Tibet scholar and former monk Robert Thurman prescribes Buddhism for a stressed-out world
Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2000
Robert Thurman is a confessed Buddha-holic. He has an obsessive passion for the ancient wisdom he's studied, taught and popularized for 40 years.
One of the top American experts on Tibetan Buddhism, Thurman was the first Westerner to be ordained a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition. He writes and lectures on transforming the mind to achieve happiness and social change. But thus far enlightenment has eluded the esteemed Columbia professor whose five children include the actress named Uma.
``I have to work on myself all the time,'' says Thurman, 58, sipping black tea the other morning at the San Francisco Zen Center.
He gave the first lecture and workshop in the center's yearlong series ``Buddhism at Millennium's Edge 2000,'' which features such diverse figures as Zen teacher Lama Surya Das, writer Maxine Hong Kingston and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.
More and more people are seeking a spiritual connection in this wired-up, high-speed age of anxiety. The Zen Center series addresses the relevance of age-old Buddhist ideas and practices to contemporary life.
Those ideas could offer an alternative vision for people who are, as Thurman puts it, ``caught up in the morphic resonance of our American frenzy, our physically oriented lifestyle (where) we're driven by commercials, computers, to have more things.''
Thurman is a big, blond-haired man with a rich baritone voice, a hearty laugh and a style of scholarly showmanship that plays equally well on ``Oprah'' and with congressional committees.
Last weekend, he spoke on ``Global Transformation as Inner Revolution,'' drawing on themes in his 1998 book ``Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness.''
He offers his take on a basic Buddhist idea: When individuals free themselves of the notion that they're the center of the universe -- the source of alienation, fear and jealousy -- they can connect with other beings and energies to create what Thurman calls ``a wave of positivity in others.'' We can all become buddhas, changing society in the process.
The book's foreword was written by the Dalai Lama, an old friend whom Thurman met in the early '60s while studying with exiled Tibetan monks in northern India.
FROM MONK TO SCHOLAR
Thurman left the monkhood after returning to the United States in the mid-'60s and pursued an academic career. As a teacher and co- founder of New York City's Tibet House, he's turned a lot of Americans on to Buddhist thought and Tibetan culture. He's also a leading advocate for the liberation of Tibet, a cause taken up by celebrity chums like actor Richard Gere and the rappin' Beastie Boy Adam Yauch. He's testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Tibet, where he says the Chinese are committing genocide.
``Buddhism is really the art of happiness,'' says Thurman, echoing the title of the Dalai Lama's best-selling book.
``In order to teach that, you have to try to stay a little bit happy yourself, (when) you're a typical miserable, overworked, workaholic, completely driven professor. I'm basically trying to share with people whatever I've discovered that works here and there about the art of happiness.''
Unlike the great 11th century Tibetan yogi Milarepa, who forgot whether he meditated or not because he was in a constant state of awareness, Thurman ``unfortunately'' still needs to meditate.
``I lose my temper, I lose my cool, I can't remember anything. Then I have to go and calm down and focus.''
NOT FULLY EVOLVED
He has definitely not evolved to buddhahood, he says with a laugh. ``I'm a pain, just ask my wife (Nena). I can be unkind, unfriendly, grumpy. But there's been a little improvement over the years. Therefore I'm encouraged enough to still have confidence in the efficacy of the method.''
Thurman is a major-league talker who can riff on everything from religious fundamentalism to trashy Hollywood films, biophysicist Rupert Sheldrake's concept of morpho-genetic resonance, the ``psychic Internet'' that connects us, and the corporate ``industrial savagery'' that's destroying the planet.
``The art of happiness is there for us to take ourselves out of being commandeered by this machine civilization,'' Thurman says, ``to have us assert some sort of self-control and realize that the inputs we allow into our awareness are totally affecting us.
``Make choices about those inputs. Don't watch the commercials. At least we have a clicker; click off the channels that make us feel insecure. Exercise a clicker of the spirit.''
Thurman argues that Buddhism has historically been less a religious movement than an educational one, teaching people to transform themselves. Buddha, he says, never insisted that anyone adopt a particular belief.
`DO WHAT YOU FIND SENSIBLE'
``He was a funny guy,'' Thurman says. ``He said, `I know everything and you can know everything if you follow the method I give you. The first element of the method is don't believe that I know everything. Don't do it because I say so. Only do what you find sensible.' ''
What might Buddhism have to say to stressed-out strivers glued to their cell phones, caught up in the daily madness?
``Cool out, give yourself a break,'' Thurman says. ``Try not to do so much. Don't worry you didn't get a ride on the right IPO. Stop living this way. You're going to be dead shortly. You're wasting your precious moments of awareness.
``You've spent billions of lifetimes earning your human life. It wasn't given to you by Mom and Dad in the back seat of a Chevrolet; that's where your genes and body come from, but you came from infinite pasts.''
NO PRESSURE ON CHILDREN
Thurman has never pressed these ideas on his children. He says he doesn't know whether they're Buddhists or not.
``I don't know what they are. I think they think in similar freethinking ways. I never tried to enroll them, sign them up and tattoo them anywhere.''
What about Uma?
``I have no idea. You'd have to ask her. She practices thinking for herself, clearly and freely, making humane decisions, and she's a good mom. That's enough Buddhist for me.''
BUDDHISM AT THE MILLENNIUM'S EDGE 000:
The San Francisco Zen Center's series continues with a lecture by Zen teacher and social activist Bernie Glassman at 7:30 p.m. February 18 at the Unitarian Center, 1187 Franklin St., San Francisco. Tickets: $15 (or $165 for the entire series).
Glassman will conduct a workshop called ``Peacemakers Without Weapons'' at 10 a.m. February 18 at Green Gulch Farm on Highway 1 near Muir Beach in Marin. Tickets: $60-$75, including a vegetarian lunch.
The series continues through November 10 and includes lectures and workshops by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Baker, Jerry Brown and others.
For information, call (415) 863-3133 or visit the Zen Center's Web site at www.sfzc.com.
WTN-L World Tibet News