Approximately 375 million years after a half-mile-wide meteorite crashed into what's now the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, a Swedish ex-model named Nena von Schlebrügge had a strange dream. In it, she and her husband, the renowned Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman – who had been living near the Catskills town of Woodstock since 1968, when they were graduate students – were in their seventies and Bob was pounding nails on an unfamiliar rooftop. The next morning, von Schlebrügge woke up rattled. "If you get any big offers, turn them down," she warned Thurman, "or you're never going to retire!"
Thurman has written or translated over a dozen books, holds the endowed chair of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, and tirelessly works to raise awareness about the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Among his family – the couple have four children, including the actress Uma Thurman – he has earned the reputation of an inveterate overextender, a workaholic with "a bad tendency," his wife has noted, "to say yes to everything." His family nickname is "Get a Life, Bob." Thurman built the house on their Woodstock property himself. "And I'm still building it!" he tells me, sounding secretly pleased. "It's not quite finished – for 40 years now." His son Ganden bequeathed him with his carpentry motto: "Why Do It Right When You Can Do It Yourself?"
Anyway, about an hour after his wife's dream, Thurman got a call from a woman who owned a lodge on Panther Mountain, the peak in the Catskills that had formed atop the crash site. The lodge had been a spiritual retreat in the sixties, founded by an Austrian psychic known for automatic writing and trance readings. Later, there had been plans to convert the place into a New Age healing center for cancer patients, but that fell through. And so the owner, via mutual friends, was considering donating the property to Tibet House, the nonprofit founded by Thurman and Richard Gere in 1987 at the behest of their friend the Dalai Lama.
Thurman, recalling his wife's warning, politely declined. Then he told Nena about the offer.
According to their friend Michael Burbank, Nena had a swift response. "You idiot!" she cried. "Call them back right away and accept! We need it for the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama!"
Thurman followed orders, and now 12 years later, here we are on Panther Mountain, at what's been rechristened the Menla Mountain Retreat – where, "true to the prophetic dream," as Burbank puts it, Bob and Nena are in their seventies, slaving away, with no retirement in sight. Burbank, a former student of Thurman's at Columbia, was brought onboard to help renovate and eventually manage Menla, a sprawling compound that includes a conference center, a spa, a yoga studio, a glass-walled meditation sanctuary, and several private cottages, all offering spectacular views on this February afternoon of thick pine forest and snow-covered slopes. It turns out that the gravitational pull on Panther Mountain is actually slightly weaker than that of the surrounding area, thanks, scientists believe, to the lower density of the rock that eventually filled the crater. This quirk of physics suits Thurman. You get the idea he and the other Buddhists like the idea of visitors being less earthbound, perhaps more open to cosmic philosophical mindbenders. At the very least, it's a handy metaphor.
Thurman, this afternoon, sits in a patch of sunlight in the cafeteria of Menla's cozy, wood-beamed inn, peeling an orange and sipping some tea. Aside from the painting of the Dalai Lama hanging over the fireplace, we could be in a ski lodge. Thurman is wearing rimless bifocals, a gray corded sweater, and black corduroy trousers that hike up whenever he crosses his legs, exposing his bare calves. Even at 71, Thurman remains a commanding presence, tall and slightly stoop-shouldered. He has a lightly creased face, thick gray eyebrows, and wavy, unkempt gray hair, but his most striking feature remains his left eye, which is made of glass, and which looks enormous and leering if he trains it on you. Though Thurman cackles easily and often, in the stereotypical manner of a laughing Buddha, there remains in his appearance atavistic traces of his Protestant forebears – something in the wildness of his hair and the dueling nature of his gaze makes you think of a fanatical 19th-century tent revivalist, or maybe the abolitionist John Brown. Every once in a while, the sunlight streaming in from the picture window catches his face in a certain way and his glass eye literally flashes.
Thurman arrived at Menla the day before, having made the three-hour drive upstate straight from the airport. He spent the past week in Norway, lecturing at a climate-change conference. ("They bring me in for these things as if I'm an ethics professor or something," Thurman explains.) Two weeks earlier, he led a tour group to Burma as a fundraiser for Tibet House. (Thurman is friendly with Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband was an English Buddhist scholar.) This weekend Menla is hosting another fundraiser, a combination ski weekend and meditation retreat, featuring lectures by Thurman and spa and yoga treatments. It sounds like the sort of bourgeois Buddhist event that invites mockery. (The writer Luc Sante once quipped that Woodstock Buddhists possessed the most expensive nothing he'd ever seen.) But Thurman is a serious academic and considered a brilliant and erudite philosopher by his peers. And retreats like Menla give attendees a rare opportunity to sit at the feet of a true master.
In the early 1960s, Thurman taught himself Tibetan and moved to Dharamsala, in the Indian Himalayas, the seat of the Tibetan exile community, to study alongside a young Dalai Lama. In 1964, he became the first Westerner to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Though he eventually left behind his vows, he rededicated himself to Buddhist studies as a professor at Amherst and later Columbia. Another of his massive projects – what he calls his major life's work – has been working with Columbia Ph.D. students to translate some 5,000 early Tibetan texts from the original Sanskrit. The vast majority have never been translated into English before. Thurman calls the cache of texts India's Library of Alexandria. "The Dalai Lama told the president of Columbia, 'Professor Thurman will have to be reincarnated three times to finish this job,'" Thurman told me, adding that, unfortunately, tenure doesn't carry over into future reincarnated selves.
Thurman radiates the sort of merriness that can infuse religious certainty. At times, it seems almost strategic on the part of the jolly monk (or nun, or rabbi) in question, like they're trying to convince you that they're onto something you're missing. Thurman insists he doesn't consider himself particularly religious, but that's semantic: He speaks about his belief in metaphysical aspects of Buddhism like reincarnation with a matter-of-factness that gives one pause, coming from the mouth of such a deep and careful thinker.
Thurman, in short, is one of those people who has the ability to make you believe that he's figured things out, even if you're the type of skeptical person – and by "you," I mean "me," though of course Thurman would say that's a meaningless distinction – who tends to doubt anyone has the answers to anything. It's comforting, at these times, to take refuge in your own humility, and remind yourself of how much you don't know. Embrace it, even. There are certain Buddhist teachings, after all, considered so arcane that exposure to the unenlightened actually becomes dangerous without proper preparation.
Spend enough time with Robert Thurman and you begin to wonder if he possesses some portion of this secret, dangerous knowledge.