scream is when the child happens to see his parents making love. I'm past my hour lecture [8:20 pm] so I should stop soon [Audience: "Keep going! Take all your time!"] You all came to realize your True Self. I'm making a lot of loud noises. But everyone's mind is somewhere else— you're thinking of your parked car, your stove, trip to Paris or Prague. When you realize selflessness, you discover identity-lessness. What you are is what you make yourself into. Cultivate yourself to be mindful. The TV screen has millions of gun-shooting protons firing into your eyes. You can't relax unless someone donate $4 million for the Tibetan program [reference to Carl Bielefeldt's introduction]. We need to create evolutionary polity— educate the population to benefit the society at large. Is Stanford a factory for students? The words Alma Mater means "Mother of your soul." So that's why most alumni donate their wealth to their colleges. Today, we're lost in too much technical jargon and details. Being compassionate and focusing on friendliness toward each other is more important. Society should maximize an individual's potential, to support the flowering of one's mind. But we don't do that. India is one society that has the greatest support for individuals. Where else can a homeless man with just a loin cloth and cow dung in his hair mumbling mantras to Hindu deities walk to bathe in the Ganges without everyone thinking he's crazy? In Bhutan, they don't measure the country's GNP [Gross National Product], but the GNH— the Gross National Happiness. So they're not destroying forests, having 85% of their forests intact. Instead their goal is how their national policies affect people's happiness.

The multi-headed deities came during the reigns of the 5th and 6th Tibetan Lama's reincarnations. It's a Jungian archetype. The interior and exterior space. Sun-shot and Moon-shot. The Archetype deity is for you to model yourself as a different being— constantly refreshing yourself at all times. Start cultivating better patterns. Tantra is not some wild sex orgy in the bedroom. It is a deep restructuring of consciousness. The transformation of culture and Dharma teaching is coming from everywhere in Tibet. The Tibetan saddle has many Buddhist icons on it. You're surrounded by Buddhist teachings of liberation and freedom. Reality is bliss. Freedom is indivisible. That's the vision of the Enlightened Being. Now the consolation prize I promised you earlier— I'm 65 years old [born New York City, August 4, 1941]. I'm tired seeing my face— "Do I have more wrinkles now? Worried about my appearance. My youth was wasted in Niyana. I'm still doing it. Haven't deprived myself. 40 years of Buddha studies and what did I learn? We're all going to attain Non-dual Nirvana and Buddhahood. This is the nature of reality for all time. Reality was there at every point all my life. Therefore you and I will enjoy every moment of our existence retroactively. Someday we'll see it! [Thurman's lecture ended at 8:35 pm to an extended ovation from the audience.]

Q & A Session:

Q: Is it better to be a Bodhisattva or a Bodhi-miller?
A: Bodhisattvas get burned out and stressed out. In the recent Olympics, a Norwegian coach gave another team member his ski pole and they won beating his own team. [That's an act of altruism opposite of egoism.] Bodhisattvas have too much stress helping others. I have my own headaches. But Buddhists teach us to turn our head around for other's concern. That's the teaching of Santideva [Bodhicaryavatara: Entering the Path of Enlightenment circa 700 AD]. The Dalai Lama says "When I'm down and sad, remember compassion for others. Then my own plight becomes small." Have compassion to free others from suffering. But unless you have some release yourself, you cannot help others. First find bliss yourself, then share it with others.

Q: I'm at the beginning of Buddhism. There are so many books out there. Do you have any recommendations which ones to read first?
A: Yes. Read mine. [laughter]. Inner Revolution is a good book to start. One woman after reading my translations of The Tibetan Book of the Dead told me, "You make it sound so wonderful, I can't wait to try it" [laughter]. My advice is to keep studying. Listen to different versions and try it out. Learn from different teachers. If the guru says "Here— One-stop shopping. Don't leave my mall." Then it's time to leave. Study with a guru who doesn't trap you. Study with a guru whose disciples you can admire and respect. Why would you meditate in a state of total confusion. Hermes Trismegistus said it well: "Show me your beginning and I'll show your end." [Ancient Egyptian Temples' Proverb: "If you would know yourself, take yourself as starting point and go back to its source; your beginning will disclose your end."] Someone who says Heavenly Light is somewhere else but not here is not telling you the Truth. Learn. Learn. Learn.

Q: How come spiritual societies are destroyed by aggressive ones?
A: The survival instinct circles back on itself. If spiritual society is non-violent, it becomes vulnerable to an aggressive society. Our present society is armed to the teeth. You could google "Nuke" on the Internet and build them. The Russians are selling "Nukes" to terroists. "Fight or flight" is no longer survival enhancing. In Japan, the Shogun controls the warloads. The samuari who has killed a lot of his enemies goes to a monastery and pound their own head against the wall to attain spiritual awareness and enlightenment. I've another slogan— Society needs to be spiritual today and be peaceful. I got 20 emails telling me "The Dalai Lama is talking to Hamas. Don't have him do it!. You're his friend. You can convince him." But we need to dialogue with the terroists. When we neglect them, then they resort to terror to get attention. But if they understand karma, the one you kill, come back in your next life to haunt you— as your child or your neighbor. We need to talk to Hamas. So the Dalai Lama is on the right track. If the amount of money this country has spent on war was spent on education, how beneficial it would have been to our youth and children? If the Pentagon is a Meditation Center, how wonderful this country would be and be respected in the world? We feel that this is impossible. My 22 year-old son was a major in environmental studies at Columbia. He was disappointed in our government's environmental policies, that he changed his major to English. We live in the most militant society in the world. The Tibetans, the Mongolians, and people like Gandhi showed that nonviolence is a better way of life. We're now living in a world of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). We need to change MAD to MUD (Mutually Utilateral Disarmament). Put down your guns [and taste the bliss of peace]. The Q & A session ended at 8:55 pm.


Books by Robert Thurman: (at

Liberation upon Hearing in the Between (Audio CD)
Sounds True, Unabridged edition (Oct. 2005)
Smile of the Buddha
University of California Press (2005)
The Jewel Tree of Tibet:
The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism

Free Press (2005)
Anger, the Seven Deadly Sins
Oxford University Press (2004)
Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well
Riverhead Books (2004)
Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness
Riverhead Books (1999)
Essential Tibetan Buddhism
HarperSanFrancisco (1996)
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Bantam Books (1993)
The Central Philosophy of Tibet
Princeton University Press (1991)
The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture
Pennsylvania State University Press (1987)

Web Sites on Robert Thurman:

Robert Thurman: The Official Website
(Biography, Public Talks, Trips, Books, Videos, Audios, Essays, Tangkas, Photos, Archives, Links) Home Page for Robert Thurman
(Home, Books, Reviews, Media, Contacts, Dalai Lama, Free Tibetan Prayer Wheel)
Columbia University Faculty: Robert Thurman
(Chairman Dept. of Religion & Jey Tsong Kappa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies)
Tibet House
[22 West 15th Street (between 5th & 6th Ave.) New York, NY 10011, Tel: (212) 807-0563]
(About Us, News, Exhibitions, Program, Library, Calendar, Membership, Archives, Visitor Info)
Biography: Robert Thurman
(from Robert Thurman's Official Website)
Time's 25 Most Influential Americans
(Robert Thurman: Dharma Warrior in Time Magazine, April 21, 1997)
[He's the St. Paul of American Buddhism or the Ziegfeld of the U.S. branch
of Tibetan Buddhism. Says Richard Gere: "He just has enormous power.
He's bright, he's iconoclastic, he's verbal, he's funny, he's avuncular,
he's all of those things that you want in a professor. He turns people on."]
Wikipedia: Robert Thurman
(Biography, Works, Multimedia, External Links, Reference)
Infinite Life
(Thurman's reincarnation experience when he was 21 walking in New Jersey)
Robert Thurman Doesn't Look Buddhist
(By Rodger Kamenetz, New York Times Magazine, Sunday, May 5, 1996)
"The Dalai Lama"
(Interview By Robert Thurman, Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 1997 issue)
Questions of Faith: Dennett & Thurman Debate Issues of Faith, Death, and Reincarnation
(By Anastasia Gornick Columbia Daily Spectator, Feb. 14, 2006)
Dennett and Thurman debate science-and-religion
(By By Matt Donnelly, Science & Technology, Feb. 15, 2006)
Religion as a Natural Phenomenon: Daniel C Dennett in conversation with Robert Thurman
(By Lydia Depillis, The, Feb. 19, 2006)
What is Wisdom?
(By Robert Thurman, Target Essay,
Living Spiritual Teacher: Robert Thurman
(By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Health)
A Conversation with Robert Thurman about Infinite Life
(Interview provided by Riverhead Books, publishers of Infinite Life)
What's Between You and Nirvana
(By Robert Thurman, Beliefnet, 2004)
How to Live Forever Right Now
(Robert Thurman Interview by Lisa Schneider, Beliefnet, 2004)
Video: Wisdom and Meditation Liberate the Human Being in Indo-Tibetan Thinking
(By Robert Thurman, Columbia News Video Forum, November 7, 2001)
Meditation exercise for the process of dissolution during death
(By Robert Thurman, PBS, Afterlife: With Eyes Open, March 2000)
An Interview with Dr. Robert Thurman
(By Faiam Staff, Gaiam)
The Buddha's Smile
(By Robert Thurman, Talk for B.U. Institute, Dec. 8, 1993)
Inner Revolution— Robert Thurman Goes Back to the Future
(By Tara Carreon, What Is Enlightenment?, Fall/Winter 2002)
Internet Movie Database (IMDb): Robert Thurman
(Actor in Ciao Manhattan, Hamlet; Himself in Free Tibet, One: The Movie)

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (3-3-2006)